I have a complicated relationship with stuff. Like the child of alcoholics, who feels isolated from her family when sober and terrified by the future when drinking, I proclaim constantly that I have too much stuff – and then I buy more.
Owning too much is a condition of western society in the twenty first century. The proliferation of big yellow self-storage units in every town and city in the country isn’t just because people are living in rabbit hutch little new build houses. It’s also because we have too much stuff. Almost everybody does, rich or poor or anywhere in between. But my family has more stuff than most people with too much stuff.
I would say that around half my family members could legitimately be considered hoarders. The other half are borderline cases. We aren’t rich, we just can’t get rid of things. When I was at my parents’ house recently, we were trying to do a little bit of a clear out. I found a shoe box on a shelf. It was filled with empty guitar string packets. I suggested that it could be thrown out. “No!” My mum said, “Those belong to Ben and he wanted to keep them.” Ben has emigrated to Canada and its unlikely to come back in the next few years. I don’t know whether this story reflects worse on him or my mother but the truth is that if those string packets didn’t go to Canada, they are unlikely to be needed on his return. A slightly odd neighbour of ours once left the core of her apple in my sister’s room. It wasn’t found for months. My aunt and uncle keep back editions of the Guardian weekend magazine, despite the fact that it is available in full for free on the Guardian website. I could list a hundred other examples, all of them worse.
Against this backdrop, I have become a slightly manic advocate of throwing things away. When I moved out of my shared flat and into my parents’ house for three months last summer, my return triggered a manic drive to get rid of as much stuff as I could. I piled up books I didn’t like, clothes I didn’t fit, and things I didn’t want. It was like getting blood from a stone just getting my parents to take them to the charity shop. (for those who want to know why I didn’t just do it myself – I don’t own a car. A mile and a half is a long way to walk with a sack of books…) I didn’t need “The Life-changing Magic of Tidying” when it swept the nation last year, that’s been my rallying cry for years.
Following my de-cluttering binge in the summer, I have felt better about the amount of stuff I own. It helps that I now have a nice big bedroom in my new house – realistically the most space I will probably have to myself for a couple of decades, as my next move will likely be with my boyfriend, and we will have to learn to share our space and combine our stuff. I haven’t missed anything I’ve got rid of, and I don’t feel like I’ve been heartless and given away everything of meaning, as I am so often told. I have a box under my bed full of personal things from little trolls with neon hair that my aunt gave me as a child, love notes written by an older man when I worked at a garden centre in my teens (don’t worry mum – it extended to one hand holding session before I was distracted by a boy my own age), photographs of college balls, wristbands from teenage gigs, and the other pieces of junk that hold meaning for individuals. I have a box of letters and cards, some of which I will treasure for ever, and I have a box of Important Documents, because I am a real adult now, which means I am at least 10% sensible.
De-cluttering, therefore, has worked. Only, why did I need to de-clutter so much in the first place? It wasn’t by magic, or osmosis, or voodoo that I ended up with so much stuff. I bought it. Almost all of it, bar a few presents. I bought it, and then I felt bad that I had bought it, and gave it away, and then after a while I felt better, and then I bought some more. It was an unending circle. When I was a child, I bought a lot of tat – china dolphins from seaside shops, little mood rings from Camden market, tie-dyed rugs from choir tours (it was a dark time in my life), and all sorts of other rubbish. But buying tat is an obvious waste of money. It makes you feel the amount of junk you are accumulating and feel bad about it. So after a while, it slowly shifted and I started buying the one thing that you definitely do need and can’t deny: clothes.
I buy clothes like other people buy drugs: guiltily, and often in the middle of the night. I log onto ASOS after a long day, and end up buying five or six different “wardrobe essentials” which in the cold light of day I’m not sure about and which I end up only wearing once. I have two jumpsuits, despite the fact that I have a long back and a high waist so jumpsuits give me dreadful camel toe. I have umpteen pairs of vintage shoes which fall apart after two wears. I had at my worst peak six different but almost identical grey sweaters. I have two sequinned t-shirts, a sequinned skirt, and I almost bought myself a sequin blazer in the sales before I woke up and gave myself a talking to. I work for a local authority; I don’t live a sequin blazer life.
Some people reading this will think “who cares, it’s your money, do what you like”. The problem is it’s not my money. It’s the bank’s money. I have a decently paid job, relatively low expenses and few responsibilities. This is the time of my life in which I should be saving. Instead, I’m guiltily paying back my credit card, month by painful month. And I didn’t spend that money on fabulous trips to the other side of the world, or a car, or a masters. I spent it in Topshop, H&M, ASOS, & Other Stories, Zara, Office, Schuh, Primark, Marks & Spencers, Dune, Banana Republic, Gap, and Urban Outfitters. Endless forgettable outfits. I see a sale and feel a compulsive need to pick up a bargain, even if actually that bargain is extremely tight and without a serious Regime, I’ve got no hope of fitting into it. (and I never go on serious Regimes).
It’s a psychological crutch, I guess. Just like drugs. Some people face down the fear of a party where they won’t know anyone by doing a few lines in the bathroom of the club. I face it down with one-day ASOS Premier delivery, knowing that I will have something new, something exciting to wear every time I go out. I’ve got into the habit of buying something new for every party, every big night out, every job interview, every foreign holiday (“I’ll re-wear it with a fine sweater underneath” – only I never do). And there is no reason. My favourite dresses are without a doubt the ones I’ve saved up for, agonised over, bought rationally, and worn again and again. My favourite shoes are a pair of black Nike trainers – not the metallic green heels I’ve worn a total of five times but which are already flaking because hey, metallic green leather is not hard wearing! But having something new, something the papers, instagram, celebrities, the internet, and my cooler friends have told me is good, is cool, and has cachet, that saves me from having to worry about whether I have any value. Whether I am cool. Whether I am worth it, outside of the things I own.
And it’s ridiculous. When I was a student, I bought a strapless black dress for £30 in H&M. I wore it on every single night out for over a year (so that’s twice a week, ten weeks a term, three terms a year… 60 times. Minimum). I looked amazing in it, and I felt amazing in it, and I don’t think I ever paid for a single drink while wearing it. When along the road did I lose the ability to stop caring about whether or not I’ve worn something before? I don’t know, and I miss it.
So I’ve made a decision. I’m not buying any clothes for four months. From now until the first of May, I will not buy any clothes at all. (Disclaimer: underwear doesn’t count, a lady needs ladder-free tights if she is to be taken seriously in a professional environment!). I have enough clothes that I don’t need to buy anything new. I have ballgowns, and summer dresses, and coats, and jeans, and suits, and blouses, and everything else that I might need for any situation I might find myself in. I even have clothes for yoga – and I don’t even go to yoga!
The aim of this exercise is to break the cycle. To stop feeling like I need something new all the time. To get out of this meaningless consumption, and to start over. At the end, hopefully I will be less broke, but hopefully I will also be free of this need to buy something new. I had a badge at university which said “How much have I no need of?” (I was given it at a philosophy event, obviously). I lost it at some point and I won’t be buying myself another one, but that will be my mantra. How much have I no need of? How much do I already have?