“We buy shit we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like.” — George Carlin
I’ve spent the last two excruciating weeks moving. I spent hours upon hours going through the detritus of the last eight years of my life. I consider myself rather frugal, though like most people, there are times I splurge on things I’ve no business buying. I don’t compulsively shop at sales just because an item that I may need in the future is on sale so I buy bulk quantities of it. I am not a hoarder and I generally don’t like to ‘collect’ things. I don’t have expensive habits such as horseback riding or motorcycling and I even got over the handbag and shoe craze of my youth. Yet, I still have tons and tons of shit I don’t know what to do with and worse, I don’t even know how I got possession of them in the first place.
The dilemma of going through my belongings is not deciding whether I should keep something or donate it to charity or haul it to the dumpster. I already know what I’d rather do: donate the usable items and take the rest to the nearest dumpster. The dilemma is what if I need this item again in the near future but I already gave it away or threw it away. Going through your belongings has economic ramifications. Giving away perfectly good and usable items because you can’t be bothered to pack it and unpack it but then having to come up with the money to replace it down the line when you need it may cause economic hardship is a headache. The more time I spent deciding what to do with my things, the more I realized how poisonous the consumerism culture is.
We have lost sight of what we need versus what we want. Many of the things we supposedly ‘need’ are just stuff we want but are told we need them to function. The late comedian George Carlin’s famous quip “We buy shit we don’t need, with money we don’t have, to impress people we don’t like” resonates with all of us because we think we all know someone like that. Someone who relentlessly keeps up with the Joneses not realizing the Joneses don’t exist or if they do, they don’t give a fuck. Our things become a literal burden on our backs. It’s our emotional burdens and hangups manifested into all of the shit we buy because we are convinced that we need them to function.
I had to hire two sets of movers and both of my movers expressed the same sentiment: they don’t have personal belongings which doesn’t all neatly fit into one of their trucks. My first mover, an older Chinese man from Taiwan said he’s been in the United States for thirty-eight years. During these thirty-eight years he’s only moved once, and after that experience he never wanted to move ever again. He bought a modest home and has lived there ever since. He’s perfectly happy in his small starter home. He’s got no desire to upgrade to a new home though he has the means and the longer he operates his moving business, the more he’s convinced that his decision of living a life of simple contentment is the right one.
This is not the first time I’ve ever moved in my life. But as the years wore on, every move became more burdensome. My first apartment out of college, I was able to hire one small truck and I unpacked all of my things in one day. It was minimal disruption to my life. When I bought my first home I had to fill a 1500 square foot home with furniture. Up until then, my furniture consisted of a bed, my desk, a bookshelf and a small second hand sofa set. A two car garage was my downfall, I was able to fill it with all sorts stuff without realizing I was stockpiling a bunch of things I don’t need and eight years later, I am paying for it. We decided to downsize and so we had to make decisions on what to keep and what to give away. Putting excess crap in storage is just throwing away good money after bad, I was adamantly against it. A decision will be made now on what to do with our stuff: donate, keep or the trash bin. A fourth option would be to sell some items but I was too lazy to organize a moving sale where I’d be getting pennies on the dollar for my belongings. I’d rather donate them to charities.
This move has led me to reevaluate myself. I think of myself as a sensible person who isn’t prone to compulsive buying or overspending. Most of the purchases I’ve made in the last few years were more for my children than for myself and even then, I only purchase what then need. I don’t have rows and rows of dresses for my daughter and I don’t purchase one toy after another for them. But if that’s the case, how did I end up with a garage full of shit I don’t know what to do with? Did I really need a 5 set chafing dish, which I only used twice a year if that? I had three different sets of flatware and three different sets of wine glasses so that I have a variety of options to choose from when I am hosting a party. When we finally moved into a home our own, I fancied myself an amateur Martha Stewart where I’d throw impromptu get togethers a la shabby chic style, not realizing that I am not into nor am I am very good at throwing parties (I like attending them). I attempted a few; it was tedious and tiring and everyone seemed to have fun except me. I was too highly strung to be a casual and fun hostess and I work myself into such an anxiety making sure all my guests had fun and was well looked after that I forgot to make sure I had fun. And of course don’t get me started on the clean up after everyone leaves.
As Americans and as people who live under capitalism, our status is defined by money and by extension the things we can buy with that money. Where we live, what car we drive, where we go for entertainment and dining and how we entertain all give clues to our social status and how much money we have (or don’t have). Even for those who aren’t keeping up with the Joneses, there is a pressure to maintain a certain lifestyle (or at least a facade of a lifestyle) so that one feels like respectable member of society. If you throw all of your disposable income into paying your mortgage and maintaining your home, one surely can’t accept having unfurnished rooms or a messy lawn.
We are sold the idea that part of achieving the American Dream is achieving home ownership. Owning a home and having in your possession a piece of paper which says you own a piece of real property is worth its weight in gold. Even the financial crash of 2008 can’t deter Americans from the myth of homeownership. Any self-respecting aspiring middle class person in America dreams of homeownership, if you achieve everything else but owing your own home, the dream is incomplete. Prior to 2008, owning your home besides having a sense of security and establishing wealth, is also a source of pride and in some cases vanity. Post financial crash of 2008, owning a home became an urgent imperative to hedge against rising rents, being priced out of affordable neighborhoods because companies like Berkshire Hathaway are buying up vacant homes at rock bottom prices, refurbishing them to either resell at higher price or leasing them out at premium rents.
When I was a homeowner, there was a sense of satisfaction and security that I own my home and I can do with it what I please. And when you walk through the front door you can say ‘it’s mine’. But the burdens were also immense. Property taxes and its financial obligations aside, the maintenance of one’s home is like having another full time job. The decision of whether to fix the faucet or pay the electric bill first can take the fun and enjoyment out of owning a home. Anticipating the next thing to break or needing an upgrade can cause a lot of stress and anxiety. A simple thing such as owning a home or housing security, again, in this fractured and highly unequal society, has become out of reach for a large number of people.