Someone asked me a long time ago, ” Do you want to be a consumer or a contributor?” For some reason, that really stuck with me. I think being frugal is now in my blood. Mind you, it wasn’t always that way. I never really had a desire for expensive jewelry, designer clothes, makeup or cars. But I did (and still do) splurge on massages, pedicures and nice vacations. Eating out meant at little hole-in-the-wall Thai or Mexican restaurants that have way better food than the fancy expensive ones, in my opinion.
I have been fortunate to live in some modest but beautiful houses with spectacular views, including the one currently in Hawaii. I guess one could consider that a splurge. The intention was never to have a status symbol or keep up with other doctors’ lifestyles. Rather it was about whether it suited our needs and if we liked the aesthetics of it. We have always been financially prudent. To me that means asking oneself, Am I getting good value for what I am spending?
Coming from India, growing up in a middle class family, I was taken aback by the abundance and consumerist culture when I moved to the US about 28 years ago. Back then, I totally became immersed in it. My favorite activity was browsing the shops at the mall. I could literally spend hours in there just inhaling products on display. We did not have much money then for extraneous expenditures, which was probably a good thing, because my self-control was rather limited. But over time, when my closet got filled with clothes and shoes that were impulse buys, a sense of overwhelm and annoyance set in. I was tired of trying to sort through them, clean them and take care of them. I also had a hard time letting go of stuff that I was not using.
Gradually over time, I have become mindful of my purchases. One tip I read about was to take a picture of your closet and look at it when you go shopping if you are tempted to buy something. That really works for me!! The sense of dread of needing to find space and take care of “just one more thing” in an overflowing closet can be quite the deterrent.
However, what I really wanted to talk about was WASTE on a larger scale. With flooding of markets everywhere with cheaply made, mass produced goods we are trashing the entire planet. We have all read and heard enough about plastic waste destroying our oceans, landfills full of un-recyclable stuff and hoarding as an addiction. It is mind blowing that most garages in America are used as storage spaces and then we go out and rent even more commercial storage space for all our stuff.
“The paradox is that we all know that more stuff does not translate to more happiness.”
So why are we caught up in this culture of “more is better”? Tied to this, I think, is the reason why people aspire to have more money. It is the classic hedonic treadmill effect. When we buy or get something new, our level of happiness rises for a while. Then we return to a set point which is our baseline. But the addictive nature of the “high” lures us into another purchase. So we are constantly chasing the highs, filling a void in ourselves that is only temporarily satisfied. There are stories of lottery winners who have bankrupted themselves and ended up being more miserable than before they won their windfall. We roll our eyes and swear we would never be like them! The lesson here, I guess is that there is no such thing as “enough money”.
It saddens me to see waste in healthcare. For example, my husband and I have both had colonoscopies and do not need screening for another 10 years. When we moved here from the mainland, we enrolled in a new practice. We have informed the clinic time and again that we do not need to do the annual colon cancer screening test. We have given them copies of our tests. And yet, we get mailed the kit every couple of months or so. It is such a waste!! All it really needed was for a member of the clinic staff to make a note in our charts.
Even when I was working at the hospital, I saw numerous examples of waste. It seemed like the more we used computers, the more paper we wasted because many of us old foggies are still used to reading on paper versus the computer screen. To compensate, I invariably would print double sided and re-use faxes by turning the paper and re-inserting in the fax machine.
As the population of the world continues to grow briskly, I think it behooves all of us to ask ourselves that very important question I noted at the beginning. Consumer or contributor?
I admit, sometimes I feel a bit peeved. Why should I be one of the contributors while many others seems to be greedily consuming? Whether it is driving our cars with just one person in there, when with a little bit of effort we can find ways to use public transport or carpool, or recycling when possible and keeping our trash to a minimum, it is not a huge sacrifice to make.
So are you game to make some changes?
Here are 6 simple steps.
1) Take 5-10 minutes today to sit down with a pen and paper and jot down some ideas of what easy things you can do to decrease waste in your life. This needs to be a free thought exercise, don’t overthink it. However big or small, possible or impossible it may seem, just write it down.
2) Then put them in the order of doability. You know yourself best, so your priorities are unique to you.
3) Breakdown the task into small steps. For example, let’s say you decide to clean out your closet. I would suggest tackling one shelf or rack at a time. I know there are others who suggest emptying it all out and then putting back only what you really use or need. Every time I look at the pile waiting for me, I get stressed.. So that didn’t work out so great! But if it works for you, then that’s fantastic.
3) Commit on your calendar a few minutes or longer to the task for a week, longer if it is a bigger project.
4) I would suggest finding an accountability partner. Could be a family member or a friend. Could be a post on Facebook!! When you commit publicly, your odds of carrying out the plan rises multi-fold. Better yet, make a fun challenge out of it, with prizes to boot!
5) Rinse and repeat.
6) Start thinking of ways to avoid accumulating stuff to fill up space you just emptied!!
Don’t forget to make it fun and to celebrate your wins (without wasting, of course 😉).
For me, the reward has been positive energy. I like to live in uncluttered space. I feel good as a human that I am doing my part to not pollute the world. It feels like I am in charge of my choices, not swayed by commercials and other influences that constantly induce me to buy, buy, buy…
I don’t go “window shopping” any more, mostly because I don’t really enjoy it that much and also because I still find it easy to give in to temptation sometimes.
We recycle and compost. Since we both don’t have day jobs anymore, we share a car. We batch errands, so while I am at the gym, my hubby gets the grocery shopping done or drops off garden waste. We never waste food. Leftovers are our friends!! We batch cook large quantities, so it frees up time for other fun activities, like hanging out at the beach.
And, here comes the crunch…we have saved a ton of money, so we can now live life on our own terms!! I honestly don’t feel like I have missed out on anything, living with little to no waste.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I still have some things to work on. I have to clean out the house we lived in on the mainland that my son is currently occupying.
I have to work on not wasting “time”. I find myself too much on my phone these days and am fascinated by the concept of digital minimalism. More posts to come on that whole topic!!
Please leave thoughts in the comments section below. What steps, if any, do you plan to take to move on the spectrum from consumer to contributor? Or if you are already there, please share your story with us.