Possession isn’t nine-tenths of the law.
It’s nine-tenths of the problem. — John Lennon
Before moving to Taos, I owned a townhouse in Colorado Springs that was almost two thousand square feet and had a two-car garage, plus lots of closet space, all of it full. My whole townhouse was filled with the stuff accumulated after a decade or so in the working world.
Long before I moved, I decided to clean out my garage. It took sustained effort over two weekends, but I succeeded in emptying it except for the most important stuff: my car, my skis, and my snow tires.
As for the rest of the stuff I had stuffed into every crevice, my theory was that if I hadn’t used it in the past two years, I didn’t need it. I carted one carload after another to Goodwill and donated perfectly good items that other people would put to better use than I had been.
Time for House Cleaning My Life
Once I started ridding my living space of extraneous possessions, I realized two things. First, my living space was too big. And second, the rest of my life could use a little housecleaning as well.
As I uncluttered my house and wrestled with my conscience, I also plotted my escape. The best (possibly the only) things I got out of my corporate job were a good salary and benefits. The deal was that I would give them my time, energy, and skills, and they would give me money.
The fine print that I had only skimmed said that I would also give them my ideals, principles, physical fitness, and mental stability. In exchange, they would give me stress, “core values,” and lip service to work-life balance — ironically, a phrase coined by the corporate world where there is none.
Healthful Life or Big Paycheck?
The downside to me was obvious once I stepped back and looked at it: I was sacrificing all aspects of a healthful life for a paycheck. To compound it, I was immersed in a culture that exerted pressure to spend that paycheck on stuff I didn’t need or even really want. And I was placing an enormous strain on the earth’s natural resources.
From a corporate perspective, the disadvantage is that once workers figure out the exchange and decide they want more time and less stress, they decide that forfeiting the money is an option. I wanted the time. So I quit my job, sold my townhouse, and moved to my Spartan paradise in the high desert.
Pressures of Advertising
I’m not against TV or the Internet. But after having lived without them, I know they are not necessary for a healthful, satisfying life. I will go even further and declare that I learned they are bad for you, although not in the ways that most of us believe (e.g., excessive screen time ruining your eyes or too much time on the couch undermining your health). It was something else that I hadn’t even considered in my sanctimonious anti-TV preaching.
In my Taos cloister, I was removed from the daily blitzkrieg of ads on TV, radio, magazines, billboards, newspapers, and the Internet, none of which I encountered on a regular basis. Because I never watched TV, no longer spent hours every day online, quit reading celebrity magazines, and wasn’t exposed to advertisements, I had ceased to care about what I wore, what trends I was missing, and whether people liked me. I had total freedom to simply be myself.
This is not to say I don’t buy stuff. Living frugally doesn’t have to mean depriving yourself. Rather, it means making the same kinds of conscious decisions for your bank account that you do for the environment.
Do You Need It? Can You Afford It? Where Will You Put It?
Toward the end of my year off the grid, I went to a craft fair with a friend. After having spent nearly a year buying nothing but essentials, I found every object desirable: hand-blown glassware, Nature photographs, hand-dipped candles, etc. I lusted after them all.
The urge to open my wallet and start handing over money was strong, so strong that it surprised me. So I asked myself three questions as I evaluated each item I wanted to buy.
Do I need it?
Can I afford it?
Where will I put it?
I didn’t need any of them, but I didn’t want that to preclude my buying a small trinket that would give me pleasure. Living on savings, I couldn’t justify buying anything over twenty-five dollars, although that still left plenty of choices. A small packet of note cards with Nature photographs was only fifteen dollars, or I could have gotten a set of candles or even the CD of flute music.
Where Will You Put It?
It was the third question that limited me the most. Living in a small house that was already full of stuff, I had no room for new stuff.
In the end, I bought nothing. My small house had saved me from spending money unnecessarily. A few days after the craft fair, I could hardly recall a single thing that I couldn’t live without.
Those questions (Do I Need It? Can I Afford It? Where Will I Put It?) moved back on the grid with me and currently help to keep my spending in check and the clutter at bay. They are the opposite of shopping as a hobby, “retail therapy,” or making purchases out of convenience. But it’s harder back in the mainstream since I have plugged back into TV and the Internet with their attendant onslaught of advertising.
Doing the Earth & My Bank Account a Favor
These days I am less connected to the land than I was in Taos and more connected with the manmade world, and that makes me feel uneasy. But every time I choose not to buy a cheap plastic baby toy and I ask myself those three questions, I remind myself that I am doing a favor for the earth as well as my bank account. It is more satisfying than adding to the clutter.
This article was excerpted with permission from the book:
Thrifty Green: Ease Up on Energy, Food, Water, Trash, Transit, Stuff -- and Everybody Wins
by Priscilla Short.
Reprinted with permission from Red Wheel/Weiser LLC, Thrifty Green, by Priscilla Short, ©2011 by Priscilla Short is available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher at 1-800-423-7087 or www.redwheelweiser.com
About the Author
Priscilla Short holds a Bachelor of Arts from Wellesley College in mathematics and a Master of Science from The College of William and Mary in operations research. She spent over a decade in the corporate world working as a systems engineer developing software to optimize the resource usage of government satellite systems. She lives in Colorado. Photo credit: Heather Wagner.