When you live in the middle of so much excess, it can be difficult not to get caught up in the rat race of consumerism. You know, your girlfriend gets a brand new car and all of a sudden your ’01 minivan isn’t looking so good anymore. When you’re surrounded by people who don’t have the same commitment to living below their means, it’s only natural to be a little envious sometimes. Here are some things I’ve learned that help me maintain my commitment to simplicity.
1. Learn the difference between need and want. Consumer culture breeds itself on false need. Our entire economy hinges on people continuing to purchase more stuff. To keep us shelling out money, companies bombard us with ads that instruct us on what we must obtain in order to participate in our society. We must have a smart phone, a tablet, trendy flats and coffee with a green mermaid logo. These items are presented as needs instead of luxuries. We are told that we must have all these things, that we will be happy if we have all these things.
If I’ve learned one thing in my adult life, it’s that possessions don’t make us happy. They give us a temporary high, a fleeting feeling of satisfaction. The things that bring long-term happiness are not things we can put a price tag on. Raising our children, feeling a sense of community with pour neighbors, watching the seasons change and making holidays and sacred days; these are the unchanging foundation of a full life. We should seek to revel in these simple passages rather than but things that will distract from them.
To do this, we must ignore the ads that yet to sell us alife of consumption. Advertising is everywhere, from cereal boxes to billboards. To live in the modern world is to be inundated with the message of more. Fashion is the most obvious example. Every season we are told we need new clothes. We have to keep up with the trends or we risk feeling frumpy or out of style. Clothing is a need. Style is a luxury. We use clothes to protect us from the elements and to hide our cellulite, at least I do. The proper function of clothing is unrelated to stylish-ness. My boot cut jeans from 3 years ago function just as well as brand new skinny jeans. Therefore skinny jeans are not a necessity in my life, and not something I can easily justify spending money on. When we learn the difference between need and want, and between luxury and necessity, we see that our money can be spent on more powerful and compassionate things than skinny jeans.
An obstacle I had to overcome was caring about other people’s opinions of me. I used to be very trendy and I took a lot of pride in my appearance. I had to move to the point where it was more important to remain true to my convictions than to be the best dressed girl in the room.
2. Stay out of the mall. Or Target. Or wherever it is that you walk in and love everything you see. The other day I had to go to the mall. I hadn’t been in about 3 years because I absolutely detest the mall, but this particular thing I promised my daughter could only be found at the mall. So in I go and immediately I see H&M, which was my favorite store all through my twenties. I walk into H&M and it takes about 30 seconds for me to realize that every single piece of clothing I own is hopelessly outdated. Every. Single. Piece. I’ve basically quit shopping for clothes altogether. I happily take hand me down’s from my trendy friends and I get a gift certificate to Old Navy for Christmas every year and that’s about it. I don’t ever just ‘go shopping’ to see what’s out there. As a result, my clothes are not up to the minute trendy. But I didn’t know that until I went to the mall! My sense of discontent with my wardrobe was created by placing myself in a situation that highlights what I lack. It’s better to stay away. I was perfectly happy in my ignorance of what I didn’t have.
Some girls are the same way with Pinterest. Whether it’s a nicer house than you have or a vacation you can’t afford (or whatever), if you don’t spend a lot of time looking at it, you never see it and then you don’t know that you want it. Don’t put yourself in situations that make you wish you had more or different stuff!
3. Learn to recognize true and lasting beauty. Since we’ve decided to stay out of the mall, let’s talk about where to go instead. The best place to get grounded is outside. The beauty that is freely given in nature surpasses the bright shiny trinkets we are offered in the mall.
Let’s trade the cheap thrill of a purchase for the deep content we are offered by the natural world. Many people buy and buy and buy and are still left feeling discontent. Going for a hike, swimming in the ocean or watching a sunset doesn’t cost a dime. I believe the earth was created for us to enjoy. Even if you don’t share that belief, no one can deny the power of the natural world to calm and fulfill. It’s all free and it’s all out there waiting for us to explore. So quit buying crap you don’t need and get yourself outside!
4. Build an identity based on something other than what you own. Some people are literally addicted to shopping. It’s their cocaine. The high they get from a new purchase keeps them coming back for more. In my experience this is usually more deeply rooted in an identity issue. In my 20’s I really wanted to feel young and fun and beautiful. I spent tons of money on clothes trying to transform myself into a certain type of girl. It worked to a certain extent I suppose, but the lasting friendships I made and the man I ended up meeting and marrying in my twenties had nothing to do with my wardrobe. I actually ended up with a giant credit card bill that took me years to pay off. All of that to say that I should have spent my time and money on something more worthwhile. If you are addicted to shopping, or if you constantly feel like you don’t measure up, spending more money won’t solve that problem. I’m no therapist, but I can tell you from experience that you are not what you own. That simple assertion is one of the foundations of the simple living movement. You are not what you own. You are worth infinitely more than anything you own.
5. Spend compassionately. Living simply isn’t about minimalism for the sake of having uncluttered countertops. Minimalism is a design choice. Living simply is a compassionate lifestyle. It’s about choosing not to get bogged down with stuff we don’t need and not buying stuff that harms other people and the earth. To live simply is to choose a path of concern for others and a belief that each of our small choices adds up to big impact, for better or for worse. It’s definitely not about being cheap. In fact, simple living sometimes means we spend more money to buy a product that was ethically made. Instead of buying something at Wal-Mart and supporting poor treatment of American workers and cheap labor overseas, we go down the street and pay more for an ethically sourced product. This often means we buy less because we’re paying more. I’m okay with that. My family only eats meat twice a week on average, because the humanely raised meat I buy is expensive. I refuse to buy factory farmed meat and support the inhumane treatment of animals. I’m willing to spend more and get less because I believe so strongly in humane farming practices. We’re not a perfect family by any means, but we are working on making compassionate choices with our money.
These are some of the insights I’ve gained through trying to live a different kind of life than many of my neighbors. I hope they are helpful to someone.