Guarding Against the Invasion of Stuff

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.

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Sam
Sam
12 years ago

I voluneered at my neighborhood association gigantic garage sale on Saturday. I also donated a bunch of books to the sale. I have trouble giving up books because I re-read my books. But, I’m running out of room in my library so I spent some time going through my books and donated two big shopping bags full to the sale. One of the first customers at the garage sale was a fellow that cruises garage sales for books that he resells on amazon.com. He took a big pile of books for his business. At first, I was annoyed by this… Read more »

Philip
Philip
12 years ago

I have just moved and have been fighting clutter. I know I should have taken a look at stuff and moved less with me, but didn’t have time. Now I am slowly getting rid of old stuff in my house. I haev cut way back on some of my old hobbies but always think that I will get back into them. There are at least 5 boxes for different hobbies that I just can’t seem to get rid of.

Chad @ Sentient Money
Chad @ Sentient Money
12 years ago

I hate stuff myself and try to keep it to a minimum. About the only things I keep past their useful lives are books and sentimental items. Though, I do think you have to break your one-in, one-out rule to save money some times. For instance, I need quality men’s dress shoes (hard to find cheaply), so when they go on sale I buy them whether I need them or not. This way when I need them I don’t have to worry about finding them on sale. I guess it still satisfies your rule if you allow some time before… Read more »

Dan Vigliotti
Dan Vigliotti
12 years ago

I thought you all might enjoy this little video. Its about 20 minutes and it has rapidly become one of my favorites.

http://www.storyofstuff.com

Glenn
Glenn
12 years ago

Over at the blog SchizoFrenetic, the author occasionally discusses America’s “obsession with stuff,” and just last night she touched upon this issue yet again: http://zakstar.wordpress.com/2008/06/09/what-would-jesus-buy-our-obsession-with-stuff/

I’ve been reading your blog for some time, and have learned a tremendous amount from your posts — keep up the good work.

Nicole
Nicole
12 years ago

We keep a constant garage sale pile in the basement. It’s gifts we don’t want, things we don’t use, etc. Every year, we donate whatever is there or have a yard sale. Simply having this stuff away from our normal lives helps us realize we won’t even miss it when it’s gone… though please let me know if any of you need a fake crystal motorcycle and I’ll be happy to send it!

brief
brief
12 years ago

Oh gosh, I’m susceptible to freebies too. I’m trying to remind myself that unless I’m actually gonna use them, they *will* end up costing me in terms of storage space and time spent to take care of them.

B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
B Smith @ Wealth and Wisdom
12 years ago

JD-Great Post. Several things jumped out at me. Ignore the Joneses: It’s amazing how much easier it is to be frugal when you are no longer trying to impress people. This is one of the key reasons people spend more than they make. I’ve posed a couple times at my blog on this topic because it is such a key to wealth building: –The Real Housewives of Orange County…in Houston TX –All that Glitters Isn’t Gold… Quality (and ignoring cheep/free things): We have the same problem. We would cruise yard sales and bring home junk. We would see a “deal”… Read more »

Beth@paydaytree
12 years ago

I agree that sometimes it’s best to pay more for what you are buying to avoid clutter. I’m that way when I buy clothes. I like to go to Nordstrom because I know that when I buy clothes there they will last for more than a year, and if they don’t I can take them back and get a refund. I’ve also found that there is more than one advantage to paying more for my clothing. Because I want to spend more, I have to save up to go shopping which means that in the mean time I’m not going… Read more »

ktoth04
ktoth04
12 years ago

I’m lucky in that I’ve moved out of my parents house into an apartment, and every time I go home I can take a few boxes of my old ‘stuff’ and bring it back with me to go through, that way my parents ‘den’ is getting cleaned out, and I’m not overwhelming myself with piles of boxes. I brought three boxes back this weekend and came away with 1/3 of it being trash!

Jon
Jon
12 years ago

I, too, have a desire to rid the house of needless belongings that just clutter up our lives, but I have a wife and three children, all of whom make it hard on a simplicity kind of guy. We’re in the process of moving, and we may not have touched the item in question in more than a year, but I hear, “Oh my gosh! I didn’t remember we had this!” and onto the moving truck it goes.

The true question is how do we unclutter when you live with a bunch of packrats?

jim
jim
12 years ago

I think borrowing and lending is a great way to reduce clutter and the accumulation of stuff. One thing I’ve always done is make sure I have a reason for getting something, a specific and concrete reason other than “it’s free”, plus knowledge of where I was going to put that something. I’d love to get a mitre saw for the handful of times a year I want to cut something… but where the heck am I going to put it for the other 360 days? That’s why I don’t have one… though they are soooo nice. 🙂

sara
sara
12 years ago

“Stuff doesn’t make me feel wealthy anymore – it makes me feel cramped.” I love that statement! I think most decluttering efforts will be temporary at best until you actually feel like your Stuff is invading your space. When you actually get offended by Stuff sitting around, being useless, you’re ready to let go.

Stephanie
Stephanie
12 years ago

I’m still having trouble not falling for “deals” that will only end up providing more clutter…

Personal Money Tips
Personal Money Tips
12 years ago

I can’t seem to find the article and I’m not sure if it was on GRS, Quest For Four Pillars, or Million Dollar Journey but someone wrote about getting rid of stuff by selling off the unused stuff on Craig’s List or Kijiji.

I’m thinking you should either sell the unused exercise equipment or charge a small admission fee for your friends to use it 😉

Dean

Michelle
Michelle
12 years ago

It sounds dumb, but I’ve found that being a clutz is a great way to keep clutter down. Any time I fall over something, I get pi$$ed and chuck it!

People are always amazed at how clear my floors and tabletops are…they don’t know it’s a necessity to prevent breaking items (and toes!).

Andrew
Andrew
12 years ago

The best time for me to clear out clutter is when I am moving from one home to another. I take the opportunity to throw out at least 1/2 of what I own, a lot of it being clothes I haven’t worn for at least one year and old furniture that wouldn’t survive the move. I either donate/recycle it or it goes into the trash.
I recently moved into a home 4 times the former one I lived in. This was NOT an excuse to accumulate more clutter, but to enjoy the extra space to relax and move around in.

Deonne
Deonne
12 years ago

I agree with Andrew – moving is a great opportunity to dump unnecessary stuff. (Unless you’re struggling with family members who want to take everything, like Jon. I’m not sure how to deal with that one, other than barring them from the packing process – ha.) I’m moving from a 3 bedroom, 2 bath house in New Mexico to a tiny studio in New York City (I start grad school in the fall). I’m psyched about the small space. I bet that when I come back to clean out my house for sale or rental there will be boxes and… Read more »

mig
mig
12 years ago

i find the one-in one-out rule, at least in the example you have given. if there is no need for new socks, then just don’t buy new ones. if there is a need for new ones, then give the other ones a new use, such as ornament packing or cleaning rags. so, yes, more socks come into the home than go out, but i don’t buy cleaning rags and save that way.

Mo Money
Mo Money
12 years ago

Giving away unused items is a great way to help both you and the agency who receives it.

leigh
leigh
12 years ago

overall we’re very simple people. when we first moved to our current city, we got caught up in a minor game of keeping up with the joneses. except the more i saw of them, the more it hit me that their obsession with stuff was simply to distract them from how unhappy they were. i dropped the whole thing, once i saw that it was a bandaid for their bigger problems- problems that my husband and i did not have. i decided it was far more important to focus on moments, which build the future. i prefer to not let… Read more »

Finally Frugal
Finally Frugal
12 years ago

I’m considering either selling or renting out my three bedroom house in the future, so I can downsize both my space and my mortgage payment! This fact has helped me think about each and every item I purchase and bring into my house, knowing that I may need to sell or get rid of it soon anyway. I’m also beginning to look at the boxes (aka crap) in my garage with new eyes. For example, do I really need a giant tub of Christmas decorations, when I rarely have time to decorate? My neighborhood is having a garage sale next… Read more »

Jerry Dill
Jerry Dill
12 years ago

I find this very interesting. I agree that these are great ways to cut back on your purchases, however, sometimes it is more difficult than you make it seem. I know that I spend so much time trying to persuade myself not to buy something (sounds a little crazy). Implementing something like this can become very difficult. I would just like to add a little tidbit onto the end of one of your paragraphs. The article that states quality is always a viable option is not always necessarily true. Sometimes quality is associated with a brand name. You should stay… Read more »

gwen
gwen
12 years ago

“If I don’t need it, I don’t buy it.” Such a helpful mantra. We’ve found that even if you do “need” it you shouldn’t buy it until you need it. For example, we’re cutting down a lot of large trees in our yard and my husband wants to turn them into lumber. Fair enough. But, before a single tree had hit the ground he began talking about getting a chainsaw mill. (which could mill the wood into planks) If we’d run out and bought it when we first knew that we would need it, it would have been sitting there… Read more »

Rich
Rich
12 years ago

I’m with you on the get-one lose-one theory, except for with socks.

I always buy the biggest pack of black socks I can, then throw them away as they get holes. Since all my socks match, I don’t have to ball them, or search my drawer for matching socks. It also doesn’t matter if I throw away a single sock because it matches the others in my drawer.

Eventually I get down to just enough socks to last between laundry cycles, then I buy a new pack.

Zeb
Zeb
12 years ago

Saw this in TIME this past weekend – 100 Thing Challenge. This guy seems pretty serious about getting rid of Stuff. I’ve love to try it myself, but I need to get over a few mental hurdles first (e.g., what are ‘personal’ items?)

Shanel Yang
Shanel Yang
12 years ago

*Sigh!* Now, it’s time for me to go through all my drawers and file cabinets and throw out everything I no longer need. You guys have motivated to get started right now. Thanks for the great post, J.D.! @ Jon I lived with a packrat family of 6 for too many years! What finally worked for me was a tough bargain for me and for them: “If I clean the entire house and organize everything in it, will you promise to keep it that way and keep any new stuff you get in the future in your own room at… Read more »

Elizabth
Elizabth
12 years ago

To Jon,
The best way I have found to deal with my pack rat husband is to enforce the rule that you do not get to bring ANYTHING into the house without knowing where it will go. It has helped keep the clutter down. (Everyone once in a while he goes on a spending spree and we have the talk about how all of his random junk sitting around the house has negative value, especially if he leaves it somewhere where I trip over it and break it.)

Early Retirement Extreme
Early Retirement Extreme
12 years ago

Funny, I use most of these techniques too. Another one that works for consumer durables that is kept around for several years or more is to buy the best that you can afford (frugal people can generally afford a lot) — of course within reason — this avoids later “upgrade fever”.

ClickerTrainer
ClickerTrainer
12 years ago

One quality shirt costs twice as much as a cheap shirt, looks three times better, and lasts five times longer. Seek the true value.

April
April
12 years ago

I have a tendency to collect too many products (hair, skin, what-have-you), so to cut down on clutter, I try to find products that multitask. I’m doing this with detergent and household cleaners, as well.

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

Do you ever see magazines with pictures of rooms that are spotless? They have no clutter. Not even a TV Guide on the table. I dream that I will have rooms like that someday. In the past, I would accumulate tons of stuff (which I, personally, call crap). That’s what it is – crap I don’t need but bought because it was cute, or sweet or I might use it sometime (never did, of course). I’ve stopped buying this stuff all together. I’ve started getting rid of it – all of it. I feel so refreshed and strangely, I feel… Read more »

No Debt Plan
No Debt Plan
12 years ago

When we went on our honeymoon we avoided buying all the “stuff” that is sold. You’ll notice as you walk in town that every vendor is selling the exact same thing (this was in Cozumel, Mexico). Nothing is unique.

We value experience, too. We spent our money on renting a Jeep and driving around the island. It was an absolute blast and something I doubt we’ll forget. Unlike the t-shirts and junk we left behind.

Kristen
Kristen
12 years ago

Just a word of warning on the use of wood to border the garden: I hope it’s not near your house. When we moved into our home, the previous homeowners had used wood to trim the flower beds just 2 1/2 feet from the house. When I went to make the beds bigger and pulled up the wood (it wasn’t pressure treated) it was full of termites. That wood got dumped at the yard recyclers in a hurry, and I made sure to treat the area afterwards. There has been no evidence that they’ve moved indoors, but I’m sure glas… Read more »

J
J
12 years ago

One of the hardest things to do was give up buying books. I liked supporting authors, and I loved having bookshelves full of titles that reflected my taste, but ultimately, i realized that the majority of the books I bought, I never read again. Plus, books are, in theory, more virtuous than other material possessions. But it’s still stuff — stuff that needs to be manufactured, using energy and materials, and stuff that costs money. Plus, it’s a joy to support the local libraries.

liz
liz
12 years ago

[email protected] that joy of simple living.
i bought it. 480 pages.

i think i’ve read it once. i’ll probably sell it to try and get some of my money back.

allen
allen
12 years ago

I took 6 bags of cloths (full grocery bags) to the Good Will on this last Thursday. At least half was stuff that i don’t fit in anymore.

Yah, i want to loose weight, but that’s no excuse to keep around a full wardrobe of cloths, just so i can fit in them again! None of them were that nice, even! When i loose weight enought to have to buy new pants, I can afford to donate my existing ones to charity again.

Thanks for the inspiration, JD!

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

Sounds like you’d have one swanky garage sale! I do know your thoughts in shopping for comfort. I don’t by many radically large purchases, but like getting smaller stuff that could come in handy down the line.

My problem is lack of dedication to create a clean and organized environment. So these tools and tidbits of stuff end up in random boxes, the garage, etc.

Kudos for de-cluttering.

Kim
Kim
12 years ago

I’ll tell you a great way to declutter your bookshelves and yet still keep your books – especially if you tend to reread them. Donate them to your local library. Someone else stores and maintains them AND (bonus) you share your literary treasures with your community.

liz
liz
12 years ago

i have another problem – i have a massive record collection. massive. and it is currently in boxes as i have all of the songs digitally now. i don’t see the use of having the cds kicking around any more… i don’t know. i’m thinking of getting rid of all of them and starting clean. well, somewhat clean – I’ll still have my digital copies.

allen
allen
12 years ago

@Liz:

Unless you deleated your records, you would be breaking the law. I’m sorry, i just hate it when people give that advice to clean up. That is the sad fact of it though.

If you need to see a use for them: Backups. If something were to happen to your digital storehouse, the CDs would still be there, waiting for you.

storage soutions: attic or garage rafters (although there is a good chance they’ll warp); Basement, after storing them in water-resistant boxes;…. if you’re on good terms with your ‘rents, your old bedroom… 😀

betsy - Money Changes Things
betsy - Money Changes Things
12 years ago

I adore http://www.freecycle.org I have moderated my local group for years. Nothing is too small for freecycle! In most cases it’s not worth my time selling something on Ebay, but I don’t want to just throw it away, either. Freecycle is the perfect connector for responsibly passing things along.
A lot of this is recalibrating your evaluation of the “worth” of stuff. If you don’t use it/wear it/enjoy it/ or even like it – it has negative worth, really. It drags you down, taking up space and karma in your life.

Stanley Parent
Stanley Parent
12 years ago

B Smith…
I think your getting the wrong message… Borrow and lend has nothing to do with money… the idea is, for example,if you need a tool once in a blue moon, borrow one instead of buying one… but remember, you may have to lend something if your friend or neighbor is in the same situation. So, we are not talking about money here, we are talking about stuff.

I have been practicing “one in – one out” for quite some time now and it works… 99% of the time

Summer Fey Foovay
Summer Fey Foovay
12 years ago

Louise Hay has a marvelous saying that I use when I go through the “schtuff”. “If you don’t use it or love it – get rid of it” My husband and I now go through our stuff about 2x a year (usually triggered by changing the clothes out for winter and spring). Most of our discards go to charity or are given away some other way. I do admit to an addiction to books. Bookcrossing.com has helped – until we got here and the library has an exchange table. I bring home way more than I take back *sigh* I’ve… Read more »

Shirley
Shirley
12 years ago

The best way I declutter is 15 minutes at a time. Even with the most difficult pile or box, the more you see stuff going out the door, the better you feel and the easier it becomes to let stuff go. (And, the key is to get it out immediately. Some people do well with yard sales, but I never have as there’s no money in it in our area. I just immediately take the worthless stuff to the landfill and the stuff of value to a charity.) You learn to not agonize over whether you spent money on an… Read more »

Diatryma
Diatryma
12 years ago

A recent discussion on a friend’s journal brought up the idea that every person gets three categories of things that are not clutter– you can have as much of that category as you want. She said that hers were books, costuming materials, and weapons.

Really, if you have so many weapons they might be considered clutter, no one can tell you to clean up your room.

slackerjo
slackerjo
12 years ago

My friend sent this link to a short (about 20 mins) video about the ramifications of stuff. Whether or not you agree with the video, it’s interesting.
http://www.storyofstuff.com/

Jared
Jared
12 years ago

What have you done with the voice recorder? I’m in the market for an mp3 voice recorder to use during interviews I’ll be conducting for my research degree in the next few weeks/months.

Tyson
Tyson
12 years ago

I live by these two rules: 1) The two week rule (my dad came up with this one): Before he purchases something, he asks himself – “Where’s it going to be in two weeks?”. If it will end up in a drawer or not regularly used, he won’t buy it. He says he’s never wished he did buy something after he didn’t. 2) Don’t buy something just because it’s on sale. If you need it to the point where you would pay full price for it, then try to find it on sale. But if you wouldn’t pay full price… Read more »

Dan
Dan
12 years ago

Check out the documentary: Manufactured Landscapes. Available at most video outlets… Amazing photography and an interesting look at the effect our consumption of chinese goods and coal power and other industrial processes made necessary by the ways of the modern world.

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