Money, consumerism and - you guessed it - perfection.
I am not very good with money. I used to be, back when I had £20 a month to my name. £20 was always more than enough for the things I wanted or needed - a book, the cinema with my friends, a hot chocolate. This was also before online shopping was much of a thing. I ordered my clothes from a catalogue (or rather, my mum did). Social media was Bebo and MSN and MySpace. There was no clever algorithm. Ads were relegated to the TV or in magazines or at the edges of online news stories. They were easily ignorable.
Then I got to uni and suddenly found myself adulting, with a bank account to my name and an interest-free overdraft of £1,500. You were at university to socialise, to grow up, not to study, and when you did study you needed to do it in public in the library, surrounded by friends, all of you laughing with textbooks open and the pages remaining unturned.
I had an allowance from my parents too - Dad earned too much for me to have any kind of grant or loan beyond the necessary (and extortionate) tuition and maintenance fees. For my first year, this went towards topping up my rent and bills, because the maintenance loan never covered those things even though that’s what it claimed to be for.
I didn’t have a job that first year so relied solely on the government and my parents, and my own self-control. Of course, when you move far away from home to attend university, most of your self-control goes out the window. You mean to tell me I can go to bed whenever I want, eat and drink whatever I want, hang out with whoever I want, do whatever I want? I had limits, because I wasn’t trying to ruin my life, but the tower of Domino’s pizza boxes in my room wobbled at 4-feet high.
I spent most of my money on takeaways and alcohol and clothes, not to mention the obscure books I needed to read for my degree. As someone who was looking to reinvent themselves at university, mainly in the social sphere, there was huge pressure to join in and conform and show off. I needed a new outfit every second or third night out (and I went out multiple times a week). I had to drink alcohol in excess. We had only a microwave in a kitchen shared by at least thirty girls, and the cafeteria food was terrible, so takeaways were frequent. I did not budget - I didn’t even know how to budget. It wasn’t something we were ever taught at school, and I had grown up middle class and partly spoiled. I did not need to think too much about where my money came from, and what happened if it ever ran out. I knew enough not to get into real, crippling debt - the kind of debt where loan sharks circle the waters - but my student overdraft was acceptable debt.
I’m unsure if I reached my overdraft limit in first year, or if that didn’t start happening until second year. Either way, second year was more of a strain financially - no longer in halls, my maintenance loan wouldn’t even stretch to cover my rent for the year, let alone my bills.
I got a job at Thorpe Park (a theme park, for any not in the UK), mainly because my then- boyfriend, now-fiancé, Mark worked there and had done since before university. I worked one or two days a week, first in the car park directing cars, stomping about with my radio and steel-toe boots and litter picker, feeling very self-important; and then I got promoted to Admissions where I sat in a warm booth and learned to sell tickets using only the numerical keys on the keyboard.
I now had more friends to socialise with, more parties to attend, more outfits and makeup to buy. I was earning, but I was busier, and being busy required ever more cash.
Did Mark start loaning me money then, before we’d even left uni? Most likely. Mark is a bit of a penny pincher (it’s true, Mark) - he’s far better with money than I, mainly because he’d had to learn to be. I hadn’t had that lesson yet, despite the sinking feeling of reaching my overdraft’s limit, the knowledge I truly had nothing. I would get another £100 the next week or my pay cheque would soon be due, and all would be righted.
After university, I worked two temporary shop jobs, one after the other, and then got my first full-time position as a Communications Officer in the charity sector. The pay was poor, but it was an entry-level non-profit role. I was living at home, paying a small amount of rent to my parents, and slowly but surely I crawled my way out of my overdraft. Socialising was less frequent, so that certainly helped, along with living at home again where there was an adult to tell me off.
A year or two later, I can’t quite remember when, even though it wasn’t that long ago, Mark and I rented our first flat together when he moved up to my hometown. The flat was damp, mould blooming behind the fridge and on the walls around the windows. The boiler rarely worked and the carpet was dirty and torn, but it was adulting again, close to town and the station.
I started saving again, finally, this time for us to buy a house. Somehow, I scraped together enough to offer my own paltry contribution to Mark’s sizeable savings and we bought our first home a year after moving into the flat. My savings were depleted, but the spending couldn’t stop - a house must be furnished, and I was excited. It doesn’t help that I have expensive taste and am impulsive.
Then the pandemic hit not long after. I started spending money in an attempt to dig myself out of the depression I could feel myself sinking into. It didn’t work - I just got more in-debt to the Bank of Mark and the Bank of Dad, making me feel worse. I would resolve not to buy anything, only to open Instagram and get sucked in by an advert, or open my emails and see 75% SALE ENDS TONIGHT. I was bombarded, day and night, by all the things I was lacking. They didn’t need to be full-blown adverts. Seeing people I didn’t even know with clear skin thanks to this product, or a dress from this shop, or a newly decorated living room, was enough advertisement in itself.
I’m reading Ann Patchett’s collection of essays, These Precious Days. One centres around her experiment of not spending frivolously for a year. I cracked the book open, settling down on the sofa with my new £40 FitBit on my wrist to coincide with my new goal to get fit, and read:
“In March I wished I had a FitBit, the new one that looked like a bracelet and didn’t need to be connected to a smartphone. For four days I really wanted a FitBit. And then - poof! - I didn’t want one. I remembered my parents trying to teach me this lesson when I was a child: If you want something, wait a while. Chances are the feeling will pass.”
One of the best things about reading is the way it can make you feel seen, but in this instance Ann Patchett had made me feel a little too seen.
How many times had I impulsively bought something? Even as I entered my details at the checkout, telling myself this would patch my defaults or soothe my emotional pain, shame would already be worming its way to the surface. I knew that shiny new things wouldn’t help me feel any better, not really, but we’re relentlessly fed the line that consumerism cultivates happiness. Our brains crave newness, and capitalism can always give us that.
Consumerism tells us we can buy our way to perfection. Plastic surgery, designer clothes, wonder lotions, a big house, a new car, all the gear you need to make that hobby a success, all those furnishings to make your house or flat or room feel like a home.
There’s only one antidote to consumerism that I’ve found, and it’s not a miracle cure - it’s a pill you must swallow over and over again, and sometimes it’ll be one of those big, dusty pills that lodges in your throat. The only antidote is this: accepting that you have enough, that you are enough, and that you will always be enough.
“We don’t need much to live a good life. When you are grateful for what you do have, and share it with those you love, whatever else you need comes. Don’t waste energy worrying about what you don’t have. That is the route to misery. Instead, pay attention to the good already present in your life, and do your best at whatever you are doing. There is joy in the satisfaction of that.” - 94-year-old Mineyo Kanie, interviewed for Wabi Sabi: Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life by Beth Kempton
I have bought many things. Some of them have brought me joy, like books and plants and concert tickets and good food, but most have brought me fleeting happiness. Always, that feeling of ‘not enough’ returns, because the gaps I am trying to fill, the flaws I am trying to fix, cannot be won over with money and stuff, but with acceptance and contentment.
I cannot have it all. I will never have it all. I cannot and never will be it all. Because I have, and already am, enough. Life, as it is, is enough.
Further reading on Enoughness
Out of the Blue: Update on my 2023 theme
Mind Mine: how to be cool
Self Made: How to Trust Your Life
An extra note to say hello and welcome to my latest subscribers! I’ve gained a few, despite slacking a little with this newsletter recently. But hey, this newsletter is enough - it doesn’t need constant posts, just steady commitment, right?
I should probably reintroduce myself too: I’m Caitlin, I’m from the UK, and I’m an internal comms professional by day, a trainee therapist by night (school), and a writer all the time. This newsletter is a space to unpick the threads of perfectionism within our lives, and to cultivate anti-perfectionism.
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