It was stupid, really. Our family had recently moved from Detroit, Michigan, to a much smaller town in northern Illinois. I vacillated between anger and sadness as I watched my parents put an offer on an attractive older home away from my new friends’ neighborhoods.
It was a home that clearly identified us as lower middle class. I hated that house when I compared it to my friends’ nicer, newer homes. Just because we were “poor” in my own eyes, we didn’t have to show it, did we?
Even as a nine-year-old, I had bought into the materialistic consumerism of the 1980s. I looked longingly through the Sears Christmas catalog. I envied my friends’ toys and nice, brand-new clothing. I grew up singing along with the Material Girl, and when I became a 90s teenager I listened to my RENT CD on repeat, belting out the lyrics, “When you’re living in America…you’re what you own,” fully aware that Jonathan Larson’s lyrics were a critique of the consumer-driven culture of the late 20th century.
Like many who bridge the gap between Generation X and the Millennials, I am easily enticed by the promise of more and better things, all the while hating the consumerism that seemingly controls my life and the lives of my growing children. And as a Christian, I hate the consumerism that continually distracts me from my faith and directs me away from helping others. Instead, more often than not, I use my extra resources to unnecessarily build up my own possessions.
When I graduated and got my first teaching job, our household income was tight, but I still had more expendable income than I had ever had in my life. As a natural saver, I always shopped the sales and clearance items—but I still fell into the trap of buying more stuff than I needed. When it came to “little” purchases, I never spent more than we had, but looking back, those little purchases added up to a lot of unnecessary money spent.
I recognize the ridiculousness of my own desire for “stuff” that continues to clutter up my house and life. The most egregious example would be my book collection. While I own hundreds of books that I have actually read, I currently own 73 books I have not opened since I purchased them over the last 15 years. I have every intention of reading the purchased books, but life gets in the way.
Over the years I’ve donated clothing items that I never wore, household items that never came out of the packaging, and toys my children played with for a few short months. And in recent years, as I’ve become more aware of how to budget and manage family finances, my frustration over our cultural “worship” of the god of consumerism has grown.
When my high school students come back from mission trips around the world, they discuss the shock of seeing such happy, content poor people. The people are so excited to have a new home with walls and windows or medical help or clean water. It shames my students to think about their bedrooms full of more material items than most of those people will ever own in their lifetime.
It’s easy to criticize people who stand in line for hours for a new iPhone, or to judge the pie-in-the-sky house hunters on HGTV from our couches. But how often do we ask ourselves, “What can I get rid of and still live just as good a life as I do now?” or “How is this stuff keeping me from serving others?” And as a parent I constantly ask, “What am I teaching my trinket-loving children about what really matters in this life?”
Remember that “No Fear” t-shirt from the 90s—the one that said “He who dies with the most toys still dies”? It’s harsh, but it’s still true. The minimalism movement—fueled by tiny homes and blog posts and Netflix documentaries—may be building a small national following. But as a Christian, I’m feeling more convinced than ever that the “stuff” is holding me back from doing what Jesus called me to do: serve others in any way that I am able, not just with what I am willing to “give up.”
In a country that is increasingly ideologically divided, and with a widening gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots,” it is an issue that all of us—regardless of religious affiliation—should be spending more time considering, as we seek to find common ground to stand on.
When it comes to fighting my American consumer-driven nature, I believe that starting with baby steps will lead to leaps down the road. And so I increasingly shop online to avoid impulse purchases. I’ve been cleaning out closets and donating items straight to reputable charities without trying a garage sale first. And I only buy a book if I know I am going to read it in the coming weeks.
I know that it is going to be a long process, but if I want my children to live content and intentional lives, it needs to start with me.