#24. Curbing unnecessary spending

I could spend a lot of time (yours and mine) trying to convince you how un-materialistic I am. What a spiritual giant I am. But the truth is: I enjoy money way too much to qualify. More specifically, I enjoy using money to buy things. Mostly things that are pretty and that I think will change my life (although they invariably don’t). And I’ve been doing a lot of it lately. It is not a matter of spending beyond my means, like some sort of Real Housewife of Something or Other. I rarely pay full price for anything. But therein lies the rub: I have a little trigger inside me that gets pulled whenever I see a GREAT DEAL. I start to panic. I become convinced that I can’t not buy it, that passing on the deal would be tantamount to losing money. My faulty logic and ushers me from a state of wanting things to needing them. And I blame the internet more than anything for making it so easy to spend, spend, spend.

To wit, recently I have been shopping a lot of on-line sample sales. Part of the appeal is that, not only do I think I’m getting a bargain, but I also think I’m getting something exclusive. Secret. Mysterious! That’s how I ended up with not one but two round melamine trays designed by Thomas Paul, one of my favorite textile and graphic designers. Granted, they were a steal at $10 each (normally $30!!!!) but the collection of trays languishing atop my refrigerator would argue that I don’t need one tray, let alone two.

Note, also, the set of four gorgeous bamboo cutting boards. Beautiful! Functional! Only $40! And while I was paying for shipping anyway, it only made sense to toss in the set of matching bamboo utensils I absolutely did not need. They were just $10! I could totally see how my life would be significantly altered – less meaningful, somehow; less full – if I didn’t snap them up. I’d lie awake at night, tossing and turning, filled with regret.

In this vein, over the past few months, I have acquired a set of entirely pointless candles, two glass water carafes, six mini ramekins and a large orange plastic tub I have no idea what to do with – all from the Crate & Barrel clearance page. I ordered two v-neck tees at rock-bottom prices, never mind that they don’t fit properly and I’m not wild about the colors. But do I pay about half of what they cost me in return shipping? No! That would be silly!

I ordered two beautiful screen-printed tote bags, even though I don’t really even like tote bags. But they were pretty! And deeply discounted! So I tell myself that they’ll make great gifts. For someone. For something. I could not possibly be more vague about my intentions here. I’m not even fooling me.

The issue here, as I’ve said, is not that I’m spending my way into the poor house. It’s that I don’t like the idea of all this unnecessary spending. Again – as with so many of these changes – it demonstrates something I don’t like to look at: the discrepancy between the way I want to think of myself and the way I actually am. I don’t want to be a person attached to things. It’s not very admirable. I’d prefer to be a person who needs nothing material, who lives in a straw hut, with no creature comforts other than, you know, six Crate & Barrel candles, two Thomas Paul trays and a stack of tote bags.

Well, not really. I think we all know I’d last about five minutes in a straw hut before I used my laptop to steal someone’s Wi-Fi and start ordering a discount mattress, a memory-foam topper, a pretty throw, a…one of everything. Sigh.

What I really want, as always, is some sense of balance. Not to feel quite so controlled by my impulses and desires, not to be so swayed by pretty objects and my need to acquire them. It seemed like a good start to spend a week without buying anything unnecessary. It sounded easy enough, if no fun whatsoever.

Only…once again, I found myself taxed with molding this broad idea into something suitable for practice. What did I mean by unnecessary? I’m completely untrustworthy when it comes to honing these definitions – I’d either give myself too wide a berth or enough rope to hang myself. I mean, technically, for seven days, even food isn’t necessary. So do I skip grocery shopping? Eating out? ICE CREAM FROM WASHTENAW DAIRY? There’s no way.

So I turned to the far more grounded member of our household, my saintly husband Chris, and asked his thoughts. He was, as usual, able to help me get to the heart of what I was trying to avoid: acquiring unnecessary things – not ruling out all consumption. Any man who defines parameters that leave sweet treats and the occasional latte in the mix is a man after my own heart.

A smart person would have made some ground rules for the seven days. No surfing favorite shopping sites, perhaps. No tempting myself by reading emails of sales announcements. But we all know I’m not that person. Thus, every day I went to my favorite websites. I checked out the online sales, feeling the panic rise when I saw a good bargain and knew that it would end within 24 hours and I would MISS OUT.

In other words, I tortured myself. I lamented my “inability” to stock up on half price SIGG water bottles. (Never mind that I already own three – it felt environmentally irresponsible to pass on the purchase.) One of my favorite clothing retailers had a sale on stuff I didn’t need anyway, but managed to pine for. I passed on two yards of absolutely gorgeous cotton fabric that I didn’t have a clue what I’d do with anyway, other than stick on the pile with the last yardage I acquired on a whim.

The funny thing was that I also managed to feel sorry for myself for missing out on stuff that I wouldn’t have purchased anyway. I went back three times to look at some sale Thomas Paul throw pillows, sighing and mewling as though a starving child outside a bakery. In reality? At $40 a pop, there’s no way I’d have actually bought them. Ditto a pricey designer purse I wouldn’t even have considered except for the fact that taking it off the table as a possibility made it more desirable.

The conclusions I drew from this week? Well, there’s the obvious one: that I’m driven by a ridiculous desire to acquire things, probably because I attach some value to stuff that goes well beyond its price. On the plus side, though, I spent a lot of time wondering why I was moved to purchase the specific things I coveted. And while low price was always a factor, the real truth is that I covet beautiful things at a low price. I value lovely aesthetics and good design and am really attracted to the idea that it can be affordable. As much as it pains me to admit it, I like to be surrounded by pretty things. I take a tremendous amount of pleasure from them, even as I have to admit I need to be more discriminating in my choices.

Because I always feel like I’m under pressure to quantify the success of each change, I’d like to be able to put a price tag on my savings this week. The truth, though, is that I don’t know how much of the stuff would actually have made it from my shopping basket to the cash register. I like to look at stuff, fantasize about it, consider it but the vast majority of it never makes it into my home.

Even among the things I had previously chastised myself for buying, very few do I actually regret. I love, love my Thomas Paul trays and would happily get rid of a couple of older ones as a trade-off. And the bamboo cutting boards I’ve used constantly since their arrival. These things are lovely and useful. I value them.

Now, the plastic orange tub, the six ramekins and the two ill-fitting V-necks? Yeah, they were missteps. But they were missteps to the tune of $40 total. I still think I’ll use the ramekins eventually and the V-necks are going to be guinea pigs for trying out a friend’s serger for hemming knits. I’ll give you the tub, though. No, I mean that literally: I will give you the tub.

I also discovered that my husband counts himself among the fortunate, to have a wife he thinks brings beautiful things into our home at bargain prices. The amount I spend on ten items is that same some women would drop on a purse without thinking twice about it. I have to keep that thinking in check, though.  While it’s important I don’t feel worse about my spending than the situation merits, I also have to work towards that elusive sense of balance and keep my powers of rationalization in check so I can be level-headed moving forward. Otherwise, we’re in danger. Because those useless plastic orange tubs are still on sale at Crate & Barrel. And the price is dropping. Dropping!