Habit first. Then buy.

There is an old worn paper bag sitting in my office right now with a curious object inside: a half-finished cross-stitched Christmas stocking. The pattern is quite lovely, which is why I was drawn to it…when I was 13 years old. Yes, 20 years ago, I was hard at work on that stocking. Then I stopped, and there it sat in my closet at my parents’ house until my mom, noting that I now had a suburban house that could hold its own junk, brought it over here.

I hadn’t really forgotten about the stocking. It’s always been one of those “maybe” things. It’s not that I dislike cross-stitching. It’s just that it’s never quite risen up high enough in the priority list to become a way I spent my time after those 13-year-old days when I had little but time.

While we’re on the tour of objects: I now have a keyboard in the family room. I bought the keyboard with the money I earned from one of my first USA Today columns (yes, that link goes to a vintage 2002 Vanderkam gem). I was a 23-year-old intern living in Washington DC, and I was missing having access to a piano. I’d played all through high school and on and off through college, and I wanted to play again. So I bought this beautiful Yamaha model that has most of the 88-keys and the keys are weighted so it has more of a piano feel.

There was rarely room for the keyboard to stay out in my NYC apartment, though I did pull it out to practice my choir music once every two weeks or so. We moved to PA, and I pulled it out to accompany my family in some rousing Christmas carols over the holidays. I enjoyed playing, and left it out. On the rare occasions when I’m home mostly by myself (usually meaning I’m here with the baby and she’s quiet) I’ve started playing some of my favorite old etudes and the like.

The cross stitching material and the keyboard are two objects at the periphery of my life. Both represent things that I wouldn’t mind doing with my time, yet haven’t so much. And this brings us to the dilemma of stuff. Because, now that I have space, I could make myself a nice little crafts area. I could tell myself that making the crafts area would encourage me to devote more time to such pursuits. Maybe I’ll make crafts with my kids! I could also buy a piano. I have space! I wouldn’t buy a grand that would be similar to buying a car in terms of expense (and size) but a little console, bought used, would be a splurge, but no more so than much of the furniture we got last year. I could also make the case that my kids will take piano lessons, so that’s for their edification.

But of such thoughts is much of the clutter of modern life made. If I buy that bread machine, I’ll make bread! If I buy that treadmill, I’ll start running! But will you? Or will the bread machine sit in the cupboard and the treadmill turn into an expensive spot for hanging clothes?

Thinking about it, I’ve recognized that crafts aren’t going to find a big place in my life. My creative impulses are mostly satisfied by writing. Music is a different question, though. I still would like to make space in my calendar for a choir in another year or two. And I think I would find it pleasurable to play the piano. So this is my deal with myself: habit first, then buy. If I can start practicing playing the keyboard three times a week, and do it consistently for several months, then I can start looking at pianos. If I can’t make it a habit, then I probably won’t make it a habit with a real piano either.

This philosophy can keep us traveling relatively light. Rent an instrument a child wants to try before buying one. Borrow sports equipment until you’re sure the child likes the sport. Use a neighbor’s bread machine a few times to see if you think it’s worthwhile (quite possibly, the neighbor won’t ask for it back, as it’s just cluttering up her house!) When something becomes a habit, spend with pleasure. But don’t buy thinking it will become a habit. The odds are against it, and by buying first, you lose any bargaining chip you might have with yourself.

What objects don’t get used in your house?

(photo courtesy flickr user esc861)

13 thoughts on “Habit first. Then buy.

  1. We are big fans of this philosophy, especially when our children try new sports (hockey and lacrosse equipment are so expensive!). If they make it through season, and want to continue, then we talk about buying new stuff. On another note, we do have a bread machine cluttering our kitchen but we use it all the time. My big plastic bin of cross stitch and fabric is another story!

    1. @Nancy- smart idea with the children’s sports equipment. Otherwise, it’s just an invitation to have a garage or basement full of unused stuff! We go through cycles with our breadmaker. Sometimes we use it 2-3 times in a week (usually over the holidays). Then it’s back in the cupboard for 6 months.

  2. My philosophy; I can get this object only if I remove 1 -2 items that I already own.
    My friends and family find it funny that I’ll go to the mall or a book store and touch items, yet not buy them. I don’t know that I’ve rationalized or realized that I can’t fit everything that glitters and holds my attention for mere minutes but I hold to the montra, “if I can touch it, I can have a conversation about it and realize that, I don’t really need or will not really use this item .”
    It’s hard not to be pulled by the newest item, or gaget and then have that same item or gaget sitting on a shelve or in a closet for the next garage sale. When I can put it into terms of “will I really use this”, then I really think about what it is that I’m buying. That’s why I touch an item before I buy it.

    1. @Susan- hey, what works for you! Part of the fun of shopping is seeing how beautifully things are displayed in stores, so I totally get that touching but not buying can satisfy some of the desire for bringing beauty into one’s life. That may be why some people enjoy shopping with their wallet still in the car. You can go back and get it if you want, but mostly you’re there for the experience.

  3. Lately I’ve been thinking about buying prudently to support an existing habit. I do read a lot — my reading log from last year tells me I read more than a book per week — but I have been buying books that go unread. I also knit a lot, but a few months ago I decided I wouldn’t buy more yarn or knitting books until I’d finished a half-dozen projects. I finished up the sixth project on Sunday night and so I’ve been thinking about it: how much is it reasonable to spend on a habit I enjoy? (Lest you wondered, I’m not a hoarding sort: my yarn and knitting books fit neatly in the space allotted for them. But it’s easy to be acquisitive.)

    1. I read a great deal, too–both for work and leisure–and would rather spend money on books than clothes. I’ve found that a useful way to keep my book-buying habit in check has been to force myself to read something from the library or off my shelf for every 2-3 books I purchase. I discover new things this way (even on my own shelf!), and it allows me to savor the book-buying experience more than I would otherwise.

      1. @Sara- I, too, buy a lot of books. I also get sent a lot of review copies, to the point where the book situation is a wee bit out of control! I had to get my head around the idea of getting rid of books (with advance copies you’re not supposed to donate them; you certainly can’t resell them and if you donate them to a charity like Goodwill, they can’t sell them either). We built a giant book case in this house, which I love, and which has let me go “shopping” for books I haven’t read in a while or never read in the first place. But I’m also using my Kindle a lot more. I may be dropping money on books for the Kindle, but at least I’m not giving them space in my house.

    2. @Jamie- interesting question! How much is appropriate to spend on something you enjoy? I’m not sure quite how yarn works, is it possible to go for quality rather than quantity? You might have fun springing for something new that you’ve never let yourself get before. Especially if you have picked out a particular project in advance and are savoring the anticipation of making it…

      1. I think with something like knitting, it’s appropriate to spend what you want or can afford as long as the project has a use when you’re done. Knitting for charity means those dollars on yarn are really charity dollars you enjoy first. 🙂

        As for books, the public library and I are best friends. I realized long ago I rarely re-read books. My library even has e-Books now.

  4. First, I know I’m late saying this, but congrats on the new website and the new book. I will be buying your new book just because I found your first one so helpful. I love your angle on things (and I know I will indeed read it AND pass it along)!

    But this post made me laugh because I came to the same conclusion after being sucked in by one too many infomercials. (Nope, that new pilates machine won’t create the exercise habit for me!) Many people feel the purchase will be incentive to create the habit, but it’s just not true. At least not for me. I’ve sold so many “good intentions” at garage sales and on ebay, naturally for pennies on the dollar.

    I adopted the same philosophy about creating the habit first and it has saved me a bundle in money and space. (Of course, I still wish I DID take up the exercise. Maybe someday…) It’s a great way to not say no to your desires entirely with a “Okay, but first, show that you really will need/use it.”

    1. @Kelly- thanks so much, I’m thrilled you’ll be buying the book! I look forward to your feedback. And yes, many people have learned the expensive way that buying something will not, in and of itself, create the habit. On the other hand, the motivation of another *person* can overcome that hurdle. We don’t feel bad saying no to a thing, but when people pre-pay for, say, 10 personal training sessions at the gym, they’re more likely to show up. Perhaps that’s a subject for a different post.

  5. I took an interest in knitting a little over a year ago. I wanted to try it out without making a financial commitment, so I pulled chopsticks out of the drawer and some yarn that had been on a shelf for years and I perused youtube for instructional vidoes. I found that I loved knitting and it has now turned into a bit of a pricey hobby (high quality wool yarns and it turns out the old fashioned steel needles are best when you have small children who easily break bamboo and plastic needles). On the other hand, I have given several knitted Christmas gifts and six pairs of baby socks for friends having babies, donated eight pairs of baby socks to the church craft fair and a pair for each of my children which they loved and have now outgrown.

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