Much of what I own was previously owned by someone else. This is not news to you frugal acolytes and I’d wager your stuff is probably of a similarly second-hand strain. Plus, we recently established that used stuff is decidedly not gross. But did you know that buying used improves your health? And makes your hair grow back? And makes you a more interesting, mysterious individual?
Ok maybe not the hair thing, but I posit the other two are true. Buying used isn’t just a way to save money (although, hoo dogs, it certainly does). Nope. Buying used–and by extension, frugality–is also a way to reduce stress and deliver you from the crippling conundrum of too many choices.
Decisions You Don’t Have to Make
Here’s the thing: we all have to make about 1 billion (scientific number, I assure you) decisions a day. Why heap on the unnecessary burden of which spatula to buy? All around my home are countless decisions I didn’t waste time making. I didn’t have to research 9,867 strollers–I gratefully accepted a free one. I didn’t spend hours of my life calculating the ideal circumference of a wine glass before purchasing one–Mr FW found a free box of glassware on the roadside (hey, hey!). I didn’t laboriously shop for the outfit I have on today–I accepted hand-me-downs from friends.
The internet has spawned a generation of people paralyzed by the decision-making process. On more than one occasion, I’ve been one of them!
And now, we will enjoy a vingnette: Mr. Frugalwoods’ trusty headlamp bit the dust a few weeks ago–it was only 10 years old!–so, he set about determining which lamp should receive the honor of serving as replacement. Several hours later, he emerged with a tale of internet research paralysis.
Turns out, like everything else online, there are entire forums of people who feel strongly about flashlights. Like very strongly. Beyond hobby, they verge on luminary obsession. These folks discuss lumens and beams for hours. Mr. FW dipped a flashlight-interested toe in this rabbit hole and realized he could’ve lost days in a world of artificial illumination comparisons. Days, I tell you.
The problem with such granular, detailed information about everything we buy is that we start to believe the only way to do something right is to spend a lot of money. Yes, a $500 headlamp will be the best. It’s the headlamp all other headlamps speak of only in hushed, reverential tones. It’s the headlamp that flashlight enthusiasts will hungrily drool over if ever they see you out and about sporting your epic noggin light. But do we need the finest, fairest headlamp in all the land? Uh, we do not. The level of utility and pleasure we’d derive from a $500 headlamp versus this $75 headlamp* we bought is nominal. Mr. FW had to take a step back and realize that the margin of improvement likely wouldn’t be necessary, or even recognizable.
*While this might sound pricey for a glorified head lantern, we have absolutely zero lights around our property beyond our porch and barn. Thus, when we need to go out after dark, headlamps are mandatory. No streetlights out here, folks!
The easy access to massive data sets and consumer reviews in cyber space tempt us down the path of needing to know the “best of x” in every possible scenario. Before the internet, it wasn’t possible/practical to: 1) discuss minutiae at length with others who cared/would put up with you, or 2) purchase the vast array of stuff ye olde internet proffers.
In the olden days, if you wanted to know if a product was good or not, you had to go to the library and look up old issues of Consumer Reports. Or ask your friends. Or just flat out not care. While this approach surely wasn’t the most efficient, spending an entire weekend researching lumen levels is equally inefficient.
I’m an advocate for researching stuff and generally not being an idiot about what you purchase, but there’s a limit. I think the research return on investment correlates with the price of an item. For example, Mr. FW and I exhaustively researched homesteads prior to purchasing one. Since we plan to live here for a long time (and since it’s a relatively illiquid asset), we wanted to make the right choice. Same goes for our used cars–much time was spent ascertaining the ideal intersection of fuel efficiency and rural road capability.
However, these examples are relatively infrequent purchases. Plus, although we invested untold hours researching our home and cars, once we found the right ones, we pounced. There’s something to be said for combining the spirit of analysis with targeted, strategic spontaneity. Without it, we never would’ve made the move out here to the woods. But for the majority of material goods in our lives, we simply don’t require that level of precision.
It’s well documented that too many choices decrease our happiness. Not only do we lose time and energy trying to locate the optimal apple peeler/corer, we then suspiciously eye that peeler/corer every time we use it, just waiting for something to go wrong. After all, two of the 347 reviewers heatedly commented that their peeler/corer launched off the counter and broke their toe. You could be next! Thank goodness I found our peeler/corer in a free box on the side of the road. Who know what appendages I could’ve injured!
The cure-all for this paralysis by analysis is used stuff. Whether I buy it from a garage sale, or find it on the side of the road, it all represents decisions I didn’t have to make. When I walk into a thrift store, they either have something I need or they don’t. It’s pretty straightforward and it’s absent the anxiety wrought by Wal-Mart’s 6,000 options for a dinner plate.
And rather than fretting over whether Babywoods has THE BEST highchair POSSIBLY available for babies in 2016, I’m 100% thrilled with our hand-me-down highchair (btw, thank you S & B!). It works, doesn’t it?! Plus, I love how it looks–largely because I didn’t have to spend 92 hours opening tabs of different color schemes, trying to project into the future which colors we might or might not like for any and all potential future children and/or home decor changes that might or might not take place in the next 10 years.
I’ve also discovered that frugality is a form of gratitude. As opposed to looking around my house identifying the faults with my stuff, I’m grateful to have it. I could easily write off our furniture as outdated, scuffed, and shabby–which most of it is–but I don’t. Instead, I’m happy it’s here in my home, meeting our needs. Furthermore, since I didn’t pay much (if anything) for it, my assessment of its performance/appearance is more lenient. Yes, it’s true that my red wooden sideboard is missing a few chunks and a fair bit of paint, but it doesn’t bother me because it was free. Had I instead spent cash money on that baby, I’d be furious with its declining health!
The serendipity of used items has retrained my brain. There’s immense peace in accepting the possessions that come my way and exhaling the pressure to have the best, the prettiest, and the newest. I’ve removed myself from the consumer carousel of woe and replaced it with the revolving door of serendipity.
Time and time again, when Mr. FW and I find ourselves in need of a particular object, it somehow comes into our lives. Just last week I noticed that Babywoods was outgrowing all of her little bebe pants and shirts. Hmm, thought I, what shall we do? Lo and behold, not two days later, a friend here in town offered me her slightly-older daughter’s hand-me-downs. Perfect serendipity. And when friends are in need of something we have, it’s the ideal continuation of our possessions. This approach is both spiritual and pragmatic. It’s cheaper to buy used, but it’s also more fulfilling.
I Am Not My Sofa Or My Hemline
The compulsion to buy the best of everything is also fueled by our culture’s obsession with appearances. The expectation that we should continually upgrade our lifestyle means we’re dogged by the idea that our stuff is not good enough. And that by extension, we are not good enough. Ours is a culture that often defines people by their outward projections and the things they own.
We judge people in soundbites–miniscule data sets extrapolated to define a person’s entire life. If you drive a beat-up car, you’re poor. If you wear shabby clothes, you obviously lack self-confidence. It’s a pretty transparent trope, but it’s one we adhere to all the same. And let me be clear, I’m as guilty as anyone. After all, it’s much easier to avoid nuance and instead allocate people into pre-ordained boxes.
I’ve been told (often), that people can’t figure me out because I don’t fit into a box. I live in the woods yet I’m a tech savvy internet person (that’s a technical term, in case you’re wondering), I’m a work-at-home mom yet I’m an ardent feminist, I haven’t purchased any clothing in over 2.5 years yet I’m fashionable (in my humble opinion), I’m super outgoing yet I have a quiet introverted heart, I’m frugal yet I have everything I want.
I share this because I suspect most of us do not comfortably fit into prescribed boxes. We’re all a great deal more complex than this type of rote categorization allows for. And we’re all a great deal more interesting than our possessions. I, after all, am not my sofa or my hemline. Once we get past the debilitating position of trying to define ourselves by our things, we can express gratitude for what we have instead of anguish over what we don’t have.
Because, let me tell you what, there will always be things we don’t have. Attempting to keep pace in the marathon of stuff is futile, exhausting, and expensive. We’re defined by what we do and I refuse to be defined as a consumer.