I did a little time traveling yesterday, and I didn’t like it.

“I’m going to clean the workshop,” I announced at breakfast. “I know I should write or mow the lawn, but I’m going to clean the workshop.”

“Sounds good,” Kris said. She rarely argues when I have an urge to do some cleaning.

A glimpse at the past
My WorkshopWhen we first looked at this property five years ago, I was drawn to the outbuildings. I have fond memories of the outbuildings on my grandparents’ land, so I was excited that our new house would have a detached garage, two sheds, and a workshop.

For the first couple of years, I actually used the workshop for its intended purpose. It was the place I practiced my (very limited) handyman skills. I also used it to build computers for family and friends. In time, however, the building fell into disuse; it gradually turned to storage.

I gave a tour of our home to a visitor last month. When I showed the workshop, I was dismayed. I hadn’t really looked at it in months — or years. But when I saw it through the eyes of a stranger, it was clear that it had become a dumping ground for my cast-off Stuff.

The past recaptured
I’ve written before about my battle with Stuff. In many ways, I’ve made great progress. I’m less acquisitive than I used to be, and I’ve sold most of the things that have value. But I still possess a great mass of Stuff.

As I began my cleaning project yesterday, the workshop was packed with:

  • Old computer parts (Apple II, Macintosh SE, etc.)
  • Vinyl record albums from my youth
  • Compact discs
  • Darkroom equipment
  • Old books and comics
  • Stacks and stacks of magazines
  • Boxes and bags filled with miscellaneous junk
  • Packaging materials from three years of purchases

Looking at this collection of Stuff — none of which I need or use anymore — I was overwhelmed. I felt sick. Did I really purchase all of this Stuff? Why? As I worked, I tried to answer that question.

Whenever I picked something up, I tried to remember how much I had paid for it and what had led me to buy it:

This voice recorder cost $59. I thought it would keep me from forgetting things, but I never remembered to use it. Not once. These photography books cost $20 each. I thought they’d help me make better photos, but I’m not sure I read any of them at all. I bought this old Apple II for $125 off of eBay because I wanted to play the games I remember from fifth and sixth grade. I used it for a couple of hours.

I took a trip through my past, and it wasn’t a pleasant experience. All around me was evidence of my wasteful ways. For nearly 20 years, I had been in acquisition mode. I accumulated Stuff. My workshop was filled with the last remnants of this life.

One fundamental principle of frugality is to buy only things for which you have a use (even if that use is pleasure). The old J.D. wasn’t good at this. I bought a lot of stuff that I didn’t need — and barely wanted.

Now here I am at 40, and when I look at all of the things I own, I can’t help but wonder what my younger self was thinking. Buying this Stuff seemed like a good idea at one time, I know, but owning these things did not make me happy. It didn’t make me feel free. Quite the opposite, in fact. This Stuff is a burden, a physical and a mental barrier to the things that are actually important to me.

A dream of the future
Kris and I are in the very early stages of planning our vacation for next year, and we’re leaning towards a Rick Steves tour. Steves is a one-bag zealot: Participants are not allowed to bring more than a single carry-on suitcase, whether the tour lasts two days — or twenty.

This might seem limiting to some, but I find the one-bag philosophy liberating. When Kris’ parents took us to London and Dublin in 2007, I took a single carry-on bag. For three weeks, my entire world consisted solely of the possessions I could squeeze into this suitcase. It was awesome. I felt unburdened. When we returned from that trip, the one-bag experience prompted me to undergo a short phase during which I purged Stuff around the house — but I never finished the job.

As I continue to develop my personal and financial goals for the future, I want to focus less on Stuff. I’ve learned to guard against the invasion of Stuff, but I want to take it a step further. I want to eliminate more of the Stuff I already own. To that end, I’ve developed some personal guidelines to help me approach the task:

  • Don’t overthink it. With so much Stuff to get rid of, it’s easy to make the project even better than it has to be. I’m tempted to draw up plans on paper or to simply re-arrange the Stuff into new piles. The key is to dispense with all this folderol and just get started.
  • Focus on one item at a time. If I look at the entire project at once, I’m overwhelmed. How on earth will I ever clean the workshop? How will I ever find a place for all this Stuff? Instead, I concentrate on one thing at a time. Where does this photo enlarger go? And what about my old Tintin books? I break the project into smaller steps.
  • Don’t get depressed. When I think about the time and money that this Stuff represents, I sometimes let it get me down. It seems like such a waste. But the past is the past, and I cannot change what I’ve done. All I can do is try to make smart choices going forward, to guard against the invasion of Stuff, and to get rid of the clutter that’s already in my life.
  • Do some good with the Stuff you have. If I’m going to get rid of things, I might as well make the most of them. Sure, much of the Stuff is going to end up in the trash, but can some of the items be donated to a local thrift store? A school? In my case, I have darkroom equipment that somebody on Craigslist or Freecycle may want. My nephew would probably love the two boxes of model railroad parts I’ve acquired.
  • Purge ruthlessly. When I sort through this Stuff, I have to turn off the emotional side of my brain. This can be difficult, but it’s necessary. Do I really need my high school newspapers? All of my old role-playing games? My boxes of common football cards? What about my cassette tapes from high school and college? The financial records for buying our first house in 1993? Everything has some sort of meaning; if I keep it all, I’m going to be buried in clutter.
  • Remember how this feels. Though I’m doing much better at avoiding Stuff, I still have my weaknesses. I still bring home too many books. I’m still drawn to “free” stuff by the side of the road. Next week, I plan to attend an enormous neighborhood garage sale, and if I’m not careful, I could come home with even more Stuff. When I’m tempted in the future, I need to remind myself of what it feels like to dig through this crap.

I almost think that this project should make me feel happy and triumphant, not sad and mopey. Look how far I’ve come! Look at the smart choices I’m now able to make! And think of how much less cluttered my life will be once I purge all of this stuff!

I don’t feel triumphant yet, but maybe I’ll get there. For now, I’m hoping that my own experience can serve as an object lesson to others who might be acquisition mode. Buying Stuff (and getting Stuff for free) can seem like fun. It can seem like “winning”. It’s not. Don’t buy things for which you have no use; the value is in the using, not the having.

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