It just occurred to me that after more than 30 years of working and diligent saving, my family is still not living like we’re rich. That’s because we have far too much stuff.
We just added to our fleet of TVs, for example, last weekend turning on a new Samsung “smart” TV. The 11-year-old Sony TV that it replaced went into the Samsung box and into the basement, saved for when our younger kids get their first apartments.
Rich people wouldn’t do that.
That Sony TV may yet turn out to be a candidate for an electronics recycler, with a new TV like it maybe only $150 at a Best Buy store. But our instincts are that it shouldn’t leave the family. Sure we can afford it now, but there are no guarantees. And it’s just not smart to get rid of something that works.
There may be other reasons that TV is still here, too, including trying to keep still-useful things out of the waste stream. That almost makes saving it sound virtuous.
Yet we all know that keeping stuff around is the wrong side of that argument these days. To be virtuous now means getting rid of your things, doing your best to “declutter.”
The thing is, I’ve yet to read an essay praising decluttering and the joys of living light from somebody who never had the money to accumulate a lot of nice things in the first place. Of the articles on decluttering I’ve printed and dropped in a file, the most memorable is probably one that once appeared in the New York Times a few years ago that was written by a wealthy internet entrepreneur.
He described how his big house and turbo Volvo car in Seattle were long gone, along with the 1,900 square-foot loft in lower Manhattan and almost everything else he once owned. “My space is small,” he wrote. “My life is big.”
It was an entertaining thing to read, but there wasn’t much practical wisdom to be learned from a single guy who only has to take care of himself. He sure didn’t seem to know about all the things a few kids would need. He wouldn’t know why someone would have softball spikes, softball gloves, a sliding pad, bats, batting gloves and a bag of bright green softballs scattered in the attic above the garage, as they are at our house.
Kids can’t thrive when living out of dad’s backpack on the road, either, so he wouldn’t appreciate how much sense it makes to own a safe place for kids to live that’s near some good schools.
Having no further need of a house means he also wouldn’t need a Toro lawn mower, snowblower and leaf blower.
Maybe owning a leaf blower really is unnecessary, but the part of his essay that was most aggravating is that he didn’t seem to understand what it meant for him to also own a fat checking account. He did not need to hang on to the stuff he had because whatever he next wanted he could buy without thinking about it. Instead of watching TV for a little stimulation, for example, he moved to Spain.
A contributor to the blogging site Tumblr named Charlie Loyd read this Times essay and later insisted he could spot wealthy people on the street just by how little they carried. Being “mostly on the lower end of middle-class” himself, he wrote, every day he filled a backpack with what he needed.
He carried a 3-year-old laptop computer with a tired battery, so he also needed the power supply and cord. He always needed to have a charging cable with him to keep his old cellphone going, too. He packed a water bottle and food in case he got hungry, a rain coat and gloves for bad weather, plus he tried to remember a book to read in case he got bored.
If he were rich enough he would’ve only carried an ultralight laptop computer, a small Apple iPad to read and a wallet. Every other need could be met by spending a little of what’s in the wallet. Hungry? No problem, there’s a coffee shop on nearly every block.
His backpack turned out to be just a metaphor for how a lot of us live. Try to save money by stocking up on groceries at Costco, and you will need a freezer to store it. If the window air conditioner looks to be nearing the end of its life, it’s probably a good idea to keep a big box fan handy.
Giving up a car is probably a luxury choice for most Minnesota families, too, even those living near a transit line. It seems more likely that a family without much spare cash keeps two middle-aged cars in the driveway, improving the odds that one starts on a cold morning when getting to work late isn’t an option.
It was just that kind of thinking that once had my hardheaded father-in-law keeping two refrigerators in his kitchen. Neither seemed to work very well, so he was hesitant to get rid of one for fear the refrigerator he decided to keep would then quit working.
Keeping two refrigerators around would sound just plain crazy to a committed minimalist, of course, as does heading out this weekend to participate in the shopping frenzy that always kicks off the annual holiday shopping season.
It’s not that the minimalists don’t have an important point to make about how owning more things rarely makes people happier. Shoppers should make their lists for the weekend only after first checking to see how much dust has gathered on last year’s highly sought after presents.
But for some of the people standing in line Friday morning for a crack at the best bargains, they just may have gotten up early to get something they need at a price they can afford. It might be an Apple computer for the kids to do homework, advertised at $200 off on Friday. Or maybe it’s a high-definition TV for $149.99 to replace one that went on the blink.
These people won’t need to hear any more of the virtues of living with fewer nice things. They’ve already tried that.