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Thoughts About Material Possessions Occasioned by the Purchase of Our New Refrigerator

Published 2008-11-10

Of the two big life changes we’ve made in the last year — buying a house and having a baby — the really stressful one (so far) is turning out to be the house. One of the fun aspects of our particular house is our refrigerator, the previous owner’s “beer fridge,” unhelpfully located about ten vertical feet away from the kitchen. Which is to say, our only refrigerator is in the basement, and cannot be moved upstairs without deleting a few walls. (Among the previous owners’ skills was a knack for building walls in what should be an unfinished basement). Because the previous owners didn’t leave their kitchen fridge, this means a lot of trips up and downstairs at dinner time.

Anyway, long story short, we need a new fridge. This expense has been a long time coming, and Jenny did a good job researching refrigerators and picking a suitable new model. We have learned that one of the reasons home ownership is so damn stressful to me is that I have an almost religious dread of spending more than about a hundred bucks, so I can’t be trusted to do something like shop for a refrigerator. (This is true even for purchases of things that I really like purchasing — like bicycles or computers. It takes me months to get up the nerve to finally buy something like a new bicycle.) And when you own a house, you spend bucks by the thousands. Ouch.

But the weird thing is that I’m not a frugal person. At all. I don’t clip coupons or reuse tea bags. I like buying my groceries at the chichi yupippy organic grocery. I drink the expensive beer. I have no qualms about picking up the tab when I’m with friends, or spending any amount of actual money on any number of impulsive purchases. In some ways my behavior is anti frugal. I hate shopping and buying things so much that I’ll pay a premium to procure them from somewhere that streamlines the shopping process. I’d rather walk into the Levi’s store and pay whatever price they ask for the exact jeans I always wear (model 527, size 32/32), than dig through the extras bins at TJ Maxx or wherever to save big $$$.

My particular tight-fistedness was the source of a certain relationship friction — not so much because we disagreed about the expense (we really need that fridge), as because it hurts me so much to acquire an object. It makes me grumpy. But in our, ahem, discussion about the new fridge I had a realization. Jenny likes nice things. I don’t mean she has high tastes or likes spending money, but just that, if she needs to own something, she would just as well that thing be nice.

But that’s not actually the realization. The realization I had was that my ideal relationship with possessions would be to have none at all. Like, literally. I suppose I really really need a pair of shoes and some sweatpants or something, but otherwise, it would be nice to have no responsibility for any physical objects whatsoever. So when I actually do really need something (and, as it turns out, modern life requires more accessories than a pair of shoes and some sweatpants), my inclinations is to buy them as easily, and, more importantly, as disposably as possible.

So when Jenny and I have a “fight” about “money,” we aren’t really fighting and it isn’t really about money. We’re having a conflict of worldviews about the importance of physical objects.

Of the two attitudes on display, Jenny has the more grown-up. Responsible adults can’t conscionably sit on the floor and eat from plastic plates (← I am describing my bachelorhood here). She has come by her attitude honestly and organically. Which is to say, she has always been like this, and she knows it.

I don’t know if I’ve always been like this, and I’ve always felt conflicted about it. As a teenager and young adult I was recklessly acquisitive. For example, when I got my first real paycheck at my first real job (as an archaeological fieldworker in North Dakota), I spent the whole thing — $800 — on a single shopping spree at an outdoor store in Billings, Montana. At literally the same time, I harbored fantasies about losing all my possessions in a disaster.

This whole thing is a little bit mysterious to me. It’s like those cartoons where Sylvester has an angel cat on one shoulder and a devil cat on the other. The little Acquisitive Angel is saying “Paul, buy a new backpack! You have the money! You deserve it!” and the Destructive Devil is saying “Don’t be a sucker, that’s just more crap you’ll have to schlep around. Carry your stuff to work in a paper bag! Why the hell not!” When I was younger, I guess the angel was winning. Maybe because, when you haven’t owned nice things, it’s fun to buy those things you’ve always wanted. As I age, the devil has pretty much taken over. Probably because by this point in my life I’ve owned already owned all the things I’ve ever wanted, so there’s no fun left in buying something new.