How much is enough?

Having enough — not too much, not too little — is kind of a foreign concept in this country. In the three hundred odd years that we’ve been around, we seem to swing between the extremes of not having enough (as colonists, pioneers, Depression survivors) and having far too much (roaring twenties, materialistic 50s, and everything that followed). It’s like we’re cultural bulimics with a consumption disorder on a national scale.

Somewhere in this mess, the idea of having enough seems to have gotten a little lost. It’s not just about having enough money to cover your basic needs and some of your wants; it’s also about having the time and energy and space to enjoy being alive. The equation is simple enough: the more things we want, the more money we have to make, the more hours we have to work, and the less energy and time we have for relationships, hobbies, experiences, and perhaps even our own health and sanity.

This is not my idea, by the way. It’s one of the founding principles behind one of EcoCatLady’s book recommendations, Your Money or Your Life, and it’s such a nice, intuitive idea that I’m amazed we have to read a book to wrap our heads around it. Buying too much stuff is expensive not only to the planet, but also to our own very finite resources of time and energy and money.

I heard the other day that the average wedding dress now costs $8,000. My first reaction was to wonder how many feral cats I could save with that much money. My second was to retort that I got married in a pretty shirt I picked up at the thrift store and a skirt that I had bought over five years ago. Neither Kevin nor I cared. Our marriage isn’t doomed because we didn’t spend thousands on a wedding. Our lives are not poorer because we don’t have smart phones, new cars, designer sunglasses, or granite counters. Quite the opposite, actually. Those things come at a price we’re not willing to pay.

Surprisingly enough, when I think about my life in terms of enough, I’m almost there already. I’m not wealthy, but I have more than I use. I have a thoughtful spouse who puts up with incredible amounts of eccentricity (trust me, I’m worse in real life) and a companion kitty who reminds me every day of the rewards of a little patience and kindness. A quiet home in which I feel comfortable and safe. A hobby that leaves me feeling centered and fulfilled. A job that I don’t love but leaves enough space and money for the things I do.

Maybe it sounds naive, but I like my life. I find the world endlessly interesting. I enjoy being alive. And it has absolutely nothing to do with how many pairs of shoes I have. It’s true that I would eventually like a small country house with a garden and a potter’s wheel. And I know I can’t count on enjoying good health for the rest of my life, so it makes sense to have savings and safety nets for the future. But they don’t seriously challenge my gut-level conviction that I have enough. 

I imagine that everyone’s version of enough will look a little different, since happiness is so subjective and individual. Mine is especially low budget because I am unsociable (no keeping up with the Joneses), don’t have kids (no college funds to save up for), don’t have a television (less advertising), and hate the piped music and fluorescent lighting common to most malls (shopping limit: roughly 30 minutes each month).

I don’t blame you if my choices don’t sound appealing, but I do invite you to spend some time thinking about what you have, what you need, and how much is actually enough. Isn’t it time we started shopping less and living more?

25 responses to this post.

  1. Ah! That picture is pretty crazy. So much stuff. It’s so easy to accumulate things, especially when you’re settled and not constantly on the move. It can be hard to throw away things you don’t need, but have sentimental attachments to. And sometimes it feels like we need everything we own in some way, shape or form.

    But honestly – I’ve never given it a lot of thought. In college, I had significantly (or at least comparatively) fewer items than other people I met. Many girls brought their entire lives with them when they came to campus – ESPECIALLY first years. Girls will find couches, lamps, furnishings – anything to make their dorm feel like home. But I was really low-grade compared to these girls. Not possessing nearly as much, my room always felt like no one lived in it. I only started buying posters because I felt that I required them. Not necessarily because I *wanted* them.

    Admittedly, sometimes I just want to put some essentials in a bag and just go backpacking. Or something equally as freeing. But I’m attached to the grounding that having my belongings tends to give me. So I’m often torn between: do I have too many belongings or is what I have enough? And how do I curb my belongings when I tend to only try to buy what I like and feel that I will use regularly?

    Great post!

    Reply

    • Hi Tatiana,
      If you think that photo is bad, you should check out the show Hoarders. Watching it always gives me the irresistible urge to go and clean out a closet. I have a somewhat ambivalent attitude towards my stuff. My dad has definite hoarding tendencies, so I sometimes get worried I’ll end up like him and go on a stuff purge.

      I spent two non-consecutive years in England, and each time, everything I brought had to fit in a suitcase I could carry. And since things were pretty expensive there, I only bought what I needed there, like linens and toiletries and food. My room looked pretty sparse both times, compared to the rooms of my British schoolmates and even other international students. It was fine, actually.

      I’m not sure there’s a clear way to gauge how much stuff is enough. If you’re happy with what you have, don’t feel the need to buy much more, and don’t spend too much time worrying about your stuff, I think you’re probably fine.

      Reply

  2. Love this post and especially the way to worded it. My fave line: “It’s like we’re cultural bulimics with a consumption disorder on a national scale.”

    How much is enough is a question I think about a lot, especially as I’ve been on a decluttering journey for, oh, years. When I was much younger I dreamed of having a huge mansion of a house when I grew up. Then when I bought my little 740sq ft home, I thought it would be a temporary, started home and that one day I would upgrade to a cape cod with an extra bathroom, bedroom and a dining room. My house seemed too small, but it turns out it isn’t, I just had too much crap! Recently I’ve started thinking this might just be enough forever.

    Now that I’ve woken up from our consumer zombie-type affliction, I find it hard not to gape, judge and lecture others (especially my family) who are still consumed with having the latest gadgets and buying more, more, more. How do you resist the urge to be critical and gently nudge them towards awareness?

    Reply

    • Hi C.,
      I used to dream about living in a castle! My current home is a little bigger than yours, but my friend just bought a condo the same size as yours. It seemed like plenty of space, actually, and got me wondering how much smaller I would be willing to go. I’ve seen the tiny houses, and I don’t think they’re for me. I’m not enough of a minimalist to want to live in 300sf with a cat and a spouse. But 500? 700? That seems doable.

      Your question about how to influence the people around you is something I haven’t figured out. It’s tricky, because I don’t want to define what enough is for anyone else; I just want them to think about what they really need and want to be happy. I don’t initiate conversations, but I’m happy to answer questions about why I live the way I do.

      Reply

  3. Woo Hoo!!! I’m so glad you enjoyed the book. :~)

    Reply

    • Hi EcoCatLady,
      Here’s the part where I have to confess I haven’t finished it or done the exercises. (Kevin tried to contact Social Security to see how much money he’s made in his life, but apparently they now charge $30 to release that data. Huh.) I don’t think I have the ambition to do the exercises, the but the central idea of stopping at enough is definitely a powerful one.

      Reply

      • I did the audio version and it’s just as great! The author’s voice is very easy to get into if you know what I mean. I loved the concept when I heard Vicki speak about “enough” —Thanks for the thoughtful post.

        Steph

        Reply

        • Hi Steph,
          How cool that you got to hear Vicki speak! I don’t know why this idea of enough has taken such a backseat to other (in my mind, more trivial) campaigns to change light bulbs or stop drinking bottled water. It seems so clear to me that the little things are all just symptoms of a bigger disorder — our inability to be content with what we have. Unfortunately, ‘more’ is so ingrained in the culture that I don’t even know where we could begin digging.

          Reply

  4. I love this post!! It’s wonderful that you like your life … that you don’t need a lot of “stuff” to define yourself and your happiness. After all, stuff can disappear in a moment … and then what? It’s true … people spend a lot of time in the pursuit of stuff but work so hard to get it that they never have time to enjoy it. How sad and empty is that! From an environmental perspective, pursuing stuff is a big problem … huge amounts of yesterday’s stuff are overflowing our landfills. When I think about all the reasons for acquiring more and more stuff, a lot of them boil down to fear … a fear of not having enough, a fear of not looking good, etc. Hm … maybe if society wasn’t afraid, the earth would be in better health!

    Reply

    • Thanks, Small Footprints! Your story has definitely been encouraging. It’s great to hear from people who have tried out the so-called American dream and then leave it for something better and more fulfilling. I hope you’ll blog about it sometime (you’re more than welcome to guest blog here if you like!).

      You have a great point that our tendency to keep and acquire stuff stems from insecurity. What a terrible thing to ruin the planet and our own lives for!

      Reply

  5. Wonderful post Jennifer! I’ve been packing for the last few weeks, and, as usual, I take this as an opportunity to clear all the clutter we have. I noticed that all the things I’m getting rid of were bought several years ago (and we just kept carrying them with us “just in case”), when I was not so aware of what I really needed…it’s good to realise that we don’t need that much stuff to be happy🙂

    Reply

    • Hi Cristina,
      There’s definitely nothing like a move — especially an international one — to help you get rid of things! I hate moving, but I have to admit, there was something fairly liberating about going to England with nothing but a medium sized suitcase, and coming home a year later with exactly the same. It’s wonderful to hear that you’ve gotten more discerning about what you truly need and want. Good luck with your move!

      Reply

  6. I have been grappling with this as well. My partner and I are in the process of moving from a small town to a bigger one with a much more expensive rental market, and by necessity will need to downsize from a 2 bedroom apartment (with 2 cats who don’t get along well) to a 1 bedroom. And we have a lot of hobbies, and a lot of stuff! We tried to get rid of a lot in the move…but no doubt there will be plenty more to shed as we try to find space for it all in the new place. And we’ll kick ourselves for having schlepped it around across multiple state lines only to discard it in a new place.

    Reply

    • Hi Eliza,
      Kevin and I are pretty spoiled right now; we have three bedrooms, so each of us has our own space plus a communal room we can share when we feel like it. (We both like our own space, as you might be able to tell.) The downside is that we do have more room for stuff, and (not surprisingly) more stuff than we would in a smaller space. We’ve been thinking about moving to a smaller space, and I’m hopeful that we’ll also get less attached to our stuff as we get older.

      The cat situation sounds a little tricky, but I’m sure they’ll figure something out eventually (before they drive you crazy, I hope).

      Reply

  7. Jennifer,

    This is the perfect picture for this article! And I loved this line: “It’s like we’re cultural bulimics with a consumption disorder on a national scale.”

    I’m complete in line with you. I enjoy the simplicity of my life and wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s wonderful to be able to say: “I like my life.” That level of contentment is rare in this culture. And it’s the discontentment that bring suffering.

    I appreciate the insight you offer here.

    Reply

    • Thanks, Sandra! You’ve been one of my role models for enjoying life without always wanting more. It’s so sad that we live in a society that encourages us to be ambitious without valuing contentment. I wonder if basing everything on an economic model of growth has seriously skewed our ability to appreciate simply having enough.

      Reply

  8. I think my distaste for malls is about as strong as yours, Jennifer! Shopping is no fun, it puts me in a foul mood, I can’t stand crowds, and there are so many more productive or relaxing things I could be doing with my time. These days I’m content enough with what I have that when my mom asks for gift suggestions, I’m stumped!

    Reply

    • Hi Andrea,
      I actually used to work in a mall…not even one of the big, obnoxious ones, but it was still more mall time than I ever wanted in my life. Shopping leaves me tired, grouchy, and worst of all, indecisive (I sometimes end up going home without getting what I needed because I couldn’t decide if I really needed it, or if I did, which one to get because none of them was perfect). What a waste of time and energy!

      I had a similar experience the other day at the bank. I had too much money in my checking account and needed to transfer some of it to savings. The teller commented, “If I had that much in my checking, I’d just spend it all!” I paused, tried to think of what I would spend it on, and just couldn’t come up with anything.

      Reply

  9. Our consumption in this country is out of control, and yet our whole economy is based on it. What have we done to ourselves?

    I also find it easy to fall into the trap of wanting more new things, better new things, I just have to keep reminding myself about what is really important.

    Reply

    • Hi Brenna,
      Thanks for your thoughts. I agree that our economy and way of life are unsustainable for the long term. It’s frustrating that so much of what goes on is based on short term profitability — and that the government does very little to rein in big corporations that do the most damage or to promote a more sustainable way of life.

      I think it’s perfectly OK to get new things from time to time — something that you’ve been wanting for ages or that means a lot to you. My rule of thumb is William Morris’s quote, “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” Love this philosophy — moderation rather than minimalism, with enough space for beauty.

      Reply

  10. This really resonates with me, and is something I think about a lot. Most of us have way too much stuff. We work too hard, sacrificing our time and relationships, so that we can have more money to buy more stuff. We really don’t need most of it, and the Earth and future generations will pay the price. I feel like an alien sometimes, walking around in a mall, seeing everything so differently than the hoards of people around me. It makes me sad and upset and full of despair all at the same time.

    There is a Raffi song I play for kids that goes like this:

    “All I really need, is a song in my heart,
    Food in my belly, love in my family.”

    Reply

    • Hi Sherry,
      I get pretty down sometimes, too. Just today, I fished out plastic water bottles from the dumpster and put them in the recycle bin. It blows my mind that someone would not only drink bottled water but also not even bother to recycle the empty bottles! Really makes me wonder if my efforts are doing anything besides slightly offsetting the indifference of the people around me. At the same time, I realize that I can’t live anyone else’s life for him/her, and there is plenty in my present that does make me happy. It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got.

      Reply

  11. Hello Jennifer,
    I recently spent a year in China working for an English-language newspaper as a copy editor and columnist. The Chinese are in the midst of a consumer binge that they regard as evidence they’re progressing to First World status. After a young woman paid more than $500,000 for a dog (and escorted it home in a caravan of Mercedes Benzes), I wrote a column warning about the dangers of rampant consumerism. It wasn’t what people wanted to hear, but you can see it if you like at http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/metro/2009-11/09/content_8932795.htm.

    The opportunity we have in our present economic distress is to start appreciating the benefits of restraint on mindless or pressure-driven spending that has been imposed on us by circumstances. Once our national economy improves, I hope we keep on practicing such restraint. The benefits of “enough” compared to the pressures of “more” should make this easier!

    I stumbled across your blog while looking for a homemade facial moisturizer recipe, and now have it bookmarked as a favorite.

    Reply

  12. Hi LGibson,

    Glad you found me! And good for you for speaking up about the problem in China. It’s hard for me, as an American, to criticize other people for wanting the ‘American lifestyle’ — but at the same time, this planet can’t afford even one America, much less America plus a westernized, consumer-based China.

    I would love for America to come to a mass realization that this kind of lifestyle is not only totally unsustainable but also unfulfilling, but I am skeptical that we’ve learned any sort of permanent lesson from the recession. I think the world economy might have to collapse first.

    Reply

  13. Posted by albali on 06/27/2013 at 15:25

    great article, I read something like that in the past but it is good I’m reading it again, it motivates me to make changes. Thanks for posting this

    Alba
    http://www.macondoartisans.com

    Reply

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