Something for nothing

Despite the less-than-beautiful weather in Brisbane today, I spent the afternoon sitting on the deck of an old Queenslander, sipping fragrant tea while strangers walked off with my possessions in exchange for not much more than a smile. It was beautiful and I can’t wait to do it again – a free garage sale.

A few months ago, I was catching up with a friend from uni, in an attempt to develop a plan of attack for a particularly obtuse final essay question. During the several hours Kate and I spent together, while we managed to knock together a reasonable outline for the essay, this was only after we had dedicated the majority of our conversation to our own individual efforts at what we each loosely described as minimalist living.

There are lots of definitions, thoughts and ideas out there about what it means to live a minimalist lifestyle. For some, it is an all-encompassing philosophy on life that involves reducing the clutter and excess in your existence. One of the most apparent areas of excess in the modern world is in our physical possessions, and it seems that this is often the key focus of many aspiring minimalists. For both Kate and myself, we realised that we were frustrated by the physical clutter in our lives, and by the emphasis that is placed on possessions (by ourselves, others and the world at large). Everywhere we looked in our respective apartment/house, we saw stuff. Random stuff, half-used stuff, never-used stuff, once-worn stuff, too-valuable-to-use stuff, hidden-in-cupboards stuff.

Stuff, stuff, stuff!

Here’s how I came to realise that I was bothered by so much stuff. As a bit of a treat for our first wedding anniversary this year, Michael and I spent a few days away at a country retreat (complete with fireplace, gorgeous views of the Range, and of course some sweet mountain bike singletrack. Everyone was happy!). We were lucky enough to be upgraded to a gorgeous luxury cottage – the best accommodation in the whole place – and it was so incredibly relaxing. As we were leaving, I finally realised that one of things which had contributed to the serene feeling of that accommodation was that it was filled with only what we needed. Simple furniture, basic appliances, minimal decoration. The lack of clutter and excess enabled us to focus on enjoying the wonderful (but simple – think bread and cheese picnics) food, beautiful conversations and natural surroundings, rather than worrying about where we’d put this, that or the other ‘thing’.

As we walked back in to our unit when we got home, I resolved that some ‘stuff’ had to go.

Now in the scheme of ‘stuff’, we don’t have a lot. Michael will tell you I have a lot of shoes and clothes – and as it turns out, he was fairly right on that – but other than that, our possessions are made up of mostly basic items for the kitchen, bathroom, living room and not too much more. Michael in particular doesn’t have too much of a sentimental attachment to ‘things’, and we have always been fairly good at avoiding buying things we don’t need. We have also increasingly found that friends and family understand our desire not to expand our range of possessions, and so when it comes to gifts we are often blessed with things we need or with special experiences (such as my upcoming birthday gift from my parents of dinner at a lovely place in Auckland, when we will be staying there after Christmas). We also simply don’t buy gifts for one another.

We are motivated to not have excess stuff not just by a need to have a decluttered living space (trust me, my living space has never been anything close to ‘tidy’, and I suspect that no amount of downsizing of possessions will ever fix that!). We are also aware of the ridiculously privileged position we (as ‘middle class westerners’) occupy in the world, and that the accepted patterns of consumption in the west (and increasingly that aspired to by much of the world) is having nothing but detrimental impacts on our planet.

Side note: if you haven’t seen it, please invest 20 minutes of your day and watch ‘The Story of Stuff‘, with Annie Leonard.

And this makes it tricky. If we just wanted to get the rubbish out of our unit, we could easily load it all up in the van and do a run to the tip, and it would take only a few hours to reach decluttered bliss. But, as Kate and I discussed that afternoon a few months ago, that might make us feel better, but it doesn’t do much for our planet and for the whole cycle of consumption.

This is where we concocted the ‘free garage sale’. We decided that what we really wanted to do was get our excess possessions into the hands of people who wanted them and could use them. So we each went through our homes and ruthlessly identified things we had never used, would not use in the foreseeable future, or simply thought could be better utilised by someone else. We gathered them together and today held our garage sale.

As the name suggests, however, everything was given away for free. We did this for a few reasons. For me, removing the transactional nature of the afternoon meant that we created a more casual environment where people were not trying to push for a bargain. Instead, we could chat, find out a bit about each other (as we focused this time on inviting friends and neighbours) and truly share our possessions. As it turned out, there were additional benefits, including the beautiful reactions from people who stopped in and were so surprised that everything was free! This generated a lot of positive energy and excitement, and enabled us to know that in some cases we were not only providing new possessions for people, but really helping them out (like the young couple from the Phillippines, who are still trying to establish their family in Australia, and who appreciated the ability to pick up some stationary to equip their kids for school next year). Interestingly, very few people appeared to be ‘loading up’ and taking more stuff than they really wanted or needed (something we had considered to be a risk).

Deciding what possessions you don’t need is a really powerful experience that I would highly recommend. You get to think about what you truly need, and why, and challenge yourself to cut back to the absolute basics. I am nowhere near that level, and even tonight as I look around I can see more things that will be going in the next ‘sale’ (yes, there is a next time – next weekend, in fact, as we have had many friends gleefully bring more goodies to give away and we still have some wonderful items left to go!).

A big tension for me has been the thought of getting rid of things I “might use”. Take the example of a Tupperware-style containers. What if I decide to bake a cake and really need a cake-size container to store it in? Won’t I regret giving this one away? Won’t I then be contributing to more consumption when I go out and buy a new one for this cake of mine? However I realised through this process a few things.

  1. I would prefer to see the item being used, right now, by someone who really wants it, than gathering dust in my cupboard. Over time, most of the things we own do slowly wear out/deteriorate/become of a lesser quality (that’s the nature of most modern things we buy, sadly!). So why not allow someone to use and enjoy an item while it’s in its prime?
  2. There’s a good chance someone I know has one I can borrow. Sharing is an art that seems to be getting lost, and the less stuff you have, the more you will be inclined to borrow. Sharing involves people (family, friends, neighbours) and connecting with them – a better way to spend your time than shopping for stuff, or reorganising the Tupperware drawer so it will actually close, right??
  3. You can start to think in terms of not what “I” own, but what I can access. So for example, if I want to buy something, I often call my mum first – does she have one? If I bought one, would she use it too? (and hence, not buy one herself).
  4. If I do decide I actually need a cake container, then I’ll go buy another one. Downsizing possessions is a different exercise to cutting spending, and in some ways it has (for me, anyway) a connection with a disinterest in money, as money is in many ways just a different type of possession. This does not, by any means, then mean that I want to just go and throw money around on flash new stuff. But it does mean that I won’t keep things on the ‘off chance’ I need them again and want to save the money. I just believe that if I really do need it down the track, I’ll be able to justify the expense (in the knowledge that someone else has enjoyed my cake container in the meantime, and not had to go out and buy a new one themselves).

It’s also important to think about reducing possessions, and consumption, in ways other than just giving things away. For example, some friends have started a regular tradition that I just adore of an ‘electricity free night’, where they invite friends and neighbours around to cook over a fire in their backyard, and light their house only with a few candles. We also recently sold my car, deciding that a two-person family in our situation couldn’t justify having two cars (we live close enough to work to cycle, are close to public transport and I have a fairly flexible schedule so we are managing to share the one car quite easily). Now unlike the free garage sale items, the car was an item we sold (imagine scoring a free car at a garage sale?!), but for us it was important that we were converting this asset into another asset (cash) which we could donate so that others could make a difference in the world. For my free garage sale buddy Kate, she doesn’t own a car at all, and does an impressive amount of walking to get around! (the reward, it seems, is not only a good level of fitness, but that she has discovered a whole host of local gems on her walks around through the neighbourhood!).

It feels like this idea of downsizing is going to be a never-ending process, but one that I invite others to think about pursuing in some way. I would also love to know if others have experienced the joy of downsizing their possessions! I think it’s one of those areas where it’s great to have tips, ideas and inspiration for a low-stuff existence.

And if anyone in Brisbane does decide to declutter before next Saturday, and you want to give away your wares at a free garage sale in Brisbane, then let me know!

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