More than nine years ago my editor gave me a black fleece jacket with the MSN Money logo. The garment has seen some seriously hard use over the years, to the point where it’s no longer midnight-black but rather more of a pre-dawn slate.
A bit worn but still warm, the jacket has reached the end of the line because its zipper is kaput. Yet I’m having a tough time throwing it away, even though it’s no longer wearable and even though I no longer need it. My black fleece Mr. Rebates pullover keeps me plenty warm, thanks; it’s softer and cozier, too.
The other day I tried to throw the MSN jacket in the trash but couldn’t unclench my fingers. Two reasons why:
Good memories are associated with the jacket, and
I’ve got a recurring case of scarcity mentality.
Back in autumn 2007 I was hired to write the Smart Spending blog for MSN Money. At the time I was back in college, managing an apartment building and doing odd jobs on the side in order to pay off my divorce-related debt faster. The blogging job thrilled me because I’d be able to get through school without taking out any student loans and because I’d be able to retire my debt much faster.
Rather than folding T-shirts at a clothing shop or wiping tables at the student union, I was making a living by making a difference. Saving money is my superpower, and I was proud to share frugal tips with people interested in smarter spending. The job became even more important once the recession hit in earnest; reader comments and private e-mails indicated that my frugal hacks were lifesavers.
Worse than obsessive
As of September 2013 MSN Money cut me loose, along with all other contract writers (even Liz Weston). Ever since then I’ve been a freelancer, which now and then awakens the scarcity mentality of my younger days: Throw away an almost-perfectly-good jacket? When I had no idea when I might get another one? No! It must be kept.
Never mind that I have plenty of warm clothing – or, more importantly, that this garment can no longer keep me warm because its zipper doesn’t work. It must be kept.
This is different from simple wariness and also from extreme frugality. The former is a great way to keep from overspending; the latter is a lifestyle option that can quickly veer into the obsessive behaviors that non-frugalists love to parody.
(For the record: I do wash and reuse Ziploc bags. I do not, however, use both sides of the toilet paper.)
But a scarcity mentality is worse than obsessive: It’s life-diminishing. The fear of having nothing turns me into a walking anxiety attack, compulsively counting my pennies and fearing that one day I’ll need something that I don’t have and can’t afford to buy.
Useful and beautiful
Sure, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever be totally without resources. But once you’ve been broke it can be hard to feel not-broke, to be confident that hard times won’t come again.
That way madness lies. You can wind up unable to spend at all, frozen financially like Han Solo in carbonite: alive after a fashion, but not really living.
I’m not there yet, thank goodness. But each time I can’t throw away something that needs jettisoning I get one step closer to living in a house full of bundled newspapers and boxes marked “string too short to save.”
William Morris suggested a different way of doing things:
“Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”
A moment ago I got the MSN jacket and threw it into the trash. It can’t be used for shop rags (not absorbent enough) or to line a pet’s bed (we don’t have animals), and I can’t think of a single good use for the thing.
Tossing it into the can did cause a little twinge. But all the garment was doing was taking up space: in my closet, and in my head.
Now that I’ve let it go, I can breathe a little more easily. One less useless item in the house. And that’s beautiful.
Readers: Do you have trouble de-cluttering, or even tossing out a single item that’s past its prime? Why or why not?