We like to think

that we’re somehow above advertising. Smart consumers, we are. We don’t buy things just because the TV tells us to.

And maybe we don’t. It seems like most of the ads on my TV, whenever I turn it on, are for things that I don’t purchase, or don’t purchase spontaneously. Car insurance. Baby diapers. Kid’s toys. Medications of various kinds. Cheap beer. Fast food. Department or chain stores that I try to avoid.

On the other hand, I was lazily scanning our fridge-door grocery list this morning as I poured coffee. My attention was really elsewhere. Until I spotted “Egg McMuffins” on the list. What? Nobody here eats ham. My double take proved that what it actually said was “E. muffins.” That being English muffins. Being skeptical of eggs from fast food places even when I was a young thing who still ate such means that I have never eaten an Egg McMuffin. I have, on the other hand, gone through a few English Muffin phases, even making them myself for a while.

Yet still, there in my subconscious, the advertisement for a food product that I have never eaten is what fills in the gaps.

The Next Stage

Last January, we made a fairly thorough pass through the house, getting rid of surplus stuff. This year, we’re going through again. If I haven’t used it since last year, it’s going. Plus, I’m making the commitment to scan what seems like eight million personal papers and get rid of the originals. (With a CD backup stored with my computer less  in-laws, who have never misplaced anything, ever.) 

As I finish certain rooms, especially rooms like the kitchen and the bathroom, I’m realizing that we’re moving on to the next stage. 

I’m saying one of two things. Either: “I’m not getting rid of that until we actually downsize” or “I need to use this up and then don’t replace it.” The former is mostly about furniture and bulky kitchen items. Since we may not move to a smaller space for a few years, I don’t see any point in just rattling around in a half empty house. The latter is obviously about consumable goods–pajamas that aren’t quite rags, cleaning products (why do I own Pledge wipes?), an entire bag full of sample-sized beauty products, notebooks, etc. 

I suppose that “don’t replace it” is the maintenance stage of minimalism. (Not that I think we’re really minimalists.) It’s about refusing to bring new things in. I suspect that it’s much harder than pushing the old things out. I’m sentimental about very few of my belongings and find decluttering quite easy. It’s the perfect cycle of modern consumption, though–throw away the old thing, then, sooner or later, replace it with a new “better” thing. Bea Johnson of The Zero Waste Home calls “refusing” the most important of the Rs, and, given the reflexive habits of American consumers, I do suspect it’s also the hardest. We obviously don’t shop a great deal, but I mean things like turning down free samples, reconsidering how many clothes are really necessary, and not buying “quick fix” cleaning products. 

It’s definitely going to be interesting. 

Bulk

I’ve been reading a lot about Zero Waste these days. (Highly recommended: Edward Humes’ Garbology.) Every zero-waster worth their salt will tell you that buying in bulk is the answer. No more packaging! No waste! Reuse your own container!

It’s great; don’t get me wrong.

But, you have to think. 

The line in the sand that I see drawn a good deal between regular thrifty people and true believers in zero waste is liquids. Liquid products like soap, shampoo, and oils can be very hard to find in bulk. Going out of your way to get bulk soap is some kind of zero waste rite of passage.

I ran across this mythical beast in the wild the other day–the bulk soap dispenser. And it was a commercial gallon-sized, or maybe slightly larger, container of Dr. Bronners. How much waste does it save, exactly, to buy bulk soap from a two gallon bottle, instead of walking around the corner and buying the (readily accessible, no special trips required) one gallon version on the shelf?

Example two: I watched, with my own two eyes, the employees of my local Whole Foods filling the maple syrup dispenser. And what were they using? The half gallon of store-brand syrup in a plastic jug that I could buy off the shelf. Again, how much waste is being saved? How much of it is just being handled by someone else, passing the buck out of your house (and, I might add, your careful recycling)?

Especially if you live in an area where stores frown upon reusable containers, you need to think about the packaging it took to get something into the bulk dispenser and weigh your options. Driving two hours to pump my liquid soap and shampoo from a big plastic bottle into a little glass one, instead of just buying the big plastic bottle myself, is hardly saving the world.

Falling in Love with the Public Library

When I was a kid, I adored my small town library. It might have been a thousand square feet, and by the time I went to college I had read a significant portion of their books.

In graduate school I became an academic library snob. (I’ll confess now that I still can’t navigate the Dewey Decimal system with a quarter of my Library of Congress proficiency.) When I graduated and lost my access, I felt pretty bereft, but I was also going through a difficult phase with books.

Lately I’ve come back around to the public library, partly because my library has really awesome services. When we moved here, I went to my closest branch, where I had the same kind of disappointment I always have with public libraries–I tend to read off-the-beaten-path, and it just doesn’t make sense for the library to keep a lot of those books. I realized, though, that I can instantly download e-books, where the selection is pretty decent. I can place holds for those e-books if somebody else has the library’s copy. (I’m looking at you, person who won’t finish the Miss Marple book I’m waiting on.) I can download audio books and “borrow” electronic music. I can also, with one click, request books from the main branch, which is hard to get to in person, and the library will e-mail me when they arrive.

If you stopped going to your local library because they never have what you want, it may be time to start looking again.

As for me, I’m going to keep a running tally this year of books I got from the library instead of purchasing. At the end of the year, I’m going to add up the money I saved and donate a percentage to the library.

Mail

In the winter, I always turn toward thoughts of minimalism. I’m too hot to think in the summer, I suspect.

So, some handy tips:

Remove yourself from catalog mailing lists at http://dmachoice.org

You can also directly contact companies to ask to be removed from their catalog lists. I keep a spreadsheet of companies I’ve contacted, since it can take a few months for the mail to stop. (Yes, I get that much junk mail.)

Remove yourself from credit card and insurance offer lists at: http://www.optoutpresecreen.com

Click the “unsubscribe” button at the bottom of those e-mails.

When your airline miles are about to expire, don’t be a dodo and use them to buy magazine subscriptions. You’ll never get your mailbox back again.

Still get mail from the previous tenant (or six) at your address? Write “Return to Sender” or “No longer at this address” on the outside of the envelope and put it back into the outgoing mail slot.

Menswear

It’s a funny thing. You want to be a responsible consumer, but doing so means that you think about shopping (that is, the enemy of responsible consumption) a lot.

My latest foray has been into men’s business clothes. SO’s wardrobe really shows that he’s been working in the same “we don’t care what you wear” job for a long time. What started out nice enough has slowly become only nice enough for an office where everyone already knows you. If he’s really serious about finding a new job, it wasn’t going to fly anymore.

That means my last two weeks have been fueled by the perfect storm that is the pre-fall sales plus new, dressier, employment prospects. While the process itself was a little horrifying, what with it’s constant reinforcement of class and gender roles, I learned some interesting things.

Namely: men think about clothing entirely differently. (Duh, you say, but hear me out.) Women fall into a trap of buying “outfits.” They buy this handbag to go with those shoes to go with that skirt. They buy things, only to have them go on sale next week for half price, so instead they wait until sales and buy whatever’s on the rack in their budget. That green blouse is cute! And it’s a good deal! Who cares if it matches exactly one pair of pants, which in turn require that you wear the really high heeled shoes because you didn’t have them hemmed.

Men’s clothes just aren’t like that. I mentioned the annual Nordstrom sale to the clerk, and he made a comment like, “Yeah, this isn’t the ladies’ department. We have two sales a year. People plan all year for this.” Which we, in fact, had done.

Or, on shoes, which I find very interesting as a barometer: Doing my due diligence of research about men’s dress shoes, over and over again I read things like “Oh, don’t buy those. They can’t be resoled and the leather cracks within a year.” I honestly couldn’t tell you when I have ever heard a woman say, “those shoes will wear out too fast.” At the same time, you can’t find shoe polish or shoe trees (the cedar inserts that help shoes keep their shape) in the ladies’ shoe department of any store that I went into.

I’m not silly enough to suggest that this is entirely our fault. The fact is, a man’s entire wardrobe could be two suits, four or five shirts, one or two pair of shoes, and five ties. Not only would nobody care, but if he picked those things wisely he’d still be considered one of the best-dressed people in his office. Even in business casual, which is less uniform-y, he could easily look quite acceptable with three or four pairs of pants and five shirts. Women can’t quite get away with that. Convention (a code word in this case for internalized partriarchal demands) dictates that we have an array of “pretty clothes.” There is a larger disparity between our work clothes and our evening clothes. Women’s fashions change more rapidly. Not to mention, that same convention means that durable, well-made, practical, aesthetically pleasing clothes for women are extremely hard to find at any price point.

The thing that I’m interested by, though, is the two completely opposite directions that conspicuous consumption takes for men and for women. For us, the constant emphasis is on quantity. For men, it is, by and large, on quality. There are, of course, individual exceptions on both sides. The sales clerk in the men’s shoe department, though, doesn’t suggest that you get both pairs. Instead, he says, “Or, I have this nicer shoe . . . “

Less but better hasn’t left the mall. It’s just not on our side of the aisle.

Sometimes you don’t realize

how much you’re ready for a change, until the opportunity arrives.

It’s not even my opportunity–there’s a job several, several states away that would be a perfect fit for K. Better chances for advancement, a way out of an increasingly toxic corporate culture here. It’s all very preliminary right now. Very, very preliminary.

I find myself having to consciously tamp down the excitement. It would be closer to home, sure, but also a different life. More rural by far (it’s hard not to be more rural than here). A place we could actually afford a house. A place, in fact, where it would almost be demanded that we buy a house. Room for a garden, room for the dog to run. A milder climate. Different opportunities.

I would miss things about this town. I’ve grown to love some very select parts of it. The thought of feeding the dog without my beloved local raw pet food store has me quaking in my shoes. I’m completely addicted to some fantastic locally brewed coffee. I’ve finally found all the markets that sell exactly the groceries I like. We have a plethora of parks, even if they are all within earshot of freeway traffic. For better or worse, you can go right out and buy anything you want. You name it, somebody here sells it. We’ve put down more roots here than we did in our last home, for sure.

Still, change is in the air, and I’m more excited by it than I expected to be. We’ll see if anything materializes.

Empty Shelves

The most recent update on our cleaning out and downsizing:

The behemoth bookcase (1 of 2 at this size) is empty and awaiting a good home. Looking at the one that’s still left this means we got rid of something between 100 and 150 books.

Does that sound like sacrilege to you?

Me too, in a way. But if you asked me to list ten of those books cold, off the top of my head, I couldn’t do it. We’re talking leftover college literature books, my husband’s collection of “boys adventure” type books that he hasn’t read since he was 15, hiking guides to parks we’ll never go back to.

Also, a fair number of “A good person ought to have this in their house” books. Where on earth do we get such ideas? “I won’t look like a real intellectual if I get rid of all the philosophy books!” even when I haven’t opened them since college and didn’t care much for it them.

Now I can use the space for something pragmatic, not just intellectual clutter.

Inundated

We don’t watch a lot of TV with commercials around here. We’re down to two elderly TV shows, with a long enough life and established enough fan bases that watching them online seems completely fair. The commercials in online streaming tend to be completely irrelevant (diapers? a car I’ll never buy?).

I’m still inundated with requests to buy things, though. The “Commerce” folder in my e-mail, which is set up to filter most of these messages, gets 15-20 messages a day, sometimes more. There are always stragglers, too, hanging out in my regular inbox.

I don’t check the physical mail every day, but when I do check it there are, on average, at least five catalogs. If we go too long, our small post office box will be completely full, entirely of catalogs and flyers. Some companies send separate catalogs to both of us, one in each name.

These things bother me, each in their own way. Physical catalogs are a nuisance. They’re extra paper that I have to cart to the recycling. I ask to be removed from mailing lists, and companies answer “It may take a few months, because the addresses are printed in advance” and then I forget which ones I still need to cancel. As a lure to purchasing unnecessary items, they aren’t too bad, because there’s no quick fix. Something I see in a catalog might get a mental note of “oh, that’s cute,” but by the time I’m done sorting the mail the thought is gone.

The e-mail is a subtler enemy. All of the e-mails advertise sales, you see. “50% off, today only!” Or, “Gift with Purchase!” It’s easy to get caught up in this, because (unlike whatever catalog mailing list we got on) all of these e-mails come from online retailers that I use. My husband’s favorite T-shirts. My career wear. Dog food. Vitamins. Books. I think “Oh, while it’s on sale I need to get a [thing X that we use regularly.]” You click through right then to the website, buy the thing that you (might) actually need, and then “while I’m here, I’ll go look at . . . ” or “I’m only $10 away from free shipping, and shipping is $7.  It would be like getting a $10 item for $3…” (My Amazon Prime membership easily pays for itself by cutting out “filler” purchases.)

It’s a consumerist sink hole.

On the other hand, I hate to unsubscribe from the e-mail lists, even though the link is Right! There! because I don’t want to miss the legitimate benefit of the sale price on something I would have bought anyway.

This is how corporations win, I guess. I’m going right now to sort through that “Commerce” folder and unsubscribe from 90% of those lists.

Summer Wardrobe: Thirty-Three Item Edition

The idea of a capsule wardrobe is, to me, kind of a maximalist way of being minimal. That is, for someone with a truly minimalist wardrobe, selecting an array of thirty or forty items to get you through a season is purely crazy. My husband laughed and laughed, and counted that he only had about 50 things in his closet, for summer and winter, and that includes everything but shorts, sweaters, socks, and underwear. (Also, at least 5-10 of those things are identical duplicates. Not just “this looks the same to me” but 100% identical.)

It’s harder for women. We’re the locus of most of the fashion pressure in the world. Our bodies are the site of conspicuous consumption. Even my best meaning and most feminist of husbands likes me to have pretty new clothes. Also, women’s clothes are more event-specific (i.e., there is a larger gap between my professional and casual wear than there is for my husband.) and usually made to be more disposable. It’s a messy place.

So, we’ve come up with the idea of the capsule wardrobe, to convince ourselves that we could get by with less, if we really wanted to. I thought I’d play along for the summer, because summer is interminable here and you need to do something. And I would like to know if I can get by with less, if I really wanted to. I’d like this set of clothes to get me through until late June, at which point I may reevaluate out of desperation. (It will be well into October before I need warmer clothes in the rotation.)

Caveats and exceptions: I’m not counting accessories, because I don’t have that many and because this is more than a one month project for me. I’m not counting exercise clothes or grubby cleaning clothes, but I am including “take the dog to the park” and “sit around and watch TV” clothes.

Ten Bottoms: 4 pr. shorts (khaki and navy, in various lengths), 3 skirts (grey, khaki, and navy), 3 pants (light and dark skinny jeans, cream “khakis”)

Three dresses: One simple knit, one shirt dress, one fancier but not too fancy.

Five tank tops for layering that could be worn solo: black, orange, purple, blue, and pale grey.

Five tank tops for solo wear, that could be layered: floral, embroidered, green with detailing, navy with detailing, and a green print

Two solid T-shirts: charcoal and lime

Five lightweight button ups for layering: green, white, pale green, chambray, and blue striped

Heavier layers: Sheer grey cardigan, olive cropped canvas jacket, navy wool cardigan

 

 

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