I’m back with a slightly more philosophical post today. Have you ever wondered: how much is enough? It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot this year. As I settle into my late twenties, I find myself in a more comfortable home. I’m generating a more comfortable income. I’m even following a more comfortable routine. And yet, I still want more stuff. Why?
On the flip side, the cost of living crisis is shaking those foundations slightly. Are you feeling the same? Personally, my disposable income has reduced considerably, and with it, purchases of second-hand clothes, shoes, and bags. I don’t go out to dinner as much. And even my comfort has been challenged – I’m already spending a whole lot more on electricity (although, thankfully, not petrol).
That being said, why am I feeling like I still want to buy unnecessary stuff? And why do I feel like how much I buy is directly connected to what I’m worth?
Will there ever be a time where any of us feel like we “have enough”?
Does Money = Freedom?
Growing up in the UK, the concept of money equating to freedom feels deeply ingrained in me. Money gives me the freedom to choose how I dress. The freedom to choose what I eat. The freedom to choose where I live. In short, money is more than just the medium of exchange for goods and services; money gives me a sense of self.
And scarily, it feels like money is the only acceptable way to find your sense of self in the UK. Community, faith, art, culture, craft, family… These aspects cannot be sold to us, therefore they are not encouraged on a level anywhere close to consumption. There’s a reason why we buy more clothes per person in the UK than any other country in Europe.
This is why it took me a long time to recognise that I cannot buy my way to sustainability. I had spent years documenting kinder ways to live, only to realise I wasn’t seeing the bigger picture – the systems I’m part of – rather than the individual actions and purchases I make on a daily basis.
It’s why I have a real issue with what ‘success’ means, too. Traditional success has always been attributed to having a highly-paid job, which in turn garners power, respect, freedom. A highly-paid job is seen as successful, even if it gives us barely any time to look after ourselves, to see our families, or to enjoy ourselves outside of work. Is that really, truly, success?
Even if you still believe in that type of success, here comes the new catch: even with that money, the economy around us can change. The cost of living can dramatically increase. The value of our savings can dramatically decrease. The success we were working for, now gone in an instant. “Saving to buy a house? Don’t make me laugh” I imagine my Help To Buy ISA saying every time I log onto my online banking app.
Now, it seems, we have to return back to worrying about paying for our bare essentials, like we did at the start of the pandemic.
I Shop Therefore I Am
It’s through this new lens of cutting back on the cost of living that I write today’s post. I’ve been making notes around the question of ‘How Much Is Enough?’ for months now, but there seems no better time than now to share these thoughts.
First, I want to ask: Why do we need to own things?
Plus, as an extension of that: What is it that makes possession such an addiction?
I write that as the singular noun: possession, the state of having, owning, or controlling something. Because in reality, the act of buying stuff comes down to scratching that same itch, over and over and over. Being able to own something beautiful, be it a beautiful dress, a beautiful car, a beautiful home… It all comes back to the fact that buying stuff makes us feel good. In fact, research into retail therapy supports the notion that buying is a coping response and is tied to stress and depression. And owning stuff, rather than renting, sharing, or swapping, has stronger emotional responses too. Think about it: it feels worse to lose something than to never receive it in the first place. We even take pride in what we own (see: my home tour).
And, there’s a sense of stability in ownership. A sense of control. I imagine there is a great sense of relief that comes with having a mortgage, knowing your home won’t be whipped away from you at any given point (like my rented homes have been on five different occasions). That thing is yours, for now and the future, and with it comes a real sense of security.
So, is there a way to find a sense of self, and a sense of security, that doesn’t rely on buying stuff?
Maximalism Is Dead
With Beyoncé moving on from her “I see it, I want it” era to her “quitting her job” era, it feels like the tides are turning away from individualist maximalism to populist movements. But is that really the case?
Consider the closet tour. A staple of many YouTuber’s channels, they were something I would routinely watch. Now, I see them as grandiose displays of reckless spending. This video by internet analyst Tiffany Ferg goes into the multitude of issues with closet tours and the overconsumption it represents:
However, while I think flex culture will fizzle out, I don’t think the end of the consumption era is nigh. Instead of buying copious stuff, I think buying stuff generally is actually a sort of coping mechanism. Spending money on frivolous stuff is a welcome outlet when the things we truly need are so unaffordable.
“I Daydream Of The Bare Minimum”
@baby_misery I day dream of the bare minimum #capitalism #socialism ♬ original sound – Fifi Martínez
Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t believe that no longer buying avocado on toast will help anyone to afford a mortgage. But I do think that having brunch with friends is a welcome distraction to the reality that we have less and less chance to get on the property ladder. Less and less chance to live securely. Less and less chance to be comfortable.
I began this post by saying I’m comfortable. But would you really call it that? Because even with my more comfortable home, I’m still renting. Even with my comfortable income, I don’t have much in the way of savings. Even with my comfortable routine, I’m still working overtime, past the hours of Monday-Friday, 9-5. It’s just a bit better than it was in my early 20s, and a lot of that is chalked up to working stupidly hard over the last few years, and making tough decisions, such as moving out of London.
While maximalism and overt displays of wealth are now seriously out of touch, so are the old assumptions that our generation – millennials, and those younger than us – have the same privileges and financial security that older generations did.
So, What Is Enough?
Enough is having our human needs covered. Enough is feeling safe, secure, and in a stable home with food and family. Enough is bodily autonomy. Enough is looking at our bank accounts and feeling ok. Enough is the ability to take care of ourselves. Enough is having time to create and maintain meaningful connections with our friends and community. Enough is being appreciated at work and in society. Enough is the ability to express ourselves, however we identify, in whatever way we please, and be accepted. Enough is the freedom to say whatever we want, to go wherever we want. Enough is being able to plan for the future. Enough is realised self-worth and self-expression. Enough is continued progression towards social justice and climate justice.
And for the most part? We don’t have enough. Instead, we make do with half-truths and in-betweens. There’s a reason why I used to shop on days I felt sad, shop on days I felt happy. Consumption is a habit, and it’s sold to us as a way of liberating ourselves. With fashion, it’s even more insidious, sold as a way to empower women, when so many women working for these fashion brands are suffering. True empowerment comes from demanding better from our governments, from big business, from all the systems we’re part of.
When framed in this manner, it’s hard to tell you to stop buying too much stuff. It also explains why buying stuff still feels good, despite my years of abstinence from the high street. And at the same time, it’s important that we do consume less. Whatever your stance, I hope you can see why you can’t buy your way to freedom. We have to instead channel the energy we have for shopping into demanding better for ourselves and others, for a fairer society. One that values our generation and future generations alike.
In my post asking if sustainability is too expensive, I wrote that the cost of sustainability is more than simply money. Yes, lower prices often come at the expense of people and planet, but we have to move away from the idea of only ever ‘buying better’. We have to also dedicate more time to less convenient options. Break down barriers that exclude others from being sustainable. Be willing to make sacrifices. And take up activism, to call for certain industries and policies to change or disappear altogether.
Except now, it feels like there’s even more barriers to doing any of that.
I don’t have the answers to this, but what I do know is that we’re now going to be gaslit by the politicians and big businesses causing this mess. As our economy weakens, politicians declare that policies on social justice, environmental justice, and even reproductive justice are “no longer a priority“. The same goes for investors and big businesses. In their ads, they might tell us they relate to our bank account anxiety, while in reality, they continue to bump up their profits. Haven’t they had enough?