Was It Worth It?

March 21, 2012

Wrapping Up, Part 3

“I wonder whether cutting back my personal consumption will do anything more than make me feel better. Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” Judith Levine, Not Buying It

“You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.” William Blake

I spent some time last week scanning through my posts from 2011—which, with the engagement, wedding, and trip to France, turned out to be a pretty big year for me. In addition to all that fun stuff, I learned a ton. I learned about the outrageous quantity of pesticides sprayed on imported cut flowers. I learned where to find used stuff in my community. I learned how to be a courteous bike commuter. I learned about the growing, mining, and manufacturing involved not just in food, toiletry, and cleaning supply production, but also in packaging, clothing, electronics, furniture, and media production. I discovered new ways to avoid food waste. I rediscovered my interest in writing. I evaluated my use of time, set new priorities, created a calendar, and stuck to my savings plan. And all because of the No Stuff Experiment.

Above I quote from Judith Levine’s book, Not Buying It: “Is not buying part of the solution—to anything?” I’d say, yes, it is. For me, the No Stuff Experiment was a solution to consumer apathy. It was at times a wake-up call (like when I researched cotton farming), at times a refresher lesson (the cleaning product post). It forced me to take a hard look at my values and priorities and to make choices accordingly. Yes, I cheated here and there, and yes, the NSE rules were more lax than are rules for other shopping fasts. As a discerning reader, you are free to fault me for the flaws of my experiment.

And, yet, in spite of those flaws I came away with some important life lessons:

I can’t force my lifestyle onto other people—nor should I. Although, by the end of the year, I was alone in my commitment to the rules of the Experiment, I did this thing with the help and support of many of my closest friends and family. And I think it wore on some of them. I know it wore on Channing. I probably asked a little too much of him in the beginning. I asked not only that he not buy me gifts but also that he not by anything new for our shared home. I told him we couldn’t buy firewood for warming the living room on cold winter nights (remember when we used to have those?); I told him he couldn’t buy me roses for Valentine’s Day; I told him we couldn’t get a new couch. He was displeased but bore with me—for the first few months, anyway. Then the whole engagement thing happened.

Well, eventually, I stopped reminding/nagging Channing (and everyone else) about the Experiment. Shoving the responsibility of respecting my wacky rules onto others just started to seem rude and generally made me unhappy. I rediscovered that the best way to influence others is not with force but with information. Although ultimately none of the readers I’ve spoken to are interested in doing their own shopping fast, every one of them has found tidbits on the blog that convinced them to change one or two tiny aspects of their lives—or that at least made them think about their own consumer choices. That’s pretty huge.

I have way, way, way too much stuff. In December I borrowed a book from Melissa titled Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston. This book is full of practical advice, a lot of which I’ve heard elsewhere, and yet it completely rebooted my thinking about clutter. About halfway through Kingston’s book, I realized I had a lot more decluttering to do, and I made this known to Channing. He said, “Haven’t we gotten rid of a lot of stuff already?” Yeah, we have. But…

Think for a moment about all the stuff in your house that you haven’t touched in a month or three months or six months or a whole year. Channing and I have tons of stuff like this—including stuff we haven’t even thought about since we moved in, in 2010: the plastic utensils collected from takeout orders in a kitchen drawer, the extra cheese grater, the serving trays we never use, all the pens and rubber bands in the office (you know, the office I just cleared out in October), the gigantic box of memorabilia from my trip to Australia in 2001—2001!

I know the husband and I won’t get around to clearing this stuff out anytime soon. And you know what?  That’s OK. I am happy, though, that thanks to the Experiment I have become aware of the abundance available to me in my own home. This awareness has made trips to stores like Target, Michael’s, and Office Depot a lot less frequent.

It’s my life. Based on the conversations I had with my Voluntary Simplicity group, I don’t think I’m alone in occasionally feeling like I have no control over how I spend my time. It used to be that when professional, social, and personal commitments piled up, I would either get angry or break down. But these days it’s easier to take a step back and examine why I’m overbooked (the Google calendar helps with this too). Which activities do I want to continue, and which are no longer aligned with my priorities and values?

At the start of this year, I had planned to tackle two major projects: train for a half Ironman and expand my freelance editing business. I quickly realized that spending ten or fifteen hours training every week would not allow much time for the editing business. I am still working a full-time job, after all. So, I had to make a decision about which activity was more important to me. The No Stuff Experiment prepared me to do just that. (For more about the time issue, see my earlier posts in this category.)

I will do this again. OK, so I successfully completed the No Stuff Experiment when I had few responsibilities outside of putting in eight hours at the office every day and paying some bills. What would this thing look like if I were a bit older, lived in a different city or a bigger house, had a kid or two? What would I learn if I gave up the restaurant meals, movie tickets, and consignment shopping in addition to new nonessential material goods? The No Stuff Experiment is something I want to come back to every few years, like a detox or cleanse program for my inner consumer. I’ll have to tweak the rules to accommodate lesson #1 above, of course, but I’m sure I can come up with some new guidelines that will similarly stimulate creativity, problem-solving skills, and self-reflection. Seems like a useful tool for the future me.

Thanks, everyone, for your attention and patience these last fifteen months. I hope you enjoyed the ride as much as I did. I’m looking forward to starting my new blog project, The Rosy Skillet, in the fall of 2012, and I hope you all will join me there. I may also post on No Stuff Experiment every now and again as I come across new information about consumption, clutter, and stuff.

My Money, My Life

March 18, 2012

Wrapping up, Part 2

In the last five months of 2011, I spent 22 percent less and put 82 percent more in savings than I had in August to December 2010. Even in August, when I made all those exceptions for the wedding, I spent 34 percent less than I had in August the previous year—in part because I didn’t have a lot of credit card debt to pay off in addition to regular expenses.

The biggest surprise as I compared my spending month to month came at the end of the year. In December 2011 I spent a whopping 46 percent less than I  had in the same month in 2010. In 2010 I  bought my bike and a ton of Christmas presents, plus I  stocked up on underwear and other odds and ends before starting the No Stuff Experiment. In 2011 I simplified my Christmas expenses and made no major purchases other than Christmas gifts. (Flights, hotels, tours, and train tickets for the France trip were paid off in November from our joint savings, so they did not factor into my December 2011 expenses.)

What really surprised me in comparing the two Decembers were my food expenses. In 2011, despite my flurry of cookie baking and two holiday dinner parties, I spent 45 percent less on groceries than I had the previous December. How did that happen? I don’t have receipts from 2010, so I’m not certain. I’ll just assume that after a year of closely examining my spending, I learned to budget a little more wisely.

When I started the No Stuff Experiment, I wasn’t too concerned about money. I had eliminated my debt a few years back, and I was trucking along just fine with the little budget I had set up for myself. Sure, I had savings goals. My 2011 New Year’s resolution was to save a certain amount by December, and I was able to keep that resolution in part because I restricted purchases. But, still, money was not a primary motivating factor for the experiment.

In October, when I returned to my simple-living reading list, I picked up the 2008 edition of Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez. I can’t say this book changed my life—or even the way I think about money or work or living. But it did change something. It helped me to reimagine my life with less stuff and early retirement.

Joe and Vicki developed a nine-step program for people to use to examine how they spend money. The exercises are useful, not just for folks with debt, but also for folks like me who are trying to tread more lightly and who are looking for work-life balance. As I mentioned in my last post, in November I started tracking my spending differently. I let go of my monthly budget, and instead now track withdrawals and deposits daily in a new spreadsheet. At the end of November and December, I categorized expenses by type and subtype (e.g., Food, groceries; Food, restaurants; Utilities, phone; Transportation, gas) in a separate spreadsheet, called “Monthly Tabulation” in Your Money or Your Life vernacular. I started to review my spending in each category but felt stymied.

I realized I needed to do my financial planning with my partner. It no longer made sense to establish solo spending/saving goals. So, as of January 1, Channing began tracking his expenses like I tracked mine (he was essentially doing this already), and for the past two months both Channing and I have entered our withdrawals and deposits in the Monthly Tabulation. We spent about a half hour at the end of January and February analyzing our spending and setting goals.

Without getting too bogged down in the details, I’ll say that these discussions have been enlightening for both of us. Channing is now keeping tabs on what he does with the cash he withdraws from the ATM; he’s not buying as many rounds of drinks at after-work happy hours; and in February he paid down a couple thousand dollars in credit card debt. I’ve been adjusting to post–No Stuff Experiment spending freedom. In January, a lot of money went toward stuff, but my food expenses were down. In February, I realized I wasn’t in a race to make up for lost shopping time, and I found a nice balance—more food, significantly less stuff.

Oh, and our savings account? Yeah, seventy-five days into the new year, we’ve already doubled the amount we had in there on December 31 (and have also surpassed the total we had before we took out money for the France trip). I’m proud of us.

(In case anyone’s counting, I have one more wrapping-up post to go.)