Monday, December 20, 2010

Sorting It Out with Discardia

Tuesday, December 21st, brings a rare treat: a lunar eclipse that happens on the night of the Winter Solstice. The last time this occurred was in 1638; the next time will be in 2094. Alas, cloudy weather will probably obscure the celestial event here in Los Angeles, but there's something else we can celebrate instead that also begins on the same day: Discardia.

One of my favorite holidays, Discardia rejoices in letting go of stuff rather than acquiring more. You can get the details on the Discardia website, but here's the short version, according to founder Dinah Sanders:
 "Discardia is a holiday to celebrate and teach letting go of what doesn’t add value to your life – whether a physical object, habit, or emotional baggage – and replacing it with what makes your world more awesome."
How can anyone argue with awesomeness? And you can celebrate this particular holiday four times each year (between the Solstices/Equinoxes and their following new moons), so there's no worry about missing it.

I'm particularly fond of the winter Discardia celebration because of its proximity to the Season of Spending. By reminding us to focus on letting go rather than getting more, the pressure's off to spend lots of money buying gifts for others and instead simply enjoy spending time together. As Dinah wrote on her blog about her family's experience, "We have traded presents for presence." I'd bet that this kind of trade would lead to a happier holiday season for just about everyone.

This is also the time of year that people are thinking about their New Year's resolutions. I'm not a big fan of those annual resolutions (read an alternative approach here), but I am a fan of making a commitment at any time to let go of the clutter that seems to plague the majority of people living in all but the most dire situations. Clutter doesn't just crowd your home, it crowds your life. It prevents you from living fully in the moment, from feeling comfortable in your surroundings, from using your time to do the meaningful things that would bring you happiness. And it doesn't take a lot of clutter to be disruptive (and destructive) -- just enough to bother you, get in your way, or regularly occupy your time and energy dealing with it. So, if you do happen to make some of those New Year's resolutions, even if you have just a small amount of annoying clutter, I hope you'll add "uncluttering" to your list.

If you've been reading this blog for awhile, you've probably noticed the link on the sidebar to my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff. I'm very pleased to let you know that the book is now available on the Kindle for only $7.99! If you don't have a Kindle, you can download a free Kindle app from the website and read any Kindle book on your PC, Mac, iPad, iPod, Blackberry or Android. Of course, the book is still available in print, too. Click here or on the sidebar to link to and choose the format you'd like. Let Sorting It Out help you sort out your clutter dilemmas and put you on the road to Stuff Freedom!

And whatever holiday you're celebrating at this time of the year, I hope it's peaceful, joyful and completely terrific!

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob

Image credit: All images from Big Stock Photo
Cover design by Cynthia Friedlob

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Juxtapositions: $11 Million Christmas Tree and a Global Perspective on Children

If you're not concerned about keeping your holiday spending under control, hop onto your private jet and go check out a self-proclaimed "seven star" hotel, the Emerites Palace in the United Arab Emirate. They tipped the scales of extravagance almost beyond imagining when they installed this year's Christmas tree a few days ago:

It is the "most expensive Christmas tree ever," with a "value of over 11 million dollars," said Hans Olbertz, general manager of Emirates Palace hotel, at its inauguration. The 13-metre (40-foot) faux evergreen, located in the gold leaf-bedecked rotunda of the hotel, is decorated with silver and gold bows, ball-shaped ornaments and small white lights.

But the necklaces, earrings and other jewellery draped around the tree's branches are what give it a record value. It holds a total of 181 diamonds, pearls, emeralds, sapphires and other precious stones, said Khalifa Khouri, owner of Style Gallery, which provided the jewellery.

"The tree itself is about 10,000 dollars," Olbertz said. "The jewellery has a value of over 11 million dollars -- I think 11.4, 11.5."

But, upon reflection, the hotel decided that this tower of luxury gone wild might not have been such a great idea after all:

. . . the hotel now regrets "attempts to overload the tradition followed by most hotels in the country with meanings and connotations that do not fall in line with the professional standards" of the hotel.

"Putting the Christmas tree is not a novelty, rather it is a tradition meant to share in celebrating occasions guests hold while they are away from their home countries and families," the Gulf News daily quoted a hotel statement as saying.

This tradition "is within the framework of the UAE's policy which is based on the values of openness and tolerance," the hotel added.

I'm not sure what the "professional standards of the hotel" have to do with it, but I think somebody realized that a tree with decorations worth $11 million could be perceived as a bit gauche, especially when viewed in the context of a world full of major economic crises. Fortunately, after the holidays the hotel can go back to its lower key existence as the only place outside of Germany (who knew?) with a "gold to go" vending machine.
* * * * * * * * *

Those of you who would like a global view of how the rest of humanity lives might be interested to take a look at Where Children Sleep, a recently published fabulous book by photographer James Mollison. He travelled extensively to gather his material and quickly realized that not every child has what most of us probably would consider a traditional bedroom:

Where Children Sleep presents English-born photographer James Mollison's large-format photographs of children's bedrooms around the world--from the U.S.A., Mexico, Brazil, England, Italy, Israel and the West Bank, Kenya, Senegal, Lesotho, Nepal, China and India--alongside portraits of the children themselves. Each pair of photographs is accompanied by an extended caption that tells the story of each child: Kaya in Tokyo, whose proud mother spends $1,000 a month on her dresses; Bilal the Bedouin shepherd boy, who sleeps outdoors with his father's herd of goats; the Nepali girl Indira, who has worked in a granite quarry since she was three; and Ankhohxet, the Kraho boy who sleeps on the floor of a hut deep in the Amazon jungle. Photographed over two years with the support of Save the Children (Italy), Where Children Sleep is both a serious photo-essay for an adult audience, and also an educational book that engages children themselves in the lives of other children around the world.

Sample photos are here; be sure to scroll down to read the captions. This is the kind of book that can provide perspective, a particularly valuable and often scarce commodity at this time of year for most of us -- even folks who can afford an $11 million Christmas tree.

© 2010  Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Bogdan Munteanu at stock.xchng

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Five Simple Tips to Help You Make Good Shopping Decisions

'Tis the season! But you may have noticed that it often feels like it's no longer the holiday season, it's the shopping season. In a year of record high unemployment, with massive numbers of home foreclosures, and utter financial disaster affecting a huge number of people, we're still being urged to shop until we drop. Of course, not everyone is buying it.

In the past, I've posted several alternative views about how to handle shopping during the holidays, including observing Buy Nothing Day rather than Black Friday; considering the words of Reverend Billy of The Church of Stop Shopping; and celebrating Discardia, the holiday created by Dinah Sanders who wants us to find the joy in letting go of stuff rather than acquiring more. But the reality is that most of us will be searching for a gift or two, so we might as well be as prepared as we can be when we face shopping.

I'm an advocate of buying consumable gifts rather than stuff: food, tickets to events, memberships to museums, etc. These gifts also offer the advantage of shopping online. But if you're going to buy something that your recipient will have around the house for awhile, I'm also an advocate of shopping at local small businesses who will appreciate your support. Whether you intend to shop in your neighborhood or hit the mall or superstore, it's helpful at least to be aware of some of the factors that influence our decisions to buy.

Retail stores will do their best to engage all five of your senses to get you to make a purchase. They'll be sure to use flattering lighting; they'll play music in a familiar style that makes you comfortable, like you belong there, and the tempo will be slow enough that you'll be encouraged to linger; they'll make the store smell inviting, too, and maybe offer you free samples of cookies or other holiday goodies (eating stimulates the salivary glands and studies have shown that leads to spending); and if you touch something you're considering buying, you'll be more inclined to buy it (a "disadvantage," from the retailers point of view, that online shopping can't overcome; but an advantage for careful shoppers!).

Stores will also encourage impulse buying. We've all been tempted, and often succumbed to the urge to pick up a little something extra while standing in line at the cash register.
Retailers often identify potential 'impulse buys' and stock them at the ends of aisles and close to the checkout stand. Shoppers may not plan to make these sorts of purchases, but stores do plan to make these sorts of sales.
Adding a bonus item for "free" is a temptation few can resist.
The power of 'free' is really quite incredible," says Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University in Durham, N.C., and author of Predictably Irrational. In a series of experiments described in his book, Ariely found that people consistently preferred to get something free over paying a little for something, even though they'd actually come out ahead in the latter case. For instance, he offered mall-goers in Boston the following choice: a $10 Amazon gift certificate free or a $20 certificate for $7. Most opted for the freebie, even though they would have netted more money from the $20 certificate ($13 versus $10). In a second experiment, he offered a slightly different choice: People could buy a $10 gift certificate for $1 or a $20 certificate for $8. Again, the $20 certificate was $3 more profitable, but this time — with "free" off the table — people went for it.

All prices are relative and our perception of value is affected by this. A less expensive item in a store full of luxury goods may look like a bargain, but the same price on the identical item in a department store could look excessive because we'll compare it to the average department store prices.
So, for example, a computer store can probably sell more $100 printers if it also has a $300 printer for sale than it could if the $100 printer were the most expensive one they carried.
This is the time of year that stores are most aggresive in offering discounts if you open a credit card account with them. But simply choosing to pay with any credit card can be deceiving.

Paying with a credit or debit card can almost seem like not paying at all. No actual money changes hands. There's no real evidence that you're any poorer than you were before. But when you pay with cash, money does change hands, and not in a pleasant direction. You end up with less than you had before. You're demonstrably poorer. It hurts. A number of studies have shown that shoppers are less prone to impulse buying if they leave the plastic at home and force themselves to endure the pain of paying with cash. Ideally, they should use bills of large denominations, according to a 2006 paper in the Journal of Consumer Research. "People are less likely to spend if they are carrying a $50 bill compared to when they have ten $5 bills," says Mishra, a co-author of that article.
Finally, there is evidence that the shopping experience is different for men and women. We really do still behave like hunters and gatherers:

"There's a shopping center in Germany with a play area for men," says Daniel Kruger, a professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "A woman can drop off her partner there, and while she shops he can drink, work with power tools or watch sports on TV."
The point being, both of them are happier that way. "Men just want to get what they want and get out," says Kruger, the lead author of a 2009 study published in the Journal of Social, Evolutionary, and Cultural Psychology that documented fundamental differences in the shopping behaviors of men and women. "Women have a much greater appreciation of detail, a much greater desire to actually experience what they're getting. They want to see several items and compare them."

The researchers linked these differences all the way back to when the man of the cave went out hunting while his mate stayed home gathering nuts and berries — "which is very similar," Kruger observes, "to going to a flea market today and sorting through everything to see what's good."
So, assuming you've thought through exactly how much shopping you want to do, how can you plan ahead to be sure you make your best possible shopping decisions?

1. Set a budget.
2. Don't shop while you're hungry or tired.
3. Don't buy something just because you can get something extra with it for "free."
4. Pay with cash.
5. Remember that hunters and gatherers are happier shopping separately!

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Robert Proksa at stock.xchng

Friday, October 29, 2010

Alternative Housing: Options for Seniors

Pisgah Village, in the Highland Park area of Los Angeles, is a unique housing project for low income seniors. Usually when we hear the term "housing project," it conjurs nothing but negative thoughts and images, but learning about Pisgah Village will change that. It may even change the way you think about housing and communities in general.

"Eden's garden" is how LA Times writer Mary MacVean described the place, "a collection of rehabilitated bungalows and new Craftsman-style buildings, 47 homes in all in a compound full of gardens and a fountain." (Photos available in the linked story.) Founded over one hundred years ago by a Pentacostal minister, the community has been served since 2002 through a partnership between the Christ Faith Mission church and the non-profit Women Organizing Resources, Knowledge and Services (WORKS). The houses were renovated and the village has received LA Conservancy, Governor's Historic Preservation and California Preservation Foundation awards.

The emphasis on food programs at Pisgah Village is "an effort to alleviate the problems of getting fresh, nutritious food [to residents]...along the lines of teaching people to fish rather than giving them one." Pesticide-free, organic gardening is taught, there's a produce farmer's market on site, cooking classes are available, and master gardener and water conservation classes are planned in an effort to develop self-sufficiency. Once a month, residents share a communal meal featuring dishes that reflect their ethnic diversity. Spanish and Korean language translators facilitate conversations.

There are other WORKS sites in addition to Pisgah Village, all offering the same type of programs:

Currently WORKS has successfully developed more than 1000 affordable housing units, providing attractive and affordable homes to families of modest means. Most of the households we serve earn between 30%-60% of the area median income (AMI), which in Los Angeles translates to $23,790- $47,580 in 2009 for a family or four.
But WORKS is not the only non-profit in LA dedicated to improving seniors' housing options. Rosemary McClure wrote a Times article last week entitled "Aging Artfully at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony:"

The Colony, which targets people 55 and older, opened in 2005 in an attractive five-story building a block from downtown Burbank. A sign outside says, "Get Active, Be Creative, Be Inspired." The words aren't just window dressing: On any given day, residents might be involved in an intergenerational writing workshop, a watercolor class, a sculpture seminar or a tai chi class. Or, they might be making a movie.
The Colony's many stimulating programs are the direct result of involvement by EngAGE, a non-profit organization founded by Tim Carpenter and devoted to providing lifelong learning and creative opportunities to seniors. (Full disclosure: I've taught writing classes for EngAGE and contributed commentaries to "Experience Talks," the radio show produced by EngAGE.) EngAGE serves nineteen apartment communities, but the Colony was the first one specifically built with these enriching programs in mind, thus the 45-seat theater, artists' studios, computer center, digital film editing lab, and communal areas large enough to host jazz combo performances and fundraisers. The Colony has been recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as "a model for creative aging." While most apartments rent at market rates, some of the units are dedicated to low-income housing.

I've written in the past about alternative housing and intentional communities, but Pisgah Village and Burbank Senior Artists Colony are distinctive in their focus on seniors. Independent living when you're older can result in isolation, but it seems there's little chance of that in either of these communities. And with housing costs taking the largest share of our consumer dollars, the extra value added by living in a nurturing environment can be priceless.

Do you know of interesting housing options for seniors in your area? Do you have concerns about your own housing choices when you're older? How would you feel about living in communities like these, or do you have ideas about another type of community you'd find appealing?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Graur Razvan Ionut at

Related post:

Friday, October 15, 2010

Blog Action Day: Water

Consumer choices may feel personal, but they're always global. Whatever we do has some impact on everyone else, even if it's indirect. That thought is rather mindboggling and can make us feel paralyzed with indecision or resentful that we're supposed to be so darn responsible when we've got plenty of other thoughts to occupy our minds that have immediate impact on our own lives, thank you very much. That's why I want to take a different approach to my participation in this year's Blog Action Day. The topic is water. Over 4,000 bloggers will be discussing it in their posts today, covering every facet of the issue. But here at The Thoughtful Consumer, first let's just cut to the chase:

(1) There's not enough water in many parts of the world and often when there is enough, it's not readily available or clean.

 (2) if you're reading this blog, you're undoubtedly one of the lucky people who has access to water by simply turning on a tap. You're also probably quite aware that there are things that you can do to conserve water (maybe you're even doing many of them) and that there are charities that are working very hard to provide water for people who desperately need it (Drop in the Bucket is a favorite of mine that I've mentioned in the past).

And now, rather than focusing in more detail on the substantial and often tragic problems that the world faces concerning water, or even on other charities or specific solutions to those problems, I'd simply like to offer some images of water that, I hope, will make all of us feel gratitude and will inspire us to find a way to help share this crucial, life-giving natural resource that belongs to everyone.

Please enjoy, contemplate, then do whatever feels right:

(c) 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
All images from Stock.Xchng

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Simple Living: Predicted Twenty Years Ago. Again.

I have just a few items in print that I can't seem to let go: the 20th anniversary issue of Rolling Stone, Abbie Hoffman's obituary, and a story (and cover) from the 1991 issue of Time magazine entitled, "The Simple Life." Setting aside discussion of the first two for some other day -- more likely, never -- let's examine the third. I'm simultaneously disheartened and heartened to read it again, almost twenty years after its publication. And, at the time it was printed, I recall feeling simultaneously disheartened and heartened to read it some twenty years after those of us who came of age in the late '60s and early '70s had professed the identical ideals: "a simpler life with deeper meaning."

Here are quotes from the article, which was written by Janice Castro, with reporting by Ann Blackman/Washington, Melissa Ludtke/Boston, and William McWhirter/Chicago, with other bureaus:

These are the humble makings of a revolution in progress: Macaroni and cheese. Timex watches. . . . Bicycles. . .

See the pattern? It's as genuine as Grandma's quilt. After a 10-year bender of gaudy dreams and godless consumerism, Americans are starting to trade down. They want to reduce their attachments to status symbols, fast-track careers and great expectations of Having It All.

In place of materialism . . . having time for family and friends, rest and recreation, good deeds and spirituality.

In a Time/CNN poll of 500 adults, 69% of the people surveyed said they would like to "slow down and live a more relaxed life" . . .

In scaling down their tastes, most Americans are making a virtue out of necessity. Contrary to perceptions, the past decade was an era of downward mobility for the majority of U.S. families, who kept up their spending by borrowing and relying on two incomes. Only the wealthiest 20% of Americans significantly increased their real income during the Reagan era, and the poor slipped further behind. . .

Not everyone believes America has changed its stripes, however. "If the present generation has learned anything, it is that talk is cheap. But are they really doing anything different?" asks Stanford economist Victor Fuchs. "The baby boomers are just growing up and playing out a predictable life-cycle change." . . . John Kenneth Galbraith, the eminent liberal economist, dismisses the trend as a bicoastal fad among fast-trackers. . .

The beginnings of the new mind-set probably go back as far as the stock-market crash of 1987, which had little immediate effect on the overall economy but gave many people an uneasy feeling about the Roaring Eighties." . . . Many people were awakened by individual experience: the plight of a homeless neighbor, the collapse of a bank, a friend's job loss. . .
The article continues with talk of "cocooning" (remember that buzzword?), the importance of spending more time with family, and:

. . . another reason for rejecting rampant materialism: its impact on the environment. . . Recycling has taken hold as a voguish and satisfying pursuit . . . Gilded '80s [TV] shows such as Dynasty and Falcon Crest are gone, swept away by . . . Roseanne, The Simpsons and Married...with Children . . .

In their search for more enduring gratification in life, many people are seeking spirituality, if not a born-again commitment to organized religion . . .

And the article concludes with:

Is the simple life just a passing fancy, a stylish flashback of the 1960s? Not so, say people who have studied both eras. Contends Berkeley sociologist Robert Bellah: "It's no longer messianic, the way it was in the '60s, but relatively pragmatic. That may give the present mood a greater staying power." That's good, because the American generation now reaching middle age has a lot of promises to keep -- not to mention mortgages to carry, tuition to pay and lawns to mow. No wonder they want to keep it simple.
Sound familiar? Yes, indeed. But it's different this time around.

In the '60s, the counter-culture revolution was bolstered by children of some privilege. It's easier to rebel if you know you can always go home and do laundry. I know; I was there. I was in school, then worked for a non-profit.

And after the '70s, what happened? The "Roaring Eighties," as the Times article called it. The era of "real gold," "L'Oreal...because I'm worth it," and, most famously, "Greed is good." The stock market was the place to be and if you weren't in it, you were missing out on a "sure thing." At least until 1987.

Then, in the '90s, the urge to simplify and cocoon was championed by people who were exhausted by their demanding jobs that had allowed them to spend enormous amounts of money on luxuries. And it's easier to simplify if you've got money in the bank. I know; I was there. I was in show biz, then became an artist.

What happened in the '00s? Financial lunacy. This time it was real estate. If you didn't own property, you were missing out on a "sure thing." And this time, even the big boys, the banks and brokerages, were so caught up in the madness that when the market collapsed, it brought them down right along with the individual investors. I know; I was there, but on the sidelines. I was fortunate not to have overextended in real estate and not to have trusted the stock market with everything else. I'm enormously thankful for that because you never know when life will throw a curve ball in some other way.

So where are we all now, with yet another decade behind us? There's still some talk about the benefits of simple living and lots of talk about protecting the environment, but today, for so many, simplification isn't by choice; it's being imposed on a lot of people who have been caught by surprise. When simplicity is a result of a lack of other options, it's doesn't feel so virtuous. It just feels like you're poor.

Bad financial decisions are at the root of the problem for many people, but for some -- many who were in the vanguard in the '60s and '70s -- age discrimination is now part of enforced simple living, too. Limited jobs mean limited opportunities. Scaled back expectations are the new reality for almost everyone, but especially for those who are too young to retire and too old to be considered employable, even if they have impeccable credentials. We live in a society that too often devalues experience and has never particularly valued maturity. There's an example of a curve ball thrown by life and it's clear that not everyone was prepared for it.

The obviously disheartening aspect of reading that Time article is reflecting on the fact that today's mess is just another example of the rather painful economic cycle that our society seems to repeat so predictably. What's heartening about it? It reminds us that we do manage to get through the hard times eventually. Society survived the Great Depression; why not the Great Recession?

So, with the blessing/curse of optimism, let's consider what's the best bet for getting through today's challenging time. Other than the obvious financial reality check that's required for most people, there's an attitude change that would be helpful and at least part of it relates directly to being a thoughtful, uncluttered consumer.

First, believe that less really is more, just as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe said over fifty years ago. I'm not advocating embracing the concept of "less" because it's frugal, or sensible, or necessary; instead I'm advocating embracing it because it offers us not only beauty, but also flexibility. Beauty gives us joy in the moment and flexibility is a highly valuable commodity during a period of change.

What if you made buying choices that would simplify your life by resulting in fewer possessions, but more appealing possessions? What if you chose to keep only those things you already own that are beautiful or useful, just as William Morris advised over a hundred years ago? (Beautiful doesn't necessarily mean expensive; it means pleasing to the eye, your eye.) What if you kept only the sentimental items that had true sentiment, not just history attached?

What if you emptied your home of all of your unnecessary stuff, not because you were panic stricken and felt obligated to have a garage sale, but because you wanted to make space to actually live in your home? Or because you wanted the flexibility to move if you needed to or chose to do so?

Then, what if you embraced the concept of change? What if you were bold rather than timid during these difficult times? What if you had faith in yourself and your ability to do whatever is necessary to stay afloat? What if you took this opportunity to remake your life the way you'd like it to be? I doubt that you'd be lugging around all of the stuff you currently own because you'd see much of it as a burden. I doubt that you'd be clinging to everything you've ever owned because you'd see that now is what matters and planning for the future makes more sense than seeking (false) security in the possessions of the past.

What if you embraced the goal of "a simpler life with deeper meaning?" I doubt that you'd be who you are at this moment, but I bet you'd become who you are in this life.

What if you did that?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob

Friday, August 27, 2010

Can Art Be Clutter? Can Clutter Be Art?

Short answer to both: yes.

Of course, art definitely is not supposed to be clutter. It's supposed to be something that, when you look at it, touches your heart, or stimulates your mind, or reminds you of your dreams, or challenges your thinking, or transports you to another time and place, or any other worthwhile response that makes you feel good that you have the piece of art in your life. It's not just supposed to fill up empty space, or match the sofa, or be in your life because Great-Aunt Winnie left it to your mother, who hated it, but felt obligated to keep it because it had belonged to Aunt Winnie, and who, in turn, left it to you and now you hate it, but it belonged to both Great-Aunt Winnie and your mother, so it has double the family obligation attached. That makes it clutter.

However, even if your possessions, including your art, are of excellent quality and are appreciated fully by you and all who see them, if they are simply overwhelming your space and your life, you still have a clutter problem. This is often what motivates society's wealthiest and most notable families and individuals to have huge auctions in which they part with beautiful items that appear invaluable to us. They have decided to unburden themselves rather than cart around forever all of the accumulated treasures of the years, no matter how fine, because those treasures have turned into clutter in the lives of their owners.

But how can clutter be art? Many of you may be familiar with the work of artists such as Marcel Duchamp and Robert Rauschenberg who sometimes made art out of found objects, the commonplace, the detritus of life that most of us would ignore and many of us would consider to be clutter. Not all viewers of their artwork respond positively to this type of creative effort, but many art critics certainly have shown their appreciation, as have collectors of contemporary art who are willing to pay astronomical sums to own it.

Most interesting, to me, however is a new opportunity for anyone to participate in making a found object work of art, even if you've never considered yourself even remotely artistic. Best of all, you'll be part of an art project that is devoted to uncluttering, if only on a very small scale. The clever curators at The Brooklyn Art Library are soliciting "artistic" contributions for "Pockets." Here's the description of the project:

We all carry excess baggage with us every day: keys to forgotten locks, expired chewing gum, intimidating balls of lint. These freeloading objects take our pockets, purses, and bags for granted, weighing us down and holding us back.

The International Association for Empty Pockets is a worldwide movement dedicated to the end of pocket clutter. Contributions to the Pockets Project will form a communal burial ground for the detritus of everyday life – and mark a new era of freedom for your pants.

Our pockets are overflowing. The time to empty is now!

To be a participating artist, you simply put individual items that were in your pockets into plastic baggies and send the baggies to the gallery. (There's a classification system that's explained on the website.) Then all of the baggies will be made into a giant installation work of art. The reason? Here:

Developed by the International Association for Empty Pockets, the Pocket Artifact Classification System encompasses the entire spectrum of pocket, purse, and bag clutter. By organizing contributions into a common system, the Pockets Project seeks to illuminate the objects that share our pockets' darkest corners.

The Pockets Project imagines a second life for the stuff we've forgotten and offers each of us a chance at a new beginning. Everyone is welcome to participate – there is no artifact too insignificant or contribution too small. As people from all over the world empty their pockets together, these ordinary objects hint at the common threads of our daily lives.
How can you not love a project from the "International Association for Empty Pockets" that encourages uncluttering, that creates art and offers participants "a chance at a new beginning?" The whole idea makes me smile! Check it out if you're looking for a creative place to begin your efforts to unclutter and simplify your life.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image: Carlos Paes at stock.xchng

Friday, August 20, 2010

Saying Goodbye to Sentimental Clutter

Even in our most zealous moments of uncluttering our lives, almost all of us are stopped cold when we're confronted with something that has sentimental value. That's understandable, but often what we really need to confront is the fact that our definition of what has sentimental value is too broad. Almost every object in our homes will conjure some sort of memory, but even if that memory is connected with a special person or is a part of an overall happy time in life, that doesn't mean that the object is worthy of keeping.

I've had the good fortune to inherit some truly lovely sentimental stuff, but eventually I had to acknowledge that many of the most meaningful items were no longer appropriate to have in my daily life. Redefining them was the only way that I could let them go and, logically, I knew that I needed to do that. (Specific stories are in my book.) When I did let them go -- thoughtfully and, a few times, tearfully -- I was both liberated and challenged in ways I hadn't expected. Yes, there was room for things that were more functional, but there was also a void. Who was I if I wasn't the caretaker of the antique family furniture and dishes? Who was I if I was no longer the girl who grew up playing the piano and continued to do so for all of her life? Did that mean I was disconnected from my heritage in some way? Was I supposed to abandon my love of music?

Of course not. But it's surprising how much our individual identities are connected with our possessions and how when we change, as we inevitably do, those objects that surround us can become anchors to a past that we need to carry more lightly or sometimes shed altogether. I had to realize that my connection to my family history was just as intact as it had ever been, even though I had fewer tangible mementos. My relationship with music was still solid, too, even though it was expressed in a different way. For some of us, or for some aspects of each of our lives, simply letting go of the past completely by letting go of the things we have that are associated with it allows us to be more comfortable with who we are now. However, anyone who's ever parted with something that signifies an important relationship with a person or a time of life that has ended knows that there's a feeling of finality and acceptance that allows us to move forward, yet we often find intermingled with that feeling a bit of insecurity about who we are now that we're no longer a part of that relationship. I think that's okay. In fact, I think that mixed feelings are what we really need to get comfortable with in order to navigate life with less stress and anxiety.

Too much sentiment can be a dangerous condition. There's a difference between feeling rooted or connected and feeling weighted down or burdened by obligation. There's also a difference between embracing our history and how it shaped who we are now versus clinging to our past and, perhaps, our youth, because we're afraid of change. Maybe we need to work on understanding and accepting ourselves as much as we need to work on understanding and accepting that the things we own are not truly what define us.

Of course, life is unpredictable, so even if we've resolved these issues, sometimes forces outside of our control will continue to make choices for us. For a dramatic example of imposed choices, read Anatomy of a TornadoTornado Chronicles and Nature is a Moody Muse, blog posts by Debbie Kaspari, an Oklahoma fine artist who survived the devastating effects of extreme spring weather that she refers to as The Event. She explains how her relationship with "stuff" and "STUFF" was clarified in a way no one wants to experience. Fortunately, not all was lost for her.

How sentimental are you? Are you clear about what's just "stuff" in your life and what is "STUFF" that has real meaning? Would it take a tornado to make you figure it out?

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Joel Messner at stock.xchng

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Families and Small Houses

My last post about small houses prompted a comment from a reader who speculated that she could live alone in a tiny home, but she wondered if families could live comfortably in very little square footage. Below are links to several relevant and thought-provoking posts on that topic. The concept of "small" is variable, but everyone can agree that it means less space than is the norm in our too-often "McMansionized" society.

First, the rather amazing story of a very large family in a small home:

Life in a Shoe: Methods and Madness of One Family of Twelve

How can a big family live in a small house?
The short answer is the same answer we give to many other questions: life style choices.
•We don't think every child (or even every 2 children) needs her own bedroom.

•We don't think we need a huge master bedroom with a walk-in closet and a master bathroom.

•Although we would very much enjoy having a 2nd or 3rd bathroom, we don't believe that we need it. In all fairness, some of the children don't quite agree, especially in the morning.

•We don't need space for an extensive seasonal wardrobe for each member of the family, particularly in South Texas. There are only 2 seasons here anyway, and one lasts for 10 months of the year. A summer wardrobe plus a few warmer items is perfectly sufficient.
This family home-schools, too! Check out their posts about storage, entertaining, and finding personal space. I particularly like the concept of a "treasure box" for the kids in which they keep their personal items. The name alone signifies that whatever is in the box is not junk or clutter, but something important (we know that valuable doesn't always mean expensive).

Here's an SFGate article about making room for adolescents in a small house and how to accommodate their psychological development needs.

"I think parents tend to err in giving adolescents too much space," says James Windell, psychologist with the family division of the Oakland County (Michigan) Circuit Court and author of Six Steps to an Emotionally Intelligent Teenager. "You need to be looking over their shoulders," says Windell. "You need to know what they're listening to on CDs, what they're watching on television and what they are doing on the Internet. There has to be a balance between the kids' need for independence and the parents playing out their role of being there for the kids." . . .

What all this means in square footage terms is that, ideally, each teenager will have a room of his or her own, however small, and that the family will find a space in the home for teens and their friends to let loose a little while remaining within parental radar range.
The article writer, Deborah K. Rich, concludes:
. . . small homes force families to cooperate and solve problems as their spatial needs change; you may unexpectedly develop a functioning family.
Michael Janzen at Tiny House Design recently said that he is going to devote a series of posts to small houses for families. The first post, Small Family Birdhouse, reports on a shed conversion for a mother and young son. Too rustic for a city girl like me, but an interesting read.

Here's a book review by Jared Volpe at Sustainable Cities Collective of Little House on a Small Planet by Shay Salomon. I haven't read it yet, but I'm now eager to do so. Vople states:
The book didn’t just focus on little houses, either. Some of the homes were quite large, but had been redesigned to fit two families or several independent adults who were willing to share common space.
I'm convinced that economic circumstances will continue to force many people to reconsider sharing living space with family or friends, but I'm hopeful that there will be benefits from that experience that will help us redefine community. (Sustainable Cities Collective is "an online community of urban sustainability professionals" and is an interesting resource for those of us who are committed city-dwellers.)

Apartment Therapy ("saving the world, one room at a time" -- one of my favorite tag lines) has a link to a series of posts about downsizing that includes several about families moving into small homes. Many photographs, as always.

Practically speaking, it takes an intrepid soul to consider tiny housing for a growing family. Most of us will choose larger spaces, but how large? It's a personal decision that has an impact beyond our own lives. It can be tricky to sort out responsible choices without feeling pressured -- or rebellious. The only sensible answer is to live in as much space as you need. And you are the only one who can figure that out.

An addendum: The Thoughtful Consumer is pleased to celebrate the fourth anniversary of this blog! Thank you to all my readers and special thanks to those who e-mail and comment on my posts. You keep me going.

© Cynthia Friedlob 2010
Image: Brindy Daniels at stock.xchng

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Housing and the American Dream: Think Small

Whether the economy is (a) improving, (b) getting ready to tank again, or (c) precariously maintaining its equilibrium (take your choice, depending on which pundit you believe), we all need somewhere to live. There's a tremendous problem with homelessness here in Los Angeles and in other metropolitan areas, a topic undoubtedly worthy of discussion. But for this post, let's stick with the population that's fortunate enough to be able to own or rent comfortable housing.

For years, a significant part of the American Dream was to own a home, complete with yard and white picket fence. During the real estate boom, it seemed that everywhere you turned you were faced with people strongly advising you to buy a home, then urging you to leverage it into a larger home -- or you were at least supposed to refinance regularly to support buying all the stuff you needed to fill the place. You were met with looks of disbelief or even utter disdain if you weren't in the process of buying/remodeling/selling/trading up.

All that's changed. In fact, once again we're hearing that, in many cases, it might be smarter to rent. One example may apply to people who live in New York City. A recent New York Times article demonstrated that for a hypothetical family of four earning $175,000 a year, it would cost 18% more to own a house in the suburbs than to rent in the city. Of course, there are trade-offs that might make it worthwhile for some families to live in the suburbs, but that should not be an automatic assumption any more than one can automatically assume that buying a house is always a good investment.

If saving money is your primary concern, it's important to figure out if renting makes more sense no matter where you live. Here's a rent-or-buy calculator from the New York Times to help with that task. And here's a Devil's Advocate article entitled "Rent Forever, Don't Buy" that presents some of the benefits of avoiding home ownership. It's worth considering what's right for you in your situation without feeling pressured one way or the other.

What if you'd be quite happy to rent, but you can't afford a place in the neighborhood you prefer? In Los Angeles, one solution is to think small. An LA Times article talks about the Manhattan-sized mini-apartments built in Santa Monica that make beach living relatively affordable (in LA that means a 350 square foot apartment for $1100 to $1400 per month). Would you trade living space for beach access? Many people would.

But what if you want to own your home and are you're also willing to think small? I mean ultra-small. You might find that owning a home could cost less than the price of a fancy new car. I've talked about small houses in previous posts (see below) but there seems to be increasing media coverage of this option. "Downsizing to 100 Square Feet of Bliss," is an article from about the joys of a small house in a bad economy. "Do It Yourself Downsize: How to Build a Tiny House" was a featured story on NPR just a few weeks ago. A do-it-yourself small house can cost less than $10,000 (of course, you'd also need land to build on, unless you're going to treat it like a trailer and be on the move all the time); plans are available for those of us who are less inclined to tackle the project on our own. Check out Tiny House Blog , This Tiny House, and Tiny House Design for excellent information and regular posts about very small houses.

Not everyone could live comfortably in a home as small as an average bedroom, but I think we're all probably more adaptable than we realize and I know that most of us could live with less space and fewer possessions than we have now. (Full disclosure: two of us downsized to a 1500 square foot townhouse purchased twelve years ago, before the boom and bust. It's quite comfortable. Because we both work at home, smaller might be a challenge, but certainly not an impossible one.) It's always easier to downsize by choice, but even if financial circumstances have you considering the possibility of moving to a smaller apartment or home, you may find that less space has certain advantages you never expected. Enforced uncluttering could be one benefit, if you don't rent lots of storage space to avoid the uncluttering process! (Read my book to learn about my adventures with too much stuff.) Rethinking how much you need could be pretty enlightening, too.

So, was Mies van der Rohe right when he said, "Less is more?" I think he was. I'd like to hear your thoughts in the comments.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Image credit: Gerard79 at Stock.Xchng

Related posts:
Small House, Big Benefits
Small Houses, No Houses
Living Small, Paying Rent
Manhattan's Smallest Home

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Sell Everything and Start Over

Two years ago I wrote a blog post about uncluttering in which I pondered the concept of selling everything and starting over. I was prompted by Australian Ian Usher's "A Life 4 Sale" eBay auction. The 44-year-old man was selling his house, jet ski, car, clothes, a try-out for his job offered by his employer at a rug store, and even promised access to his friends who said they'd welcome the newcomer. I also referenced the 2007 "sell everything" auction by Lisa Perry and John Freyer's "sell almost everything" art project auctions in 2002, which proved to be smart marketing for his career. He used the proceeds from those auctions to go visit his things in their new homes, then created a book about the experience called All My Life For Sale.

All that happened before the financial meltdown.

In the last several months, I've noticed that the most frequent general Google search that currently directs people to my blog is the phrase, "sell everything and start over." Sadly, I suspect that has become an enforced reality for many people rather than a choice to consider, but I think the idea of starting over appeals to many of us, no matter what our situation might be. Americans are a fairly nomadic lot. We leave family behind, move around the country and usually idealize the lure of the open road. Unfortunately, we also usually haul all of our stuff with us. Even if we stash our stuff in pricey rented storage space, it still takes up space in our heads, not to mention the bite it takes out of our budgets.

Why are we so conflicted? We love the idea of freedom (in this case, I'm talking about literal freedom of movement or at least the feeling that we could move) and resent it when we feel trapped, yet we so often trap ourselves by clinging to our possessions. How many choices in your life would you have made differently if you had been unburdened of everything except the necessities to live? What would you have done differently if you hadn't felt obligated to keep your great-aunt's heavy wrought iron treadle sewing machine ("but it was hers") or boxes full of every single one of your kids' school papers ("it's their history") or the expensive furniture and decorative things you bought when you finally landed a good job and could handle the ongoing payments ("I paid . . . well, I'm still paying good money for that")?

Even in my own relatively uncluttered household, we sometimes look around the rooms and think, "Let's sell everything and start over!" It's just such an appealing possibility. I stand by what I said in my previous post:

I'm still rather fond of my youthful idea of being able to fit all I own in the back of my car and hit the open road. Very Jack Kerouac or Hunter S. Thompson (minus the substance abuse).

What does "selling everything" mean, literally, for most of us? We probably wouldn't really want to sell every single thing we own, but there are "stealth items" that we all know we could part with if we could simply let go of the feelings of obligation we have to keep them: the extra dishes, clothes, books, papers, even pieces of furniture and artwork; the hobby paraphernalia for hobbies that are no longer intriguing; the "fantasy life" stuff (no, I will never garden; will you ever rollerblade?); the "past life" stuff (I'm not talking about reincarnation; I'm talking about things you've outgrown intellectually or emotionally).

What would it take to make you let go of the remaining stuff that's holding you back and preventing you from feeling free (not the kids or grandkids!)? I think it's a question worth pondering. I'm not even addressing the issues of attitude and mental baggage; those can be formidable. But what choices would you make right now if you were no longer responsible for the stuff that currently fills your living space? Would you head for parts unknown or retrench in a better way right where you are?


I thought I'd do an Amazon search to find out what's been written about starting over or at least taking a substantial amount of time off. I can't personally recommend any of these titles, but I offer them in case they might pique your interest. While many people are being forced by circumstances to rethink their life plans, starting over to allow time to travel is the ideal. Full disclosure: I hate travel. I like being somewhere else, but getting there seems to be an incredible pain. I have mentioned previously that I am fond of author John Winokur's observation that the root of the word "travel" is the same as that for "travail." And yet, I find it just as fascinating a topic as anybody who does it voluntarily! Go figure.

Here are a few books about taking time off and travelling as a family:

One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children
by David Elliot Cohen

360 Degrees Longitude by John Higham

The Family Sabbatical Handbook: The Budget Guide to Living Abroad with Your Family
by Elisa Bernick

Judging by the available titles, when you're older, RV travel is popular:

Sightseein' and RVin': Travel Adventures After Fifty
by Sue Cook and Ed Cook

Travel Tales...: An Old Retiree, His RV, His Dog, and His Woman (Not Necessarily in Order of Preference) Hit the Road
by Ken Halloran

Travels With Susie: A Hilarious Account of One Couple's RV Journey Across America
by Gordon Grindstaff

The self-help titles were abundant, including:

Starting Over: 25 Rules When You've Bottomed Out
by Mary Lee Gannon

You-Turn: Changing Direction in Mid-Life
by Dr. Nancy B. Irwin

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life: How to Finally, Really Grow Up
by James Hollis

If you're thinking of starting over, or if you've already done so, please share your experiences!

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy

To celebrate the fourth anniversary today of the publication of my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff , I'm making my short article, "How to Get Dressed Without Driving Yourself Crazy," available for free! It's over twenty pages of advice from me, a fashion-challenged woman who just wants to get out of the house looking decent. If you curse your clothes closet, please download the PDF, read and enjoy.

A new book is underway, also devoted to the joys of living with less stuff. You'll be the first to know when it's finished. Meanwhile, expect a new blog post very soon about people who want to "sell everything and start over," currently the most popular Google search topic that leads to this blog. Interesting concept, isn't it?

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Juxtapositions: Executive Compensation and Poverty Guidelines

Let's start with a simple, reasonable premise: everybody wants to be comfortable and happy.

Now let's figure out what that means. How much money do you need to live comfortably? How much stuff? And how do money and stuff affect your happiness?

I've discussed these topics on numerous occasions, including in an interview by Alex Fayle on his helpful Someday Syndrome website as well as in my book. Everyone has different answers to the questions, but I was prompted to think about them again by a Los Angeles Times article today about the pay scale of media moguls that demonstrates just how huge the disparity of wealth is in the U.S right now. At one extreme:

Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Igor collected a package worth nearly $24 million for 2009. Philippe Bauman, who manages Viacom Inc., which includes the MTV networks, Comedy Central and Paramount Pictures, got an almost 22% raise to $34 million. CBS Corp. chief Leslie Moonless' pay more than doubled to $43.2 million. [The article consistently spells Les Moonves' name incorrectly.] News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch topped $22 million, and Time Warner Inc.'s Jeffrey Beaks received nearly $20 million.
At the other extreme: the Health and Human Services Department 2009/10 federal poverty guidelines state that a family of four is at the poverty level if their income is at or below $22,050 per year (about $1838 per month). The guideline amount is the same no matter where you live.

We know that those highly compensated executives are doing just fine, but let's see how a family of four living at the poverty level would fare here in Los Angeles. According to

If you want to live in the City of Angels, you have to pay a premium. The overall cost of living here is 33% above the national average, with housing costs tending to be among the most expensive in the nation.
In the city of Los Angeles, the median cost for apartment rentals was $1699 for Q1 2008. Prices are lower in the valleys, higher in Santa Monica and other areas near the beach. That's the rent for a one-bedroom apartment, clearly not a comfortable arrangement for a family of four. We'd have to up the price by at least $100 to get another bedroom.
The most recent statistics I could find about the cost of feeding a family of four are from the USDA in 2003/2004:
Average yearly expenditures on food in U.S. urban households increased between 2003 and 2004. Over the period, annual per capita spending on food rose from $2,035 to $2,207. The 2004 average comprises $1,347 spent on food consumed at home and $860 spent on food consumed away from home. These amounts reflect a year-to-year increase of 7.9 percent in food-at-home expenditures and 9.3 percent in food-away-from-home expenditures.
We can safely assume that costs have increased, along with everything else, in the last five years, but we'll work with these figures. (Here's a related article from the USDA about "food insecurity," i.e., households with the inability to provide nutritious meals on a regular basis. This situation affected about 11% of U.S. households in 2007; it seems likely that more are affected now.)
So, that's rent at an average of $1799 per month (for two bedrooms) and food costs at ($184 per month per person x four people) $736. We're up to $2,535 per month for food and shelter, leaving nothing for everything else: utilities, telephone, clothing, transportation, child care and medical expenses.
Minimum wage in California is currently $8.00 per hour. A forty hour work week would gross $320 or approximately $1386 per month, not even enough for food and shelter. Clearly there needs to be income from more than one job.
Well, we might as well forget the rest of the math and the scraping together of pennies so eloquently explained by Barbara Ehrenreich in her book, Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. For poor families, just staying afloat is an almost impossible challenge.
But what do the ultra-rich folks do with the huge amount of "disposable income" that they have? They may start charitable foundations, endow universities or otherwise share their money generously, but they all definitely acquire the trappings of wealth: stuff -- houses, wardrobes, cars, airplanes, jewelry, the latest technological toys, maybe even a private island.
While I doubt that any of us would want to live on poverty's edge, in constant fear for our very survival, I also doubt that we'd assume that being ultra-rich would guarantee happiness (witness the divorces, custody battles, intra-family power struggles, alcoholism, drug addictions and suicides among the rich for proof that's not the case). It would be disingenuous to claim that life wouldn't be easier or more pleasant with tons of money, but how much money is enough? How much stuff is enough?
I'd like to hear what you think. How much do you need to be comfortable? What are the qualities of life that affect your happiness?
© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob 
Photo credit: foxumon at

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Consumer Marketing Techniques and Tribes

Most of us like to think that we're too sophisticated to fall for marketing tricks. We know that "new" and "improved" don't necessarily mean a product is really new or improved. We know that larger boxes and bottles of some products are usually, but not always, less expensive per ounce than smaller sizes. We know that added bells and whistles don't always mean better quality items. But the reality is that marketing pros are consistently at least one step ahead of us when it comes to manipulating our buying habits.

I've mentioned in a previous post the book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, but I'd like to take a closer look at a few specific observations that he discussed and offer my own assessment of what ultimately motivates us to make purchasing decisions.  Also, FYI, a "revised and expanded edition" of Predictably Irrational will be released on April 27th; I assume it really is revised and expanded!

(Thanks to the blogs "Coding Horror" and "SEOmozBlog" for providing the quotes that form the basis of the first three items.)

Relative Thinking and "Saving Money"

"When Williams-Sonoma introduced bread machines, sales were slow. When they added a 'deluxe' version that was 50% more expensive, they started flying off the shelves; the first bread machine now appeared to be a bargain."

"When contemplating the purchase of a $25 pen, the majority of subjects would drive to another store 15 minutes away to save $7. When contemplating the purchase of a $455 suit, the majority of subjects would not drive to another store 15 minutes away to save $7. The amount saved and time involved are the same, but people make very different choices."

Clearly, we like to believe we're rational when it comes to saving money on purchases, but we're not. We often fall down on the job of accurate comparison shopping. A related trap, this one self-imposed rather than inflicted by clever marketing, is spending an inordinate amount of time shopping for an item at a lower price. Driving across town to save less money than we'll spend on gas is counter-productive; so is driving across town if our time is more valuable than the money we'll save by shopping somewhere inconvenient.

Artificial Markets

"Savador Assael, the Pearl King, single-handedly created the market for black pearls, which were unknown in the industry before 1973. His first attempt to market the pearls was an utter failure; he didn't sell a single pearl. So he went to his friend, Harry Winston, and had Winston put them in the window of his 5th Avenue store with an outrageous price tag attached. Then he ran full page ads in glossy magazines with black pearls next to diamonds, rubies, and emeralds. Soon, black pearls were considered precious."

The creation of an artificial market is not exclusive to luxury items. For example, gadgets of all sorts have been invented ostensibly to make our lives easier, but many are totally unnecessary. Responding to the instant appeal of ultimately useless gadgets can drain your bank account and fill your home with clutter. (See the Unclutterer blog's amusing "Unitasker Wednesday" items for examples of these gadgets.)

Price and Perception of Value

"Ariely, Waber, Shiv, and Carmon made up a fake painkiller, Veladone-Rx. An attractive woman in a business suit (with a faint Russian accent) told subjects that 92% of patients receiving VR reported significant pain relief in 10 minutes, with relief lasting up to 8 hours.

"When told that the drug cost $2.50 per dose, nearly all of the subjects reported pain relief. When told that the drug cost $0.10 per dose, only half of the subjects reported pain relief. The more pain a person experienced, the more pronounced the effect. A similar study at U Iowa showed that students who paid list price for cold medications reported better medical outcomes than those who bought discount (but clinically identical) drugs."

Although we say we want value, we often are suspicious when it's offered to us. This is why many brand names have greater appeal than their generic equivalents. Of course, anyone who's tried a generic product (not a drug with a specific active ingredient, but simply a "store brand" item) and found it to be genuinely inferior will be justifiably cautious in future money-saving purchases. On the other hand, at what point does an expensive car, for example, become worth its price? If a car were simply transportation, there would be no reason to pay a premium. But a car is an aesthetic statement as well as a public proclamation of status. Once status becomes an issue, all bets are off and the marketing mavens have a field day.
Buying the Image, Not the Item
Let's face it. The real reason that we buy anything beyond basic food staples that keep us alive is that we are making a statement about who we are or who we aspire to be. Not only are human beings visual creatures who respond primarily to appearances, but we are also social creatures who are constantly tuned into the hierarchies of status around us. We choose (or struggle to choose) an image that works for us and the "tribes" we want to affiliate with, then we gather the associated trappings. If you shop at Victoria's Secret and I shop at LL Bean, that says something about each of us and the tribes we identify with. If you drive a Mercedes and I drive a Honda, that speaks volumes, too. If you say that diamonds are a girl's best friend and I say that a girl's best friend is her dog, marketing pros are going to know exactly how to push each of our buttons to get us to reinforce our personal visions and our tribal affiliations.
Every label you put on yourself, or that society imposes upon you, puts you in a tribe:
young/old/mom/dad/dancer/writer/accountant/athlete/conservative/liberal/city dweller/nature lover/quiet/outgoing, etc. The labels you identify with most strongly are your most significant tribes and are usually most visible in your personal style and your lifestyle. We like to think that we're individualistic in our choices, especially in this society where individuality is such an admired characteristic, but I think that's rarely the case. I believe that the tribal connections are generally more powerful than our individual inclinations. Few of us are as bold as Lynn Yaeger when it comes to personal style and perhaps even in her case an argument can be made that embracing an exceptionally unorthodox look puts her in a tribe of "rebels" or "iconoclasts." 
Whatever our personal styles and tribal affiliations may be, if we become truly aware of them, of who we think we are and what statement we want to project to the world, we can make decisions that are comfortable for us. Or we can reject our status quo and reinvent ourselves. Either way, we can start taking charge of all that clever marketing information and use it to our advantage instead of being manipulated by it.
Who are you? What are your tribes? How does what you buy reinforce your image of yourself and what you project to the world? Can you spot instances in which you were manipulated? Do you feel empowered to make satisfying choices in the future?
© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: Avalore @ stock.xchng

Related posts:
Advertising's Assault on Our Senses
Style, Advertising and the Cool Factor
Advertising to Children in a Consumer Society

Sunday, March 28, 2010

More Motivation for Uncluttering

A few links and a few thoughts to help keep you motivated:

Spring cleaning doesn't do much good if you haven't done spring uncluttering first. That's what Wall Street Journal columnist Sue Shellenbarger learned when she personally tackled "Ditching 800 Pounds of Clutter."  Her six-week experiment to clean out and clean up turned out well in spite of some frustrations during the process. There are a couple of good before and after pix to see at this link, too. (Thanks to for pointing out this WSJ article that was published last week.)

"The Story of Stuff: Cycle of Consuming and Dumping Creates Heavy Baggage," by DeNeen L. Brown in Saturday's Washington Post, was prompted by Annie Leonard's new book, The Story of Stuff. Yes, Ms. Leonard is the same person who made the engrossing twenty minute video of the same title that many of you probably have already seen. The WaPo article talks about not only the crisis created by our cultural obsession with consumerism, but also the emotional connection we have with our stuff. An aside: I was amused that Ms. Brown referred to how we used to be able to fit all we owned in a Honda Civic; my generation remembers and probably fantasizes about how we used to be able to fit all we owned in a Volkswagen. The vehicles change, but the sentiment remains -- although there's more room in a Civic! (Thanks to friend and former neighbor, Rachel, for the article link.)

Ultimately, our relationship with most of our stuff is pretty indefensible for one simple reason: you can't take it with you. I've been hanging onto the link to this LA Times article for quite awhile: "Selling What the Dead Leave Behind". Okay, it's not a cheery topic, but it's worth thinking about. You may have heirs that will deal with all your possessions (whether they want to or not is another issue), but what happens if no one is around to sort out your stuff after you've shuffled off this mortal coil? In Los Angeles, the county auctions your belongings to the public. This article provides an informative and poignant look at the process. It's a good reality check for all of us.

We're mid-Discardia right now; it continues until April 14th. I mentioned in my previous post that I'm using this "holiday" to help motivate me to unclutter what may be the final layer in my own archaeological dig through stuff that now seems superfluous to me. I also mentioned that I needed to figure out when my sense of obligation to unclutter was legitimate, not just something I felt I "should" do. What I'm discovering is that I don't have as much left to let go as I thought. I'm not exactly streamlined, but I don't feel the nagging sense of being burdened that I used to have several years ago. If "The Big One" hit LA and we were shaken and rattled out of our home, never to return (Heaven forbid, of course!), there are only a few things I'd miss. Photographs and some handmade mementos are all that I'd be truly sorry to lose. I can't do much about the mementos, other than continue to enjoy having them for as long as the ground remains steady, but I can do something about the photographs by posting them in online albums. That will be a good use of some of my time.

Of course, I'll continue to sort and toss whatever things are left that need to go, but I'll do it gradually. The most significant clutter I'm going to part with immediately is that sense of obligation to be "done." I think letting go of that will allow me to move forward with some current projects that I've been putting on hold until the magic state of "done" had been achieved. I regret to confess that this desire to be done is an excellent example of perfectionism getting in the way of living. To quote Discardia creator, Dinah Sanders (italics are mine):

Discardia is celebrated by getting rid of stuff and ideas you no longer need. It's about letting go, abdicating from obligation and guilt, being true to the self you are now. Discardia is the time to get rid of things that no longer add value to your life, shed bad habits, let go of emotional baggage and generally lighten your load.

Turns out that my useless mental baggage is more bother than my remaining tangible stuff! It's time to let it go, too, and adopt Dinah's motto in my home, my head and my life:

Make room for awesomeness.

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo credit: asifthebes at stock.xchng

Monday, March 15, 2010

Spring Cleaning and a Free Book

Spring is a sign of renewal so it's not surprising that we cling to the concept of spring cleaning, even though the messy coal-burning stoves that prompted the ritual are long gone from our homes. If you live in a climate where you have winter, those first days of warm sunshine still make you want to celebrate the season in a clean home. Those of us here in sunny SoCal don't experience a dramatic change of weather at this time of year, but I must have some kind of spring fever anyway because cleaning up is exactly what I want to do. My problem is what I call "The Final Layer of Clutter" and it's in my way; at least, it's in the way in my head.

I've spent the last several years sorting, tossing, donating and generally unburdening myself of a lot of possessions. And burdensome is exactly how they felt, even though some of those possessions were beautiful antiques I had inherited and had enjoyed living with, familiar things I grew up with that brought me fond memories, and lovely newer things I had acquired with great enthusiasm at the time of purchase. I don't know what flipped the switch in my head, but suddenly I wanted to feel liberated in a way that I couldn't if I was responsible for all that stuff.

The notion of responsibility for our possessions isn't hard to understand; we worked hard, and our families worked hard in the past, in order to have all the comforts and luxuries we enjoy. It doesn't take much introspection to generate feelings of gratitude for having these things and the sense of obligation to care for the stuff properly kicks in quickly, too. If we inherited things, whether valuable or not, that puts an extra layer of responsibility on us. But the notion of being the caretaker of the family history in the form of ownership of stuff can be perceived as a welcome privilege or an oppressive weight, or anything in between.

Because I don't have children who would inherit the family furniture, dishes, etc. (and, believe me, not every child is thrilled to inherit every item we each deem important), I had to make a decision about what to do with most of my sentimental stuff. Yes, I did keep some things that are particularly significant to me and that still bring me joy; for the rest, I opted for what I called my "pre-estate sale." This allowed me to be the one to make choices about where I wanted things to go. That did not necessarily make it easy to let go of these items because, even though I was well aware of how much I wanted to feel that sense of freedom, I didn't simply turn into an unsentimental person. Even now, I can still get a little twinge at times when I think of all that I parted with, but, fortunately, a moment of reflection puts me back in touch with the certain knowledge that I did the right thing.

However, The Final Layer of Clutter is not only a small amount of remaining sentimental stuff. In fact, much of it doesn't have any sentiment attached to it at all. But it does have that sense of obligation hanging over it: I know I should do something with it. Often the sense of obligation is totally misplaced, so I need to make sure I really do need to do something with these things and, if I do, I need to act on it. Do I need or truly want to organize and scan my family photographs? Yes. Do I need or truly want to keep a stash of old costume jewelry? No.

I think I had battle fatigue after letting go of so much truly important stuff and then making sure I reached my goal in last year's 365 Item Toss Challenge (I exceeded it!). And now I face The Final Layer. My solution? I'm preparing to celebrate one of my favorite holidays again: Discardia. I first heard of Discardia from blogger Jeri Dansky on her popular blog, Jeri's Organizing and Decluttering News and I've posted about it in the past (here and here). The short explanation of the holiday, according to its founder, Dina Sanders, is that Discardia is about "letting go of stuff and ideas that you don't need." It's celebrated between the Solstices & Equinoxes and their following new moons. The next Discardia begins on Saturday, March 20th, and ends on April 14th. Even though Discardia is strictly a no-pressure holiday, I'm going to use it to motivate me to do my best to deal with The Final Layer of Clutter during that time. I'm also going to make a major effort to unload some of the useless mental baggage that I cart around.

To help motivate you, I'm going to give away a copy of my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff. All you have to do is leave a comment telling me what kind of spring cleaning and uncluttering you plan to do. Are you at the beginning of your uncluttering efforts or have you made lots of progress? Do you have sentimental stuff that's holding you back or are you simply swamped by everything? Do you already have your house in order and live the life of a thoughtful consumer? Whoever you are, please join the discussion. I'll use a random number generator to choose the winner (assuming more than one faithful reader responds!) and I'll announce the name in the comments of this post next Saturday, the 20th, day one of the spring Discardia celebration.

Let's see if we can make spring cleaning fun! Okay, that's probably too much to ask. Let's just make this a fun contest!

© 2010 Cynthia Friedlob
Photo by littlekata at stock.xchng