Hope In A Bottle

For the first 30ish years of my life, I enjoyed stuff as much as the average American. I bought a lot of it, and used it, and got pissed off when I had to dust it. When my stuff got a little long in the tooth, I tossed it out and bought more stuff.

Several years ago I had a revelation that started me on a path of buying and consuming less. This revelation came about a bit before the entire economy bit the dust, so I guess you could say at least my head was in the right space when the inevitable belt tightening took place.

I was in my bathroom, looking at cabinets full of organizers that were, themselves, full of stuff. I had lotions, cleansers, tonics, acne creams, wrinkle creams, eye creams, under-eye creams, exfoliaters, moisturizers, day creams, night creams and all manner of snake oil.  These potions promising me un-aging beauty, the adoration of my husband, the envy of my girlfriends and – here’s the thing – happiness.

Now if a salesperson at a cosmetics counter were to say something like: “You really aren’t good enough without baby-ass smooth under-eye skin, so this $45 cream is your ticket to a totally self-fulfilled, balanced and happy life,” you would probably laugh at the ridiculous of it. Or maybe you’d punch the 17 year old salesgirl in the face.

But this is exactly the pit of flawed-logic I (and millions of others of otherwise sensible, intelligent people, I suspect) had fallen into.

I had been throwing money at creams that offered the hope of flawless skin and the collagen levels of a teenager. I was actively pissed off at the indignity of having to deal with pimples and wrinkles at the same time and I was sure there was a solution…if only I could find it, and buy it.

Then it hit me, staring at all those little vials and tubes and tubs: all I was really buying was the hope that I would get the skin I had in 1998 back. And that clearly wasn’t happening. I was buying Hope In A Bottle.

I was trading my money, which itself was a stand-in for time, for an unfulfillable promise. It wasn’t the newest advancement in moisturizer technology, it was fairy dust and unicorn tears and hope in a bottle. And I was doing this over and over again in different areas of my life.

My mud-room looked like a janitorial closet, jammed full of Costco-sized containers of brightly colored cleaners that offered the hope that I would become Someone Who Likes Cleaning and Keeps A Spotless Home. The logic could only have been, “Maybe if I just buy this type of glass cleaner, I will become inspired to become the type of person who cleans her windows weekly.” (Or daily – I have a friend who does that). Hope in a spray-bottle.

I have a hall closet jammed full of scrapbooking supplies because I bought the illusion that if I just owned the right paper and stamps and precious heart-shaped hole punches, I would become A Good Mom Who Organizes The Baby Photos. Well, the first baby’s seven and it hasn’t happened yet. Now my daughter uses the 12″x12″ paper for crafts and giant origami. Hope in a craft closet.

I just parted with a half-dozen pairs of really cute designer high-heals because I was finally able to let go of the delusion that I would become Someone With A Very Cool Life. Preferably, a life that involved fetching my permanently clean and adorably dressed children from their French-speaking Montessori school after having a cup of cappuccino and scintillating, worldly conversation (in French, which I don’t speak) with an equally fabulous looking and put-together friend.

Since most days I don’t shower and the vague, sour odor of baby vomit follows me wherever I go, it is particularly strange that I should have clung to the shoes for so long. Then again, maybe the unglamorous reality of my life is precisely why I held on to those totems of impractical style for as long as I did. Hope in a 4-inch heel.

Now when I am faced with purchase situations, I ask myself, “Is this Hope In A Bottle?” What is the hypothetical salesgirl (you know, the one with the fat lip and the black eye) really promising with the $45 cream? In other words, why do I really want to buy this?

I try to look at my home and my life and my purchases and my quirks and hang-ups with eyes wide open about my own purchase motivations. It doesn’t always work, particularly where garden supplies are concerned (“Of course I have room for three varieties of chard!” “Absolutely I need 18 cubic yards of topsoil”), but looking at all the stuff that competes for my time and money through the lens of Hope In A Bottle has totally changed my consumption patterns.

What about you; what’s your relationship to spending and frugality? Do you buy Hope In A Bottle?


  1. Dreaming of Jeanie says

    Oh, man. I'm the BIGGEST sucker for hope in a bottle. I've managed to ditch the fancy clothes, but still have an expensive brand of facewash next to my sink. DOH!

  2. says

    I have a similar relationship to chess. I feel like I should like chess, should even be good at it. I'd even like to be the kind of cardigan wearing eccentric academic who actually is good at chess and can diagram famous matches on a chalkboard (getting chalk dust on my cardigan in the process).

    The problem is, I am terrible at chess and don't even like it very much. I finally made my peace with that, stopped buying books about chess ("this one will finally be the one…"), and moved on to card games and Settlers of Catan.

  3. Sharon Miro says

    At one time, I just didn't feel right if I didn't spend over $200 at Costco. And I used to feel uneasy if I didn't go to Home Depot at least once a week.
    In December 2010, and Jan 2011. I cleaned. CLEANED. And filled 2 garages with "stuff". Now I think about every dollar that I spend and sometimes it's Hope In a Bottle, and sometimes it's dinner!

  4. says

    i just found your blog yesterday but the few posts i have read, and now this one, are so refreshing because of the way you point out the falsities behind consumerism and how hey, that money was actually time… the economics of it all. and then of course i had to giggle at the paragraph about gardening. i think it can be applied there, too! more out of necessity than anything else, i've been finding so many ways to glean free gardening stuff, gear, soil building materials… even the extra varieties of chard (let's hear it for community garden neighbors who let their greens bolt and seed my bed with new varieties! woot!)

  5. says

    I can't say I've never fallen for the Hope In A Bottle campaign, but I think I do pretty well at resisting it and seeing it for what it is.

    I don't fall for the cosmetic/HBA pitches that the potions and lotions will make me look better, feel better, be more confident, more sexy or more popular. Nor do I fall for the special mops, cleansers, super vacuums, air freshners, etc. for my home. I use no make-up or hair dye, and I use homemade soap for my body and hair. I mop my floor with homemade spray cleaner and an old cloth diaper.

    I do have a lot of craft supplies for the crafts I sincerely enjoy but it took me years to finally realize that buying more craft supplies will not magically free up the time for me to enjoy them. Nor will buying random supplies "just because" suddenly produce the perfect project for their use. I think I used to believe that would really happen.

    And yes, gardening plants and supplies are a big temptation for both my husband and me. It's easier to justify, though, with plants that can be eaten or perennials that will give us beauty for years to come. We try not to spend much on non-edible annuals.

  6. Lisa says

    Honestly, Erica. You have skin like a Gibson Girl, whoever convinced you to buy product must have had skin like a demi-goddess.

    Everything is a series of skirmishes between my aspirational life and my actual life, which is totally at the mercy of entropy. The kitchen is always a mess, my clothes always have oil spatters (which is why I no longer buy nice clothing and instead live in stretchy Target stuff, and I just have a few “Going Out” items), I never like the books or movies (films) I’m ‘supposed’ to like, I think the general idea of scrapbooking is icky and I haven’t watched Oprah since the 1990’s. Generally, I feel like the world (or my husband) is trying to thwart or trick me. Like when a roomful of wine experts gabble on about some great glass and it turns out the host tricked them with Bota Box. The people that have the energy, time and willpower to devote to pitched battles between aspirational and actual must have a helluva lotta paid help. Have to go now, the dog is walking her muddy feet all over my wood floors. (currently, she is thwarting me).

  7. says

    Anonymous said…
    True confessions here, I don't use any fancy cremes on my face and never have. People generally guess that I'm about 5-10 years younger. Hope in a bottle indeed. I think we all have hope in a bottle in one way or another. I finally came to the realization a few years back that "more" and "better" wasn't going to make me happy. Being content with what I have has made such a big difference in my happiness quotient, and has given me a greater sense of peace. Excellent post!

  8. says

    Although my current actual hope-in-a-bottle is just some coconut oil, I'm totally guilty of picking up things that I am convinced will make me the person that I want to be. Clearly, having lots of books will make me a more well-read person, possessing lots of cooking gadgets will make me a better cook, and buying a few extra pieces of clothing will make me a pulled-together professional (right? right?). On the up side, I buy pretty much everything used so it's not too bad but, all the same, I go for the hope-in-a-bottle pretty regularly, and am working to change that.

  9. says

    I actually own a bottle of "When Hope Is Not Enough" LOL. And my face cream is called Hope in a Jar. So yea… I fall for that part. I'm fanatical about my skin. I have however given up the dream of having a nice new car or a perfect lawn.

  10. says

    I've pretty much given up hope on everything …nice skin, a decent body, financial security, happiness. As one who spent many years in high heels 10 hours a day, I can tell you, you aren't missing anything. I don't even own a pair anymore … or a dress that fits. I'm pretty happy if my computer doesn't crash on any given day.

  11. Anonymous says

    I could do with a little more hope, but am trying to find it in nature or humanity, in the garden or my homekeeping role, and in myself, but dang, that is a lot harder to do… I can see why the bottle/ jar/ clothes with all their marketing and convenience are tempting!


  12. Angie says

    Great post! My hope is on the bookshelf. Actually, it's on the dining room table and we aren't able to eat there, at present. Ever since I started homeschooling my kids, I found myself experiencing epiphany after epiphany and asking myself unaswerable questions such as "WHY DIDN'T I ALREADY KNOW THIS?" I was quick to conclude that, in spite of the 18 years of schooling, and my performance as a "great" student, I came out rather uneducated. So I'm changing that, and the 16 pedagogy and teaching books I have read in the past 2 months, and the piles of Latin, ancient world history, literature, poetry, sentence diagramming, progynasmata, art history, and science books which presently occupy my dining table, in preparation for the "new" school year, (we school year round), but if nothing else lying in wait for the purchase of two additional bookshelves, certainly amount to some kind of hope.

  13. Mary W. says

    If your hope in a jar is sunscreen, what’s the verdict on that? Do we have any studies yet that show skin-lives being saved by sunscreen from their youth?
    I am willing to offer my own personal anecdotal data on that. I don’t wear sunscreen and I never have. I’ve also never tanned in a booth or intentionally laid out in the sun for tanning purposes. I have gotten tanned ‘parts’ from working or playing in the sun, however. One major sunburn in my life–across my shoulders from mountain climbing. Very few other burns, not even minor ones.

    I’m 34 and my skin is much thinner than it used to be (shows my facial bones prominently), very very white, and has wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. Yet, people still guess me as 5 years younger than I am.

    I’d love to hear other people’s sunscreen stories, and whether it is also Hope in a Bottle?

  14. Steph says

    Love your post, it makes a whole lot of sense. I have managed to narrow it down to one large Costco bought bottle of hope and one eye cream and thought I was doing great. I too, looked around one day and realised I’d been ‘had’ and all these varieties of lotions and potions don’t actually do ‘what it says on the bottle’. Having to move them halfway across the world when we emigrated (for the second time) convinced me it was time to ditch that ‘hope’ for a new one. We switched rain for sunshine and are just discovering our garden, got some chickens and just want to be homebodies! Now if I could figure out a way to ditch the 40 hour stuck in a chair, in front of a screen, office jail, I would be free to enjoy what matters most……


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