I ended my last shopping audit [here] by saying, “February was nuts, but I think March is going to get even crazier!”
…I had no idea.
Of course, I was referring to the sale of our home and our impending move and our apartment search in Chicago – all of which is now on indefinite hold – but it definitely was a crazy month. I think March 2020 was the craziest month of my life thus far!
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we spent the second half of March on lockdown, and as a result, we didn’t spend much money. Mercifully [and for the first time in recorded history], all six of us were well the entire month and so we didn’t even need to pay doctor co-pays or buy medicine. We also didn’t spend money on family activities [for which we budget $50/month]. We didn’t get haircuts [$25] or buy any clothing [$50] and I even had to cancel my tattoo appointment [which saved me at least $100 of my fun money]!
We did, however, spend more money on restaurant food delivery to support local businesses and we spent more on groceries than we normally would. We brought home WAY more packaging than usual [all recyclable, but still made my heart a little sad].
We bought extra rice and canned vegetables and dry beans…you know, typical pandemic stuff. BUT, on the flip side, we went for three weeks without toilet paper because we couldn’t find any until just YESTERDAY! But, no worries, our “wee wipes” have been a big hit with everyone except my partner. The kids and I may never go back…
Anyway, we did buy some stuff though, so here is the full report:
What We Bought:
[My audit only includes physical items and does NOT include consumables, such as groceries, pet food, and toilet paper.]
Housemaintenance/yard supplies ($60) – Now that the weather is warming up, we needed to buy some things like mulch to fix up the outside of our home. Of course, the sale of our house is now on hold, but we do intend to sell eventually, so we have continued to improve the house.
Legos for Theo’s birthday ($22) – March 19th was Theo’s birthday. We already had a gift for him that we had been saving since Christmas [a used Paw Patrol Sea Patroller] but we decided to pick up a few [ok, 10] used sets of legos. We gave him some for his birthday and used the rest to entertain the kids during quarantine. [Definitely money well spent.]
Brita water dispenser and replacement filters ($40) – We had planned to buy a Brita for our move to the city anyway since we won’t be taking our Primo water dispenser with us. The coronavirus pandemic scared us into getting one early just in case stores were to shut down. I’m genuinely ashamed to admit this third world problem, but our well water tastes terrible and I have a really hard time drinking it [I’m genuinely working on this area of my born privilege].
Beats wireless earbuds ($90) Brett bought me these as a gift, using an old gift card, money from selling stuff and his own fun money. My old headphones had fallen out of my pocket in the driveway and sat in the rain until I found them – by which time they were so damaged that they would literally shock my ears when I wore them. And since our library is shut down, I have been pretty much relying on audiobooks during my outdoor walks, so this was a very helpful gift.
Lush toiletries ($40) This seems expensive, but because of a free shipping deal, I went ahead and bought four months worth of bad shampoo and two bars of deodorant for myself to try. We budget $20/month for toiletries but didn’t use any of it last month so this was still in budget.
Total spent: $252
Over budget: $0
What We Are Going to Do With It:
Some of these things, the mulch and toiletries, for example, will be used for their intended purposes and won’t need to be thrown out. Some things will stay with us for a very long time – hopefully their whole lives – until they are no longer functioning and will be recycled [the Brita and earbuds] or will be passed on to another person to enjoy [the legos].
What We Got Rid Of:
We’ve used this time to go through more of our stuff that we don’t want to take with us on the move, so now Brett’s car is entirely full of donations waiting to be dropped off once the Salvation Army and pregnancy center reopen.
Also, Brett went through his closet and set aside a huge pile of clothes to donate.
So, once again, we’ve removed more things from our home than what we’ve brought into our home.
Now that we are officially quarantined for another month, this seems like a great time to do a “no spend” month… what do you think?
One of my 2020 goals is to focus on minimalism. In the past two years we have made great progress toward living a [nearly] zero waste lifestyle, but now I want to circle back and focus on cutting out unnecessary spending and eliminate all the clutter from our home and our life.
My new motto:
So, as a part of that goal, I am tracking all of our spending for the entire year and will share it with you monthly. I am not promising to stop spend money altogether but I am tracking it so that we can see where we need to improve.
Just as it is helpful to do a “trash audit” at the start of a zero waste journey, a “shopping audit” is helpful if I am trying to stop bringing junk into my home.
January Shopping Audit
Some clarifications before I begin: My audit only includes physical items [not doctor co-pays, museum entry fees, and school activity costs] and does NOT include consumables, which include food, pet food, toilet paper, and salt blocks for our water softener.
[Toiletries and laundry supplies are consumables, but I am going to share those purchases because I am trying to reduce our waste – and spending – in these areas.]
What We Bought:
So here is everything we bought this month:
Bracelet for Brett for $35 – For Christmas, I gave my partner a leather bracelet with our kids’ names engraved on little beads butthe bracelet didn’t fit [oh the joys of shopping on Amazon]. So he used his Christmas money to buy a new bracelet for the beads.
Seven used puzzles for $7 – my partner and I have started doing puzzles together instead of spending all of our alone time watching Netflix.
Medications for the kids for $20 – We ran out of children’s Tylenol [and this is a necessity when you have four kids under six] and my daughter got an infection and needed an expensive OTC cream.
Used ballet slippers for $2 – My daughter outgrew her ballet slippers for ballet class to the point where she couldn’t even put them on without being in pain, so we needed to get her a bigger pair. [We donated the old pair to her dance class instructor].
Toiletries for $20 – Brett bought another shampoo bar from Lush for $9 and also needed more deodorant and hair cream.
Total spent: $84
Over budget: $0
What We Are Going to Do With It:
The most important reason to stop bringing stuff into the home is that eventually I will [most likely] have to get rid of it. I mean, nothing lasts forever. So, I don’t want to bring anything into my home that I won’t be able to responsibly dispose of when I am done with it.
I’d like to think that Brett will keep the bracelet forever, but that is unrealistic. When he no longer wants to wear it, we will have to throw away the beads and donate the bracelet. Looking back on it, this was not the wisest gift choice on my part. In the future I will give him experience gifts like a brewery tour or something like that.
The ballet slippers and puzzles we will donate or give away to anyone who would like them. We actually only do a puzzle once, so we will be getting rid of them as we finish them. Maybe we can find a friend to swap with so that we all get new puzzles.
The medicine and toiletries will be consumed and then the bottles will be recycled. I haven’t found a way to eliminate the plastic medicine bottles from our lives – sometimes we just need medicine and I am okay with this exception to our zero waste rule until there is a better way.
The Minimalism Game
This month, I played the 30-Day Minimalism Game [which you can read about here].
If you’ve been following me on Instagram, you’ve probably already seen all the stuff that I got rid of – over 500 items!
Day 28-31 [combined into two photos]
Through this process I learned so much about being responsible for where something goes when I am done with it. I tried SO HARD to not have anything go into the trash. I listed stuff for free on OfferUp. I researched how to recycle unusual things. I even went back and forth with Contigo to try to figure out how to responsibly get rid of the kids’ chewed up water bottles [hint: there is no good way so I will never buy bottles like this again].
In a perfect world every manufacturer would be responsible for the product it is creating – either taking it back to be recycled into new products, or at the very least providing helpful information about how to best recycle a product. In a perfect world, companies wouldn’t be allowed to mass produce plastic crap that will still be on this earth when my great great great grandkids are here without at the very least having a plan for the end of its life. But, I can only do my best to avoid products like these. If I cannot responsibly rehome an item, if it cannot be recycled or repurposed or reused, then I simply should not be buying it.
Thankfully, nowadays, there are so many wonderful, easy [even FREE] alternatives for the typical plastic crap.
This month, only a handful of items [the lids to those plastic water bottles, a bag of plastic junk, and some expired vitamins] went into the trash. Everything else was donated or given to friends or recycled or repurposed.
For the rest of the year, I will be getting rid of 30 items from the house each month and continuing to report our shopping habits monthly.
Two years ago, I made a New Years Resolution that changed my life. Of all the goals you may be thinking of setting for 2020, I hope you will give this one a try.
To be perfectly transparent, this resolution didn’t actually change my finances at all, but what it DID do was change my PERSPECTIVE of my money. And, let me tell you, perspective is EVERYTHING. Even though I didn’t necessarily have more money at the end of the year [in fact, I probably had less], for the first time in my life, I felt really frickin’ rich.
My resolution was this:
I resolve to give money EVERY TIME ANYONE ASKS.
For the entire year of 2018,I gave money to every person holding a sign on the side of the road, every kid selling candy outside of a store, every collection bucket at an intersection, every additional dollar at the grocery check-out, every mailer requesting donations, every email asking for money, every heartbreaking commercial that I always used to ignore. I never kept track of any of it, so I have no idea how much this actually amounted to over the year, but, honestly, I haven’t missed any of that money and no matter how much it was, it was worth trading it all for the change it made in me.
To be honest, it was a huge relief. I didn’t have to endure that awkward feeling of trying to not make eye contact with whoever might be asking for money. I didn’t have to think about whether this person was “worthy.” I didn’t have to ask myself whether this was a “good cause.” I didn’t bother researching organizations to find out what percentage of their funds goes to administration costs or look up what the CEO makes. I didn’t pass any judgements or make any assumptions. I didn’t even ask myself if I could afford it [trust me, asking if you can afford it is the first step to finding an excuse]. I just said “yes.” Every time.
One time Brett and I were watching a Netflix comedy special without realizing that there would be a legit appeal for donations at the end…so, guess what. We are now proud supporters of Seth Rogen’s Alzheimer’s foundation called Hilarity for Charity.
Another time, Brett and I were on vacation in Baltimore when a woman came to us asking for five dollars. She told us a long story about why she needed the money and though we didn’t find it very convincing, her reason didn’t matter to me. All that mattered to me was that she needed money and I have plenty to share. We only had $20 bills on us at the time so I gave her one and wished her luck.
Now, I know what some people would say [because people have literally said these things to me]. “She’s just going to buy drugs.” “She is probably a professional beggar making $70k a year.” “You are not helping her, you are just enabling her.” “She doesn’t need a hand-out, she needs a job.” Yadda, yadda, yadda.
Trust me. I’ve heard it all. I was raised with the idea that the only safe, respectable place to give your money is to the church [so they can pay their bills and salaries and then use what’s left for ministering to their church members – am I stepping on toes yet?]. But I wanted to cut out the middle man and give to the needy. Even though my upbringing taught me that you can’t just give money to anyone, it failed to teach me the most important lesson:
Giving is just as much for the giver as it is for the recipient.
Giving money away at every opportunity is something that I do because it is right and good AND because it changes ME.
Giving teaches me to stop holding so tightly to my stuff, to let go of my reliance on my financial security, to live a little more by faith. Giving reminds me that I am blessed, that I was born into privilege, that I am no better than any other human being, and that everyone will face struggles and hard times and I can show simple, tangible love for my fellow humans by reaching into my wallet and giving [literal cold, hard cash] from my heart.
I have no right to pass judgements or make assumptions about the needs or intentions of others – because I am not god.
So many people try to play god, saying “don’t give money to that person because they will probably spend it on drugs or alcohol,” or “don’t give money to that organization because you don’t know if they will use it responsibly.”
Who are we to decide who is worthy of charity?
How are we to know who is “deserving” of our kindness and love? Why do we think WE are qualified to decide who should get money and who shouldn’t? Because we are the ones who have the money? Because we were born into a more privileged situation? Because we were taught the virtues of hard work and money management? Because we had parents who loved us and taught us these things? Does that make it okay for us to pass judgements on them? Or to even view it as an “us” and “them” situation?
We are ALL “US.” We are one big collective group of human beings – unique and diverse except for the unifying fact that we are ALL trying to find our way in the world. And it doesn’t hurt for those of us who are the most privileged to show a little more compassion, to give a little more and to judge a little less.
I like to leave the judging to god. After all, it is impossible for me to know a person’s entire life story from a sign on the side of the road, so I choose to let the universe handle all that stuff and I just do my part, which is give.
And if you believe the Bible, then I think you will agree that Jesus didn’t ask people to give only to those who have been fully vetted or who are completely worthy or who have never made mistakes or who will use the money the wisest. I’m pretty sure he just said to give to people who had needs. That’s the only qualifier. That they have needs.
My job is just to give.
This past year, I didn’t need to make the resolution again because I had already developed a habit. Now, the new resolution is to give more each year than I did the year before.
Every year we do our “Carlson Countdown to Christmas” with twenty-five holiday-inspired activities. This year, we did some new things and revisited some of our favorites from previous years.
For those thinking of starting a similar tradition, here are the activities we did this year and [at the end] some tips for making this happen!
The Annual Carlson Countdown to Christmas
December 1: Santa’s Holiday Workshop. This year we kicked off the holiday season with a park district event where we watched Santa arrived pulled by sled dogs and the kids participated in a variety of holiday themed activities.
Tip: Check your park district guide or local event calendar for ideas of things to do with your community.
December 2: Put up the Christmas Tree and Make the Paper Chain. Every year, the kids and I make a Christmas paper chain so that we can countdown to Christmas. This is a helpful visual for them to see how far til Christmas AND cuts down on them asking a million times if today is the big day.
December 3: Shopping for Toys for Tots. This is an annual tradition. We take the kids shopping for toys to give to Toys for Tots then drop them off in a local collection bin. This activity reminds us to appreciate our many blessings and give back to other kids in our community. And, as an added bonus, it helps us to see what toys our kids really love.
December 4: Homemade Marshmallows and Hot Chocolate. This was my first time making marshmallows, but I make hot chocolate every year. The kids and I LOVE hot chocolate and it is so easy to make at home. I can’t believe I used to buy it in packets!
December 5: Christmas I-Spy Game. I wanted to create an activity that would get the kids outside, and since my kids are really into I-Spy and “Look and Find” books, I hid a bunch of Christmas items in the backyard for them to find. They played outside for several hours searching and then re-hiding the items. I wore the baby in a carrier and we got involved in the game too.
Tip: The activity for the day does not have to be a big event or time consuming trip out of the home. I always gather a few simple holiday games and craft ideas to use on occasional days when we just want to stay in [or I’m exhausted].
December 6: Geneva Christmas Walk. This is a tradition for us, even though it always means long lines and walking around outside in the freezing cold. This year we got hot chocolate at Kilwins and took photos with the Grinch. This event is a Christmas classic for us.
December 7: Clay Ornaments. Every year the kids and I make ornaments of some kind. We’ve done salt dough. Last year we did paper. This year, we rolled and cut and painted and glittered cornstarch clay ornaments. This is a great way to make gifts and to add some new ornaments to the tree.
December 8: Christmas Light Shows. This is another annual tradition that the kids LOVE. We have several big, fancy light shows in our area [one was even featured on The Great Christmas Light Fight a few years back]. This year we all got in our Christmas pajamas and drove to the displays.
Tip: Even if you don’t have a fancy light show in your area, there are usually neighborhoods to drive through where the lights are beautiful. I have also seen Christmas light bingo cards on Pinterest which would be a fun game to play!
December 9: Bake Christmas Cookies. Every year, I take one day to bake Christmas cookies because I know that I will eat an obscene amount of cookie dough, and my health [and blood sugar] can only handle it one day. Let me tell you – it’s a special day! The kids love to get involved. Thus far, we’ve been making different types of cookies each year, but I’m hoping that over the years we will settle on our favorites. I think the melted snowmen cookies we made this year might be my favorite cookie EVER.
December 10: Deliver Christmas Gifts to our Neighbors. The gift has been different each year [this year we gave away tins of the freshly baked cookies], but we always enjoy walking to our neighbors to wish them a merry Christmas. This year everyone was home!
December 11: Puffy Paint Snowmen and Christmas Shopping. One of my regular holiday crafts is puffy paint snowmen because the kids love it so much and all it requires is shaving cream and glue. The 11th is also our wedding anniversary so we went out to dinner with the whole family and then took the kids shopping for gifts for each other. It was so sweet to see how thoughtful they were in picking out gifts that their siblings [including the dog], would love.
December 12: Daisy’s Birthday Party. We brought Daisy home three years ago on December 12th as a Christmas present for our kids and every year we celebrate that day as her birthday [we don’t know the actual date]. We bake her a little “pup cake” [humans get banana muffins with cream cheese frosting] and wear party hats and sing to her and give her gifts – the whole deal. It is seriously great fun!
December 13: Christmas Movie. I LOVE Christmas movies. And I love the excuse to watch the cute kids Christmas movies like The Polar Express, The Grinch, and [my personal fave] Arthur Christmas.
December 14: Christmas Tree Waffles. These waffles are an annual breakfast tradition – one day a year only. I didn’t get a picture this year but they are just waffles colored green and decorated with mini M&Ms and powdered sugar.
December 15: Christmas Tree Cinnamon Rolls. I saw this on Pinterest and thought they were cute. They are harder to make into a tree shape than you would think…only half of them came close to resembling trees. Still delicious though!
December 16: Birdseed Ornaments. This is another annual tradition. We love to take care of our feathered friends – especially since we live in a very wooded area.
17. Gift for Peter Rabbit. This year for the first time, we bought and delivered a gift for the bunny who lives in our local nature center, Peter Rabbit. Then we played at the nature center for the afternoon.
18. Gingerbread Houses with Auntie Paula. Of course this is our FAVORITE annual tradition – with our favorite Auntie!
19. Frozen 2 with Judi. My kids are old enough to go to the movies!!!!!!! [At least, my two oldest are…] So we went to see Frozen 2 with my good friend and fellow movie lover, Judi.
20. Read Christmas books by the fire. We have a big collection of kids Christmas books that we bring out in December – and something about a warm fire in the fireplace makes reading the stories extra special for the kids.
21. Oreo ornaments. More treats! No wonder I gain five pounds every December!
22. Puppy Chow and other gifts. We love to give edible homemade gifts that go in mason jars! We make puppy chow every year because it is easy, delicious, and the kids can help. Only bummer is that I have to buy boxed cereal for it, which I ordinarily never do. Next year I think I’ll try making chocolate popcorn instead to avoid the waste since I can buy popcorn kernels and chocolate in bulk bins.
23. Polar Express and 2 Toots. Every year we do our own “Polar Express” train ride to a little train themed diner called 2 Toots Train Whistle Grill. This year, my parents and my sister and her family came up from Indiana to join us.
24. Christmas Scavenger Hunt. This is a new activity that I hope to turn into an annual tradition. When we had our first kid, Brett and I began the tradition of opening one gift on Christmas Eve – always one Christmas book and Christmas pajamas. Well, our sustainability values no longer include a) buying new books [because we use the library and already own too many books] or b) buying new pajamas when they aren’t needed. We needed to change the tradition, so this year I created a scavenger hunt for the kids to find one Christmas gift for them all to share. Because it was hidden, it didn’t need to be wrapped. And it was also a toy set that I bought used.
They were SO EXCITED.
25. Monkey Bread, Orange Julius, [MIMOSAS for the tired mama] and Christmas gift exchange. Every family has their own Christmas traditions, obviously. Ours include a very extravagant breakfast [compared to our usual oatmeal] and a gift exchange. [I like to use the phrase “gift exchange” as opposed to “opening presents” because the former implies that we are GIVING as well as RECEIVING.]
Tips for a Successful Christmas Countdown
1. Make a LONG list. I brainstorm a huge list of ideas of crafts to make, things to bake, places to go, community events to attend, etc. We don’t do all of it, but it helpsto have options.
2. Include LOTS of simple, stay-at-home activities. The activities don’t all have to be extravagant or costly. We do plenty of simple activities like reading Christmas stories together, dancing to Christmas music, or coloring Christmas pictures.
3. Be FLEXIBLE. I used to tryto plan out the entire month in advance, but it’s impossible to predict what will happen over twenty-five days and sometimes you’ll have to adjust the plan. In those instances, having plenty of simple ideas will be helpful.
PLEASE let me know if you start this tradition in your family! The holiday season is about so much more than just gifts. We have so much fun celebrating it all month long, spending time together, and remembering to real reason for the season.
Every December, we celebrate the holiday season with our Carlson Countdown to Christmas – which is basically an advent calendar of holiday-themed activities for us to do as a family like baking Christmas cookies, driving to local Christmas light shows, visiting Santa Claus, making Christmas ornaments, etc. Each year I come up with twenty-four of these activities [some old, some new] and then go through the process of planning and organizing and actually making all of it happen.
It is a lot of work. It is also a lot of fun, but with four little kids, at this point, it is mostly a lot of work.
So, why do I bother?
Well, I am hoping that it will result in a lot of cherished memories for my kids and holiday traditions that we can all look forward to around the holidays. I dream of my kids getting excited on Black Friday, not to go shopping, but to start prepping for our annual countdown which always begins on December 1st with decorating the house for the holidays.
But in these early years, the kids don’t really appreciate or understand the lengths to which I go to ensure that we get to decorate gingerbread houses with Auntie Paula, and go ice skating at our local outdoor rink on a night when it is not absolutely freezing, or coordinate with Brett’s work schedule to make sure we can take our annual train ride and read The Polar Express.
Ah, the things we do as parents…
So, for now, I’ve been using these days to build a foundation of gratitude and generosity in my children by intentionally turning their attention to ways we can give rather than things we can get.
Here are some ways that we celebrate the season of giving:
Last year, we had a “Gratitude Tree” in the month of November to count all of our blessings. This year, we are doing a holiday version. At breakfast time, we talk about the things we are grateful for and add some ornaments to our tree.
[I rather like how “Dr. Seuss” our tree looks, pieced together from all the random pieces of green paper I could find in my scrapbook stash.]
We encourage [read: “force”] our kids to give gifts in many different ways throughout the month:
1. We take them shopping to buy toys to donate to Toys for Tots. This is hard for the kids, but each year it gets easier. We always explain in advance that we are picking out toys for other kids to open at Christmas. We obviously foot the bill.
[Side note: this is very helpful for giving us gift ideas for them as well.]
The kids drop them off in a local collection box, and let me tell you, I am so proud every time my kids put toys they love into that box.
2. We take them shopping to buy gifts for each other. In my family growing up, all five of us kids always gave individual gifts to every other member of the family. I don’t know when or how this came to be, but honestly, it is still happening even though we are all adults. I want my kids to enjoy giving gifts to their siblings so we are starting young [and also paying at this point, of course]. The kids also pick out gifts for Daisy the Dog, of course.
I ask them what their siblings would like for Christmas to get them thinking about it and then take them shopping. They did really well this year [after my son stopped insisting that his big sister really wanted a paw patrol truck].
Later I wrap the gifts with each child. My 3-year-old son wanted to put a message on the gift tags so he dictated these sweet notes for his sisters.
This just melts my heart.
3. We hand deliver gifts to the neighbors. We’ve done this every year since we moved into this house because I resolved to be intentional in building good relationships with my neighbors. The first year, we gave store-bought boxes of chocolates. [We had just moved in so I didn’t know if people would accept hand-made goodies.] Last year the kids and I made chocolate covered pretzel rods with holiday molds. This year, we delivered a tin of freshly baked Christmas cookies to each neighbor. [I think they know us well enough now to eat them.] We also give a gift to our postwoman.
4. We make ornaments to give to friends and family. We’ve done different kinds of ornaments – salt dough, paper, clay, etc. We tried mailing clay ornaments to the cousins one year. That was a bad idea. The next year we sent Danish paper heart ornaments. This year we made corn starch ornaments and will give them to local friends and family.
5. We give to every bell ringer. I will write more about this some other time, but we have a lot of fun giving to the bell ringers outside of the stores during the holiday season. I always carry cash to make sure we can do this. This sets an example of generosity for my kids. I want them to grow up seeing us giving freely and generously as often as possible.
The rest of our holiday traditions revolve around spending time together as a family. The “Season of Giving” doesn’t have to be about buying stuff and stressing over what to give who and how much money to spend and all of that. Giving is as simple as spending time with friends and family. The gift of time and attention is worth so much more than anything we can find in a store – especially nowadays when everyone is so rushed and busy and families are spread across the country [or around the world]. Time is the greatest gift.
It is also zero waste. 😉 Just sayin’…
I try to find as many ways as I can to incorporate giving into our holiday traditions because I hope that someday this will balance out the emphasis on receiving gifts that is an inevitable part of Christmas.
When the kids are older, I look forward to volunteering as a family – all year round, but especially during the holidays – to expose my kids to the hardships that face many people even in this privileged country and to show them that the true joy of Christmas comes from giving not getting.
It took me almost 30 years to fully recognize and acknowledge that I was born into privilege – and for the past two years, I’ve struggled with what my responsibility to the world is as a result. The answer, in part, is minimalism.
But first, let me back up and explain…
I was born into a white, middle-class, American family. For most of my childhood, my father was a pastor of a large church in Flint, Michigan. My mother was a stay-at-home mom. I have four siblings. My parents loved us and provided a wonderful life – full of family time, vacations, extra-curricular activities, medical care, a beautiful home, all the food we could eat, gifts at Christmas and birthdays, private education, help with paying for college, even braces for all five of us. Basically, we had everything we could possibly need provided for us. There were also intangibles like all the words of affirmation, hugs and kisses, training in important life principles like money management, hard work, perseverance, and kindness.
I enjoyed one of the most privileged lives a human being can have in this world – filled with safety, security, health and love.
And man, did I take it for granted…
Despite how great my life was, I spent most of my growing up years saying that we “weren’t rich.” I have literally said that countless times. I guess I thought my parents weren’t wealthy because we didn’t drive expensive cars or wear name brands clothes or eat at expensive restaurants like some of my friends did.
Then as an adult, I had the same perspective – that I wasn’t wealthy despite living a life of total luxury where I wanted for nothing. Yeah, I still don’t drive expensive cars or book vacations at Disney World and we live on one income in a wealthy Chicago suburb – but I will never again be foolish enough to think I’m not wealthy.
Why is it that the American middle class is so set on denying their own wealth? Everyone is looking at the small percentage of people wealthier than themselves, rather than the 3 billion people less fortunate. When I switched my perspective to intentionally noticing all the needs in the world, I became more and more aware of my own wealth.
What is more, I had to acknowledge that I hadn’t done anything to deserve being born into the family that I did – any more than those born in difficult situations deserved their lot in life.
This caused me a lot of guilt.
But guilt that produced action. Because I no longer felt that it was acceptable for me to live only for myself and my family.
But I was also very conflicted. On the one hand, I want to enjoy a comfortable life and provide nice things for my kids – but on the other hand, how do I justify spending all of my resources taking care of myself and my family when people are literally dying from preventable causes around the world? And what exactly constitutes “taking care of my family”? Where is the line between “needs” and “wants” in this consumerist society?
I began to struggle to justify any purchases outside of legit needs like food and medical expenses for my family. I feel guilty buying another shirt when my closet is already full of shirts that I don’t even wear. I feel guilty buying a fancy appliance for my kitchen when some simple elbow grease will do the job. I feel guilty throwing out food because I “didn’t feel like eating it,” when people go hungry all the time in this world. How can I spend $50 on decorative throw pillows for my couch when I know that I could pay for two months of education, food and medical care for a child in Uganda at that price?
The natural result was minimalism.
Minimalism, to me, means living with less, so I can give more.
Many people consider minimalism to be “extreme,” but it’s not. The materialism in America is extreme. The way we’ve all been brainwashed into thinking that we’re not rich is extreme. Minimalism is just the natural byproduct of recognizing our wealth and privilege in comparison to the rest of the world.
Minimalism has freed us from materialism and a love of money and has freed us to prioritize things that matter the most to us – family, travel, and most importantly, giving to causes and organizations that are working towards a better world for all of us.
For me, minimalism was my path to a more intentional, fulfilling life. But it may not be the answer for everyone.
The big question is not “are you a minimalist?” but “what are you doing to change the world?”
My son, Theo, turned three a few days ago. In keeping with our new sustainability and zero waste principles, we made a big deal of our time together [at Chuck E Cheese for the afternoon] and downplayed the gift portion of the celebration. We actually never even mentioned a gift and he never asked for one.
But, of course, we did give him a gift – a set of used Paw Patrol characters and their vehicles [one of which I used to decorate his “Paw Patrol” birthday cake that all the kids helped decorate.]
A few weeks ago we began looking for someone selling a used set of these Paw Patrol trucks because we knew how much Theo would love them. Living in the Chicagoland area meant that they were easy to find. We ended up buying a set of six vehicles and eight characters for $15. At Target, these Paw Patrol vehicle/character sets sells for $15 each.
But the point here is that it’s actually not about the money at all. Yes, there was a savings, but it’s not like we couldn’t afford to buy it all brand-new.
Why buy used?
The motivation for buying used is to give a second [or third or fourth] life to something bound for the garbage bin. Rather feeding the machine that is constantly making new toys [especially plastic toys] we should be intentionally prolonging the life of the current toy population. I basically rescued these trucks from a landfill. I am essentially a super hero. And they are perfectly fine toys. In fact, my son ADORES them and couldn’t care less whether they were purchased new.
Why not buy used?
So it got me thinking about why I would still never show up at another kid’s birthday party with a gift purchased second-hand. It’s one thing to buy a used gift for my own kid, but a completely different story if I’m going to give a gift to someone else.
There is some unwritten social code that says it’s unacceptable to give gifts that are second-hand.
We even frown [although slightly less so] on “re-gifting” and most people would agree that the appropriate way to re-gift an item is if the recipient doesn’t know it’s re-gifted.
Isn’t that strange? Why should it matter?
Gift giving today is about the represented dollar value, not how much it will be appreciated.
I think that what has happened to our society is that gift giving has become more about the ritual [i.e. gifts are required at certain holidays and events] and the dollar value [i.e. gifts need to be within a certain price range] than it is about the recipient’s enjoyment of the gift.
At my first baby shower, a cousin of mine gave me a gift for the baby – purchased new, obviously. After I opened it, she handed me a pair of baby girl Sperrys that she had found used and thought were so cute she had to get them for my baby, but she gave them to me separately because she wanted to explain that they were second-hand.
I LOVE those pink cheetah-print baby Sperrys! It didn’t matter if they were new or not. Both of my baby girls have worn them – and I’m sure this third baby girl will as well.
I find it perplexing and rather sad that we don’t feel free to give gifts just for the sake of their enjoyment value.
Similarly, when I started dating my husband, he and his siblings had a Christmas tradition of trading names for a gift exchange. They had set a value of $75 and then provided a detailed list of things they wanted. I went shopping with Brett that year and watched him cross items off the list and tally up the total dollar amount for his sister-in-law.
I couldn’t even believe it. Is this what gift-giving has become? I felt, even back then, that this was the total antithesis of what giving a gift should be.
Have you been out shopping for a gift and had some sort of mental idea of how much you needed to spend? Somewhere between being “too cheap” and being “too flashy”? And have you been invited to a party or shower or event and known without any overt statement that a gift is a requirement – or at least you would be viewed as a party crasher if you showed-up empty-handed? Have you tried to make sure that each of your kids gets the same general value of gifts or the same number of packages on Christmas morning?
Can we go back?
Can we go back to giving a gift purely because we want to, rather than because it’s required? Can we go back to giving a gift just because we know someone will love it and not care about how much it cost or where it came from?
I’m hoping that by continuing to exchange used gifts [whenever possible] in my immediate family that I will teach my children that gifts are for the purpose of making people feel loved and appreciated by giving something that they will love – not out of obligation or to follow social customs or to show that we have the means to buy new, expensive things.
Buying used isn’t being cheap, it’s being responsible.
Theo was so excited about those Paw Patrol toys that he didn’t even want to eat cake. Everyone else ate cake while Theo played with the trucks. All the other kids came to the table for cake eventually, but Theo only wanted to play.
These toys were the perfect gift – because they were used and because no one cared that they were used. They represented our commitment to sustainability and our belief that the value of a gift doesn’t come from how much is spent or where it is purchased, but from whether it is given out of love.
Theo’s Birthday Video
As is my new tradition for the kids, here is a short video highlighting Theo’s third year.