Tables and Chairs and Beds and Shelves

Furniture art from hisaeikenaga

[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!

baby-room

Baby room

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.

When I needed ALL THE THINGS

When I needed ALL THE THINGS

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.

Link showing you the undecorated stair landing

  • 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.
Like so

Storage for a few books

  • 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?

26 comments

  1. 1066jq

    My husband was in the Army and we were constantly moving. Tried to keep furniture to a minimum. I always donate old furniture to Goodwill, have never lived close enough to family to share stuff with.
    I really enjoyed your blog today, loads of good information.
    We’re hoping to downsize in the next couple of years and I want less, much less.

    • I have about 12 years before retirement and hope to continue living here afterwards as long as health allows, so 20 years would probably be a good estimate. Yet, I still dread the idea of having to get rid of tons of stuff when and if we decide to move, so I keep chipping away at it. I am not finding it difficult, especially since I know other people who would really use and benefit from the stuff. I can take my time and find good homes for things. Good luck as you determine the “right” amount of stuff! Thanks for the blog feedback. I can never tell if readers like personal stories or information/how-to posts.

  2. What an interesting, thoughtful and though-provoking post.
    We live in our third home together, and our 38th year sharing a home. We have sometimes taken stuff off the street (especially in our first home – wood for shelving and for our first bed, our first fridge,) and often taken stuff from friends, relatives and freegle. And always bought second hand when that fitted for us. Initially because we had no money to buy stuff, but also because we’ve always been concerned about consumption and the environment.
    Even now when we can afford (financially) to buy pretty much whatever we might want, we try to prioritise buying second hand before new. The exception to that is electrical appliances, when we buy new and as robust and energy-efficient as we can find.
    When I look around our home, I see all sorts of things that we’ve had (bought new) for years but have done second service in another place or another purpose; things we’ve bought second hand and still love; things we’ve inherited from family and friends, and still love.
    Our home now is, for the first time, bigger than we really need – since our sons and their partners have their own homes elsewhere. But on the other hand we have lots of people to stay, including said sons and partners, and then we use the house to the full.
    There was a time when both sons were still at school and had steady girlfriends who often stayed here when the house felt way too small, and we thought about upsizing. A wise friend reminded us that this time would soon pass. It did, and we are very glad we stayed put.
    I know that there will come a time when we will want to downsize (‘rightsize’ – I like that!) further, and in the meantime we are in a perpetual process of slimming down and donating stuff we no longer use want or need. Having had the sobering experience of clearing our parents’ homes of years of accumulated possessions (junk), we certainly don’t want to leave that task to our children.

    • Thanks! Like you, while I don’t mean to be morbid, I don’t want to leave my kid with the task of cleaning out my junk someday! A retired couple I know advised me not to go too small (house-wise) when I retire or I would regret it. I had to respectfully disagree. They like to entertain! I agree with you about electronics. Sometimes I don’t think it’s even a good idea to keep old stuff until it dies because of the environmental impact of running old freezers, etc. I go for Energy Star certified. 38 years – congrats!

  3. We lived in military (navy) housing for the first 14 years of our marriage. The housing was always small, and we were limited by how much the navy would move for us based on my husband’s rank. All that changed the last two years he served when he was a)promoted; and b) all service members received an increase in their weight allowance. We went from an 8500 pound allowance to 12,500 pounds in the blink of an eye. We were living in Japan, but I went on a spending spree scooping up all sorts of Japanese antiques, etc. When we moved back to the States we had 15 antique tansus, 15 antique porcelain hibachis, etc. Our house looked like a museum, and to be honest, it was ridiculous. With a few exceptions, most of it is gone. Thankfully all of it had value here and we made money when we sold it, even though we did not buy it to make money.

    However, the amount of basic furniture pieces we owned rarely increased in size, with us purchasing the odd piece here and there. Some of it we sold when we moved, and looking around now I don’t think any of the pieces we have now were ones we had back then except for a couple of tansus and lamps – everything’s been replaced, mostly through downsizing. I don’t think we ever threw away any furniture either – we either sold it or donated it to someone who asked. When we lived in navy housing we had to buy window coverings for every house – nothing ever fit from one place to another. Usually we could sell our window coverings to the next occupant.

    I grew up hearing the “always buy the best” but without the “you can afford” added on. So that meant we went without, or used something we found at Goodwill or other thrift shops until we could afford good quality (as I write I’m sitting on our Ikea sofa though, and our chair was ordered through Amazon). I once read an article written by Jane Fonda, that she didn’t have a formal dining room because she didn’t didn’t need one, and didn’t want to furnish any rooms that would rarely be used. She could have easily afforded anything she wanted, but I tried to remember her example/advice whenever I was tempted to buy more. Sometimes it worked, but lots of time it didn’t and we bought stuff we ended up getting rid of later.

    • Besides your moves, you must have gone through a lot of changes when adding three daughters to your household! Do they like to collect stuff? I had to look up tansus. No wonder you were tempted. You did well if you received any money for window coverings – I was always being convinced to throw them in as part of the deal! I could use some role models for buying less – other than hardcore tiny house owners and extreme minimalists.

      • All three of our daughters have been packrats – nothing that touches their hands is thrown away, it seemed/seems. We bought nice, quality bedroom pieces for them when they came home, and Brett and I are now using the dresser and bedside stand we bought for our oldest daughter! We bought a good quality wood bunk bed and dresser when our youngest came home, but the beds can be split apart into twins and we’ll continue to use them for when they come home for the holidays or if we have guests. We did buy them a bedside table after we arrived here – we’d sold the one they were using before the move and then realized they still needed one!

        There turned out to be a good market for Japanese antiques after we came home, and we sold everything we no longer wanted or needed for a profit. As for the curtains/window coverings, there was a market for them with navy families moving into housing, but we never made a profit on those, and other than once we never found any we could use from people who were leaving. Moving in and out of navy housing also made it easy to buy or sell furniture you didn’t need or want any more – there was always someone selling something or needing something. It was much, much easier and more convenient than dealing with eBay or Craigslist is today.

      • I think it’s smart to get sturdy, long-lasting furniture for kids that they can continue using through their teen years. It makes sense that other military families would always be looking for gear for their latest homes, too. I have given away furniture to a charity rather than list it on Freecycle or Kijiji because I don’t want to deal with arranging times to meet up with strangers and have them come to my house to get stuff!

  4. I haven’t gone through too much furniture. My bedroom set is the one I’ve had since I was16. I had hand-me down furniture from my grandma in college. When I moved three hours away I gave it to a friend. My kitchen table was my great grandparents, the end tables are hand-me downs as well. The only furniture I’ve purchased are my couch, recliner, three bookcases, a coffee table, desk and office chair. Having a small house helps. Living in the city, I’ve always found there’s someone who wants cast offs. I like decorating, but once I’m happy, I can stay happy for a decade or more!

    • Hi Candi, After owning several homes I got over the desire to decorate each one distinctly. I wish I’d had heirlooms but I moved too far away to bring anything from home with me. Now that we are of a certain age, the idea of having recliners is gaining in appeal 🙂 In the past 10 years we have bought 2 office chairs, 2 dining chairs, 5 book cases (when Rom moved in with his 2000 books), a bed and the new cabinets. We’ve sent out a lot more than we’ve brought in. I like that we have a lot fewer small pieces cluttering up corners or squeezed in.

  5. Fiona

    I love that phrase, ‘right-sizing.’ And the recognition that one of the first things you do when you buy a house is to buy for what you think your life will look like in the future. Young people never get the advice to ‘live in the now’, in terms of home buying.

    We built a four bedroom + study home ‘for the future’, but ended up only having one child. It’s forever been too big and filled with the ‘extra’ couch sets, bedroom sets etc. I love my home but sometimes it reminds me of the children we didn’t have etc. and that is sad.

    I think you’ve done a great job with your bedroom furniture change-over. It sounds like the old furniture was well looked after and good quality to begin with, so it is able to have a long future life with someone else.

    We bought most of our home furniture as a house-lot from a Builder’s Display Home, for $3,000. It is very far from the quality I’d like and most of it is non-recyclable materials. I salve my conscience by knowing it was all second-hand and we have given it longer life. It is however at the end of its lifespan (we are NEVER again buying a vinyl couch!) so all these questions about environment and replacement questions have been in the forefront of my mind lately.

    • It’s great that you were able to buy your furniture in one lot! I was going to say I’ve never owned any furniture of the quality I’d like, but our current kitchen table and chairs are hardwood. Unfortunately, they are in a farmhouse style I no longer like – I would much prefer something modern in chrome and glass! But it served us well for family meals and homework and crafts. And will last forever either here or elsewhere. I know exactly what you mean about the large home not full of children 😦

      I am reclaiming the word “right sizing” from the business world: it is used as a euphemism when a company lays off employees due to outsourcing or economic downturns.

  6. This is close to my heart, as you’d perhaps know. I was already in the greenie/minimalist mindset as I moved out and set up my own home, so all this weighed on my mind. I have many second hand items, and solid wood items. And lots of Ikea items as well.

    When I reflect, there’s some items I’d like to upgrade – the stainless steel table is getting rust spots and is too narrow when I have people over (v infrequently though twice this weekend). I would get a wood inlay table I think. The BF’s desk is horrid, colour/style wise, but serviceable. Our dining chairs, one is stained, but better that than perfection and guests being fearful.

    Pets aren’t something we have, but the BF’s family has some lovely furniture ruined by their cat. It’s enough for me to strongly reconsider a pet!

    Thankfully I was firm with my family, not wanting their free discarded home items (ie stuff I might feel burdened by). Now the BF’s family home may downsize, again, I was asked what we might want. And it’d be a cross country move if we were to take anything, so I settled for an interest in some art, but otherwise, I said I was fine.

    • I really enjoyed the stories on your blog of how you put together your place. Is everything still going OK with the tenants? Art is an excellent choice – manageable to ship, to display and to store! My current and previous cats caused probably thousands of dollars of damage to furniture, stair railings and trim (from scratching, despite having other acceptable places to scratch as well). Everything is calm lately, though!

      • I have a second set of tenants, and they aren’t as seamless (one email about late rent payment, but came to me without delays based on staggering), and a noise letter. But… I did have wonderful first tenants, even when their relationship broke down they were on time and tidy etc.

  7. I’m curious… is it standard practice there to leave curtains in the house when you move? I can understand blinds, they are sort of a fixture, but curtains are people’s choice and taste.

    • You are required to leave blinds since they are considered fixtures (as you say), but curtains are your own property. However, most buyers ask for major appliances and curtains if they can get away with it. No one wants to lose a sale over a few curtains, or be seen to be too “hard line” on the offer. It was funny – in the book I just read about life in Denmark, it said people there are so passionate about design that they take their lighting fixtures with them when they move!

      • Bren

        Taking your lighting fixtures with you when you move is a thing not just in Denmark but in all of the European countries I’ve lived in (Sweden, UK, Czech Republic, Germany). When I was a student I simply bought the cheapest fixtures from IKEA. The bare-lightbulb-hanging-from-the-ceiling look just doesn’t exactly create a cozy atmosphere.

        I’ve been reading your blog for a while and I especially enjoy your posts about wardrobe downsizing. You’ve inspired me to create my own wardrobe inventory spreadsheet!

      • Thanks, Bren! My wardrobe is on an even keel now. I have bought some cheap fixtures and lamps in the past and left them behind. One of my current projects is buying inexpensive lighting fixtures and lamps that I hope will create a coherent look throughout the whole house. I have lived here 12 years and will be staying a while so I feel OK about it!

      • Thanks for enlightening me, Dar. Well, here some non-law-abiding ones take the bulbs, fitted carpets, door knobs, etc. … I suppose you get them all over the world. Take care.

  8. Interesting post about adapting to life changes that require moves. As you know we are in the process of getting ready to sell our house, move across the country and downsize. I too am enjoying the space we are creating as we move out pieces of furniture that won’t be here for showing the house and/or moved across the country. Curbside recycling is going well for small items but here it is hard to get rid of many large items in a way that means they will be reused. We were told about a neighborhood list serve and finally found people who wanted our large roll top desk. It helps to have time to do it slowly. When we need furniture for our new home we are lucky to have a cousin who manages estate/moving sales who can help us find bargains in used furniture and 2 cousins who are interior designers and can get us into showrooms and use their discounts. Then there are thrift, consignment and used furniture stores. It is a process but we will end up with much less in the new home hopefully.

    • It’s great you have some helpful contacts when you arrive! I like having more room in our current house. I should add to the “advice” in the post: don’t wait to downsize until you are moving into a smaller home – “pre-downsize” now – you will like it! Are you planning to buy a smaller place and have less furniture, or will you have more guests/entertaining since you’ll be near family?

  9. jbistheinitial

    Oh boy, your second-to-last point hit home. I am the worst at ignoring the big jobs while buying new throw cushions!

  10. EcoCatLady

    Ha! Very interesting post. And furniture guilt is a new one that I hadn’t considered before!

    I’ve only purchased one piece of new furniture in my life – am “entertainment center” back in the days when we had heavy square televisions that were hard to deal with otherwise. OK, not entirely true, I did buy a wooden crate in college that I still use as an end table. The rest all came from yard sales, thrift stores, hand-me-downs, or even dumpster dives. I wish I could claim that this is all evidence of some sort of ultra environmentalism on my part, but I fear what it boils down to is that at heart I’m just cheap and lazy.

    I really do admire people who have the energy to make things look all nice and put together, but ultimately, I’d much rather lay on the couch than worry about what it looks like.

    I will say, though, that after my carpet beetle situation – which I’m pretty sure originated from an overstuffed recliner that I bought a yard sale – I will never, ever, EVER again buy anything upholstered or stuffed second hand!

    • Sorry you had to learn that the hard way. Most of my current furniture was bought new – not the best quality, but functional. The house doesn’t look very decorated but it’s cozy. Of course it’s really the cats who create that effect 🙂

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