Why You Don’t Want Nice Things

We stepped into our grandparents’ new condo, dazzled by the decor. They had just settled into a retirement community and finished furnishing their place. I had never seen a place like it– not because of the space, or the view, or the decoration, but there was something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Of course my mother, mom of two boisterous kids, pointed it out right away: everything is white! The carpet, couch, chairs, lounges, curtains and bedspreads were all crystal clean in brilliant shades of white.

At the time, I was much younger and prone to sticky hands and dirty knees from stalking geckos on the sidewalks. In the new condo, we had to yell for our dad to carry us from the doorstep to the bathroom to wash off our dirty feet in the bathtub. Sometimes we forgot and left little prints across the white tiles like gold-less leprechauns. All the white was pretty to look at, but made the place hard for us to live in.

We have to make a trade for the nicer things in life. Whether it’s white furniture, pieces of fine art, or a shiny new car, it takes more effort, time, and worry to keep things spic and span. Personally, I’d rather own things I don’t have to worry about. I would rather have peace of mind than really nice things.

The joy of our mismatched furniture

I recently moved across the country with Mr. Mechanic, taking only what we could fit in the car. We furnished our new place with pieces from thrift stores, yard sales, and sometimes things we found at the side of the road. It’s honestly a huge relief. Coffee cups can go straight on the table—we’re not concerned about ring stains. The cat testing his claws on the blue chair we found by the side of the road? Have at it.

Of course, we will likely upgrade in the future. There are plenty of nice things worth having, and there’s nothing wrong with furnishing your entire house in white. However, it’s worth addressing how attached we get to nice things, and learning to accept that over time, our houses will look lived in, our cars will sport dents, and some valuables will slip through the cracks in our lives, lost forever.

Quality over quantity is a false dichotomy

Some things are worth putting a little money into. Since I work from home, I made sure to have a stand-up tabletopper and a quality chair because I spend so much time at the computer. Many people advocate for splurging on “anything between you and the floor,” i.e. mattresses, shoes, and good tires. This may be good advice in general, but there is eventually diminishing returns on these things. How much better can the latest model of a mattress be than last year’s?

My mom cracked me up once by questioning “quality over quantity” as a false dichotomy. She tends to go with the affordable option and then make it last for ages. As a result, she ends up with neither quality nor quantity! I can’t tell you the number of years we bundled up in Colorado winters with mismatched gloves and coats bought from thrift stores that made us look like overgrown marshmallows. We went with just enough; luckily, that still got us through.

You can still have nice things

The point is that you can still have nice things, but you don’t necessarily need the nicest things. What lasts longer and serves you better may be worth the extra cost, but don’t let the quality argument sneak into every purchase you make.

I settled on a stand-up riser rather than an entire standup desk because it was a fraction of the cost but served the same purpose. If I kept the chair longterm, I would be happier if I anticipated that the leather would wear and tear and would likely never have the same resale value again. The important thing is the function it serves, not the way it looks.

The stress of stuff

The overwhelming goal seems to be more. Earn more, own more. The dream is a big house, a couple of cars, buying the best tools that will do the best job, now that’s a rich lifestyle! However, the more we get, the more we have to worry about. The benefits of owning nice things often doesn’t outweigh the stress of keeping it nice. I learned this first hand when I got the keys to my dream car.

When I made my very first car purchase, I bought a dazzling red Mazda Miata. I started parking further away in the grocery store parking lot to avoid getting too close to someone’s careless swing of a door that might scratch my paint. Every time I parallel parked, I worried that I might get too close to the curb and scratch my wheels. The hassle of keeping the car looking nice took up way too much mental space. That stress melted away when I sold it, which let me know I had made the right decision.

Rent vs. owning

We used to live right on the waterfront in Portland, which was amazing because one of my favorite things to do is kayak. My first year, I lived in an apartment that offered free kayak rentals as a perk. However, when we moved to a new place nearby we wondered whether we should buy a kayak. We figured that it would pay for itself if we went kayaking 7-10 times in two summers.

Yet there was another element we had to consider: finding the space for it, taking care of it, lugging it around, and eventually trying to sell it again. In the end, it was worth it to rent just to avoid the headache. (This ended up being the best choice, both because of the maintenance cost and because we didn’t make it out on the water 7 times.) I know I tend to be optimistic about how often I will use something, so I’ve learned to look around before buying first. Renting, from tools to kayaks to housing, lets you shed the headache of owning and upkeep.

Luckily, the paradigm is shifting from ownership to renting. There are more ‘makerspaces’ where you can go to work on projects where any tool you could need is available to use. You can get a car in your area and drop it off at your destination with little hassle. Even things that seemed crazy just a few years ago, like letting a stranger share space in your home, is not so weird anymore with apps like Airbnb. In this way, we lose the aggravation of over-owning so many things.

The freedom of letting go

The more we care about material things, the more heartbreak we garner for ourselves down the line. The world tends towards chaos, which means nearly everything we have will be damaged or lost in some way eventually. We can make reasonable efforts to keep our possessions safe and clean, but there’s freedom in letting go. We don’t have to be upset every time a dish breaks or a phone drops in a puddle.

Frugality doesn’t leave me feeling restricted, it makes me feel free. I want to live in a house that others don’t have to tiptoe through. I love the freedom of hearing a crash downstairs from the cat’s late night antics and not losing sleep over what he may have destroyed this time. I feel free having saved myself money, time, and worry. Keep playing in the dirt; you will be welcome in my house.

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18 Comments

  1. This made me think about the contents of our house. We own exactly 2 pieces of furniture that were purchased new: a dresser I bought from IKEA in 2005, and a desk from IKEA in 2017. Total cost was ~$120. Everything else was a hand-me-down, acquired at a tag sale, Craigslist, FB marketplace, curbside, etc.. the freedom of not really caring about the “stuff” you own is really liberating.

  2. Yes! Love it. I definitely share this sentiment. Most of my things come secondhand, so they may have the occasional dent or signs of use already. I welcome it! Those quirks often represent $100s I DIDN’T have to pay to get it new; money which I can channel into travel or other fun things to stretch dollars further.

    I agree that using secondhand or well-loved items takes the stress away of having to maintain their perfect condition – a fruitless task either way. Not having “the nicest of things” has also meant I could shrug off disappointment quicker when damaged or lost, such as when I experienced the theft of my used laptop while travelling. Long live secondhand, free and rented!

    1. That’s a great point I didn’t mention– that money that you save can be put into other things you care about more. I’m sorry to hear about the theft of your laptop, but also glad that you weren’t too devastated by the loss 🙂

  3. Renting for life sounds better by the day! My partner and I are moving to Denver for her to start her residency program this summer, and some of her co-residents have homes they are trying to sell right now. Obviously, they could not predict the current situation, but knowing that we can just pick up and move without the extra hassle has been priceless.

    1. Hey congrats on the big move! Denver was in one of our top 5 picks for residency, the people at the dinner pre-interview were awesome. Selling a house right now definitely sounds like a nightmare, not to mention having to do that and then pick up and move to their residency spot.

  4. Yeah, I agree mostly. We’re just like your mom. We have a bunch of okay stuff, not the best, but not the worst either. They work for us and we don’t have to worry about the depreciation. Last year, we moved to a denser area and now we have to park on the street. But I’m not worried because our 2010 Mazda 5 is already beaten up by various minor accidents and car doors. Life is easier when you don’t stress out about that kind of stuff.

    1. Parking on the street is definitely one case where it’s nice not to have to worry, especially in Portland!

  5. So much of this post resonated with me. I never intend to make my highly average items last forever, I just never seem to get around to replacing them!

    I have things that are “nice” but are low cost and easily replaceable if something goes wrong. I like collecting vinyl records, for example, but there are only two or three that are genuinely “priceless” to me and those are primarily based on sentimental value. You could take a hammer to my whole room right now and I’d be out a couple hundred bucks worth of stuff 🙂

    Great post as always. Keep ’em coming!

    1. It’s nice to know that if someone took a hammer to your room, you might be more concerned with their sanity than your stuff 😉 Sounds like you have your priorities straight, I’ll have to follow up with you to find out which records are your priceless collection.

  6. Yes! So much this! It is so nice to not have to use mental space for that kind of thing. If we are clumsy and break some dishes – it doesn’t matter, we picked them up for free! When friend’s 9 month old had an accident on the carpet, just spray some soap, wash it out and move on. This attitude also makes it so much easier to up and move away with only the essentials, since it wasn’t an expensive or inherited piece of furniture/pot/whatever anyway.

    1. It’s nice that you can focus on your friend rather than stress about what damage their kid might do 🙂 It’s an underrated perk being able to pick and move without worry!

  7. I get this. We got rid of half our stuff, then half again, moving cross country twice. We had splurged on really nice (yet usable and worry free!) living room furniture before the first move. We still have a couple of pieces, but initially it hurt to let go. It was supposed to be our forever home. Though we’re in our actual forever home now (so we think!) we haven’t splurged the same way since.

  8. Hi

    This makes a minimalist lifestyle in which one will have no stress. I think that this gives one the peace of mind which is very precious as per my perspective.

    WTK

  9. Love it and agree! I’m with your mom – take care of affordable items, it’s a win win! We all need to consume more and buying second hand is one way to help reduce the number of new products made and keep things from the landfill.

  10. I like affordable stuff even though I can afford pretty much anything I want now. But I will not accept unreliable or ratty looking stuff, be it vehicle or furniture. There is no reason to put up with mismatched or rusty or dented or unreliable. I drive a 2008 car that was almost free but it is shiny and dent free and looks like new. In fact someone asked me last year if it was a 2018 model! Our house is not furnished with expensive furniture but it is beautiful inside because it was artfully done with assistance from an interior designer. There is a difference between frugal and sketchy. As you pointed out so well there is a point of diminishing return in terms of higher quality versus higher price. But there is also a point of diminishing returns between being reasonably frugal and living in a junky crime zone tiny apartment, with crappy duct taped furniture and driving a Dave Ramsey beater car with holes in the floorboard.

  11. These are great points! I, too, splurged on my very first car purchase. Imagine my horror when, 6 months later, I broke the camera side mirror and cracked my bumper backing out of the garage, costing me $900 to repair. Then, a few months later I managed to get another minor crack in my bumper. I still haven’t fixed the small crack, because it’s not very noticeable and I’m starting to accept that things don’t need to be in pristine condition!

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