Material Possessions: How To Define and Refine Your Choices

After relocating to Paris from Los Angeles several years ago and more recently combing through the belongings of Mommy Dearest, I’ve had, once again, time to consider the mixed bag that is material possessions.

More precisely, I’ve had the chance to identify what makes a worthwhile acquisition, even as we try to streamline our lives and declutter our living spaces.

First, we have to acknowledge the never ending search for balance in our lives, not just regarding material possessions, but in all things. We want to accomplish things in our careers. We want to spend time with our loved ones. And there are only 24 hours in a day…and we sleep about a third of those. We want to be healthy, but a lot of food choices are delicious. And we want to enjoy our lives and indulge…every once in awhile. We want to be spontaneous, but we must think ahead. The contradictions are endless.

Striving for balance is, therefore, a lifetime endeavor. So we must accept that we might never get it quite right, but as long as we’re aware and working to improve, we’re okay.

Second, we have to accept that some material possessions are really, really nice to own and use. They give us a certain amount of emotional satisfaction. We’ve either acquired them after an accomplishment at work, while on a memorable trip, or they were given to us by a loved one. They have meaning beyond their price, beauty, and usefulness.

Another aspect of this enjoyment is the sheer pleasure of using a high-quality product. The goods produced by name brands or passionate artisans can be so superior to mass produced items in their design and construction that we inherently recognize why they are priced as they are, and why they last as long as they do.

Third, we have to admit that sometimes we just don’t care about having the ‘very best’ of a material possession. We just need it to function. I’m that way with ink pens. Yes, it would be lovely to have an S.T. Dupont writing instrument, handcrafted right here in France, but I use pens recklessly: I simply need one nearby when I have a thought, and I need them to dispense blue or black ink upon command. I don’t keep up with them much, and therefore always have a standby in a jacket pocket, a briefcase, on the table, pinned inside my calendar, or just anywhere. Having an expensive pen would be just something else to keep up with and remember not to throw at the wall anytime I get frustrated with whatever I’m writing.

Fourth, linked to ‘meaning’ which I mentioned earlier is the concept of ‘value’. A premium or luxury material possession must present itself as a value to us, even if it does not have that value to anyone else. This, again, requires that we know the product…and ourselves, that we know what we like and why we like it. This will enable us to wait patiently for its timely acquisition, as well as to enjoy it fully without reservation or apology.

Fifth, we must be honest with ourselves and know that the pleasure we get from our choicest of choices is, end the end, our own. It is not to impress others. It is to suck the marrow of pleasure from each use, to inhale the aroma of craftsmanship, whether anyone else knows or sees us wearing, using, or simply admiring our favorite material possession.

As a familiar example, the bespoke Charvet shirts I often wear are, to many other people, ridiculously priced. They don’t see the value, and that’s fine by me. I appreciate them, even if no one else does. Furthermore, 99% of the people I pass on the street don’t notice my shirts. (They’re white.) And that, too, is fine by me.

In contrast, the merino wool sweaters I wear with my shirts are from Banana Republic and retail for a whopping 90 dollars the last time I checked. I’m not interested in spending 300 euros on a sweater at this point in my life. (I always qualify these statements.)

I use this shirt example not to brag, but to offer insight and clarity: I have chosen my premium, luxury material possession, and I think I’ve chosen well. My solid white shirts may go unnoticed on the street, but the fabric will, to lift a lyric from Mick Jagger, make a grown man cry. Furthermore, the shirt is cut to fit me alone. The collar and cuffs sculpted to my preferences. The monogram hidden on the shirttail. Those are the invisible qualities that I enjoy. That’s what gives this product meaning and value to me.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to contemplate and consider the material possession that provides the same satisfaction to you. Of course, we have to continue to streamline and discard as we go (remember the recent Pretend Your Moving post). This discipline on our part will only enhance the pleasure, value, and meaning of the possessions that we choose to keep and use.

We also have to set aside the concept of ‘status’ that products with prominent logos often employ to satiate our self esteem and, we hope, impress others. This isn’t about other people. This isn’t even about price, really. This is about defining and refining our choices, our tastes, and our purchases. We need most of our material possessions to be functional, a good value, and sensible for our individual lives.

But there are a few that we need to invest in, to savor, to appreciate fully with each use, to remember in the context in which we first encountered them or received them.

It is best that we see ourselves as spiritual beings having an ongoing physical experience rather than thinking we are only physical beings who have the occasional spiritual experience.

Still, we live in this world. We must enjoy it…wisely.

  • BGT

21 thoughts on “Material Possessions: How To Define and Refine Your Choices

  1. This is such a timely post. Thank you. I’m currently feeling guilty about a pair of earrings I felt were too expensive to justify buying, but then my husband bought them for me. They’re extravagant for us (we’re professors, and academia seems to have become a shorts-and-flip-flops endeavor post-pandemic) but I still dress for work (I’m Gen X). Your post has helped me make peace with this extravagance. I’ll wear them to work, and to every formal event we ever attend, and I will love them every single time. That’s value.

  2. Mary, I concur.

    I recently upgraded our home flatware to something more special to be used every day. (old ones recycled to a college student and greatly appreciated) However, once the flatware arrived, most of the family members thought they looked too fancy, but I insisted. A few days after usage, everyone still smiles when taking them out. It is a privilege to eat with them sitting at the table and I even feel a little like royalty when using them!

    Also, this post made me think back over this week as I too have been going through items and wondered if they should be edited. It is an ongoing task and some may think it even thankless, but I disagree. I believe it refines and defines us to always want to better ourselves, though not in a superior way, but in a way of taking away the dross from silver in order to be a shiner version of ourselves.

    This post also made me think of something my father in law used to say. He always had a direct way of answering when someone was looking for advice on self improvement. “The only sure thing in this world is death and taxes. If you aren’t learning, you might as well be dead.”

    Wishing everyone a warm season’s greetings.

  3. As we are in the thick of holiday consumerism in the U.S., this is a great time to reflect on the blessing (and curse) of living in abundance. There are some items in my home that I cherish and use frequently. They tend to be practical and functional items, but also beautiful. I cook with my enameled cast iron Dutch oven and my German chef’s knife. In the evening, I enjoy sitting in warm glow of our Jotul wood stove. Not all of them cost a lot of money. Some were gifted, some thrifted, and others I willingly paid full price. But I appreciate how much beauty, pleasure, and value they add to my life!

    My choices in clothing are mixed. On the one hand, I buy everyday basic clothes from fast fashion places like Old Navy and Uniqlo. A no-no from the Old Money Book! But I buy basic, non-trendy items and wear them for years. I supplement with thrifted items from Goodwill (I recently snapped up a Boden sweater and Banana Republic merino cardigan), Patagonia’s Worn Wear (I love my down coat, it keeps me warm during the New England winters), and L.L. Bean. In my working days, I purchased more expensive clothing and accessories. I was recently up in my attic and found a leather handbag I bought in Paris 15 years ago. In it, were a couple of Brooks Brothers shirts, and a wool blazer. I chuckled at discovering these artifacts from my past life. Our life in a rural small town has no occasions for dressing up! Still, I brought down them down as the handbag brought back fond memories of Paris.

    Thanks for the reminder that “defining and refining our choices, our tastes, and our purchases” is a lifelong process.

  4. I recently upgraded my main cookware to All-Clad steel.

    Since then I keep telling people: Big Teflon has lied to us! Even “good” nonstick pans, even with excellent care, don’t last as well as I would hope.

    I find the steel pans are not appreciably more difficult to keep clean, which had been my main worry. I think they are also improving my cooking technique, and I don’t think I was a bad cook to begin with.

    These have probably been the best purchased life improvement that I’ve made in several years.

    1. “Since then I keep telling people: Big Teflon has lied to us! Even “good” nonstick pans, even with excellent care, don’t last as well as I would hope.”

      That’s why I do what some Michelin-starred restaurants do – I buy the 15-euro(ish) nonsticks from Ikea, use them for a year or two, and then I buy a new one (and recycle the old one). I would use a more durable material, and stainless is pretty good, but works less well with sticky items like low-fat proteins, cast iron and carbon steel need more care. I do use those as well, but not all the time. And yes, the expensive nonsticks are bs. They might survive up to twice as long, but cost five to ten times as much.

  5. Bravo. Fine post. And the ending that we are spiritual beings is perfect for this time of year. Focus on the reason for the season.

    Not sure what luxury in which I indulge to match your shirts, but it must be the number of both khakis and oxford cloth button-down shirts I own. Superb quality, they will endure for years and satisfy with every wearing.

  6. Can I ask what is it about shirts vs sweaters that gets you to spend the money on one but not the other?

    For me, if I think the item will be something that is worn on a very regular basis, I will spend the money to get a really high quality version.

    1. I can’t answer on Byron’s behalf, but I see this across the board. The usual reason is that sweaters are simple to make – and subsequently, buy. Most sweaters are simply ok for most men (given that the size is approximately right). Also, the price for a well-made sweater is kind of cheap, and anything extra is just due to air (brand price, hype, all that nonsense), exclusive materials (cashmere is not as such better than Shetland wool, but it is more exclusive), or the amount of material (i.e. thick sweaters use more material, and thus cost more).

      That’s mostly related to the “use more, pay more” – I don’t think that’s a good idea (and I hear it a lot). I think you should pay for what you need, and then pay more for what you want. For instance, a decent suit sets me back a minimum of 500 euros, and a decent tracksuit will cost below 100 euros. Now, if I’m a typical modern knowledge worker I can wear the tracksuit working from home every day, but the suit doesn’t get 50 uses during my lifetime if I only wear it when I have to. The tracksuit would be cheaper per use even if it was 2000 euros, but who in their right mind would buy something like that?

      Back to the topic. Shirts are a wholly different animal from the sweater. There are endless details that actually have an impact on how a shirt looks on you. For example. A crewneck has about half a measurement related to the collar (it does have a circumference, but it doesn’t really matter if it’s an inch larger or smaller). But in a shirt, it matters in which angle/position the collar is (slightly forward/backward), the circumference matters to the centimetre, there is height, spread, and style considerations that you need to think about. Then the collar is structured in one way or another, and also attached to the shirt.

      And then there’s the rest of the shirt. Everywhere you look, it’s more important to get a shirt rather than a sweater to be in perfect proportions. And there’s more work in a shirt anyway.

      Of course, it’s possible to do knitwear MTM or even bespoke, but it’s easy for me to understand why men choose not to. I think it’s useful to understand that a sweater is basically a long-sleeve t-shirt – or a track jacket to stay with the metaphor. Then again, the shirt is closer to an unconstructed suit jacket.

      1. Thank you, JO. You have expressed my sentiments exactly. Much appreciated. An additional note: there is the experience of having a bespoke shirt made, not just the pleasure of the end product. One gets to enter and participate in an artisan culture. – BGT

  7. Full agreement! I’ve written before about my Hermes scarves, the oldest from ’96, acquired on my first trip to London. I now have three of them, and they continue to delight me. I wear one or the other of them constantly. In another area, Le Creuset cookware lasts and lasts, and retains the heat. That’s another investment that has paid well. (Oh, the Grammar Police want to say a word: it should be Pretend You’re Moving, not Pretend Your Moving.)

    And I do appreciate the comments readers have left–I learn something from each of you!

    1. Thanks, Katie!

      Pro tip: Come back later. There is always someone which adds on to the conversation or another point of view. The scene from here is extraordinary. 😉

  8. Hello! First, thank you, Mr. Tully, for all your hard work and information you have provided.
    My wife is looking to expand her luxury handbag collection. (She currently carried a black Louis Vuitton leather Alma.) She is trying to decide between a classic black Chanel Flap and a black Delvaux Tempête. I feel we know the obvious answer as research shows a decline in Chanel’s quality in recent years and the obvious logo. I would like to know your guys thoughts on luxury handbags as I haven’t seen specific ‘Old Money’ tried-and-true handbag brands. Thank you, and have a Merry Christmas!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Matthew. I’m going to plead ignorance on the handbag subject and encourage the Ladies of the Tribe to contribute their thoughts. Happy holidays! – BGT

    2. Hi Matthew,

      While I do adore Chanel products, especially fragrance, I understand her hesitation. There are so many copies of that exact look that it can almost look gauche. Honestly, I hate to say that! Of course it depends how it is worn. With other classic pieces, I am sure it would not look cheap. I believe Delvaux is a Belgian brand, and definitely more discreet. Ideally you could look at them in person and get a feel for the quality. I picked up an older version of LV Pochette Metis found on TheRealReal (which used to be great before they went public). It is in beautiful condition but the logoed side is too flashy for me, so it went back.

      Somehow, for all products that used to be tried and true, it is not safe to assume so anymore. The good thing is that we are able to research online and find out business practices and reviews. Luxury is what you decide it is, rather than what brands portray and claim to consumers.
      p.s. on MY wishlist is the Celine Besache Triomphe in Trench. For every day, I use my mom’s old Tod’s bag from the 1970s.

  9. Byron,

    I agree with you about needing to use pens recklessly, but even there, I highly recommend taking time to consider your choices.

    Take the time to consider the points of your pens, as even the bulk disposable pens come in a variety of choices.

    For instance, I have a fairly heavy hand, and would tend to tear the page when using a fine or ultra fine point pen.

    However, since discovering the Bic Velocity (or Glide) Bold pens, with their 1.6mm ball point, writing is way more pleasurable, as the ball floats over the page. Others, obviously, may prefer the precision an ultra-fine point offers.

    Even when you’re buying disposable items, a little extra thought can be rewarding.

    Happy Holidays!

    1. JB,

      Your post made me pause. Do you have any issue with bleed-through of your pen? I am currently working with a black gel pen in a journal. Very slight bleed through to the next page which still makes me groan.

      Thanks in advance and thanks for posting about your experiences on pens!!

      1. I haven’t had an issue with bleed through. That may be a difference between gel ink and standard ballpoint ink, as I feel like ballpoint ink may bleed through less.

        I might experiment with different owns, or make sure the next volume of your journals uses a heavier weight paper.

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