Deciding What to Buy

For the past five weeks, I've been traveling. At the end of September, I packed my bag and I've been on the road ever since. I've had fun, and learned a lot of Spanish, but to be honest I'm looking forward to seeing cold, rainy Portland again next week.

As always happens when I travel, I've come to marvel at how little I can live with. I have a hotel room (or a tent) every night, and I buy my food from markets, street vendors, or restaurants. But all I carry with me are my main 42-liter pack and a smaller 18-liter pack. (In other words, a carry-on size bag, and a bag the size of a briefcase.) For six weeks, these bags will have effectively contained all of my possessions.

Usually at the end of a long trip, I rant about the tyranny of Stuff. This time, I've been trying to direct my thoughts along more productive paths. What if instead of complaining about clutter, I actually tried to set up some ground rules to guide my spending? What would these guidelines look like?

Off the top of my head, they might look something like this:

  • Buy only what you will use — or value. I've decided that almost anything I own but don't use regularly is clutter. I say “almost” to give myself a little wiggle room because there are certainly things I value — like my backpack — that I only use a few times a year but still provide value. (But this can be slippery slope. I don't use my record player regularly. Do I value it?)
  • When it's both possible and productive, buy quality. I used to be a vocal advocate of cheap, cheap, cheap. And for many things, I still think cheap (or free!) is the way to go. But I've learned — at the prodding of GRS readers — that it sometimes makes sense to spend for quality. When? You need to make that call based on the items you use and value most. For me, that means spending for high-quality computers. Plus, I don't skimp on travel gear. (For evidence, read about my love of wool clothing.) You don't need to buy the best of everything, but sometimes it makes sense to pay more for quality.
  • Don't buy things you already own. Surely I'm not the only one who has a tendency to buy things he already owns. You don't need three rain jackets, for instance, and you probably don't need three wooden spoons in the kitchen. Own just one of everything. (“You own three rain jackets,” Kris said when she read this. “And I have three wooden spoons.” “I know,” I said. “That's the problem!”)
  • Make decisions based on your own moral code. Some people refuse to own a gun. Some won't own a car. Some won't buy from companies that contribute to certain politicians or certain causes. In my own case, I do my best to buy local. Buying based on your values may seem obvious, but I'm always surprised at how many people talk one way and spend another.
  • Buy only what you can afford. Don't fund your lifestyle with debt. Again, this may seem obvious — especially to GRS readers — but it's a tough concept for many people to grasp. And it can be even tougher to put into practice. Staying within budget really can help reduce clutter.

Actually following these simple guidelines could help me spend less while bringing less clutter into my life. (As for the existing stuff, well, I've been working on thinning that out for the past four years!)

I'm not saying you should live like a monk. Hell, I don't want to live like a monk. (After five weeks of living out of a backpack, I'm ready to wear some different clothes!) I'm saying that all of us — especially me — could save money and have less clutter in our lives if we were more deliberate about the things we bought and brought into our homes.

Though it makes Kris sigh, I often say I'd like to start our household again from scratch. In this fantasy world, we'd have a new, empty house — like a blank canvas. We'd move in slowly, little by little. When we found we needed something, we'd retrieve it from the old house. Then, after maybe a year, we'd get rid of all the Stuff that remained at the old house.

Note: Astute readers will recognize that this is just my one-year wardrobe project, but for everything in my life, not just clothes.

For me, the real test will be when it comes to the things I collect, like books and comics. I'm not going to stop buying books and comics. But maybe it's time to change my buying habits.

Instead of trying to buy whatever interests me, maybe I should try buying new material only when I've finished reading the old stuff. (That could take decades!) And maybe it's time to become re-acquainted with my public library.

What's interesting to me is that despite having increased my income and decreased my spending over the past few years, there's always room for improvement. I'm no longer fighting a battle against debt; today, I'm fighting against unnecessary spending.

Note: Two years ago, April explored this topic too. She shared a flowchart for evaluating potential purchases. That's a bit too structured for me, but I would like to start asking myself questions like the ones I've listed here, to be more deliberate about the things I buy.
More about...Planning

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