You Are Not What You Own (and Neither am I)

‘The compulsion to identify with consumer products reaches deep into our lives – from our choice of homes to what we put in them.’ (The Joy of Less, Francine Jay, 2010)

I’ve been reading (the kindle edition of) The Joy of Less: a Minimalist Living Guide, by Francine Jay, and also her short ebook Miss Minimalist: Inspiration to Downsize , Declutter, and Simplify (really a collection of her Miss Minimalist blog posts, but for $0.99, it was worth the price to have them all together on my mobile phone). Now, I am not now, nor am ever likely to be a true minimalist. As I’ve said before Joshua Becker’srational minimalist‘ approach works for me. And it’s worth noting that where Joshua has children, Jay does not. But that doesn’t detract from the value for me – both inspirational and practical – of Jay’s books.

The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life. Francine JayIn fact, although Jay really is a minimalist in the true sense of the word, what she advocates is not having next to nothing, but only having what you need: ‘minimalist living is not so much about living with as little as possible – but rather, as little as possible to meet your needs.’ Even then, her definition of needs is loose enough to allow for my need for (say) a food processor, because I do a lot of cooking and use it every day (actually I don’t have a food processor, though I suspect I would use it frequently if I did have one).

For Jay, once she began decluttering, she found it exhilarating and consequently much easier than she had expected.  As I’ve said before, while I love the feeling of accomplishment I get with each bag of stuff I drop off to the charity shop, overall I find the process hard. I have too much attachment to stuff, too much respect for the ‘what if’ scenarios my brain just can’t stop throwing at me. For goodness sakes, I was collecting items for my ‘useful box‘ (the link is for those who never watched Play School) before I was even trying to get pregnant with my first child. Just very special things that you don’t come across every day, but still. It’s a pretty telling habit.

So for me, reading the decluttering blogs and books is a good way to help maintain my motivation. I’m never going to have a house like Jay’s – and I don’t want one. But I do want a house where there’s a place for everything, and nothing just shoved onto a shelf or into a basket because there’s no-where else to put it.

For me, decluttering has two main goals. One is to have a clearer, cleaner, tidier house. One in which everything is easy to find and easy to put away. One in which the children’s imagination can run wild, uncluttered by the vast array of stuff we have now. The other goal is really about modelling – and living – a way of being that is the opposite of conspicuous consumption. Where resources are not wasted, money is not spent wastefully, and the earth is respected and understood, so that the material we take from it is valued and used well.

But there’s a third one as well. In The Joy of Less, Jay identifies different categories of the things we own – things that are useful, and things that are only potentially useful, for instance. One of the sub-categories she comes up with is ‘aspirational  stuff’.

‘Contrary to what marketers will have you believe,’ she writes, ‘you are not what you own.’

‘Nevertheless, we occasionally fall prey to the advertisers pitch. Therefore, we must account for another subcategory of items we own: ‘aspirational stuff’. These are the things we buy to impress others, or to indulge our ‘fantasy selves’ – you know, the ones that’s twenty pounds thinner, travels the world, attends cocktail parties or plays in a rock band.’

I would add to that, the one that’s twenty years younger. The one you perhaps used to be, in a different time and place. Do I really need that dress I bought when I was 22? Even if I lose that 10, or okay 20 pounds, will I actually wear it again? Do I need the books I read at university that let’s face it, I am not ever going to open again? Why do I keep them? So that people can look at my bookshelf and see that I once read Literary Theory and Philosophy? Who am I kidding here?

Okay, keeping those lit crit books on my shelf is probably not doing any major harm on its own, but I do feel that adopting a more minimalist lifestyle can send an important message to my children. You are not what you own. You do not need the latest Pokemon book, Lego set, or even Berenstain bears book to be happy or cool or fun. And you do not need to own things you can borrow from the library, read, and return. You can always borrow them again if you want to. At the moment my kids don’t have much issue with this (I’m pretty sure). They don’t want things in order to project an image, but there is a definite sense that having more things will create more happiness. Already Mikeala, who’s five, will ‘read’ a book and then examine the back page with the pictures of other books in the same series, telling me which ones she ‘really wants’, sometimes before I’ve even read the first book to her.  Liam (who’s ten) will do the same with the catalogues that come with each set of Lego.

One suggestion Jay has for helping to thin out kids’ stuff, is to offer to buy their less used (or unused) toys, at perhaps a dollar an item, and then donate them to charity. I’m in two minds about this, as I’d love them to just give things to charity themselves, and I don’t want to create a sense of entitlement (any more than they already have). When they have finished using something, either because they are too old for it or simply bored with it, I would like it to feel just normal to them to pass it on to a younger sibling, or to simply give it away.

However, they are how they are, and there is definitely something to be said for working within the bounds of reality. Maybe by decluttering now, I’ll help Eliane, who’s only just turned two, start out with better habits. I just got rid of a whole bunch of her old toys (most of which had admittedly once belonged to the older kids), and put a few others away for when my one-year-old nephew moves back to Australia later this year (with his parents). Hopefully, Elli’s still young enough that she won’t even notice.

What about you? How do you go about decluttering (or avoiding cluttering) your children’s stuff, if you have them? Or how about your own ‘aspirational’ items – do you find it hard to let go of the things you bought because you want to be someone who will wear/use/be that item? Or do you not have that sort of stuff in your house?

  7 comments for “You Are Not What You Own (and Neither am I)

  1. April 20, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    This is always a struggle with us, especially with the bigger kids (my kids are 10, 7, and 1). I do try to have them participate in the process (and I try to talk to them about my own efforts to declutter)– we’ll do a little challenge and have everyone pick 5 items, 2 pieces of clothing, etc. I do go back in when they aren’t around and make another sweep.
    I have a hard time deciding what to save for the little one, since there’s such a big age difference– several of the books I’ve read say to just get rid of whatever you aren’t using at the moment and trust the universe to bring what you need later, but where I have an attic, I find I have trouble letting go. The sentimental part of me just enjoys seeing the baby in a shirt my son wore, or playing with the same blocks…
    We do have our downstairs in decent shape, now, and the kids rooms are mainly messes because the 7 yo takes every scrap of cardboard ever in there to make “robots”.

    • Kirsten
      April 21, 2012 at 2:06 pm

      Oh yes, I hear you with the cardboard. We have that, plus paper planes *everywhere*!

      I’ve tried having every one choose 2 or 3 or 5 things, too, and last year we tried to have a “one in one out” rule around Christmas presents, but it didn’t work as well as I’d hoped…

  2. Pene rixon
    April 24, 2012 at 12:13 am

    I agree. We are not what we own. Sometimes I forget that but then I just have to recentre myself put things back in perspective and I feel fine about what I have or haven’t got . If i can focus on wanting less – i find it a whole lot easier in everyway. I am not a natural declutter, but actually in the last 12 months I have taken to it and I am finding liberating and quiet easy. I want to have a tidy house because I find it easier to live that way but it isn’t the way I grew up or even what I place “value” in. In fact my father always mocked people who had tidy homes, suggesting that they didn’t have more interesting or intellectual things to do with themselves. When he comes over I feel like I should mess up the place a bit incase he thinks I’m a bored housewife doing housework as “therapy” as he puts it… that i should spend my time reading instead of tidying. My attitude changes about it all , but your post has given me things to think about. Thanks . I love reading your stuff.

    • April 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

      Isn’t it funny how our upbringing continues to have such an impact on how we feel about things? And how we can both look at the same house and have such completely different reactions because of that?

      I do think decluttering is the only way I am ever going to be able to keep a tidy house, because the Lord knows, I am never likely to prioritise tidying the house over, say, reading blogs 🙂 I think your Dad needs to read some feminist-mother blogs (starting with my latest favourite, Blue Milk, but at the same time, I wish I could internalise some of that attitude – that it’s okay to be sitting here reading/writing while my kids are occupied, when I could be doing the dishes, folding the laundry, hanging out the washing still in the machine, tidying up the living room after a kids’ double sleep-over last night, or maybe even doing some more decluttering…

  3. May 23, 2012 at 2:05 pm

    I can attest for this fact. I used to be an online shopping addict and I was addicted to the latest gadgets. I sold all my useless stuff and I live a much simpler life though.

  4. August 7, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    I loved this book by Francine Jay. It was one of the first ones I read at the beginning of my journey, along with Joshua Becker’s on simplicity. Your website is great. I’m adding it to my blog roll. Can’t wait to read back through your prior articles.

    • August 8, 2012 at 9:25 pm

      Thanks Kandice. I keep coming back to those books. Joshua Becker’s bits about not spending the weekend cleaning particularly appeals! And how about not spending the weekend washing and sorting laundry? 🙂

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