Updated: Jul 24
This past Saturday, my husband and I took our old couch to the dump. After 18 years of faithfully supporting our behinds while we watched TV, the old sofa was finally long past its useful life. Not only did it have a faint odor of many years’ worth of children and pets having bladder control issues in its vicinity, but Tivo, our noble greyhound, scratched through both the upholstery and the cushions in his regular quest to improve the comfiness of his 4th favorite place to sleep.
(In case you’re wondering, his first three favorite sleeping places are: the blue chair in my office, the dog bed in my office, and the dog bed in the living room. And yes, he is a little spoiled. Why do you ask?)
Updating old and beat up furniture used to be one of my favorite things. When I was about 14 years old, I was delighted to get a replacement bed for the double bed that had originally been my mother’s and that I had been sleeping on since I was about 6. Buying “real” furniture to replace the cast-offs and secondhand store specials that I had collected in my early 20s was nothing if not a cause for joyous celebration. I wept with gratitude upon buying wooden file cabinets to replace the awful metal one we had been using for years.
But getting rid of this couch, dilapidated though it was, hit differently. And I know why - I remember its entire life cycle!
A Lifespan in the Rearview Mirror
My husband purchased that couch with one of his first paychecks from his first real job. We had only been dating a few months, and his buying the couch was an indicator that I was in a relationship with a Real Grownup ™.
No sofas found on the side of the road or received through parental osmosis for this guy! No, he had the ability and the cash to buy an honest-to-goodness couch that he picked out himself at a furniture retail establishment.
Which makes it all the weirder to realize the expensive furniture that your boyfriend purchased new in 2003 would become dump-worthy junk that you and your husband can’t even offer to the good folks on your Buy Nothing board just a short two decades later!
Nothing Lasts Forever
Of course, I know intellectually that purchases aren’t going to last until the heat death of the universe. But what I consider “worn out after a reasonable amount of time” has definitely changed as I’ve gotten older. Being in the stage of life where I can clearly remember buying something new, no matter how long ago that was, makes me much more likely to harrumph when it comes time to replace it.
“I just bought these socks,” I’ll think to myself, “and there’s already a hole in the toe.”
Then I’ll remember that “just bought them” means I purchased them approximately four years ago.
Theoretically, that should be an amount of time that makes me feel like I got my money’s worth from any one pair of socks I own. It certainly used to be. I’d consider it money well spent if a pair of socks I purchased before leaving for college could still be worn at graduation before the gradually growing hole finally exposed a toe.
The problem is that four years (or 18 years, for that matter) gets to be a smaller and smaller percentage of my total lifespan to date, which means the items may last the same amount of time, but my perception of that time has shifted.
Instead of four years feeling like an incredibly long time—during which period I will grow, change, learn French, make friends, discover my alcohol tolerance, have dramatic breakups, discover my pizza-at-2am tolerance, write a metric butt-load of literary analysis essays, discover my ice-cream-for-breakfast tolerance, and work as a part-time DJ at my college radio station—that timeframe now seems like a mere snap of the fingers, and is only significant because how much taller and chattier my kids have gotten in that span.
Vividly remembering my husband’s excitement and pride at being able to make such a large purchase on his own meant I had some feelings as we left the broken-down old couch at the dump. (I can neither confirm nor deny that I sang “Is this the little couch I sat on? Is this the sofa where I napped?” as we drove away.)
Frugality, Waste, and Not Wanting a Dumpy House
The specific distress-tinged-with-relief that both my husband and I felt on Saturday comes from being there for the entire life cycle of the couch. We have watched the couch go from brand new expensive purchase to ungiveawayable trash. This thing we can remember buying is going to clutter up our municipal dump, and that feels wasteful. It reminded us that all the things we buy are temporary, and there will be a time when anything we covet will become trash.
This is the frugal person’s lament, of course. You want to avoid wasting money and precious resources by buying replacement items, but it’s inevitable that your things will wear out and need to be replaced. It doesn’t help that the gimme gimme machine grinds on with new, improved, shiny, colorful, sequined, exciting products for sale that you can covet now and trash tomorrow.
So, what can we do if we don’t want to be part of the cycle of waste, but we also don’t want to live with a couch that’s sprouting stuffing?
Finally Understanding Plastic Couch Covers
We have put in an order for a brand-spanking new couch to replace our old one. It’s a pretty merlot color, built in the U.S., has a pull-out bed that doesn’t come with a complimentary visit to a chiropractor, and it will be delivered and put together for us sometime in August.
I hate the idea of unloading this couch at the dump in 18 years (even though that would be another epic life span for a piece of furniture). So, I’m planning to be a little more careful with this one. To start, as Responsible Grownups ™, we sprang for the extended pet protection in case Tivo starts eyeing the cushions while filing his claws. That only promises us 5 years, but it’s a good start. We are also going to try to keep the “no food on the couch” rule in place for longer than 5 seconds. (Wish us luck with that one).
But ultimately, if we want this couch (and our cars, and our socks, and our appliances) to look good and last a long time, we need to treat them with care and intention. Now that I’m old enough to remember a purchased item’s entire life cycle, from the unwrap-the-packaging joy to the shuck-it-out-at-the-dump relief, I finally get why grandmas keep transparent covers on their couches. Nothing lasts forever, and if you want your stuff to look nice without putting the fear of God in your children and pets—well, here comes the plastic.
The Frugal Pragmatist
As someone who has regularly appeared in public places wearing a hoodie with bleach stains on it (because it’s COMFORTABLE, darn it!), I’m never going to be someone who is more concerned about how something looks than how it feels. I want my kids to feel comfortable making a fort out of our couch cushions. I want to sometimes fork Lo Mein directly from the little white carton into my pie hole while re-watching Lucifer for the millionth time with my feet up on the coffee table. I want the dog to continue to snuggle with us on the couch, even if it often means he’s farting directly on us.
This is all going to mean some wear and tear. Which is going to mean living with things that eventually look slightly dumpy.
Knowing that I want to live this way, with both a laissez-faire attitude about couch usage and a preference for a house that looks inhabited by human beings rather than rabid ducks, I have to find a good balance and recognize that I’m not going to be perfect. The trick is learning to clean/repair/cover when it’s appropriate and learning to let go when it’s appropriate. (Which we probably should have done a good year ago with the old couch. It really was nasty.)
The couch is dead. Vive le couch!
What’s the longest you’ve ever held onto a piece of furniture? Did you have any trouble letting go?