Tuesday, December 16, 2008

shifting signifiers: solutions without spending (though a little late, now that my Christmas shopping is done)

Eighteen days after "Buy Nothing Day" and seventeen days through the season of spending that makes people hate Christmas, I finally bottomed out today on gift-giving excitement, confidence, and money. When I named this blog, the "poor" part was because I had initially thought of my approach toward household management as based upon my very limited budget, but that isn't entirely true. What may be more difficult for me to admit than being 'limited' in the budget category is that I am actually quite frugal (though I am 100% sure my partner would disagree now that we've just had the "I'm out of money early" discussion). The budget part is a fluid, ever-changing condition, but the frugality is probably permanent. Even when the budget was not so limited I always searched for a bargain, from shoes to food to housing. It's not just that I was raised that way, but I like it.
Publicly, I feel a sense of discomfiture in being what I'd like to call a "frugalite". It may be my generation and all the credit that was (until of late) thrown at us with reckless abandon (why they hell wouldn't you buy what you can "afford"?). But as Americans I believe we have--by and large--lost the ability to solve problems without spending money. We seem to assume that making positive changes necessarily means difficulty, discomfort and more money. Strangely enough, it usually doesn't, and even more strangely, when many decide to make a change they make the most expensive one.
From an environmental standpoint, this can mean buying yourself a Prius or a flex-fuel car, purchasing carbon-offsets, or--for hell's sake--a plastic bag drying rack. There is surprisingly little encouragement in this time of 'green living' being so hip, to focus our efforts on reducing our consumption rather than just consuming 'better'. So, for example, instead of boosting our economy with a new car loan for that friendly hybrid, we could further consider taking part in a local ride-share program or investing in a public transport pass. Instead of buying carbon-offsets, figure out what your actual carbon footprint is and start by making simple choices to cut away at the excess.
The age of disposability in which we live has made it cheaper (question, though, in what sense of the word) to buy a new cell phone, computer or car than fix the one we own when problems arise. I realize that things break down and eventually do need replacing, but as consumers we are urged and encouraged to dispose of and replace, without consideration of repair. Unlike the distant production lines where most of our products now come from, local small businesses support much of our repair needs. When the car, computer or t.v. does die, find the best means of disposal--be it donation or recycling.
It's kind of a fun, un-cool place to live, turning old doors into needed desks, soup cans into kid's art containers, wasted fruit into leather, garbage to compost. I'm by no means the Queen of Recycling. In fact, I'd rather be the Queen of Reusing. But the fun is in realizing that the solution to a need may not be connected by your bank account.
p.s. Please don't take this post to mean that I think one shouldn't donate to charities.

Check out Adbusters Buy Nothing Day campaign:

"Suddenly, we ran out of money and, to avoid collapse, we quickly pumped liquidity back into the system. But behind our financial crisis a much more ominous crisis looms: we are running out of nature… fish, forests, fresh water, minerals, soil. What are we going to do when supplies of these vital resources run low?

There’s only one way to avoid the collapse of this human experiment of ours on Planet Earth: we have to consume less.

It will take a massive mindshift. You can start the ball rolling by buying nothing on November 28th. Then celebrate Christmas differently this year, and make a New Year’s resolution to change your lifestyle in 2009."


Anonymous said...

Just discovered your blog - it's a lifesaver for a poor college student looking to live with a lower impact, like me. Thanks!

The fact that so few people have addressed the idea of consuming less has significantly confused me for years. It should seem obvious that the major problem with American society is all our "stuff" - it doesn't matter how green it is, it still takes resources to make and clutters up landfills when it's thrown away. Even recycling requires precious resources. Thank you for addressing what can sometimes be a sensitive topic.

Riley said...

I'm guessing that you search for a good bargain via internet or newspaper, right? Just wanted to point that out-- I know some people who are very proud of their frugality.. and will drive 20 miles out of their way to find a cheaper bag of rice, possibly saving $2.00 for their efforts.
I think that that is the mindset that you are proud of--- and that we don't see in a lot of people our age, but a in quite a few of the people in our grandparents and some of our parents generation. While it's certainly a quality to aspire to, there are definitely some (very few, but worth noting) flaws in holding that value up above others.
As with the problem of recycling not being such an easy fix because of the energy it requires, there are also a lot of other things to consider when bargain hunting...what resources are you using in the searching? what businesses and in turn, what values are you supporting at the end of that "cheap deal"? how many extra miles are you driving for a "more frugal" purchase?
There's also the issue of consumerism/spending being a good thing (in very few cases, but...) such as buying a new refrigerator being far more beneficial for the environment because of the massive energy savings, or the manufacturing and purchasing of solar panels....That's why I thought you made such a good point about using more public transit instead of upgrading to a hybrid... instead of driving an older car with much higher emissions being a better solution when you're aspiring to stay a part of the "poor scene".
Since I know you personally, i know that you're well aware of these considerations, but I wanted to point out some of the problems of rigidly adhering to the "Poor Pride" that I see in some people when we're trying to make a difference on our "green scene".
Thanks for posting something from ADbusters. I think they could be the only grocery store publication out there that doesn't need to push consumerism to survive.... but then again, you do have to buy their magazines....
Ok, um. Preaching to the choir here. (:

_ said...

Riley, I think you miss the point of the post. It isn’t about frugality at any cost. The post is about stepping back from a very destructive consumer culture -- “But as Americans I believe we have--by and large--lost the ability to solve problems without spending money.”

Especially with GREEN as a social subculture (think jock or stoner was in high school), socio-economic barriers are put in place to keep people out of the clique. GREEN, to some extent, has become just another product. And, like so many products, Americans are using it as a social identifier. Truth is, the middle-class bohemians drinking fair-trade coffee and driving electric cars don’t wield a big enough hammer to solve this problem – even if they are doing the “right” thing. Until the movement becomes a populist movement – and not just a status symbol –there will be no significant headway.

When people from all political, economic and social circles start to live reasonably within their means in terms of consumption of Earth’s resources, will Americans get a foothold on their portion of the global environmental crisis. So, instead of buying a “better” car and buying carbon offsets, or even buying a plastic bag dryer, it’s about getting on the bus, turning off the lights and reusing a bag at the grocery store. It’s about living simply and sanely – not buying something new so you can be part of the GREEN crowd.

Andrea said...

Money has become an addiction in our society. We buy our kids treats and games and toys for going "potty" on the toilet, when really a simple star on their forehead or a call to grandma to congratulate their efforts would do far more for their self-esteem and move more quickly in the direction of being fully potty trained than a toy or gift.
I watch as people give my kids a "buck" here or there for riding their bike by themselves or being nice to their sibling - all of which drive the need to have money or spend money to make oneself feel good.
What happened to the good old days when you got a pat on the back for doing something well? Do we really NEED all the junk we are buying? I think it is a disease that even I myself (also very frugally minded) suffer from time to time.
Now, I'm not saying go back to the day of my grandparents when you wore a dress and washed the other - but, maybe the next time you find your self NEEDING to purchase - ask yourself, do I need or want this item? It's ok to buy new things - just recycle that which you are no longer using. Send clothing to good will, use old clothes for rags, mend clothing - find gifts that don't put a strain on your budget, etc, etc. In other words, "use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without."

I like the idea of setting up a day when you do all your shopping for the week and then spend nothing the rest of the week - I'd probably spend a lot less and make things work out or get more creative by not going to the store for just one more thing ...(when in reality I'd come home with 5-6 extra items.) I'll make this a new year's resolution.

No spending or spending on a budget is like a diet - and it's time for America to diet hard-core!