Dec 31, 2009

Stuff and Living

Whenever I go back home to visit my parents my own life is thrown in some interesting contrasts. My parents live in Northern California, in a place where I could not even come close to being able to afford to live. But I love it here. Every time I come back here I want to move here. But then I forget that there are good things about where I live, too, and my mom is always thinking about moving out where I live. So really, vacations aren't a good way to judge a place and one's willingness to settle somewhere.

But there is one thing that is so much nicer where I grew up. It's really hard to explain exactly. But it involves materialism and expectations and conformity and things like that. Out here, I would never be questioned if I just wanted to rent the rest of my life, if wallpaper happened to be hanging from my ceiling in spots, if my car has a rusty bumper and a few patches of missing paint. My kids would not be looked at closely because they've got faded jeans and a loved T-shirt on, and hand-me-down tennis shoes instead of being dressed in a spanking-new, radiantly colored outfit complete with cute little clippy bought online to adorn their shining, professionally-cut hair.

There is a difference in expectation in Utah Valley. Let me just say it.

And for the most part I don't mind at all. My kids wear perfectly good clothes that others are done with... and I'll just say for the most part, they're being passed on because people have kids who have grown up, not simply because they're throwing them away. But I also know that there are very few families in what I consider to be my "class" (medium-low level income, but doable, young family) who would accept hand-me-downs unless they looked spanking brand new. ANd there are a lot of those around, too. People in Utah Valley buy a lot (it seems) and end up with too much and so end up throwing or giving a lot of amazing stuff away.

Am I weird because i accept every offer that comes my way? Does that make me somehow less of a mom? Does it throw me into the "needy Family," category? ANd for that matter, is this what people assume about us, because instead of having stretched our budget to buy a house, we're renting, and waiting for the right situation to come along?

I think I am happy about the lifestyle I lead. I have been blessed with so many miracles. And they literally seem to show up on my doorstep just as I need them. Skywalker and I were looking for a place to live three years ago, and our prayers were to the effect that we'd find a place that would serve our family's needs and also allow us to save the money we'd need to pay in cash for our adoption and not go into debt. And then Anna's house became available, for what let's just say is an amazing rate, unbelievable actually. If you knew what we paid in rent, you'd be shocked, even after you saw the wallpaper falling off our walls in places and the 70's era carpet and the 40's era interior decorating and the bathroom tiles falling off our walls and the rotted wall behind our sink.

It's doable. It's comfortable. It's clean. It's warm, it's not dangerous... for my family, it's perfect. And as we continue to live here our new goal is to save up a downpayment on a house, a blessing we're grateful to be able to plan for.

When we added two new kids to our family, we realized our old car would not do anymore. It was perfectly fine (12 years old, a bit of a gas-guzzler but ran just fine, some scratches on the sides from my harrowing parking experiences living in a condo community) except that it had one less seat than we needed.

My father-in-law offered to sell us their old van (14 years old, but in better condition than our old car, even, because he is such a meticulous maintainer of his vehicles.) Sure it's an old van. It's got a rust spot on the back bumper. It's a bit dingy on the inside and outside. But it has seven seats. And we could more than adequately afford the price (300 dollars). It was another blessing from Heavenly Father, and another miraculous answer to prayer-- that he bring us something that is reliable, that can carry our family around and that we could afford without any debt. And He did.

When we brought our girls home, I quickly realized I needed to bascially double the amount of clohes I had. I was thinking in my head, if I do this at DI and other thrift stores, I can keep it under 300, maybe. And then a ward member said she'd been praying about something she could do to help our family in the wake of our adoption and thought of the clothes she had stored in the basement. She asked me what sizes I might have use for, I told her and she said those were the sizes she had. Two days later I had four boxes full of clothes and I had more than enough for my girls. I even went through and put some of them in a box to give away, myself.

Another blessing, to a prayer not even offered, this time.

I sometimes wonder, existing in the pressure and social expectation that is Utah Valley, if people look at me and wonder what I'm doing. I'm renting. I drive what they probably see as a crud car on its last legs (But in reality...we could drive it another 100,000 miles if we take good care of it, at least according to the guy who inspected it when we got home). I dress my kids sometimes in cute but slightly faded clothes, in jeans that are a little worn at the knees, in shoes sometimes just a tad too big and coats that are too large but still warm (they can wear them next year, too!) and I wonder if people think I'm somehow a bad mom because I've accepted all these blessings and the opportunity to stay out of debt, live within my means, and save up for the blessings of the future.
We could easily afford a car payment. Buying a house right now is not outside of our reach if we followed certain options and opportunities. And I could buy all their clothes new... we do have the money.

Does that mean we SHOULD spend the money? It feels sometimes like some people think we should.

That is the thing I dread coming back to.

I feel like so many couples get married and decide that in order to have a kid, they need a 3 bedroom house and an almost new SUV (the new minivan), tons of designer baby clothes and other things like that in order to be a responsible family. And it's odd to be around. It's not the way I grew up. I'm not saying it's an evil phenomenon... it's just not anything like what I value at all, and I feel sometimes like people think I'm wierd or wrong or irresponsible to be the way I am.

And yet... these were all blessings. If Heavenly Father thinks it's good enough for my family, isn't it OK that I think it's good enough?

In the aftermath of Christmas (I handmade most of my girls' gifts, and the rest were hand-me-downs that were almost brand new, and I'm very grateful for the family who thought to offer to us before taking it to DI) I'm thinking about this with an extra measure of poignancy. My kids seem happy. I'm Happy. I feel like Heavenly Father is helping us meet our goals.

So maybe it's OK, after all, that I don't have a single thing to my name that I could sell for any significant amount of money... not a single thing. And that somehow in spite of that, life is good.


NoSurfGirl said...

by the way, Happy New Years, Everyone :)

Anthony D said...

My question is can we still be friendly, kind and a good person without really giving serious consideration to what other people think? It seems to me like we often live our lives too much according to what we think others think we should be doing rather than what the Lord or ourselves think we should be doing.

We all want to be accepted and loved by those around us, so I don't think that disdaining others opinions is wise thing to do per se, but my question is can we be kind and communicate our love for others while living our lives differently than they would if they were us? Just a thought I had.

the nice one said...

this post reminded me of something that happened a few weeks ago. we had our annual ward christmas party great time. the next day the bishop's wife dropped of a box of food, fresh salad, veggies, turkey, rolls. it was great but i looked at my husband and said, "are we now the family in the ward that needs the extra help?" we might be in a few months but right now i think we fine. i was joking of course but it made me stop and think who and how-i could possibly help

the nice one said...

oh and going home always makes me want to move there too

Putz said...

do you know what is surprising myself about you right now>???????????that you ever even questioned who you are....who are you no surf????????????????, you have always been non materialistic, i have known it for years, or why adopt?????? it should never even crossed your are our leader, you have set the example, you could never be caught up in all the crap, although if it were ever thrust on you, you could handle it and i am sure enjoy it like some californians, you know i do keep forgetting you are a californian{who i have always be suspicious of} but it will never ever be a problem for you one way or the i right?????i am right

Amyjo said...

I enjoyed your post, and agree with you wholeheartedly. You think it's bad in the Utah Valley, try living in the South. If you don't put one of those nasty ribbon bows in your child's hair, you are labeled as unkempt. (I highly doubt they know what that word means here)
Thanks goodness for hand-me-downs, and renting.
From a soon-to-be renting Utahn first cousin by marriage :)
We need to get together...

Rachel said...

for the sake of only question would be...if you HAVE the money is it ok for one to take hand me downs rather than giving them to people who truly need them. Have you accidentally turned into a charity case when you are not one?

NoSurfGirl said...

Rachel-- that is also one of my concerns. I accept hand-me-downs when they are couched in a "I was about to take this to DI then thought maybe you might want to look through it first" kind of way. Then I worry that people offer things in such a way so that I won't feel bad for accepting. ? Yeah. It's tough. At the same time... I do feel like it's necessary to be saving, and I know I'm wierd but... I just can't bring myself to go into debt when there are perfectly good things available that others don't want. Like the car, for instance. :)

A girl called dallan said...

Once again, you sound so much like me. We, too, drive old cars. One has 201,000 miles on it, the other 270,000. We're not into new clothes either. And I realized recently--now that we are unemployed--that we don't have anything that we could sell for money, but I don't care. I am passionate about having beauty around, but I am not much into things. I find them burdensome.
We raised our children in a house that sounds like the one you are living in now. Being able to buy it was a miracle with a story of its own.

As ever, I am glad that I live in western Washington state. I don't think that any of my three girls ever wore a hair bow in their lives.

I hope that 2010 is wonderful for you and your family. Happy New Year.

Linda said...

I think you and your husband have more than most people in the way of spiritual things. Who wants those silly transient riches that don't make you happy anyway? (ok, so sometimes they make life easier, but NOT happier) You and your husband are doing a GREAT job! Keep up the good work!

Linda said...

Also, you are "following the prophet" so...hooray!

merrilykaroly said...

My question is, has anyone specifically said something to make you feel this way? Or are you just comparing yourself to other mommies (I know, it's really easy to do)?

Last year when we lived on Stubbs Ave (in our "questionable neighborhood" where the cops basically lived on our street) I didn't care if people knew so I guess I just figured they probably didn't care either. And if they did care, big deal. We did our best to make the inside look neat and clean, even if the outside didn't. (although we do own a condo. but we are paying twice what we should be paying and it would be much better on our budget if we didn't own it anymore. I can't WAIT for the day that the housing market improves and we can sell it! we prayed about buying it though, and felt good about it, so that's all I can say about that)

Most of jr's clothing is hand-me-downs from his older cousins, and his little brother will soon be wearing hand-me-down hand-me-downs. I'm okay with that. He doesn't care that his clothes have been worn before, and neither do I. If someone else has a problem with it, oh well. I think he looks adorable in everything he wears :)

Have people treated you differently because of your lifestyle, or is it just something that you think they are thinking? I think you guys are super smart not to go into debt, and I really want to live more within our means than we do. You are a great example.

Annalisa said...

You know, I've always been surprised at how "well" some young student families in Utah Valley live. I admit feeling the same pressure you describe while we lived there, and we didn't even have kids yet! I have discovered the beauty of consignment sales and hand-me-downs for our baby. If we are blessed with more children, they can't complain that the oldest got all the fancy new stuff because just about everything she has is used too. So my nursery doesn't have matching furniture and her clothes are almost all used, but she seems just as healthy and happy as any other baby her age. I guess I'm glad somebody is willing to spend a ton on that stuff so I can get it a few years later when they are done with it for a lot less.

In all seriousness, though, I don't think frugality is something you have to feel bad about. Unfortunately, our society has turned the virtue of thrift into a vice. I think of my mom who will shop at thrift stores but then buy a computer to work on genealogy, or is willing to reupholster reeaally old couches and drive an old used van for years, but has the money to fly to TN to come help me after my baby was born. It's not that my parents haven't had the money for nice things, they just have chosen to prioritize the way they spend it differently than a lot of other people would. And they seem pretty happy with their choices. I try to remember that when I worry about still renting or look at the duct tape repair on our front bumper.

One last thought about clothes and then I'll shut up. We talk so much about modesty in our LDS culture. One day it struck me that the word "modest" means more than just "covered up." Usually when we talk about someone being modest, it's someone who isn't flashy, drawing lots of attention to themselves. The thought occurred to me that maybe an emphasis on clothes that were flashy and showing off might not be modest, even if they did cover up. I try to use this standard, hopefully not as a way to judge others' choices, but to consider my own. It's fine to consider trends and good fit/style, but what is my ultimate goal in wearing or buying something? When I can keep this perspective (not an easy one), it makes me less self-conscious of others' judgment. I don't want to go to the other extreme on this either and not take care of myself at all. I think there is good wisdom in moderation in all things.

NoSurfGirl said...

Anthony-- I think your brother (my husband) is a great example of exactly what you describe. It's one of the things that struck me immediately about him... he had a certain lifestyle he felt strongly about (vegetarianism) but he did not act self-righteous, disdainful, or push it on anyone. If people were curious and they asked questions, that's when he'd tell them about his own experiences and (sometimes, if he knew someone well enough) tell them that if they wanted to know more, they could try it :)

It's one of the things that made me fall in love with him.

Nice One: I think that just about sums up my conflicted feelings in a way. Along with what Rachel said. Because i have chosen to lead a very frugal existence at this point in my life (because I feel it's what I have to do to live within my means) I wonder if it looks to those around us that we need extra help to get by. And I wonder if this is an unwitting deception on our part :( I'm not going to change the way I live, but how do I know if something is charity that ought to go to someone more needy, or just someone being nice? Because, gosh... turkey and rolls and leftover salad is a nice thing to have (I'm thinking in my head... two meals I don't have to plan!) But if they're dividing that leftover food up amongst needy families in the ward, I'd feel bad... I really shouldn't be getting that kind of stuff.

Adelle: Nobody's said anything. It's more the things they do (nice things!) One year we even got a "christmas jar." This made me VERY uncomfortable, because (have you read the Christmas Jar book?) But since it was anonymous and we couldn't return it, I just tried to feel grateful. We didn't use it. In fact, I think it may still be sitting on my shelf somewhere... but maybe I should have given it to someone else, this year. I might still do that, come to think of it...

It's just the feeling of, people assume we're not doing too well financially because we don't buy into all the lifestyle things that would "show" those around us that we're a "normal" family. Every time a ward member talks to me, they ask me when Skywalker will be done with school. I explain to him that he's been done for a while, actually he works for BYU, actually he got a master's degree...

and then I wonder if there's something we shoudl be doing that we aren't, to send people the message that we're actually fine... they don't have to think of us as a needy family?

Or maybe that's all just pride?

NoSurfGirl said...


You just basically described our situation... I feel like it's kind of a tough balance... I don't want people to get the impression we NEED help, but I'm also not going to say no/turn down people's stuff simply because it's used. In fact, when I don't get hand me downs, I go to DI, Kid-to-kid... but my favorite are garage sales. But with my kids in garage-sale-clothes, maybe I'm creating the impression that all my kids exist at the charity of others, thus we need sustaining and help from the ward and community. I don't want to give people that impression, simply because I feel like I might be taking advantage of people and I'd never purposefully do that.

NoSurfGirl said...

BTW, thank you, Aunt Linda. Love you. And it's comforting to have you say this, too... I know you guys have some hard times and some less hard times, and also some prosperous times. So you know what I'm talking about!!

Camilla said...

I think it's easy, once you have something new, to think everything should be new. We recently bought a house (woohoo Arizona foreclosures! Actually, now that I think of it, that's not very nice. I'm sure the person who used to own this house isn't saying woohoo:( ...) Anyway, tangent over, we bought a house and as we moved in we realized we didn't have that much stuff (coming from a two bedroom basement apartment was a big transition). Suddenly I started feeling like I needed to buy a bunch of stuff. Couches for both living rooms, coffee tables, a hutch; what about a kitchen table that will fill our dining room better? As we accumulated more and more stuff, the list only seemed to grow. I started to feel like "we'll only really be settled once we have this or that." Decorations alone started totaling numbers I wouldn't have previously spent on necessities. Ryan's parents even offered us a couch, but because it was a large floral print (not ugly, just large) I seriously considered buying new couches instead. I think maybe that's what did it. It made me really stop and assess my priorities. Why did I need new couches when his mother's was in great condition and free? It was a little hard to let go of my sudden need for all things new and perfect, but we stopped it in plenty of time, and hopefully have learned a valuable lesson.

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I can see why so many young families seem to have so much. It's just so hard to stop once you've started. We weren't even going into debt for all the extras (I consider myself a pretty darn frugal person, and a deal finder), but it was a bit of a slippery slope. I think you're smart not to get into that mentality. Not that you'll never buy anything; like you said you're saving up for some major purchases.

I admire you for not getting wrapped up in things you don't need!

Anonymous said...

Loved reading this. From the vantage point of age and experience, I'd say that you have "your head on straight" and your priorities in order. As I"ve heard the younger generation say, "You rock!"

NoSurfGirl said...


I think that is one of the things I'm afraid will happen, when we end up buying (or building) at some not-so-distant point. It seems to me like the prospect of buying a house is really intimidating, not only because I know houses themselves can become "Money Pits" that require a lot more financial maintenance that one would expect. But also because a house would turn into, now we need more furniture. now we need more, newer kitchen appliances. And now, we need to buy lots of cutesy Martha Stewart type stuff to decorate it.

I LOOOVE the idea of being able to decorate my own home, to pick out stuff... in short, I'd love to build and make it the way I want it to be. There is that bad thing about renting... I can't do much with what I have, really. But that also makes me think that maybe I'm grossly underestimating the amount of finances we'd need to have available, and flowing into our household, if I'm REALLY going to be able to afford a house.


I'm a big chicken.

And it sounds like you guys are doing things quite awesomely, too. I know a lot of couples actually do go into debt to buy all their furniture and stuff like that.

A girl called dallan said...

I longed for years to have a house that was just the way I wanted it. Five years ago house prices in our community went up just as interest rates plummeted and we were finally able to build our dream home in a lovely planned community with parks and walking trails. I have completely filled our cottage with furniture and decor from second hand stores. Spray paint is my new best friend.

I am continually amazed by how generous the Lord is in providing me with the things I desire to feed my soul. As is true for each of us, He cares for me as his daughter, and delights in my delight. I once heard a radio minister caution that if we turn to credit cards too quickly, we don't give the Lord time to answer our prayers in His way. I have found that, with time, all things have come to me as I have desired, and then some. Seeing the hand of the Lord working in my life is waaaaay more fun than shopping with a plastic card.

michele said...

Well, it looks like this is a popular topic of discussion! I live in Atlanta and I think the attitudes here are well-matched to those in your California "hometree".* After I moved away from Utah I realized how stifling its lack of diversity had been for me. I'm glad that you are there and hope there are others who can be "missionaries" of your type of attitude/lifestyle.

Anyway, I want to put some of my two cents in here. I think that in many cases, buying new things (whether one can afford them or not) is wasteful. Here are some reasons why I almost always buy or receive pre-loved furniture, clothes, cars, etc.:

1. I'm keeping them out of the landfill. (This includes supporting thrift stores that are keeping things out of landfills.)
2. I'm saving my money.
3. Used items have been tested and tried. If they made it all the way to Goodwill or your neighbor's hand-me-down box, they're still good.
4. The re-use of things is their genealogy. This idea came from a good friend of mine and I love it. I like thinking about all the memories that live inside of an old chest of drawers. Why would you want to throw that away?

(I could also come up with some reasons that are of a more global/earth-saving perspective, but I'm running out of time.)

On the other hand, I'm not opposed to buying one pair of high quality, durable shoes in place of dozens of cheaper, fall-apart shoes. But then again you might be judged for having only one pair of shoes!

I also think that people who insist on having lots of nice new things are not grateful for what they have. I don't have any nice things either (except for my bassoon, but even that was used when I bought it) but I can imagine that the more possessions one has, the less grateful they are for them. When I went to southeast Asia this summer I saw lots of families living in one-room houses. And they were happy! During that two-month excursion the only possessions I had were fit into a suitcase. I was so free and light, and I had everything I needed. (This reminds me of a quote by Henry David Thoreau... it's on the tip of my tongue! I'll try to find and post it.)

Anyway, while I was reading your post my insides were screaming, "stop caring about what other people think!" but I remember living in Utah and how hard that was. And I didn't have five children! I admire your courage.

*A new word I learned from watching "Avatar".

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
michele said...

It turns out that the quote I was thinking of is actually the last several pages of Chapter 1 from Walden. But here is a shorter one from Ch. 2 that could also apply here: "... for a man is rich in proportion to the number of things which he can afford to let alone." Henry David Thoreau, Walden

Laurie said...

I am intrigued that the place you grew up is devoid of such pressure to spend, spend, spend. I have lived in the west, south, and Northeast- and the cultures in all places all have varying degrees of pressure to conform and achieve a certain "standard." When I was going to yard sales this summer, mostly to acquire the things I would need for my baby I was pregnant with, I was amazed to repeatedly see pregnant women selling their baby stuff- simply because they were going to get all new stuff for their next kid. I really benefitted from this craziness! Thanks for the post, it gave me a lot to think about- and I need to do better at commenting on your blog bytheway- I enjoy it very much.

NoSurfGirl said...


wow. That sounds amazing. I hope we can find a situation like that someday.

Laurie, I love that you commented :) And glad you like reading. I like reading yours, too... I think your blog fulfills any and all creative sewing need that I have. And you inspired me to try to handmake some presents that I don't think I would have tried this year.

Amyjo, Lol!!! Skywalker laughed out loud at that crack about the South. Interesting!!! I wonder if some of Utah Valley culture stems from the same sources? (religious and somewhat naturally segregated a community that is fairy homogenous in values and goals.)


Thanks. You always have such nice things to say about me and what I write. I like reading what you have to say advice-wise, too.

Fern said...

You know, I use to let all those things bother me. But I've realized that THINGS don't matter. Is my family fed, clothed, happy and healthy? Then that's good enough for me. It's pointless to buy new $25+ jeans for each of my kids when they're going to get holes in the knees no matter what. Instead I focus on patching up and mending what we have. And I think my kids wear some darn cute clothes, too! (and quite frankly, I'm the only one who's opinion matters... to me)
I'm also an advocate of "less is more". I love my house as it is... simple. All that indoor decor stuff just seems to cluttered to me! Does the decor in my house affect our lifestyle when we spend as much time as we can as a family (and hopefully outside doing productive things)? I mean, really, what is the point of decorating with dishes, vases, and otherwise useless things?
I know what you mean. I think the "stuff" people are setting their hearts on these days is sad.