5.9.12

On having stuff

I was talking to a friend on Sunday about how tight our finances are. It's at the point where I know exactly how many days grace period each company we get bills from allows before they charge a late fee, because there is nothing in reserve, and Aaron's payment schedule has changed so I almost never have what is needed in time. I've been lagging in the grace period for months now, and I'd rather not talk about our credit card balance because it's just depressing after not carrying a balance for years and years to have so much on it now.

Yes I'm whining a little. But that's not my point.

My friend kindly asked if the kids had everything they needed: clothes, books, toys, etc, and I surprised her, and myself I think by responding "Absolutely not. I'm still trying to get rid of things. They have too much stuff."

Which felt silly to admit. Here I am going on and on about the difficulties of living on a reduced income when my kids have more than they need in terms of clothes and stuff and I'm still in a house with the electricity working. (Though I have had to leave the phone bill for long enough that I've lost internet for a while. That sucks.)

As stressful as it is always being so close to overdrawn and not being able to get or do things that would be good, like, being able to pay for the kids school registration this fall on time, not to mention how much I'd like them to do things like dance lessons and martial arts and such, I don't have to worry that my kids are without basic necessities.

By that standard I'm well aware that we're not really poor, just average, stretched hard for capital, cutting back in every possible way, which I suppose many people are these days.

But that conversation got me thinking about the relationship between stuff, and poverty, and how it's not as straightforward as it would initially appear.

I consider my accumulation of stuff a symptom of poverty, rather than abundance, and it's something I am trying to overcome. It's not like I spend a lot of money of clothes and toys and furniture. It's almost all second hand, most of it given to us by others. It's not that I spent money on stuff we really don't need that is the problem, so much as how much of it I feel like I need to keep.

Have you noticed how in western culture even those struggling to make ends meet have more stuff than they know what to do with? I once knew a person who had no income other than welfare and her 4 children often looked a bit ragamuffinish, appearing in mismatched dirty clothes, like they rummaged through a laundry bin in order to get dressed. So good, kindhearted, people would buy all the children lovely clothes and for a while they would look nice again before gradually returning to dirty and disheveled. It wasn't until I went to help her clean up one day, CPS told her to clean it up or they'd take the kids, that I realized what the real problem was. The children had enough clothes... They all had mountains and mountains of clothing. The dirty laundry took up the entire floor of the master bed room and walk in closet, knee deep! The problem was that the children had too many clothes, far more than what they needed. They looked dirty all the time because there was no way their mom could keep up with that sort of laundry. But she kept everything, because she didn't know what else to do.

Too much stuff is kind of it's own sort of mental poverty. It's not the stuff itself so much as the un-curatedness of it. In a poverty mindset household there is no selection, or discrimination. There is a tendency to keep everything out of fear that you might need it later.

I grew up poor. My dad was trying to make it as an independent visual artist and designer, and my mom grew up poor, in a feast or famine, get it while you can, sort of household. I learned valuable skills in my childhood. I learned what I don't need. I learned how far you can stretch a food dollar. (You can stretch it really far btw.) I learned how to make things myself, and to find other ways to get what I needed besides buying it. It's served me well.

The first time that I realized that normal people just go to the store and spend some money to get what they want was a bit of a revelation. It was just so simple, so painless. No shuffling through thrift store racks trying to find something that you could take home and alter until you finally had the thing you envisioned. No learning to repair and fix up old things that no one else wanted so you too could have a bike. You just walked in and bought it. That was liberating. I loved being able to just buy something, instead of scheme for it.

Alas, I am back to scheming again. Thankfully I'm kind of good at it.

But there were other things I learned also that aren't as helpful. I learned that a house filled up to the rafters with stuff that you may never use but might need some day was normal. I am recovering, over the years, from an extreme reluctance to throw anything away. I might think of a really cool way to use that thing I tossed right after trash day. (I actually have before.) But the thing is, just because you can make a snowman decoration out of your old styrofoam coffee cup, doesn't always mean you should.

I do have home school supplies all the way up to high school stored in the house because that stuff is expensive and I don't want to buy it if someone is giving it to me for free now. I will use it. I also have clothes packed up by size in closets, and books I love languishing in boxes in other closets and the point is, while it may be very cleverly frugal of me to hold onto some of that stuff, I don't need it all. I need to take the time now to choose what is worth saving and pass the rest onto someone who might actually need it. In order for that to happen I need to not allow fear to be my primary motive.

I need to stop acting as though this stuff of ours can protect us somehow from financial hardships. I need to be discriminating. To be free of the tyranny of things it is helpful to understand that you must hold them lightly, as the temporary and transient bits of flotsam that they are. Things are not magical talismans that provide security against the great unknown future. They are just stuff, and can be as much of a prison as a stronghold if I'm not careful.

Let the great purge begin.

Last weeks clothing purge. Only keep 5 or less of each type of item. The pile is everything else to give away.
PSSST. I have a really big announcement over here, and my latest motivation to really, really purge what we don't need. Also, you could win an iPad. Thailand Bound - Finally - We Need Your Help


6 comments:

  1. You don't own stuff; stuff owns you. It's not so much finding places to store it that has a cost, but the mental cost of owning items and thinking about them is quite real. Paul Graham wrote a good article on this one: http://www.paulgraham.com/stuff.html

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  2. Lauren8:57 AM

    Great post Carrien! Our family has had a feast or famine history and honestly, famine in some ways is so simpler. Poverty of the mind or spirit is the worst kind of poverty! Ultimately, I find that my fear and lack of trust in God is the root problem. I also am growing to truly despise this American/Western Christianity monster. The idea that our kids "need" this thing or to be involved in soccer, karate, or whatever. When we were the most "poor" we had the most abundance of stuff and extras we ever had. When you are "poor" you are so thankful for ANYTHING and yoru dependence on God for just the basics are a must just to get through the day. Although it wasn't fun going back into massive debt after we were free and clear for so long or staying up wondering if we were going to lose the house, the lessons have been long lasting. Now, we have a decent job and are trying to climb out of debt, and shake loose this poverty of American Christianity. We just moved across the country taking only a small trailer and leaving the rest. What a relief! All the scrapbook supplies, never used them anyhow. The toys? The kids don't even play with the few we brought! I love a shift in perspective and .... sorry...back to homeschooling! Thanks Carrien!
    Lauren

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  3. Oh Carrien, I'm with you on this one. We tossed a lot when we moved, but I'm trying to get rid of even more now. It's extra hard because we paid money to move it and time and money to pack it. BUT we have a lot less storage space and really, if I haven't used something in more than 3years (and in one case I think since befor Emmy almost 8 year old was born) do I really need to keep it? NO. but it's hard to remember that. Keep talking about your family's decluttering to help me, okay? :)

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  4. I appreciate your honesty about all this, and particularly how you brought it full circle in the last paragraph. It hadn't occurred to me that my own reluctance to part with things stems from a subconscious belief that belongings will shield my family from some bad outcome. After some thought I can see the vain futility in the notion.

    Most of our stuff is currently in storage while we are stationed overseas. I was fascinated to realize soon after the move that I miss very, very little of it. I think a purge will definitely be in order when we're back in physical possession of it all again.

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  5. This article is great! Thanks Josh.

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