In with the Old and Out with the New - Shopping and the Search for Perfection

What are you really looking for when you shop?

Shiny, upmarket boutiques and department stores drag us away from the imperfections of life, promising an eternal present where things never get lost, get old, wear out or break down. 

Their gleaming surfaces and stark cream walls offer a tantalising backdrop from which to ogle an array of items that are pristine – never used, unmarked, tags still on.

When we enter a retail temple we succumb to the illusion that the goods it displays are a kind of virgin territory waiting to be discovered – by us. It’s as if they appeared on the designer shelves fully formed. The seductive store fit-outs urge us to forget about the source of their manufacture. And they beg us to believe that we too can be renewed, and our very lives made over, by this pure, unsullied world.

When we shop, there’s often something in particular we need to buy – something practical. No matter how frugal we are, shoes wear out, jeans tear, gadgets take early retirement, fridges break down. Sometimes buying something new is a necessity, not a hobby or leisure activity. But there are many reasons for our buying that have nothing to do with practical considerations.

A common reason we go out on the hunt is that we’re really seeking something new. One reason why we crave new things is that we're searching for an elusive perfection that's missing from our own lives.

I was backing my car out of the drive and noticed just how untidy the front garden was looking. The art deco style unit I rent is over 70 years old and the outside walls, which are cream-coloured and roughly rendered, are cracked following Melbourne’s recent ten-year drought. The weather has been too miserable for me to garden – well, too miserable for my version of gardening, which basically consists of weeding – and the front yard really needed a mini-makeover.

Easier, of course, to go to the mall and buy something shiny and new.

The same goes for my car, a little emerald green Toyota Starlet. It’s now well over ten years old and is beginning to show its age. There is some loss of colour on the roof, and plenty of scratches. Yet there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it. Once a year it gets a service. The mechanics charge like wounded bulls but are finicky to a fault – the sort of mechanics who change the spark plugs regularly. I would love to buy a new secondhand car, a little Echo or Yaris, and I could afford one. But there is absolutely no justification beyond the look of the car, and the need for something that is less worn and in better condition that my trusty Starlet.

Many of us have been taught from an early age that it’s worthwhile to seek perfection, and that if we try hard enough we can attain it. Yet in our lives, so many things are unfinished, unresolved, worn, imperfect. Our relationships and jobs are imperfect. We home in on our physical ‘imperfections’. The problems of the world remain unresolved and seem to get more serious by the day. We are chronically imperfect beings living in a chronically imperfect world.

Clinging to the ideal of perfection can sometimes affect our ability to make good choices – choices that are right for us – when we do have to buy something.

Below are some pointers for combatting the need for perfection that sometimes drives us to buy, and can also adversely affect how we buy.

1. Give your existing possessions some TLC. Think of making your things and environment better rather than perfect. Polish your shoes and boots, reorganise your cupboards and drawers, handwash your sweaters, get your mending up to date or do some handyperson tasks around the house. This kind of self-maintenance can be extremely rewarding – it makes you feel looked after and makes your things seem newer and more valuable. You’ll gain an appreciation of what you already have, and how it is serving you, and you’ll have less need to seek the new. I know that when I get around to weeding my front yard the cracked walls won't bother me as much. I always feel much better about my Starlet when I’ve lavished some attention on it – taken it to the carwash, vacuumed the seats and carpet, polished the windows.

2. Celebrate and highlight the worn and used aspects of possessions. Old can mean full of character, lived in, loved. Part of the frugal and thrifty movement is to play up and enhance the ‘old’ aspects of objects. We already do this for some things – jeans come to us prefaded, and some homewares stores proudly display their ‘shabby chic’ furniture. Repurposing, such as stacking old trunks to make a table, is now a craze. I’ve already placed plants in large terracotta pots against the cracked outer walls of my unit to create an olde worlde look, and I intend to add more, working around the cracks rather than trying to hide them.

3. Hide an imperfection you can’t easily live with. There are some imperfections that are simply irritating rather than endearing. We’re visual creatures, and it’s easy to forget what isn’t in front of our eyes. Cover up a mangy carpet with a bright rug. Cover the fading on a piece of upholstered furniture with an attractive throw. You may sometimes have to buy something new (or secondhand) to do this, but at least you’re dealing with the imperfection rather than blindly buying something unrelated in a bid to ignore it, or spending thousands on new fittings or furniture. This is especially worthwhile if you’re renting your home and can’t make significant changes to the decor.

4. Replace the concept of ‘perfect’ with ‘right’. This goes for all areas of life as well as objects – partners, friends, work, home, and even suburb. Instead of thinking about things as not being perfect, ask yourself whether they are in fact right for you at this time. Of course, not everything will be – when something isn’t right, making changes is not just worthwhile but vital. But when we’re measuring the things we have – both materially and otherwise – why not try to replace the measure of perfection that we often have in our minds with the measure of rightness?

Until next time!

If you enjoyed this post, you might like Inspired Thrifting: What Makes a Good Find at the Op Shop or Thrift Store?
(Picture courtesy of oh my goods!)

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