Having less made me materialistic, in a good way

Around ten years ago now, I packed everything I owned and moved across the country. After arriving, I unpacked as usual, except for my clothes. For those, I pulled out only a carefully itemised list:

Ten items total, which I called my 10 piece wardrobe (a catchy title for a blog post!). I went on to wear only these items for at least half a year.

The capsule wardrobe is not new. My ten piece wardrobe was directly inspired by the articles abounding at the time, written by authors who had tried the experiment themselves. But for me, it changed the way I thought about objects, buying them, and living with them. At the time, I thought I was addressing a self-contained problem: my clothes shopping. What I did not predict was that this restrained approach to possession would spread to almost all other types of objects.

Shopping creates happiness

As a child, I heard the advice to gift experiences rather than objects. I thought it was a stupid idea, both for giving and for my own expenditures. Why choose something fleeting like a nice restaurant meal, when a physical object like a toy would last much longer and promises multiple experiences?

For most objects, however, these potential experiences never materialise. How many of us have clothes unworn, toys played with once then buried at the bottom of a plastic bin, and kitchen gadgets so rarely used that even their purpose is long forgotten? Though we may tell ourselves some story of how an object will beautifully improve our lives, it usually stays a fantasy. For example, I can remember many times when I felt that, once I just received some object, I would be more productive, healthier, or happier. I can't think of a single time it actually happened. In fact, I can't even remember what these objects were — only how I felt when I wanted them.

Since very few objects actually go on to improve our lives, this feeling of anticipation is the most we get. I am reminded of a sports fan in my life, who supports two teams. One always loses, while the other always wins. Neither is the ideal. When I asked, he said the best outcome would be for his team to win unexpectedly, every time — an impossible pattern. But what he wants is understandable: the tension, then triumph. So too we are with the activity of purchasing. Shopping often isn't about having an object or lacking it; the specific item hardly matters. What we seek is the suspense we get when we shop, then wait, for an item. Once it's in our hands, where is the excitement? And so we must buy again.

Today, online shopping and two-day delivery (for some places, one-day) has tightened this cycle. The anticipation lasts only as long as the time it takes for delivery, so we need to shop more frequently to keep it up. In university, several of my classmates made orders so often they no longer knew what was in the mail, just that multiple packages were on their way. They were in a constant state of anticipation. More than one of them described it like getting unexpected presents every few days — they never knew when or what would show up. I can't help but suspect that online shopping marketplaces offer free two-day shopping partially to reinforce this loop. We are not shopping mainly to acquire. We are shopping to shop. We are shopping to feel.

Owning is a burden

So, why did I plan and execute a 10 piece wardrobe? Though I got excitement from browsing for and buying clothes, I was beginning to contend with another feeling: the mental fatigue of tracking what I owned. Each time I got dressed, I had to recall what clothing I had. It wasn't enough to open my closet: I had drawers under my bed, dressers filling and overflowing, organisers holding misplaced articles. I was trying to track with only my memory what retail stores manage with computer inventory systems. It was exhausting. Despite all my clothes, usually I'd just give up and wear what was at the top of the pile, alternating through the same few items while the majority didn't make it out of my apartment.

Along with the fatigue came guilt. I knew that I had many pieces that I'd only worn once or twice. I concluded that I must not be creative enough with my outfits, or that I wasn't doing a good enough job at remembering all my cool unique finds, so lovingly handpicked when shopping. I resolved to try harder to remember to wear each item. Mornings turned emotional, as I grew increasingly stressed about appreciating my clothes, gave up more quickly under the growing pressure, then felt even guiltier later. I was stuck in a new cycle, while at the same time continuing to shop and worsening my problem.

Eventually I noticed that an article of clothing in the store, when it wasn't mine, had a different aura compared to once I'd brought it home. What was excitement on the rack turned to a sense of duty in my closet. I began to feel that the sticker price was not the real cost of owning an article of clothing. I realised that having a piece was not passive. I had to actively remember each one and create plans to wear it next.

So I chose to free myself from the responsibility. With my ten piece wardrobe, I didn't have to be aware of what I had: I could easily see it all at once. I also didn't have to consciouly make sure I wore everything: with so little, I had no choice but to wear everything often. You might think I was artificially restricting myself, but I never missed my unending closet. I let go of clothes I wasn't wearing anyway, to gain something more valuable: I finally felt relief.

The joy of exactly enough

Actually, I didn't just feel relief. I felt joy. Because I had chosen to have only a single white T-shirt, I'd naturally picked my favourite one to unpack. The same was true for all other nine pieces. What's more, I could enjoy them rather than worrying about a shameful backlog of unworn clothes. Every day, I felt like a child who gets to wear their princess costume on a Tuesday. After I loosened the ten-piece restriction, adding a new article of clothing was suddenly an exercise of persuasion. Since I knew how anxious I would feel if I owned too much, every potential purchase had to convince me first. If there was any reason something wasn't perfect — it didn't fit just right, or it required dry cleaning — I didn't need telling twice. Where before I would make excuses to buy, now I would search for excuses not to buy. My closet was curated with only my favourite things. Why lower the bar?

A funny thing happens when one holds a hammer: everything is suddenly a nail. Once I started looking around my apartment with the same critical eye, countless items not worth their mental drain looked back. Lipsticks and skincare I felt embarrassed for neglecting. Boxes full of spare toothbrushes, USB cables, and pens that I was holding onto for ... what contingency? Trinkets, souvenirs, and gag gifts to display whose only purpose was to remind me of a friendship or memory, as though I'd forget something that important. Stuff I'd bought to reaffirm my commitment to a hobby, to fit in with a group, or as an attempt to become an aspirational version of myself — many times, holding me in a self that was no longer true. They all trapped me in the cycle of mentally tracking multiple items, scheming for ways to use them, getting overwhelmed, then letting guilt force me back to the beginning. I let go of them all, an escape from the burden of owning.

I can't claim to be totally immune to the (sometimes frighteningly hyper-targeted) ads selling some revolutionary product. At times, I still buy something that turns out to be a mistake. But I find myself straying far less often than before, now that the consequence is clear. In fact, as more information comes out about how companies track us online to influence us to covet, I feel a petty sense of satisfaction every time I can't find the desire to buy their needless products.

Recently, I switched from an apartment to a small room in a shared house. (The easy move is yet another plus of owning just enough.) When I look around, there isn't much, but everything I see brings me joy. I have the time and space to treat each object with intention and respect: in turn, they have the opportunity to fully bear out their implicit pledges of multiple happy experiences. If being a materialist means deriving fulfillment from objects, I could only become one after I gave most of my objects up.

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