Ten Money Questions for Cynthia Friedlob

In this week’s Ten Money Questions we speak with Cynthia Friedlob. Cynthia blogs as The Thoughtful Consumer and last year wrote, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff, a book about her efforts to unclutter her home and simplify her life. Since “stuff” costs money, I wanted her thoughtful views on spending, consuming and less equals more. Enjoy what follows!

1. Step 2 of your 3-step plan to reclaim our long-lost consumer sanity is to distinguish between need and want when buying. Isn’t everything a want after the basics of food, clothing and shelter?
Technically, that’s true. But let’s take that concept to its extremes. Consider a homeless woman living in a cardboard box in an alley, wearing the only clothing she has, living off of scraps of food scrounged from trash cans and the occasional meal in a shelter. She may have enough to stay alive, but none of us would consider her someone who’s having those basic needs of food, clothing and shelter adequately met. So, assuming there’s some way for her to earn enough money for more of anything (already a big assumption), how much more does she “need?” A room to live in? An apartment? A house? A wardrobe? How many items of clothing? From the local mall or from a designer boutique? Enough money to buy food at the neighborhood grocery store? Enough to buy organic food? Enough for occasional imported chocolates?

Now let’s consider the other end of the extreme. I just wrote a post in which I made a reference to a woman who estimated that she owned five hundred pairs of shoes. I think I’d be hard pressed to find anyone who could explain the “need” for five hundred pairs of shoes and I would hope that the majority of us would question why anyone would even “want” that many. But at what point did this shopper want “too many” shoes? At five pair? Ten? Fifty?

There’s a gap, no, there’s a huge chasm between the people in those two circumstances. The tricky issue is defining where the line is that separates “need” from “want.” I think it’s a pretty wide line, somewhere in the middle of that chasm, and everyone falls on a different place on it. I advocate choosing to land on the part of the wide line where your needs are met well enough to make you feel safe and comfortable, you’re able to function in your job and your social life, but you own far fewer than five hundred pairs of shoes. The operative word is “choosing” and that requires awareness. I believe that most of us “need” far less than we think we do and we often “want” things without analyzing why we want them.

But I don’t personally advocate what is usually considered a minimalist lifestyle. I’ll leave that to No Impact Man! It would be hypocritical of me to suggest that everyone should give up most of their creature comforts and abandon the trappings of civilization. I like many of those trappings! Our big screen TV is a wonderful thing, however I don’t delude myself into believing that it’s a need.

I think that’s really what The Thoughtful Consumer is about: not deluding ourselves about what we need. I’d simply like us to think, seriously consider our choices, before we buy something. I’d like us to think of other ways we might use that money that could be wiser or more satisfying in the long run. I’d like us to become aware if we’re shopping mindlessly or as an escape, or if we’re using “stuff” as a way to validate ourselves; awareness is the first step to finding an alternative that’s more appropriate. I’d like us to be as generous as we can, whenever we can. And I’d like us to understand how our shopping choices and our perceptions of what we supposedly need are profoundly influenced by advertising and marketing. If we do these things, I believe that we’ll make much better choices -- better for us personally, for society and for the environment.

By the way, notice I said “us.” I, too, am not immune to self-delusion or clever marketing tactics or poor choices. I just try very hard to minimize my errors!

2. What is your most significant memory about money?
When I first moved to Los Angeles thirty years ago, like many young people, I was on a very tight budget. I was working in the music business at the time and, on the side, trying to sell my work as a songwriter. I would often have pitch meetings with various music publishers in Hollywood in what was called the Motown Building because the famous record label was based there. When I went to pitch, I would always have to find parking on the street, sometimes several blocks away, because I couldn’t afford to park in the building’s lot. The first time I went to that building for a meeting and finally drove right into the lot to park, I felt like a millionaire!

3. What is your worst habit around finances?
I’d say waiting until the last minute to get my tax information together. I never have a big refund coming, so I suppose it’s not such a terrible thing to do, but it can be stressful. Also, I’ve been told that my investment style is too conservative, but I’m still not convinced that qualifies as anything bad. I readily confess that I prefer security over risk, even if it means I’m not “maximizing my returns.” I figure I’m maximizing my current peace of mind.

4. Over the last twenty years, the average size of the American house has grown along with its closets. Is the Small House Movement just a novelty or is downsizing the most realistic solution to over consumption?
I don’t think of downsizing as a solution, but rather a natural evolution as people realize that their needs and wants have changed. Again, it’s an issue of choice. People often choose smaller houses when they stop consuming too much because a house that’s larger than what they “need” no longer makes sense to them. The Small House Movement is a result of becoming aware of the personal, societal and environmental advantages of owning less stuff. Those advantages are numerous and significant.

I expect the future will hold not only more small houses, but also more work/live spaces, and more self-contained areas where shopping and entertainment (including small galleries and theaters) are within easy reach of housing. I hope all this leads to a vibrant central city area, too, with work/live housing, including plenty of affordable places, and great community cultural spaces. And really good public transportation. Okay, I am an optimist.

Los Angeles, which has been accused of being forty suburbs in search of a city, has been revitalizing its downtown area in a very interesting way. However, a woman like the one I mentioned previously who lives in a cardboard box could be residing on the very same block as a woman who owns five hundred pairs of shoes and enjoys her life in an elegantly renovated million dollar loft. The juxtapositions of the disparities of wealth can be shocking when they’re right there in your face. There’s a lot of work for us to do.

5. Less = More sounds like a good theory but how does it play out in America where we spend more than any other country on consumer goods?
One of my favorite bloggers, Seth Godin, recently wrote a very insightful post about the problem of marketing the concept of “less.” People are so used to wanting more that getting them to want less simply doesn’t work. Instead, it’s better to re-frame the issue so that what you’re offering people is “more” of something that they want. He uses the example of automobile fuel-efficiency and suggests that rather than talking in terms of carbon limits, we should “require all new cars to have, right next to the speedometer, a mileage meter. And put the same number on an LCD display on the rear bumper. Once there's an arms race to see who can have the highest number, we’re on the right track.”

So re-framing the “less is more” concept in general for consumers could mean, for example, selling them on the idea that if they are “more” sophisticated and “more” selective about what they buy (resulting in owning less stuff), they’ll have more space, more time, more satisfaction. Then the equation becomes more = more rather than less = more. Marketing is crucial to social change!

This is also why I’ve been writing frequently on my blog about the “cool factor.” If it becomes cool to have a small house, i.e., when your favorite actor or rock star trades in the castle for a cottage, you can bet that developers of the latest tract of McMansions will have to start scrambling to find buyers.

6. What did your parents teach you about money?
I was fortunate in that regard. My mother, a Depression-era child, has always been mindful of the importance of saving money. Also, because my father was a salesman, his income would vary from month to month and year to year so budgeting was important. She also made it clear that just because I was a girl, that didn’t mean I was off the hook in understanding the basics of money management. This was rather revolutionary in an era when many women still left the money matters to their husbands or fathers.
My late father was less inclined to be frugal, but he understood how money could be used in a way that maximized its impact. He always spent more on his car than my mother would have liked, but as a salesman, he understood that his clients had certain expectations and the impression made by his very cool baby blue convertible could help his credibility on his job. He was also unusual for willingly sharing the financial responsibilities with my mother at a time when many men wanted full control of the purse strings with no questions asked.

Both my parents taught me the importance of giving to charity and that no gift was too small. In fact, to this day when my 84-year-old mother has particular good fortune, especially concerning her health, she always makes a donation to an appropriate charity to express her gratitude.

7. Is it better to spend money on things or experiences?
That depends. If you're deciding between a down payment on a house versus a long-term tour through Europe, you need to know yourself very well to make the correct choice. If you’re already in Europe and choosing between a souvenir t-shirt or the price of admission to a museum, I wouldn’t hesitate to head for the museum.

8. According to a recent survey, one in 11 American households rents self-storage space. What compels people to spend money on storing their idle belongings?
Fear and a feeling of being overwhelmed I think are the most common reasons.

People frequently store sentimental possessions to avoid dealing with them. They fear that if they let something go, they’re also letting go of the memory that’s associated with it. Of course, that’s not true, but it requires a real leap of faith to accept that the memory is really all you need. I sympathize with this because I parted with many family heirlooms over the last few years. It’s really okay to take a photograph, write a journal entry, and let the item go gently into another home where it will be used and enjoyed. And be honest enough to know when its next home should be the trash can!

Feeling overwhelmed is the result of not letting things go for so long that it’s hard to know where to begin. This is a situation where a trusted friend or a professional organizer could be a big help.

9. If you could buy one thing right now what would it be?
You’ll probably laugh at this answer! The first thing that came to mind was that if I had a large chunk of “disposable income” (an odd term, don’t you think?), I’d spend it on plumbing! We live in an older townhouse that could really use some new copper piping. After that, hardwood floors. I guess I’m pretty practical!

10. I read somewhere that when you hang on to things, you stop the flow of abundance in your life. Do you agree that clutter can be a negative force, financial or otherwise in our lives?
First, let’s define clutter: clutter is anything that you don’t use or enjoy. That means clutter is not just junk. If you have a beautiful home, full of expensive stuff, but don’t use it or enjoy it, if it’s burdensome in any way, it’s all just clutter. On the other hand, if you have a large collection of inexpensive miniature teapots that you adore, that you display proudly and share stories with fellow collectors about acquiring them, that’s not clutter. That’s a collection and a collection can be life-enhancing.

Clutter is disastrous, far beyond what it appears to be on the surface in most cases. It can cause enormous stress among family members. It saps your energy. It prevents you from fully living your life because you’re constantly dealing with it, not only in reality but also in your head. You can lose hours searching for the most mundane items, or the most important ones, like bills or contracts or car keys when you’re in a hurry. You can lose things completely and be forced to replace them (I confess that we lost an entire set of Christmas tree ornaments one year in our storeroom, and it was a very neat looking storeroom!). You worry about your clutter, make excuses for it when people come to your home, avoid facing it and bake cookies instead because it makes you feel bad about yourself. If your clutter is expensive, you insure it, you might even hide it away where it can’t be damaged or save it for some undefined special time in the misty future, thus making it completely inaccessible and utterly useless. Clutter can be completely paralyzing. -- Guess that makes the point that I think it’s a negative force!

As for whether or not it stops the flow of abundance in some more mystical way, for example as a Feng Shui practitioner undoubtedly would attest, I wouldn’t rule that out either. If life energy needs to flow in order to be vital, clutter poses some significant obstacles to that flow. In fact, there's no religious or spiritual tradition that I can think of that says, “Go forth, my children, and buy stuff that you don’t need and won’t use. Let these things fill your home to the point that you can barely move and empty your bank account to the point that you can barely exist. This is the way to free your spirit and find everlasting peace!” Just doesn’t ring true, does it?

Read other interviews in Nina’s Ten Money Questions series at Queercents.


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