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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dh
dh
1 year ago

JD, Marie Kondo is for the clueless mainstream 😉 Now, *Fumio Sasaki* is for people who really mean BIDNESS!!! See below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYaxgVcgHLU

And here’s a link to the audio book of his cult classic Goodbye Things:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxLxrGDs_YU

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago
Reply to  dh

My knee-jerk response was “eh, whatever,” but after taking a good look, I found… it’s really good! Had never heard of this guy before. Thanks.

dh
dh
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

My favorite tip from Goodbye Things is “Discard it even if it sparks joy.” This would mean JD would have to shitcan things like his painting of Kermit the Frog. It may spark joy, but it’s not essential, no utility. Only keeping what’s truly *essential* is really the next stage of minimalism beyond people like Marie Kondo. That’s what I am working toward now. You may also like Ted Carr: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2_yig7TcLpU&t=177s And then there is Youheum, who lives without furniture, although I still think she has too much crap in terms of knick-knacks. Does she really need the cliched Buddha… Read more »

Rebecca Fletcher
Rebecca Fletcher
1 year ago
Reply to  dh

Thank you for the links! I’m hooked on the audio book right now. Very inspirational! I’m not a hoarder by any means but I’m still holding on to things that no longer serve a purpose. Time to let go of the past to make room for the future.

Eric
Eric
1 year ago

Way to go, J.D. !
If I may add two suggestions from personal experience: I ‘get rid of’ books by giving them to the local library. This way they remain accessible if I ever miss them (hasn’t happened yet).
And for clothes I no longer wear: I see them as a gift to someone who will enjoy them.

Tek
Tek
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric

I do the same with books, but there are a few exceptions. I have a number of training materials for certifications, most of which become out of date every few years, so if there was an update to the test, they need to be recycled. If the test is passed and the training material is no longer needed/wanted, give to local chapter/club of the testing organization for others to learn from. Check with your library first before donating. Some books/series they have multiple copies or are considered to not be worth the shelf space. They can tell you which ones… Read more »

Karen
Karen
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric

Another option for books is used book stores. We have three in my area and when I accumulate a box, I make the rounds and acquire a little cash or store credit along the way. When done, I then donate to a thrift store.

Kathy
Kathy
1 year ago
Reply to  Eric

Giving books to the library reminds me of when my family was relocating from one country to another in the seventies. We had a lot of books and my father had enlisted us kids to make several trips to the local library to donate books. It felt like a small thing to me as a 9 year old, but for some reason that is one of the most vivid memories I have from our relocation.

Patricia
Patricia
1 year ago

I have pared down my book ownership multiple times. I purge – then wait – then repeat. At this point I own fewer than 30 books (I just counted them), and feel that this ‘collection’ (hah!) is indispensable and unpurgeable (we’ll see). BUT, there are at least 50 books that are ready to be donated (unfortunately, I am not quite ready yet, so I keep waffling on actually removing them from the house )…I love books, I love reading, I hate clutter, I am fully embracing the “Library Experience”…breathe in, breathe out

Another DH
Another DH
1 year ago

My DH has hoarding tendencies. Our (small) basement is full of DH’s Stuff, and even his late parents’ Stuff. Some random thoughts: – Next time, go through your Stuff BEFORE you take a major trip, rather than when you come back. You’ll see things you’ve forgotten about that you may want to take, and come back to less clutter. It can also make you more mindful of what you’d like to buy on that trip, since you (like us) like to bring back meaningful items. – We too have WAAAYYY too many books. I used to go through mine, only… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
1 year ago

I’m a marketer by trade, so one of the things I do is stop and identify all of the marketing/persuasion techniques being used on me. That helps me think-through the purchase and be self-aware of any external influences (yes, marketers fall for these too). The other thing I do is, if I see something I might want, I ask 3 questions: 1) How much is it worth to me? I name a price before looking at the price tag. If it’s above that, no-go. 2) Where will it go in my house? This is one of the reasons I like… Read more »

Dom
Dom
1 year ago
Reply to  Nicole

Great questions, thank you!

Would you mind giving us a few of the most common marketing/persuasion techniques you identify and how you address them please?

RandomJane
RandomJane
1 year ago

I absolutely identify with this article. I feel the same about clutter and stuff. I’m about to do a ruthless culling of my stuff and only keep the things that either frequently make my life easier or bring me joy (or both). I’ve also been more mindful about my purchases lately. I go more for quality and things that will do what I really need them to do, and am not as concerned with getting a great deal. Do I really need it? Is the price reasonable? Does it appear to be good quality? Does it have the bells and… Read more »

Sheila
Sheila
1 year ago
Reply to  RandomJane

Although I understand your reasoning, please reconsider putting items in the landfill that could be reused by someone. Are there free little libraries in your neighborhood, donation receptacles at a strip mall? There must be a solution that will work for you yet not add to the landfill.

Graeme
Graeme
1 year ago

I’m 49 and my spending has fallen off a cliff. I can totally relate to this.

Buying and having “stuff” eventually gets to be more effort and trouble than its worth. Also, my wife and I tend to be kind of nomadic, so I am always thinking about the next move: all my books are on my tablet, I keep no paper records – they are all scanned into my PC. Every time I think about buying something I may not really need, I think: “Will I want to pack this up the next time we move?”

Works every time.

wotah
wotah
1 year ago

Those of you living with a significant other (spose, boyfriend/girlfriend), how do you go about combating clutter when one partner is on board for “mindful shopping”/anti-clutter and the other either doesn’t realize the problem or doesn’t want to do anything about it? I learned the hard way that throwing away your partners “clutter” is a recipe for a punch in the face or even worse, the dreaded cold shoulder.

Anne
Anne
1 year ago
Reply to  wotah

On the smaller scale of this comment there is some level of incompatibility here. Only you can decide if it is part of a larger picture that is or is not working for you. And, of course, it’s never okay to throw away someone else’s stuff without their permission.

However, if there is even the slightest chance you were being serious about “a punch in the face” then this is a giant issue and you need to get out immediately.

Karen
Karen
1 year ago
Reply to  Anne

Agree Anne. I actually gasped at the “punch in the face”comment. If this was a joke, please clarify. If not, yes, get out.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago

o man.

i just skimmed through your post

next time seed your treestumps with shiitake

oh yeah…

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
1 year ago

> It’s not possible to accomplish all of this in one day. Sure it is, you do it every time you travel. 🙂 I get the point and all, I understand and mostly agree with the point, but devoting this much effort to it seems counter-productive to me. Being obsessed with a lack of stuff is in some ways very much like being obsessed with owning a lot of stuff. Either way you spend an inordinate amount of time obsessing about the stuff in your house. I have lots of stuff I could get rid of. Also, I could leave… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago

Part of the point of the discarding is that you do it once and you’re done for life. Or at least for a very long time. There’s a real estate cost to storage and it’s real. Just spend it on what matters—like, say, a boat, and boat stuff. There’s also a pleasure/dopamine payoff. I enjoy clearing up a space. Especially the resulting… space. But the tossing also, it brings satisfaction, and helps prevent confusion. Cleaning up something can be enjoyable. Like , again, sorting/setting up your boat gear? Same thing. It creates present + future pleasure—not just pleasure but flow.… Read more »

Dom
Dom
1 year ago

I wanted to add to El Nerdo’s excellent points.

I started doing this when I first read a review of Marie Kondo’s book. I went through my clothes and put everything that didn’t fit or I never wore in a bag and forgot about them. Looking at the clothes I actually wore helped me choose things I wore more. I bought fewer things which meant I could get better quality. And I learned about what I actually liked.

Going through a collection of things is like reading a life journal.

7
7
1 year ago

It sounds like physical objects still own you; a constant battle to resist buying and never contented with the current items, being too many. Where is liberation?

Jennifer
Jennifer
1 year ago

At pretty much the same age, I am 100% where you are with spending and not wanting to own so much crap. Unlike younger musician friends, I have almost no problems with GAS (guitar acquisition syndrom), because I can’t justify having more musical instruments than I do. I take my occasional longings for more/better as a sign I need to work on new music, practice more, or maybe spending on lessons/coaching? Regarding books: After donating thousands, I now borrow all books and music from our library system, then buy if I love it (latest: Ani Difranco’s memoir), or use it… Read more »

Emery
Emery
1 year ago

Just got back from my mother, who is a hoarder. OMG! So happy to be home. Love the reminders, though. I tend to want to buy junk my kids don’t need or want.
I have to go through and purge regularly. Even with 1 in 1 out things tend to build up.

olga
olga
1 year ago

I moved around this country 14 times in 26 years (sometimes just from one rental to another, but also somehow managed to own 4 homes, now on #5. Life.) I also hail from former Soviet Russia, where you live in 300-400 sq ft as a family of 4 (or 5 or 6). There is no space to own things, nor there’s extra money. Somehow all that helped me to be minimal before it was a sort of cult, or something. Last home, though, we lived in for 8 years – longest I spent in one place ever, including childhood (military… Read more »

OFG
OFG
1 year ago

In all the years I’ve cleaned and purged I’ve never thought about the additive approach. – ‘Make a list (or several) of the things I want (or need) to own’ what a fabulous idea. Shouldn’t we picture our ideal life and make certain our belongings fit into that ideal! I’m going to try this myself.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago

Oh, that sort of stuff is waaaaaay too hobolicious for my taste. Some of it seems to be flirting with mental illness. Dumpster diver—I stopped reading right away as he listed his “vomits.” Lol. Yeah I get he was defending his diet, but still… The guy with the ducktaped cardboard wallet, going commando in a pair of jeans, with the homemade dye job and the endless papayas: hell no to all that. The no-furniture woman? Her house looks more pleasant, but I like my protein, and hammocks pinch my shoulders (I have a large back). But nice-looking bamboo toothbrush. Anyway,… Read more »

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

^^THIS WAS MEANT AS A REPLY TO DH. looks confusing out of context. k.

dh
dh
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Yeah, I’m big fan of urban living. I moved from the suburbs to a small condo in the most urban area I could find here in Albuquerque, which is a neighborhood called Nob Hill. It’s walkable, bikeable, and is about to have a bus system that will mimic some of the features of rail transit. There’s just such a density of amenities in urban areas — midnight toilet paper, health food grocery stores, cinemas, every kind of restaurant/bar, retail, banks, libraries, post offices, the list goes on and on.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago
Reply to  dh

Haaa haaa I don’t know when you moved there but if you’ve been there a while then we were neighbors once.

I’m now in the sticks though, due to work… but planning my escape back to society mhuahahahahaaa….

ABQ still not quite walkable/bikeable for my taste, but glad to see improvements. (Even though everyone has been hating the construction for years).

Here’s hoping that the NIMBYs allow for more tall buildings in the area now. They want to keep their yards like it’s 1950. It’s time to grow vertically instead of destroying more nature (I’m looking at you, Ventana Ranch).

dh
dh
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Interesting how some of the main commentators here are from Albuquerque or the surrounding area. SG is also from around here. I think she is in the sticks too.

And getting back to minimalism, I just ran into Don Schrader the other day outside the co-op down here. We got into an interesting discussion on why he refuses to take vitamin B12 supplements — even tho he’s a raw vegan, zoinks!

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

B-12: He prolly eats squirrels from Roosevelt Park while nobody is looking xD

dh
dh
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Lol no he said something about how his kale and stuff is dirty after he pulls it out of the ground and that the dirt has B12 in it.

El Nerdo
El Nerdo
1 year ago
Reply to  El Nerdo

Hahaha! He’s getting supplied by an internal parasite colony then.

joe
joe
1 year ago

Normally, my rule is one in, one out. We have a ton of stuff and the clutter is getting worse. I know I have a metal file somewhere, but I have no idea where it is. That’s the problem with having a basement. It’s a mess down there. Well, we just moved so it’s a big clutter for now. We’ll organize this summer and try to give away some stuff.
Good post on mindful shopping. It’s easy for me with clothes, but tough when it comes to hardware. You can always use more tools.

Mary Kay
Mary Kay
1 year ago
Reply to  joe

You can always use more tools…You must know my husband. Thanks. This made me laugh.

Sue G.
Sue G.
1 year ago

Aging Curmudgeons Unite! 🙂 I’ve been meaning forever to try out my local Tool Library. I’ve either ignored the things I need to do but don’t have tools needed or caved/convinced myself to purchase. Mentioned in GRS before (and Jennifer above), but just reminder for everyone struggling with Mindful Shopping issues: – Use your public library (free, actually you paid for it with your taxes). Many libraries have items to use and loan beyond physical books (cds, dvds, ebooks, online music/movies, cake pans, kilowatt meters, 3-printer labs… all sorts of stuff!). – Tool libraries (usually annual membership fee) – Sharing… Read more »

Dom
Dom
1 year ago

Thanks for this, it’s perfect timing for me. As someone who moves around a lot I also think in terms of “is this worth packing” like some of the other commenters mentioned.

Making a list of all the things I think I need and seeing what it would actually cost helps me avoid some of the pitfalls. It also gives me a chance to prioritize things. Seeing the cost of a trip I want to take or something that will expand my lifestyle makes it a lot easier to decide is really “worth it”.

TJ
TJ
1 year ago

“buying things seems more like a hassle than a reward.”
Absolutely agree. Why did I ever think collecting was a good thing?

Nancy
Nancy
1 year ago

Three things happened recently in my life: I retired, my husband and I spent six weeks backpacking through the U.K. and Europe, and on our return flight I read “Decluttering at the Speed of Life: Winning Your Never-Ending Battle With Stuff” by Dana White. After the trip, I decided that I could survive without having a job; I have found plenty of things to do. So, I packed up all my work clothes and attacked my husband’s closet and drawers, removing everything he outgrown, had holes or was too faded, and stuff he hadn’t seen in years. I had to… Read more »

Papa Foxtrot
Papa Foxtrot
1 year ago

One of the entrepreneurial gurus I listen to said that quality is never cheap, but there is a certain point where you are no longer paying for quality, but prestige.

https://forgeyourwealth.com/2019/06/08/being-cheap-vs-being-frugal/
https://forgeyourwealth.com/2019/06/08/what-you-should-avoid-spending-too-much-on/

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