Sunday, July 06, 2008

Love/Hate, Spend/Save, Less/More

As I've noted here before, amassing material goods always makes me feel uneasy. I don't know if it's the effect of my frugal upbringing, the fact that I live in a house with almost no storage space, or simply the result of excessive rumination on the sorry state of the environment and our throw-away culture (I have been known to feel physically sick while contemplating all the computers sitting in landfills somewhere), but I pretty much never purchase a non-consumable object without feeling at best ambivalent and at worse vaguely immoral. It's kind of a bummer.

This all may seem odd given the fact that in recent months Christopher and I have seemingly been on a buying spree, at long last properly furnishing and decorating our dining room; replacing our microscopic grad-school-era TV with a screen large enough to see from the couch without squinting; buying me a new spring wardrobe; outfitting the girls with outdoor toys for the long summer days--those ubiquitous splash pools and ride-on cars and scooters of early childhood; ordering new black-out blinds for the nursery window; taking the plunge and using Julia's need for a bigger bed as an excuse to shift around all the beds in the house and upgrade ourselves to the near-mythic king-size (along with, of course, new mattress and box-spring, headboard, bed-frame, and bedding), and, finally, just the other day, giving in and returning to the land of cell phones, after two cell-less years. (This last one had become a safety issue, as I was no longer comfortable having no way to be reached by Julia's preschool in the event of an emergency if I wasn't at home during nursery school hours.)

All of these purchases can be justified in some way; some were long overdue, some were absolute necessities, and at least one is partially needed but mainly a splurge and a celebration of a long-held goal (to officially be a published writer, in print, with a check in hand to show for it). And surely none of it would have been possible without a lucky combination of some well-timed stock options, a hefty tax refund, and that blessed economic stimulus check.

But the bottom line is that, justified or not, I'm trying to make peace with my recent consumerism. It would be nice, even just once, to thoroughly take pleasure in a purchase, as long as we can basically afford it, without obsessing on: a.) the fact that I am not currently earning an income, b.) all of the more responsible things we could have done with the money (invest, save, etc.), and c.) the disgusting spectacle of the typical American family and all its stuff, stuff, stuff.

The main way I cope with my conflicted feelings about buying new things is to regularly, and ruthlessly, purge my household of items we no longer need, use, like, or have room for. I detest owning too many things; clutter makes me very, very unhappy. I strictly follow the "one new thing in, [at least] one old thing out" rule; I have neither the physical nor the psychic space to bring home new material objects without getting rid of something else. All this recent shopping has spurred me to go through closets, cabinets, the girls' toys--and I currently have four giant bags of stuff to give to the donation truck that comes to my curb every month. My one dissatisfaction about my anti-pack-rat mentality is that ideally I would have the time and energy to hold a garage sale, and earn some money from all this stuff I get rid of every month.

When I look around even my relatively modest home, I can't help but think that no one in the world really needs all this stuff (who really needs two computers? honestly, who?), that to most people on the planet this middle-class American life of cell phones and king-sized beds is unimaginable, and that even attempting to live more simply by routinely giving away excess possessions might not be enough to teach Julia and Genevieve my personal values regarding consumerism and materialism, about how no one really needs to live in a 3,000 square foot McMansion with five bedrooms and four and a half baths and each of those rooms crammed with furniture and clothes and the latest electronic gadgets. (After all, don't we have a king-sized bed and two computers?)

At the same time, it would be nice if Julia and Genevieve could grow up with a better balance than I have between environmentally-conscious, simpler-life frugality and the ability to simply enjoy buying things they want and can afford.

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