Friday, November 28, 2014

Confessions of a Recovering Consumer

Black Friday shopping spree? Hardly. My pile of donations for the Goodwill.

This is a tiny fraction of the what we've given away as part of a massive decluttering project since the birth of our daughter Grace in February. We have one floor of a two-family home, plus a large basement, one side of the garage and an outdoor space. In both the storage and living areas of the home, we have in short: way, way too much stuff. All of this stuff represents not just money wasted, but also time. Precious money and time to accumulate it all, and more sacred time to pass it on. We toyed with posting a few things for sale on Craig's List for cheap but got no bites, and I quickly decided it was not worth the time. My husband Steve held a garage sale many years ago and after bargaining with people over loose change his mantra is, "Never again!" This stuff also costs precious mental energy having it all around, and I'd rather have that negative energy out than the few dollars I might get from it. I just want it gone.

A large portion has gone to the Goodwill, some offered for free on Craig's List (everything from an elliptical trainer to baby clothes), and a wee bit thrown out, mostly things that were too damaged to give away. I would consider it an environmental and societal sin to throw it out when someone could use the items for a reduced or no cost, so we make sure it goes into the reuse market. I have considered, and still am, creating a separate blog to create a dialogue about and document the enormous amount of perfectly good items thrown out in our corner of New Jersey that we come across. A good portion of our stuff is curbside rescues.

A few years ago, Steve and I started taking regular Sunday drives to go to estate sales, where the entire contents of a house are for sale, usually due to a move or after a death of the home's owners, and once in a while when people are downsizing. When Steve was visiting a childhood friend in Iowa, his friend took him to an estate sale and planted the seed.  To write this entry, I reread a post I wrote on Thrifty Time Traveling at Estate Sales. I talked about a Singer sewing machine we bought, and I realized where it is: in an attic in a house we don't even live in, completely forgotten about, never used. That attic also has my old microwave stand from my first apartment we should give away on Craig's List. Who know what else is up there, wasting away instead of put to use by others? Do you have many items sitting around that could be used by passing them on?

I used to have a Housing Works thrift shop less than a five minute walk away from my former workplace in New York City, and while out on a Saturday to have lunch with my mom and food shop I would stop at local charity shops and/or garage sales when I passed them.

Thrift shops, garage and estate sales, and curbside rescues provided a host of cheap materialistic temptations that were often too hard to pass up. Part of the challenge of secondhand shopping is the need to make a quick decision, since you can't go back to a garage sale or a charity shop item might be scooped up by someone else. I am proud that our household is largely outfitted secondhand, but now strive for less. We acquired far too much of everything. How many charming dishes, bird knickknacks, garden décor and Eiffel towers do I need in my life?

I regret I didn't spend time cooking items for those pretty plates, gazing at the birds and not having dust accumulate on the ceramic versions, tending to my garden instead of decorating it, and reading my multiple "Learn French" books instead of buying so much Paris décor. I also wish I spent more of those estate sale Sundays on nature walks or in the park with the dogs. How much more enjoyable would it have been to treat myself to lunch once or twice a month at my favorite French bistro near my building or read on my lunch break instead of going to Housing Works? Since I am not in the city and have an infant to care for, no sneaking off to a bistro for mushroom ravioli and an apple tart tatin now (although that was also part of the rushed lunch schedule of New York City cubicle workers, which could be another blog post).

It is a struggle to try not to be hard on myself on the hours I spent accumulating and now passing on all this stuff. We were shopping the reuse market with what Steve calls "hobby money" but now as a stay-at-home mom, how I wish I had the money instead. But everything I did led to the magical moment Grace entered into our lives.

Visiting these estate sales, I also observed as a society, everyone has too much. Clothes in closets, some even with tags on them, not worn for decades, dishes, holiday décor, you name it. Basements, closets, and rooms packed filled with things. Have you ever seen the HGTV show called "Love It or List It" where buyers give a "budget" of tens of thousands of dollars to a designer to "upgrade" their home and also work with a realtor, and at the end they decide to "Love it" or "List it?" I have the same thought every single time: almost every homeowner just needs to declutter their home which they claim to have outgrown. The staged homes they see (even their own at the end) look so inviting because they are free of clutter.

I knew we needed to up the "Operation Declutter" campaign when Steve recently asked, "Do you think we need a bigger house?"

"No, we need to get rid of stuff," I said. We've been shedding possessions like the autumn leaves. I feel lighter each time donations leave the home.

Let's talk about the coveted "walk-in closet" so many women drool over on the home improvement channel. My large closet used to be crammed with clothing from estate sales, clothing swaps and thrift shops.  Not any more. In part, I no longer favor a lot of the vintage fabrics (i.e., polyester) and don't wish to dress like Mad Men's Peggy Olson since I'm not in a nice New York City office anymore. Looking at our coat closet, why on earth did I have four raincoats, three long, one short? I don't struggle with "I'll lose 10 or 15 pounds and fit into this again!" but do have this odd sentimental way of thinking, "I remember when I wore this top in the California wine country on our honeymoon." It's been a process. But I don't want a large, fussy closet of clothes I rarely wear.

Whenever I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, I too want to declutter. Remember Ma's cherished China Shepherdess? I love the idea of having this simple piece. Ma didn't have twenty dust collecting China Shepherdesses!

All said, I still pop by a thrift shop, though not as often. When I needed frames for pictures of Grace, I found them thrifted for $1. I stopped by a favorite, the C.A.T.S. Resale Shop in Westwood, New Jersey, when I was in the area this week, and picked up a beautiful Readers Digest book of "The World's Best Fairy Tales" for $1 which I can't wait to read to Grace. Books have always been my favorite thing to acquire secondhand, but I don't consider them a "thing" as more an "experience." I did take a hard look at my "to read" books and passed on so many to Goodwill. I think books are living things that need to keep breathing for the next reader. I'm keeping some, but not as many as I used to. I do love to support my local bookshops, and will continue to shop at them, though at the moment less frequently as I use my library more with our now one-income household.

Today I'm not thinking about shopping, I'm continue shedding. When I do, I'll stick to the resale market as often as possible, and also small businesses. I mourn all the trees felled for the store's advertisements for Black Friday. I don't know why they even say, "Black Friday." They should say perhaps, "Black November." Like the Christmas holiday itself, it's become devoid of the true meaning. I also wonder too about where all these goods are made, and what resources are being used from the earth to make them? Like where the Thanksgiving turkeys come from, an uncomfortable topic most don't like to think about. That's my retail food for thought this Black Friday.

Further Reading: My Blog Post , "No Mall for Me Today: A Black Friday Message"

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