74: Use less stuff – how to do it, why it’s hard

74: Use less stuff – how to do it, why it’s hard

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Want to use less stuff? Let’s dig into a different way to look at the issue: the actual reasons using too much stuff started, why it happens in areas of our life we’re not even aware of, and how that may be the key to helping us use less stuff.

(Don’t want to read all the words? This blog post is also a podcast—just press the triangle play button on the little black bar at the top of this post!)

This article is not about seeing if you can fit all your trash from the year in a tiny little box—this goes deeper than how much we’re throwing away. This is about what comes before worrying about how things are packaged or what we’re going to do with it all when we’re done.

Why do we use too much stuff? Because it’s there. And it’s cheap.

I don’t need coffee—really, I don’t—but I drink a lot of coffee. And I got okay with drinking a lot of coffee because it didn’t hurt at all to buy it. The “problem” is that now I’ve found some really great coffees (small business, small batch roasts like Holler Roast) that I really like that are more money than what I can get at the grocery store. And to buy that really great coffee would cost me a lot more money for the amount that I drink.

What are my options here? I have two: buy cheaper coffee or drink less coffee. 

And the answer to this question is really what’s underneath our issue of using too much stuff.

In the past, things were more expensive and less readily available because giant corporations weren’t the ones producing the things. Things got cheaper when we wanted the convenience of readily available options. And I don’t just mean available for you and me, I mean for everyone. You know how a l-o-n-g time ago it was only the wealthy that could afford meat? And now, hundreds of years later, we have fast food joints pumping out more burgers and chicken sandwiches than we know what to do with?

That’s how we ended up with feedlots and giant chicken houses and cheap meat. It was the only way to supply for the demand.

You know. We needed (cough) more stuff (cough).

More stuff for less money.

Years ago, this wasn’t anything I considered when I questioned how to afford my favorite small batch coffee or locally raised meat. I just fell into the if I’m going to be able to afford to have all the things I want, I need to buy the cheaper versions frame of mind.

Yeah, it wasn’t fair.

Yeah, I wished I could buy the better stuff and support my local peoples.

But I “couldn’t”.

But with age comes wisdom. And along the line I realized it’s easier to afford the better stuff—the stuff that’s priced at the true cost, not the cheap-labor-crappy-food-giant-corporation-version cost—when you’re scaling down to what you actually need. 

Side note: I understand that some of you are in a stage of life where you have to buy the cheapest thing available. I’ve been there, too. I know what it’s like to walk into the grocery store with $10 and wonder how to make it stretch. Please take what you can from this topic that works right now, and save the rest for when you’re in a different place financially.

Some people pay more for organic because they feel like they are voting with their dollars. Regardless of how you feel about the validity of the organic label, chances are that if you pay more for what you eat, you’ll be more careful with how you use it. I can spend $7 on a quart of conventional heavy whipping cream or I can spend $6 on a pint of organic heavy whipping cream. If I buy the organic, you better believe I’m going to use it sparingly.

Which is really how I should be using it anyway.

And maybe that’s the point. Things are so readily available, and in the grand scheme of things, cheap, we sometimes pour/cut/use/eat more than we really need to. 

Read that again.

We all need to use less stuff. The reasons we aren't might surprise you! With a little reframing, we can get back to using what we *need*.

Use less stuff? Ok. But I still expect what I want to be available

Have you ever been at the store when the shelves are bare? When they’re out of an item? When a shipment didn’t come in?

We go to the store and we expect items to be there.

We go to Amazon, and we expect there to be an option—and that it can be shipped with prime. We press a button, and a couple days later it shows up. In 20 years, will people forget how much it costs to get something somewhere without the postal system or that there even is a cost involved? Did we really already forget how much time and/or gas it took to drive to a store and pick something up ourselves?

Yeah, we probably did. But we’ve already got item number one and two in our online cart, so let’s add items three and four as long as we’re here…

There’s too much stuff because of a) convenience and b) options and c) always having everything available. And this is so normal and commonplace to us that we don’t even bother wrapping our heads around it anymore. We think the commitment to use less stuff has to do with less plastic in our packaging or clearing our landfills. We never stop to consider that what we’re dealing with starts way before the product is packaged. It starts way back with the fact that we expect it and its comparable options to be available right now, for cheap—whether we’re talking about coffee or dog treats or garden tools or charcoal or the part we just broke on the tiller.

You’re closer to self sufficiency and self reliance when you use less stuff.

Many homesteaders have a dream to be completely self-sufficient. And while it’s a great goal, understand that not even Ma Ingalls was completely self-sufficient.

Historical facts aside, when we say things like “I could never be completely self-sufficient” is it because we want too many things? Use too many things? Do you need to do an honest assessment of the things you feel you require for self-sufficiency?

On the other hand, consider this: if you’re not self sufficient because you can’t grow lemons, bananas, or your own wheat, that’s pretty common. But realize the fact that you’re used to having it absolutely comes back once again to the question of convenience and options and availability.

Step back a minute. Lemons, bananas, and wheat aren’t naturally and immediately available to everyone on planet Earth. That’s a fact of life. 

And I’m not saying you shouldn’t have lemons or bananas. I’m just saying it’s a really big question to unpack when you start thinking about it. The things we have available to us that aren’t immediately or naturally available to us have changed the system and in many ways, cheapened it, and made us blind to how much things really cost—to raise, to produce, to ship, etc. And when we’re blind to how much things cost or the reality of the natural availability of them, it’s easy for us to use way more than our share.

A couple hundred years ago, this conversation may have been about trying to get fruit out of season in the Midwest. For us now, the conversation is about having ten different kinds of coffee that can be shipped to your front door tomorrow morning.

So, how do we actually use less stuff?

So if we really want to use less stuff, what can we do?

It’s not rocket science. It doesn’t require a degree or a fancy book title or a TED talk to figure it out. In fact, I think we all inherently know what choices we can make to use less stuff.

We all need to use less stuff. The reasons we aren't might surprise you! With a little reframing, we can get back to using what we *need*.

Slow the hell down. Chaos drives us to convenience, and convenience almost always uses too much stuff. Understand the difference between being busy with work and busy work and stick with the one that actually accomplishes something. Time management is important!

Don’t reach for seconds. Don’t make the second pot. Understand what you need, take that amount, and then move on.

Don’t one-click. Our homes are filled with stuff we are never going to use. Many purchases won’t even happen if you take a day or a week to think about them.

Reuse and re-purpose when you can. While there are shiny brand spankin’ new advancements available to us, remember that your homesteading ancestors didn’t have them and built a really fabulous, fulfilling life for themselves. Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or…

Do without. Not because you’re a martyr, not because you’re going to post a humble brag on Instagram. But because a hallmark of the homesteading life is simplicity. And while there are clearly things we need to have in order to get our homesteading tasks done, we also know that there are very few things more important than good food in our belly, our family at our side, and the peace that comes with knowing we’ve done our best with what we have.

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We all need to use less stuff. The reasons we aren't might surprise you! With a little reframing, we can get back to using what we *need*.

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1 thought on “74: Use less stuff – how to do it, why it’s hard”

  • I so want in on this discussion! I love it when I open an article and it takes me in a slightly different direction than I expect! Well done!
    There is an expression that, “We spend the first half of our lives accumulating things and the second half trying to get rid of them.” Well, I’m older than you, and I wish I had never purchased many of the things I have. I wish I could scream that to younger folk. If I had to do it over again, I would stick much more closely to needs and not wants, and I would have had a plan, nd have asked more for hand-me-downs of needs, I would like to have put myself on a “budget” of purchases by number of object rather than by dollars. These are all things I am doing today. I have a capsule wardrobe that is practical and I like, and I don’t let myself go over 16 items a year, including underwear, coats, shoes. It makes me MUCH more selective and has stopped clothing clutter and the time (and money) wasted on stuff barely worn. I am trying to get myself to adhere to only 2 other permanent items a month (with of course many other things going out the door). My mantra has become “Quality, not quantity.” I want only the tools and items I am likely to use for most or all of my lifetime, and of a quality that they will last that long. No plastic containers to organize stuff I have forgotten, but instead things like a good wheelbarrow, which I use to garden my own food and use every day most of the year, and the pots I need to can my harvest, and a bicycle for those shorter trips around town, and some tools to repair things. Not everything, just needed things, well used things. If I were younger, starting out my life, how different it would have been if I could have, for example, only gotten one thing a week for my life, and had to plan each time what I needed most… a set of dishes or an extra set of sheets? Well, I don’t need “extra” anything, I know that now. And I know I don’t want anything disposable! The numbers I set (adjusted for the stage in my life) is arbitrary, but it is to get me to think harder, have a plan, prioritize, and pass up most things that are not truly needed for the long term. I also simplified my grocery shopping list. Inspired by “grocery minders” of 100 years ago, I wrote out a master list of about 45 grocery store items. I used these lists of 100 years ago to look for the basic things most needed. They are nearly all whole foods, and nearly all grown or raised in the Midwest. Things like, “milk, flour, baking soda, meat, fruit, lemons, greens., vinegar.” It is simple. And it is not that I don’t occasionally buy something else not on the list like cookies, but mostly I don’t. Instead I get the flour, butter, sugar and what I need to make the cookies (chocolate did make my list!), and I set aside one morning a week for baking and making which is more than enough for our needs.. It has been a joy to switch over to this simpler way. It makes grocery shopping easier to have taken away choices that are just not that important to us. We have much less food waste, because we only get things we will use and that won’t be forgotten in the back of the cupboard or refrigerator.
    I loved many of the things you mentioned because the whole global shopping system is something that I have been trying to figure out. You are absolutely correct, I love going to Amazon and finding exactly what I want (like a covered Pullman loaf pan so I can make our own square sandwich bread), but it is definitely something to stop and ponder. On the one hand, we want less, but because we want less, we want that less to be as specific to our needs as can be. It is a conundrum!

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