Putting NEED into prespective

I was chatting with an acquaintance recently about clutter and being environmentally friendly and she chose to share a story with me. Below is my rendition of the story as I remember it.

The hot water system at her home went on the fritz and had to be replaced. Her husband, being a bit of a handyman, insisted that they buy one and he would install it. Being a busy fellow the weeks went by and he hadn’t got around to doing the job.

This acquaintance was born and raised in the Philippines where, for her family, the bathing routine consisted of a bucket of water and a cake of soap. One would wet themselves by splashing water over themselves from the bucket, then soaping up and finally rinsing off with the remaining water. So boiling the kettle to warm a bucket of water and bathing in this way was no big deal to her. I guess her husband also happily complied because a year later the hot water system still hasn’t been installed and they are still bathing this way. Needless to say they have made great savings on electricity and water.

So where does the perspective on need come into this story. Just think of how important a hot water system is to you. Then consider how much less important some of those other things cluttering up your home are in comparison. Use this example as a guide to tip you over the edge on those items you are on the fence about.

Today’s Mini Mission

Declutter at least one fabric item that just sits on or drapes over furniture or hangs on a wall. Cushions, throw rugs, curtains, embroideries etc fall into this category. If they aren’t being used chances are they are collecting dust and slowly perishing.

Eco Tip for the Day

Challenge yourself to put every piece of recyclable material in the recycling bin no matter how small.. It is easy to be blasé about small pieces of paper or plastic but so long as they can be recycled they are best kept out of landfill.

For a full list of my eco tips so far click here

It matters not how fast I go, I hurry faster when I’m slow

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About Colleen Madsen

Colleen is the founder of 365 Less Things and lives in Newcastle, Australia.


  1. Oh my. Makes my rice maker look like a real extravagance, doesn’t it?

  2. Colleen, I think many of us in the more wealthy nations have a misguided idea of what need means. Many of the things we think we need are really just wants or things that make life easier. I am working on becoming a better steward of my money, time and energy.

    • Hi Deb J, that is only too true. I have become more and more aware of this over my years of steady decluttering. That doesn’t mean I will part with many of these wants but I gives me a better perspective when I feel an area of my home is a little too cluttered.

      • Colleen, the thing for us is that it helps us really think about things because being on a limited income means we can’t always get what we want or sometimes even what we think we need.

  3. To me, hot water=necessity. But if it came down to the end of the world, we’d learn to do without hot water now wouldn’t we? I saw an awesome quote on Facebook the other day: “Someone else is happy with less than what you have.”

    • Hi Shoeaholicnomore, my hot water system is a luxury I wouldn’t want to be without either but it is just that. And you are so right, many people in the world are not only happy with less than what we have but in some cases happier. This is a issue I have with the developed world interloping with less Westernised societies. Their simple traditional way of living is often spoiled by this interference.

  4. What a great post today! Brought back to mind many pertinent issues for me. First, let me tell y’all (yep, I’m a southerner) about my days in the commune (yes, I’m an old hippie). I lived in a commune for awhile in the early 70’s. I had a small bedroom – only big enough for my bed (single bed) and a chair (that held my clothes) – no closet or anything else. One bathroom for the entire house, which was a very old Victorian divided up into bedrooms, with only a single, small woodstove that we kept going in the winter. Rules were first one up in the morning got the wood stove going. Which was usually me. My bedroom was on the main floor, behind the kitchen. Also closest to the one bathroom. The water heater didn’t really work, and to make it work, one had to insert (believe it or not, but I swear this is true) a q-tip (provided) into a little space near the bottom, that somehow made a connection that got it started up. Unfortunately, it didn’t start heating the water for awhile, but I didn’t have time to wait on that, so I got a COLD shower in the morning. Winter or summer, it was a cold shower for me. In the winter, that meant I had icicle bangs and since I had the requisite LONG hair, I also had frozen hair for quite a long time after the shower. But, you kinda get used to it. I would wash up as quick as I could. Dry off, get dressed and go. There was no real kitchen, per se, but a stove top and sink had been put in on the screened in front porch. So, I would stand in front of the stove, cooking, and yes, the snow would be flying in through the screen onto the skillet or whatever, while I was cooking – always an interesting thing to note. So, yeah, it always sounds romantic to think back about that kind of lifestyle, and yes, I enjoyed it (with reservations) because we would sit in the evenings, all together in the big living room, on old used couches and play bluegrass music and sing. No TV, no computers (not really around at that time) – and life was more simple then. Or so it seemed. We’d all either go to school during the day, or jobs, whatever. The commune was on a large farm, and to make it work and affordable, we boarded horses there. So, part of our job was taking care of the horses. Which I had to learn how to do. So, work on the farm, but also we had woods to walk through – beautiful, old hand-me-down quilts on the beds, music in the evenings – so nice. And a social group with whom you could relate. Good food, homemade bread (my contribution, which I still do to this day – and my husband LOVES it), and I still have my guitar.
    But another story that does talk about water heaters, only more modern day. Ours went out too many years ago. My husband, always thinking he is pretty handy (but really isn’t) went to the hardware store and talked to some young guy there about it. The young guy said that is was likely the heating element. And he sold my husband a new one. Told him that he could replace it himself. Said to do it quickly – just pull out the old one – real quick and replace it with the new one – be ready and be quick. Screw it in and you’re done. Well, obviously not the right info. I kinda figured that, but was willing to let my husband figure it out. You know men. So, I stood there with him, holding the flashlight on the right area for him. He had his screwdriver ready and the replacement piece ready. Started unscrewing the old element. And obviously you know what happened. Water began POURING out – my husband, drenched, trying so hard to plug the hole with the new element, failing miserably against the tide of water now flooding the basement floor. He did try. Complete failure. The tank was emptied in minutes. Head down, he and I walked back upstairs, where he called our plumber. Confessed his crime, much to the laughter of our plumber. Graciously, he agreed to come over and fix the problem. And yes, we ended up purchasing a new water heater. And of course, we had to pay the plumber to get something to get rid of the flood on the floor. Plus the fee for “emergency call”. So, lesson learned and now my husband just calls a professional in the first place. But, to get back to the main point about want versus need. At that time, I didn’t really think about want versus need. The hot water heater was broken so it got replaced with new one. That’s what you do. But, when I look back, I have to wonder at myself. At the time, our daughter was in middle school. And we had the money, so that wasn’t the problem. And I didn’t really think too much about clutter or things like that. We were okay. The house stayed neat, we didn’t go out and spend a lot – I wasn’t into that. But our house was nice and I kept it clean and neat. Our daughter was able to have her friends over and such. In fact, we were able for her to have a foreign exchange student come live with us for a month when she was in high school – quite a wonderful experience for all of us, and a new life-long friend for her. (and I must say that I got real attached to her myself). But, now, being empty-nesters, and disabled, living on SSD, we are living with broken refrigerator and a broken oven. And both have been broken for years. So, we’ve been waiting and saving up to replace them. Now, we have saved enough. So, over this time, we’ve used a dorm refrigerator for the necessities and meanwhile, my husband runs to the store for fresh stuff a couple times a week, so we get by. The oven doesn’t hold a temperature, so it is iffy at best. Anyway, we went through Consumer Reports on refrigerators. And looked at their top recommendations. Then checked them out online. Checked the reviews – and they were HORRIBLE! They mentioned “cheap plastic, drawers that just dropped out” things like that. One star reviews. And trying to absorb that, it came to me that for about 3 years, we have gotten by with a dorm refrigerator. Could we just continue to do so? And I said yes! So although I have badgered my dear husband for these 3 years about a new oven and a new refrigerator, I knew that I really could get by without either one. And together we decided to drop our search. And a deep peace came over me. We are going to get some help in hauling out the old refrigerator. Then my husband is going to build a simple stand and put the dorm fridge in where the old refrigerator used to be. And place it on that stand. And put some shelves over it, for me to use for pots and pans, or bowls or whatever. I’ve been getting rid of so much, thanks to Colleen’s help and advice and to your all’s posts, which are so encouraging, that we’ve decluttered ALOT of stuff. So, yes, I WANTED a new fridge and I WANTED a new oven, but I didn’t NEED either one. And now we saved about $3000 and we are just fine!

    • Wow Annie, that is an amazing realization to live without a refrigerator and stove/oven. Here I was thinking that doing my dishes by hand was rather radical. We have lived in our new home for 10 mos. now and I have never even turned the dishwasher on (it did get checked by the home inspector but that was it). My mom has a clothes dryer in her new home (almost 4 yrs. now) and she doesn’t use it. She strung lines in the basement and outdoors for hanging. I guess it comes down to what concessions each individual is willing to make. My mom uses her dishwasher and I use my clothes dryer! 🙂 *wink*

      • Kim & Annie, we have a dishwasher we don’t use either. Now what I wish we had there instead was a small freezer or freezer drawers. If wishes were horses….

    • That was a fascinating insight into your past Annie and it just goes to prove what one can be happy without. Community and purpose are far more important than stuff. Adapting is also a big learning experience. All we need is an open mind.

    • Annie, love your stories. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I probably have missed something with this post, but I think your acquaintance’s husband needs a rocket. Alternatively ring a plumber, nothing like the impending arrival of a tradesman ergo and in turn a home handyman into a whirl wind of activity.

    I definately think hot water is a necessity and I believe it is classified as such by the authorities. Sure we wouldn’t drop down without it, but first world is geared differently to 2nd or 3rd world countries. I’m pretty sure folks running around the jungle wouldn’t classify their tax return as a necessity, but try telling that to Inland Revenue.

    If I have missed the point entirely, just point me in the right direction.

    • RIGHT ON, MONI!!! LOL You are such a hoot!

      When I lived in the camp trailer in Montana for slightly over a year (referenced before), it had only a 6-gallon hot water heater. I had two large pots that I would boil water on the gas stove, fill the tub with whatever hot water there was, use some of the cold water too, and then dump in the boiling water. I did it. I lived. I’d like to NEVER do that again. LOL

      If I have to, I can make do, as I think most of us here can, but I wouldn’t like it as a permanent lifestyle

    • Hi Moni, yes I think you have missed the point entirely. My point was that perhaps that little knick knack or thing-a-me-jig that a person may be agonising over decluttering really isn’t all that important in comparison with their hot water system. And if people can live without hot or running water then I am sure that a emotional attachment to a thing-a-me-jig seems a little ridiculous.

      Your comment brings me to think that what “1st world” considers important often ends up being the thing that drags them down. I dare say you will find many “2nd and 3rd world” communities to be a lot happier than ours. And they would remain that way if we didn’t interfere with them.

      I am sure the person who conveyed this story to me finds her husband to be more important than her hot water system because she was raised with different standards.

      • Colleen – I’m still not seeing the connection. Maybe my brain isn’t making the conceptual jump between some excess trinkets in my house and some poor woman whose husband is either to lazy or cheap to remedy a basic provision.
        I don’t really agree that 2nd and 3rd world communities are happier. I also don’t think 1st world residents have dibs on happiness either.
        Ok where I am staying for the Long Weekend they have waded in on the topic. The happiest place on earth is Disney Land according to their website. We assumed that’s self promotion and did further research. According to research on Forbes site, the top four happiest countries are: Norway, Sweden, Canada and (truly I am jot making this up) New Zealand. This was based on studies of 142 countries, 96% of the population and 99% global GDP and factored in a myriad of factors from access to health care, infrastructure, life expectancy, infant and childhood mortality rates, woman’s rights, even how mothers are looked after by government and/or society, pollution, opportunity and so on and so on. By looking at these four countries, access to ski fields must be a bonus. Personally I’d give Australia’s weather the big tick. The bottom countries are: chad, Congo, Central African Republic, Afghanistan and Yemen.

        • Let’s keep this as simple as possible then. Make a choice between the following pairs of items in order of importance.
          Hot running water – or – twice as many dinner plates than you need.
          Oven – or – A Crystal vase given to you at your wedding that you have never used.
          Refrigerator – or – Ten books in your bookcase that you have only read once, ten years ago.
          Set of saucepans – or – Those 5 bottles of perfume you don’t particularly like among the 15 total you own.
          A comfortable bed to sleep in every night – or – Half a dozen more pretty sets of sheets than necessary to fit that bed.

          The choice is simple isn’t it. That is all I am saying. We agonise over letting go of the most unnecessary, and often not even that much liked, stuff while our homes are full of wonderful luxuries that we take for granted everyday. If we focused our appreciation for the important things it would become obvious what is really just minutiae.

          People continue to play the consumerism game, looking for more things that will make them happy, when their lives ought to be wonderful just the way they are with all of todays modern conveniences. Meanwhile busting their asses trying to earn more and more to buy more and more that they don’t even need.

          That’s not to say there is something wrong with owning some nice extra things – I sure as hell do. But if a person is keen to declutter and simplify then making choices shouldn’t be so hard if they can just see past the more trivial materialism.

          I hope that helps my friend.

  6. When I lived in Indonesia, I didn’t have electricity or water. We had the water carried up from the river and we boiled it. We didn’t NEED a water heater or indoor plumbing, BUT. It took a lot of time and effort to keep potable water available for drinking and cooking. And we had to use wood or kerosene to boil the water. After returning to the US, I KISSED the washing machine in my house. No more hand washing in the river. (Yes, same river as above)
    Bottom line: we don’t NEED hot water; we don’t NEED appliances. But they sure make life easier and truly free up time. Just don’t take them for granted. Be thankful.

  7. I have just read Willow’s account of living in Indonesia. It has reminded me of a documentary I saw once late at night, comparing modern and historic living. Generally the crux of it was, it takes most of every day to provide fire, food, fuel and shelter, whether you’re out chasing dinner (literally), rubbing two sticks together to light a fire, chopping a tree down and hauling it back to the cave and building your house with your own two hands, or if you are working a 40 hour week to provide a modern home.

    • You are right, Moni. I estimated that it took 80% of my day to simply ‘live’. All food was cooked/baked from scratch. It was a very simple life but it was hard work. And I had hired help 🙂

    • The sad part is that many families work two forty plus hour weeks to acquire a lot of stuff they don’t really need. Meanwhile the time spent together become minimal.

  8. Ann from Boston

    Hi Colleen,
    Well, this certainly puts a perspective on my recent thinking. We are renovating our kitchen. We don’t have any water in the kitchen. So, we have been using and recycling paper & plastic products. Makes you think about how lucky we are to live in a place where we have the choices to use the available water at the sink or use a dishwasher. That we don’t have to go “to the river” and boil the water to make it drinkable. Also, helps my family realize how important recycling is to the environment and how incredibly wasteful “take out” containers are!

    Also from another perspective, I have been looking at ranges and refrigerators that “match” the new dishwasher that’s to be installed. ( the old one had been broken for a long time) please understand that our range and fridge are perfectly FINE. But, when you are in the midst of this upheaval, you can easily be swayed by the “lure” of making it look like the magazines. Thankfully, common sense and the budget helped me walk away from spending $$ when it isn’t needed. That too, would be creating clutter, wouldn’t it??

  9. Colleen, your acquaintance who grew up in the Philippines is describing what we, in my family, call a “Navy shower.” When ships are out at sea, they have to convert sea water into fresh water, so the emphasis is on conservation. A “Navy shower” is a good way to ensure you don’t run out of hot water when you’ve got a full house and everybody is taking their showers in the morning: wet yourself down-shut off the water; soap up/shampoo up; turn on the water and rinse.

    Saves a lot on your water bill and gas or electric bill, too.

    • Thank you for your comment Ada and welcome to 365 Less Things. I am sure my bother would know about this as he spent 15+ years in the Navy. I will have to ask him about it one day. And you are right it sure does save a lot of water, gas or electricity. A very environmentally friendly way to bath I would say. Cheers Colleen

  10. It is amazing how adaptable and creative we can be once we get over the initial shock of inconvenience to what we are used to.

    • Alleluia Marianne, you get it. That was pretty much my thoughts when I heard this story.

      • Agreed Marianne. In 2008, our town was hit by a tornado. We had no power, but because we had an upright freezer filled with beef, we ran out and bought a generator, which we kept the fridge, freezer, and phone on (and cell phone chargers), plus ran a cord to our neighbor’s home for his fridge. When the power goes out, cordless phones don’t work. I was trying to locate the neighbor. His elderly parents lived a few streets over and I was absolutely positive that they still had an old wall phone. I was right. LOL And that is how I found our neighbor. It got me thinking that we really should have a phone like that “just in case”.

        We’d turn off the generator periodically to save fuel. We used candles and camping propane lanterns. We played Monopoly. It was silent with no tv and frankly, it was kinda cool.

        Our internet was down at work this morning and I was so annoyed. How did we ever survive?!?

  11. I get your point Colleen, but I have to say that procrastination over necessary home repairs is not a good thing. I believe that if we are fortunate enough to own houses, useful appliances etc then we have a duty to keep them in good order. To not so so is to risk things becoming dilapidated to the point of uselessness and that is truly wasteful.

    More distressing really is that this poor woman is at the mercy of her “busy” husband. It’s a common problem I think, one partner not being “allowed” to call in a tradesperson, but left in limbo with repairs on hold forever while the other seems to willing to sacrifice comfort, even safety, in order to keep his or her ego intact.

    • Hi Laura, I entirely agree that home maintenance is something that should be attended to ASAP to avoid the situation worsening. Even not cleaning your home properly can cause maintenance issues. I can assure you that this also wasn’t a down trodden female situation. The lady involved was proud of their adaption, mostly instigated by her to manage over a short period, but now neither sees the necessity for the hot water system to be installed. They are very happy with their situation or else they would have relented and paid someone to install the system.

      When I heard this story my reaction was ~ I wouldn’t want to live without running hot water but good for you. Then I went home and decluttering a couple of items I had been on the fence about, thinking how trivial they were in comparison. Now I am beginning to also see my reaction to this story as a test of cup half empty/cup half full. I guess I just saw the cup half full. It also confirms for me that at some point I moved past just decluttering to a detachment to the need for material possessions.

      Thank you for reminding me of how far I have come.

      • That is a neat realization, Colleen. I can understand that perspective. Sometimes I wonder just exactly what the H-E-double hockey stick is wrong with me being so flip-floppy on some things. In the big scheme of things, it is really not that big of an issue to get rid of something.

        We’ve talked about this before, but advertising has had such an incredible impact on people – – in a negative way. It tells us exactly how we haven’t “made it” if we don’t have such and such or if we don’t weigh such and such or if we don’t make X amount of money or some other crap. Except this morning I saw a fantastic ad. Our local tv news agency created a website about not keeping up with the Joneses and I thought, finally, some companies are starting to realize that it isn’t about how much money a person makes or what they own!! I’m gonna check it out.