Mindful shopping: Learning to be deliberate about the things we buy and own

The older I get, the less I want or need. The older I get, the less I like to spend money. And when I have to buy something, I try to practice mindful shopping.

When I was younger, I wanted (and/or needed) all sorts of things. I wanted new clothes. I wanted tech gadgets. I wanted books. I was convinced that I needed a fast computer to be happy, not to mention a big house and lots of furniture. None of my shopping was mindful. It was mindless.

Now, at age fifty, buying things seems more like a hassle than a reward.

For one, buying something means I have to spend money — money that I’d rather keep for more important things, such as retirement. Or travel. Or beer. (Best of all: Travel and beer!)

J.D. enjoying a beer in Idaho

Plus, there’s the entire shopping process. It’s a chore. If I need to buy a chainsaw, for instance (which I actually did this week), I have to research the best option. Then I have to find the best price. Then I have to order it or, worse, take time out of my day to go pick it up in person.

Then, after I buy a new thing, I have to store it. I have to dispose of the packaging, then add whatever I bought to my collection of Stuff. It becomes clutter in my life. (This is true whether the thing is actually clutter or not.)

I use my laptop computer all day every day, for instance, yet it still acts as mental (and physical) clutter. It’s always here in the living room, sitting next to my recliner. I see it whenever I walk by. It’s always on my mind.

I know I sound like an aging curmudgeon, but all of this is true. The older I get, the less Stuff I want — and the more I want to get rid of the Stuff I already own.

Now, I don’t want to pretend that I don’t buy things. I do. There’s no question that I do. I even spend frivolously if I’m not diligent. But I’m far less likely to buy things than I used to. And when I do buy things, I tend to be purposeful about my purchases. I try to be a mindful shopper.

Let’s use the chainsaw as an example.

Mindful Shopping in Practice

In the olden days — like, 2009 — I would have driven to Home Depot and bought a chainsaw the moment I thought I needed one. It wouldn’t have even been a question. (In fact, I did this very thing in 2004.) Today, I deliberate over purchases like this for weeks, even when I know I need a tool.

Kim and I currently own an acre of mostly-wooded land just outside of Portland, Oregon. We have lots of trees, and those trees have lots of limbs. I don’t think we’re supposed to go hacking away at the trees on the forested part of our property, but there are still plenty of woody problems inside the yard.

For example, in March I took out a cedar tree so that I could replace it with a small orchard. This might have taken a few minutes with a chainsaw, but I spent an hour chopping away with a hatchet and a pruning saw. When I was finished, I was left with an ugly stump. (This stump joined several other stumps left over from the previous owners.)

“That stump looks terrible,” Kim told me. “You need to get rid of it. And you should get rid of the other stumps too.”

“I know,” I said. “But I don’t have the tools to do it.”

“Why don’t you just buy a chainsaw?” she asked. “We’d use it all of the time.”

I knew she was right. I’m constantly climbing ladders to chop down limbs. Every year, we take out two or three small trees that have taken root in inconvenient locations. A chainsaw would be handy.

We could certainly rent a chainsaw when we need it. We often rent equipment. Generally, though, we only rent tools if they’re things we don’t anticipate needing again for many years. We rented a lawn aerator last year, for example. And after we accumulated a couple of projects that needed it, we rented a chop saw. We may rent a pressure washer in the near future.

It doesn’t really make sense to rent a chainsaw, though. It’s something I’ll use several times each year. Usually when I find myself wanting one, I’m in the middle of a larger project. I don’t want to make an hour-long round-trip to the hardware store to rent another tool. It’d break my flow. Plus, over the long term, the cost will add up.

So, owning a chainsaw makes sense. I ordered one from Amazon and it arrived yesterday. But that doesn’t mean I’m happy about it. It was a hassle. And now it’s yet another thing I have to store. But at least I was mindful about the purchase.

The Onus of Ownership

It’s not just that I don’t want to buy stuff. More and more, I don’t want to own things.

I know I have to own some things. I have to own clothes, for instance. I have to own tools. I have to own furniture. I have to own my computer. It’s nice to own some art and some books.

But so many of the things I own sit unused for weeks or months or years on end. It seems silly.

Two years ago, in a moment of weakness, I bought a Nintendo Switch. “This’ll be fun!” I thought to myself when I bought it. And it was fun for a few hours. Now, though, it rests ignored in the TV room. The last time I used it was in November. I should sell it (or give it to somebody’s children).

Meanwhile, books have become a burden in my life. I never thought I’d say that. You see, I love books — and I always have.

Ten years ago, in my first active campaign against clutter, I purged most of my 3000+ books. Still, I have too many. They’re everywhere, and I don’t like it. It’s no longer fun. Gone are the days when I’d simply order whatever book I wanted off Amazon. Nowadays, I usually dread getting new books.

It used to be that I found owning things comforting. I’m not joking. It made me feel good to know that I had all sorts of books and tools and furniture and clothes. I don’t feel that way anymore.

Storage is not the answer

Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the things I own, I remember our tour of the U.S. by RV. We carried very little with us on that trip. It was liberating. When we stopped to overwinter in Savannah, Georgia, Kim and I rented a condo for six months. All we had in that condo was what we’d had in the RV. Having so little felt amazing.

Time to Tidy

What do I spend money on? The older I get, the more my spending is aligned with my values. I deliberately practice mindful shopping and mindful spending.

For me, that means I spend a lot on travel, both for work and for pleasure. Between October 2018 to October 2019, I will have made four trips to Europe (three for fun and one for work) and four domestic trips (all for work). That doesn’t count local excursions by car.

At home, my biggest expense — by far — remains our food budget. Even though we’re dining out much less frequently in 2019, I still spend more on food (and drink) than any other category.

I don’t mind spending money on travel and food for a couple of reasons.

  • First, these are things I value. They enrich my life.
  • Second, they don’t create clutter. They’re not possessions.

Nobody would ever mistake me for a minimalist, but I definitely crave a simpler lifestyle than the one I have now. For me, that means having fewer things around me.

And if I want to own fewer things, I have to get rid of some of the Stuff I already own.

When I returned from France two weeks ago, I was a cleaning machine. This often happens when I get back from a long trip. After spending days or weeks living with little, I’m eager to make my living space as minimal as possible.

This time, I started with the bathroom. I emptied all of my drawers and cupboards, then methodically trashed anything I don’t use regularly. I threw out old shaving cream and bottles of stale cologne. I tossed dozens of old sticky notes on which I’d scrawled my weight and bodyfat. When I put the room back together, I felt a sense of relief.

I want to do the same in the bedroom — but I’m scared. Purging old toothpaste isn’t a costly decision. Thinning a wardrobe, however, means getting rid of clothing that cost real money at one point in the past. Sometimes, the recent past. (Yes, I realize I’m succumbing to the sunk-cost fallacy. But just because I understand this intellectually doesn’t mean I can overcome the problem in practice.)

It may be time for me to remind myself of the KonMari method, to re-read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I need outside encouragement that yes, I can do this — and that it’ll all be for the best in the long term.

Get rid of whatever doesn't spark joy

A Man with a Plan

Yesterday as I was driving to work at the box factory, I thought about what I’d own in an ideal world. Where would I live? What would I do? What would my life look like?

“I’m happy with the house,” I thought, “and I’m happy with Kim and the animals.” The basic infrastructure of my life is fine. I have a good partner, and we’ve deliberately selected a small house with a large outdoor living area. This is all great.

“But if I could buy everything from scratch, I’d own much less,” I thought. “I wouldn’t have nearly as many clothes. I wouldn’t own so many books. We wouldn’t have crap in the storage shed at the bottom of the hill. We’d use that space as a tool shed instead.”

Driving home yesterday afternoon, I thought some more about this idea. What are some actual steps I can take to move from my current state of clutter and chaos to something more closely resembling this (hypothetical) ideal existence? I came up with a few ideas:

  • Implement a moratorium on buying. This shouldn’t be difficult. It’s merely formalizing a behavior I’ve already adopted. I’m ready to press “pause” on purchases for a few weeks or months until I’ve taken the next steps. This goes beyond mindful shopping to no shopping — at least for a little while.
  • Make a list (or several) of the things I want (or need) to own. Most of the time when I tackle projects like this, I do the reverse. I start with what I have and subtract. This is challenging. It quickly leads to decision fatigue. This time, I think it’d be interesting (and fun) to take an additive approach, to make lists of the items I’d own in my ideal life and work from there. What would my wardrobe look life? What books would be on my shelves? What tools would I have for the yard?
  • Go from space to space, ruthlessly purging the things I no longer need or want. I want to go full Marie Kondo on my life, being rational and realistic. If my aim is to create a capsule wardrobe filled with quality clothes, I need to get rid of a lot of crap. If books bother me so much, I need to thin my collection. I need to ask myself questions like: Am I really ever going to listen to my 100+ record albums again? (I don’t even own a record player! Mine was destroyed by a “melting” pumpkin five years ago. For real.)
  • Be methodical and patient. Don’t try to do this all at once. It’s not possible to accomplish all of this in one day. Or one weekend. It is possible, however, to take fifteen minutes to sort the clutter in one kitchen drawer. Or, if I have an hour in the afternoon, I can pick through my photography gear to figure out which lenses I still use. (Do I use any of them? Or has my phone completely replaced my SLR?) If I’m diligent, I can probably process most of the house in a month.

This project excites me. It feels like doing this will clear both physical and mental baggage. I don’t want to pretend like I think this will instantly make me a happier person — it won’t — but I’m certain it’ll bring a certain level of peace and calm to my life.

Kim gets a similar sense of serenity when the house itself is clean. For the first time together, we hired a housekeeper this week. For the past few days, Kim has been smiling and happy and she says it’s because she loves walking from clean room to clean room.

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