Spiral

Image by wendy CORNIQUET from Pixabay

This is part of my series: American Zombie: How To Stop Being A Mindless Consumer.

After my wife and I got married, we moved into a small two-bedroom apartment. We didn’t have a ton of stuff, but we did fill that apartment. We had a kitchen table and chairs, a queen-size bed, computer desk, and a 19 inch TV. And we rented a couch for $5/month from the student housing association.

I graduated a year later, and we bought our first home. There was so much space among the four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and storage room. The master bedroom even had two separate closets! Empty rooms and cupboards and shelves begged us to fill them.

And thus began my consumption spiral.

Our first piece of furniture was a couch for the living room. After all, it’s uncivilized to force guests to sit on wooden chairs carried from the kitchen.

Then we bought two comfortable chairs. We originally looked for wingback chairs but settled for a pair of burgundy leather recliners. And we placed a dark end table between them.

Shortly thereafter, we bought an upright piano. Its deep red stain matched the furniture. And the living room finally felt complete, except for the carpet. It was worn, spotted, and didn’t quite match the furniture.

Next we furnished the basement living room with a discount sofa. No more snuggling on metal folding chairs while watching our favorite shows! And we added a cheap rug to cover the giant grease spots left by the previous owner’s dog. I swear, this large animal oozed oil.

Growing up, my wife’s family always had a large garden. In fact, one Spring, her father brought home 72 tomato plants for the garden. Naturally, my wife wanted to have a garden in our backyard. So we kept Home Depot in business by buying plants, fertilizers, tools, and chemicals for weed control. We also kept Walmart in business as we bought canning and bottling supplies.

My wife is a schoolteacher and has the luxury of summer vacation. But the house had no air-conditioning, and the swamp cooler needed to be repaired. So we splurged on an AC. And we got a discount because we replaced the furnace at the same time.

We made many trips to Sears. On our first trip, we bought our first lawnmower. We used it once and accidentally left the garage door open overnight. Then we made a second trip to Sears and bought our second lawnmower. We also picked up a washer and dryer. Gratefully, no one has stolen these yet!

The pipes in our house were old, out of code, and sprouted leaks every 6 months. I considered trying to predict when the next leak would occur but decided it was best not to tempt the Fates. They’re fickle and love convincing clever men that they’re not so clever.

Over time, we installed curtains and blinds. We decorated our walls with pictures and paintings. We filled the pantry with food and packed our closets with clothes. We bought books and bookcases. All of these things made us feel like grownups. Like real adults!

And eventually, we replaced every major appliance, all the pipes, the kitchen floor, all the carpet, and the roof just for good measure. After all that, it felt like I had my very own Ship of Theseus. And at times, I felt like I lived in a Money Pit.


Looking back, I had no idea how much this home would cost me when I signed the home loan documents. The mortgage broker had laid out what I would pay in principal, interest, taxes, and insurance. And using Excel, I even built my own amortization schedule. But I was clueless when it came to all of the secondary and tertiary costs. I was clueless about consumption spirals (aka the Diderot effect).

If I were to do things over again, I would’ve spent more time looking for a smaller home with a smaller yard. It would’ve cost less to purchase and had less space to fill. But hindsight is 20/20. And all things considered, I’m happy with the home we bought.

Now it could’ve been worse. Far worse. I could’ve bought a much larger house and spent much more on my consumption spiral. (This was back in 2005 when banks begged us all to take out larger loans.)

At one point, I did want a bigger house, with a giant living room and more bedrooms. We’d host family parties, and I’d show my family that I was an adult. A real grownup! (This reasoning probably sounds dumb, but many men in their 20s need to prove they’re fully-functioning adults.)

Luckily, my wife persuaded me to look for something smaller. A “starter home.” She said we didn’t need all that space, and we could always get something bigger later on. And she was right, as wives are about most things.

These days, I’m mindful of consumption spirals. I pay attention to purchases that lead to additional spending. For example, the bookcases in my office are overflowing, and I’d like to buy another. But I’ll spend a chunk of change on books to fill it. And so a new bookcase is on hold. At least for now.

And I’m OK with that. I’m fine with postponing certain purchases because I understand their true cost is far more than the initial purchase price.