Further adventures in my war on stuff

Long-time readers of Get Rich Slowly know that I've been waging an ongoing battle against Stuff — the clutter and crap I managed to collect during 20 years of wanton spending and debt. Though I've managed to curb my spending (and have slowed the influx of Stuff), I'm still surrounded by constant reminders of my old habits.

Last week, Colleen wrote to ask for an update on this seemingly-endless war:

I was wondering if you would update us soon on your battle with “Stuff”. I, along with others I'm sure, struggle with this, and reading your blog has been a great help. I'm curious how you've progressed since the last post when you decided to clean the workshop.

I'm pleased to report that over the past two months, I've launched a number of successful campaigns to take control of clutter. There's still much work to be done, but I can finally envision a future that isn't filled with useless Stuff. Here are a few examples of my progress:

Guarding the Guest Room

On Saturday, Kris and I spent several hours cleaning our “guest room”. I put guest room in quotes because for the past two years, it's been incapable of housing guests. Instead, it's been a home for my photography equipment, Kris' cooking magazines, my board game collection, upcoming Christmas gifts, and more. It's just a holding place for Stuff.

This weekend, we decided we'd had enough. We sorted and purged. We cleaned. We re-arranged the furniture. The toughest part for me was culling my board game collection. I had to admit that although we used to play games once a week (or more!), we're now lucky to play them once a year. I don't need 50 board games. In fact, I'm sure that next September, I'll be wondering why I kept 25 board games.

After a few hours of work, we'd managed to turn a dumpy useless room into an actual guest room. (We also managed to move all of the science fiction books and comic books into the guest room, freeing up space elsewhere in the house.)

Conquering the Closet

In June, based on a GRS reader suggestion, I set up a year-long experiment. I moved all of my nice shirts and sweaters from the hall closet to the guest room closet. Whenever I need something, I go to the hall closet first. If what I need is there, I wear it. If not, I pull it from the closet in the guest bedroom.

After I've worn something (and it's been cleaned), it's hung in the hall closet. After a year has elapsed, the guest bedroom will contain a bunch of clothes I have not worn for twelve months. I'll take these things to Goodwill.

Note: There's a subtle side-benefit of doing this. When I can't find what I want in the hall closet, checking the guest room closet is very much like shopping. This may sound crazy, but it's true. Same feelings.

This trick is awesome. It's surprisingly liberating. When I open the hall closet, there are only a handful of shirts — the eight shirts I wear most often. This makes me realize that most of the other 25+ shirts hanging in the guest room are nothing but clutter. (I can't evaluate the sweaters yet because the cold weather hasn't arrived. Still, I think it's safe to assume I don't need 19 of them.)

Waging War in the Workshop

My biggest victory so far — one that I hope to finally achieve later today — has been the reclamation of my workshop. When we moved into this house five years ago, I had dreams of learning carpentry in the shop. Or converting it to a photo studio. Or something.

Instead, the workshop became a dumping ground for all the crap I'd managed to accumulate. (And continued to accumulate.) At the beginning of this summer, the building was packed to the gills with computer parts, record albums, magazines, and boxes of useless junk. After weeks of slow progress, however, I've managed to reduce the mess to a single bench. It will take me several hours to sort these last few difficult piles — but once I do, the workshop will be a homey place to pursue my hobbies.

Fighting the Good Fight

Though I've achieved some major victories in recent months, my war against Stuff is not over. There are some tough battles ahead. But I'm a veteran now. I'm confident that I'll emerge victorious.

It seems like I always end these posts with a list of lessons learned. Today is no different. Here are some of the things I've been thinking about lately:

  • The best way to fight the battle against Stuff is to prevent new Stuff from entering your home. If you continue to acquire new Stuff, you just make it that much more difficult to turn things around. (It was difficult for me to learn that “free” Stuff is rarely actually free.)
  • It's best to convert your Stuff to cash, no matter how little that cash might be. I used to think I had to get what my Stuff was “worth”. This is a great idea, and I encourage those who have time to do so, but extracting maximum value from Stuff requires a lot of effort. I'd much rather sell my Stuff on Craigslist or on eBay or at a garage sale.
  • Don't be afraid to give your Stuff away. Though it's best to get money for it, there's nothing wrong with donating your Stuff to charity — or giving it to friends who can use it. One man's Stuff is another man's treasure (or something like that).
  • If it's possible to outsource your Stuff, then do so. Why should I own thousands of books when there's a public library down the street? Why buy DVDs when I can use Netflix? Why purchase CDs when I can buy songs through iTunes? By outsourcing my Stuff, there's less clutter in the house. However…
  • Beware: Digital Stuff can be almost as insidious as physical Stuff. I have thousands of digital photographs, tens of thousands of mp3s (legal mp3s), 20+ years of Word and text documents, as well as a vast array of other data. This digital Stuff is nearly impossible to organize. If possible, organize your digital Stuff as you go.
  • Focus on quality. Sometimes there's a thin line between stuff that is Stuff and stuff that is useful. The difference often comes down to Quality. I've learned that I'd much rather pay more for Quality that will last a lifetime (or most of one, anyhow) than to save a bit now but end up with Stuff later.

When I started this battle two years ago, it was difficult for me to imagine getting rid of any of my Stuff. At that time, I had over 3000 books. Since then, I've managed to trim my library by more than half. But this didn't happen all at once. Every six months or so, I get rid of another batch of books.

Purging Stuff is like peeling the layers of an onion. You gradually shed layer after layer after layer. As you strip away the trappings of your old life, you come to realize that all you really need are the bare essentials. Everything else is just Stuff.

For more on this subject, please visit Unclutterer and Zen Habits. (Many GRS readers also recommend FlyLady, but I haven't ever explored the site thoroughly.)

More about...Home & Garden, Psychology

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