Buying fewer, better things can help you lead a more fulfilled, less wasteful life.
“Don’t care how, I want it now!”
Looking back, I have the uncomfortable feeling that as a child I might have channelled a bit of the irredeemably entitled anti-heroine Verruca Salt.
My parents, being rather more British than normal British people (due to the fact that they lived outside of Britain as expats in Hong Kong) never talked about money. I, therefore, had no real sense of what money meant—that it was something you could run out of, that one might consider not spending it the day you got given it.
From the earliest age, I came up with my own theory of money. Money was a problem to be solved—if I was given some, I needed to find something I wanted which cost that amount and spend it, ideally immediately. I’d get itchy with the desire the spend. Pretty stationery was my kryptonite.
My sister took the opposite approach. Her theory of money was that if you could see the numbers adding up in your pocket money book, that was good. To spend money meant the numbers went down. This was bad.
But it took me until my thirties to realise this. I knew of course, by this stage, that my impulse buying probably wasn’t the way to go. £10,000 of credit card debt and a chronically cluttered house were hard signs to ignore. But my sister’s philosophy of self-denial and buying the cheapest things possible didn’t seem right either.
Ironically, it was an uncharacteristically extravagant gift from my sister which set me on the path that would change my spending habits, my career, and my entire life forever.
It started with a pot.
A baby-blue Le Creuset casserole with a startling solidity and sense of mastery in the art of being a pot. Lifetime guaranteed, timeless and as useful as it was beautiful. I wanted everything in my life to give me this feeling—the feeling that here was an object that would nurture me for decades to come, and one day it might nurture my children.
I went looking for other heirloom items that would last as long as my pot. I assumed someone would have created a website which put all the longest-lasting, highest-quality items together, but it turns out they hadn’t. I felt an urgent sense of destiny that the task fell to me to make this website exist.
That’s how BuyMeOnce was born.
The more I found out about long-lasting products, the more I had my eyes opened to the horror of how damaging our buying habits are today. Since the 1930s, our spending has become more and more short term. Back then, the average person had nine outfits, and they’d repair and reuse them until they finally became rags to clean the oven with. Now we buy 59 pieces of clothing a year, and half of it ends up in landfill within 12 months. The pace of consumerism has made us all perpetually dissatisfied, increasingly lonely, debt ridden and anxious—not to mention the impact on the planet.
But what can we do about it?
I was forced to confront this question when the website went viral in 2016 and I was asked to write a book about the philosophy of buying for life.
The answer, learned through experience and years of research, is what I call mindful curation. It sounds pretentious, I know, but bear with me. It’s mindful because it is the opposite of mindless impulse buying. And it’s curation, because like a curator of an art gallery, you carefully choose all the individual pieces you want to bring into your gallery of life, but you also look at the big picture of what all those objects mean and what their effect is when put together.
The three steps of mindful curation are:
1) Take stock of what you already have.
This is crucial because it’s impossible to know what you need—and more importantly, what you don’t need—if you don’t know what you already have. Set aside some time to look through your items methodically. Gather them all together and then identify what your A team items are in each category. These are the products that you would reach for first if given the choice. Make everything that isn’t your A team justify its place in your life.
It may seem an oddball thing to do in a world that is constantly writing lists of things they want, but just the act of writing this down has left a lasting impression on my habits. Whenever I’m in a shop now, the list flickers behind my eyes and I find myself putting things back on the shelf.
With mindful buying, eventually all your belongings will belong to the A team. The B team can be donated or sold, leaving you home calm and decluttered.
2) Arm yourself against manipulations that get you buying mindlessly.
I call these manipulations The Three Monkeys of Materialism. While we try our best to live a calm, fulfilled, less wasteful life, these monkeys are hanging off our arm, distracting us.
Monkey one: The advertising monkey
It talks to you constantly, hundreds of times a day in fact, about what you should be buying and how good and happy you’ll feel if you give in to it. We all think we’re good at ignoring this monkey and that it doesn’t affect us, but it knows how to whisper to the parts of us that we don’t even know are listening. Recognise that this monkey has power, then look it straight in the eye and tell it, “No thank you, I have everything I need to be happy.”
Monkey two: The trend monkey
The second monkey makes fun of your shoes. It tells you that you can’t possibly wear that again! This monkey can be silenced by taking the time to dig deep into your unique sense of style. When you consciously build a sense of your own aesthetic, you can dismiss the fads and tell the trend monkey that you don’t give a hoot if spots are in and stripes are out because you’ve taken the time to find what makes you feel fabulous forever.
Monkey three: The status monkey
This monkey lives inside your head and is constantly pointing out what other people have, and whether they’re ‘above’ or ‘below’ you. This monkey is obsessed with being on top because in ancient times a human with low status might get kicked out of the tribe and starve—this is one paranoid monkey! The only way to combat it is to concentrate on getting your self worth from who you are and what you bring to the world, rather than what you have or what you look like.
3) Buy purposefully for the long-term
Spend time thinking about the whole arc of your life. The big picture. What makes it meaningful to you? What do you find purposeful? Make your buying decisions based on these drivers. If this seems hard, it might be useful to know that every scientific study has shown that it’s community and relationships that determine wellbeing, far above health and wealth.
Looking at your life through this lens, you’ll likely get a sense that you don’t need many material things at all. However, when you do need a material object to help you live your best life, according to your priorities and values, try to find the longest-lasting, highest-quality version of that item. Not only will this save you the stress of having to fix or replace it as often, but you’ll save money in the long term too. For ideas, go to BuyMeOnce where we research and compare products to find the ones with the most longevity and sustainability.
These products may cost more than the mainstream, as the materials and craftsmanship put into them are usually better. If money is tight, look for the same brands in charity shops or second hand. The great thing about BuyMeOnce products is that they can live on and on being useful and meaningful to multiple people, even multiple generations.
Some of my favourite products are a Solidteknics frying pan with a multi-century warranty, beautiful Elvis and Kresse bags made of reclaimed fire hose which the makers will fix forever, and lifetime-guaranteed Darn Tough socks.
I now live by these values. I practice mindful curation every day. My home is calmer, my bank account is balanced. But am I cured of impulse buying? I still get a familiar itch when I walk past a display of beautiful new notebooks. But then I think back to the list of things I don’t need. There, underlined several times is the line, “I do not need any more notebooks,” and that’s enough to stay my hand. The itch may never truly leave me, but at the very least I have a prescription to treat it.
Follow Tara on Twitter at @tarabutton.