Sometime last year, I decided to start using up what I have.
It wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, but instead more like an intention: If I had something at home, I aimed to use it up before buying something new.
Now, I know this isn’t a novel concept. In fact, I was raised with this approach to life – partly out of my family’s frugality, and partly because my parents were of the “waste not, want not” mindset. In our house of three, we always used what we had. I used empty spools of thread to form the wheels on a toy car I made from an old box, I wore my clothes until I outgrew them or just plain wore them out, and we rarely had more than one type of cereal at a time, usually finishing that one box before purchasing a new one.
But sometime between childhood and middleagehood, I began to accumulate more than I could consume. One day, I looked up and was awash in tiny bottles of travel-size toiletries, miniature dental floss containers from the dentist, and other small items that were easy to forget about. Our refrigerator had also become crowded with forgotten leftovers and produce bags with softening fruit that had long slipped our minds.
It felt wrong. To have so many things – and to seek the accumulation of more – made me uneasy in a country where households account for nearly 40% of food waste and 39 million Americans go hungry. It also felt wrong to have what felt like a million half-full plastic bottles in my bathroom – plastic that would still be around centuries from now because I was bored one day in Sephora and wanted to try a new miracle cream.
So, I started to throw out less and use what I have. When I did, I noticed a few things.
For one thing, I have an unholy amount of unused products knocking around my bathroom. There was that sample mascara I got but never used, the other mascara that I had forgotten about because it was in the pocket of a purse I had also forgotten about, and the mascara I bought to replace the lost-but-not-really-lost mascara. There was the face oil that Instagram convinced me would make me glow like a dewy flower at dawn, but that instead formed a constellation of acne on my cheeks. There were the multiple bottles of sunscreens that failed to protect my skin from the elements without also giving me some gnarly breakouts.
Instead of throwing out these items, I repurposed them. I realized my multiple mascaras could also tame my eyebrows, which prevented me from buying a tube of brow gel that would likely end up in the back of a cabinet somewhere. I found that the face oil was terrible for my face, but great as a post-shave moisturizer. And the sunscreen that was bad for my face worked perfectly fine on my neck and décolleté. Slowly, the number of bottles in my possession began to dwindle.
Seeing all these partially used artifacts, I had to get real with myself. I took a frank walk down memory lane. Most humbling has been seeing the gear for the projects I began optimistically, but lost interest in. As I picked up a giant bag of raw shea butter and box of small glass jars, I reminisced on my ambitious plan of making my own whipped shea butter. As I pondered a three-quarters-full box of panko breadcrumbs in my pantry, I remembered my short-lived plan to make from-scratch chicken tenders more regularly for the kids. And as I stumbled upon a bronzer I bought to contour my face for Zoom meetings, I thought of the 2021 version of myself who was deluded into thinking that I would, despite all evidence to the contrary, become a person with the desire and discipline to contour my face every day.
I admitted that there are some things I will never, ever use. Two tubes of barely used lipstick forced me to admit that I have never, not once, finished a tube of lipstick and there is no reason to believe that I ever will. A nearly-full container of green juice powder in the pantry helped me come to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never be a powdered-juice-in-the-morning person because green juice powder is an affront to my taste buds and my digestive system.
I began to think twice before buying something. I try to make sure I have a plan for an item before adding it to my cart. I ask myself, What are my plans for that jar of tahini and that bag of basil beyond the one recipe I’m buying them for? Do I really need another box of tea, or can I just enjoy the many teas that are at home, waiting patiently to be steeped and enjoyed? Yes, that cute sweater is on sale, but don’t I already have enough sweaters for a Texas winter?
Using more of what I have and interrogating new purchases has made my appetite for new items a little less voracious. I don’t feel as great a need to possess everything that sparks joy, and I have less of a belief that new clothes, new recipes, or new cosmetics will magically change me into the person I want to be. Only I can do that.
When I do purchase things, I can focus more on items that I know I’ll love and use: a great-fitting pair of trousers, new art to hang on a blank wall, cozy socks, delicious (gluten-free) cookies, or a lovely smelling candle. This makes it easier to say “no” to product samples, impulse buying, and retail therapy.
I’ve gotten more creative, too. I used Trader Joe’s holiday-themed shopping bags to wrap Christmas gifts and threw a dusty – but not expired – can of green beans into vegetable soup, popped a fried egg on top of some leftover rice and basil for a mid-morning meal, and used the flaps of an old cardboard box to wrap up Christmas garlands for storage.
Of course, plenty still makes its way to the garbage bin, and I’m still working my way through the many items I haven’t used up yet. I thought I was doing pretty great until I realized this morning that I have at least four jars of body butters, none of which are anywhere close to being empty, that there’s a serving of scrambled tofu that will end up in today’s trash because I forgot to gobble it up last week, and that I still have a plastic bag full of plastic bags because I always forget to bring reusable ones to the store.
But I’m getting there. Slowly, but surely, I’m starting to use up more of what I have.
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