Minimalist Shopping: Decisions & Considerations

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Faithful readers of my blog will be familiar with my past shopping struggle. A habit that, I’m ashamed to admit, has commandeered my free time – many hours I will never get back. And now that the holiday gifting madness has begun, I want to address this habit that has become more than just a chore, as businesses continue to enhance the shopping experience, making it an immersive, mentally engaging act that has captured the leisure time of teenagers and adults all over the world, no matter what financial situation they’re in. They start with commercials, enticing you with eye candy and personas that go beyond the product itself. Buy our clothing, and you will be more attractive, successful, confident, or healthy, like the person in this commercial. Buy this magic pill, and behold the transformation you will experience. Buy this car, and just look at how happy and safe your family will be. Buy this beauty product, and you will attract attractive people. This is no more evident than in perfume ads. Buy this massage chair because hell, you deserve it, and oh by the way, we offer a payment plan, in case you cannot actually afford it! Browsers store your shopping history, and that pair of boots you were drooling over suddenly follows you in other places – news sites, social media, blogs, and more, reminding you that the option to purchase is still there, until you finally cave and make the purchase.

All that aside, I am not going to be that strict minimalist who tells everyone to opt out of gift giving or shopping altogether (I do still buy things!). Some people have traditions they want to follow, or kids’ birthday parties to attend, and who’d want to embarrass their kid by not bringing a gift? And, we still have to buy things from time to time. Things break, become obsolete, and so on. And in many cases, a purchase or upgrade will save you time or significantly improve your quality of life. This post is meant to help you think through the buying process from the perspective of a conscious consumer and not a gullible buyer.

Let’s now move onto factors to consider in any purchasing decision.

Emotional Buying

“Retail Therapy,” as it’s commonly known. I like to think that most people know why they are out browsing things at a store, but when you ask them why, they answer that they don’t know, or have “nothing better to do,” or “why not.” It is easy to cultivate an addiction, too – the high that people experience after acquiring a new item can feel like a  physical reward from the effort of making money, and the excitement of getting to enjoy the new item is a pleasure, particularly if it’s something highly coveted.

Humans are not always logical and sensible creatures – otherwise no one would smoke – so we must at least learn to recognize if our shopping habits are emotionally driven. Without that awareness, we won’t be able to stop ourselves. Commonly, we shop in response to stress – at work, at home. We also shop in response to positive emotional events, like when we get our bonuses (anyone go out and spend their entire bonus in one piece?), or when we get a promotion, or when we just “feel rich.” Without a specific need in mind, shopping, just like drinking, can easily become something we do to distract ourselves, rather than something we do because we need something.

Lifetime maintenance

As seasoned readers know, stuff begets stuff – clothes need detergent, sometimes even special detergent; spare tables then require spare chairs; leather requires leather cleaner. A great example is owning a bike or car. Unless you plan to bring your bike to the shop every time something goes wrong, you have to buy a lock, spare tubes, degreaser, a pump, bike lights, and a helmet. More stuff, more time spent dealing with said stuff, more money spent. With a car, you have to deal with oil changes, gasoline, tires, brakes, fluids, storage, parking, insurance…have I mentioned that cars are ridiculously expensive? The same thing with a home – the larger your home, the more time and money you will be sinking into your living space to maintain it.

I’ve already talked a lot about the maintenance of certain types of clothing (dry-cleaning, removing pills, ironing…), but the same is true of anything you own. Everything needs to be stored and probably maintained to some degree, taking up space and time – time to maintain, organize, and clean.

Longevity

As people say, classics are for life – but what is a “classic,” really? I still think that some “classics” are just things that have been marketed really well, and that we should build our preferences and styles not around what other people deem as “classics.” There are many arguments for buying things that last – not needing to buy another one later (the poor man pays twice) environmental impact. For this reason, “disposable” or “temporary” items are to be avoided. Dollar store junk – anything that fills kids’ goody bags, party goods, particularly anything made of plastic – as wasteful as it gets, even if they are cheap and convenient. I don’t know about you, but walking around a place full of garbage sucks. It’s too bad I can’t make other people care about this – garbage out of sight, garbage out of mind, after all – but sooner or later, we are all going to feel the effects.

I also recommend, for this same reason – in some situations, buying the cheaper option is not always the right option – delaying gratification and buying only . A good example of this is buying a cheap mattress – it will cost you more in labor, money, time, and likely frustration than it would to buy one that will last and serve you well.

Resale value

Another thing to consider is resale value. As a long term eBay seller of used things, items of quality that retain usefulness over time will sell much better than cheap crap. I like to check eBay for approximate resale values of certain brands. Ideally, I shouldn’t need to sell what I buy in the long run, but sometimes, it happens.

Money

This one should be self-explanatory, but there are certain things where you are blatantly paying for a brand and not a higher quality item. I am skeptical of the quality promised by certain brands, when it is not always the case that you’re buying a higher quality item. Often times, a cheaper version could be better. One good example of this is clothing made by Abercrombie and Fitch. I have no reason to believe that their clothes are inherently better than clothes made by companies that make clothing sold at Target, but they’ve somehow built a brand where many people believe that that is the case – so much so that people will buy shirts that simply have the name of the brand on it. Seems silly – or brilliant, for the brand – to pay a company to advertise for them.

There is also the question of affordability. I like to calculate the number of working hours for each item, but it’s also important to recognize the power of compound interest, and every dollar that you spend today is lost capital gains over time. As a minimalist, working just to buy things seems like a rather unfulfilling, repetitive existence. The whole question of money is not something I want to discuss in this post in detail.

Sales

While we’re on the subject of affordability, I want to mention sales. Sales are just a clever way to entice people to buy. And they are great – if I am eyeing something for a while and I notice it is on sale, I am certainly more incentivized to buy. But buying just because it’s on sale, or just because it’s cheap – won’t cut it. Because you will have bought something – not because you truly wanted that thing, but because you found a bargain, and it is likely that you will then subconsciously undervalue it.

“Personal load”

I made up this term myself, but my fascination with the “living out of a backpack” has led me to wonder exactly how hard it would be for me to pack my bags if I needed to move. It is easy to avoid ever needing to assess the sheer volume belongings I have when I don’t move, or if I am not traveling frequently. This personal load then also translates to an “environmental load” of sorts. How much space am I needing just for my “stuff?” Everything I buy adds to that load burden, and that burden is not just physical, but mental too.

Intent

The question of “why” I want something is really what this whole post is about.

We buy things because we generally believe that these things will make us better, happier people, or they will help us in our quest to become better/happier people. The problem is, we are often awful at determining what truly makes us happy (hint: it’s not more stuff). Ever seen the people in poor countries, barely scraping by, yet somehow still wearing banana smiles and finding the joy in everything

When shopping for others, similar considerations apply, but most of the time, I simply ask what the person wants, and if I must purchase a gift for that person, I buy that exact thing. An unwanted gift is a burden and a lose-lose situation I’d rather avoid.

Happy Holidays and I truly hope that your holiday gift-exchanging practices only add happiness and ease to the holiday season.

Spare Yourself from Overdecorating, Gifts, Last-Minute Shopping, and other Holiday Woes

The holidays have become an iconic time of gift exchanges, unbridled dietary habits, and restless travel time. With just how much running around we have to do – buying things for large families, cooking epic meals, writing checks for charitable organizations, buying gifts for gift exchanges at work or at friends’ parties…it’s no wonder “Christmas feels more like a deadline than a holiday” (a shower thought from Reddit).

December has turned into a spending and binge-eating frenzy. At my office, holiday babble sounds like:

“I have x more days until I have to eat right again…”

As though there was some kind of time limit…

“I still have to finish Christmas shopping for everyone in my extended family and in laws…”

Because I’m sure everyone needs another “little something.”

“I was supposed to get my package yesterday, but UPS keeps delaying it and now it won’t show up until after Christmas!”

Oh, well…

“As the decorator in the house, I’ve gotten a little crazy with the lights…”

Amongst frustrations like people not knowing what to get other people, etc. Like not getting someone something is not an option.

I’m lucky, though. As someone who travels off-season and isn’t chained to kids’ school vacation schedules, I purposely pick up the slack from everyone who is vacationing over the holidays and jetting off from crowded airports (read: quiet office!). Since my extended family is thousands of miles away, I’m spared from the ridiculousness of buying-gifts-for-family-members-I-barely-know. For the most part, we only buy things for each other that we actually want, so we’re spared from the guilt of not wearing some ugly sweater I got from my aunt or some other similar situation and don’t burden our loved ones with things like themed linens or gag gifts. I don’t feel pressure to compete with neighbors with Christmas decorations – I let retailers and the city put up lights and I can enjoy them without burdening myself with putting them up and taking them down.

My idea of an indulgent holiday season is cozy time by the fireside, frolicking in the snow, learning artful present wrapping, and reflecting on how to make the upcoming year more levels of awesome. I find solace in cleaning up my life when no one else is around, enjoying the quiet snowfalls of winter, planning my next trip abroad, and enjoying peaceful hours at the gym before the new year rush begins.

Let’s take holiday traditions into our own hands and toss out the excess unnecessary stuff. Let’s talk about holiday “savings” instead of holiday “spending.” I’d love to know about what people do instead of following all the necessary traditions. Most importantly, let’s make the season a true holiday.

Crafting a Minimalist Holiday Season

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Historically, I have not been good at reining in my spending during the holidays.

It all starts with a Black Friday shopping spree, which for many retailers, starts on Thanksgiving day, a day in which we’re supposed to be thankful for what we already have. I accumulate a “Future Purchases” list which becomes a time suck during precious holiday time as I research the Best Deal for each item, which eventually makes it to my front doorstep after mulling over countless sellers and options. As you can guess, getting whatever was on my Future Purchases list was not the end of it. Anytime you visit the website of a smart retailer, you’re bound to be suckered into all the other Great Deals plastered all over each page, and you’re reminded of it constantly. Let’s say you’re browsing REI.com and you’re checking out a Patagonia rain jacket. You then move on to Facebook to catch up on your friends’ newsfeeds, and a wha? A box appears on it with that same jacket you were just looking at. This is a tactic called remarketing, and it’s scarily effective. What happens is, when you visited REI.com, a pixel fire tags you by setting up a cookie in your browser that will trigger a real-time ad exchange. Because the ads are personalized based on your browsing history, the more you browse, the more often you are reminded of what you were shopping for, and the more likely you will make a purchase. $$$$!

No one knows my browsing history better than than the retailers.

My holiday spending habits were a natural response to temptation. Who could blame retailers? We all want a fresh start and shiny new things are an easy way to achieve that. $100 for a new coat here, $50 for a new game there, it adds up quickly and before you know it, you’ve spent a good chunk of your paycheck. With tinsel and cheer and sparkling holiday-themed decor around, how could we not join in the fun? But you can! You can enjoy the efforts of your community and neighbors without breaking the bank. If you live in a populous enough neighborhood, chances are, you’ll have friends and neighbors putting up their own decorations. You can join enthusiastic relatives on their Christmas shopping adventures. You can use scraps of paper to handmake Christmas cards. You can make candied pecans, caramel popcorn, and hearty beef stew.

I don’t want to rant about the consumerist focus of the holidays because enough has been written on the subject. I’d rather spend my time sharing actionable activities you can do with friends and family.

Instead of blowing a few grand on a trip to waiting in long lines at Disney or sitting on a cruise ship, why not make some slow cooker hot chocolate and making snow forts?

Instead of browsing the clearance rack at Macy’s for an afternoon, why not spend thirty minutes catching up with an old friend?

Instead of blowing a few grand on Christmas gifts, why not invest it in some mutual funds?

Shiny new things can temporarily seem refreshing, but I’d say a great workout session with a shower afterward is even better.

Yesterday, I spent $0. For someone who had no qualms dropping a couple hundred on random stuff in the past, I think it is a baby step in the right direction.

Minimalist Challenges: You Have Permission to Declutter Gifts and Heirlooms

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“It’s an unhealthy setup, in which people become slaves to inanimate objects [ . . . ] Once you’re defining it as something you can’t get rid of, you’re not in control of your life or your home.”

– Barry Lubetkin

Gift-giving goes back to ancient times. History textbooks make it a point to elaborate on various treasures that were gifted to leadership figures such as kings, queens, religious figures, honorary soldiers, and others. Gifts were exchanged as symbols of respect, collaboration, and loyalty. I’m no history buff, but at history trivia games, one can at least figure out that gift-giving was a really big deal when it came to impressing people back then.

Gift-giving continues as a tradition today, but they’re mainly tied to holidays like Christmas and birthdays. Growing up, like most kids, I just loved looking forward to Christmas morning. I loved the shiny gift wrap, the sparkling tinsel, the giant ribbons and bows, and the shining Christmas tree. And I loved getting stuff for my birthday. When you’re a small child and you don’t have the freedom of easily acquiring stuff of your own, the prospect of getting toys and stuff is incredibly exciting. In Asian culture, gift-giving is still a pretty big deal. So much so, that among traditional Asian families, people have come to expect gifts as mandatory courtesy (though they won’t say it out loud). You come to my house, you’d better bring something with you. I was born in America to immigrant parents, so growing up, I witnessed much of the gift-giving culture firsthand (it carries on even today). These gifts are usually consumables – boxes of fruit, multivitamins, traditional desserts, tea, or other foodstuffs, but sometimes home goods, like decorative plaques, lotions, or toys for the kids would be given.

So I also loved having family friends over…not just because I would potentially have a playmate, but also because they’d usually bring me treats and trinkets. Due to customary gift giving in the culture I grew up in, I was taught at an early age that stuff was something I should expect from visitors and friends. Looking back, I am not sure I noticed that we also gave gifts because I was too excited about receiving things.

There isn’t usually anything ill-intentioned at all about gift giving. In almost all cases, we are simply communicating affection or appreciation to the receiver, nothing more. Unfortunately, opportunistic businesspeople have turned gift-giving into consumerism bait (read: Hallmark Holidays). Heck, gift-giving is even touted as a love language, and I suspect that it has something to do with childhood grooming of my future (now past) stuff-obsessed self. Thankfully, it is not my primary love language, but at one time, it might have been.

It is really hard to declutter gifts. You feel like by removing the item from your home, you’re throwing away or giving away the good intentions that the giver had, not to mention the money and time spent on acquiring the item for you. And if that person finds out, we dread the possibility that he or she may very well feel offended. The more the item is worth, the worse the guilt. And when the item is an heirloom or a prized family treasure, even more is at stake. The perceived value of an item is dependent on more than monetary worth and replace-ability (rarity) – its value is also tied to what it represents. We dread communicating to others an unappreciation for what it symbolizes. Getting rid of your grandfather’s war medals would suggest to others that you perhaps don’t appreciate his sacrifices and your good fortune that he did what he did.

That guilt and fear is enough to paralyze people in their decluttering efforts. But I am here to tell you that:

  1. These feelings are perfectly normal, and in fact, perfectly healthy ones, and
  2. Your feelings about a particular event, person, or concept, do not have to be tied to you keeping something associated with it, or even to the item itself.

The fact that you even have guilt as you declutter a gift should be enough to clarify your true feelings about the subject at hand. Because if you thoughtlessly threw something in the garbage without any regard for who it might affect, then it would really suggest a lack of care. Because your feelings about a person does not live in a thing. It lives in you. And you, are so much more precious than a thing. Any reasonable gift giver would not want you to feel burdened by a gift. And as any responsible gift giver knows, the minute you give something away, you are effectively passing ownership to someone else. If you wanted it to be kept, you should not have given it away.

Let’s not gift burdens to other people. There are other ways to give to others: (see here, here, and here). I’ll eventually make a list of my own, but for now, I’ll let other minimalists speak. It is okay for you to declutter gifts. Release the burden and honor the intention.