5/50: Learning to live without 'stuff'

Venus of the Rags – The Tate Modern

This is a piece of art we recently saw at the Tate Modern in London.  I think it’s supposed to represent the broad gulf between classical and contemporary culture. For me, it resonates of a more personal gulf that between my current life and where I would like to be.

On seeing the piece, Alan turned to me and said, “That looks like you in the morning!”  It was not the pale complexion he was referring to, rather my tendency to stand in front of my wardrobe looking at a pile of clothes and feeling that I have nothing to wear.  And this is a pattern which seems to be repeated throughout my belongings.  I have three crates of shoes, but I never seem to have the right pair to wear.  I have a shelf full of DVDs, but nothing to watch.  And yet it’s easy to persuade myself, when stood in a shop holding the latest handbag, that this latest one is the one.  It’s going to fulfil all of my carrying needs in a way no has handbag succeeded in doing before.  It will go with every outfit, suit every occasion and make me a more complete and full person.  It will, most crucially, allow me to continue my membership as part of society.  Because, that’s what we’re here to do, isn’t it?  - Mark our progression through life with a series of purchases. A car, a house, a pram, a coffin.  The bigger/shinier/more gadget-filled the better.  And if, at any point, your certainty in the wisdom of this concept is shaken you can be sure to be confronted with a plethora of media reassuring you. That necklace you are thinking of buying? It will indeed help you to become the person you’ve always wanted to be.

stuff (stf)n.

3. Informal

a. Unspecified material:

b. Household or personal articles considered as a group

c. Worthless objects

This pressure, to live life in a certain way, has been bothering me for some time.  I see thousands of people on their way to work every morning, all of them miserable.  It would appear that they hate their jobs and have no desire to go. But in order to continue this endless cycle of owning ‘stuff’, they must.  Without ‘stuff’ they are not considered to ‘have a life’ of any discernable quality.  Except, it is this endless mission to earn the money to pay for this badge of honour leaves their lives devoid of any apparent enjoyment.  And yet, no one seems to have noticed this elephant in the room.  Or those that have are so distraught at the trap they find themselves caught in, that they try to spend their way out of the unhappiness.  Anyone with ideas to try anything different or live outside of these pressures is discounted as being childish.  Fun, it appears, is reserved for the youth.

Ok, rant over.  So, what am I doing to swim outside of the rip tide of consumerism? Well, as it happens, I have a very simple plan:

  • Cut down on the number of things I own
  • Stop buying needlessly and be very sure about any purchases
  • Try to dissuade friends and family from giving me any more ‘things’
  • Cutting down on the things I own

    This is the toughest of the three.  I must confess to being somewhat of a hoarder.  I can assign sentimental value to almost anything and the longer it’s been lingering amongst my things the harder it is to dispose of.  However, two long bouts of living out of a backpack have taught me the freedom that comes with owning very few belongings.  My next trip is one which I hope will last several years and so I hope to leave behind very little to clutter up the houses of my family.

    The Great Ocean Road

    How then to get rid of things?

    • Throwing them away

    As much as I dislike the environmental impact, there are some things which are only good to be thrown away.  Anything which can be recycled will be, but the bin bags are coming out.

    • Giving things to family and friends

    This is unlikely to be very effective.  My family have endured years of my ‘clearouts’ and found themselves with many a new useless item. They are also trying to have a good clearout at the moment, so the last thing they need is an influx of Sarah-stuff.


    • Donating to Charity shops/clothing bins

    This is one of my favourite options.  It’s quick and easy to arrange and I’m inadvertently contributing to a worthy cause.  Unfortunately, many charity shops are now overrun with donations and aren’t accepting any more.  And so, in some cases, I like to use the ‘clothing donation bins’.  This way clothes are given to those in need of them, or the materials are recycled and put to a good use.

    • Car Boot Sales

    This is the English equivalent of the American Garage Sale.  We’ve already been to one and I foresee many more on our horizon.  Our tat is someone else’s treasure.

    • Selling on eBay

    This is something I’ve only recently given a go, but I’ve had some small successes so far.  I’ll be writing a post about this one next week.

    • Digitizing

    My intention is to upload all of my CDs and DVDs onto a hard drive and then to find a new home for the hard copies.  I’m still trying to find out the legal implications of this, but I have a willing recipient of my DVD collection lined up and waiting.  There’ll be more on this one later

    Stop buying needlessly and be very sure about any purchases

    More shoes

    I’ve gotten far better at this over the last few years.  I am able to be very restrained when the prospect of saving for a round the world trip is at stake.  However, there are two litmus tests which I must apply before handing over the credit card:

    • I ask myself – Is this something which I would want to take backpacking with me?  If not, is it something which I could easily re-sell before then?
    • I don’t buy anything on the first day I see it.  I’ve borrowed this method from a friend who is also saving for travels.  The theory goes that if you wake up the next day and still feel you want that potential purchase then it’s surpassed the ‘spending for the sake of spending’ mentality.

    I’m also beginning to work on the premise that it’s better to spend more on an item which will last longer than a cheap one which will quickly fall apart.

    Trying to dissuade my friends and family from giving me more ‘things’

    This is a toughie, because it’s outside of my control.  But, I’ve recently found Wise Gifter .  These clever travellers have set up a site which will present your non-tangible gifts to your loved ones for them to buy.  You get something you really want and they feel as though they’ve gotten you a real gift (rather than just some cash).  You can list any items you like such as: Tango Lessons in Argentina, Spanish Lessons in Mexico or Diving with Whale sharks in Honduras.  This is certainly something I intend to get setup before the next round of present buying occasions arrive.

    So, what is my goal here? What am I looking to achieve?

    I think one of the hardest parts about pre-travel clearouts is wondering when to start. As we’re still looking at another 9 months until we could leave, we don’t want to relieve ourselves of all of our belongings too quickly.  However, the general consensus of the bloggers which already begun their travels is that they wish they’d started the process earlier. So I intend start slowly and continue in that way until we get closer to the departure date.  We’ve got a boot sale lined up every few months and I’m putting things to sell on eBay fairly regularly.  For now, my goal is to feel as though I’m moving forwards, towards my end objective of having very little which will not fit into my backpack.  Buying a bigger backpack is not allowed.

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