Every time I’ve ever moved, I’ve wondered how I managed to accumulate so much stuff.
After a year in Nicaragua, I developed a theory that shed some light on the matter. You see, even our best efforts at simplicity were still show off by Nicaraguan standards. For example, we rented bicycles (plural, as in one for each of us) to look for a house rental. Our “agent” was two grown men sharing one bicycle. When travelling, we had our luggage with wheels and handles. Locals traveled with tied up garbage bags. At the beach we wore swimsuits; locals wore underwear, shorts or a T-shirt. Side by side, we did the same things – eat, play, learn, travel – but we always needed more stuff to do it.
It’s easy to say “that’s the difference between rich and poor – having stuff versus not having stuff,” but this is the kind of brainwashing I’m trying to scrub out of my mind.
The truth is we had fundamentally different ways of problem solving. If we had a need, we’d reflexively search for something to add to our lives – most often that meant shopping. Nicaraguans found solutions with what they already had. Yes, poverty demands ingenuity to use what’s available, but the inverse is not true. Wealth doesn’t demand we acquire something new every time we perceive ourselves lacking.
The following concept of derivatives has helped me combat stuff accumulation. Let me know if it helps you too.
A derivative: something that comes from something else: a substance that is made from another substance. –Webster’s Dictionary
Around the house, derivatives could be explained this way:
- What we need = Sources
- Everything else = Derivatives
Knowing the difference between the two has been an ongoing journey of discovery. One, because we live in a sea of consumer products masquerading as necessities. Two, there are things we don’t need, but improve our lives or are such a part of our culture that we can’t imagine life without them. Derivatives are a wonderful human invention, no doubt, but they come with 4 dangers if left unchecked.
Danger #1: Derivatives take up a lot of space
I once dreamt of a fully stocked kitchen. To that end, we built a house around a 5’x6’ kitchen pantry and wasted no time filling it up. We soon needed more shelves. Then we needed containers and organizing systems to pack it even tighter.
I can’t pinpoint when it dawned on me that “a fully stocked kitchen” was a fool’s errand, but it happened, probably after my 3rd or 4th Tupperware/Pampered Chef party. Turns out every known edible item has at least one tool attached to it. Bagel slicers, rice makers, vegetable steamers, pizza slicers, coffee grinders, pastry cutters, a garlic press, it goes on and on. The Huffington Post features some fine examples of how far we can take things here – I recommend the 14 different types of fruit slicers.
Once upon a time a knife, a pot, a spoon and some fire could do the cooking. In our human quest to make things better, faster, easier, more efficient or more stylish, derivatives were born. Popchartlab.com has practically built a business charting derivatives in artful ways. It’s illuminating to see 100’s of kinds of cocktail glasses, reading glasses, shoes, watches, cameras, or movie monsters all laid out in one place. This poster is one of theirs.
Here are examples of derivatives we got rid of. Not having them has barely impacted our experience in the kitchen, but freed up so much space:
- Special occasion dishes = derivative
Regular dishes = source
We decided dishes didn’t make the occasion and our everyday dishes are now our special day dishes too.
- Muffin tins = derivative
Cake pan = source
We eat exclusively cake now.
- Apple slicer = derivative
Knife = source
Yes, I use a knife to cut apples.
- Stoneware = derivative
Glassware = source
Glassware is far more multipurpose than stoneware. Plus glassware comes with lids.
- Plug in flat grill/George Foreman/wok = derivative
Cast iron pan = source
- Toaster oven = derivative
Toaster or oven = source
I also had martini glasses, margarita glasses, red and white wine glasses, cognac glasses, water glasses, plastic glasses, beer mugs, tumblers, etc. They felt sophisticated to use and were fun for parties, but life was changing and simplicity and serenity were becoming more important than style and show.
If you’ve read my post on patterns, you’ll know wide mouth canning jars of various sizes have replaced all these glasses and become an essential “source” to replace 100’s of other household derivatives as well. Have they replaced everything? Well, I’m trying.
Me: “What’s this?”
Hubby: “A coffee mug”
Me: “Is it for someone or something?
Hubby: “They were giving them away free, I thought we could use it.”
Me: “We have four.”
Hubby: “We should have more for guests.”
Me: “We can always use jars”
Hubby: “But they don’t have a handle”
Me: “No, but they work fine.”
Hubby: “But you have to hold it from the top then.”
Me: “I don’t mind doing that.”
Hubby “Fine. Give it away.”
An early victory. I still had “When do we have 4 guests drinking hot drinks at same time?” and “If we must have 5 coffee mugs let’s at least make them match.” I married a gadget guy who appreciates the finer points of customization. We’re on the same page about loving our simple life, but getting here has created some interesting domestic disputes. He won the corn cob holder argument. I won the drinking glasses.
Danger #2: Derivatives separate us from our money
Clearly buying unnecessary stuff is a waste of money. What’s so tricky is we don’t know if something is unnecessary until after we buy it and it sits in our closet untouched for a year. We buy what we think we need, what we hope will improve our lives, and what we believe will give us status or make us fit in culturally with our peers. This makes us terribly susceptible to outside influences.
Did you know that until recently babies to 6 year olds all wore basically the same white dresses everyday? Creating derivative colors, girl colors and boy colors, was a way to get us to spend twice as much money on kid’s clothes. Check it out in this Smithsonian article.
Alka Seltzer doubled sales overnight by showing 2 capsules being dropped into water instead of one in advertisements. Read here for even more blatant and wildly successful marketing campaigns.
We tell ourselves advertising and media doesn’t affect us, but it does. $545.40 billion was spent on traditional advertising in 2014 alone. It’s a good investment. The old saying went “half of the money spent on advertising is wasted, you just don’t know which half.” In the age of the internet where everything can be tracked – where your mouse is, what buttons you press, how long you stay on a page – the ubiquitous use of credit cards and with advances in brain science and behavioral science, I’m quite sure companies know with great certainty the effectiveness of their spending.
Procter and Gamble sells household name products like cleaners, baby gear, make up. They have the biggest advertising budget in America – nearly 5 billion dollars a year. (They sell stuff that costs $5 – $20 per item and they have $5 billion to spend just on advertising!! We buy a lot of their stuff.) It’s not just competition with other companies, they need us to believe we need their product in the first place. Laundry soap is one thing, but we’ll spend 4x as much if we believe distinct laundry soaps are needed for delicates, colors, whites and baby gear. We may not have bought the idea of the happy house wife cleaning toilets in ads, but we did buy the idea we needed toilet bowl cleaner to clean a toilet.
My daughter suffered from horrible eczema as a baby – I did every and any suggestion I found on the internet to help her including an elimination diet for myself (she was breastfeeding), allergists, chiropractors, energy healers (NAET), and taking every single chemical out of the house – including my make up, shampoos, lotions, bleach, detergents, deodorant, wood polish – everything! I filled 4 large boxes just of different cleaning products. A few things came from all this.
- I learned I didn’t need any of the products I got rid of, they were all just derivatives of oils, vinegar, baking soda, castile soap or other old school home remedies.
- We are now saving a fortune in personal and home care products.
- My daughter got better.
An interesting problem occurred though just after banishing household chemicals. I didn’t know how to clean my house or wash my hair, which leads me to danger #3.*
Danger #3: Derivatives stunt our problem solving skills and creativity
I am a 100% born and bred American raised on tv, public schooling and shopping malls. When in need, I assume without question that there is a product invented, produced and available on Amazon.com or in Walmart stores to solve my problem. To this day I’ll spend hours shopping before I realize I shouldn’t be shopping – I should instead try and make what I have work.
For example: Moving to our apartment meant having to walk the length of a city block to a common laundry room. For months I carried, pushed, and dragged the laundry down the halls knowing I needed a better solution. We were so close to buying this laundry cart, but I delayed because there wasn’t a place in the closet and I refused to have it anywhere else.
Then it came to me. What is a laundry cart? It’s wheels and a container. I had wheels. I had containers. I put the two together and voila! I had a completely functioning laundry cart in my apartment the whole time. I couldn’t see it because I was fixated on the derivative, the very specific item for the very specific task, a laundry cart.
Nicaraguans make fun of us Americans for this. We are so helpless when what we need isn’t sold in a store. There is a story of an expat woman who wanted a table cloth. She searched everywhere with no success. In the big city she found some tablecloths, but none were the size she needed. At her wits end, she complained to her Nicaraguan house help that “nothing was available in this country.” When pressed about what she needed, her housemaid took her to the local fabric store where she picked out a beautiful piece of fabric and had it made into a tablecloth exactly the size she needed.
Danger #4: Derivatives can distract us from what is important
Having can become a substitute for doing if we aren’t careful.
- You have a fully stocked kitchen to make healthful homemade meals. Are you cooking those meals?
- You have 50 board games? Are you playing them?
We know nutritious meals and socializing with friends are important so we buy the stuff to do it. But our lives are busy.
- A new game gives new hope we’ll get together with friends to play.
- A new muffin tin brings the possibility of fresh bran muffins in the morning.
We have all this potential, all this hope in our houses but until we actually execute on doing what is important to us, not just having what is important to us, our lives will feel off somehow. I know mine did. I ran away to Nicaragua for heaven’s sake.
I’m back now and committed to not making the same mistakes.
Whatever it is that is important to you, do it, chances are you don’t even need what you already have to get it done.
As a beginning derivative spotter, be generous with yourself about what you consider a need. Focus instead on being discerning about what you choose to be your source for that need. You need a pair of earrings. Me too. I own two pair – everyday and fancy. You need lipstick. No problem. Choose one color and be happy with it – ignore the rest. As you become more advanced in finding your sources, spotting derivatives will be easier to see, easier to write off as unnecessary, and therefore easier to keep money in your pocket and easier to keep your home spacious and clutter free. Without so much stuff, it will be easier to move to a new home or to move around the world should the time come.
* A special thank you to Crunchy Betty and Bea Johnson for teaching me how to wash my hair and clean my house without chemicals. Thank goodness for the internet. I don’t know what I would have done without bloggers sharing their discoveries of old home remedies.