One of the many paradoxes about clutter is that it’s often those of us who reject materialism who have the most stuff. We can develop this idea that collecting objects is frugal and good for the environment. There are a number of flaws in this hypothesis. One is that in some cases, the older version is significantly less ecologically friendly. Another is that the example we set for others is cautionary, rather than inspirational. Trying to keep things out of the landfill can, in a way, land us in a scale-model home landfill. Perhaps most of all, being constantly surrounded by things sends the message that we need them, that there are no viable alternatives to the consumerist hedonic treadmill. It’s hard to reject materialism while clinging to material objects, no matter where they came from.
Lightbulbs and refrigerators are two examples of things that are better to buy new. The older versions draw so much power compared to new energy-efficient models that it even cancels out the materials used in production. New versions also last significantly longer. Hanging on to an older, less efficient appliance is not frugal, it’s false economy. Another example of this phenomenon is a recurring argument I have had with a frenemy who insists that electric dishwashers are less energy efficient. Every time this comes up, I share articles demonstrating that hand-washing dishes uses more water and more electricity, to no avail. Frugalites such as myself are often guilty of clinging to contrarian positions because they fit our identity. We’re the ones who are willing to bend over backwards, heroically doing what nobody else will do, because we alone care enough to save the world from its own idiocy! It’s awfully hard to admit it when the mainstream actually gets it right. It’s hard to update our standards and practices. If we’re serious, though, we must.
We should make it easy for others to agree with us. That’s true in general. Reduce the distance that someone has to travel to come to our position. Why would someone meet us halfway, when that person has no particular ambition to head in our direction? Use arguments and examples that are relevant to that individual, not the arguments that we ourselves would find convincing. “You should fill your kitchen with empty bottles, jugs, and jars that need to be washed and recycled” isn’t going to win many converts. “Cooking from scratch is easy and it tastes better” is a more convincing angle than “Thou shalt reduce packaging waste.” “This canvas bag is a superior product and plastic hurts your fingers” generally works better than “Think of the sea turtles!”
I don’t have to do it for economic necessity anymore, but I still shop at Goodwill. It’s the thrill of the hunt. It’s also emotional for me to buy new clothes, thinking of sweatshop labor and factory fires. I buy used because I’m a tightwad, but also because it’s good recycling. A few times other women have asked if I’ll teach them, and we have a fun outing, because it feels like retail therapy at bargain prices. Look: vintage! Look: couture! Look: major fashion-victim retail brands! The more flattering and stylish the look, the broader the net we cast. Nobody wanted to go thrifting with me when I LOOKED like I went thrifting.
My apartment is a teeny little shoebox, smaller than some hotel suites we’ve stayed in. It speaks for itself, though. The dining table and the couch are always open for guests to sit. The kitchen counters are always clear and ready for meal prep. The bed is made, and that’s pretty much the only thing in the bedroom. There isn’t even any room in the bathroom for anything other than soap and a towel rack. After a quick glance around the place, I usually take friends down to the pool, where it looks less like we live in a dorm and more like we live in a resort hotel. Hopefully our visitors come away with the sense that it’s possible to have fun and relax without being surrounded by tons of personal belongings and possessions. (Which is true!).
What is there to do besides shop several times a week and hunger for things we don’t yet own? Oh, everything really. Watch the juvenile night heron groom himself. Read. Have lengthy conversations about which super powers we don’t actually already have. (Hint: I can fly through the air and I also have the power of invisibility). Learn to draw. Take naps. Try to teach the dog to roll over to the right instead of just the left. Write an epic poem. Go for long walks. As far as I can tell, the main tradeoff for material objects is conspicuous leisure. Less to buy, less to carry, less to clean, less to worry about.
We don’t necessarily need to keep using worn-out, rickety, threadbare, or stained objects to live lightly. What I’ve found is that the majority of the time, I can do without that object entirely! Discarding the sense of responsibility for every single button, spatula, pot, or piece of paper that comes through our door has enabled us to downsize to a small and cozy space. If you saw our utility bills, I don’t know if you’d laugh or cry. The same creativity we use to recycle worthless old junk can be used toward solving our tangible problems with alternative methods. Doing more with less should look like something fun and interesting. We can set an example and reject materialism simply by demonstrating that life is easier and more relaxing without it.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.