When I was engaged, my mother enjoyed telling me about how she and Dad first started out: Army quarters, velvet paintings and a souvenir sombrero on the walls, and termite-ridden rented furniture. And while I grinned and filed her stories somewhere in the back of my mind, she was really getting at something priceless: Stuff doesn’t equal happiness. When we bought our first home, I would realize how right she was.
Our place is a modest house, in a modest neighborhood—not new or impressive, but just perfect for starting out together. Too soon after signing the mortgage papers, I felt the Stuff Monster starting to rear its ugly head as I surveyed the used carpet, the smallish backyard, the dented linoleum. Wouldn’t it be nice if . . . ? easily translates to so-and-so has such-and-such.
Stepping back from the “immediate upgrade” mentality took asking the question, “What really fuels our happiness?” As we held hands and looked around us, we knew that we were happy. We had God’s acceptance and grace, we had each other, and the chance to make a Home. And in order to make a home within our means, we willingly embraced the idea of stages. Here’s how we started out:
Stage One: Clean what you have. We had this linoleum that was a little beat up: lifting at the edges, scuffed in places. Right away, we started pricing tile and wondering what would happen if we tried to lay it ourselves. But on closer inspection, we saw that yes, the linoleum was old, but it was mostly just dirty. It probably hadn’t been scrubbed and sealed since the house was built ten or so years ago. It was so satisfying to see the amazing results of the clean linoleum that we just filled in the cracks with whiteout and put floor replacement in the “after-we-pay-off-the-mortage” category.
Stage Two: Start with a mock-up. After putting a fresh coat of cheerful light yellow paint in the living room, I started to look at reusing the frames we already owned to decorate the living room walls. After cutting new matts, painting frames, and putting in new art and pictures, I still had one largish, blank wall to conquer. What would go perfectly would be two large frames. The problem was that I wanted to make sure I was getting the perfect frames for the best value. So until I find them, I created a mock-up—an early version of the finished product. I started by wrapping two large poster boards in dark brown paper. Then I printed out six 8 x 10 pictures I had taken and layered them with 12 x 12 paper on the boards. Now, at very little cost and for little effort, I can see what two big frames would look like on that wall. I really like the effect so well my upgrade might be to nicer paper instead of to glass and wood!
Stage Three: Give yourself the time to recognize a true need or desire before plunging ahead with a purchase. Doing this really has made buying what I want all that much more enjoyable. For example, my photography-loving friends have been touting huge cameras for years and by 2008, the bug had bitten me too. I really wanted to take good pictures. So, embarrassing as it seemed, I started keeping David’s little Canon Powershot within arm’s reach at all times. And after a year’s time and having read the manual and exhausted my spectrum of settings, I was convinced that I was ready for the next step. I had gotten all the good out of what I had and knew that a better camera with more powerful settings was what I really wanted. So I did my research and bought a refurbished Nikon D40 from Newegg.com and haven’t looked back. That camera is well-loved and well-used, because by the time I bought it I knew I really wanted it.
What I’ve described is not the only good way of doing things. My slow, analytical method is natural to me and lots of other people have plenty of good approaches when it comes to taming the Stuff Monster. But this idea of embracing stages has been good for us. While it may not involve any velvet paintings or sombreros, Mom, I think you’d be proud.