Thrifting and Decluttering - Are They Compatible?

As Buy Nothing Day approaches, it’s time to look at two movements that both aim to change consumer shopping habits but seem diametrically opposed.

Out of the ashes of the GFC and the continuing economic malaise have risen two huge consumer movements that are now burgeoning – simple living and thrifting. They’re part of what is being dubbed ‘the new economy’ – a wholistic approach to the acquiring and exchanging of goods that involves cooperation, community building, and a commitment to both environmental sustainability and workers’ rights.

Yet despite their common provenance, these two movements can sometimes seem at odds. While one is about shedding unnecessary goods and opting for minimalism and simplicity, the other is focused on the excitement and money-saving benefits of hunting out secondhand bargains. Can they be reconciled?

Simple living and decluttering

Simple living is about simplifying one’s lifestyle and is sometimes linked to sustainability. It has been advocated for centuries and was popularised by Thoreau as far back as 1854. Its modern incarnation is partly a reaction to the excessive materialism that the manufacturing boom and easy access to credit brought about in the nineties and noughties.

In fact, some of us have so much junk that we are living in bigger houses than we need to partly to accommodate it. A UK survey reported in 2010 found that The amount of rarely used items owned by an average Briton has doubled in the past three decades to fill 3,370 cubic feet’. The survey found that all that unnecessary clutter was typically taking up an area worth over £70,000.

As a response to this, a key aspect of simple living is getting rid of excess goods – junk that is not only useless, but actually impedes quality of life because it takes up space, time and energy. This is achieved through the process of decluttering. The aim is to acquire only those things that have lasting value. This has led to the idea of domestic downsizing – moving to a smaller house or apartment while shedding the unwanted goods.

But decluttering isn’t against consumerism per se. Rather, it’s about ensuring that the goods we acquire for pleasure actually improve our lives rather than complicating them. The unclutterer website stresses that:

Living beyond one’s basic needs becomes a problem only when the accumulation of property becomes a source of stress rather than enjoyment ... finding balance is difficult for many because purchasing and accumulating can be effortless, while planning ahead and organizing takes effort.

The rise of thrifting

Thrifting, like decluttering, is hardly new – for our ancestors who lived during the two world wars and the Great Depression, making the most of secondhand goods was an absolute necessity. But the recession has led to a thrift store boom.

Not only that, but thrifting has been transformed for good (and for the better) by a combination of the internet and the rise of sustainable fashion. Fashion savvy, ethically minded young (and not so young) women have embraced traditional craft skills, refashioning and upcycling their thrift store finds, whether they’re taking the sleeves off a dress and adding a piece of black lace to the neck, shabby chic-ing a desk or cabinet, or turning a tablecloth into a gorgeous retro apron. Then, true to Gen Y imperatives, they share information about their upcycling through blogs and Twitter.

And while there will always be a place for serendipity in thrifting, there’s been an internet-inspired explosion in information about it. Not only guides on how to do it (some of the information incredibly specific), but where to go and, as mentioned above, what to do with the stuff once you’ve got it.

What powers thrifting, then, is often quite different from the force behind decluttering. For the crafty, thrifting is inspired by creativity, and for the ethically minded, it’s a greener, kinder alternative to buying new. But what also drives it is the desire to find a bargain – a desire that seems hardwired into the human brain.

A 2010 study found that the level of excitement that shoppers feel when they are faced with special offers is the same as they feel from sexual arousal. Apparently bargains give our brains the same level of excitement they get from sex.

Since the recession, shoppers have become more determined and ruthlessly efficient when hunting out special deals. According to Pat Conroy, vice chairman of Deloitte LLP, shoppers treat finding a special deal as a game they play with stores and brands, in which they emerge the winners. 

While he’s referring to consumers buying new products, the sense of shopping as a game is also often present in the comments of those who share their thrifted finds on Twitter.

Reconciling thrifting and decluttering

But the thrill of thrift-store bargain hunting may lead to pitfalls. Because thrifting is so cheap and there are so many bargains available, frequent thrifting could be a recipe for recluttering. How to reconcile the message of simplicity with the joy of finding a bargain?

Beth Dargis, who teaches groups and individuals skills in simple living and runs the My Simpler Life website, understands why thrifting is so popular. ‘It’s wonderful in that you can get things more inexpensively,’ she says. ‘Things with character and a history. Plus, people aren’t buying new things that cost money and environmental resources to generate.’

But she agrees that ‘Thrifting can be dangerous if it becomes “the thrill of the hunt”.

‘If you buy things you don’t need because it’s a fantastic deal and you feel like you made a grand bargain, thrifting may need to be put on hold for a bit.

‘It’s also a trap for people that like to collect things. Some people have so many collections there is no place to live in the house.’

Beth suggests that dedicated collectors could set an upper limit on the size of their collections, ‘and when you reach it, one piece of the collection needs to go before getting any more.’

She gives the following advice on avoiding cluttering up the house with thrifted goods you don’t need. (This advice is equally applicable to buying new goods.)
Notice what you are buying for. How are you feeling emotionally when you buy something? Is it to make you feel better, more accepted, or to give you that shopper’s high? Or is it really useful? For it to be useful you need to ask these questions before buying:
1. Where will I put it?
2. Do I have the money to buy it right now?
3. Do I already have something else that works?
4. How many times a year will I use it?
Thrifty minimalists, unite!

It seems important, then, to apply the same skills to buying used goods as we increasingly do to buying new ones. There’s bound to be a raft of bargains when we go to the thrift store, and there’s simply no need to snap up every bargain we find. Some bargains really are meant for other people.

And of course, there are plenty of way to get rid of excess goods, thrifted or not, as long as they’re in decent condition – selling them on Etsy and eBay, donating them to a thrift store, or giving them away on websites such as Ziilch or through the freecycling community.

So yes, it’s possible to be a thrifty declutterer and a minimalist thrifter – it just takes a wee bit of knowledge, a soupcon of willpower, a dash of intuition, and a dose of shopping savvy!

Until next time!

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