Thursday, April 3, 2008

Snail Mail

Originally uploaded by Jim Epler

There are a few basic types of mail that we all receive. The first is the mail we want, like letters and cards from family and friends, and of course, although much too infrequently, the envelope that actually contains a check. I don’t want to do anything to stop that type of mail, and sadly, there’s not all that much of it anyway.

Then there’s the mail that we need – namely, our bills. I’ve signed up for e-bills from those companies that offer it, and now get my bills online. I save time that I would spend opening and filing, and I save resources by avoiding having the company use the paper to print the bill, send me an envelope to mail my payment in, and then put that all into another envelope for mailing to me. If I pay the bills online, which I’ve been doing for some time now, I’m saving the time of writing out a check, the paper that the check is written on, the expense of buying the check itself, and the money for postage. I would propose that the companies who bill us should calculate what it costs to paper bill their customers and give us a discount each billing cycle for opting to take e-bills. I won’t hold my breath however, and will settle for the warm fuzzy feeling it gives me instead.

The final type of mail (you knew this was coming!) is junk mail. I’ve always been annoyed by junk mail. If nothing else, it takes time to sort through it and determine what is junk and what needs actual attention. Of course there’s also a lot of waste generated by junk mailings. Very occasionally, I will receive a coupon in a mailing that I will save. Even more occasionally, I will actually redeem one of those coupons rather than saving it until I finally look at it again and realize that it expired two years ago. There are so many resources on the web these days that make it much easier to find coupons, offers, and sales when I am ready to buy something.

There are a few places on the web that I found that can help to reduce the amount of junk mail I receive. Actually, there are a lot of places willing to do this for a fee. I found a few that don't charge anything. One is, a site that allows you to opt out of receiving offers from credit card and insurance companies. A second is the Direct Marketing Association’s opt out, which allows you to opt out of mail generated by DMA lists. It does take a while for the request to make it to those who actually use these lists, so I’ve been calling those who send me mail in the meantime (if I have a free moment) and ask that they remove my name from their mailing list.

The final opt out service is Catalog Choice. This one is perhaps the most user friendly of all three, because it allows you to pick and choose which catalogs you receive and let's you stop delivery of those that you don’t need a hard copy of. One of the coolest parts of this site is that it actually tells you if your request has been received and acknowledged by the merchant, or whether they refuse to participate in this program. Some companies whose catalog I opt out of I may still purchase from in store or online, but not if they refuse to honor my request to not receive their catalog. The site also keeps track of all your past opt-outs and allows you to change them at any time.

I think stopping the flow of catalogs into my home is one definite way to reduce the amount of stuff that I buy. Just the other day, a kitchen catalog arrived. There was so much cool stuff! Like these intricate plastic containers for bringing salads to work, with a separate compartment for your dressing so that it wouldn't make the lettuce soggy by lunchtime. The little container nests right inside the lid of the bigger container, where the salad goes. I definitely had to have that. Until I thought long and hard about whether I really did need it. Well, I'm not actually working outside the home right now, so I don't even actually pack a lunch these days. But that might change at some point. Or it might not.

More importantly though, I have tons of little containers already that I could use to transport something as simple as salad dressing. It's not radioactive, it's oil and vinegar. There's nothing about that particular container that makes it more or less suitable for holding salad dressing than anything else I already have - except for the fact that somebody marketed it to me, through this catalog, and said look, this will hold your salad dressing in a nice pretty package. There's always another more subliminal message too, like your life will be happier/more organized/more fulfilling/more hip if you buy this (for more on this, see The Story of Stuff when you have twenty free minutes).

My life will not be better if I buy more stuff. If I buy more stuff, I will have less money, and more stuff to store, clean, organize, maintain, and trip over. By not exposing myself to the marketing in the first place, it's that much easier to avoid the impulse to buy things I definitely don't need. Ultimately, that is what will make an impact.

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