The Real Joy in Your Home Has Nothing to Do with Things

Casey Hynes — Up Close & Personal Finance

Recently, my partner and I have been considering moving to a new city, and the thought of packing up our home made me acutely aware of all of our stuff. Realizing how crowded each room had become, I wondered: How did we accumulate so many things?

I believe your buying history reflects your values, and after analyzing my credit card statements earlier this year, I’ve reined in my spending, becoming more conscientious of whether my purchases reflect who I know myself to be. I’ve been keeping my late-night drive-thru meals and summer romper online shopping sprees at bay, but do my surroundings also reflect my values?

Maybe that’s why I became so enthralled by Marie Kondo’s best-seller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. The book has received some backlash, in part due to Kondo’s penchant for vocally thanking her possessions and her militant policies on sock folding. But I embraced the book unabashedly, including the possession-thanking.

A core tenet of Magic is that every item in your home should “spark joy.” At first, I found this to be brilliant, actionable advice. I immediately gathered up all manner of miscellanea, earmarking it for donation if I wasn’t madly in love with it. I even vowed to dump out all the drawers in the house and de-clutter each, one by one, just as Marie (we’re on a first name basis in my mind) instructed.

In practice, however, I never really got past my closet, and those drawers stayed cluttered. Looking for joy is a good thought, but the bigger question I needed to address wasn’t whether something brings me joy, but why I have it at all.

Looking around at the tchotchkes and one-use kitchen tools I’d collected over the years, I realized that I’ve always had some low-key anxiety about how Pinterest-worthy my home was, wondering whether I’ve failed as a woman because it’s not cohesively decorated. Somewhere along the path to adulthood, I picked up this idea that it’s a woman’s duty to “make a nice home” and that includes having lots of nice things. I don’t fault people who invest in pieces of art or other decorative items for their homes. Those things are great if you’re buying them because it makes you happy or enriches your life. But I discovered an inner critic nudging me toward buying better coffee mugs, fancier cocktail sets, and furniture we couldn’t afford, because only when we had those things (and so, so much more) would I be a proper woman.

The patriarchal implications of this line of thinking aren’t lost on me. If you asked me whether I believe a woman’s interior decorating skills are a reflection on who she is as a person and a partner, I would emphatically say no. But my behavior belied that conviction.

As I’ve found so many times before, the real answer to “Why do I own this?” isn’t always “Because I want it” or “Because it will help me.” More than a few items in my house were reactionary purchases driven by fear of judgement. Take the 29 picture frames in my office. I live far from my family and most of my friends, so it’s nice to walk into the room and be surrounded by their smiling faces, but that’s not why I bought the frames. I stocked up before having visitors once because I told myself, that’s what people have in their houses. This is what people do.

After seeing me agonize for days over which photos to put in the frames—I spent a lot of money just having prints made, because I needed several options for each one—my partner gently asked if my worry was actually stemming from trying to prove something about our life. He was right. I enjoyed the pictures, but I wasn’t really putting them up for me. I worried our visitors would think we weren’t mature, capable, “real” adults without those picture frames. It seems silly now, but there it is. I spent $80 I didn’t have on frames I didn’t need so people wouldn’t draw negative conclusions about my life. That realization made me wonder how much of my other clutter was driven by similar impulses.

When we first moved in, I had been living abroad for almost five years; the last two of those out of a backpack. Furnishing a living space again felt so alien I asked myself: What did we have in my parents’ house growing up? What did my friends have? What do normal people put in their homes?

Because I was borderline broke when I landed back in the U.S., I tried to replicate these standards by purchasing cheap items I didn’t even like at garage sales and thrift stores. We had to have a mirror, we needed these candle holders, to live without wine glasses was unthinkable (I still stand by that one). I had internalized these notions about what we had to have, regardless of what we could afford.

Fortunately, realizing all of this has given me a chance to reflect on what truly matters to me. Right now, decorating our house isn’t a priority. And that’s not something I should apologize for or feel guilty about.  I’m fine with the fact that the only pieces of art on our walls are the souvenirs I brought home from “wine and paint” nights and a portrait painted by my younger sister, who has actual artistic talent. It’s OK that our couches don’t match and our living room lacks a single accent piece, because it doesn’t matter right now, I’m more focused on building wealth, not things. Even if we took down all the photos of us tomorrow, my relationship with my partner wouldn’t change. Stressing out over what people will think about our lives based on what our house looks like is a waste of time.

It’s painful and a little embarrassing to realize you’ve been shopping—and living—on autopilot, driven by fear of other people’s perceptions, but awareness is half the battle. And that awareness has been liberating. I’m grateful, because now I know everything I want in my home is already there.