The majority of us are acquisitive people. We like things; we need things. We enjoy getting new purchases; we take pleasure in showing them off, using them, and sometimes even just looking at them. And this is all before the advertising backbone of consumer culture even comes into play, telling us what things we really want, even though we never thought we wanted them.
Even those of us, like myself, who try to be very conscious of the goods we purchase and their environmental and social impact, can be pretty acquisitive.
Left unchecked, it can result in impulse purchases filling closets and drawers, the contents left languishing seldom used, and, in extreme cases, rental of that public shrine to overconsumption, the self-storage unit.
So, what to do?
If you want to really start living small, here are three questions to ask before getting anything new and when evaluating those items you already have for potentially sharing.
1. Do I really need this? Before bringing anything new into our lives, seriously contemplating the degree to which the item in question (or experience) will fill a role in enriching our lives in a meaningful, lasting way, ought to be the first question — one that gets asked often ...whether the internal debate lasts mere moments or several weeks.
Perhaps it's super basic, but if you are reading this, you likely have everything you need, at least on an existential level. So, the majority of your purchases fall into a category of wants rather than needs anyway.
If you have trouble answering that question with clarity, ask yourself the next question. (And even if you have clarity, ask it of yourself anyway, just to be sure.)
2. If I've lived without this until now, can I continue to do so? That's
for something totally new, but if can also be asked of anything you already own and are contemplating parting with, phrased slightly differently: If I'm not using this item now, do I really need to keep it around?
In either case, this question is an important check on yourself. It's one where the answer may surprise you.
An example: I'm a book guy. Or at least I think I am. There are probably people out there who think my library is pretty paltry, but I've always really liked books. In any case, in an effort to maximize the perceived space of my smallish New York City apartment, I built bookcases with closing doors, replacing an old, now-rickety Ikea shelf bought years previously. Out of sight, out of mind. Truly. What I've discovered in the seven months or so of putting my books behind doors is that, while I do reference some of them with regularity, the majority of them I've not given a second thought to in all that
time. Some of them I've literally forgotten that I owned them — and all without caring one bit about it.
I'm not quite mentally in the space to part with those forgotten, behind-closed-doors books just yet, but that realization was mind-opening.
Applying it to totally new acquisitions keeps you from getting to the place of having to build new bookcases in the first place.
Every situation and item is different, with the answer easily going either way, but just pausing and asking it is very important.
If you've answered in the affirmative, that yes indeed, I need this item and yessiree I can't live without it any longer, ask yourself the following question.
3. Is this item the most long-lasting (physically and stylistically) and greenest option available? That's really a long version of asking yourself if the thing you're about to get is a just piece of disposable trendy gadgety tchotchke-ness — a horrifying amount of stuff out there is, after all.
This gets at the deeper basis of living small, which to my mind, is really not just about making the most out of small spaces, or minimalism in life, but also about living small on the planet and in our communities. It's about going through life like trying to walk across a puddle without making ripples.
Those things you do acquire ought to be beautiful, well-made, styled in a such a way that after years of ownership, they never look dated (even if your personal style may have changed). They ought to made of durable materials, as environmentally safe as possible; and ideally, produced by someone making a fair wage for doing so, in healthy working conditions.
Unfortunately, the facts of contemporary civilization are such that even for items that you do actually need, you may not be able to check off all those criteria in the previous paragraph. In which case, check off as many as you can and feel like you made a good decision in less-than-perfect circumstances.