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This week's simplicity tip

Posted: Friday, Jan. 14, 2011

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Emily Achenbaum Harris

Hi, I'm Emily and this is my blog about career-questioning, minimalism-seeking, gardening, earth-saving, pregnancy, parenthood, and my pathological ability to make the same mistakes over and over again. See more at littlehousesouthernprairie. wordpress.com.

A lot of talk about simplicity (and being green, and being frugal) centers around stuff. Having less stuff. Placing less value on brands we’re conditioned to believe are “important” stuff. When we do buy stuff, trying to seek out ethically made/soundly sourced stuff.

Today I want to talk about expensive stuff and how I’ve learned what an energy suck it can be. There are times when it is worth buying the more expensive item because it will last longer or be higher quality. But a lot of times, we end up wasting too much energy worrying about these items, and that worry can overshadow the joy of having the nice thing.

I’ve done this, like, a million times.

Like this time a few years ago:

I took a side entrance into the newspaper, brushing past the door frame leading to the printing press. I was wearing a beautiful Cole Haan coat, retail $600, that I’d found for $175 — and $175 was (and is) a huge amount of money for me to spend on a single item of clothing, something I’ve only done a few times in my life. Some ink was on the door frame, and when I saw the dark blue smear on the sleeve I panicked. No, more than panicked. Left work immediately and went to three dry cleaners until I found one I felt confident enough in. Still, I felt uneasy for two days, waiting for the call to pick it up.

Sheesh.

Luckily, soy-based newspaper ink comes out easily, and the coat was fine.

Still: The worry! Ridiculous. What was that about?

When I thought about it later, I wondered whether my problem was that I’d put too much value on that coat, and didn’t think of it as “just a thing.” But that wasn’t the problem. The problem was that pricey items, even after we buy them, still etch a dollar figure in our minds. When I thought the coat was ruined, I wasn’t mourning the coat, but the $175 — and the money I didn’t have to buy a replacement.

If I’d been wearing a cute secondhand jacket found for $15 that day and the stain hadn’t come out, I wouldn’t have cared. Compare this to the time I forgot my J. Lo brand sunglasses (don’t laugh. O.K., you can) on a plane. I’d bought them at T.J. Maxx for $10. When I realized I’d left them onboard, it literally was no loss. I just bought another cheap pair from a beach shop.

(The flip side of this argument is that cheap stuff encourages us to consume more/be less mindful of what we already have. But I’m guessing many of you are already on the low-consumption train with me, though perhaps you experience less clumsiness and forgetfulness).

I’m increasingly trying to act like a smart gambler hitting the tables in Vegas who knows not to bet more than he can afford to lose: When I do buy something, I’m buying things I wouldn’t feel a stomach-twisting twinge over if something happened to it. I don’t want an expensive rug, coffee table or shoes, even mega on sale, because then I feel like I have to be careful with them, and my life doesn’t work that way — stuff gets wrecked. Rather than hope and pray stuff doesn’t get wrecked, I’m finding it much easier to only own things I don’t have to worry about. It’s so much simpler.

As Paul Graham put it in his essay Stuff, “Nothing owns you like fragile stuff.”

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