Since August, I’ve been on a quest to reduce the clutter in my life. Back when I was a spendthrift, I bought a lot of Stuff. Stuff comforted me. When I was buying things (even on credit), I felt wealthy.

Stuff doesn’t make me feel wealthy anymore — it makes me feel cramped. With time, Stuff simply becomes clutter. Slowly but surely, I’m banishing excess belongings from my household. I still sometimes buy more than I ought, but mostly I’ve been guarding the borders of my life against the invasion of Stuff. Here are some of the defenses I’ve been employing:

  • I ignore the proverbial Joneses. One of the most dangerous paths to clutter (and to overspending) is the urge to own the same things your friends do. Peer pressure can be powerful. I’ve come to realize that lifestyles are not a competition. What does it matter what others buy? I’m content with what I have — more Stuff is not going to make me more happy.
  • If I don’t need it, I don’t buy it. As I’ve purged my Stuff over the past year, I’ve been shocked by how many things I bought but never used. I would see something in a store — a voice recorder, for example — and convince myself that I needed it. Or I would tell myself, “I might as well buy a jig saw — we’ll need one in the new house.” But I used the jig saw only once in four years (on the day we moved in). I never used the voice recorder at all! These items are clutter, and were a waste of money. I’ve learned not to buy something unless I know I’ll use it.
  • I try to value experiences instead of things. Make no mistake — experiences still cost money. But a trip to England or the entrance fee to a marathon or a nice dinner with friends all share a common characteristic: they don’t take up space in my home. I get value for my money, and there’s no residual Stuff.
  • I’m trying to practice the one-in, one-out rule. I’ll admit up front that I’m not good at this, but Kris is trying to teach me. I’m attempting to keep a steady state of Stuff. If I have, for example, twelve pairs of socks, and then buy another, I must get rid of one pair. Practicing this rule prevents a build-up of Stuff.
  • I focus on quality. It’s been difficult for me to realize that sometimes it makes sense to pay more for the things I buy. My instinct is to buy whatever’s cheapest. (And sometimes that is the best choice.) But I’m learning to base my purchase decisions on the value an item will give me. Often it makes more sense to have one excellent expensive item than to have several lousy cheap ones. The lousy items just become clutter.
  • I borrow and lend. Shakespeare might have advised against it, but I’ve found that by borrowing and lending things among friends, there’s less we each need to own. I’ve loaned out a drill, a rototiller, some golf clubs. I’ve borrowed books, a video camera, a lamp. By sharing these items, we’re each able to have less Stuff in our lives.
  • I’ve reduced my exposure to advertising. Since I stopped watching television a few years ago, I buy much less Stuff. But it’s not just television. I used to enjoy reading the ads in magazines. Now I try to ignore them. The less I pay attention to advertising, the less I buy.

I don’t want to pretend like I have Stuff licked. I don’t. I’m still especially susceptible to free and cheap things. In the past year, for example, I’ve dragged home:

  • A carload of scrap lumber I picked up for free. (Admittedly, this did get used as a border to our garden.)
  • Several pieces of free exercise equipment that have remained unused in our garage.
  • A box of free books — books that I now realize I will never read.

Just because something is free or cheap doesn’t mean it’s a bargain. If I don’t need it, I shouldn’t bring it home. Despite this weakness in my defenses, the tide of the battle has turned. I’m winning the war against Stuff.

There’s nothing wrong with owning Stuff that you use and value. But when you accumulate Stuff that you never use, that’s a problem. Guard your borders. In his excellent The Joy of Simple Living, Jeff Davidson writes, “By keeping watch over what enters your personal kingdom, you end having to initiate possession-purging exercises.” The best way to cope with Stuff is to never let it into your house.