Use it Up, Wear It Out

With the economy in turmoil, the falling standard of living and the ongoing jobless rate, many people are reassessing their buying patterns and attitudes towards consumption.

I’ve blogged about this before, but the Frost household is thinking carefully about the way we used to consume and spend and we are working to be more thoughtful about how we allocate our money and where our priorities lie. This is actually quite satisfying. Somehow if one considers carefully before making a purchase or decides not to purchase, it is more meaningful. Likewise making things last and re-furbishing things that might have previously simply been replaced not only saves money, it helps conserve. The more we hang on to and use well, the less goes into landfill.

This theme was the subject of a New York Times article not that long ago. Faint echoes of the Great Depression and a subtle shift in attitudes were documented with statistics and anecdotal reports. Consumers are hanging on to cars, computers, clothes and other goods longer and they seem to be feeling pretty good about it.

We had this experience just recently. The heavy teak shaft of one of our backyard umbrellas was shattered in the winds of a late winter storm. Sure, they said that umbrella could stand up to the strongest winds, but not this time. As we began the spring clean up in the backyard, I picked up the umbrella carcass thinking sadly of the cost of replacement. I was all the way out to the curb when Jim caught up to me and said he thought he could replace the shaft. We put the damaged umbrella back in the garage. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. The umbrella was expensive and neither of us were excited about spending several hundred dollars on a new one.

After a short internet search, Jim was triumphant. He could replace the shaft with a stronger, yet attractive, metal shaft for $22 plus freight. It felt good both to know that our umbrella could be resusitated and that it wouldn’t end up in the back of a garbage truck adding to the landfill.

 What feels even better is watching this attitude filter down to our kids. Living in an upper middle class suburb, the patterns of conspicuous consumption have always disturbed us. Kids driving to high school in BMW’s and feeling no compunction about hitting the mall with their mom’s credit card in hand: those were values that we didn’t want inculcated into our family. But we could be as guilty as the next guy with thoughtless consumption and permissive spending. Sure, I loved to take Ellie clothes shopping and overindulge, but was that really good for her? When is too much too bad?

But it is clear not only from their conversation, but their actions that being more mindful of spending is sinking in. Ellie has two part-time jobs and is really proud of the money she is earning. Peter is tutoring math and that first $20 bill made him feel really great, too. They don’t ask for money for shopping. And they think carefully before spending their own. Add this to the benefits of careful consumption. It may be the most potent benefit of all.

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