Nice Things

Our house is not what one would call nice. It’s old. It’s run down. The quality of pretty much everything inside it is shoddy. The pipes are loud. There is one electrical outlet in each room (and some of them don’t work). The garage is a glorified cement hole. The garage door has to be opened manually and one of its windows is covered by a wooden board.

We do not own one quality piece of furniture. The few pieces that weren’t purchased at IKEA were donated by our parents or bought used. Our computers are old and shitty. Our iPads are hand-me downs. Our car is the most common, boring utilitarian vehicle you can get (silver, four-door Honda Accord) and can only be distinguished by its myriad dents, dings and scrapes.

Everything in our walls was created by me and framed for the lowest possible price.

I don’t own one piece of jewelry priced in the four figures. Our wedding rings cost just under a grand each. I don’t even have an engagement ring. My jewelry collection consists of two necklaces my husband got me as gifts and some cheap pieces my mom has gifted me over the years.

Most of my clothes are purchased at Old Navy, H&M or Uniqlo. Some at the more expensive stores like Gap. I have a few pieces bought on clearance at Anthropologie and two pairs of designer jeans (though I just discovered one has a whole in the ass!) Most of my shoes are (warehouse sale) Toms or were purchased on sale at Macy’s.

The point is, I don’t have Nice Things. I have useful things, comfortable things, maybe even some interesting things, but no Nice Things. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about that, the lack of Nice Things in my life.

I notice it most when I visit someone’s nice house. A house with a stylish exterior, an interesting, antique piece of furniture, a recently remodeled kitchen. I notice it when someone gives me a ride in their nice car, or when they hand me something and my eye catches on their beautiful diamond ring. I don’t have anything of these things, and sometimes it kind of bothers me. I have no idea why.

I’m trying to figure out why it vexes me. I mean, I could have Nice Things, if I wanted to, right? I could make Nice Things a part of my life. Clearly it’s not a priority for me. And yet, sometimes the absence of their nice-ness (exacerbated by the not nice-ness of everything I own) feels so glaring, I can’t see past it.

What do Nice Things means to me? Do they signal something? Success? Style? Something more subtle? I’m honestly not sure. It’s almost as if nice things validate the person who owns them, an assurance that they have arrived, that they are legit. But arrived where? Are legitimately what? It’s all so slippery, so hard to pin down. It dances in my periphery, a glimpse here or there, but never the whole idea still and unwavering, so I can study it.

I do know that when I’m with someone who has nice things than me I feel different. I feel like something separates us, like I’m not quite at their level. Like maybe adults have Nice Things, and evidently I’m not an adult, not really, because I don’t.

I tried to have a conversation about this with my husband but he absolutely could not relate. He’s not interested in material things. He never has been and never will be. Nice Things don’t mean anything to him.

The thing is, I don’t want them to mean anything to me either. I don’t want to be interested in material things. I don’t want to be dazzled by the shiny allure of Nice Things. And yet, I clearly am. The idea has been there, vague and half-formed but a shadowy presence none the less: maybe if I have fewer things, some of them can be Nice Things. Maybe if I spend less money on dumb, unnecessary things, I can finally prioritize Nice Things.

But are Nice Things what I really want to prioritize? Is resurfacing my kitchen really my ultimate dream? When it comes down to it, are Nice Things that important to me? Or do I just like to admire them from afar, allowing jealousy and envy bestow vague and misunderstood significance to them because it’s easy and I’m human and our consumer culture is so convincing. Is my desire to have Nice Things nothing more than me falling for the siren song of consumerism? Are a quality set of cultural ear plugs all I need?

I guess I’m not going to tie this one up in a neat little bow, but I wanted to put it out there, because it’s something I’ve been thinking about here and there. I’d love to figure this out so that the Nice Things in other people’s lives don’t keep me in a comparison loop that siphons my appreciation, gratitude and joy.

I wish I could really believe, once and for all, that Nice Things aren’t necessarily Important Things, and that I have all the really Important Things that I need.

31 Comments

  1. I don’t have nice thing either, other than living in a neighborhood that is convenient and that I really like. (It’s sketchy though!) And the flowers in my yard, i splurged on that. Really, when you have little kids, there seems to be no point in buying nice stuff because it will just get wrecked anyway. I tell myself I will have nice things later in life.

    I do prioritize to buy quality things that work well and will last. But that’s a little bit different. Springing for a quality tankless water heater isn’t really what you’re talking about here. 🙂

    1. Actually, most of my financial wish list is things like this… I REALLY want to invest in solar panels on my roof (but I want to own them, not lease them). And I want a solar powered water heater (our gas bill for heating water is CRAZY!). I would love a yurt in our back yard (though I’ve mostly let go of that dream). None of these are necessarily the Nice Things people think of, but they are what I’d love to spend my money on. I would REALLY love to resurface my kitchen, the cabinets and counters are just awful, but I’m worried that if I had someone come in they’d say I needed to replace everything because the construction of my house is not great. I can’t imagine my cabinets are worth resurfacing… Blerg.

      1. Before we sold our condo, my husband and I sanded/painted/added new hardware to all of our kitchen cabinets – it was a night and day difference! The cost was minimal (though the work hard) for a great return. I know time is short for you but… maybe a project for this summer?

        Our kitchen was so small we were also able to take the old (broken upon removal, I might add) granite from another house that was getting new granite and have it recut/polished/installed for ~$350. Instead of a solid piece in one corner we had to have two pieces married together at the turning angle but it was virtually seamless and looked fantastic! I almost hated to move after doing the cabinets/granite because the kitchen looked SO good! If your kitchen is fairly small perhaps this is something you too could consider…

        1. Hmmm. I don’t think my cabinets are even made of wood… I don’t think they could be sanded. But maybe painting them would be a worthwhile endeavor. I’ll look into that. Thanks for the suggestion!

  2. Thinking about this more, maybe what you’re envying here is the opportunity for self-care and control of one’s environment that these Nice Things rep represent (and require). I don’t really care about clothes, but I sure would like to have theverything time and money for shopping, even though I would probably use it for something else self-care related.

    1. I think you’re probably right. It probably is more about self-care and control of my environment more than anything. And also, it’s fun to splurge every once in a while.

  3. What I consider “nice things” are more related to function and to fitting my own personal style, not necessarily more expensive. I like clean, simple, minimalist furnishings, so Ikea actually suits me better than the frou-frou stuff I’ve seen at fancy stores. I’m just SO not into fancy jewelry or accessories, or fancy-brand clothes or shoes. But I enjoy, and feel better, when I wear dangly (costume) earrings, and shoes & clothes that make me feel good vs. just wearing any-old-thing that I found for cheap or was handed down. Perhaps what matters here is CHOICE. If you go to Ikea and choose the table you like the best, even if its $200, you will feel it is a “nice thing” vs. taking a hand-me-down table that isn’t really your style that cost $1000 but never really feels right to you or even vs. actually wanting the $1000 table and settling for the $200 one because of finances.

    1. I like the same kind of furniture you’re talking about, and IKEA furniture can be that, but it’s also a cheaper version of that. And it’s also very cookie-cutter. Sure it’s functional, and I have no issues with the MANY pieces of furniture I have from IKEA, but it’s not necessary super nice stuff. I was at a friend’s house recently and she had this BEAUTIFUL chest of drawers, made of REAL WOOD and all the drawers were different sizes and they fit together in this amazing geometrical design. It was so cool! And so unique and interesting. And it probably cost $2000+ dollars. It’s just not something I’d have the money to buy without careful financial planning. And then once I had that nice piece of furniture, all the other IKEA pieces would look that much shittier. 😉

      So you’re right, I guess it is ultimately about choice. I don’t feel I have much of a choice on a lot of these things, but that is just because I’m only willing to buy things with money I have, and not on credit. I don’t necessarily know that other people make those same choices. For all I know, my friend is still paying off that amazing dresser. 😉

      1. No you’re right, there are obviously much better versions of furniture than Ikea, for sure and part of me is really into the idea of unique/original pieces (that dresser sounds amazing) but maybe furniture is in the category of “would be nice, don’t really care though” for me, along with cars, jewelry, purses. Like you, we only buy things with money we actually HAVE, and we don’t currently have $2K for a dresser.
        I find myself WAY more envious of people’s experiences or their ability to pay for help (childcare, housework) and convenience. Vacations, meals out (no prep or clean up!), concerts & special events. Those are my “nice things” I guess.
        I agree with maybe “trying it out”—maybe something smaller scale than a car? Can you save up for one amazing piece of furniture, for example?

  4. I love the way you put this question out there. I think about this sometimes… I’ve made a conscious decision not to have Nice Things and mostly don’t want them. But sometimes when I see them I have some of those same feelings. I think for me it’s mostly as you said – that we get the message that they mean you’re more adult, or you’ve made it. And let’s be honest, sometimes they’re just really aesthetically pleasing.

    No answers for you… though maybe it’s just something you need to try one for size i.e. get a nice item (maybe small, not a new car!) and see if it still matters to you. Though I guess that could start down a slippery slope if you really did like it…

    1. The thing, I’ve also made a conscious decision to not have Nice Things, quite a few times. If I have something nice, I might lose it! Or ruin it in some way! And then SO MUCH MONEY would be lost. So ultimately, when faced with the decision, in a lot of cases I’d say no. But in some I’d say yes, like a nice piece of furniture or resurfacing my kitchen… Those things would be nice.

      We’re actually starting to save for a new car that we expect to need to get in about six year (when our Honda will have 250K+ miles on it) and I was thinking that it might be a good idea to save more than we estimate we’ll need so we have a few more options to “upgrade” as it were. But as you said, it might be a slippery slope. 😉

  5. My Sister in Law and Brother in Law, The Hubs sister, just renovated their kitchen with marble backslash/counters (after buying tickets for their month long vacation in Germany). My first thought was, “I don’t even think I can afford marble as a back splash…must be nice”…so petty of me. I also am appalled at the same couple who spent a whopping $15k (yes 15 thousand) on a couch. Mine was $200…and I need a new one.

    However, my SIL who wants another baby (and can have one), was told by her Hubs that he doesn’t want another child and never really wanted the one they have now. Wowza. I was also told, what I have, 2 kids and the openness to have more, is what she wants. People envy somethings on different levels. Some envy money/things…some simply want what money can’t buy.

    I chalk my envying other people’s nice things as, will I ever be able to afford all these nice things. The answer, probably not. But I also don’t have their income or their 1 child family. Does it bother me? Yes. I’m human. I’d be lying to tell you, “oh I’m alright with my hand me down furniture and kitchen table”. Do I want more, naturally.

    But I think we both aren’t willing to play, “Keeping up with the Jones’s” and be financially irresponsible while buying nice things.

    1. It’s true that different people envy different things. And the reality is, I don’t know how people pay for what they have. Could I refinance my mortgage to borrow against my house and resurface my kitchen (and do a few other upgrades I’ve been thinking about?!) Absolutely! But I don’t want to make that financial choice just to “keep up with the jonses” as you said. And that is probably how other people finance those decisions. I know one family that takes a big vacation every year and puts it on a credit card. I definitely have a big enough line of credit to do that myself, but I choose not to operate my finances that way. So yeah, that is important to remember. Just because I would only make those choices under certain financial circumstances, doesn’t mean other people would.

      I’m sure there are people who would be super happy to live in my house in San Francisco, and can’t afford that (especially now). I know it’s worth A LOT, what I have. It just might not look like it on the outside, if that makes sense. 😉

  6. Fabricating consumers:
    If you can fabricate “wants”—make obtaining things that are just about within [people’s] reach the essence of life, they’re going to be trapped into becoming consumers…
    …Direct people to the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption, and that will keep them out of our hair.
    — From “Requiem for the American Dream”
    REQUIEM FOR THE AMERICAN DREAM is the definitive discourse with Noam Chomsky, widely regarded as the most important intellectual alive, on the defining characteristic of our time – the deliberate concentration of wealth and power in the hands of a select few. Through interviews filmed over four years, Chomsky unpacks the principles that have brought us to the crossroads of historically unprecedented inequality – tracing a half century of policies designed to favor the most wealthy at the expense of the majority – while also looking back on his own life of activism and political participation. Profoundly personal and thought provoking, Chomsky provides penetrating insight into what may well be the lasting legacy of our time – the death of the middle class, and swan song of functioning democracy. A potent reminder that power ultimately rests in the hands of the governed, REQUIEM is required viewing for all who maintain hope in a shared stake in the future.
    This was cited by a left wing Dem this morning in my fbk feed, it is available on Amazon Prime and probably other sources. I have not seen the film but his quote about it totally seemed to fit what you are talking about in your post. SO I am sharing for you to consider if you want to look at it.
    We have been super encouraged and manipulated by media/government/big business to be consumers and spend beyond our means and to desire wants ~not be happy with needs being met……. for our entire lives for baby boomers and those who came after that generation. This is why we now see articles that say most Americans today cannot afford a $400 unexpected expense without borrowing or over extending credit. Fairly horrifying situation.

    1. I read that article. Very eye opening. And put my current financial situation in perspective.

  7. Citation on the $400 above: The Atlantic ” Many Middle-Class Americans are Living Paycheck to Paycheck” AKA The Secret Shame of Middle-Class Americans by Neal Gabler May 2016 in Business.

  8. I am jealous of the aesthetic of other people’s houses. We have mostly ikea furniture too except a couple of decent but inexpensive sofas, but I still feel like we could create a great look without Nice Things if we only had more talent in that arena 🙂 We do have a nice renovated kitchen bc we bought a flipped house. I’m OK with not having fancy clothes or shoes or purses (aside from wondering why does everyone else seem to have the money for these things).

    1. I’m also jealous of people who can make things look great without spending much money. My good friend’s husband is like that. Everything always looked pretty in their apartment and they definitely didn’t have a lot of money lying around.

  9. You can have a house with nice furniture and nice clothing without spending all that money. However, it can take time, plus a good eye for quality furniture/clothing. My husband has more of an eye for design and can score good deals on craigslist, etc.. I find a lot of higher end labels on ebay, therealreal, poshmark, etc.. Oftentimes you can find clothes that are new with tags at very good prices.

    1. Yeah, I don’t think I have that “good eye.” Maybe what I really envy is people with a good sense of style. I think I’m lacking that.

  10. Interesting discussion. We still have and use the bedroom set I purchased in 1993 for $500. It does look shabby chic tho..,I actually consider our ikea pieces our nicer furniture, ha. They look pretty good tho. My SIL got a dining by room table for 10k once (over 25 years ago) and I thought/think that was ridiculous. Ours was an extra one my dad had…

    We really need to remodel our kitchen. It’s the last area of the house except the downstairs bathroom that we haven’t spruced up (we did floors and paint in the rest of the house in mud remodeled the upstairs bathroom). It does really look out of place, but meh, we live with it for now.

    Another note..,I wonder if part of this (apart from cost) is not letting yourself wear/use the “good” stuff…I’ve read about this in self help books before…e.g. You save your “good” clothes for only special occasions…I know I find myself doing this, e.g. wearing rundown sweats on the weekend even tho I have nice track pants…not wearing the good underwear and then you have to throw it out bc it’s so old the elastic is shot but you never really wore it…

    1. Some of our stuff from IKEA is totally fine, others… not so much. our coach is actually from there (and wasn’t cheap) and I love our couch.

      I used to not wear/use the “good stuff” but had enough experience with that stuff being wasted that I don’t do it anymore. I also just don’t have that much “good stuff” to not use. 😉

  11. You’re living in my brain lately, apparently. I’m right there with you with not having nice things and not wanting them most of the time. But there are moments where I go into other people’s houses and think “These people are grown-ups and I’m just pretending with my Ikea furniture.” In some ways my version of adulthood, while mostly great, hasn’t lined up with my expectations and seeing someone who has the stuff that I associated with those expectations can make me feel things. Clearly some issues to work through in therapy…

  12. For us, minimalism means we have far fewer things but they are nicer than when we have gobs of cheap duplicates. So we each have 2 pairs of shoes but nice ones that last a long time. It took us 8 months of saving to afford our new bed and it’s quite nice (and from ikea). We could have gotten one much sooner for much less but we made do longer to save up. I’m much happier with the fewer but nicer things so don’t rule out nice things, just remember it takes a lot of patience to save up for them.

    1. This is a good point. And perhaps moving forward we’ll realize we have the money for the nicer things we want since we’re not spending as much on more, lesser quality things. I think I feel overwhelmed because so many of the “nice things” I want are VERY EXPENSIVE and would require many years to save for them. But I suppose that is the point.

  13. This is interesting.

    I do like Nice Things. I don’t necessarily want or like Expensive Things. This is a critical difference for me.

    It’s about aesthetic and style, not cost or keeping up with the proverbial Joneses. Like, I’m still using a TV I bought for about $100 in 1998. It’s functional, and I don’t require a shiny new thing. My most expensive clothes are also Gap or LOFT (on sale). I’m frugal in many of the sorts of ways you mention. But given the choice between a kitchen timer shaped like an owl and a plain one, I’ll take the owl, even if the owl is a bit pricier (not a LOT pricier, a bit!).

    I am thinking about doing something about my kitchen. Not so much a remodel (though it could use one) but a new rug, some new paint, and maybe new stain on the cabinets.

  14. I have, in the past, felt guilty when I’ve been able to afford something expensive, remembering how long it took my parents to achieve the same things. So I can understand how you feel, but only to an extent. I don’t like having to wait and save, but I do it. (Like you, I would never put a holiday on my credit card, or mortgage, but I know people who do!)

    Our kitchen needs remodelling (or at least a new kitchen bench), our car (also a Honda Accord) is very old (I’m talking last millenium!), and our bedroom hasn’t been renovated or even repainted in the 20+ years we’ve lived in this house. We have a couple of nice pieces of furniture, but have had them for a long time. My favourite pieces at the moment are my new dining chairs (bought late last year) that were very cheap (and purchased on a special) – but I like their contemporary style so much more than any that are ten times more expensive. We’ve been looking for about five years, but we weren’t prepared to compromise on style or price. The waiting didn’t really bother me. I’m in my 50s, but don’t own a piece of jewellery that would cost more than $1000 (US) either. But then if I’m honest, I don’t really want diamonds or expensive jewellery – they’re a bit of a cliché to me. Or perhaps, I’ve seen women who have these things (diamonds, fancy cars, Jimmy Choo shoes), and they’ve always seemed to be part of a furious effort to show others how nice their lives are, when actually they have been compensation for other things that are missing in their lives, things they’d rather have.

    We don’t have the income at the moment to be able to have Nice Things and travel as well. (Though actually, we can’t travel at the moment either. But I’m hoping.) If it comes to a choice, I’d far rather travel. I can get much more bang for my buck with travel. Though I have also been very extravagant at times on travel choices too. But I’d far rather have the memories than the Nice Things. At the moment, when work is elusive and money is a bit short, I’m enjoying my memories of travel. Much more fun than looking at a diamond!

    1. Travel used to be a big priority of mine, but now it just feels so out of reach. I do want to take my kids to Hong Kong some day, to show them where I grew up (though I’ve heard it’s changed so much I won’t really be able to show them much), and I suppose I should start saving in earnest for that now because it will be insanely expensive to fly four people there. I would also like to take my kids to Spanish speaking countries during the summer at some point, so I should start saving for that now too…

      The thing is, we can’t save that much every year, and there is so much we want to do, so many places we want to go, so many things we want to do to the house. It just all feels so out of reach. Maybe in 5-10 years it won’t seem so impossible.

      1. I think that’s actually the key to getting through this. Things seemed though when we first bought our first house, but five years later it was all much more manageable.

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