“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”–Henry David Thoreau
It was one of those coincidences that stay with you. I had just read an article about Americans and their stuff. (Did you know that American children own 40% of the world’s toys?) That night, I went for coffee with two of my friends who make a living by writing, which, in case you don’t know, is not an easy way to earn money, let alone lots of money. So I asked them how they did it. They told me the usual stuff, taking on editing jobs and corporate gigs when they could. But then they both added that they had learned to live simply. As one said, “I’ve always known I wanted to write, so I do whatever gives me time to have that sort of life. And part of that is not often eating out, wearing the same clothes for several years, and driving the car until it dies. It’s a trade off, but I’m happy to do it because I love writing.”
There are two basic ways to have more money, says one of my friends. Make more. Or spend less. And that’s wise advice. But perhaps the goal should not just be making more money, but examining the amount of time/life that goes into each purchase. Now don’t misunderstand me. Anyone who knows me can tell you I like my stuff. But is this stuff worth the time it takes to earn the money to pay for it? That is the question to ask.
My writing friends look at purchases this way: A $100 dress means an extra book review, which means two-three hours of reading the book and another couple of hours writing and editing. That means at least four hours of not working on the writing projects close to their hearts. For them, the choice is easy. They are more than willing to forego being the best-dressed person at a function if it means they’ll have four more hours of novel-writing time.
One of my goals for this year is to declutter. While I am not one of those people who rent storage units to house their excess stuff, I was uncomfortable with the amount of storage boxes, crammed closets, and overflowing bookcases that had become part of my home. Little by little, the excess is disappearing, and I am pleased with the result. But I am not happy at the things I’ve found in closets that I desired so badly a few years ago and now can’t remember the last time I used them. There are clothes with the tags still on. There are unread books that I had to have that minute, but somehow the desire to read them has passed. (Not to mention the amount of time it has taken to go through everything.)
So now, when looking at a purchase, I am determined to follow Thoreau’s lead. I’m not going to ask how much it costs, but how much of my life would I have to give up for it? Oh, I’m not worried about becoming an ascetic. I’ll still have more things than 90% of the world. But it will at least slow me down a little.
And, in the meantime, I have several (now empty) storage boxes if anyone needs them.