True Story: The Nightmare Consumers Who Inspired Me To Pare Down

Every few days, they would come home with hundreds of dollars worth of brand-name groceries and struggle to fit them into their bursting cabinets. They had two freezers and two refrigerators to hold food for three adults and one child. The food would spoil in the fridge or go stale on the shelf and just stay there for weeks. They ate out almost every night, spending $60 at a time at KFC, wrapping up the leftovers, and then never eating them.

On Christmas, the child would get fifty presents, and not tiny presents but whole playsets, Lego sets, motorized cars, animals. Birthdays were the same, and Easter, the Fourth of July, Halloween, and Thanksgiving were all treated as further opportunities to give the child presents. If the kid wanted something, they’d hound the parents for weeks, throwing tantrums, guilting, pleading for hours at a time, until the parents’ patience would wear thin and they’d buy it, even between the holiday milestones.

Several animals died because they had, at one point, five dogs, over 20 fish, two birds, a gerbil, and a water dragon, and the child was both too young to adequately care for all the animals and excused from helping, so the mother was forced to take care of animals she was uncomfortable handling. The dogs weren’t socialized with each other, so two dogs were cordoned into bedrooms for almost the entire day, with only 30-minute breaks to go outside once or twice a day. The three other dogs were kept in the basement and allowed to relieve themselves on the floor, which the family would then have to clean several times a day.

They were looking for a house to buy in the suburbs; they already owned a four-bedroom split-level in decent condition, but they wanted a six-bedroom house with a great room that was bigger and newer. But they’d run out their credit; they were living on credit, and by the time I wasn’t around them anymore, they were starting to fall behind on their mortgage and utility payments as it was.

All of this was on one salary that was barely higher than the national average. I have no idea how they managed. I have no idea how they haven’t declared bankruptcy. All I know is that I saw a family falling apart under the burden of the things they bought, needing more space for all the stuff they wouldn’t throw or give away, unwilling to buy generic for the sake of their pride, wanting to make their child happy with toys but the child was never more than a tic away from another red-faced, crying outburst anyway.

I genuinely believe that these people were trying to do the right thing, but I also believe that their version of “right,” not just in the sense of “correct” but also in the sense of “moral,” was tied up with posterity, reputation, and the appearance of wealth. I think this attitude comes from the idea that if you’re wealthy, or appear to be wealthy, you’re able to give; and charity is, after all, a virtue.

That being said, this isn’t a rabbit-hole I wanted to fall into. This is straw-man wealth and straw-man charity, and it had something to do with pride just as much as it had something to do with generosity. I know from personal experience that it takes humility to accept the fact that you are in a massive amount of debt and can’t afford to be the kind of person who’s able to give materially. The other choice is to play dumb or be stubborn about your pride and keep finding ways to incur further debt in order to have the appearance of wealth your pride hinges on. I watched this family take the latter course, and I watched them start to question each other’s motives and get at each other’s throats under the strain of constantly worrying about how to perpetuate the lifestyle they were used to.

It’s a choice. Being unhappy is a choice. Your habits are a choice. Taking on debt is a choice. What you spend money on is a choice, and what you don’t spend money on is also a choice. And our priorities are a choice: I heard somewhere that when we buy things, we are momentarily happy because we have everything we want. Redefining what you want so that it has less to do with material consumption and more to do with relationships is the key.

Rebecca Vipond Brink is a writer, photographer, and traveler. You can follow her at @rebeccavbrink or on her blog, Flare and Fade.