How to Have a Healthy Relationship With Spending

It’s up to us to regulate our purchases—dodging ads and dismissing temptations, while buying what we need to be comfortable.

Our concept of what we need to be comfortable is not only relative, but adaptable. Just as we can quickly adjust to a more indulgent lifestyle, it doesn’t take long to feel disinterested in that indulgence when we live more conservatively.

Not unlike our appetite for food, our degree of reliance on stuff is influenced by our social circles, upbringing, the media we consume, the amount of money we make, our awareness of environmental issues, the people we idolize, and our feeling of security in the world. If we become reliant on buying as a source of happiness—or display of success, expression of affection, fulfillment of habit, standard of comfort, feeling of competence, etc.—it may be important to cut back and re-adapt to a trimmer lifestyle.

I’ve written on how to practically buy less, but here I want to focus on how we can quell our emotional reliance on new purchases. 

In this post:

  • Make ethical restrictions on your purchases
  • Recognize ego depletion
  • Seek out novelty in other ways
  • Find internal satisfaction
  • Summon affection

Make ethical restrictions on your purchases

  • If you’re passionate about workers’ rights, aim to buy fair trade products. 
  • If you’re passionate about supporting the local economy, limit your shopping to local businesses. 
  • If you’re passionate about the environment, make guidelines around buying from green brands, buying organic produce, cutting out meat and dairy, and cutting down on what you bring home, shopping second hand. 
  • If you’re passionate about reducing waste, identify plastic-free products, and make rules around how many pieces of plastic packaging you allow into your home per week. 
  • If you care about bees, buy organic produce and local honey. 
  • If you care about local agriculture, join a farm share, frequent your farmers’ market, or purchase local products at your grocery store. 
  • If you care about food equity, purchase from stores that have food donation programs. 
  • If you care about food waste, prioritize food you know will be thrown away at the store: food near its expiration date, wonky or bruised produce, damaged packaging, cartons with a broken egg.   
  • If you care about animal welfare, make limitations regarding the animal products you consume (if going vegan or vegetarian is too daunting, try becoming a “flexitarian”), don’t purchase leather, feathers, fur, horns, or hooves, or research which companies source their products through humane practices, and limit cosmetics to those that don’t rely on animal testing.

This sounds like a list of things that only people in privileged situations can afford. To be sure, such choice is a privilege. But you don’t need to spend more money to live by your values. Reducing what you buy, while funneling your purchases toward a meaningful purpose is a great way to all at once support a cause, the environment, your budget, and your emotional wellbeing.  

Be specific with your focus, your intentions, and your guidelines. These rules don’t need to be hard and fast, unless that works best for you. Try keeping to your ethical restrictions 80% of the time to start. Progress over perfection

Recognize ego depletion before you buy

Ego depletion is a theory in psychology that suggests how cognitively-demanding tasks corrode our reserves of self-control. These corroding situations include ones that are emotionally fraught, present an abundance of choice, are unfamiliar, contradict your beliefs, require intense concentration, or engage your willpower. It is thought that low blood sugar also leads to ego depletion.

You can see how according to this idea, you can land yourself in an unfortunate cycle that is hard to break from.

Brownies soothe emotional distress, blood sugar needs, and your struggle against willpower (to resist the brownie). But if you’re trying to eat “clean” or lose weight, that brownie may be loaded with guilt and contradict your beliefs. It will then contribute to more emotional distress and consequently reduce your willpower, while simultaneously presenting a situation where willpower is required (to resist eating more).

The same thing can apply to soothing yourself with material objects. When your ego is depleted, it may be harder to resist impulses to buy. 

To break this cycle, reduce your exposure to situations that require self-control: remove that temptation! Engage in things that satisfy basic needs for “autonomy, competence, and relatedness,” as F. Martela, … R.M. Ryan write in their book Self-Regulation and Ego Control. “These invigorate the sense of self.” Internal strength and vitality is the anecdote to both ego depletion and over-reliance on external comforts. “Additionally,” she says, “exposure to nature, mindful attention to the present, and benevolent acts can similarly yield positive, energizing effects.” 

If all else fails, take a break: change activities, take a walk, sleep on it.

Seek out novelty in other ways

Humans crave novelty. One of the most convenient and intensive forms of novelty available to us is in buying new things. To damped that temptation, we can fill our novelty tank with more productive and natural changes to our routine.

  • Spend your money on experiences. “You can like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless, they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences are part of you. We are the total of our experiences.”  -Cornell University researcher Dr. Thomas Gilovich
  • Change up your environment. During the day, even minor shifts to your routine can make an unconscious difference: work in different rooms if you can, or turn your seat/desk so that light hits you from different angles. If you don’t work from home, take a different route to work. Change up what you eat. Hang out with different friends. On weekends, explore: take hikes, go camping, visit new restaurants. 
  • Learn constantly and get your creative juices flowing. Listen to podcasts, read books (or listen to them), watch documentaries, take notes on your observations and ideas. Work on a creative project, sign up for a class, join a social group, explore a hobby. Indulge your curiosity! 
  • Schedule in something to look forward to each day. Whether it’s cuddling your dog or attending a class, we need to know there’s something enjoyable awaiting us—everyday. Write your plans down at the beginning of a week, or every morning. For variety, try not to repeat the same activity two days in a row.
  • Set tangible goals. Set small weekly goals, larger monthly goals, and lofty (but possible) goals you’ll need to work hard to achieve. Accumulating possessions is often a way to fill a void. If you’re working toward something you’re passionate about, with a concrete plan for execution, a timeline, and milestones to meet along the way, you’ll feel a sense of purpose and worth that’s crucial to undermining your dependence on stuff.
    • Don’t be discouraged by the inevitable hiccups that disrupt your plans. Adjust your goals accordingly. If you drop your goal, it isn’t a failure, but perhaps a sign that it should be re-oriented.

Find internal satisfaction

Easier said than done, right? But as with most things, practice makes perfect: consciously discouraging our impulse to lean on the external supplements of “stuff” can help us feel experiences more fully over time. 

  • Do your best to live by your values: Care about the environment? Prioritize it. Care about kindness and generosity? Bring in your downstairs neighbors’ Amazon box even if they don’t do so for you. I recommend making a list of three things you value most and two concrete ways you can take steps toward living more closely by them. 
  • Make a list of non-material things that make you happy, and try to incorporate at least one each day. Plan something you’re looking forward to down the road—a vacation, read-a-thon, movie night, virtual game night.
  • Practice gratitude: Writing three things you’re grateful for everyday is a good way to train yourself to get in the mindset of focusing on what you have, instead of what you don’t. If you feel gratitude toward someone in particular, let them know. Keep those social ties alive.
  • Spend time with animals: Playing with an animal increases our levels serotonin and dopamine. Hang out with a friend’s animal, go to a dog park, volunteer at an animal shelter, say hi to cats and dogs you pass, bird watch. If you’re in the position to adopt a fuzzy friend, many shelter animals need a home.
  • Smile: It makes you happier! In addition, relax your shoulders, push them back, and tilt your chin up. A confident stance can temporarily enhance the feeling of confidence.
  • Help others: Actively helping others, whether you know them or not, actually boosts your emotional wellbeing. Tapping into your compassion and acting on it decreases feelings of loneliness and isolation. Reach out to friends who are going through a rough time and let them know you’re there; send a care package; donate to a charity; volunteer.
  • Connect with others: We need social interaction, and we’re not getting much right now. See if your friends are up for a weekly or monthly activity—a virtual game night, movie night, or a socially distanced picnic in the park. Scheduling in a recurring activity lends some structure and predictability to our social lives, and reminds us that our friends are there for us.
    • Reconnect: When you happen to think of someone you care about or appreciate, shoot them a text to let them know. Check in on the people that matter to you. Share memes. Send a letter. Keep Zooming.
  • De-stress: Meditate, keep a journal, get enough sleep, exercise. 
  • Get out into nature: There’s nothing more energizing than being outdoors. Nature has a magical ability to rejuvenate, helping us gain perspective and a sense of peace. Even 15 minutes is said to make a difference for our wellbeing and creativity. Have a picnic, take a hike, read a book or do yoga in a park, stare at the sky, sunbathe. 
  • See a therapist: We could all use one! A therapist wants to hear you talk about yourself. They care about helping you through problems, big and small.
    • In our society, men are discouraged from sharing their emotions and expressing vulnerability. This is a human need that should be taken away from no one. If you have few emotional outlets, it’s even more important for you to work with a professional. Therapy is no longer viewed as taboo, but a healthy and mature avenue for self-exploration.
    • You don’t need to settle for the first therapist you meet with. Make sure they’re a good fit, and if not, keep looking—a good therapist can do wonders.

Summon affection

This morning while I checked my email in the front yard, I noticed an unattractive, wormy black bug crawling in the shadow of my laptop. I’m not a fan of bugs. I blew two hefty gusts of breath, to which it immediately reacted by cowering against the edge of my computer, body bent, and frozen in shelter.

This bug was doing exactly what I would do if a giant sent windstorms my way. I felt for it; I let the bug stay. I even blew off another bug that was headed toward my laptop, because two was too much. Bug 1 leisurely strolled laps around my computer, and I even helped it out from between two sheets of paper where it got stuck.

Moral of the story: you can learn to be affectionate for anything, because you see what you choose to see.

Have you ever learned to like something you dislike?

We’re used to tossing out the old for the new because it’s hard to ignite passion for something we see everyday. But is it because that item is valueless? If we observe what we might be overlooking about a possession, we can, without much trouble, summon affection for its merits and its quirks.

Sometimes we do need a change. Humans need novelty and stimulation, and I won’t suggest you should deprive yourself of that—even when it comes to buying unnecessary things. But do me a favor and before you do, try to look at your old things from the point of view of someone who dearly loves them. You might remember that you do.

• • •

Like eating, which we (hopefully) do everyday, our relationship with spending is not simple: we are expected to bypass the high definition rewards of an exceedingly advertised activity while still engaging in the it—in moderation—daily. It’s a huge ask, and many of us struggle.

To pinpoint your illusive definition of “enough,” consider that what you’ve become familiar with might not be what you need to thrive. Your adaptable self might have assumed the role of someone either living in or striving for a certain ideal of material comfort, when it isn’t optimal for you. Give the non-material areas of your life some love, and in the meantime, use the above tips to buy a little less. We are constantly searching for “more” to meet our “enough,” when I think for many of us, we’ve already bypassed it.

Related:

Shopping Addiction: Purge Your Urge to Splurge

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

Shopping Addiction: Purge Your Urge to Splurge

I’ve posted about why and how to shop less. But as the holidays loom, I want to come back to the subject. The next four posts will address how to want to shop less. Enjoy!

It’s not surprising that so many of us are addicted—whether it’s to shopping, gaming, social media, drinking, drug-use or anything in between.

When there are powerfully pleasurable things in the world, and powerfully negative experiences, anxieties, and pressures, it’s only logical that we take advantage of easy bursts of available pleasure. Unfortunately, modern pleasures are all too pleasurable, and without care, self-medication can quickly get out of hand.

Whether your consumption takes the form of addiction or disorder, compulsion or impulse, habit or custom, it is something most of us can benefit from adjusting. This is not to say we should dial back our desires, but that we should fulfill them consciously, and, in the context of material consumption—in moderation.

In this post I will list strategies I’ve employed when I’ve badly wanted something that made me feel worse when I had it. My want revolves around food. No source of joy should become a burden or crutch; once so, the stress of leaning too firmly on it can plant you in a mucky quagmire with no plan for extraction—because the first tool you turn toward to elevate yourself from it is the thing that got you there. 

The binge cycle

Bliss: Feelings of euphoria can take over as you begin your activity. It is a powerful feeling, as if this consumption is better than anything else. However, the bliss is short-lived.

Guilt, self-loathing, regret: Quickly, you may begin feeling repulsed by your actions and want to stop, realizing it is no longer joyful. However, stopping may feel nearly impossible because the urge (and hope) for eventual satisfaction is so strong: yet satisfaction may be hard to attain, if ever. You may feel shameful for yet again engaging in this behavior, weak for your “enslavement” to it, and guilty for going against certain values; e.g. if you care about the environment but just bought five pairs of jeans you don’t need, that internal conflict can be extremely demoralizing.

These negative feelings become associated with the activity and drive you to loath it, especially right after it’s over—and for some addictions, “purging” that activity/substance is common, which can enhance its allure next time. You may have negative associations with certain products or places as a result of a binge.

Isolation: Throughout your addiction you may feel alienated from others who don’t struggle with this activity like you do. You might further distance yourself, declining to take part in social activities, or conceal your amount of consumption, “sneaking” in a fix. If your behavior has impacted those close to you, your health, or your bank account, feelings of shame and isolation can escalate.

Obsessing and craving: You may be consumed with thoughts about your activity—both with thirst as you think about your next fix, and with shame at your single-mindedness. If you hear or read phrases associated with your activity, you might feel your brain light up in excitement, sometimes unconsciously. Such reminders of the activity, other emotional triggers, and the negative feelings of regret, inadequacy, and isolation that result from engaging in your activity may drive you to crave its pleasure; it becomes the one thing that can soothe you. This rivalry of disgust and obsessive dependence keeps you feeling trapped, while the intensity of a craving often overpowers rational thinking.

Ritual behaviors: As you prepare to engage in the activity again, you might notice patterns emerge: you may start scouring the internet for shopping ideas or stocking up on alcohol several days before a binge. When you begin a ritual behavior, it’s like the act of pushing a ball downhill—it’s the beginning of a compulsive cycle that builds powerful momentum. When engaging in ritual behaviors, you are committing, sometimes unconsciously, to engage (or “use”), while often feeling a strong sense of conflict.

Self-medication/using: You might enter the activity with the intention of only indulging a tiny bit to taste that feeling of euphoria, but quickly your agency seems to dissolve.

This toxic cycle makes the urge to use, binge, and splurge incredibly alluring, but there are things you can do to soften that pull.

Fight the urge to splurge

Reduce your exposure. Unsubscribe to emails from retail companies, limit your social media time, and avoid hanging around shopping-dense areas if you don’t need to. If you have to buy a specific item, go to a specialty shop; avoid shopping malls. If someone else can pick up that item, ask them to do it instead—you don’t need the temptation of other products and their seductive advertising.

Know your triggers. Once you’ve identified what you are vulnerable to, you can make a plan for either avoiding these things or increasing friction around attaining them. If every time you order Chinese food, you end up ordering 5 different dishes and wasting half of what’s already in your fridge, you can plan to order before you get hungry, treat yourself only when you’ve emptied your fridge (or frozen what’s in your fridge), or when you’re around friends to share it with.  

Mitigate holiday shopping frenzy. For most adults, the holidays can be an anxiety-filled time. Those who ordinarily have a handle on their consumption can be triggered by holiday spending and addictive behaviors can emerge. There are a few things you can do to mitigate the rush of November and December: Holiday shop throughout the year; introduce Secret Santa/Pink Elephant to your extended family; consider a charity gift exchange; make your gifts!; don’t shop when stressed, anxious, tired, or lonely; strategize to avoid your triggers while shopping; go for quality, not quantity; set a budget; recycle holiday ads and coupons you receive in the mail; focus on pre-holiday fun—listening to holiday music, stringing lights, decorating cookies….

Address negative emotions. Shopping may be keeping you from addressing your mental health in more appropriate ways. Try not to suppress feelings of discomfort or pain, but sit with them. Work through them with a friend, therapist, or in a journal. To help ease the challenge of facing your emotions, surround yourself with a soothing environment (bathtub, music, scented candles) and non-triggering forms of comfort (animal or human cuddles, hot tea, soft blankets, a book). Recover from your self-reflection with something other than shopping that brings you joy (your favorite movie, a nap, a walk, seeing a friend).

Surround yourself with a positive network. Often our interest in things is a result of the people we hang out with. If sustainability, emotional wellbeing, or saving cash is important to you, it may be worth gravitating toward people whose ideas of fulfillment do not revolve around products or appearance.  

Declutter. If you’re surrounded by reminders of your overspending, guilt and shame can follow you around the house. Oftentimes purchases are motivated by negative feelings brought on by a previous purchase—so get rid of anything that has a negative association.

Track your spending. Detailed tracking isn’t for everyone. Counting pennies, calories, or instagram likes can become an obsessive act in itself, and many shopping addicts think excessively about money as it is. But if you think tracking is up your alley, give it a try: Download a budgeting app and log every purchase. Like with using cash instead of credit cards, this is a way to make your purchases feel less abstract and build mindfulness around your habits. If tracking doesn’t help you reduce your spending in a way that feels healthy, you can track only the problem purchases, keep a rough list in your head of your daily total, or simply write down the things you buy without noting their price.

Keep track of your savings. Every time you say no to a purchase or buy second hand, keep track of what you saved.  Give that pot of money an aim (and a name! “Self Care”/“Solar at Last!”/”Underwater Basket Weaving”) that doesn’t involve purchasing more virgin materials, unless they’re a sustainable investment—something for productivity, passion projects, wellness, or experience.

Understand your behavior. Keep a journal to record your behaviors, their triggers, and the feelings and thoughts associated. Look for patterns that can help you understand when, where, why, and how it happens. Make a list of things you can do to distract yourself when temptation or cravings arise. Make a list of rational phrases you can say to yourself when rational thinking is fuzzy.

Learn more about shopping addiction. Listen to podcasts, read books or blogs, watch documentaries. You will be able to put a name to certain behaviors, and the feeling of alienation will ease; you are not the only one who struggles with it.

Seek out affirming hobbies. Join a club, start hiking, learn a craft. Work toward a goal that has nothing to do with shopping and that satisfies your needs for growth, confidence, and joy.

Ask 5 Why’s. When you identify a positive goal to strive for, following it with 5 why’s will clarify your underlying motivations and determine what’s holding you back from achieving it. 5 Why’s is a good way to bring forward subconscious conceptions so you can address whether they are accurate, and get to the heart of your consumption so you can move forward more purposefully. For example:

Goal: reduce my reliance on stuff.

  • Why? Because needing to life with a lot doesn’t reflect who I am and what I value.
  • Why? Because I know I can be more self-sufficient and I used to feel comfortable living with less.
  • Why? Because I had a solid support system that made me feel full.
  • Why? Because I prioritized friends and family.
  • Why? Because I had more time and mental space.

You can keep going with more why’s. It goes real deep real fast.

Ask for help. There’s no shame in it. Telling your friends about your struggles can be a huge weight off your chest. They’ll be more sensitive to your needs if they’re aware of your triggers. Tell them what they can do to be helpful, and let them know what isn’t helpful. Being able to connect with your group, especially if you’ve detached yourself, can be tremendously grounding. You can also talk with a therapist, online forum, or addiction group.

Shopping tactics

Unlike other addictive activities, you can’t quit shopping. If you could strike the behavior completely from your life, things would be more simple. But unless you go off the grid (not impossible!), you must learn to manage your impulses while still tasting your forbidden fruit. Here are some strategies to rein in your spending:

Consider the logistics. Before you purchase an item, take a moment to ask yourself some questions: Where will you put it? When will you use it? How will you feel if it isn’t used? How quickly did you grow tired of something similar? Do you own something similar already? After a few months, will you still be excited about it? Will it be in style a few years down the road? Can you afford it? Are you absolutely in love with it?

Bring it down a notch. If you start bringing down the monetary, environmental, or social impact of your spending a little bit at a time, it could help slowly break the destructive cycle. A lowered degree of guilt can lower your need for retail therapy. Start by identifying what would ease the negative feelings associated with your habit: would buying second hand, only purchasing ethical products, or only purchasing from local stores enlist positive or empowering feelings? Guidelines can also be away to narrow your exposure to temptations.

Be aware of decision fatigue. After a full day of decision-making, we are more prone to impulse-buys: avoid shopping in the evening, and if tempted by an item, sleep on it. 

Sleep on it. If you find something you like, give yourself 24 hours to mull it over. You may end up being glad you didn’t spend that money.

Put it off for 30 days. For pure “pleasure” purchases or bigger buys, try waiting one month before committing. If you still want it then and can afford it, buy it without guilt.

Leave your credit cards at home. Carry only cash so that spending money feels tangible. If you shop online, ask yourself if you would be willing to pay cash for it.

What if I don’t buy it? Think about the positives that come with not buying, rather than the negatives of buying. Consider that if you don’t buy this particular product, you are allowing someone else to enjoy it. Consider that you are discouraging retailers and manufacturers from creating more resource-intensive products. Plan how you can better use that money instead—on donations, experiences with loved ones, necessary acquisitions.

Learn about the environmental impact of buying. Though you might avoid this for fear of facing your guilt, it is important to know the impacts of your purchases. Having a better understanding of your actions and a concrete motivation to curb them might just be the impetus you need to reign it in.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” (Theodore Roosevelt). There’s always more money to be made, compared to what you’re making. There’s always a better car to drive, compared to the one you own. You can live a life without satisfaction, or you can love the one you have. 

Remember that the grass is always greener. As you are deciding on a purchase, and after you’ve made a purchase, keep in mind how the modern overabundance of choice affects the satisfaction we feel about our decisions. Even if your purchase was a great selection, the tease of unfulfilled potential produced by saying no to other choices can lead us to quickly grow tired of what we have, in pursuit of what else is out there.

Don’t deny yourself everything. Once in a while, allow yourself a fun purchase, but try to do so consciously.

Discover the joys of thrifting. I. Love. Thrifting. If you don’t already love thrifting, you will love thrifting. There’s something so much more rewarding about discovering an item after a thorough chase, and taking it home for a fraction of the price it was originally sold for. You never know the unique discoveries you might make, and you can be confident you won’t cross paths with someone wearing that same piece of clothing. Unlike what many people think, second hand items and clothing are not dirty (just wash it when you take it home if you’re worried) and often they’re barely used. You can be guilt-free when it comes to your wallet and your environmental impact. Just remember to treat that item with care so you can re-donate it later. I. love. Thrifting. 

Recognize needs vs wants. Sometimes we’ll rationalize a need for something when we simply want it. Waiting 30 days is a good way to see if your life is barren without it, but otherwise, be aware that your craving brain does not have your best interests at heart. In that moment, it will rationalize that money grows on trees and the environment is greener for it.

If yes, then no. Often when you say yes to something, you are saying no to something else. Remind yourself what you might be denying your future self by fulfilling that temporary desire (e.g. if I say yes to this pair of pants, I’m saying no to spending that money on a nice meal this week; if I say yes to this jacket I don’t need, I’m saying no to a stress-free closet; if I say yes to indulging in this entire quart of ice cream, I’m saying no to peace of mind, or peace of digestion). Make sure that when you purchase, you are not displacing another priority.

With the introduction of credit and debit cards came an escalation of shopping addiction. Cards were created to take the friction out of buying; like junk food, they were designed to up our consumption. In a cashless economy where online shopping is immensely popular, the ease and instant gratification of buying builds year by year.

Amid this and alluring advertising, and our reptilian love of dopamine, and our age-old instinct to accumulate, and the stress and loneliness of a modern world, we are fortunate if we don’t form an addiction. But if we do, there are absolutely tools for healing, including professional counselors who would love to help.

Please reach out with your thoughts on addictive behavior and compulsive shopping!

Related:

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

9 Freezer Hurdles and How to Jump Them

Photo by Gabriela Palai on Pexels

“I sometimes find,” said Albus Dumbledore, “that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.”

In the Harry Potter series, Dumbledore remedies this by using a magical basin called a Pensieve, into which “one simply siphons the excess thoughts from one’s mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one’s leisure.”

The Wizarding World is brimming with stress-relieving storage containers and life-simplifying gadgets. Us muggles could use some real solutions—and not silly ones like the internet (psh) that only complicate things.

But—don’t despair! For we in fact have a bloody brilliant, electricity-powered, non-magic invention that rivals Dumbledore’s:

Photo by Dev Benjamin on Unsplash

. . . . The FREEZER! 

The freezer is so miraculous, even wizards are using it! Advertisement in Witch Weekly:

The Frozen Pensieve is a place to dump your immediate food-related burdens, not only decluttering your kitchen, but your overstuffed brain. If wasting food—or losing galleons (money)—makes you anxious, throw that anxiety into the ice box! With a ready stock of preserved food at hand, you can access it at your leisure, no longer threatened by the guilt and regret of a spoiled dish. (Disclaimer: Frozen Pensieves run small. Use the undetectable Extension Charm to enlarge.)

Food waste is an issue everywhere. The freezer is an essential tool that, in my opinion, should take center stage in magic and non-magic food storage routines alike. But for those of us without House Elves, a few things seem to keep us from growing comfortable with using it.

Common freezer hurdles

  1. Freezing my food = never seeing it again
  2. My freezer is too small (not a problem for wizards)
  3. I don’t know the best way to thaw food
  4. Freezing and Thawing takes time and effort
  5. I like eating my food “fresh”
  6. I hate freezer burn
  7. I’m concerned about refreezing defrosted food
  8. I’m not sure what to freeze
  9. I don’t know how long is too long

Hurdle 1: freezing my food = never seeing it again

My freezer log, sectioned by shelf
  • Keep a simple, written log of what’s in your freezer: Attaching the list to the front of your freezer door at eye level means it’ll be hard to unintentionally banish your food to its icy depths. Remember to continually update your list.
    • If you store certain foods in designated areas of your freezer, map out your inventory by shelf or section.
  • Use freezer bins: Sometimes all you can do is look for a pocket of space to jam a container into. But if you keep your freezer divided into compartments by food type, you’ll find it easier to fill and empty. You can buy bins online or reuse shipping boxes or shoe boxes—really any kind of box.
    • Examples of bin categories: frozen fruit + dessert; lunch + dinner leftovers; bread + flours; nuts + spices; meats + dairy; sauces; store-bought frozen meals.
  • Label your food: With every container you add to your freezer (excepting store-bought items), give it a label that specifies what it contains and the date you add it. Food can be hard to distinguish once frozen, and we might procrastinate investigating it, letting it occupy space unnecessarily—or we might give up on the “mystery food” altogether.
    • For those resistant to labeling, I recommend at least labeling sauces, soups, or other liquids—even if you’re sure you’ll remember what they are. Since we tend to store things in the freezer indefinitely, there is a high likelihood that you will eventually forget what that ambiguous liquid is.

Hurdle 2: my freezer is too small 

Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

A full freezer actually works more efficiently than an empty one. That said, it’s best to avoid overpacking it, keeping air vents free to circulate cold air. 

This is easier said than done when you’re an active freezer-user, and especially if you share yours with several people; freezer space can feel awfully cramped.

In an ideal, food-waste fighting world, freezers would be as large as refrigerators, and refrigerators as small as freezers (just as recycling bins should be as large as trash cans, and vice versa).

But for the world we live in, here are some work-arounds for limited freezer space:

  • Don’t be afraid to dip into your freezer for a bite throughout the week. Think of it as an active and ever-changing inventory rather than a cavern where your food goes to hibernate for a year. Also remember that although frozen food might not look appetizing, it will transform once heated! 
  • Evaluate your freezer before grocery shopping: Adjust your grocery list according to what’s already available at home—in your freezer, fridge, pantry, and counter—to avoid redundancies. When faced with novel and enticing options at the grocery store, we tend to get carried away with our purchases—ignoring the fact that frozen leftovers await us at home. But if we’re routinely aware of what specifically exists in the freezer, we can easily factor it into our meal plan and grocery goals—arming ourselves with a strategy before entering food wonderland.
  • Unify your storage containers so that they’re square (instead of round); it’s more space-efficient. It’s helpful if your containers are stackable, but if you don’t have unified sets, bins are a good way to keep your freezer tidy and compressed.
  • Save your glass jars: I try to buy jams and condiments that come in glass jars, both to cut down on plastic, and for the free Tupperware! Though these are certainly not unified container sets and therefore are less stackable, their size diversity comes in handy. As it’s best for space and food quality reasons to leave minimal air in your frozen containers, smaller jars are great for this. Read about how to freeze glass jars.
  • Re-package boxed food: As you eat your way through store-bought frozen food, ditch the box and re-package the contents tightly. You can cut out and adhere the reheating instructions to the top of the new container.
  • Hang bags of food: Stacking high can result in avalanches. Instead, try stacking low and filling the space above by suspending food from your freezer’s shelving with binder clips.
  • Update your ice box: If your household creates a sizable amount of food waste, it might be worth investing in a larger freezer, or a chest freezer. Like Dumbledore’s Pensieve, it’s worth having the ability to save any overwhelming food for a later date.

Hurdle 3: I don’t know the best ways to thaw food

  • It’s best to either thaw your food slowly in the refrigerator, or during the cooking process.
    • You can also defrost your food by soaking it in cold water (change the water out every half hour) or in the microwave. 
    • Avoid leaving food in the “temperature danger zone” of 40-140 degrees F for more than two hours, as this is where things have the potential to start getting dicey. Therefore, don’t thaw your food on the counter.
    • It is also not recommended to defrost food by running it under warm water. You want your food to either be substantially hot (above 140 degrees) or cold (below 40 degrees).

Hurdle 4: freezing and thawing takes time and effort

  • As I mentioned in my last post, I can be obsessively lazy, bent on streamlining food storage processes to require the least amount of effort. I used to overlook my freezer, believing I could save time and energy by simply making sure I ate all my food before it spoiled. But I found that with even irregular instances of food waste, there is significant time and energy squandered in the cooking and prepping of food that won’t be eaten. Getting into the habit of freezing the food you might not immediately eat will save you time in the long run. 

Hurdle 5: I like eating my food “fresh”

Photo by Syd Wachs on Unsplash

I get how you feel. Cooking, freezing, and reheating does add a component of processing to your food, which may cause you to worry about compromised quality and nutrition. But consider that you might not be giving your Pensieve enough credit.

Though most veggies should be cooked before being frozen, heat actually makes certain nutrients more available. This is true for tomatoes, carrots, mushrooms, asparagus, and spinach, among others, where antioxidant content is boosted and vitamins can be better-absorbed.

On top of this, compare a bag of spinach that you steam and freeze to raw spinach that lounges in your crisper: the frozen spinach is preserved at the point when it begins to freeze, while the refrigerated spinach is deteriorating in nutrient content each day it is not eaten.

Spinach preserved via freezing or canning is more nutrient-rich than spinach that’s spent a few extra days in the fridge—because it’s been preserved early in its post-harvest life. In fact, after a week post-harvest, refrigerated spinach loses half of its folate. Vegetables lose between 15 and 77% of their vitamin C after a week. By the time these veggies enter your home, you have no idea how long they’ve been in storage—so eat them, or cook and freeze them, as soon as you can.

Hurdle 6: I hate freezer burn

Photo by Austris Augusts on Unsplash

Freezer burn appears as ice-crystally or discolored areas on your food, and is the result of moisture loss. Though it can affect the quality of your food, freezer burnt food is safe to consume. You can always trim off the burnt areas and eat the rest.

To prevent freezer burn:

  • Make sure there is minimal air within your food’s packaging or container. Re-package store-bought items that aren’t wrapped tight.
    • For a plastic-free option, you can wrap your food in bee’s wax wrap and then stick it in a container, or place the wrap right over the top of the food in its container.
  • Make sure your freezer’s temperature is below 0°F, and avoid raising the temperature with large batches of hot food (chill it in the fridge before freezing).
  • The longer your food spends in the freezer, the higher the likelihood of it developing freezer burn. To avoid this, eat it within a few months.
    • To be extra clear, freezing your food for more than a few months is perfectly fine—but to avoid freezer burn, eat it as quickly as possible.
  • Avoid over-crowding and under-crowding your freezer. You want room for air to circulate, but enough frozen items for your freezer to efficiently maintain a low temperature.

Hurdle 7: I’m concerned about refreezing defrosted food 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Pexels

The idea that you cannot refreeze defrosted food is a myth. Any food—even meat—can be refrozen, as long as it hasn’t lingered on the counter for over two hours or spent too many days in the fridge. Tina Hayes, a USDA registered dietitian, says that “it is safe to refreeze raw meat, as long as it’s not spoiled.”

The myth that food can’t be refrozen may come from instances where food handlers didn’t have enough information about their thawed food. For example, when I worked in food rescue, we would not accept frozen meat that looked like it had been thawed and refrozen. This was not because food shouldn’t be refrozen, however: rather, in this setting we had to assume any thawed food may have been improperly handled and exposed for more than two hours to warm conditions, since we had no proof otherwise. 

Hurdle 8: I’m not sure what to freeze  

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

For details on what to freeze, read Your Guide to Freezing (and Thawing) Food.

  • Freeze any cooked food that you won’t eat in the next three days: if you won’t immediately eat (and finish) fresh pastas, sauces, take-out, baked goods, cooked meats and vegetables, throw them in the freezer. This may involve dividing food into separate containers, depending on what’s freezer-bound and fridge-bound.
    • Of course you can move most of these things to your freezer later, but the danger there is forgetting about doing so. It’s better to get into the habit of emptying any freezable groceries into the freezer when you bring them home, and to freeze large batches of cooked food right after cooking. 
  • Items that don’t spoil easily can be kept in the fridge (condiments, cheeses, hardy produce, unopened yogurt, eggs, recently-bought items.)
  • Freeze any pantry items you won’t quickly finish: bread, herbs, flours, nuts, dried fruit. Make sure these items are well-sealed and tightly wrapped.
  • A lot of what you freeze will depend on freezer space. But if you have the space, and you’re in doubt of whether you should freeze something—freeze it! If you don’t have the space but you want to freeze something, work your way through eating your frozen food before buying more fresh groceries. 

Hurdle 9: I don’t know how long is too long

Photo by Jake Weirick on Unsplash

Have you ever discovered an item from 2016 in your freezer and wondered if it was ok to eat? The podcast Every Little Thing did! In one episode, a family had eaten four-year old frozen fish. It tasted fine, and there were no ill-effects, but the family wanted the opinion of an expert.

“As long as the food remained frozen,” said food safety and foodborne pathogens expert, Haley Oliver, on the podcast, “it’s not going to be unsafe.” She said that “the process of freezing is designed to stop the growth of microorganisms. That’s why freezing works. So from a safety standpoint, it’s good for the long game…. This becomes the difference between quality vs safety. It’s not going to be unsafe. It’s just that the quality will have reduced over time.” So, you don’t need to throw your frozen food out after a year. It just might need a little extra seasoning. 

Summary

If you are not already intimate with your muggle Pensieve, don’t feel overwhelmed. When it comes to the freezer, you can hardly go wrong. The main things to remember are:

  1. Freeze any food that you won’t immediately eat: even if you plan to eat it later in the week, freeze it. Find tips on best practices for freezing here.
  2. To avoid overcrowding and freezer burn, don’t forget to chip away at your frozen food. Keeping a list of what you have in your freezer and labeling your food can make it easier to locate your food, and to incorporate it into your meal plan and grocery list. But if you forget about a frozen food item in the back of your freezer, it should be safe to eat even years later.
  3. As you thaw your food, avoid keeping it in the temperature danger zone (40-140 degrees F) for more than two hours: you should not thaw it on the counter or under warm water.

Food waste comes with many casualties…. the environment, social justice, and your wallet. American families lose nearly $2000 each year due to food waste. The freezer is your shortcut to stamping out this problem in your home.

I’d love to hear your freezer tips! Email me or comment below.

Related Posts:

Your Guide to Freezing (And Thawing) Food

An Imperfect Food System: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

Your Guide to Freezing (and Thawing) Food

Short on friends at the moment? Warm up to your freezer! Your freezer does something miraculous—something no human friend can do (silly humans): it can nearly stop the clock on your food’s life! It is the fountain of food youth, conveniently presenting you with a perfectly preserved meal from weeks ago.

Your freezer helps manage your time and menu, it declutters your fridge, it nourishes you at a moment’s notice, it listens to your problems, and it carries no threat of virus transmission. What a luxury. But it can also help you significantly cut your food waste, saving you money and doing good for the world. 

In this post:

  • Basic freezer tips — best practices in freezing
  • Start freezing these things — items to move from your pantry and refrigerator to your freezer
  • The positive to being negative
    • Cooked food: rule of thumb — when and what to freeze
    • Optimism bias — how optimism bias plays into the food we waste
    • If in doubt, go the frozen route — default to the freezer
    • Take the shortcut — freezing saves time and energy
  • Takeaways

Basic freezer tips

An open freezer that stores ice, frozen berries, and ice cream

Many of us reserve our freezer for frozen food like ice cream and hot pockets, leaving it an empty cavern of icy air. When you rarely interact with your freezer, it can feel impossible to reduce food waste at home.

Rather than reserving your freezer for already-icy things, use it to hold any food from your fridge or countertop that won’t be eaten right away: your bread, chinese takeout, bananas, homemade casserole, apple pie, tomato sauce… even guacamole. Here are some basic freezer tips to get the ball rolling:

  • Divide bulk food into serving-sized portions to freeze. It’ll be much easier to reheat as needed.
  • Use ice cube trays to freeze sauces, hummus, pestos, tomato paste, and guacamole.
    • Your guacamole’s texture might change slightly, but freezing is a good way to prevent browning and waste. This is also a great way to preserve avocados if you have too many—make them into guacamole to freeze. To thaw, leave it overnight in the fridge.
  • Keep your freezer full, but not jam-packed. A full freezer is more energy-efficient than an empty one, but air needs to circulate. As with your refrigerator, keep the air vents unblocked.
  • Keep your food wrapped tightly and sealed to prevent freezer burn. Fill your containers nearly to the top while leaving room for the food to expand. Repackage pre-packaged food as you work your way through it.
  • Use airtight containers to preserve color and flavor if you’re likely to freeze food for long periods of time. Glass and stainless steel are great for plastic-free packaging.

Chopped vegetables in a glass jar
Photo by Kim Daniels on Unsplash
  • Use glass jars to freeze food and liquid: Cutting down on plastic is an important part of a low-waste lifestyle, and reusing your jam jars is economic and non-toxic. Contrary to what many believe, it’s perfectly fine to freeze food in glass, with a few precautions:
    • Leave about an inch of space at the top of the jar, and the lid screwed loosely on. Your food, especially liquids, will expand as they freeze. Once frozen, you can tighten the lid.
    • Opt for wide-mouth jars: the contents are easier to get out later and there’s more room for expansion.
    • Be mindful as you pack and open your freezer—no one wants broken glass on the floor! 
    • Thawing frozen glass jars in hot water may cause them to break, so plan ahead and stick them in the fridge to defrost overnight. 
    • Unless you’re using canning jars, it’s best to let scalding-hot food cool a bit before filling your jars, to avoid thermal shock. Avoid letting your food cool on the counter for over two hours—use your fridge instead.  

Start freezing these things

Converting your freezer into a permanent home for certain staples is a simple and rewarding adjustment (you’ll save so much bread from molding!) Nuts, grains, spices, and any dry good that you typically think of as shelf-stable are still vulnerable to time, temperature, moisture, and sniffing pests.

Sliced loaf of bread
Photo by Mariana Kurnyk on Pexels
  • Bread: freeze it!! Slice your loaf before freezing. Toast the slices to thaw, or let sit at room temperature.
    • If you like the texture of untoasted bread, keep a portion of a loaf on your counter and the rest in your freezer.
    • You’ll be surprised how quickly bread defrosts at room temperature. If you remove a slice from the freezer and let it sit for around half an hour in a bag, it’ll be perfectly fresh.
    • I also tend to store bread in my fridge, since my freezer gets full. I have not noticed moisture loss in the fridge, as some do. Beware though: although the fridge slows the growth of mold, it doesn’t prevent it. Once food is out of the freezer, don’t doddle with the eating. 
    • Bread butts: If you don’t like eating the hind quarters of your bread loaf (they’re great toasted, though!), collect them in a designated container in your freezer. When you’re ready, defrost them in your oven and throw them in the food processor to make breadcrumbs.
    • You can freeze other breadlike products like tortillas, baked goods, and raw flour. These are some of the few frozen items that can be thawed at room temperature. 
  • Nuts: nuts can go rancid pretty easily. Even if stored in air-tight containers and in a dry, dark place, time is not their friend. If you don’t think you’ll get to your nuts quickly, freeze them! Refrigerating is a temporary solution as well. Thaw frozen nuts in the fridge, at room temperature, or through cooking.
  • Butter, hard cheeses, and shredded cheese: Freeze them! Soft cheese may not fare as well in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge.
  • Milk: if you don’t drink a lot of milk, you may find it spoils before you’ve finished the bottle. Freezing milk is a great option if you intend on baking or cooking with it. Thaw frozen milk in the fridge. If you drink thawed milk directly, you may notice a difference in texture. 
    • Note: for your refrigerated milk, avoid storing it on your fridge door, where it is subject to fluctuating temperatures. Keep it within the fridge and preferably in the lower-half, where it’s cooler. 
  • Eggs: Eggs can last a while in the fridge, but if you’re worried you won’t get to them within 5-6 weeks, you can freeze them. Freezing them in the shell can cause the shell to crack as the liquids expand: divide your eggs based on how many you’ll use at once when you’re ready to defrost them, crack them into containers, and whisk the whites and yolks together within each container. Put these in the freezer. Thaw in the fridge.
Frosty berries
Photo by Devin Rajaram on Unsplash

  • Fruit: Freeze cut fruit that may soon be overripe. Use them in smoothies, “nice cream,” or add them to dessert or breakfast. If you have the luxury of a wide and spacious freezer, spread your chopped fruit on a tray, let freeze, and package them into containers once frozen. 
  • Veggies: Freeze your vegetables for soups, sauces, or stir fries. Thaw in the fridge or through cooking.
    • To prevent vegetables from becoming mushy or discolored in the freezer, steam or blanch them (dunk them briefly in boiling water, then transfer to ice water) to retard enzyme action. Onions and peppers are exceptions and can be frozen raw. 
  • Ginger and spices: you can store a partially-used ginger root in the freezer. Pull it out and grate it as you need. 
    • The freezer is also a good place for dried herbs and spices, as they tend to lose their flavor over time. They like cold, dry storage—but where do we often see them kept? Right next to the stove! Especially if you have a bountiful array of spices, or if you cook less often, best to move them to the freezer. The fridge is also a good option.
  • Herbs: it’s unfortunate that herbs are usually sold by the bundle. If you’re not making a party-sized batch of pico de gallo, it’s easy to let half your cilantro go to waste. Freeze your herbs by adding them to ice cube trays and pouring olive oil or water over them. Add the frozen cubes to your cooking as needed. Alternatively, you can hang-dry your herbs, crush, and store them. 
  • Food scrap treasure box: collect edible food scraps like leftover herbs, broccoli stems, lemon rind, carrot stems, and vegetable peels in a container in your freezer. When the container’s full, use this flavorful assemblage to make soup, stock, or sauce! Thaw in the fridge or through cooking.

The positive to being negative

A spread of prepared food, including pizza, falafel, Indian food, salad, and desserts
Photo by Cristiano Pinto on Unsplash

Cooked food: Rule of thumb

Accurately estimating how much food you will eat in the coming week is a learned skill. And when it comes to reducing your food waste, it takes trial and error and mindful observation. 

Here’s a simple rule of thumb for how to reduce the amount of cooked food, or “leftovers” wasted at home:

Identify what you think you’ll eat in the next three days. Freeze the rest! 

Optimism bias

A three-day cutoff may sound short, but that’s because we tend to be overly hopeful about how productive we’ll be with our future endeavors. No matter how much evidence we have from the past that we will not single-handedly finish a pot of pasta before it spoils, we are still inclined to believe that this time we will. 

As you plan your meals for the week, grocery shop, and select what to put in your freezer, be aware of your propensity to predict that 1) you’ll need more food than you really might need 2) you’ll eat more healthy food, like veggies and fruits, than you might eat 3) you’ll cook more than you really might cook. Being realistic, sadly, should not be a realistic expectation.

A note: I implied above that you might want to buy fewer vegetables if they will realistically end up a mushy pile at the bottom of your crisper. Since it’s good to have a supply of healthy foods in case you get inspired, here’s where the freezer shines once again! Freezing your veggies means you won’t need to buy as many weekly, as less of your shopping will go to waste. Instead, they sit happily in the ice box, awaiting your consumption—no time pressure to speak of.

If in doubt, go the frozen route

A snowy road flanked by snowy trees
Photo by Freestocksorg

Do not let that Chinese takeout languish, hoping you’ll get to it at some point. Be an active participant in reducing your climate footprint. If you’re unsure if you’ll eat it soon, just throw the dang thing in the freezer!

Question: Can’t I wait a few more days to freeze my food, in case I end up wanting it on day 4?

Answer: Of course you can. But if you haven’t eaten it by then, it’s likely you’ll put it off one more day, then another day, then another… especially if you have other options in your fridge or tend to order in.

Plus, by then its freshness will have unnecessarily waned, or you may forget to make the transition to the freezer… or you might lose it in the clutter of your fridge… or forget that it exists altogether. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.

It’s simple enough to pop frozen food in the microwave when you’re ready to eat, so why wait?

Take the short cut

A wooden arrow pointing to the right, backed by snowy mountains
Photo by Jens Johnsson on Pexels

Lowering your expectations to match reality prevents you from being disappointed. It’s sad, but true. So if you give yourself room for error by getting friendly with your freezer, you’ll succeed more easily at reaching your waste reduction goals, and feel bolstered to continue pushing yourself.

My inner perfectionist likes to play the game of How Precisely Can I Plan My Food for the Week? which involves producing minimal waste while expending the least amount of effort. Because freezing food is an extra step, I used to avoid doing so—and food would go bad. Then I’d be frustrated at myself for both the wasted food and the lapse in judgment. 

I’ve since learned to default to the my handy freezer and avoid the drama. It truly is the shortest and least effortful route to waste reduction success. The time and energy spent cooking your food is no longer wasted when it spoils, and that more than balances out the effort it takes to freeze and thaw it. We are not perfect! Luckily, our pal the freezer is there to help mitigate our tendency to be human.

Takeaways

  • The fact that you and I can have a mini polar climate in our kitchens is a serious feat and privilege. The freezer is about as close as we get to slowing time, and most Americans are lucky enough to have their own! Your freezer should not be overlooked.
  • Most foods and meals can be seamlessly frozen and thawed, and I recommend doing so with any prepared/cooked food you won’t eat in the next three days. Instead of looking at your freezer as a place to keep icy things from thawing, look at it as a preserver of freshness.
  • Assume that you’ll forget, lose, and neglect %40 of your food before it spoils, even if you have the best of intentions. Life gets in the way. Most Americans underestimate how much food they waste, so make life easy for yourself by utilizing your freezer.
  • Time is no one’s friend, and shelf-stable food is not exempt. Even when tightly sealed and stored in a cold, dry place, foods like nuts, grains, and spices will lose their flavor. For long-term storage, use your freezer.
  • No one can succeed at stamping out their food waste on their own. Accept help from a reliable, frozen companion.

Related Posts:

9 Freezer Hurdles and How to Jump Them

An Imperfect Food System: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

An Imperfect Food System: Reducing Waste While You Shop

This is part 4 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

Read part 1: Grocery Privilege • Part 2: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity • Part 3: It All Comes Back to Climate Change.
Photo by Ethan Feng

Helping to normalize imperfect food in our wider culture can help remove some of the shame commonly felt among recipients of food pantries. Rescued or recently-expired food is not trash, and we’ve got to continue emphasizing this. 

If we accept and consume food that’s less than perfect, we should not feel “less than”. Somewhere along the way we’ve come to the conclusion that buying only spotless and uniform products validates our own worth; that buying imperfect food means we are stooping to lower standards.

Where in our lives does perfection serve us? Why do we so often feel it’s a measurement of our value? If the look of our food was a commentary on our own status, wouldn’t we choose the food with the most character, integrity, and—honestly!—natural beauty?

Below are a few of the basic rules I follow when grocery shopping. Over time and with enough of us chipping in, we’ll communicate to our stores that we understand the reality and benefits of imperfection: we don’t support the behind-the-scenes food waste that makes perfect possible. 

Buy the ugly food 

A few wilted leaves? Bruising or dings? Oddly small? Oddly shaped? Broken egg? One moldy berry? Whenever your natural reaction toward a piece of grocery store produce is “next, please,” most likely this is exactly how every other customer will greet it. That food will be left behind, eventually swept to the bowels of the store by an employee. 

When you catch yourself passing something over because of appearance, stop yourself: what would it cost you to simply remove those three wilted leaves, or that single moldy berry? If you rescue these foods, you are directly preventing the food waste that would occur if they stayed on their shelf. 

Two important notes!:

1) if one day you choose the large sweet potatoes over the neglected sweet potato nubbins, please don’t beat yourself up. Don’t be bullied by guilt; just do your best and shop intentionally.

2) sometimes we mistake blemished produce as rotting produce. These two very different states are sometimes hard to distinguish, and in our busy lives they’ve become interchangeable (bruised/ripe/different = bad/rotten/spoiled). What may look like a pear that’s “gone bad” for example, might well be a pear at the peak of its ripeness. When handled and housed among impractically large and heavy piles of fruit at the grocery store (an appearance of abundance is more enticing to customers), a perfectly ripe pear will unfailingly acquire some dings and bruises.

As an inverse example, those firm, round, uncompromising tomatoes you see at the market are bred for durability during transportation, storage, and handling, and are most likely underripe when you buy them. Unlike easy-squished and wonky-looking heirloom tomatoes, they are not gems of taste and texture, but of longevity.

Buy the damaged packaging 

Mildly dented cans, dented cartons, broken lids, ripped boxes, dirty wrapping—none of these will impact your food or your experience of it as long as the internal bag or seal is intact. If not bought, these are the products that will be left behind and likely thrown away. However, if the safety seal or internal bag is broken, or if your can is sharply dented so that the metal forms a point or crease, leave these products on the shelf.

Buy nearly-“expired” food

Read my post about expiration dates for details.

In short, if you have no memory of when you purchased your food, feel free to use these dates as a guideline; but give them no more weight than that. With the exception of baby formula, date labels are not regulated, they are not an indicator of food safety, and they cause an unacceptable amount of food waste. 

When you shop, consciously select the food that is nearing the expiration date. If left on the shelf, that food will likely end up in the trash, not because it’s spoiled, but because the arbitrary nature of date labels are commonly misunderstood by the average customer. Since you are not the average customer and know not to give them clout, you can rescue the items that others overlook.    

Note: when I worked in food rescue, we referenced a company guide that articulated how far beyond the expiration date our products could be donated. Though no law requires stores to remove products by their expiration date, they do so at the behest of the customer. As food rescue organizations and their recipients can attest, this food is capable of having a life after the date has passed. Use your senses to determine whether food is fresh: food is often fresh for days, weeks, even months (dry goods, non-perishables) after that date has come and gone, depending on the product and how it’s stored. Stay tuned for a date label guide.

Other tweaks

In addition to implementing the above tactics as you shop, you can reduce your consumer footprint by opting out of the supermarket system: shop at local farmers’ markets, sign up for a farm share, support local businesses, or subscribe to rescued grocery delivery. These approaches are not accessible to everyone, but if you are lucky enough to be able to apply them, you can benefit health-wise as well.

Within the supermarket system, you can also cut down your impact by supporting sustainable brands, limiting the plastic packaging that comes with your food, and checking that the produce you buy is sourced locally.

Final thoughts

Having the economic means to choose to eat fresh fruits and vegetables is a gift; being confident that you can easily alleviate any pang of hunger is a gift. The ability to afford all the food we want—and even more food than we need—is a responsibility that we are often not taught to wisely navigate. 

As we progress as a society, there are a lot of things we need to unlearn. We are steadily realizing that our revulsion toward imperfect food is irrational and antiquated, passed on and adopted without question. It is so gratifying to consciously shift value from typically picturesque products to the charismatic runts of the grocery pile, because you align your shopping with experiential action rather than material satisfaction. If you do this, you are helping to re-establish balance and moderation in a system grounded in excess and depletion. You are advocating for our planet and its inhabitants and aligning your priorities to match the realities of the world.

Though it might sound like I’m proposing that you lower your expectations in favor of damaged or less plentiful selections, I’m actually asking you to raise them. Rather than denounce the benefits of our food system, I’m asking you to embrace them.

Limited by access, many people don’t have the good fortune of choosing to live fully by their values or enjoy the liberation that those choices bring. If you do, you have the ability to spend your money in a way that can evoke pride, fulfillment, and meaning, and in a world that revolves around buying, that’s no small privilege.

Related Posts:

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

Your Guide to Freezing (and Thawing) Food

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

An Imperfect Food System: It All Comes Back to Climate Change

This is part 3 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

Read part 1: Grocery Privilege • Part 2: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity.

Photo by Annie Spratt

Climate change and food security

When we waste food, we might lament over the wasted resources that went into growing it. Lost resources are hugely problematic—but food waste affects our planet in other powerful ways: for one, it is a significant contributor to global warming. Not only does agriculture contribute to a third of greenhouse gas emissions while 40% of agricultural product is wasted, but food that decomposes in landfill also releases methane (a greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. 

“Climate change is a major issue related to food security,” says Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care. “Weather patterns are becoming increasingly erratic, and extreme weather caused by a changing climate is making it more difficult for farmers around the world to succeed.” This means a couple things: farmers and farm workers, who make up half the population of developing regions, who are subject to some of the most acute poverty around the world, and who make up the highest poverty rates of any labor market in the US, will have it even harder. And, when climate change threatens the production of our food—who will feel those effects, but low-income communities? 

Photo by NOAA

Our globe has warmed barely 1 degree Celsius in the last century, yet crop loss is already an issue across the world. Carnegie Institution estimates that about 5 billion dollars of crops are being lost each year due to this measly 1 degree. Every year, farmers are seeing a decrease in about 40 million metric tons of wheat, barley, corn, and other grains.  

Looking beyond how our food system is impacted by climate change, low-income populations have been especially vulnerable to the effects of global warming. If you’ve heard the term environmental injustice, you will know that minorities have been the hardest-hit and the last to be served when it comes to climate-caused natural disasters, rising sea levels, and global pandemics(!). 

Preventing food waste can improve global food security by easing the effects of climate change on food production and on disadvantaged populations. 

Time to embrace Impossible Burgers and oat milk

Photo by Nik Ramzi Nik Hassan

Adjusting the richness of our diets by removing (or lessening) meat and dairy is one of the biggest things we can do for the environment. 

A diet free of meat and dairy is far more effective at reducing greenhouse gas emissions than cutting down on car and plane travel. At the same time, you’ll reduce the destruction of endangered species, ecosystems and carbon-sequestering habitats. You’ll reduce water use, pollution of air and water, bacterial contamination of our food supply, animal suffering, and, obviously most important of all, your risk for heart disease.

“Agriculture is a sector that spans all the multitude of environmental problems,” says Joseph Poore, a researcher at the University of Oxford. “Really it is animal products that are responsible for so much of this. Avoiding consumption of animal products delivers far better environmental benefits than trying to purchase sustainable meat and dairy.” It’s in all of our interests to cut down. 

If you need baby steps, start by reducing the red meat in your diet, as beef and lamb have a substantially larger climate footprint. Replace your cow’s milk with resource-efficient oat milk (or one of the other excellent dairy alternatives). 

To vegan or not to vegan

If you’re not vegan, I’m not interested in convincing you to become one. There’s a silly cultural friction between vegans and non-vegans that obscures the graveness of our need to cut down on animal products: conversion tactics, morality battles, judgment, and stereotyping are counter-productive for all of us. What’s more important is understanding the environmental, social, ethical, and health implications of your diet—and really understanding it. 

Photo by Helena Lopes

Because of the vegan typecast, I am sometimes embarrassed to admit my dietary preferences, despite these preferences being an incredibly positive addition (not limitation) to my life.

I ate meat and dairy most of my life and it was a process to find the internal conviction to remove them—and when I did, I went slowly. Though it’s one of the best changes I’ve made environmentally and emotionally, I know how difficult it can feel to initiate “going to the other side.” But declaring your faithful allegiance to one label isn’t always necessary. Flexitarian is a great way to propel your journey toward a lighter footprint.

If you are interested in reducing your consumption of meat and dairy, it’s not only drastically easier now than five years ago—but actually enjoyable! There are loads of great alternative products available, and more coming. 

I feel a thrill of gratitude every time I buy a plant-based product. Unconventional foods can be hard to access, and for many—even those who are lactose intolerant—this choice is simply not on the table. The more demand there is for these products, the sooner they can appear as staples, regardless of location.

For more info about the climate footprint of your food, the New York Times put together a great resource that lays it out.

Choice is a gift

Most people want to do right by the environment, animals, and humankind. But there’s a common notion that can come in conflict with this.

It seems innocuous enough to feel that as long as we’re spending our hard-earned money, it can be spent without reservation—and that as long as we are paying for our products, we’d better get exactly what we’re looking for. Choice is a national right. Right? 

But we often forget that for many, the luxury of choice isn’t so near at hand. With food physically or monetarily inaccessible, choosing what to eat is a freedom that not all Americans share. 

While we shop, it’s important to remind ourselves that most liberties come with a price not always visible. Beautiful, bountiful food at our fingertips all year round—this comes with a tremendous amount of food waste that aggravates both climate change and food insecurity. The abundance we enjoy in our markets is the product of an unjust food system that many are locked out of, and buying in excess only exacerbates this.

A crumpled receipt
Photo by Michael Walter on Unsplash

If you’re reading this, frivolous spending is likely not a regular habit for you; you don’t need to be nagged about it. But, as I threaten to morph into a damp blanket, I promise—rather than trying to hammer in a sober state of depression while you shop for groceries, I actually want to help reinforce your love of buying food: every trip to the grocery store is a chance for you to participate productively in our food system and create more ethical standards within it.

Gathering your weekly groceries should be a pleasurable experience… it should be full of possibility and even inspiration, as cooking is a creative process and eating is simply the best thing ever. For those of us lucky enough to feel the joy of a grocery store and the fulfillment of a balanced meal, I am absolutely not saying we need to forfeit that. But now in addition, when we enter those one-way automatic doors, we have a mission that makes filling our cart even more worthwhile.

We need to expect more from our supermarkets and challenge their role in our societal ecosystem. We need to tell them we want nothing to do with routines that exacerbate human and environmental strife—which are always tied. We do this through our purchases, and more importantly, our lack of purchases. 

Read part 4: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Related Posts:

How Restrictions During Coronavirus Can Ignite Long-Term Environmental Healing

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

An Imperfect Food System: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity

This is part 2 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

Read part 1: Grocery Privilege.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio

You know the escalating collective anxiety over not having enough food to feed our multiplying mouths? At the moment, we actually grow more than enough food: enough to feed about 10 billion people, compared to our global population of 7.8 billion. 

Karl Deily, President of Sealed Air Food Care says, “if we could save just one-fourth of the food currently lost or wasted, we could feed the 821 million undernourished people across the globe. Reducing food waste must be a top priority if we are going to help reduce hunger.”

According to the NRDC, more food waste is produced by consumers at home than in any other arena. If we can limit the food we waste in our homes and at grocery stores as we select our purchases, we have a chance at redirecting that food to households for which waste isn’t an option. 

Systemic food waste

We’re using a lot of technology and resources to increase our food production at a pace that meets our growing population. Really, these efforts should be geared toward food waste reforms, educational campaigns, and even regulations around household waste, something that’s proven effective in South Korea (in place of a recycling fee, households are taxed on their food waste by volume; it’s actually illegal to send food waste to landfill!). To sustainably feed our planet, there needs to be a food waste crackdown on retailers and businesses, and major reorientation when it comes to how we get our food.

In our familiar food retail model, farmers are pressed to meet unrealistic aesthetic standards within the constraints of unpredictable weather, disease, and pest damage, while being subject to last-minute order changes from grocers, based on yet another unpredictability—customer preference. 

Photo by Rob Mulder on Unsplash

As stores prepare to stock their shelves, they predict what customers will want, how much, and when.  In order to fulfill a constant and seamless supply of that product, while cushioning for the possibility of greater demand, stores will overshoot their  estimation of volume when they place their inventory order. 

Through a distributor, suppliers work to meet this prediction. To compensate for the volatility of farming and lack of crop uniformity, growers will further overshoot their yield goal when they plant. 

What results is food loss on the farm and food waste at the store, particularly if it turns out consumers aren’t actually keen on that product in the first place. By the time the patron has taken that product home and let a third of it go to waste, only a portion of that farmer’s crop is consumed.  

To limit waste in all stages of the supply chain, we need to correct the dynamic of unwavering supply by demand. This access is something privileged folks in particular may take for granted as a basic standard of living. But of course, unbridled availability is neither a sustainable expectation nor an experience shared by everyone. The food waste that results from this convenience occupies resources that could otherwise be accessed by a wider population.  

In the future, we’ll need to adjust our dinner plans based on what’s available on our farms. This is already in practice and growing in popularity in the form of community supported agriculture (CSA) and to some extent farmers markets, where there is no intermediary. 

In order to make a full-scale systemic shift away from the grocery store model however, these alternative systems need to be accessible to all demographics—and though the near future may hold progress in this regard, it is unrealistic to expect a shift at the ideal magnitude.  

Luckily there are things we can do now to influence our food system.

Photo by Arnaud Jaegers

Apply your influence

Our food system does not exist in a vacuum. It exists for the consumer, adjusting to our demands for the sake of corporate bottom lines. There is no such thing as neutral impact: when you shop and buy, you are casting your vote. 

When you buy in a way that encourages food waste, you are saying “this is how I want our resources of production and distribution to be spent, please continue to produce more than I need so almost half of it will end up in the garbage instead of on dinner plates.”  (Note: I will follow this post with information on how to limit food waste at home and at the grocery store.) 

This sounds harsh, but your vote is as clear-cut as that. Though we have been taught to buy only the freshest food based on its date label, or the most unblemished fruit, or to applaud a store for their immaculately-stocked shelves, these choices unfortunately don’t say, “I have no preference” and they definitely don’t say, “I don’t support wasteful practices.” 

I have seen more than one instance of a grocery store customer complaining to an employee about seeing an item on the date of its “expiration,” or exhibiting disgust at seeing rotten vegetables when they were simply overripe or wilting. As these customers will gladly know, their complaints hold weight; they reinforce to the store that food must be rotated out more quickly, to diminish even the possibility that customers will—heaven forbid—witness their product as vulnerable to the forces of time. Personally, I applaud a store for giving these less-fresh but still-fresh items the opportunity to be purchased rather than prematurely thrown away, to serve no purpose other than produce methane as they rot in landfill.  

At my last job at a food rescue organization in Boston, we would regularly receive supermarket donation that was days away from its sell-by date. “They didn’t even give it a chance to be bought!” was how my colleague greeted these products. By “they” it isn’t the store here—it’s the customer that refuses to buy the product. 

A pair of hands removes the leafs of a beet over a crate of orange, pink, and purple beets of all shapes and sizes.
Farmer Joe grooms just-harvested, non-uniform beets at Mill City Grows, a food security organization near Boston where I used to work.

We have been taught all our lives to reject blemished or differently-formed food, but this is in fact more “normal” than the food we typically see on market shelves. What are we teaching our children or encouraging in our culture if we reject anything that doesn’t fall within a slim margin of perfection—within the standard shape, color, and size that we have deemed desirable?

Our food system is flawed. It is much less advanced and progressive than glowing advertising and spotless veneers declare. It continues to perpetuate social and environmental strife: and we, as consumers, are well-positioned to change that.

Read part 3: It All Comes Back to Climate Change
Read part 4: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Related Posts:

How Restrictions During Coronavirus Can Ignite Long-Term Environmental Healing

Should We Follow Expiration Dates?

An Imperfect Food System: Grocery Privilege

This is part 1 of a 4-part series on the connection between food waste and food insecurity.

This had a profound influence on his life as he came to know the gnawing pangs of hunger and fell behind in school because of the listlessness it produced; it also led him to make a vow, at age eleven, to dedicate his life to the struggle against hunger, so that other children would not have to know the agony he was then experiencing. -Donaldo Macedo (about Paulo Freire) in his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed

An abundant display of uniform vegetables at a grocery store
Photo by Nrd on Unsplash

You may have heard of Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s a highly-revered critique and theory on education, written in the late ‘60’s by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. Recently I started reading it, but at a distance. I am leery of theory, and the way academia will take any old word and freely add an “ism” or “ality” to the end makes me wonder if there’s no other purpose than to sound more scholarly. 

I was mistrustful for another reason… out of two polarizing categories, I seemed to fall into the bad one: if you’re not the “oppressed”, Freire suggests, you are the oppressor. I resisted the simplification and the accusation. 

His ideas didn’t begin to resonate with me until I could put them into the context of an issue I was more intimate with: food waste. When I thought about our roles in conquering our natural world and its animal inhabitants through the excess we’re accustomed to living in, I realized that even in this space, we play a role in the subjugation of other humans. Through small acts of carelessness and habits of lifestyle, we are unconsciously raising ourselves up (in our display of wealth and status, and our monopolizing of limited resources) at the expense of others. 

When it comes to food, the system we’ve designed has evolved out of deep racism and violence. This system now presents as a welcoming, modern symbol of service and abundance, with gleaming grocery store aisles, mounds of polished and uniform apples, and pictures of green sprawling fields on egg cartons. Of course, though the conscious hostility of before is suppressed, it takes form in the injustices that both farm workers and residents of food deserts face, and in underlying, unconscious alienation. 

Photo by Brittani Burns

Unfortunately, the role we play within our food system often perpetuates the injustices within it. Though we’ve grown familiar with the terms “food injustice” or “food inequity” or “food insecurity,” it is outrageous that these descriptions should be attached to food at all. Food is not only an emotionally and culturally essential aspect of existence, but a basic human right—and since the beginning of civilization, people have been deprived of it. Now is no exception.

Benefitting from inequality

When I hear someone say “white people benefit from racism,” it’s difficult for me to wrap my mind around how this specifically plays out in my life. It’s hard to accept this notion of benefit when we all battle with our differences in the struggle to conform to an inherently prescriptive society. Is there ever a point where we feel high enough in the food chain to recognize the benefits of our luxuries, in whatever way they present? 

No matter our situation, we always feel a little oppressed. It’s human nature to notice lack over plentitude. But the struggles of the comparatively-privileged are of a completely different proportion than the struggles historically disadvantaged groups experience. If we have privilege (be it whiteness, straightness, money, education, health, community, opportunity…), our search for belonging is accompanied by protections that tip the odds of success in our favor.

A display of organic cherry tomatoes advertises $4.00/box.
Photo by Anne Preble

If we have privilege, we do benefit from the oppression of others in certain ways. In the case of food security, those of us who are able to make more varied choices in our purchasing benefit from “belonging” in the societal world of food. With VIP access to any product in our grocery store and endless dining choices at our fingertips, we can fully participate within a system whose foremost priority is to please us.

While most food insecure families shop at grocery stores as well, these trips can be limited in frequency. Their grocery selection may be constrained within a particular supermarket and budget, purchases are often supported by SNAP (government food assistance), and groceries are sometimes supplemented by items from food donation programs. Yet, there might still be a lack in quantity or nutrition. Families often need to prioritize one at the sacrifice of the other.

If you’re food secure, you probably walk the aisles with a sense of possibility. Especially when it comes to higher-end or more intimate markets, your identity as customer means you are there to be served and valued: imagine what this alone does for your sense of worth. 

But while the food insecure might share the same spaces as the food secure, their experience of these spaces is altogether different: the food insecure are constantly reminded of their precariousness in this system. They are looking in from the outside, estranged from a basic human need.

What’s the objective?

Cucumbers and carrots have replaced the pieces on a chess board.

Our retail system shelters us from the realities of agriculture, keeping us blissfully ignorant of cosmetic imperfection; it keeps us satiated by stocking shelves year-round with our favorite fruits and vegetables, despite inhospitable local growing climates and short harvest seasons; it entertains our need for security by providing us with an unbelievable amount of choice (sometimes too much, which leaves us standing in a grocery store aisle wondering what the heck the difference is between two brands of applesauce when their ingredients are simply “apples”).

Keeping shelves stocked with hundreds of niche products at any given time—many perishable or stamped with expiration dates that stores must adhere to, not because of food safety, but for standards of quality—is wasteful and unsustainable. We benefit from this availability at the expense of those who have difficulty accessing food at all; those who rely on pantries to survive. Breadth and convenience are luxuries we could easily adapt to live with less of, but our sense of entitlement to retain these freedoms is deeply entrenched in the idea of modern consumer culture. 

In this particular game of buying and selling, we need to clarify for ourselves: am I playing solo, or on a team? Is my objective to collect the most and the prettiest pieces for myself, or to contribute sustainably toward mutual success?

Read part 2: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity
Read part 3: It All Comes Back to Climate Change
Read part 4: Reducing Waste While You Shop

Related Posts:

Re-Empowering Food in this Totally Confusing Modern World of Eating

How Restrictions During Coronavirus Can Ignite Long-Term Environmental Healing

Why We Need Equality and Balance, Not Growth

Sean is passionate about sustainability and resilience, and has worked with land trusts, food justice non-profits and universities’ offices of sustainability.

A tractor clearing cover crop on a large farm, while a flock of birds fly overhead
Photo by Red Zeppelin

Gandhi said, “The world has enough for everyone’s need, but not enough for everyone’s greed.”

Many Indigenous traditions heavily emphasize the need for balance. The Bible says that Jesus preached about the dangers of greed. Yoga teaches about the benefits that come through balance.

And yet, many of us and many of the world’s businesses and governments are still under the illusion that it is economic growth that shall save us. Here, I’ll try to debunk that myth and expose the fact that we need equality and balance more than growth.

Using Food To Debunk The Myth Of Growth

There is already enough food in the world to feed the current human population. In fact, the amount of crops currently produced is enough to feed the 9.7 billion people that are projected to be alive in 2050, according to research done by M. Berners Lee et al. in 2018.

However, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations have released a study concluding that 26.4 percent of the current human population of 7.7 billion people face moderate to severe levels of food insecurity.

Ecology teaches that an increase in food supply leads to an increase in population. If such an increase in food supply is more than the ecosystem can handle, the population is said to “overshoot” the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. What follows is a reduction of the population size that brings it back to the carrying capacity.

Growth of the world’s food supply won’t reduce food insecurity, and it may even cause more problems. Equally distributing access for all to food will reduce food insecurity, and reducing current food production levels while farming in more ecologically-friendly ways will restore balance to the environment.

Hundreds of bails of hay dot a barren landscape on an industrial plot of farmland.
Photo by Ivan Bandura

Translating The Lesson To Employment

In the U.S. before the stigma against women entering the workforce was lifted, it was common for the salary of a father to support the entire family. Nowadays, it is common for both parents to each work a minimum of one full-time job to support a family.

Theoretically, both parents working a half day each should be able to support a family. Fortunately, gender equality in the U.S. has increased since then. Unfortunately, the growth in hours worked has been largely nullified by an increase in socioeconomic inequality.

Increased spending is definitely a factor leading to the reduction of savings generated, but it is beyond a doubt that the main culprit is the fact that 2018 U.S. income inequality levels were at their highest out of the past 50 years. This has led to the richest 10% of citizens in the U.S. owning 63.5% of the nation’s household wealth, and 44% of the U.S. workforce aged 18-64 earning a low median annual income of about $18,000. And an article by The Guardian reports that the statistics for worldwide income inequality are even more extreme.

In short, growth in hours worked will not create socioeconomic stability. Increasing income equality will create socioeconomic stability, and decreasing our hours worked will restore our own mental and physical health.

Translating The Lesson To Renewable Energy

Wind turbines stand on top of a just-mown hill of dry grass.
Photo by Luca Bravo

There are countless studies out there that show that fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and usage leads to ecological damage, harm to human health, and climate change. However, when solar farmshydroelectric dams, and wind turbines are installed in the few ecological refuges left on the planet, they can cause harm too.

In short, growth in renewable energy production will not counter the impacts of fossil fuel usage. Replacing fossil fuel usage with renewable energy and reducing overall energy usage will help us to regain a balance between energy production and the environment.

Related:

An Imperfect Food System: It All Comes Back to Climate Change

An Imperfect Food System: How Food Waste Perpetuates Food Insecurity

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Progress Over Perfection: Finding Balance as a Conscious Consumer

Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it. ― Salvador Dali

Stones balancing vertically, backed by ocean.
Photo by Shiva Smyth

Until last week, I had forgotten the giddiness of buying something new. In my adult life, I haven’t found much joy in spending money on nice things for myself, instead finding satisfaction in scoring a cheap thrifted or found item. Excitement for me comes from being resourceful, and new and shiny objects carry the gratuitous weight of being both expensive and unnecessary—too precious to be put to use, and therefore pointless.  

For the last year or so, I completely didn’t care what I looked like: at work, solid shoes and flexible clothing was the way to go, and outside of work I wasn’t trying to impress anyone. So I used very little—no pampering lotions, trace amounts of shampoo, definitely no razors—I was au naturel and the lowest of maintenance. 

But last week I got hooked by an instagram ad. Those damn ads!! I thought about that featured $18 lipstick for a week, knowing I would eventually give in because, since I now knew of its existence, my life would not be complete without it. When I did (and I bought two, prompted by the incentive of free shipping), the flushing thrill was so fierce that I immediately wanted more. I could see myself throwing caution to the wind, no longer caring about the price tag or environmental impact, skipping away into a life of reckless indulgence in pursuit of that exaggerated gratification.

Three tubes of lipstick lined up before their color swatches.
Photo by The Honest Company

The pleasure of buying is powerful. 

The thing is—since my lipstick purchase, I have totally forgotten about it: it wasn’t necessary. It was the idea of the lipstick, the click of the “buy now” button, the curiosity and then the commitment to satisfying my curiosity, that was thrilling. I will experience a similarly disproportionate thrill when that package arrives and I am temporarily enamoured by the novelty of the colors and textures, which will probably inspire me to wonder how dreamy the other lipsticks in that series are. 

Happiness is an abstract and elusive state, one we all understand can’t be met by the superficial fulfillment of “stuff,” yet when tempted by a novel product, we suspend this rationale in the belief that it will get us there. The momentary exhilaration of cracking open the boundless potential of a new thing seems to bathe our environment in vibrant hues, promising a slightly more chiseled personal ambience and redeemed confidence. Single-mindedly we brush our concern for finite resources aside, just for “this one thing” that promises fulfillment. 

The exterior of an H&M store in a mall.
Photo by Psk Slayer


The side of myself that wants my hands in the dirt and never to encounter a shower usually overpowers the side of myself that finds restoration in makeup application and shoes that clack when you walk, but sometimes the dynamic shifts. When it does, I thoroughly appreciate Goodwill sprees and REI store explorations, sometimes even H&M (don’t tell anyone), and find myself indulging in random kitchenware like madeleine pans, ramekins, and chocolate molds—things that inspire me and fuel my creativity, but that I inevitably only use once.

Though I pride myself on needing less to be content and inhabiting a relatively slim margin of consumption, the allure of things—and occasional excess—does not escape me. It’s about finding balance, and a cognizant undercurrent that anchors your values to the inevitable ebbs and flows. 

When it comes to inanimate objects, we are adulterous. Our infatuations tire quickly. We crave fulfillment when we are empty, to pull us out of negative feelings, and stimulation when we are bored, to pull us out of apathy.  

Though our innate craving for novelty is clear, I don’t believe this drive is as inherently ravenous as we experience it today. Companies spend millions of dollars creating friction-free buying experiences and ads that appeal to our psychology, satisfying our desire for pleasure with unnatural speed and saturated stimulation.  

While we can shelter ourselves to some extent from this input, occasional straying is a part of the process. Perfection isn’t sustainable, but practice will eventually lead much closer to it.

Related:

How to Shop Responsibly (and Buy Less Stuff)

Captive Overconsumers: Why We’re Stuck in a Cycle of Spending

Shopping Addiction: Purge Your Urge to Splurge

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