The Convenience Myth

(This is a guest blog by Jody Allard. It comes from her Homesteading and the City site. If you’re curious how Microsoft, five children (two sets of twins), a new couple, an old home, law school, three chickens, and a couple of draft picks to be named later can possibly go together, you might give her site a look. In the interest of full disclosure, Jody is my step-daughter, Susan’s daughter. Besides her present life, she has been a journalist and columnist.)

One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the idea of convenience. Pretty much everything is marketed to us with the idea of convenience as its primary selling point (from food to entertainment to household gadgets and so on). And, believe me, I’m all about some of these things. You won’t see me giving up my washer and dryer or dishwasher any time soon! But, I do worry about the impact that this push towards convenience actually has on us as individuals and as a society.

Quick! Buy it! Don't think ... you don't have time!

One of the easy examples is diapers. Cloth diapers really sucked back in the day. Prefolds (and not even the good ones we have now!), pins, and plastic pants might be cost effective, but they are just plain inconvenient. And probably leaky, too. So, a bajillion dollar disposable diaper industry was born, and pretty soon pretty much everyone used them. Because of this, we’ve got quadrillions of disposable diapers sitting in landfills, not to mention all of the chemicals and such that go into the manufacture of sposies. As time went on, thankfully, people started to improve upon the original idea of cloth diapers and now we have awesome diapers like Goodmamas and bumGenius that work well and don’t fill up the landfill. But, the reality is that it takes a little more time to cloth diaper. It’s not a big time commitment, but it does require an extra load of laundry or two per week and a few minutes of diaper stuffing per week (if you use pockets like me). And, so, many people talk about how they’d love to cloth diaper but just don’t have the time.

The reality is that everyone has time to do 1-2 extra loads of laundry per week and stuff a few diapers (or just go with diapers that don’t have to be stuffed). But, because we’ve become so indoctrinated into this idea of convenience, I think that people are far more willing to say that they don’t have time to do things than they otherwise would. After all, the idea seems to be that society has solved these problems for them. No time to cook? Pick up takeout or make something out of a can/jar/box. No time to cloth diaper? Buy sposies. No time to bake? Swing by a bakery. And on and on and on.

Not your mother's cloth diapers.

Part of the problem is real, I think. Most families are comprised of two working parents these days. It’s hard to juggle family and work and still have the energy to take on some of these things (particularly when the easy option is waiting in the wings). But, the more that I reject the convenient option, the more that I find that, really, it doesn’t take me much time at all to do it myself and it makes me wonder whether some of this stuff is really even more convenient at all. If it only takes me 15 minutes per week of actual time to wash/dry/stuff CDs, is it really more convenient to have to go to the store to buy diapers every week or two? If it only takes me 10 minutes in the morning to make a spaghetti sauce for that night’s dinner, is it really more convenient to pick up takeout or make something out of a box/can/jar? And, if it isn’t more convenient to go for the pre-packaged, processed solution, why do we do it at all?

I think it comes down to the fact that this idea of convenience has become so ingrained in us that we don’t even question it. When I had my older kids, it never dawned on me to CD or make my own baby food. Up until a few years ago, avoiding processed foods wasn’t even on my radar. There is so much marketing out there to push us toward the convenient options that I wonder whether most people even consider the alternative. And, if they do, how many reject it because it sounds like a lot of work, largely because we’ve been conditioned to assume that it is? I know that I’ve often taken refuge in the idea that I just don’t have the time to do certain things. But, the reality is that I do have time to do them… even with five kids, working, and going to law school. My kids are all in bed by 8 p.m. every night and that leaves me with plenty of time to do all sorts of good things before I go to bed. Whether I choose to use that time is my choice, but it certainly means that I have the time. And, considering how much TV the average American watches, I suspect that the same is true for all of us.

We may need less time, and less money, than we think to live better lives.

Another component of this myth of convenience is the idea that the convenient option is often the cheapest option. And, when you think of this stuff as cheaper AND easier, it seems almost silly not to do it. But, I’m finding that is a lot less true than one might assume. For example, our family of seven spends approximately $850 per month on groceries. Sure, that’s a lot of money, but it’s not a lot of money per person at all. And, we eat really good food. Very little comes from a box or jar anymore, and the majority of what we eat is organic and/or local. We don’t spend tons of time on elaborate prep work, and I can’t say that I really saved much time when I used to buy more processed foods. It turns out that it just doesn’t take that much time to make your own food from whole sources, it tastes 100% better, it’s far healthier, and it’s cheaper, too. And I suspect that’s why the food industry wants to convince us that we NEED the convenience options … no one is getting rich off locally grown produce, meats from a CSA, and organic grains (unless you count Whole Foods, but that’s another rant for another day) but people sure as hell are getting rich off Kraft macaroni and cheese, Hamburger Helper, Velveeta, etc.

I never thought that I’d be someone with a chicken coop in her backyard, CD’ing twins, ranting about the merits of whole/unprocessed foods, joining CSAs, shopping local, and planting a garden. But, you know what? This stuff matters. Sure, there are lots of ways to live, and many different choices that you can make, but I don’t want to just live my life according to what someone else tells me is the easiest way. I’d rather spend one or two hours per week prepping diapers, cooking, baking, and otherwise living well. The Man can suck it.

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