What a Graffiti Tag Taught Me

I work on the edge of a forest.

If by work you mean run errands and guzzle coffee, and by forest you mean freeway in the Laboratory district of Irvine.

As I walk to work every day from the train station, I pass a sticker that someone has pasted to the back of a street sign.

"HAVE YOU BOUGHT ENOUGH STUFF TODAY?" It glares at me, judging as I slink by. Granted, it's actual language is a little more crude, but the sentiment is the same. The first time I saw it, I was a little offended. But I smiled that someone had the guts to say it, to mass produce it and to stick it somewhere easily overlooked. It's not a street most people take and it's at quite a height off the ground. 

The more I passed by the more connected I felt connected somehow. Here was a rebel. A slap in the face of consumerism. A scathing remark doing exactly what it was intended to do: it was making me think. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized this was the kind of kick in the butt I needed. 

I like to think of myself as a pretty good budgeter. I avoid malls. I delete coupon emails before I read them. I steer around the parts of Target that I know I want to look at. It's not that I can't buy anything; it's that I'm setting myself to avoid temptation and to prioritize my spending habits. I would much rather pay my phone bill than get a new purse. I want to eat a great meal more than I want those new shoes. 

This hasn't always been the easiest thing for me to do. I grew up in a household with four kids. We never had new video games or saw movies when they came out like other families- our dad was in the Navy but constantly deployed, leaving our mother shouldered with the lion’s share of responsibility. In her efforts to be frugal, both for peace of mind and out of necessity, we rarely had junk food in the house. Foods like Pop-Tarts or Fruit Roll-Ups were all but forbidden. When contraband came into the house we all had to scramble to make sure we had our fair share. If mom made anything special we were very strict in watching that everyone had only the allotted amount--all the while trying to sneak in extra for ourselves. Sharing was made difficult because we never knew when we would see it again.

It was this mentality that sunk in when I started receiving my allowance, and later my paychecks. I wasn't saving so much as I was hoarding- greedily watching each dollar come in, dreaming of how to spend it so that I didn't have to share. As I moved to better jobs this relaxed a little. Once I started making more money than I needed to spend for monthly expenses I generalized what I had. Instead of knowing what I had to the dime, I thought I could afford to round things. I could justify extra spending because I was using money I thought I had. 

After getting married, I was motivated to take control of our finances. I wanted to impress my husband by regulating our income- making what I thought was a budget, but I had no real game plan to follow through. Because I was the one who watched the bank accounts, I could justify when I spent on all the little things we bought ourselves: pillows, craft supplies, restaurants, books, movies and so on. 

Finally I saw the sign. 

The Christmas season came and went, our roommate moved out, Mr. E had a movie to finance...it all came together. The eggs in my basket didn't all become chickens and I was left dangerously close to someplace I had never been and always assumed I could avoid. 

Did I buy enough stuff today? This has become my new monetary mantra. Do I need it? Can I get by? Can I use something else? I had always thought of myself, albeit somewhat narcissistically, as frugal. I didn't buy outrageous things, we often made do with what we had. But it was always those personal items that I let slip by- they don't cost much individually, do they? But what was I really buying? Stuff. I was buying stuff that I could have made, I could have improvised or done without. 

So I challenged myself. Buy NOTHING for a whole month. Pay bills, have one budgeted grocery trip, but no other expenses. No Kindle books. No eating out. No extra gas if we can help it. Spend no money. It's something that I didn't think would be that hard. I sometimes have to sit on my hands or bite my tongue to remind myself I don't NEED that, I WANT that. But it's helping. 

Of course this doesn't help the "newlywed bubble" we entered almost two years ago. We focus on each other, on our home, on using what we have. Although nothing else in our lives has changed, I feel much less stressed. Weight I didn't even realize was on my shoulders melts away because my subconscious doesn't have to worry about finances. And that's a good thing. That's a relief.

HAVE YOU BOUGHT ENOUGH STUFF TODAY? Yes. Yes, I have. I don't need any more, thanks.



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