Clutter’s Last Stand: The Cost of Buying Things You Will Not Use

During the 1990s, I used credit cards to fund my every whim. I bought books and games and computers and gadgets. Now, ten years later, I'm still carrying a lot of that debt in the form of a home equity loan (into which I rolled all my credit cards several years ago). I also still have a lot of the crap I bought.

I have a plan for getting rid of the debt by next spring, but until recently I had no intention of getting rid of the things I had bought with the money. Instead, I let them take up space in the garage, in the workshop, in the basement. Physical reminders of my foolish purchases were all around me. The clutter was as much a mental burden as the debt!

Then a reader recommended Clutter's Last Stand: It's Time to De-Junk Your Life. Author Don Aslett is a cleaning zealot — reading this book opened my eyes. In a chapter called “The Economy of Clutter”, Aslett lists the costs of clutter:

  • Clutter makes every job take longer
  • Clutter makes cleaning take longer
  • The value is in the using, not the owning
  • Storing clutter costs you
  • Guarding clutter costs you
  • Moving clutter costs you
  • Even owning clutter costs you

“No matter how you look at it,” writes Aslett, “clutter is a poor investment.”

Kris and I spent Saturday sorting through my poor investment. Our community garage sale is this weekend, so this seemed like a good time to get rid of some of the junk that has been cluttering up our lives. It took a l-o-n-g time. We have way too much stuff.

We sorted through dozens of boxes, purging junk. We saved the best items to sell, but many things went directly into the trash. Every time I pitched something, I winced. These things are physical representations of my debt. I felt like I was literally throwing my money away. It especially hurt because I'm still paying interest on this stuff!

When I tossed my electronic chess game (missing two rooks and the instructions), I recalled buying it for $79 at Radio Shack in 1995. I spent over $500 on computer programming manuals around the same time, manuals that haven't been opened since I bought them. This morning they're sitting at the curb in the recycling bin. I couldn't bring myself to throw away the box full of computer games I acquired (but hardly played) over the past fifteen years, but as I write this entry, I know that when I get home today they're all going in the trash. Is there really any reason to hold onto a copy of Duke Nukem?

I've written before that you should not buy things you cannot afford. Here's another tip: Don't buy things for which you have no use. Don't buy things you do not need or want. This is common sense, I know. But for a decade, I bought anything that sounded bright, shiny, and new. I'm not the only one. Aslett writes:

There are people who all their lives dream […] whatever they want above all, and as their live nears its end, they finally accumulate the cash to have the big dream come true. Even if they can't use it much, they go buy it — thinking that the having is the ultimate. But it all comes to little because they can't smell and feel and share the glory of daily use. The value is in the using and building and growing, not simply the having.

The value is in the using, not in the having. It has taken me 38 years to realize this!

Fortunately, I'm not the same person I was five or ten years ago. I still buy dumb things now-and-then, but mostly I've learned to control myself. I bring less junk into my life. What has changed?

  • I've learned to ask myself, “Will I use this?” If I'm at a bookstore and feel the urge to buy something I ask myself, “Will I read this?” It's shocking how often the answer is “no”. When it is, I put the book back on the shelf.
  • I used to buy things on impulse, not because I wanted them. I simply had the urge to spend. Now if I really want something, I generally force myself to wait using the 30-day rule.
  • I've also begun to purchase quality items. So much of what we threw away Saturday was cheap and shoddy. It's worthless. Now, for example, if I decide I want a messenger bag, I save until I can afford one that is high quality. By taking the time to save, I often decide I don't want the thing after all.

Though it hurts to think of how much money I threw away over the weekend, it's a relief to get rid of this junk. The debt I incurred to buy it is a mental burden, but so was having this stuff in the garage. It feels great to be clearing out this space. It'll feel even better next spring when I've finally paid off my home equity loan!

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COD
COD

If you can Duke Nukem to run on a modern PC you’ll probably enjoy playing it. It was a ground breaking game at the time and probably still a lot of fun.

Q at $1 Million to My Name
Q at $1 Million to My Name

I am a minimalist at heart. But the struggle is constant

st
st

I too am 38 and over the past 2 decades bought tons of books, games, CDs, and DVDs–more than I could ever use. As for clutter, I’ve been on a declutter mission for a few years. I recently bought a ScanSnap scanner, super fast sheet feeder, and I have scanned a few boxes worth of books to PDFs. Also, with all the games, I have kept only the CDs for them, and I scanned in all the manuals and instructions. What was nearly impossible before is possible now, thanks to that scanner. I kept a couple dozen books that I… Read more »

Dy (www.dyphan.com)
Dy (www.dyphan.com)

My wife finally urged me to get rid of a whole bunch of my stuff on ebay recently. I’m so glad we did it. Gained almost 1000 dollars and we now have tons of space in our place.

Melsky
Melsky

I recommend an international move to cut down on clutter. We went from a five acre ranch in the mojave with multiple storage sheds and a garage to a Toronto apartment.

Mari
Mari

ANY kind of move is a great declutter motivator. I keep telling myself, as I prepare to move my family 200 miles, that every thing I pack I am paying money to move. When we prepared our old house for staging, we got rid of so much, and now we love living in such a clutter-free environment.

JonathanZ
JonathanZ

Great post, I too struggle with keeping clutter to a minimum but when I do it greatly increases my productivity and overall quality of life.

This post made me think of the site unclutterer.com, I only stumbled upon it in the last couple months but have already found it useful and inspiring.

And no, I am in no way affiliated with that site just thought some might find it useful in regards to the topic of clutter 🙂

zoom
zoom

I buy art technique books, hoping they’ll magically transform me into an artist. So far they haven’t worked, so I keep buying more.

I suppose it might help if I were to actually READ them.

Raisin
Raisin

I bought Don Aslett’s book about ten years ago. The ‘clutter’ parts of the book are not that great, and the 1-2 punch of Julie Morgenstern’s “Organizing from the inside out” and the Joe Lupo, Jesse Garza book “Nothing to wear” will do much more to address the root of the problem rather than the symptom.

However, once you go through a few life changes that address the clutter problem, then Aslett’s book becomes very valuable. Aslett’s book is more about maintaining a clutter free life easily rather than making the journey from clutter to uncluttered.

Lynn
Lynn

I would be willing to bet that if you put out a craigslist ad offering your old PC games for $5 to cover shipping, you would get at least a few interested hits. I know quite a few people who would enjoy getting their hands on Duke Nukem. Better in someone else’s garage than in a landfill, right?

jgs9455
jgs9455

What a good post. I think all of us on the journey to pay off debt/stay out of debt have shared these same thoughts. What do I need to get rid of that I am still paying for? Off the top of my head I can think of 2 shelves of technical books (WinNT era), 3 tubs of old computer parts (junk), 200+ DVDs, 2 broken mountain bikes, and my moms old silver plate that I still have. I need to clean house!! One good thing I found when I was cleaning out old filing cabinets (I think I had… Read more »

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit

Go out to the curb. Retrieve the boxes of books. Take them, especially the programming books, to a favored high school or a local library. SOMEBODY (although perhaps not you) can use the information in those books.

Bill

PS:
Those books STILL have value to you. Get a receipt for tax purposes (charitable / non-profit contribution). If you studied some obscure programming language, eBay might be a valuable friend.

Dickey47
Dickey47

Oh man. I have a sign that I put out on my corner: FREE – Please don’t take sign Yes, the sign was taken once. A couple of weeks ago I managed to get rid of things that should really go in the garbage. I’m not sure if the stuff will get used, sold, or auctioned, but at least it won’t get stuck in a landfill. Just a partial list: books (outdated!), medical postit notes, stickers, stuffed animals, bricks, modems, router, extraneous electronics, index filers, jars, framed pictures, you name it. I would have gotten about $40 at a garage… Read more »

st
st

>>realized that if I hadn’t looked at or used things in 5 years I wouldn’t ever use them. Also why trade being a physical packrat to a digital packrat?

st
st

realized that if I hadn’t looked at or used things in 5 years I wouldn’t ever use them. Also why trade being a physical packrat to a digital packrat? —– But I never said anything about scanning stuff I never look at. 😉 Plenty of it was stuff I look at regularly. I’m not in favor of being a digital packrat anymore than a physical packrat. But the answer to your question is obvious–less physical clutter. More new space in your home. Would you really have a rule that says only books yuo’ve read within the past 5 years are… Read more »

jgs9455
jgs9455

And let us all not forget the age old rule that “As soon as you throw something out, even if you haven’t used it in years or forgot you had it – you will find a use for it after it’s gone” :o)

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit

Lynn … that sparked an interesting thought; could the garages and attics and sheds across our country be reasonably considered “distributed landfills”?

There is probably a sociology paper or two in that. Maybe an urban policy planning manual as well.

PaleAndNerdy
PaleAndNerdy

I deal with the same problems of clutter–my parents are true pack rats, and I’ve fought not to be one myself my whole life. But I would ask you (and everyone else cleaning out their clutter) to please NOT throw everything in the garbage. Recycle it if you can, give it to the Salvation Army and get a tax-deductible receipt, give it away to people who want it on FreeCycle.com, or sell it on Craigslist. There are many ways to solve your problem without making our earth’s problems worse.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.

Great article! I am sharing this one with my friends. I am so sick of people telling me to buy something just because I looked at it in the store. Sorry, but it may be cute, but I know better than you what I need in my life. Of course I don’t actually say that to them, because it sounds snarky 😛

goddessofthefrontdesk
goddessofthefrontdesk

It only took you 38 years to make this shift? Rejoice! You’re way ahead of many of us.

matt
matt

>>>st said:
Audio CDs? Ripped to hard drives, and will sell or donate them.>>>>

Don’t let the record industry find out. You can destroy the CDs, but if they become owned by someone else (through selling or donating) then it is unlawful for you to still have the mp3s. I’d say get rid of the bulky cases and put the CDs in another huge wallet. They could be useful if you somehow lose the mp3s anyway.

Hiro
Hiro

I’ve moved several times in the last couple of years and it’s helped me stay lean. Also, I try to be unsentimental in triaging what items I buy or gather and of those, which ones survive a move. Part of it is dealing with that voice that says “I might find a use for this someday.” I try to weigh the benefit of unburdening myself against the potential cost of replacing the item on the long chance I ever DO need it.

st
st

Don’t let the record industry find out. You can destroy the CDs, but if they become owned by someone else (through selling or donating) then it is unlawful for you to still have the mp3s. –Have you ever heard of a case like that being pursued? Not gonna happen. And sorry, but it just seems to me to be an awful thing to do, to needlessly destroy things like that. I’d say get rid of the bulky cases and put the CDs in another huge wallet. They could be useful if you somehow lose the mp3s anyway. –I got rid… Read more »

brandon
brandon

oh dude! if you still have that copy of Duke Nukem, I want it!!!

60 in 3
60 in 3

@ST The record and movie associations are indeed pursuing cases like this and others even more ridiculous. I’ll see if I can find the link to the one where they sued someone who was already dead. But anyway, I did this sort of declutteering as I was remodeling my house. It’s really sad to realize how much crap we accumulate and never really use. Do make sure to try places like Craig’s list, eBay or even good will before just throwing it in the garbage. Heck, I got around 5k from the stuff I was going to throw out, and… Read more »

st
st

The record and movie associations are indeed pursuing cases like this and others even more ridiculous. I’ll see if I can find the link to the one where they sued someone who was already dead.

–No, I don’t think they are. They’re pursuing rampant online file-sharers. They’re not going after people who put up big collections at garage sales, and saying “take us to your home and prove that you didn’t rip these CDs to MP3 files before putting them up for sale.” Never ever have heard of a case like that–you’d have to prove it to me. 🙂

Astreil
Astreil

I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who went temporarily insane and is now carrying credit card debt for things I no longer own and/or am constantly getting rid of. My insanity lasted from 1998 until 2002. Luckily, I’m much better now. My debts will be paid off in the Spring of 2010. Looking forward to that!

J.D.
J.D.

Good tips, everyone. Believe me, I’m going to try to get the most money out of my stuff. In fact, posting may be light later this week because there’s a new wrinkle in my comic collecting that means I must purge some of my books ASAP. (There value will decrease if I wait any longer — it may already be too late.) This means a night or two of eBay preparation and no blogging… I’ll also post a lot of stuff, such as my 300+ album record collection, on eBay. As for music: I’m keeping the CDs that I have… Read more »

verena
verena

Must be something about being 38…. I too have started to declutter. I’ve got stuff on eBay, and on Craigslist, and have probably done 10 Salvation Army dumps in the last couple of months. I cannot wait to get rid of all of this STUFF. My dog has done her part by destroying every toy she had.

tylerwillis
tylerwillis

JD,

Believe it or not, there are plenty of video game collectors out there (like myself), and many would be interested in older stuff – especially if you’ve kept the books, manuals, boxes, etc.

Even if you have no interest in going through the trouble of eBaying it, if you’d like drop me an email with a rough listing of what it is and what condition – I might be willing to pick it up from ya for a few bucks, or be able to tell you if it’s worth anything at all.

Jill
Jill

I’m planning a move off the grid and to build my own home (with my own actual unskilled hands). That is making me look at everything in my house with new eyes. Will it be useful “off grid”? Do I want to build the space to store it? If the answer is “no” to either one…it’s gotta go. I just joined a “freecycle” to get rid of some, some goes to goodwill, a bit will get sold and sentimental heirlooms get sent to other relatives. It’s tough and very “cleansing”

kd
kd

Digital clutter is not as much of a problem as real life clutter. What house owner has the luxury of doubling the size of his house every two to three years? Yet, that is the rate at which hard disk get bigger.

Liz
Liz

I like glass. Glass statues, glass ashtrays. Anything kind of cool and funky.

My dad has looked at things that I’ve liked in the past and said “Hmm, how much would that get at a garage sale”.

I now repeat that to myself when looking at the piece of artwork I once would buy – and just appreciate it in its natural surroundings, rather than take it home.

Liz
Liz

oooh, and Barbara Sher had a great suggestion for decluttering: do a bit every day. Seriously, one morning, look in your medicine cabinet and throw out 10 things that you don’t need. Same thing in your fridge. If you do that every day for a month (ie throw out 10 things you don’t use), it wouldn’t be long before you’d be down to the nitty gritty.

Or, you’d be in a position to look at your stuff and make a more accurate decision about your stuff!

Shane
Shane

I have a 3 month rule for gifts. If it’s “not for me”, it gets the boot in 3!

Everyone I know is well aware of my rule. And noone is offended. It’s become a novelty for friends when they find something that I hang on to indefinitely. haha

Ang
Ang

As others have echoed, don’t toss old video games, sell them! I know I sold my copy of Final Fantasy 7 (for Playstation), that cost me $20 new, for $65 used on Amazon. (I recommend using Amazon’s marketplace over Ebay if you’re not sure if something will sell, you get 60 days for the item to sell, no listing fee, Amazon takes a cut when it sells and pays shipping. Don’t bother with any item where the going rate is a penny or a quarter, you’re just going to lose money.)

J.D.
J.D.

RE: Selling Computer Games Thanks for the tip. In winter 2005-2006, I did sell a bunch of old Apple II games on eBay. I made a pretty penny doing so. I might have a Mac game that could fetch some cash (Quarterstaff), though I haven’t researched it. I suspect, though, that most of the PC games I own are too common to be worth anything. But, I will sort through them and check eBay pricing before doing anything. And if I think I’ve got something that might be fun for some of you, but not worth anything, I’ll drop you… Read more »

Steve
Steve

As one who’s married into a pack-rat family, I certainly understand the part about de-cluttering (getting rid of junk).

I am also concerned about putting all the stuff in land-fills, however the idea of saving it for a garage sale, or ebay, etc. may be how alot of that stuff got stored to begin with. If they’re too lazy to get rid of the stuff to begin with, what makes you think they’re going to do the 10 additional steps to sell or donate if they can’t even pitch the true garbage?

Sillifree
Sillifree

Loved all the tips & posts. I am the pack rat in my family and they all laugh when they come to my house, because they can’t believe I STILL HAVE IT!!! Just discovered GRS last month and read it now every day. I will definately check out the mentioned websites, thanks for that. I know I could put stuff on EBAy, but how to get started, not sure and I did read all the help stuff. Can’t wwait to get to a certain room. Thanks for your help everyone.

MVP
MVP

This is a very theraputic move (cleansing clutter). And trust me, you’ll think harder now before forking over a bunch of hard-earned dough for stuff you may not ever use, will have to constantly clean around and eventually move. Much as I love books, I rarely buy them anymore, even used, because it was so traumatic to move all of them when I got married two years ago, and then to see them sit, unwanted in a box labeled 25 cents at our garage sale last summer. The library is my best friend now!

tylerwillis
tylerwillis

“(I have an original version of Civilization, but the media doesn’t work. (The disk is bad.) Does that ruin its value?)”

For the most part, yes. Most of the other collectors I’ve spoken to agree that it’s not just the object – it’s the functional object that matters. If you still have the manual/box/etc, it might still be worth something to someone who has just the media and wants a complete set.

rcd
rcd

I love getting rid of my stuff…If Only My Girlfriend could get herself to do the same.

BillinDetroit
BillinDetroit

Be glad she hangs on to some. Like yourself. Being ‘a keeper’ is part of her personality. Think carefully, long, and hard, before attempting to change that. Throw out your stuff. Declare some portion of the shared space to be YOUR space (immune to clutter) and just smile when you see last summers’ sea shells artfully arranged on the edge of the bathtub or notice that the bookshelf is now arranged by size or color, rather than topic. The part of her that calls being near to you ‘home’ needs these things. Some areas of my life are well-organized, some… Read more »

Mark
Mark

I do agree with the Ebay/garage sale theory. It does no good if you put all your junk in a box and it just sits there waiting for you to hold a garage sale (which is TONS of work) or list on EBAY (easier but still work). Just more clutter in a different box. One note about unloading your stuff. You know what they say one persons trash is anothers treasure. Before you throw it out, do a quick search on EBAY or Craigslist and see what the market will pay for your item. You may be pleasantly surprised. I… Read more »

anon
anon

An orthogonal tip that has helped me: no TV. Lo and behold, advertising is pretty effective at generating demand for things that turn into clutter. Cut off the flow of consumerist propaganda and it becomes a lot easier to maintain saner spending habits.

Amy
Amy

I’m 37, and have been slowly decluttering for the past couple of years. It helps to be a military wife and move every two years, but you’d be surprised just how much you can accumulate in a very short time. It takes vigilance to maintain it!

A site that was extremely helpful to me is flylady.net – it’s ostensibly about housekeeping, but really it’s about changing the mindset that keeps you trapped in clutter.

SP
SP

Two years ago, I decided to retire and leave San Francisco. I had lived in the same apartment for thirty years and my world was getting smaller as my possessions were getting greater.

With the exception of a few clothes, family pictures, and books, my life can now fit into about six boxes.

And everything else I gave away to three charaties and left my spirit in San Francisco.

The book that changed my life is Repacking Your Bags: Lighten Your Load for the Rest of Your Life by Richard J. Leider and David A. Shapiro.

Roy
Roy

Geez, Duke Nukem 3D, Yes, still wish I had mine. Loved it. Now that ain’t clutter.

Dani
Dani

My big problem is cheap clutter. I *love* kitschy dollar-store and yard sale items (life-sized easter egg gelatin molds, anyone?), and can always justify it because “it’s only a quarter” or “it’s only a dollar”. I get fed up with the clutter and purge it all – but when yard sale season starts back up, the cycle begins anew.

Good luck paying off your loan!

Eric D. Burdo
Eric D. Burdo

Hello… I am new to your site, but not new to Don Aslett’s books.

I recommend reading some of his other books too… all great material.

And I look forward to reading more of you website.

JenK
JenK

Do not throw away CDs if you still want the music unless you are extremely diligent about backups. The way I learned it as a new support tech is that there are two kids of computer users: those who have had their hard drive fail, and those who are about to….

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