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What counts as enough? - #85
An exploration of money, stuff, and spending.
Many months ago I told y’all I was going to participate in a “Buy No Things” challenge for the entire year of 2023. It just so happened that around the same time of was doing her own purchasing challenge: Six Weeks of No Spending.
I emailed Nic and asked her if she’d want to get together and talk about it. I hope you enjoy our conversation, and I’d love to hear your reflections on it.
This past Tuesday, our trash barn got new bins. It was big news for us locals because it alleviated what was a headache for many of the 200 residents: sorting the recycling.
I found the sorting process therapeutic, like data entry at an entry-level job after a night of too much drinking. I liked ripping apart cardboard boxes and smashing cans. I liked feeling like a thoughtful citizen. The new trash bans don’t require sorting. All cardboard, glass, plastic, cans and the like can be dumped into a few new dumpsters instead of the many single-use bins we had before. The trash will still go to the landfill a county over, about 80 miles from here, and the recyclables will head to the “big city” on the Western Slope, Grand Junction, to be baled, and then to Salt Lake City to be sorted and sold. That’s the hope, at least.
Our town manager drew a map to indicate the new positions of the trash dumpsters relative to their position before, trying to make the change to something easy even easier. As he noted in his email announcing the change, “The new dumpsters are in — now for the hard part — changing human behavior.”
This town is, at the very least, pretty good about sorting their recyclables from their trash. But it doesn’t address the bigger problem: we’re producing too much trash of every kind. Two hundred people should not fill an entire barn with trash every single week. There are many ways to have a reckoning with human trash production: living in a town where there’s no trash pick-up is one of them.
In my conversation with Nic, I talk about my inspiration for a Buy No Things challenge. One of them was the trash barn. I’ve written about the trash here before, and how our intimate relationship with it helped push me and Ben toward better, smarter trash practices. I promise this essay is interesting and not condescending.
But going into Buy No Things, I was motivated by more than just the trash. I also wanted to investigate my relationship with stuff. Buy No Things meant buy no fun things. Buy no nice to have things. Buy no things beyond replacing things like detergent, shampoo, and band-aids.
This past month, Ben and I were going on a “get out of the snow for Kelton’s sanity” trip to Costa Rica and Mexico. By the time Ben and I arrived in Mexico City on the second leg of our trip, it had been 3.5 months since we’d bought something that wasn’t a necessity or an experience. And going into CDMX, we’d already planned a Mexican exemption: we could buy anything we wanted from local artisans, so long as we could carry it on an airplane. I bought two small pieces of art, a hanging hammock chair for the loft, and a beaded doorway curtain.
When we got home, we immediately hung the beads in the doorway to the basement and then proceeded to talk about it for the next several hours, commenting on how it perfectly dims the light behind it, how impeccably the wooden beads match the wood tones in our house, how it was magically exactly the right size for this doorway despite the house having many peculiarly sized door openings. Mostly, we talked about how much we loved it, how it felt like kismet and serendipity and us.
For days, and still, walking through those beads just delights me. Few other house purchases have ever reached this level of admiration. Perhaps the only one that still warrants this much awe is the chaise in the front corner. But the bead curtain and the chaise share one important attribute: they both took ages to find.
One evening around 10pm the first week after Snoots’s death, Ben got out of bed, went to the wood shop, came back with a screwdriver, and took off the door to our basement. At the time, I hated it. The stairs to the basement were unfinished and ugly. I liked having the door to block them out, even though we never fully shut that door. But I said nothing. Ben was grieving and if taking that door off helped in any way, then fuck that door.
The next day, staring at the gaping yawn into our basement, I said we should get beads. 1970s beads. Ben looked at me the same way I looked at him when he’d taken the door off. I don’t like it, but I like you. But beads were a future worry — we weren’t buying things. In the meantime, I painted the stairs alternating shades of teal. I wanted them to emulate the colors I missed from the Caribbean. Nothing we’re doing here is for resale. It’s for joy, after all. Though that did not stop several of my friends from DM’ing me the simple message of disdain “Kelton.” after seeing these stairs.
For the next few months, we talked about the stairs. We’ve touched almost every corner of this house since moving in nearly two years ago, but the parts that remain unchanged from the previous owner we refer to as “vestiges of Dick.” I love Dick, but I can’t say I loved how he kept house. These stairs were a final vestige, and now, however hideous, they remind me of something I love. Ben and I talked about how it was nice to make them ours, to add a little joy, and how one day we’d have a beaded curtain and it would be even better.
Then on a sunny day in April at La Ciudadela, I saw the beads. I turned to Ben.
“Ben, the beads.”
And so they were wrapped up, on their way home with us, months after the idea had planted itself. The chaise had been similar, mainly in that it took nearly a year to find it. We needed a chaise that fit exactly the right measurements because neither piece of furniture on either side of it could move. When we finally found it, ordered fabric samples, and then eventually met the delivery people at the end of our road because they couldn’t drive here, we couldn’t believe it when we saw it in place. It was exactly what we’d envisioned. It was perfect.
If I had simply googled “bead curtain” on that gloomy January day, if the perfect chaise had been my first click, if I always satiated my wants as soon as they arrived, I don’t think the fruits would be edible. I think they’d arrive stale as fast consumption, sweet with no nutrients.
I’m not trying to pretend this is a novel idea. It clearly isn’t. But it’s a little like ordering a Wendy’s Spicy Chicken Sandwich on a roadtrip every five years just to remember it makes me feel like shit. I did the Buy No Things challenge for myself not only because I wanted to save money, not only because I wanted to lessen my trash, not only because it’s fun to try things, but because I knew my consumption habits were slipping into a nearly fruitless dopamine cycle I thought I’d beaten years ago.
In 2022, there was a Stuff Inevitability. After spending almost a decade in LA, we simply didn’t have the right stuff to live here. When we moved here in July of 2021, we knew that renting in Topanga was very different from owning in Colorado. We needed things to live here. But what we needed bled into what we wanted, and Buy No Things was (and is) the right challenge to help us curb that behavior.
In the audio, Nic and I share our best strategies for not buying, as well as the areas we found the most difficult. And I’ve found that getting rid of things feels just as good as getting things, because what I do get is space. Breathing room might be hard to buy, but I’m finding it easier to come by.
I’d love to hear: what’s your relationship to spending? What “best habits” have you put in place, and which are you hoping to replace?
Speaking of breathing room, thank you for supporting me taking a break in April. I’m so happy to be back. And if you’re new, hi! What a delight to have you here. If you’re like “what… is this” then I recommend starting here: