The title of this post is inspired by Lady Gaga’s recent hit, “Born this Way.” While she may have been born an amazing performance artist with a great set of pipes, I was certainly not born a conscious, content and frugal minimalist. I started this journey as fickle teenager with an obsession for shopping and a penchant for brand name sweatshirts and as many Levi’s 501s as I could fit in my closet.
As a pre-teen, I wore sweatshirts with teddy bears and snowflakes on them. And I was happy. However, as I moved on to high school, my experience there was tempered by the nagging feeling that I would be happier if I just had a nicer car to drive and an extensive brand-name wardrobe. I struggled with the fact that many of my peers drove newer-model cars, while I drove around in a 1981 Pontiac, a giant beast of a car that was supremely uncool. I dreamed of having an extensive wardrobe, the cost of which I hoped would be funded by my parents. However, my parents expected me to pay for these things myself, and so throughout high school, I was never without a part-time job. All of the money I earned went towards clothing, cosmetics, and eventually gas money for my giant car. When I graduated from high school, I was reluctant to head to university right away. What I really wanted to do was to get a well-paying job and make money so that I could afford to buy lots of great “stuff.” Never mind that I didn’t have a home of my own to house all these fabulous new purchases. I finally did get my act together and go to university, obtaining my degree and loving every single minute of university life.
Following university, I left home and moved to the big city, getting a full-time job. It was when I started to create my own household that I became a hyper-consumer. I had a small student loan debt, but when I started to earn my own money, not only was I not paying back my student loan, I was living beyond my means. Instead of paying off my debt, I was shopping all the time. I would shop for clothes, and would often buy multiples of the same item. I also became obsessed with skin care and cosmetics products, and was convinced that there was always a better (often more expensive) option out there for me to buy next. My husband and I had so much stuff by the time we were married in 2003, not only were the closets of our 500 square foot rental condo bursting at the seams, but about a third of our very tiny living room was dedicated to a six foot high wall of stuff. But that didn’t slow us down, we just moved into a bigger home, ultimately masking the fact that we had too much stuff. We found out we were expecting a baby the following year and the time and energy I had devoted to shopping for myself had been diverted to spending money on the latest gadgets and cute clothing for our child.
I had been having the same thought patterns for 20 years: What was I going to buy next? What store was I going to shop at this weekend? Would I buy something similar to what I already owned in my closet, or would it be something completely new? Would I buy clothing or shoes? Would it be something for me, or a gift for someone else? It wasn’t until I realized that I was spending hours at a time trying to contain all of the clothing in my young sons’ closet, that I realized I would rather be doing something else. And that by buying new things all the time, I was forcing myself to try to keep up with and contain the clutter in our home. I also didn’t like the effect shopping so much was having on my bank account, and I was saddened to know that I was having more of an impact on the environment than I wanted to be responsible for, due to the fact that I was consuming a lot more than was really necessary. So I stopped.
Embracing minimalism felt like jumping off a treadmill on which I had been previously running for 20 years, a treadmill powered by consumerism and consumption. Halting the process of conspicuous consumption has meant the pressure I used to put on myself to acquire new stuff is absent. Because I am no longer spending a ton of money on things I don’t need, I have more money in the bank. Instead of making shopping a hobby, I spend more time with my family and pursue more fulfilling hobbies. I am conscious of my actions and the resulting messages I am communicating to my children. I know that there is significant pressure upon children and pre-teens today to conform to the latest consumer trends in fashion and technology, and I am hoping that I can be a strong role model for my kids by choosing to live minimally and consciously. I hope too that they can choose to make sustainable consumption a priority in their own lives as they get older.
What have I learned about ‘stuff‘ over the past 20 years? The high is in the hunt, for certain. No matter how much you wanted that special something in the first place, when you obtain it, the feeling of happiness is fleeting. There is no hope of real, lasting contentment through the accumulation of things. Contentment is a choice, one that we are all free to make – and it begins with choosing to want less.