When I was a kid we didn’t have any money, and there was a ton of shit I wanted that I never got. But hey, whatever! I was fine (or, more accurately, if I wasn’t fine, it had more to do with my fucked up home than it did with Hungry Hungry Hippos or Tamagotchis!) I never felt like we were poor, partly because my mom was a thrift store wizard. And by the time I realized we were broke-ass clowns, I was one too.
I have a genetic tendency toward finding and hoarding quality secondhand goods. This was vital when I was a penniless nomad. I’m like a sniffer dog for unscratched nonstick cookware and designer jeans, and it has served me well. I couldn’t fix the car or go to the dentist, but I could have nice things that made it easier or more comfortable to live in my house and my body.
And this wasn’t just a necessity. I believed, and still believe: why buy new stuff when I can repurpose old stuff to be just as good? You probably heard that consumerism is killing the planet and also killing lots of people through the exploitative processes of capitalism. The United States has 3.1% of the world’s children but 40% of the world’s bought toys. Globally, production by large manufacturers is running people and animals and plants out of their homes; we’re on track for the extinction of 20-30% of all existing species by 2050, and that’s mostly because of industry-driven deforestation and pollution. So yeah, I’m good with converting this old bed frame from the garbage into a TV stand.
Now I’m in my 30s, and we’re doing good, folks. We have everything we need and then some. So basically I feel like the richest person on the planet. And it’s been a weird ride. What’s that thing they say: The strategies you developed to survive your past don’t serve you when you get out? Sure, we already have a butcher block cutting board, but hell yeah I can sand and oil this one for something! Friends, we don’t have two thrifted butcher block cutting boards. We have four. And we also have a new one that we bought at Ikea because it has a lip to hold it still on the counter.
…yeah, Ikea. Remember my whole thing about consumerism? When I thought I was rejecting consumerism, I was actually riding that train like a wild west bandit. Being poor and thrifting quality stuff taught me to fetishize new shit. I remember the first time I could afford to spend good money on something I wanted but didn’t absolutely need: a raincoat. My partner was living in Vancouver, where it rains all winter. I shelled out $70 (on sale!) for a new, highly-rated Columbia rain jacket to keep me dry. I felt like the king of the damn world, y’all. I felt high.
It took me a couple of years to realize what was going on. In the meantime, I bought stuff. It was mostly exercise gear, so I could justify it as an investment in health and well-being. But secretly, every time I’d get something new, it lit a little fire in my heart. Look at what I could have! I’m almost crying writing this, because I have a lot of shame about that, but also the feeling was so real. After a whole life of pinching pennies, the ease of getting something that would make my life even a little bit easier felt like being free.
Only it wasn’t. It’s not. Money helps. Hey: you do need money and it will solve a lot of your problems, and don’t let anyone gaslight you with that “money can’t buy happiness” horseshit. Especially if you are or have ever been poor, buy yourself that thing! Especially if you are a woman, and you have been relentlessly targeted by advertising and consumer culture since you were a literal fucking infant, and taught that you are responsible for everyone else’s comfort, but no one is responsible for yours, so you better treat yourself.
Do it, sis! Treat yourself! Make that bad day a little better! But.
But there’s a limit to what money can do. According to a 1995 study, quality of life and income go up together, but only up to a point ($13,000 in ’95 bucks), and after that, more money doesn’t really help. And on a more personal level: buying new things to make myself feel good is a fucking trap.
The urge to buy new stuff isn’t wrong. I’m not a shitty person for feeling it. I want to buy my dogs new toys because I see the joy in their bodies when I bring the toys home. Yeah, my dogs love fake animals from PetSmart. But you know what they love even more than that? Time with me. Learning tricks. Grass. Sticks. Old filthy tennis balls we find outside. Squirrels and cats and deer. Jumping. You get me? Free shit.
I don’t have kids yet, but when I do, I hope I have the energy and time to practice this for them, too. Kids enjoy the world, and they enjoy people, and they enjoy learning. They don’t need playdough pasta makers or Baby Einstein or Rescue Pets or remote control cars or whatever kids like in the future. The world is full of cool shit that I love, and that I can share with my kids – wild animals, books, falling leaves, sprouting seeds, buildings, other people – and that isn’t made by exploited workers out of whatever’s killing the oceans.
I don’t want to deny myself – or anyone else – a badly-needed dose of feeling good. Fuck that, I want something bigger: I want to make it so buying new things doesn’t make me feel better. Because buying new things is a sign that I’m safer, more stable and secure, but it isn’t the same thing as safety and stability. And folks, it ain’t freedom. Freedom isn’t being able to get a new vacuum cause the old one busted. It’s having a community that I can borrow a vacuum from, and that will help me clean my house if I break my leg.
Y’all, I still let myself have stuff. I did buy my dog a new toy a couple weeks ago. Whatever, I’m not personally stalling The Revolution. But I am trying to focus more on what actually makes me feel happy, and what will get me free. Spending time with my family, phones down. Getting to know my neighbors and bringing them the pickles I taught myself to make. Helping build a community and a society that will take care of me if I get sick or can’t work, that will gather around me as I get old and slow down, that will help me live my whole damn life with safety and dignity, because this raggedy-ass fox absolutely fucking won’t. But damn, did I love buying it!
Mayell, Hillary. “As Consumerism Spreads, Earth Suffers, Study Says.” National Geographic, 2004. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2004/01/consumerism-earth-suffers/
“University of California TV Series Looks at Clutter Epidemic in Middle-Class American Homes,” 2013. https://www.uctv.tv/RelatedContent.aspx?RelatedID=301