|Personal picture // Summer 2014 in Provence|
Does it make sense to speak about "simple consumption" when minimalism and simple living is about consuming less and focusing on other life areas? Well, just like a shopping fast is rather a recasting, most people who lead a simple life in our society still need to purchase some items. One year after I decided to start a six month fast experiment, here are a few ideas on what "consumption" bas become in a simple life.
The MindsetFirst and foremost, the major change with simplicity is the mindset towards objects and purchasing new items. As I wrote in details last year, to me consumerism is about the acquisition of new items, the best, the most fashionable, the newest, the latet high-tech, the most trending brand... More than the object itself, the use and place it will have in your life, a consumerist attitude is about keeping up with the Joneses, making new acquisitions to impress people or soothe a flinching self esteem for example.
With simple living, objects get back to their place: the acquisition of a new item is based on internal criteria - what do I need, what are my ethics, what do I like best, what characteristics do I favor - rather than a need for social acceptance or to feel 'up to date'.
Concretely, how does this mindset evolution reflect on consumption habits in a simple life? I can only talk about myself here, but I hope it's enough to start a trail of thoughts and discussion for you too.
First, the reasons to purchase an item have changed. It doesn't mean my taste have suddenly changed, or that the objects themselves are objectively superior to what I used to buy before simplifying my life. It means the objects I choose to buy are more adequate to my actual lifestyle and preferences, which means fewer purchase mistakes, and an overall better use of what I own.
It also means I approach acquisitions with a different mindset. Two examples to make it clear, as it's difficult to express in general terms here:
- Say I'm looking for a pair of summer flats for objective reasons (it's hot and my old pair broke). Before, I would look at the sales rack, find a pair from one of these "Masstige" brands (expensive because well perceived but mass produced in China or wherever) because I know my colleagues know about that brand, and think I made a deal because it was 50% off. Only, the pair still costs 150€, it's uncomfortable and one year later it's in the bin.
- Now, same situation in a simple life. I know I'll need a pair of summer flats for the warmer months - I'll make a (usually mental) list of characteristics before I set out, and, instead of going shopping now, I wait for the occasion to stumble upon a pair within my taste (because let's be honest, unless I don't have any shoes at all, no need is so immediate it can't wait a few weeks). If it is from a brand I don't know about, but ticks all my boxes, I don't mind.
The end result is the same: a new pair of summer shoes. But the mindset, and as a consequence the money spent and the durability of the pair, are different. This actually happened - I remember getting a pair of Sandro ballerinas at a sales rack a few years ago, without preparation, because it was on sale and it was a brand my colleague were talking about. It didn't make the distance - not because that brand is objectively bad (I never purchased again from them so I wouldn't know) - but because my mindset, my reasons for purchase, were a fertile soil for purchase mistakes. I didn't like the style as much as I thought, and they were awfully uncomfortable. I hope this examples makes the concept easier to understand.
The "Acquisition" Process
As a consequence of this mindset evolution, I found the acquisition process has evolved in a simple life. How much time does the average person spends, in a week or a month, checking out e-shops and brand collections or catalogues, checking out sales sites like Groupon (or Ventes Privées in France), opening newsletter and checking the content advertised, looking for sales, crafting wishlists, planning out this and that?
Since I started simplifying my life, and even more so after the fast experiment, I realized how much less time I spend planning new acquisitions. I no longer keep an eye on sales operations from my favourite brands, click on adlinks from blogs, keep a wishlist on my notebook, or plan a "shopping afternoon" in town to check my favourite stores. Platforms like Pinterest have become purely inspirational, and I no longer have purchase lists on Amazon.
Also, I more rarely feel the need to "check out shops" when I go to an unkown city or neighborhood. I don't even buy items at airports anymore, something I used to love doing because I'm a sucker for travel size items. For example, when I went to Ireland last August for my cousin's wedding, we went to town at some point during the long week-end as tourists. I thought I might check out if they have nice little shops, but once there, strolling along the river and enjoying the sights, I realized I didn't care for shopping at all.
It doesn't mean you don't acquire any items at all when living simply. In a way, acquiring new items is no longer that important anymore. In my case, there are two types of situation when I acquire new material items:
- Either there is an identified need to fill in, and I do a little bit of research to determine my criteria and priorities (must have, nice to have, for bigger or unusual purchases I look for consumer advice etc.). Once determined either I plan for a trip because it's urgent, or I keep it at the back of my mind for future reference.
- Or I happen to stumble upon something unplanned, a nice little souvenir, a tea cup, a mineral or whatever, and I decide it is worth the price and has a place in my home.
In both cases, there isn't too much overthinking - I think overthinking purchases is an enemy of simplicity - and there is little place for mistakes or regrets (even though those aren't completely eliminated, let's be realistic) because I have prepared, I know myself well enough, and I base my purchases on internal criteria and not external ones.
Is "Quality over Quantity" a Myth?
The most well-known effect of simplification on item acquisition is that mantra "quality over quantity". However, I find this concept has sometimes been distorted, especially when it comes to clothing. "Buy one 200€ shirt instead of 10 20€ ones".
First, I think this mindset focuses too much on cost. I'm sure some 20€ shirts are more adequate than 200€ ones, depending on what you plan to do with it. Besides, with these "Masstige" brands (it means mass-prestige, giving some prestige to the masses, get it?) I mentioned above, many items are overpriced on brand notoriety, therefore the cost of an item is hardly a reliable metric for an item's quality. Besides, this mantra becomes too often an excuse to get expensive items without further careful consideration as to whether it is actually adequate. And I'm not judging here, I have fallen into this pitfall myself.
Second, what does "quality" means? Does it means a fabric as noble as possible? A perfect cut? Something hand-made? Where do you fit ethics and environmental considerations in all this? If you are looking for a sturdy shirt to go trekking, one to wear daily as you clean the house and go gardening, or one to go to the office with, surely your criteria will he highly different. Try to take care of a new born with a 200€ silk shirt instead of having 10 laundry-machine OK 20€ ones and we'll see which option is the simplest...
I do like the initial concept behind this "Quality over Quantity" mantra though. The idea is to say, invest in a quality item which will be sturdier, more comfortable, longer lasting - basically, doing its job better - than getting several low quality ones, which will be clumsy, impractical, and which you'll have to change often. I'm all for avoiding cheap mass-consumption items when possible, and, even when I was a student with limited income, I've always prefered saving for the "real thing" (for example an actual leather bag) rather than setting for one or several knock-offs.
However, I believe that "quality" in that context may not be the best term. Basically, I prefer one adequate item, even if it isn't cheap, rather than collecting an amount of badly finished items for the sake of diversity. But it also works for well-known brands: I prefer one adequate item, even if it comes from an unknown brand or an unfancy shop, rather than an "iconic" item which won't be practical for me. So, rather than "quality over quantity", I'd broaden the expression and say "Adequacy above all" perhaps?
The concrete effect on a "simple consumption", is that, in my humble opinion, simple living isn't necessarily about scandinavian interiors, fancy candles and A.P.C closets - even though it is fine to turn to these brands and items if they are adequate. An adept of simplicity could virtually be found in any type of store, buying any type of item. But they would know exactly what they are looking for in the item they are purchasing. Some would say they are picky customers, I prefer the word mindful.
A Word on my Consumption Habits
I am not going to detail here how many items I buy a year or what are my favourite brands or what are my shopping rules, because that's the point: I don't have any rules and numbers for you. To me, a "simple consumption" is exactly what is sounds like: simple. I have needed rules, boundaries, experiments, hard numbers in the past to help me simplify my life, question my habits and find what works for me. There is no shame in that and I may need it again in the future.
However I believe that a simple routine, a "post-simplification" daily habit, if you will, should, like a "post diet food habit", be organically integrated in my life, taking place in the background while my mind is free to think about something else. That is not to say I never research products, manage my accounts or consider money when making purchases - I am far from rich enough for this luxury - it just means it isn't something that drains my energy and thoughts.
I think Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist has mentioned it several times over the years, but one of the most incredible benefits of simple living is that, unless your income is very low, you never feel like you don't have enough money anymore. For the first time in years, I feel like I have enough money for my needs. And that's from a middle class woman, coming from a working class family, who lives off an almost junior French salary in the most expensive city of the country.
As I progress through simple living, here are the evolutions I have noticed:
- I do purchase fewer items than I used to - especially when it comes to cultural products, which I tend to rent or borrow.
- I keep purchasing items that make me happy from time to time (a few minerals here and there for my collection, a little golden necklace, a couple of replacements or additions for my wardrobe, a scented candle...)
- I identify my lifestyle constraints, tastes and preferences easily now, and I tend to figure out when something won't work out for me
- Even though I sometimes celebrate the upcoming season, or a good news etc. with objects, simplicity has taught me to turn to other ways to rewards myself or cheer myself up
- Overall, my purchase habits have become quite organic - I give much less thought to item acquisition than I used to, and I rarely feel the need to acquire something new. When I do find something I want to get, I don't fret over it for ages and don't feel guilty for indulging once in a while
Of course, I'm far from having "figured it out". We are all human and most of us live in a consumerist society, so life simplification and mindful consumption are an ongoing journey. But I feel like I have learned a lot since last year, in June, when I decided to engage in a shopping fast because I wasn't satisfied with my spending habits and frequency of incoming items.
We all have our own journey, and perhaps your "simple consumption" definition and practice is different than mine. I guess the most important in all this, to me at least, is to find a balance that works, feeling like I have enough, and redirecting my energy to other things. How about you? Did your consumption habits change or are you hoping to make them change thanks to simple living?