I like Stuff as much as the next girl; clothing, toys, kitchen gadgets and utensils, yard and garden tools, carpenter and mechanic’s tools, bath and beauty supplies, building materials, DVD’s, CD’s, fabric and sewing notions, home decor, office and school supplies, appliances, bigger rooms and outbuildings, furniture, vehicles, computers and applications, and so on. Interestingly, falling far below the U.S. poverty line doesn’t automatically keep in check my desire or ability to have Stuff. Because we’re poor and because there is such an excess of Stuff in the United States, our home is actually overflowing with Stuff we don’t need, most of which we never spent a penny on. Kind friends often pass their Extra Stuff on to us. We are gifted New Stuff from time to time, too. And there’s a little church down the road that runs a community closet where you can get Free Stuff every Saturday between 9 a.m. and noon. Thankfully, the Community Closet also takes donations, so we are always bringing in items we don’t want or can no longer use. What doesn’t return to local communities is shipped to countries like Haiti.
If you are not fully intentional, Stuff will claim you, it will rule your life. You will work to fill your life with more of it, you will work to maintain it. If you’re lucky you will find some time in there to enjoy it, but if you’re honest you will admit that enjoying it makes up a far smaller percentage of your day. I saw this pattern early on in my life. Drawn to Stuff like most people, I decided I would be better off without so much of it. I decided that some kind of minimalist life was the life for me. Damned if I don’t have to work my ass off at it, too, poor as I am! Cleaning and organizing and deciding what will go or what will stay takes a bigger chuck out of my week than I care to give such things, but I console myself somewhat with the knowledge that, for the most part, I haven’t spent much money on (or time earning money for) these things.
Clothing is a biggie. It’s fantastic to have so much nice clothing given to us, but we pass much of it on. My children each have a few shirts, a few pants, shorts and/or skirts, and the necessary undergarments. And two pair of shoes. When these items get soiled beyond my laundering skills (we live a very hands-on, unfussy farm life—and my laundering skills are minimal) or torn and tattered, I allow them to pick new clothes from the items passing through or from the Community Closet and the old clothes and half-shoes probably end up on some cute Haitian kid. The only strict rule I have about picking out new clothes is: no whites! The darker the colors, the better. Browns are great. I’m a big fan of browns.
An astounding amount of used furniture comes my way, too. Furniture is a true weakness of mine. I will rearrange the furniture in every room of the house just to fit in one table or chair that I like. Luckily, I have no problems parting with furniture that no longer serves a purpose in the house. Over the years many pieces have been replaced by free items that better suited my taste and needs, and in this way my home has grown more charming and comfortable. I will probably drop dead before I buy a new couch or a bedroom set. The very idea! Furniture purchased in the last 10 years: a simple new dining table custom-built for us by my dad since our family grew too large for the last one (which Dad built for our family when I was a wee lass)—cost, $200; a new mattress, the cheapest quality mattress I could find to replace the 12 year old cheapie that was ruining my back—cost, almost $400; a used couch (after watching the free ads for months to no avail)— cost, $70.
Right, so you’re getting the idea. Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without. We try to live by this, but something should be added, something along the lines of “If you don’t use it or can manage without it, get rid of it!” (Only more poetic.) My exceptions are fabric scraps, wood scraps and other building supplies (sheet metal, fasteners, etc.). I always make use of these things when I’m on a project, even though I may not touch them for a year or two. I also keep a ridiculous amount of canning jars in storage.
I let my parents spoil my children on the children’s birthdays. I may get them a little something or make them something myself, but if I can’t think of something worthwhile then I just make them cake, a special meal, and maybe we do something fun, like go for a hike at their favorite park or go swimming. But they can always count on MeMom and BeBop for Stuff. I happen to have awesome parents who understand and respect my desire to not clutter up our home and hearts with Stuff. They also know that I’m not so opposed to Fun Stuff that I refuse purely entertaining gifts. They generally talk with me before purchasing Stuff for the kids. Often it’s something the whole family can enjoy or make use of (understanding also that part of the problem with Stuff and kids is possessiveness and envy).
This year when Farra and Atira’s birthdays rolled around (three days apart), I asked them if they wanted anything in particular, hoping to get some clues for my parents. They could think of nothing. Maybe they had things in mind and they just didn’t want to ask for them. Atira finally came up with a coloring book; she wanted an elaborate color-by-number book, something she could work on while listening to the occasional audiobook from the library. Farra, I think, would have been happy with fabric for sewing specialty clothing or maybe some art supplies, but was too modest to ask (or else curious to see what we would come up with on our own). I was pleased that my children, though they have so little by America’s standards, apparently don’t want for much.
We have never celebrated Christmas or other major holidays besides Thanksgiving. This was mostly for religious reasons and began when I was six and carried over into my adulthood and my own family. Having never celebrated it my children and I had the opportunity to observe the mad consumerism of Christmas from outside, providing great discussion fodder which hopefully will aide them in making their own life decisions. I love opportunities to challenge my children to think about life, to form in them the idea that life shouldn’t be something that just happens to you, but should be approached proactively, intentionally, making what you want of it.
Last year was the first time we faced Christmas with no religious bondage. We were free to celebrate it. For entirely different reasons, both my brother’s and sister’s families were going all-out and really celebrating it for the first time. My parents were willing; interested, even. It would have been nothing to suddenly have the big family Christmas we never had growing up. And I think my children and I could have created an inexpensive, feel-good, festive holiday without getting sucked into the commercialism, but it seemed to me better to just leave the holiday alone. (I wouldn’t touch it with a “thirty-nine and a half foot pole!”) I couldn’t see a way to do it without getting caught-up in some kind of mandatory Stuff-giving, which leads so easily to consumerism. Why go there, when we’d been doing just fine without it? We continued our own new family tradition of celebrating the first snow; fun winter music, hot chocolate, cutting out snowflakes and decorating the house with them, sledding, building snow people. It was enough for us. The season was better than previous years because we were no longer offended by the paganism of Christmas, no longer had to righteously separate ourselves. We enjoyed the lights and the music and the friendly spirit of the season like we never had before.
This year we have a new dynamic. We have Denny and his family. Denny’s family is extensive, close, and pulls out all the Christmas stops. Denny, of course, being the intent, thoughtful man he is, had long ago put thought into whether or not the Christmas hub-bub was up his alley and decided no, it was not. Family warm fuzzies, yes; gift orgies, no. As Christmas crept closer this year, his family pressed; seven new grandchildren and nieces and nephews and cousins to spoil! Would we join them now?
Denny and I called a parent-teacher conference. In the kitchen. While cooking dinner. We discussed whether or not we wanted to “go there,” what examples we wanted to set for the children and why. It was decided. No Christmas this year. We would politely explain to the family that I agreed with Denny about steering our family away from consumerism and that we found it even more important to distance ourselves from it for the children’s sakes. (Incidentally, over the years I’ve had people suggest that I’m depriving my children by not celebrating Christmas, that I’m doing them a disfavor. Try getting them to see that you are attempting to give your children something more valuable than Stuff!) It was very nice to talk it over thoughtfully and come to an agreement. Denny gave me a huge, smiley hug and told me it was a pleasure to do life with me. Happy sigh.
(I should note that none of the children seem to care that we are not celebrating Christmas. None of them have said anything and life has gone on as normal. They may be the only children in a 304 mile radius doing their regular school work and house chores this Dec. 25th.)
We told the relatives. They were disappointed, but have been respectful and sweet. Apparently some of them gave Denny money every Christmas instead of presents, so this year they divided by nine the money they would have given him, giving each of us a little something about a week before Christmas. Denny and I put ours in the bank to pay bills because we’re such exciting people. The kids also received some money from a friend at the library who adores them (she respectfully pulled me aside and sought my permission first). They each put a portion into their savings envelopes and some into their wallets for spending.
Now it gets interesting. Farra (age 14) had also gotten some birthday money in November and now had enough to buy some fabric for a dress she’d been wanting to sew for herself. She knew what she wanted, bought it, and is happily sewing away. I suggested to the others that they could put some thought into how they might like to spend their money, that they could even pool their resources and get something really cool they could all share.
Seth (age 10) accompanied me to town one day last week to run some errands. He carried his money pouch around very purposefully. I asked if he had something in mind he wanted to buy. He shrugged. We entered the store. Everywhere I stopped to pick up something on my list he found something he liked and asked me if he could buy it; a bean bag, a spool of rope, a flashlight, anything priced within the $19.54 range. It was clear that the money was burning a hole in his pocket and that he was shopping around for Stuff to spend it on; not because he needed something or particularly wanted something. I was a little concerned. I thought of his father, how similar his spending habits were and how it had affected our family. I reminded myself that Seth is just a kid and that it’s okay if he wants to spend his money on Stuff. But it was also clear that he had picked up little to nothing of my warnings against consumerism. Doh! So I looked him in the eye and suggested that he hold onto his money until he thinks of something he needs or really wants, reminding him that he doesn’t have to spend it just because he has it. He looked disappointed. I let him buy a flashlight. He could use his own light to find his way to the barn to do chores each evening instead of borrowing Denny’s.
On the way home I talked a bit to Seth about how grown-ups have responsibilities and have to be careful with their money, reminding him that he is a grown-up in training. I didn’t talk much. I’m never really sure how much he is listening and I wanted to put some more thought into how to talk to him.
Why did I feel like his desire to buy Stuff was bad? Did I overreact? Was I reacting to the similarity between Seth and Bobby? Are my miserly money habits merely a personal preference or is there really wisdom there that I need to share with my children? Am I being hypocritical and only unaware of it because as an adult I can find more clever ways to justify my purchases?
When I was a child I had no trouble saving my money. I was hard-pressed to spend it, actually. What if I wanted it for something really special later and I didn’t have it? My first “big” purchase was a pair of good-quality binoculars at age eight or nine. They cost about $70, if I remember correctly (I still use them). Next I bought a stereo with money I’d earned working in a stable (it died a few years ago). Then I saved up for a guitar, then a vehicle (both resold). I bought little in between. My habits have changed some. For 13 years I stayed at home and Bobby earned the actual paycheck. I had less control, even though I managed the money once he brought it home. There wasn’t always enough for bills, but there was always enough, apparently, for Bobby to stop at the pawn shop or Dollar Tree to buy Cool Stuff. After years of being the only concerned party, I grew more careless because it felt like there was never enough to make ends meet anyway. It kinda sorta helped balance me out, actually. I started off being so careful with our finances that I was always stressed (this is more likely to happen, of course, when only one spouse is being careful). I was forced to accept, after living so many years like that, that money was just money; we seemed to manage when we didn’t have it, and it came and went at odd intervals, entirely beyond my control. But I never could shake the idea that if we were just a little more thoughtful in our spending habits (and earning habits), it would have made a big difference.
Now I know it’s true. Denny and I are equally thoughtful about finances. We work together to make sure the bills are paid. We sit down at least once a month, usually every two weeks, go over the numbers together and Denny says, “Between what we have now and what we have coming in, next month is covered,” and I almost cry every time, it means so much to me. Sometimes there is a little extra besides and we keep a list of things we would like to do with the money; buy materials for projects or furnishings for the home, update our computers, get eye exams, stock up on animal feed, go out to eat, whatever. There’s really not much more money in the home than when Bobby and I were married, but there is unity and thoughtfulness and careful planning. And Denny is no more interested in cluttering up our house and our lives with Stuff than I am. The whole, healthy picture makes money less of a focus than it has ever been in my life. Yes, we need it for some Stuff, but with our basic needs and minimal wants taken care of we can focus on other things.
We would like to help our children understand about marketing. We think they need to know how so many messages they will receive in the world are designed to make them feel like they need something they don’t have. (Interesting how religion fits in here.) We want them to know there is more to life than the accumulation of Stuff. We want them to grasp how both the abundance of and the lack of money and Stuff can change the way different people live. We desire that they spend their lives doing something other than working for Stuff, but this will be a choice they each have to make for themselves. We will just do our best to make sure they are aware that they have a choice.
P.S. Denny shared this video with me as I was preparing to post. It's fantastic! 20 minutes about the Stuff system. We'll show it to the kids tomorrow. The Story of Stuff. Go. Watch it. Tell me what you think.
P.P.S. Denny posted about our non-Christmas and consumerism the other day on his blog, Our Tomorrow.