Shopping: The Misguided Search for Happiness

In my 12 years of helping people de-clutter and organize their lives, I know one thing for sure – Americans have too much stuff. Even though our houses are, on average, 50% bigger than the average house in the 1950s, we still need storage units to hold some of our belongings. Come on people, what’s with all the stuff! Is it making you happy?

I recently watched a TV show on which a financial planner was helping a couple develop a strategy to get out from under their credit card debt. The wife (I can’t remember her name, but I’ll call her “Janet”) went to the mall every weekend with her mother and sister and employed a shopping strategy whereby she “saved” money by buying things on sale that she didn’t need. The financial planner referred to  Janet’s strategy as “spaving” – the misguided notion that spending money to save money on things you don’t need is a viable financial strategy. As it turned out, Janet got as much pleasure from being with her mom and sister as she did from making the purchases. She revised her behavior so she would simply enjoy the time with them without making any purchases. In the long run, she got more happiness from reducing her financial burden than from spaving.

I’ve worked with a particular client (I’ll call him “Joe”) for quite a few years – he’s on an eternal quest to make his condo less cluttered so visiting family members can stay overnight in his spare bedroom. Unfortunately, that bedroom is filled with “bargains” from shopping adventures. As much as Joe loves the idea of having an inviting home, he can’t get over the thrill of the bargain hunt, and his hunting “trophies” have taken over his guest room. Joe justifies his purchases by saying he’ll be giving them as gifts to those same family members he can’t have over, and he feels good about how thoughtful he is. Sadly, the gifts never seem to make it to their intended recipients. Joe is fed up with his situation – his bargains and his intent to be thoughtful sure haven’t made him happy. By the way, you may be surprised to know that statistics suggest that almost half of over-shoppers may be male.

I’m fortunate to have an inherent dislike of shopping, so I’ve never found myself in Janet or Joe’s situation. But I certainly do understand it. In my training to become a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, I learned that over-shopping is sometimes due to an unmet emotional need. If you think you may be shopping for that reason, ask yourself what you’re really shopping for. Like Janet, are you shopping for the social aspect? Are you trying to add some excitement to an otherwise boring day? It might be helpful to document how you’re feeling before, during and after you go shopping to see if there’s a pattern or common trigger.

The media certainly doesn’t make it any easier to resist the lure of shopping – magazine ads, TV ads, billboards, and even the content of TV shows and movies all tell us that more is better. If you can’t resist this external stimuli, turn it off – get off the catalog mailing lists (try CatalogChoice.org to make it easier), turn down the sound and walk away from the TV during commercials, unsubscribe from e-mail notifications from stores, etc.

You might also enlist the help of a supportive friend to keep you on track – is there someone you can call when you’re feeling tempted to shop who might fill the emotional void you’re trying to fill? Maybe you could take your support person with you when you absolutely have to go to the store to help keep you from straying into dangerous over-shopping territory. In addition to support from a friend, here’s a resource you may find helpful: Stopping Overshopping, LLC

In the words of writer Eric Hoffer, “You can never get enough of what you don’t need to make you happy.” Best wishes as you search for what truly makes you happy.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Reduce Your Stress During the Holidays

Holiday stressShopping, baking, more shopping, wrapping gifts, hosting guests – this busy time of year is often more stressful than joyful. Expectations are high, crowds are plentiful, time is limited, and funds may be as well. As you may have promised yourself so many times, how about actually making this holiday season the most wonderful time of the year?  Here are some ideas to help you consider converting your to-do list to a “to-don’t” list:

 Reevaluate your expectations. The proliferation of TV shows and magazines suggesting that the holidays aren’t complete without a beautifully decorated home, the smell of cookies baking in the oven, and perfectly wrapped gifts for everyone who crosses your threshold, might have you believing that you have to spend every waking moment imitating them. I’d like to suggest that the holidays should be whatever you would like them to be, rather than a contest to see who can claim they’re busier and more exhausted.

 Reevaluate everyone else’s expectations. Have you ever asked your family what they enjoy most about the holidays? You may be surprised that it isn’t that the bow on the front door is perfectly crafted or that holiday cards are addressed in calligraphy handwriting. You may find they just enjoy spending time together appreciating the positive energy generated by this festive time of year. While you may think you’re creating the holiday of their dreams, you may be creating a holiday that zaps you of energy and the positive spirit that’s important to them.

Here’s a link to my newsletter where you’ll find additional ideas to help you reduce your holiday stress.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

When Does a Gift Become a Burden?

gift-givingI celebrated my birthday last week and received some wonderful gifts from my friends and family. But the best gifts I received were their time, attention and companionship. This focus on gifts got me thinking about another source of gifts in my life – hostess gifts. I’d like your help understanding why people feel they can’t show up at my (or anyone’s) home unless they’re toting a gift.

I can understand bringing a bottle of wine or box of chocolates to a dinner party – it’s a gesture to show the host or hostess that they appreciate the invitation and would like to contribute in a small way to the festivities. What I have a harder time understanding is why some people feel they have to go shopping for trinkets in order to ring my doorbell. Some of my friends and family members give me a gift every time they come to my house – they would feel naked if they were to come to the door empty-handed. I’ve received candles, hand towels, jewelry, clothing, Christmas ornaments, books – the list goes on and on.

Now don’t get me wrong – I certainly appreciate their generosity and thoughtfulness. But as someone who helps people get rid of the excess in their lives and live more simply, it’s sometimes hard for me to be fully welcoming of more stuff. On top of that, I feel guilty that I don’t like to shop, and don’t want to burden people with more stuff, so I don’t reciprocate. Now I’m not a total ingrate – when I go to someone’s home for dinner, I either contribute to the meal (with the hostess’ advance approval, of course), or bring something consumable like the predictable and previously-mentioned bottle of wine, but I certainly don’t go shopping for “stuff.”

When guests bring me a gift, I also feel that I’ve burdened them in some way – rather than just coming over and enjoying a meal and camaraderie in my home, they feel they have to part with their time and money to buy me a gift. But then again, I sometimes I wonder if it’s as much a gift for them as it is for me, since it gives them an excuse to partake in their love of shopping. But it makes me feel like a slug when I don’t reciprocate.

Hmm, maybe I should be writing this in a diary rather than on my blog because my feelings on this issue probably say more about me than they do about the gift-givers. In any case, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. And remember, when you’re invited to my house, you’re encouraged to come empty-handed.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Neatening Isn’t Organizing

Horrified womanI recently encountered a situation with my client, whom I’ll call “Ann”, which exemplifies how some people think neatening is the same thing as organizing, and how detrimental that can be.  Ann has several chronic medical conditions that generate lots of paperwork, leaving her buried in piles and overwhelmed. She also tends to be an over-shopper, buying things because they’re fun or pretty, not because she’ll necessarily use them, although she says she intends to give them as gifts someday. In addition, she has emotional attachments to gift boxes, greeting cards, stickers, ribbon, and other gift-giving supplies. Ann also envisions herself as being a great cook some day, so she stockpiles recipes and cooking supplies. I’ve worked with Ann on and off for several years to set up systems for her paperwork and create space for the emotion-evoking things that fill her small condo.

When we work together, Ann tells me that  she hates her cluttered home, but although her head tells her she should let go of many of the unused things that fill her space, her heart won’t let her release them. I’ve been using motivational interviewing techniques and guidance from the book Buried in Treasures to slowly help Ann release things that aren’t giving her joy. We had been making slow but steady progress until “Linda” (not her real name) entered Ann’s life.

Linda is Ann’s cleaning woman. She told Ann she could whip her place into shape in four hours. Ann, being emotionally vulnerable and helpless, agreed to have Linda work her self-described magic. Unfortunately Linda, who was great at cleaning, wasn’t so great at organizing. She embraced the same philosophy kids often use when you tell them to clean their room – getting things out of sight is the goal. Linda shoved things wherever they would fit – cooking supplies were jammed into kitchen cabinets; recipes were shoved onto shelves; excess paperwork was tossed into large lidded bins; potential gifts were placed into boxes stacked from floor to ceiling; and gift boxes were stacked to go to recycling.

When Linda excitedly showed Ann the neat-as-a-pin results of her work, Ann was horrified. She could no longer see the things she loved, find the important papers that were previously stacked on her dining room table, or easily access the few pots and pans she used regularly. Even worse, the gift boxes that meant so much to her were unceremoniously awaiting their execution in the recycling bin.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, where you just want to make things neater and better for someone (including yourself), be sure to respect their feelings and recognize that neatening and getting things out of sight isn’t the goal of organizing – making it easy to find things when you need them and being surrounded by the things you love is what matters.

Wishing you simplicity, harmony and freedom,

Signature Sue

Buy Needful Things

PAYThis week’s blog is from guest blogger Gretchen Rubin, a best-selling writer whose new book, The Happiness Project, is an account of the year she spent test-driving studies and theories about how to be happier.

“I’m an under-buyer (as opposed to an over-buyer). That means I have trouble prodding myself to buy things, even things I absolutely need, like contact-lens solution. When I do buy, I buy as little as possible (even though this means I have to buy again before long). I often procrastinate about buying essential seasonal items, like mittens, until late into the season. I use things for too long, past the point at which they’re used up or worn out. Sure, a pair of old khakis is nice, but at some point, I really do need a new toothbrush.

“As an under-buyer, I’ve developed some resolutions to help me buy, and the most important of these resolutions is ‘buy needful things.’ I force myself to stop at the drugstore to pick up the supplies I need. I prod myself to buy three tubes of toothpaste, not just one. I ask myself if we have an emergency supply of cereal and light bulbs. I ask myself, ‘Do I need this?’ and if I do, I buy it (or at least I’m supposed to buy it) without saying, ‘I’ll pick this up another time.’

“As Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘To live in perpetual want of little things is a state, not indeed of torture, but of constant vexation.’ It’s no fun to be in a household that’s constantly running out of toilet paper.

“Over-buyers, of course, have the opposite problem. They spend too much time and money buying things that they don’t really need. ‘We can use that. This might come in handy. That would make a good gift…for someone.’

“For over-buyers, the resolution to ‘Buy needful things’ is also useful, because it reminds them to ask, ‘Do I really need this? Right now? Or do I just think I might need it?’

“To find out if you’re an under-buyer or an over-buyer, take this quiz.”

Hi – Sue here. I’m a “just right” buyer. I value my time, so I’ll buy multiple bottles of contact lens solution and other things I know I’ll use. As someone who doesn’t like to shop, my challenge is dragging someone to go clothes shopping with me to help me stay motivated. I’d love to hear how you did on the quiz and what buying challenges you face.

I’m looking forward to hearing from you,

Signature_Sue