Monthly Archives: July 2014

Peak consumerism

peak consumerism

Do possessions bring happiness or the opposite? NOTE: Not a scientific chart by any measure, except my own experience to this point.

Recently I was in a store killing time while I waited to meet up with someone and I took stock of all the items that were available to purchase.

This store wasn’t special. In fact, the most striking thing about it was its lack of speciality. It was a type of general store and offered anything and everything it could get on the shelves in case someone wanted to purchase anything at all.

There were many tempting things to purchase, but I left the store buying only one: a package of air fresheners for my automobile. The package cost $2 and I purchased it because I thought it would add value to my traveling life.

Most everything else in the store? It was crap — disposable, low value, low priced, crap.

As I make this journey to minimalism, I’ve reached a mental state where I start giving a conscious thought to how I spend every dollar. It is starting to shape every buying purchase, and is helping to curb new items from coming into my life that don’t need to be there.

I call this state of mind peak consumerism.

Our local library recently re-opened after a major renovation. On opening day my wife and I went to check out the new digs. The building is stunning. It’s equipped with video games (presumably for the teens but they might have to fight me for it), video and music rentals, meeting rooms, a small concert hall, books (of course), and even soundproof rooms equipped with computers and recording equipment for those who would like to try their hand at making an audible creation.

While walking through the library, I had what should have been an obvious thought: libraries are a minimalist’s best friend. You don’t need to own books, you can rent them for the price of your taxpayer contributions. The more modern libraries (like ours) takes that a step further with even more items you can use without purchasing.

Because of this, I’m working on getting rid of the last of my books and the bookshelf along with it. I’ll keep the few books I deem important, read the ones I want to finish before I donate them, and be done with collecting bound trophies.

A change is already upon us

While at a conference earlier this year, I saw a car with a pink mustache attached to its bumper. My curiosity got the best of me, so I approached the driver to ask what it was all about.

She was a driver with Lyft, a service where people use their own automobiles to act as a taxi to others for a fee. Other services are getting into this game as well. Uber and Zipcar also offer alternatives to owning a car. In nearby Kansas City, Bike Share KC lets you rent bicycles to ride around the city. I saw a similar service at that same conference where I saw the Lyft car.

This summer has been filled with little projects, one of which was building up the foundation of my house with dirt to provide a better grade for water to drain away from the foundation. I found a company to deliver two tons of soil to my house, but I needed a way to move it from the delivery spot in my front yard to various points on my property. I went to the hardware store to purchase a wheelbarrow, but the thought of paying at least $40 for something I’d likely only use once and then need to store it didn’t set well with me. And then I remembered that only a few more blocks away was a place that rented all sorts of tools.

I rented a wheelbarrow for the day and didn’t even have to find a place to store it. Total cost to me: $12.

There was an age where I put a lot of time into building up my music collection. I made my entire collection digital and donated or sold the CDs, but what was I to do about new music? The library is certainly one option, but recent changes in the music industry has led to another option for those who don’t care to own the files: streaming music. Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music have made this perfect for someone like me.

Movies are no different. Netflix has allowed me to watch movies and TV shows without a single box having to enter my home. Amazon’s Prime Instant Video and Hulu are other options. And if you want to purchase something and can live with the walled garden of DRM’d movies, buying movies for download from Apple, Google, or Amazon are fine alternatives as well.

That’s not to say you can do all of this for free. But it certainly can be much cheaper. My Netflix subscription is pennies for what I get and Spotify offers ad-supported listening, for example.

But what these new offerings bring us are alternatives to the need to have an abundance of space solely so we can store physical items. If you think about it, that does factor into cost when you consider the price of needing to buy a bigger home or renting a bigger place to accommodate storing your possessions. How many dollars per square foot are you willing to pay to store your movie collection, or in my case, your empty DVD cases?

What other changes will peak consumerism bring?

I am unsure if peak consumerism will occur on a wide scale. A majority of people love to purchase and own things. But I do think that individuals reach peak consumerism, and that can translate to a trend over time.

For example, one thing that has captured my attention recently is the tiny house movement, where people build customized, intentionally small houses. Many cities have building codes that require a minimum size that exceeds what these buildings end up being, so workarounds are made by building the homes on trailer frames and parking them on land somewhere.

Of course, to live in a tiny house means you have to sacrifice a lot of your possessions, which turns the occupants into forced (or desired) minimalists. I have some doubts that I could pull it off with a four (soon to be five) member family, but you never know … it’s all about thinking outside the box you’ll be living in.

But if peak consumerism becomes more widespread, change will occur. City codes will need to be altered or traditional home ownership will decline. Laws created to favor tax services will need to change to allow companies like Uber and Lyft to operate legally in some areas.

But ultimately, the buyer has the power to simply say, “no.” Consumption is not the only option. We can choose to resist the urge to mindlessly consume and instead be thoughtful about each and every purchase.

We can achieve peak consumerism as individuals, or we can reach it en masse, but I believe a sea change is happening.

Tips for a good purge

recycling and trash

Four bins of recycled materials and three bags of trash. Not too bad for a day’s work.

Last week I took Friday off to take advantage of the kids being gone to the grandparents’ house. It’s a good thing they weren’t here, as I might have accidentally thrown them out in the midst of my purge.

So the kids were gone and it was just the wife and I with the house to ourselves. In preparation for kid No. 3 she wanted me to look for a few things she knew was “under the stairs in the basement.”

Oh no. Under the stairs. I wonder what’s down there?

Yeah, it was pretty much what I expected. Some of the things I already knew about: there were baby and kid clothes, holiday decorations and toys. As I dug deep, I found a couple of boxes filled with nothing but empty DVD cases for all the movies we’ve purchased. I tend to store the DVDs in a portable mega case, but kept the individual DVD cases to “help retain the resell value” when the time came to get rid of them.

Of course, that never happened. And there I was, stuck with all these cases and a decision to be made. I decided to recycle all the DVD cases. We’d keep all the movies until they rotted or broke or whatever. If all else failed, I could make frisbees out of them or something.

I will admit I was sightly overwhelmed at first. I had to call a friend for a little pep talk to get me started. Once I got under way, I became a madman. I took pictures or “scanned” the things I wanted to keep. I chucked things I had held onto for years that hadn’t seen the outside of boxes in forever. My sentimental attachment dissipated. And the things I needed input on from my wife, I grabbed her, sat her down, and had her go through those things with me so I knew I wasn’t getting rid of anything important.

It was amazing.

In the end, we had three bags of trash and four bins of recycled materials exit the house. Our trash and recycling containers are filled to the brim now, so I’m kind of in a holding pattern for a few days until they get emptied. I loaded up the back of the van with items to donate, which either went to Goodwill or to a friend who was going to put them in his garage sale.

What a liberating experience!

The purge taught me a few things that I wanted to pass on. I hope you find these helpful.

1. Free up as much space as you can in trash and/or recycling containers. Our refuse is picked up every Wednesday, so filling our trash and recycling containers on Friday kind of boxed us into a corner until trash day. While the recycling was empty, the trash can was about one-third of the way full. Had I to do it over again, I would have sorted my recycling better and taken it to one of the recycling centers we have in town so I’d still have room for household recycling. I’m unsure what I could have done about the trash, however. Sometimes you just have a lot to throw out.

2. If you need input from a partner about your stuff, then go get your partner! Several of the items I got rid of I had put off for a long time because I wasn’t sure if I should keep or pitch them. The lightbulb moment for me came when I realized I needed my wife’s guidance, and made myself, right then, to go ask her to sit down with me to make progress. This was incredibly helpful, as there was much that needed to go, but a few other things she wanted to keep that I might have otherwise thrown out. By devoting a little time with her, I was happy with the decision we made together and didn’t think anything we got rid of was a mistake.

3. Be prepared for the unexpected. I had forgotten all about the DVD cases, and after I got over the initial shock of seeing how many there were, I was able to get on with business. The simple fact is this: we’re pretty good at accumulating “stuff” and keeping it forever. There will be things hidden you have completely forgotten about. That’s OK. Take your time and do what you can; it doesn’t have to be perfect today. Which leads me to my last point …

4. It’s OK if you don’t get through everything in one setting. I have three boxes of pictures that I don’t want to get rid of, but I would like to keep. I’m working on some options for turning old film prints into digital so I can keep them in my hard drive and external backups. This is going to take time. I realized early on that it wasn’t going to all get done in one day, and accepted it. I weeded out a few photographs I absolutely knew I didn’t want to keep and then stored the rest in a plastic storage container for processing later. And really, you’ll get to a point where you need to stop the process and enjoy your life. There will be time for future edits — pace yourself.

I’m go glad I took a day off of work for this. When we were done (for the time being) I reveled in what we accomplished. I’m really starting to enjoy the freedom of having fewer possessions. It gives me some satisfaction to know that in the event of a weather emergency like a tornado, we’ll now have room to get under the stairs in the basement. Perhaps most important, I found it easier to let go of things that I thought I needed to keep, but clearly weren’t that important or else I would have used them.

The really odd part? I wonder just how deep this rabbit hole goes. How much can I get rid of? Were will it end? What is the endgame?

I guess we’ll just have to see. I’m excited for the possibilities.

Where papers go to die

filing cabinets

Four drawers, two cabinets, almost nothing of value.

Recently I rid my house of two filing cabinets.

The brown filing cabinet has been sitting in our garage since we moved in May of 2010. Number of times it was accessed: zero. When I took an hour and went through it last week, I was amazed and slightly saddened by how useless the papers were that were in it.

Most of the papers were old product manuals for a lot of things we don’t own anymore, and haven’t owned in years. Toasters, iron, DVD player, and video camera manuals were just a few of the many I found. I guess that filing cabinet became the de facto storage unit for those unread manuals. The rest of that cabinet was old insurance papers, old credit card statements, old … everything. It was mostly worthless. I sold this cabinet for $20.

The black filing cabinet has gotten much more use over the years, but not by much. For the most part, it’s served as a resting place for our computer printer near my desk. I also have a bookshelf near the desk that isn’t too tall, so I cleaned off the top of it and put the printer on top. There were a few things of value to us in the black cabinet, but after some editing those items were paired down and stored in a small plastic container in the closet. I was going to sell this cabinet, but when I went to pick it up I accidentally broke it. I stuck it to the curb and it mysteriously disappeared within an hour.

One man’s trash …

It’s becoming clear to me that a lot of my storage issues stem from a lack of reviewing what we’ve had stored through the years and asking “Do we still need this?” There’s also been a complete lack of nipping storage issues in the bud from the beginning, which we’ll work to be more proactive in now. Instead of asking “How long do we need to keep this?” we’ll be asking “Do we need to keep this at all?”

I’m glad I was able to get rid of these two items. They probably took up 10 cubic feet of storage space, and now they’re gone. I can’t wait to see what I can get rid of next.

How to digitally archive your analog gems

the garage

Look at this mess. Don’t judge me too hard, as I’m just getting started.

My progress in the garage is finally getting some momentum.

As you can see from the picture, I’ve got several big items to take care of. There’s quite a bit of work ahead of me.

Buried in here was a filing cabinet filled with a bunch of really old papers, and I got to tackle that last night. It’s amazing the things I found in there! I found a huge stack of manuals for a lot of things we don’t even have anymore, so I recycled them along with several old magazines. There was plenty to throw away as well, and I eventually got the papers I needed to go over more carefully down to a shoebox-sized stack.

There were some things that were very easy to get rid of once I took a good look. Old insurance papers, bills of sale for a car we no longer own, and retirement information that’s worthless were easily shred. Plus, some of that had our personal information on it that should be secured anyway, so taking those to the shredder was a necessity.

But there were some things I didn’t want to get rid of just yet, but since they were on paper it didn’t seem necessary to keep them. This is where technology becomes a welcome adversary in the war against stuff.

I have an app called Scanner Pro on my mobile devices. With this app, I can take pictures of documents, and it will convert them to low-resolution PDFs. The app has a feature that allows you to hook it up to online storage like Dropbox or Google Drive. When I’m done “scanning” the documents with my device, the app automatically uploads the PDFs of those items to my Google Drive. Then I tossed or shredded the papers I scanned.

It was magical.

Want to have your cake and eat it too? Let technology help you keep your analog gems without getting rid of them completely. Then when it’s time to clean out your digital life, that will be just a few clicks away.