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Chew on Life's Big Questions

How Do You Keep Your Materialism In Check?

For much of the aughts, austerity had become my passion. How frugal could I be? Failed relationships and dead-end jobs threw me off the trajectory I had carefully planned for myself. I was flailing around trying to get back on course. Any route would do. Immersing myself into a consciousness about material possessions seemed noble. 

My thriftarian pursuits led me to lots of interesting spaces.  Like the time I needed flowerpots I scoured Craigslist and Freecycle for freebies. That led to a trip out to this jam-packed apartment in Kensington, Brooklyn.  One person had shown up to retrieve a clock radio. I came for the pots. We both left with a shopping bag of textured-vegetable protein (tvp), the vegetarian food staple had the consistency of ground meat but the flavor of cardboard.  The flowerpot owner ran a now defunct health food store and was able to resell or give away a lot of merchandise but still had a huge box of tvp. “It will be delicious soaked in whatever spices you have available,” she assured me.

Now this is extreme thrift, I thought, as I smiled an idiotic smile, grabbed the shopping bag of tvp, the flowerpots, and ran out the door. 

And then there was the Voluntary Simplicity meeting at the Madison Avenue address. In my first encounter, I ended up in the wrong room with two elderly women and a younger fellow with their eyes closed sitting on gray couches. Small votive candles were lit on a table. The vibe was peaceful. No one said anything when I tiptoed in and sat among them. I was good at pretending like I knew what was going on. Maybe that’s how the evening was to start, with a silent prayer?  

After a few minutes, I asked, "Is this the Voluntary Simplicity meeting?" 

"Nope, down the hall to the right. This is vespers," the fellow responded. 

I made my way down the hall into another room. The people assembled for the Voluntary Simplicity meeting were young and old, professionals and artists, married and singles. To me, everyone looked affluent or at least well-cared for. I wondered if I was being arrogant for choosing to “live better with less.”  Poor people didn’t have that choice, right? Or, at least, they didn’t think about it.

But I knew my quest for parsimony bordered on evangelism when I tried to influence my sister’s behavior.  When Ardel had her baby, I stayed for a week. Trying to be helpful, I made small changes, like adding water to her dishwashing detergent to make it stretch out.  Small things, I thought, where she wouldn’t notice.

Ardel seemed agreeable until we went out with the baby to a Fred Meyer department store.  She picked up a container of toilet bowl cleaner and put it into the cart. I picked it up and put it back on the shelf.

“Quit it. I know what you’re doing,” she said.

“What are you talking about?  You already have two containers in your house. A third? How gross are you? You couldn’t just combine the two you have?”

“No, I can’t. And I like my dishwashing detergent thick!” she yelled.

“Calm down. You know that’s a marketing scheme. It’s true. Companies are making detergents more condensed so you’ll use more. You are supposed to add water. My friend who works at Proctor and Gamble told me that,” I explained. 

Her usual happy-go-lucky demeanor went dark, so I made an attempt to diffuse the situation.

“Listen, if you don’t calm down you’re milk will go sour,” I smiled, pointing at her  gigantic boobs.

“Shut up,” she said with laugh and then added, “What’s wrong with buying something that makes you happy?”

And she was right.

How do you keep your materialism in check?

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