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.