“That’s so cool. That’s awesome!” an irritating squeaky voice kept repeating. She looked no more than six, her cell phone glued to her ear.
I stood behind her, waiting my turn in the “15 items or less” check-out line, still on a high from all the choices of breads, cereals and vegetables at my local grocery store. My family and I had just returned from our year on Ambergris Caye, an island with only 11,000 people in the Caribbean. We were lucky when Superbuy carried fresh milk, and in heaven when we found ice cream. Our choice of bread was white, or white with brown food coloring. Writing a shopping list became pointless. In Belize, the store ruled, and the customer learned to appreciate what they offered.
Back in California, I felt like a kid in a candy store. So many choices, too many in fact that my head was spinning. I’d smile at people and they’d quickly turn their head sideways to avoid eye contact. Many treated me as some kind of weirdo, because I did things differently. I would take my time and get out of their way when they pushed their shopping carts like NASCAR drivers. I would let them get in front of me in line. Men, women, even children looked tired and stressed out. No one seemed to understand how lucky they were to live in a country with everything you could possibly want and need.
“No hay!” the Spanish phrase for “there is no” became a daily phrase which my kids and I learned to accept without getting flustered. If they don’t have beef, we’ll eat chicken. If they don’t have lettuce, we’ll go without. Imagine the outrage of people in a U.S. supermarket if they were told, “No fresh milk today. Maybe next week. No hay!”
“That’s awesome! The blond, skinny, six-year-old repeated for the twentieth time on her cell phone. With small feet inside a pair of glittery high-heeled sandals, a baby-size Luis Vuitton purse, and her cell phone still glued to her ear, she reminded me of a mini Paris Hilton. Her mother glowed in admiration of her daughter’s pretentious mannerisms. She would glance around to see if others paid attention to her “cute” daughter.
I wrote this in my journal in 2006, and now realize I’ve changed. It’s easy to start taking things for granted when you live in a society of abundance. Now I allow myself to buy a pair of earrings or a top, more out of a want than a need, however, the guilt stays with me.
So when I shop, I make sure to ask myself, “Is this a want or a need?” And we all know the answer to that.
I made a list of how Belize has influenced my daily life:
- I turn off the faucet in between brushing my teeth and rinsing.
- I use paper towels sparingly; never to dry my hands at home though.
- I only use paper plates when we have more guests than I have plates.
- I use Ziplocs over and over.
- I turn off the lights whenever I leave a room.
- I always close the fridge door as soon as possible.
- I never turn on the air-conditioning until it becomes unbearable.
- I always bring my own bags to the grocery store, even Costco.
The satisfaction of enough, is something that I think about whenever I’m tempted to buy a want rather than a need. What about you?
Blogs I follow that help me re-focus on a simple life:
Leo Babauta from Zen Habits, has many ideas on living a more frugal lifestyle.
Lori from Groovygreenliving, offers tips to simplify life, and not waste.
I lived in China for three years and existed on rice and chili peppers… Although I take many things for granted that experience has formed my behaviour and thoughts since.
The choice of stuff in Sweden is fairly limited and I hardly ever shop because I don't like it… so when I go home to the UK, the HUGE variety of choices at a supermarket just put me in a spin…
I learned frugality growing up, Sonia. In addition to all the items you outlined above, I save butter wrappers to use to grease cookie sheets or casserole dishes. I almost never throw any food away. I walk or bike whenever possible. We drive a hybrid vehicle. I minimize electric heat and cooling as much as I can stand. I too have lived in developing countries, and it has helped me not to waste.
I'm cutting sodas from my diet and try not to use bottled water, also.
I heard a great phrase in a movie recently: "Simple isn't easy." That is so true. Being mindful of what we use and dispose of is difficult in our world. I envy your experience in a situation where you were forced to adjust, and found it was both doable and logical.
When my wife and I travel to another country we do our best to live like the natives. We attempt to match their daily patterns of shopping, eating, and relaxing. We avoid tourist-oriented restaurants and tours aimed at foreigners. We attempt to match their dress and behavior in public. The end result is we are much more fugal and less wasteful than at home.
After a few days we actually feel comfortable and not out of place. It makes the visit so much more meaningful. I always come home with a new dedication to simplify.
During our first couple of years in France we were living off savings and had to watch every centime. We'd never been extravagant but we certainly learned how to prioritise! It's done us nothing but good. You are so right about the difference between 'want' and 'need' – they're not the same thing at all.
Living in another country really makes you appreciate things. I went to a whole foods store for the first time recently and couldnt believe it. Although it was beautiful it made me sad to think about how much we have in the USA and how little others do..Although I wish we had a whole foods where I live, I think its more fun to visit the places that do have them and enjoy it as a special treat. You appreciate things more when they are limited to you..BTW when I got back from living abroad I felt like Robin Williams in Coming to America. Remember he has a heart attack in the grocery store when he sees all the things to buy??
Robert the Skeptic says
I recall a story about a graduate student here in Oregon back in the 70's. He was able to arrange for his father to visit from one of the Eastern Bloc countries under Soviet control.
The old gentleman did not believe the fully stocked shelves at the grocery store, he thought it was "fake", all for show, noting how stock clerks would replenish the shelves routinely.
I also heard of a rumor of a Soviet ambassador's spouse being so overwhelmed and stressed by the choices in stores in the US that she returned home to the USSR without her diplomat husband.
[These stories were told to me second-hand, I cannot vouch for their accuracy.]
Antares Cryptos says
The advantage of having lived in several countries is that I really learned to appreciate that more is not more.
The want is there, I learned to control it, it's as simple as do I really want this or has it just been marketed well?
Even the Dalai Lama said that when he walks into stores on visits, he "wants".:)
Ballerina Girl says
Interesting post…and how I have adapted also.
Living overseas..it really changes you.
I remember the first time we went back to the US from living in Venezuela. We rented a car in Miami because we had so many hours layover. So, we went to the grocery store for some snacks…and my kids just stopped and stared at all the different types of yogurt! They "Wow, Mom, they have so many different flavors!"
Very telling…I also remember on that trip how I felt overwhelmed by the choices…almsot that too much choice is exactly that..too much!
That is a very fine line to walk on, though…because I certainly miss many "things" I want, as you say!
The US does not realize what choice is…sorry if I offend someone with this statement, but this is how I feel. And I am a proud American, just amazed at how much our society comes to trust that…"it will be there"
I thought there were many choices in Sweden, like Denmark. When I visited Copenhagen in January, I found so many gourmet foods at the grocery store. I loved the special "Home-made" taste of foods, rather than the mass-produced stuff.Perhaps you live in a rural area? I should have asked you after these years of being in touch.
I do the same with butter wrappers, and thought most people did that. Am I wrong? I know you've experienced life in different countries and I find that it makes all of us realize how much we waste in the U.S.
Peter H says
What you are doing should be no big deal……to anyone. The savings from the 'careful" attitude are then available for other needs; some of which might be real needs….if you are short of $$, or special needs / or a splurge. Some of the 'savings" might also be helping save the planet too.
The attitude of'being careful" is one I would think that all of our parents espoused.
It is true that too much choice is not necessarily a good thing, as many studies have shown.
And I abhor the "overdone" young children attitude shown by some…..absolutely crass, and leading many of the kids into unnecessary pathways of "over wanting stuff". Ugh! Ugh!
I often think about the abundance when I am in a grocery store and I wonder about our culture when I hear someone complaining about some small thing they can't get.
Phivos Nicolaides says
As it is said "Simply a Better You"!
Thanks for a great post and informative blog. I am also trying to become more aware of the difference between wants and needs and the impact of my actions on the environment. So much stuff that seems important at the time just turns to clutter after a while.
I think that's a great idea to adapt to the county's ways as much as possible, when you're a tourist.
I did not realize that you were living that way in France for the first few years. We also had to live off our savings in Belize.
Where did you live abroad? I agree, the sense of things being a special treat, when you haven't had them is amazing.
I can imagine that old man and his reaction. Even my dad, who lives in Paris, thought our fruit looked fake.
Interesting comment by the Dalai Lama. Which countries did you live in?
You bring up a very good point about all of our choices here and trusting that "it will always be there."
I would be interested in reading one of the studies you mentioned about, "too much choice is not necessarily a good thing, as many studies have shown."
Yes, quite strange when we feel "entitled" to everything whenever we want it.
Welcome and thanks for your comment and visit. You're right about "wants" turning into clutter later.
I can turn things on a dime if I have to but even when there is an abundance I'm careful to take care of things and conserve. We have been given this Earth and God requires us to be good stewards.
It's so sad that we have become such a throwaway society.
God bless and have a super day!
BTW: Happy Easter Giveaway…my place…ya'll come! :o)
Expat with Kids says
Well, your post fits right in with EARTH DAY tomorrow. I agree, not until you lived a reality where consumers don't rule the world do you understand and appreciate the choice we have in our "modern" countries. Having said that even in Italy or Spain out-of-stocks happen regularly. So, Carpe Diem, take what you are offered and be grateful for what you have. A tough lesson to teach kids in our times!
my husband and i drive cars that are almost 15 years old, and i reuse ziplock bags an even paper towels – yes, paper towels! we live in a throw away society and i'm hoping that all this earth day consciousness going around lately will rub off on our younger folks.
great post, sonia.
I’m sorry about missing this post in the spring. (You posted it when we were moving house.)
Interestingly, I wrote something on one of my blogs a while ago about “enough.” It seems to be a lost concept these days, when the focus is on “more, more, more.”
I think we use less that a roll of paper towel in a month. The last time we used a lot was when we were moving; we’ve still got lots left over from when we unpacked. I guess we’re petty close to you on most of the items you mentioned.
Enough is enough.
Gutsy Writer says
How nice of you to come back and comment on an older post. Sounds like you know how to live with needs rather than wants.