What We Buy: Purposeful or Passing Time?

October brings the return of city camping, and Lane fell asleep outside in a blanket tent on our fourth floor balcony every night for a week with the sounds of people walking outside and traffic in the background. (We brought her inside after she went to sleep.) She saw the moon and the star. Yes, just one star, which is all we can see where we live. I want to take her some place where she can see what the sky really looks like.

Since Doug decided to take a year off, it opened up a multitude of possibilities for the coming year. I’ve felt like I am writing my own story and anything can happen.

Knowing we are giving up our apartment so we can travel for the year, I’ve tried not to buy anything that we won’t take with us.

I’ve tried not to buy clothes knowing we’ll want to pack light. For the past year I’ve been trying to buy fewer clothes anyway, realizing the number of clothes I own is based more on habit than practicality.

Since we’re reluctant to eat out to take care of food allergies, there aren’t many places for us to go eat or shop. It’s felt like No Spend Month if it hadn’t been for the baby backpack carrier I bought for our trip and the several bags of Kettle chips we’ve eaten lately.

Last week I picked up the book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years* by Donald Miller. When two cinematographers want to create a movie based on his memoir, they decide his real life is too boring, so he sets out to edit his life to create a better story: “A character who overcomes conflict to get what he wants.”

Just when I was feeling like it was odd to not buy things for our home, I turned to page 121:

Last year, I had to go through all twelve months of my bank statements and highlight anything I could write off. At first I started the assignment sort of excited, because I thought I might save money on my taxes. As I highlighted potential business write-offs, however, I began to realize the stuff I spent money on indicated the stories I was living. By that I mean the stuff I spent money on was, in many ways, the sum of my ambitions. And those ambitions weren’t the stuff of good stories.

I actually bought a Roomba vacuum cleaner, for example. I highlighted that line on my statement and then looked over at it sitting in the corner of the room. I’m not sure why I thought I needed a Roomba, but apparently I had nothing going on that day. I think I turned it on a couple of times just to see how it worked, and after that I forgot about it and used a broom. I’d bought a new truck that year, and I’d moved from a house to a much nicer condo. Nothing against a nice condo, but I privately wondered whether I was a protagonist telling an exciting story who happened to live in a nice condo, or whether I was a protagonist telling a boring story about trying to pay off his nice condo. Looking over my bank statements, I feared the latter might be true.

Most of the things I buy are not glamorous or exciting. Toilet paper, for instance. I don’t think that every purchase needs to signify deep meaning, and my duties during the day are not going to land me in a movie, but this chapter did remind me about what I spend my time and my thoughts pursuing. While I want our home to be comfortable, I don’t want to go shopping to fill the time and pursue additional comfort while missing something better. I’ll just enjoy what I have here for now.

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About Rachel

I write about practical tips that will help you simplify at home. Connect with me on Pinterest and Twitter.


  1. You have such a wonderful opportunity here to bond with your family and see the world. I come from New Orleans, and after Katrina our house filled with 12 feet of water. Like thousands, we had no home for many months, but instead of trying to imitate our regular lives in some other city, we seized the opportunity and toured the Eastern half of the US first, visiting our generous friends along the way, and then headed to Germany, where my brother had recently moved and had a spare bedroom in a small village farmhouse.

    We were gone from New Orleans for about 10 weeks, and it really changed our lives. Our family bonded, our kids (3 and 6 then) got more of an education than they ever would have in kindergarten or preschool, and we saw the world from a different perspective. It was difficult, financially, but my husband never would have voluntarily taken 10 weeks away from his work to travel with his family. He is an eternal optimist, and knew we were doing what was best for our family in the long run. We have never regretted it! Good luck with your adventures!

    Catherine´s last post…Next Tuesday

  2. I have some spending problems – I have looked through things I’ve bought and wondered why I felt it was necessary to buy X item and then not use it much. I feel like all of my time is spent shopping – whether online or in stores (and all other time is spent worrying about what’s for dinner, since I’m an awful, awful cook).

    It’s definitely time to challenge myself to buy only necessities. I don’t want to have extra crap in my home. Not that we’re able to go travel with four cats and an academic job… I wish we’d taken the opportunity to travel when we were still in college, but we didn’t know how we could possibly afford it. No debt, but we’ve always lived paycheck to paycheck (yes, we do have some savings, but we don’t like to break into it).

    I love hearing about people able to travel and take time off work! I suppose someday it could be possible for us, but I honestly don’t know what we’d do with our cats. Or my husband’s job, which he can’t possibly quit – there just aren’t openings every year in his academic field.

    sarah´s last post…More Impossible Daisies

    • Kelly Heavener says:

      Sometimes traveling doesn’t have to take you far from your house. We are military and just moved to North Carolina. I have lived here before but when I was younger. I am seeing all around me in a new light. So many day or weekend trips! Our country is filled with so much great stuff to explore.

  3. Love what you say about the glamorous shopping us mother’s do!!! Like the Christmas advertisements we have on now: super savings – and everyone thinks yay, Christmas goodies … turns out it’s loo rolls and oven cleaner – Sarcasm on: “hmmm don’t die of excitement!!! I know I would love those in my stocking high, high, high on my list above a picture from my kiddo’s!!!” Sarcasm off.

    Otherwise I am dying to read about your travels and exciting plans – sounds to wonderful to be true!!!

    se7en´s last post…Se7en’s Fabulous Friday Fun 41 – Link-Up…

  4. I can’t wait to hear what the world holds for you and your family!

    Every time I read your posts I think, how can I live my life more simply!

    Nicole´s last post…fall weekend part 3

  5. Wow, I needed this! When I first started decluttering, one of the things I was most excited about was that since we had fewer things, I could really love each item individually. I called my husband the other day and complained, “You know, the thing about simplicity is that now I have to look at the same things every day!”

    I realized that simplicity as a novelty is really great and freeing. But it can be hard to stick with it in the long haul. That isn’t going to stop me, though. Thanks for the reminder!

    • One thing that makes it easier is as things wear out, gradually replace them with better quality things that you don’t get tired of. Or maybe that’s just me. I waited for months to find the perfect tote bag and then carried it for years. It greatly curbed my desire to buy a new tote bag whenever I saw one in a catalog.

      • Hi. I don’t think I’ve actually commented on any of your posts. But I so love reading your blog. :-)

        I had to laugh at this reply because my husband thinks I’m a tote bag junkie. I shop and think I found the perfect one and then I find another. But what made me laugh was that I love the tote bag holding both your kids that you’ve posted. So here is a bag I’m envying!! :-)

        Good luck with the travels and can’t wait to hear about the travels.

  6. Where will you start traveling to? How will you travel? By car, camper? Can’t wait to start living vicariously :) Traveling Mercies to you and your family :)

    Lisa Medley´s last post…Diamonds Are A Girls Best Friend

  7. I just was thinking about how shopping is a pastime for so many people I know. What a not fun thing to spend time doing “for fun”.

    So exciting you are leaving your apartment and traveling! Your story gets more exciting by the minute.

  8. Along the same lines… I used to spend an embarrassing amount of time at yard sales looking for deals. I remember seeing a Roomba for a price that was practically giving it away. I walked away from it but often wondered if I should have purchased it… now I’m glad I didn’t. Over the years I’ve decided that I saved myself a lot of money and clutter by staying away from yard sales, unless I had a specific item in mind.

    Now your toilet paper mention made me think of something else… to buy or not to buy in bulk. I always buy TP in bulk because of the savings, and it’s obviously something we’ll always use (you never see it for sale at a garage sale ;) ) and even though I’m raising a large family, I often wondered why other people wouldn’t always buy TP in bulk, even if they lived alone. Other items, like raisins, I wouldn’t necessarily buy in bulk because even though it might save us money (cost/oz), we’d probably eat much more of it since it’s readily available, rather than eat it sparingly.

    One more… I rarely buy the newspaper but this weekend I did. I can’t believe how tempting it was to go shopping when I read through the ads! I’m back to no more newspapers!

    • I don’t go to garage sales either because even though there might be great deals, we don’t really need anything in the first place.

      I buy toilet paper in bulk because we get it at Walmart, and I buy enough that we only have to go there once every two months or so. I can never buy Kettle chips in bulk on sale, because that’s when we eat so much more of them!

      • WHAT?! I thought you were using cloth wipes that you could wash repeatedly and not buying tp! Was I imagining this? Or are you, like me, a reusable toilet-paper drop out? Just wondering.

    • I did buy a roomba at a yard sale! LOL! It is an awesome addition to our family. That being said, I limit myself to our community’s 3 sales a year. It is fun for a bit and I am able to cloth my kids for a very reasonable amount. I am a stay at home mom and spending wisely is one of my contributions. Yard saling used to mean something entirely different to me. Simple…not so much! Moderation is key. I am a reformed shopper.

      Lauri V.´s last post…Got java

  9. I also am eager to hear where you guys will be heading!

  10. “I began to realize the stuff I spent money on indicated the stories I was living”

    That hit me. We might be moving soon (don’t know where), but it has changed the way I look at things when I’m out shopping. Do I really need one more fall decor doo-dad to pack up and haul across the country? Probably not.

    My hubby and I have been trying to focus our spending on experiences. A trip to the pumpkin patch, a weekend in Canada, a butt-busting hike in the Olympics…all so much better than a new outfit!

    Kait Palmer´s last post…Raffle for a Ruffled Owl Apron and a good cause!

    • It seems like it wasn’t that long ago you moved where you live now! It’s so great to be able to travel while you’re young without kids.

  11. I’ll just enjoy what I have here for now, too. Thank you for these words. These reminders.

    Tracey´s last post…My Husbands Office Has Great Sticks

  12. I love your blog! Thank you for sharing the excerpt from the book. Your stories remind me that a simple life doesn’t mean an empty life.

  13. Porch camping was one of my favorite things to do in college. On a beautiful fall day sleeping outside is just perfectly joyful. It takes the ears awhile to forget the artificial silence and white noise of inside, but ,as soon as they did, I never slept so well. Imagine the stories your children will have tell with all of your adventures!

    Zom G.´s last post…Bats- Spider Webs- and Ghosts

  14. Nicely put and very true.

    Tad long, 20 minutes video, but worth watching:

    Anu´s last post…Two Birds with one Arrow

    • I love this video!!! I found it a few weeks ago, and was like, “YES! This is exactly what I’ve been talking for the past year!” Definitely worth watching!

  15. I have recently taken a new position at work, and, while the hours are nice, I have switched to a rotation that now gives me seven days off in a row. It’s going to take a lot of mental organization not to get bored and shop.

    Thank goodness I have a small, uncluttered apartment that won’t allow me to buy much!

  16. The evaluation process you have followed is so very valid and worthwhile. I love the line in Sabrina (with Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond) where he is asking her to take pictures of the cottage on Martha’s Vineyard. She asks him which pictures he wants her to take and he says, “All of them.” She responds by saying, “More is not better, it’s just more.”

    I Live in an Antbed´s last post…Psalm 148

  17. My friend and her family recently lost their home in a fire. They were able to salvage a few of their belongings. It was a fire that started in their garage, so when they knew their children were safe they still had a few minutes to go in and get stuff. I’ve wondered a lot since then, “What do I have that I would run in for if my house were burning?”. Pictures, scrapbooks and important papers (that I need to start storing in a firesafe) are about the only things that come to mind. I’m not that sentimental, so I don’t even think I’d grab my wedding dress.

    For me, luxury shopping (not grocery shopping) is more about going and doing, rather than going and spending. I love spending time with my girls, eating out, window shopping, and yes, finding a bargain. This is all fun and exciting to me, something I don’t do often but love to do. But, at the end of the day I don’t come home with much because I know it’s not worth running into a burning home for.

    You and your family welcome to come visit us in Colorado-the night sky is magnificent!

    Shannon´s last post…Vistaprint- Free Photo Calendar- plus shipping

  18. I love the idea of city camping!

    Becca´s last post…Moptastic

  19. I’m curious about how much or little of an agenda or itinerary you’ll keep. You seem like a “ducks in row” kind of gal with a flair married to Mr. Spontaneity. So I wonder what that looks like when you decide to hit the road (or skies, or what have you). Do you have destination #1 decided or are you just gonna get in the car and drive till you drop? So much fun to think of your adventures with you!

    Zoanna´s last post…Rate Yourself

    • What a fun description of us! We’re currently making our decisions and trying to reserve a place. I think because of our kids we’re going to choose just two or three places and settle for a bit.

      • Rachel,
        My husband and I are in a different place than you are, although, only a little older. He is almost 47 and I am 45. Our kids are almost grown, the younger 2 are 17 and 19. We are looking at doing some extended travel utilizing vacation home rentals in the off seasons. IE the beach during the winter and the mountains in the summer. You can rent a nice place furnished for a monthly rate that is quite affordable. Good place to seach would be http://www.vrbo.com, stands for vacation rental by owner.
        Just a thought
        Ramblings of a Woman´s last post…Living the Balanced Life- Perfectly Imbalanced

  20. This post really touched a nerve with me. I feel so overwhelmed with all the clutter in my home and have been trying to find the motivation to get rid of it. Fortunately, I haven’t added to it lately mainly because I feel like I regret every purchase I make. So, I’m using that thought to curb my spending and to start the decluttering process. Will I regret buying this?? Sometimes, when I’m trying to clear my mind at night and fall asleep, I repeat this statement, “If everything you had was everything you were EVER going to have, would you be satisifed?” The answer is always yes and that thought puts my mind to rest and I fall asleep in peace.

    Kim McCallie´s last post…Bacon-Topped Veggie Bake

    • Decluttering helps a lot to curb spending. Really, it does for me. If I get an urge to start spending, I channel that energy into the stuff I currently have by cleaning it out and that helps me feel like I have more than I need.

  21. Your post made Matthew 6:21 come to mind.

    Thank you for the reminder.

    • Thank you for that.

      In case someone else wants to read it, it’s this one:
      “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

  22. Erin (Australia) says:

    This blog really hit home with me. I hate spending money but sometimes it is easy to justify purchases for the sake of passing time.
    I love Donald Miller’s writing (have you also read Blue Like Jazz?) and A Million Miles in a Thousand Years has definitely challenged m husband and I to analyse the kind of story we are writing for ourselves and our children.
    Thanks for the honesty and the encouragement in your writing.

  23. Dyan Euler says:

    I just realized that your daughters name is Lane. I LOVE IT! My son who will be 14 Dec.28th who now stands 6’1 and I look up too and I am a tall woman (lol) his name is Ricky Lane and he has always gone by Lane. I got my name from the movie 8 seconds (awesome but sad true story movie)about a bullrider who’s name was Lane Frost. I also watched a show years back it was only on for like 1 season and it was on a cable channel I do believe and there was a girl on there and her name was Lane but spelled Layne. I very rarely hear that name, but have been told it is very popular in Canada. Just felt the need to share that with you, and also I love your blog just stumbled onto it a few weeks ago but I look forward to reading it daily I only subscribe to about 6 and 3 are a must read daily no matter what! and yours is in that 3! :) Good luck on your year off adventure I so envy you. Wish it was us!

  24. So need this right now.. With all the holiday sales that surround me and flyers screaming ” Great Deals” on stuff that I don’t need, it helps to have someone tell you to be purposeful when shopping. Thank you.

    Prerna´s last post…Bedtime Rituals- Make Story Time Special and Sacred

  25. Love this! Thank you for sharing those wonderful thoughts. I think that every time I come home from a store now, I will consider what someone would think of who I am by looking in my bag. :-) I have set a goal for my gift-giving to not give anything that might end up in a yard sale. That means that for Christmas, my family will be getting very meaningful, high-quality (but small, for budget concerns), or experience-related gifts.

    KaseyQ´s last post…Spiritual Sundays- Chester the Church Mouse

  26. I never shop just for “passing time”… my spending is definitely more purposeful than that. If the things I’ve spent money on most recently indicate the stories I am living then I’m happy: tickets to the Nutcracker ballet for my daughter and I, Canadian beeswax off of Etsy for crafts with my kids, books to encourage my own spiritual growth.

  27. OH MY!! as unpredictable as young children are please rethink having your child playing and spending the night on a balcony!!Sounds FUN, COOL, whatever but in reality it is dangerous!!

    • Maybe it’s hard to tell from the photo how high the railing is. She’s not out there unsupervised.

      • Hi Rachel,
        Guess its just the nanna in me, wanting your children to be safe. I have visions of her innocently throwing something off the balconey and hurting someone below or getting her little leg stuck in the bars in the middle of the night while she is sleeping.
        Love and prayers,

  28. Rachel,

    I love your outdoor camping, we sometimes do camping or picnic in our living room, specially when weather is cold or rainy.

    Today I told my 5 yr old son to go for shopping and buy whatever he wanted,(mostly for fun and to see how he react) he told me that is not a wise thing to do as we have to stay in budget! :-) I am so proud of him.

    How is Doug enjoying his free time? Building more stuff, relaxing, spending time with you and kids?


    Zengirl @ Heart and Mind´s last post…101 changes: Change 8 Stretch Your Comfort Zone

  29. Your upcoming adventure reminds me of Donald Miller’s “Through Painted Deserts” — a book that always makes me want to go on a cross country roadtrip in an old VW van. Though I suppose with two small children, that wouldn’t be entirely practical for you and Doug. :)

    Rachel´s last post…Goals: How I Learned to Love Running

  30. I have spent money on ‘things’ I have given away or donated to charity and wondered why. I guess this ‘must have money driven’ soiety we live in tells us we are not complete unless we compete and have. I ask myslef–need or greed. The item must be able to furnish at least 5 things before I buy it. I am not going to spend money on something tacky on the TV before I do a little research and find out if it really stands up to what it says it will do. Ad then I have the 2 month rule–I wait 2 months after I see it to see if it goes on sale, how well it sells and how many people have brought theirs back for a refund. In that time, I put back every 5 dollar bill I get and if it turns out I don’t want the item, then I have saved for a vacation. I would say I have become very frugal when it comes to a dollar and le PT Barnum said ‘A sucker is born every minute.’
    I wish we had the internal guts to sell our house, buy a little bus and just travel but right now at least my husband has a job ans we will stay put and dream. Good luck in your travels.

  31. Just in time! I have been feeling the urge to buy this and that lately and asking myself why I need it…. a blog like this is just what I need to ask better questions. Thanks Rachel! Looking forward to more of your adventurous year!

    angelvalerie´s last post…honouring others

  32. I’ve found that I’m most likely to shop if I get online in the afternoon when my son is napping. However, if I nap instead, it feels so good to just rest, and I skip the shopping. Also, I’m wondering, Rachel, any ideas for thoughtful, inexpensive Christmas gifts for friends and family? I don’t spend much time shopping, much less bargain shopping, and usually make gifts, but sometimes that can be pricey too!

  33. Oh my, that city camping looks amazing!!! If I had that on my porch I would spend all my time out there :) Just lovely.