[Long post. Feel free to skip to the “advice” at the end!]
Earlier this week, I bought two new cabinets to store clothes. They replaced three dressers, which will be much appreciated at our local “furniture bank.” They will even send a truck to pick them up. However, while assembling the new cabinets and stocking them with my clothes, I had feelings of guilt for buying new stuff. The new cabinets had so much packaging, it took me an hour to break it all down for recycling. The cabinets themselves are made of MDF and they were off-gassing, requiring a good airing out before use. And the old dressers are serviceable. It could certainly be argued I’m making wasteful purchases that harm the environment.
I am giving serious thought to how this situation came to be, and how to remedy it. To explain, I have to go all the way back to when I left my parents’ home and struck out on my own. I lived at home and commuted to university. When I graduated, I moved across the country to take my first job, bringing nothing but personal effects: clothes, books and knick-knacks.
Thus began my long journey in collecting and disposing of furniture. Since I wasn’t able to bring any hand-me-downs from home, I needed everything. After sleeping on the floor of my first apartment for a month, I was able to buy a bed, a TV and a table-and-chairs set. With an infusion of gift money, I went on a splurge at IKEA and bought two wall cabinets, a sofa and chair, and two end tables. The rest of my disposable income went for the “real” necessities like pots and pans, dishes and cutlery, all of which were available cheap or thrifted at places like the Army and Navy store.
After that, there was a constant tension between wanting to buy things to make the place look nice, and spending money on clothes, entertainment and travel. For example, I’d get tired of using a cardboard box or a crate as a night stand, and I would buy the cheapest night stand available, or take an old end table that a friend was discarding. To cheer things up, my friends and family were all into DIY and I assembled a lot of nice crafted décor we made over the years. The only thing I amassed excessively was discarded library books!
The next two things coincided: joining forces with someone else, and buying that first house. Moving from a 1-bedroom apartment to a 3-bedroom house (with a basement and garage) was really the tipping point. Luckily there wasn’t much pressure to buy all the contents new. The house became filled with furniture from past apartments, immediate family members, inherited stuff, and only a few new items. However, the place involved yard work and required buying all the usual equipment like a lawn mower and string trimmer!
I don’t recall any offers of major baby gear when the time came, and I suppose, at heart, I did want to buy new stuff for my kid, so an entire nursery ensued: crib, dresser, change table, high chair, swing, car seat, stroller, etc. Interestingly, I had a hard time giving it away when it was outgrown, because many of my friends wanted to buy all new as well.
In the end I didn’t fare too badly. Link moved up to a twin bed and then a bunk bed, but kept the same dresser forever. There was no need of redecorating other than bedding and paint.
I can’t say the same for myself, consumer-wise. After two cross-country moves and two more houses, I got caught in lifestyle creep. I was convinced I needed a large house – and a mini-van – to accommodate guests. Apart from family visits, I didn’t entertain. Yet I needed a table and chairs in the kitchen AND the dining room. I needed comfy seating and a TV in the living room AND the rec room. While not a lot was added at once, and I never outfitted a whole house from scratch, there was a steady accumulation.
Enough so that when the divorce came along, there was easily enough stuff to furnish two separate homes. I “rightsized” to a regular-sized home by my standards (1200 square feet) and just bought some basic replacement pieces.
In my adult life, I’ve moved 10 times, living in 4 apartments and 6 houses. All the moves were precipitated by relationship changes, job changes or financial changes – as often good as bad.
I have friends who have been married for 30 years; I have friends who bought a house when they were still in their twenties and have never moved. Yet, they may have gone through just as much cheap furniture as I have. Prior to the current trend for frugal and minimal living, it was common to redecorate and buy oneself new living room furniture or a bedroom set from time to time, to renovate the kitchen or replace the carpet or build a bigger deck. Even more so, I know couples who travel to their cottage every weekend, and who own trucks and boats. Meanwhile, I have paid to move my possessions across and between countries ten times. I wonder which among us has the biggest carbon footprint?
Looking back, I never meant to be wasteful. I never thought of myself as having money to “throw away” on frequent renovations and upgrades. I over-planned for what I thought my life might look like: a life with more stability, more children, more visitors and more merriment. I never imagined I’d be a single parent for a dozen years or that I would live for decades away from my home town before returning. I never imagined that I would rattle around in an oversized house by myself and have to do all the maintenance on it, too!
What lessons have I learned?
It was far less possible than I ever imagined to predict how my life would go. As a student, as a new librarian, as a new mom, etc. I could never predict what my life would be like in 5 years. I would put this down equally to relationship changes and job changes. Try as one might to choose suitable mate(s) and suitable employment, there are always aspects beyond one’s control. I wish I could speak to younger people and tell them how important it is to set appropriate boundaries and hold onto one’s values, despite the wishes of partners and friends and even family. But I couldn’t manage it when I was in my 20s, so that’s a tall order.
So this tale of wasteful furniture is really a tale about adapting to one’s circumstances in life.
If I were asked for furniture buying advice, here’s what I would recommend. I’ll leave the life advice to someone else!
- The traditional wisdom is to buy the best you can afford, so it will last. But maybe the best you can afford is the $19 Jysk MDF shelf. Buying better-quality used goods is better. But when you’re in transition – studying or in a new job or starting over – chances are you’ll be leaving things behind. Making do with the street-picked, the left-behind or the crates is probably the better way to go.
- Next I would say to focus on quality basics. I would go for a bed frame and mattress rather than a futon for sleeping; a small wood table and chairs rather than eating from your lap in front of your computer. But your next apartment may not fit an L-shaped sectional couch or a roll top desk, no matter how beautiful and expensive they were.
- Beware of accepting sentimental items of furniture. How many times will you want to move that rocking chair or hallway hat stand? How many relatives will be angry when they find out it’s been left behind?
- Find out the usual practices for what’s included in a home sale. I have bought homes in areas where the major appliances have been included in the home sale, and areas in which it was the norm for the previous owner to take them all! I can’t even count the number of times I’ve had to replace curtains and blinds (either due to their absence or their abysmal colour/quality).
- Be firm with yourself about your emerging lifestyle. Does an overnight visit from a friend really require a fully equipped guest room? Is first-floor laundry a must or just a wish list item? How often do you sit out on the deck to take advantage of the outdoor furniture and chair pad set you are eyeing?
- Do you have any rooms or any areas that are just for show? Used only once or twice a year? I’m thinking of those who keep a dining table for 12 which is used only at Christmas, or who buy a large home with a cathedral ceiling only to have space for a 10 foot Christmas tree.
- Are you considering buying furniture or décor that will fill a gap in your current home – but you would otherwise not want it? I once had a curving staircase with a ledge shelf. It begged for a three-foot-tall vase of flowers or artful twigs. I refused to buy an ornate vase for that spot in that house, knowing I would never want to keep it for my next one.
- Are you a pack rat? If so, you will need to devote your budget to storage furniture and shelving.
- Do you buy furniture that can be repaired, refinished and moved, rather than items that are essentially disposable? (Here I will interject I’ve had flat-pack furniture that has lasted 25 years and all 10 moves).
- What can you do to prevent pets from destroying your furniture so you can stop replacing it? (There are three clawed-up chairs at our house and we are never buying vinyl or leather again).
- How much do you value furnishings versus other household items such as electronics?
- If you buy furniture and décor, are you ignoring the invisible things that need to be done, like plumbing, heating, roofing and electrical work?
- Finally, when you get rid of furniture, it’s possible someone may take it from the street on garbage day. But if not, it’s been landfilled. Put up a notice at work asking for takers. Let your sister’s or kid’s friends know it’s available. List it on Freecycle. Drop it off at Value Village. Don’t worry that a corner is chipped or a caster is wobbly. Chances are it has value to someone. If you don’t need to make money from the item, give it away or allow someone else to make money from it (a charity or an individual who makes a living from upcycling).
I have just divested myself of 12 pieces of furniture: the bunk bed, a head board, a futon, three dressers, two matching night tables (so someone could have the sets), a desk, a storage unit, a coffee table and an end table. I feel confident all the pieces will remain in use elsewhere for many years. Meanwhile I have space! And I am liking that a lot.
Have you cycled through a lot of furniture? When do you buy new versus used? Any memorable buying mistakes or regrets?