Six months ago or so, the New York Times published an article by Stephanie Rosenbloom entitled But Will it Make You Happy? “It,” in the article, was stuff, and spending money, and in the end, the writer and her subjects concluded that there are better, healthier, and more productive paths to happiness. One of the subjects of the article was Tammy Strobel, whose downsizing story inspired the one our household has undertaken. Her blog, RowdyKittens, is one that I read each week. I admire that Tammy and her husband have downsized and chosen to live more simply in a way that seems natural and comfortable, and that they are asking a fundamental question that I think we need to answer before we can solve our problem with stuff. Why do we consume so much of it?
I’m not sure there is a straightforward answer. For some, I think it’s the idea that more stuff makes life easier, better, or happier. Then, there’s our culturally flawed view of normal. A 3000 square foot house and an SUV have become so ubiquitous we think of them as average, and the recession hasn’t led to a dramatic shift in our thinking – save a little more, maybe, or buy a sedan instead, but don’t move to a studio apartment and ride the bus. That would be crazy. Too big a sacrifice, too different from what we’re used to. Right? Except I ride the bus every day, and we’re thinking of moving to a studio apartment, and I have to tell you…it hasn’t been the sacrifice I imagined it would be.
Why was I afraid of scaling back? And why do so many of the folks around me, folks who are concerned about the planet and their impact on it, seem to feel the same way? Maybe part of it is that we’re afraid of feeling deprived. I was excited, when I got my first job, to be able to buy some cute clothes and go out for a nice dinner. I was looking forward to buying a Prius. But now that I’ve started to live smaller, I have to say, I don’t feel deprived. I feel free. My husband and I would both say that cutting back on our spending and our stuff has been great for our marriage. We’re both happier with less debt, less clutter, and more space. We still run out of steam sometimes, but we’ve chipped away at our pile of stuff to the point that our house looks dramatically different. We have room to breathe. I only wonder why it took us so long to see the light. Why didn’t we do this when we were living in our 400 square foot cabin, which was overflowing with stuff?
I think the answer lies in the article from the Times that I cited above. That was the kick in the pants we needed to change our lives. It’s one of the best decisions we’ve made as a couple. We’ve managed to pay down a fair amount of our consumer debt by changing our spending habits. And by changing, I do mean reducing. I thought we needed to make more money. Turns out we just needed to spend less instead. Getting started in downsizing and cutting back on our spending was hard, because it felt like such a daunting process. Scaling back during the holidays has taken some creativity. Even so, our own household’s “great purge” continues (how the George Foreman grill survived this long is a mystery):
And handmade Christmas, so far, is a hit! Behold my first success: my best friend with the pop art portrait of her pug I made. She says it’s the best gift anyone has ever given her. I was afraid that not buying presents this year would make me a bad friend/daughter/wife, but handmaking them has been a popular choice thus far!
I’m not a particulary sophisticated gift maker, but I’m not sure that matters. Making gifts has given me the chance to really think about what each of the people I really love would most like to have. Some folks will also be getting things I really wanted to try my hand at making (more on that later!) As this year winds down, I’m excited about the one to come, in which I intend to finish my degree, downsize some more, and maybe even find a way to make a career out of researching consumption as an occupation. I’m working on a research project for school on the Voluntary Simplicity movement, and that’s something I’ll be finishing up in the early months of next year, too. It’s been really exciting to be able to approach some of my questions about consumption and simplicity from an academic standpoint. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed writing a paper so much.
Who knows what 2011 will be like? I have big hopes, big dreams…and plans for a smaller, more sustainable life.