Excess Baggage

When my husband got invited to work in England for a year, we packed our bags, sold our house and crossed the ocean. It wasn’t half as simple as it sounds, but we got there in the end. The first part of the process ended up more difficult than much of what came later. It’s hard enough getting stuff from point A to point B when there isn’t an ocean in between. We realized early on we couldn’t take much with us. That comfy new mattress and awesome new bedroom set we just spent a chunk of savings on? We won’t be using them again for awhile. In the beginning we asked: what can we take with us? By the end it became: what do we absolutely need to get by?

Much as we’d like to deny it, stuff is important in our society. Especially North American society where we measure a person’s success by the number of big-screen TVs they own. I can’t imagine any other reason CEOs have to own five houses and a yacht with two helicopter pads (and yes, such a yacht exists; my in-laws photographed one during their stay in Turkey). I could go on for hours about the drive in our society to have things. We complain that people on welfare buy iPhones yet, as a society, we proclaim them useless failures if they don’t own one. I grew up in a household scraping the bottom of the barrel; my mom worked tirelessly to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table. Yet she felt like a bad parent because she couldn’t give us all the things for Christmas every year. She constantly fell behind on payments so that she could provide for us the same luxuries possessed by other children. There’s a reason underprivileged kids ask for video game consoles and iPhones when famous talk-show hosts offer them whatever they want; that’s what all the other kids their age have. They feel disgraced if they can’t get the same things.

My mother wasn’t alone. Many families struggle financially in part so they can put on a show for their peers. We have to have the expensive couch and the big TV. We have to have the brand new car, the new video game console, the brand new triple-A game, the most popular action figure, the state-of-the-art whatchamacallit… And the list goes on. The amount of consumer debt in the US is inconceivable; it can take years to pay off a single impulse purchase if you don’t pay the balance on your credit card every month. Most of this stems from a fundamental failure to understand how credit cards actually work (IE, they aren’t free money), but part of it stems from our overwhelming desire to own things and stuff. Don’t have the money for it now? No problem; put it on the credit card, sort it all out later.

But that’s a whole other blog post.

In this sea of desire, my husband and I have always considered ourselves grounded. We’ve never felt we needed lots of stuff. My in-laws offered to buy us a thirty-two inch flat screen TV one year as a joint birthday/anniversary gift, which we graciously accepted. When I told my coworkers, one of them pointed out that for only a few dollars more, we could get a thirty-four inch during a deal provided at a local shop. I thought about it for a moment, shrugged and said, “We don’t need a thirty-four inch TV.” Thirty-two inches fit perfectly in our entertainment center at the time. It’s large enough to enjoy TV and movies without being too large to play video games. Why ‘save’ money by spending more than we originally intended when the original plan was satisfactory (especially considering this was a gift)?

I’ll never forget my coworker’s reaction. He looked at me for a moment. Then he shook his head and said, “That’s the most grounded thing I’ve ever heard.” In fact, he found my remark so profound that he mentioned it on other occasions. Sometimes he’d tell me he went out to buy something, thought of taking advantage of a similar deal and remembered what I said.

When we moved into our second ever apartment, we decided to stop paying for cable TV. When we sat down to look at our expenses, we prioritized what felt important. We do a lot on the Internet, so we wanted a high speed internet package with a large bandwidth allowance. At the time, we also needed a phone. To bundle both with cable would have cost us about $130/month. But if we cut the cable, we could get phone and Internet for less than $100/month. When we considered what we’d be losing, it was an easy choice. We don’t really like network TV. Most of what we watched were reruns, and by then we owned most of those shows as DVD boxsets we could watch whenever we wanted. Often we had the TV on in the background for noise, but we had plenty of music that could easily take its place.

We both admit the first few weeks were weird, but we quickly forgot about the role TV once played in our lives. When we really wanted to watch something, we popped in a DVD or hooked my laptop up to the TV. We both discovered more time for other things. We both stopped watching shows we considered useless and silly. We’ve never looked back, though people still act like we’re crazy whenever one of us says we don’t own cable. Here in England, we don’t even have a TV.

Even so, it wasn’t easy for us to face leaving behind what we accumulated over the years. It wasn’t quite enough to fill our house, but it was ours. We worked hard for all of it and now we had to stash it away and forget about it. For me, the hardest part was packing up my books. I’ve always wanted to live in a library. I loved nothing more than standing in the room that served as such in our house, between the three bookshelves with all their pretty little treasures. I made six piles of four books on our bed when the time came to pack. I got to bring half those piles with me. Even now, I wish I could go stand among my books, slide my fingers over the mildly creased spines, pull out old favorites to flip through the pages or read the backs of books I haven’t yet enjoyed.

The first time we packed our bags, we were overweight on every single suitcase. And this was after we’d packed our entire house into storage and stripped ourselves down to what we thought were absolute essentials. Turns out that one computer and a year’s worth of work clothes are heavier than you imagine. I almost had to leave behind my favorite blanket because it turns out it weighs several kilos (who’da thunk?). Luckily, you can carry a blanket onto an airplane without weighing it, especially for an over-night flight. But I digress.

Turns out, all we really needed to get by were our computers, our clothing, and a couple bits of entertainment. We each brought a few books, and my in-laws have since sent us a couple of movies. When you’re primary form of entertainment is YouTube and video games, a computer goes a long way toward fulfilling your personal needs. Especially when it’s the same machine you use for your primary form of work (my laptop, in my case).

How have we fared since severing our connection to most of our stuff? Pretty well. With the help of family and friends, we acquired the much smaller list of things we needed to feel comfortable on a daily basis (extra blankets, a crock pot, a coffee pot, and a counter-top freezer since our furnished apartment only had a fridge). For the most part, we don’t miss much of our stuff back home. I’m looking forward to the day I have my books with me again, but I don’t need them right now. I have enough to read (especially with my Kindle) and my in-laws can send me more books if I run out. We do miss our bed; the bed here can’t compare, but again, not having it doesn’t detract from our happiness. Better this way than spending a couple thousand dollars to ship it across the sea.

Turns out, when you live with the bare essentials, you don’t miss things as much as you think you will. I wonder how we’ll feel when we return to Canada and open all those boxes? I’m guessing we’ll think we own way too much stuff.

4 Responses to “Excess Baggage”

  1. » Stuff and Things Cosmic Desire Says:

    […] after we settled in the UK, I wrote about how difficult it was to pack away the things we’d accumulated throughout ten years of marriage. It was gut-wrenching to say farewell to our first house when we […]

  2. » Going Overboard Cosmic Desire Says:

    […] a few months ago when I mentioned our obsession with stuff? I’d like to believe it grows out of good intentions. The fact is, when you buy something big […]

  3. Katy Huth Jones Says:

    You’re a girl after my own heart–we haven’t had TV for 20 years. (I won’t tell you how many books I own, though, and that’s after giving hundreds away when we moved 4 years ago.) I guess when you go back to Canada it’ll be like Christmas, opening all those boxes and saying, “Oh, yeah! I forgot about this!” ;)

    • Striker Says:

      I’ll admit it, I make an exception where books are involved ^^;; They aren’t meaningless ‘things’ to me. And I’ll admit, I kind of want to live in a library XD

      I often wonder what it’s going to be like to go home to all that stuff. I wonder if I’ll feel the same about some of it as I did when I left.


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