Monday, January 11, 2016

How would I solve this problem if I couldn't buy a solution?


Often I find myself shopping for the perfect item to solve a "problem." I put problem in quotes because the problems are usually ridiculously tiny and low-stakes.


  • The flats I usually wear at work are pinstriped, and I usually wear striped socks, and they clash and look weird.
  • I don't have enough window space for my plants. I need a way to hold up all my plants under the window.
  • The cloth is wearing away on the outside of my cloth wallet, and you can see the interfacing underneath. It still works, but it looks shabby and I'm afraid it will fall apart.


My first thought to solve all these problems is to buy something.


  • Buy new shoes and/or new socks. Buy both!
  • Buy a multi-tiered plant stand.
  • Buy a new wallet.


Sometimes I don't even think of these problems until I see a potential solution for sale.


  • All our forks look the same. We don't know whose fork is whose, the way we have individual mugs that we each know "That's Bagel's mug" or "That's Croissant's mug." Of course we don't take as much responsibility for cleaning our own forks! (When I saw a set of forks with brightly colored handles).


When it comes to problems I didn't know I had until you saw the solution, it's often best to take a beat and see if the problem is really a problem in my life. Put the solution on my Buy With Intention list and see if I still want it in a month or so. Usually I don't. In a cool mood, not a hot dopamine-induced stuff-desire mood, I'll often realize that I don't really have the problem or I don't mind it enough to solve it. Occasionally a product has legitimately solved a problem I didn't know I had until I saw the much better solution; I mean, my cast iron pan was a solution to a problem I didn't know I had, or at least didn't know I had any alternative to (non-stick pans that aren't really non-stick and need to be thrown out every couple of years). More often, though, creating a problem and then solving the problem is a well-worn advertising trick (are you tired of making toast like THIS? *bam* *clonk* *aaaauuuugh!*)


For "real" problems/non-problems, things I thought of before I saw the solution, it's still a good idea to take a beat, and think about other possible solutions to the problem--solutions that don't involve buying something. Maybe there's something I already have that I could use more often, in more situations. Maybe there's something I could repurpose. Maybe there's something I could upcycle, modify, or build.


Because I have been born and raised in capitalism, "buy something" is always my first thought and usually my last thought since it's easy to do and so, so enticing. But taking a moment to brainstorm alternative solutions, "What would I do if I couldn't buy my way out of this problem," is a good exercise. It makes me feel like I have other options besides "having to" buy something. It's more fun and fruitful than simply getting draconian and telling myself, "No. This is not a real problem, just live with it." And it's creative! It gets the ol' ingenuity muscles going. It's practice in "making do," practice which, as a person who rarely has to "make do," I sorely need.


Here are my alternate solutions to the problems above:


  • I got as far as having made the shoe and sock order before I realized I already have a pair of great ankle boots that kick up any work outfit a notch (and don't show socks!), and I don't wear them enough. I hadn't thought of them as "keep at work" shoes because they're so comfortable to walk in that I can use them for commuting, as well, but I still prefer and default to using my sneakers for commuting, I think my ankle boots will get more use at work. And if I remove the too-casual stripey flats, I'll default to wearing nice instead of goofy shoes on a daily basis. I canceled the shoe and sock order.

    As a person who's trying to minimize, it's extra important to me to find more uses for the things I already own which I don't want to give up, so repurposing something I already have (and love) instead of buying something new is a double win. As a person who's trying to minimize, it's extra important to me to find more uses for the things I already own which I don't want to give up, so repurposing something I already have (and love) instead of buying something new is a double win.
  • I also got as far as having purchased shelves for under my window for my plants before I realized that I don't use my desk nearly as often since I don't work from home on a regular basis, so I can just move my desk under the window and cover it with plants. The seller canceled the shelf order for unrelated reasons, which was kind of a relief.
  • I shopped for a new wallet for hours, not finding anything I liked, before I just up and covered my existing wallet with patterned duct tape, like a high school kid. Now it's super-durable.


Next time you find yourself shopping, go through this thought process:


  • What problem am I looking to solve?
  • Do I already own something that could solve this problem?
  • What would I do if I couldn't buy a solution to this problem?
  • Is there anything I could reuse, repurpose, modify, make, or build to solve the problem?
  • Could I borrow or share a solution with someone else?
  • Could I swap, buy secondhand, or rent a solution?

Even if the ideas you brainstorm are ultimately not useful and you end up buying something anyway, it's still fun to go through the process and take those making-do muscles for a jog.

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