A couple months ago we almost bought this board game/dining table. I was super-excited about it because we spend a lot of time eating, chatting with guests, and working at our table, and this table was going to be by far the nicest piece of furniture we’ve ever owned. In addition, the table would be (surprise!) a super great place to play strategy board games, which I love. Even though it was expensive, it would support our values quite well: having a nice large table to host people for dinner helps us be generous, having a table that allows us to leave out a board game we are in the middle of playing without making the room look messy keeps things simple, and having a dedicated space that encourages us to play board games will help us stay curious. But in the end we decided not to buy it - and in the process I looked around at my life and realized why we don't have very many new or expensive things. I used to think it was just because we were being thrifty, but it turns out that filling our life with durable second-hand goods instead of fancy new things may be a deliberate life-long choice.
Having Nice Things Means Worrying About Nice Things
Our current dining room table (not that we actually have a separate dining room, mind you) is an IKEA table bought used but in great shape for $30 from Goodwill. Unfortunately, during the move to our new apartment we weren’t careful enough and it got scratched. Since then it has gotten dinged up a few more times, including from the bottom of the sewing machine, a number of sewing scissor incidents, and general wear and tear. Scratching and dinging up our new (used) table was upsetting…for about half a second. And that’s what's great about not having nice things! It’s hard to be worried about anything that could happen to your stuff when you know you could easily replace it for such a small amount of money.
If we had bought the board game table, I definitely would have been upset if it had gotten a few dings on it. Of course, the table would be made of better material, but it still wouldn’t be invincible. Having a nice table seems like it would make my life happier, but actually it may make it worse by giving me another thing to worry about.
Not Having Nice Things Means I Actually Use Them
My bicycle is probably the best example of this phenomenon. Bicycles (and/or parts of bicycles) get stolen all the time, particularly in large cities like DC. This, in addition to my natural paranoia, gives me a tendency to worry a fair bit about my bicycle. In order to counteract that unpleasant tendency, I deliberately sought out and bought a bicycle that people don’t want to steal. The bike is a slightly scratched, unknown brand black road bike from roughly 1980 (it's a RoadStar - which even Google doesn’t seem to know much about). I got it for $60 from a local bike co-op and had to do a few repairs and add-ons myself. Despite its age and appearance, it is pretty fast and very reliable.
The best thing about my used bicycle is that I am not afraid to use it. I can take that guy anywhere in town, lock it up, and go about my life knowing that even on the off chance that someone decided to steal it I could always find another used bike to replace it pretty cheaply. This is in contrast to several people I’ve met who have bought very nice bicycles ($1,000+) but almost never use them for fear of having them stolen. Instead, they use their car or public transportation to get from point A to point B, which is always a more expensive form of transportation and, in the city, often slower too.
Although my bike is the most prominent example in my life, I know this phenomenon extends to other stuff as well. Any item that may be used by children is a good example; children (and sometimes me unfortunately) have a greater tendency to spill, jump on, and knock things over than adults do. I’ve heard many a comment throughout my life of people asking for children to be careful around certain nice things. Although I still support children (and myself) being careful and not spilling on, jumping on, or knocking over my $10 recliner or $5 coffee table, knowing that it is (financially) easy to replace puts my mind at ease.
Having Nice Things Can Lead to Wanting More Nice Things
One thing that is often overlooked about having nice things is that it is contagious. When all of your furniture is a used mishmash, it goes together in a nice ‘used mishmash’ look. (Kate says it’s actually called “eclectic.”) We have 22 pieces of furniture, and only three (Target bookcase, Aldi storage box, and Ikea dresser) were purchased new. But we love our comfortable and cozy apartment, furnished with DIY pieces and items full of meaning. So a very fancy $800 dining table would really clash with our current décor.
Similarly, if I buy a nice new stainless steel refrigerator, my kitchen will look weird without a nice stainless steel stove, oven, and dishwasher. If I live in a nice neighborhood, I may feel out of place if I don’t have a nice lawn, a nice car, and a nice house. And while a single $800 table might not be that expensive, kitchen appliances, lawns, cars and houses start to add up pretty quickly. In addition, all those nice things can take a good bit of time and money to maintain and repair, increasing the cost even further beyond the purchase price.
Having Nice Things Means I Value Nice Things Over Anything Else I Can Spend Money On
The thing about nice things is that they cost money. For us, we've decided the money is better spent on other things we value. It can be spent on Blue Bell ice cream, having interesting experiences like visiting Dinosaur Kingdom II, visiting friends and family, contributing to charities that make the world a better place, and buying myself time to do any and all of those things long-term. Spending money on nice things means that I value those items over other options for my money. But at this point in time, we are focusing on the priority of moving up the financial ladder in order to create more time for ourselves to spend on what we really value. Perhaps when we no longer need to work 9-to-5 and have a slower-paced life that allows us to entertain more often, it will be more valuable to have a nice table that is perfect for hosting dinner guests and board gaming parties. Until then, we want to focus on keeping our spending to a minimum that will still allow us to lead efficient, generous lives.
But, Having Nice Things Is Not Always A Bad Idea
I’m not against having nice things. I only buy a specific brand of office shirt that fits me, I only buy name-brand Ultimate (frisbee) discs, and I splurge for nice bike lights and gloves (safety and comfort!). We buy many nice, high-quality things second-hand. But I am also committed to examining these purchases to make sure they always align with my values. Of course, your values may be different and sometimes people do derive real joy from certain more expensive possessions that they use to enrich their lives and the lives of those around them.
Even when it is good to have nice things, in the end Kate and I believe we should not hold on to our possessions too tightly. Our sense of self-worth should always come first from our identity as children of God, and if losing or damaging our nice things bothers us too much it is a sign that our values may be misaligned. In addition, we should remember not to let the nice things we have reduce our courage to make changes in our life. Being a Christian sometimes demands radical changes, and we should not resist these changes simply out of fear of losing the comfort our nice things provide.
These beliefs were put to the test when I received a very nice InstantPot (It’s a slow-cooker! A rice-maker! A pressure-cooker! A yogurt-maker! An extra stovetop!) new for Christmas this past year. Unfortunately, it was damaged in transit back to our house, and now we have a mostly-nice InstantPot that is dented and missing a handle. At first I was quite upset about the broken InstantPot (“I just got it after wanting one for months!!!”), but then I came to realize that perhaps I just needed a good lesson about not taking our possessions too seriously. I must remind myself: my natural inclination that ‘nicer things = better life’ is often not true, and when having nice things is the sensible course of action I shouldn’t let myself use that as an excuse to become emotionally invested in the stuff. Even if it is the COOLEST TABLE EVER …
We'd love to hear from you below in the comments:
What's your favorite well-used possession? How do you keep yourself from being too attached to your possessions? What things have you NOT bought because they didn't quite match up with your values?