The End of the Age of Materialism

In theory, I have always been about trying to live a simple life. In college I was told I needed to apply for a credit card to build up my ‘line of credit,’ and hence my ability to acquire more debt. Despite disagreeing with this philosophy, I was young and obeyed. By working only part-time in the 6 months following grad school, followed by three years volunteering overseas, I managed to finance my life for quite some time on a little piece of plastic. Fortunately, upon my return to the working world, and by living with my parents for 2.5 years to save money, I was succesfully able to pay it all off.

At the dawn of the Great Recession, I read that the average American has over $10,000 in general credit card debt and over $40,000 in overall debt (mortgage, car loans, student loans, etc). I didn’t want to become that person. Although I am not a fan of New Years’ Resolutions, as 2009 drew to a start almost one year ago, I challenged myself to not take on a single new debt for an entire year. Am I too optimistic to wish for an entire lifetime?

My year without debt coincided with perhaps the most expensive year of my life – the year I moved out on my own without the subsidized housing the student and professional-volunteer life had brought me, the year I got married and spent an unmentionable amount of money throwing ourselves a big party. It was a sharp learning curve, but massive amounts of overtime at my job this summer, and working a second part-time job helped me manage to succeed. But was I completely satisfied? The wedding was a fun party, but I don’t necessarily want to live the rest of my life a slave to work so I can afford lavish things.

My quest to follow a life based on real income living and voluntary simplicity continues. Three days ago I quit my ‘secure’ job, ending a three-year stint at conventional living that really wasn’t my thing. This afternoon I took that last of 16 boxes of material possessions I no longer need to Goodwill, in an attempt my husband and I are making to rid ourselves of all things that aren’t either exceptionally useful or powerfully sentimental. The next challenge will be to not acquire more items to take their place.

Next year I plan to live a life of following my passions, taking on freelance projects that support causes I care deeply about, focusing more on my writing, spending more time with the people I care about and exploring new places, making more of my meals from scratch and eating out less, and making most, if not all, of my own clothes. In short, this is the end of my age of materialism and the dawning of something I hope is much better. How will this all work out? This is something I hope to explore in future posts.

“Half the walk is but retracing our steps. We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return, – prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms…If you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.”

-From the essay ‘Walking,’ Henry David Thoreau, 1862

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One Response to The End of the Age of Materialism

  1. Jenny Johnson-Riley says:

    I’ve been wanting to respond to this post for a while. I think about it frequently.

    I thought of it again last night while my husband was watching the news. The news station aired a story about a family whose house was burned down. The newscasters blamed a video that had appeared on youtube. I was reading in the bedroom and didn’t catch the whole story, but my husband relayed that an 8 year old boy had a Christmas party a few days before Christmas. The party featured a Santa who passed out small gifts to the children in attendance. One parent stole another child’s toy (value around $10), and when another parent confronted her (with video evidence), the thieving parent allegedly burned down her house.

    Aside from the fact that youtube isn’t responsible for the individuals choices people make, I can’t believe that all this started over a $10 toy.

    I’ve been feeling a considerable amount of depression since Christmas, and I think that it’s in part to the intense realization that people are so consumed about getting more “stuff” for themselves while so many others aren’t able to meet their basic needs.

    I started a decluttering process this weekend as well, and it felt great to be getting rid of so much unneeded stuff.

    I look forward to following your progress this year, Becky. You’re a good example for your older sister.

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