How much stuff does one man need?

It seems like every time I travel, I come home committed to win my war on Stuff. This time was no different. I lived out of a single carry-on bag while vacationing in Belize last week, and even that felt luxurious. Now I've returned to a house packed with doodads and gewgaws, knick-knacks and baubles.

The more I purge Stuff from my life, the more I travel, and the more I see (and read) about how little others need to get by, the stronger my conviction to reduce what I own, as well. I'm in awe of my friend Leo from Zen Habits, for instance. At his secondary blog, mnmlist, Leo has been chronicling his attempt to reduce the number of thing he owns. At first, this was his 100 Things Challenge (he wanted to own just 100 personal items). Recently, he's upped the ante. It's now a 50 Things Challenge. Wow.

I'm not ready to go to this extreme — not even close. But I am beginning to wonder: How many t-shirts does one man need? How many jackets? How many books? And how in the heck did I end up with more than ten pairs of shoes? Ridiculous! How much Stuff does one man really need?

Small Steps

Over the past three years, I've made great strides in ridding my life of Stuff. I've sold or given away thousands of books (yes, thousands). I've purged a garage full of computer parts. I've managed to turn off the rationalization switch in my brain and learned to simply donate my Stuff to charity instead of saving it for “someday”. And about a year ago, I started my slow-motion clothes purge.

Based on a Get Rich Slowly reader suggestion, I moved all of my sweaters and button-down shirts to an unused closet. For the past several months, I've gradually pulled one shirt and then another into my regular closet as I actually wear them. Unworn shirts and sweaters stay in their temporary holding space. At the end of this process (which should be in June), all of the shirts I've worn in the past year will be in one closet, and the Stuff I don't wear will be purged.

Do you know how many different shirts I've worn over the past nine months? I just went upstairs to count. My “good” closet contains 17 button-down shirts and three sweaters. My closet of unused clothes contains 30 shirts (two of which haven't even been taken out of their packaging) and 11 sweaters.

Sometimes I think I'm the village idiot. I don't even wear two-thirds of my wardrobe? It's like I'm just throwing my money away. But rather than beat myself up over this, I can use the info going forward.

For example, Kris and I made a trip to REI before leaving for Belize. I fell in love with one shirt, but I almost didn't buy it after looking at the price tag. $40? For a shirt? Get real! I rarely spend more than $20. But then I realized: If I really love the shirt and it'll live in my “good” closet, then spending $40 is much better than buying two cheap shirts I never wear. I bought the REI shirt in two colors (rust and aqua), and I'm glad I did. (But maybe I should get rid of two other shirts from my “good” closet to make up for this.)

I've begun to realize it'll take a few more years to finally get rid of the worst of my Stuff. It took me two decades to acquire these things; it'll take a bit of time to unload it. But how will I know when I'm finished? How much Stuff does one man need?

The Magic of Thinking Small

It was interesting to see how small the average homes were in Belize and Guatemala. In the U.S., the average new home was 2349 square feet in 2004 (up from 1695 square feet in 1974). In Central America, homes seemed to be maybe 600 or 700 square feet.

Guatemalan Houses
Note: From talking with some of the folks who live there, I think people in Belize want bigger homes, but can't afford them. It's not like they're choosing small homes because they think it's virtuous.

Seeing these small homes made we think: What would I choose to own if my space were limited? Could I really rationalize my comic book collection? Forty-seven button-down shirts and fourteen sweaters? Two bicycles? My burgeoning pile of shoes? Which Stuff is worth owning, and which is not? And if it's not worth owning in a small home, why is it worth owning in a large home?

I don't know the answer to these questions; I'll continue to puzzle them out.

This weekend, one of our neighbors held a yard sale. Kris and I went across the street to chat. “Wow,” Kris said. “It looks like you're selling everything.” She scooped up the neighbor's canning jars.

“In a way, I am,” our neighbor said. “I'm moving into a smaller place, and I have a couple of weeks before I have to be out of this one. I've already moved everything I want to keep, and I'm selling everything else.”

“That's awesome,” I said. “I wish I could do that.”

But who says I can't? Why can't I pretend that I'm moving into a smaller place? If I did, what would I keep? What is it I really value? How much Stuff does one man really need?

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deb
deb
10 years ago

Wow – great post, and just when I need it too. I’ve been tempted to do a MAJOR purge with no looking back. You’re giving me courage!

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

there are many things about GRS to love – but what i love most is the holistic perspective. my mom is a pack rack, so i have that latent trait. i try to remain disciplined and every now and again i look at my ‘stuff’ and figure out if it’s still useful. there have been plenty a times when DH and i took two large garbage bags to the Salvation Army. i’m a book lover as well, i packed up several book crates and donated them to a small suburban library – giving is an act of kindness hoarding is… Read more »

miss minimalist
miss minimalist
10 years ago

Hi J.D.! So glad to see you post this, as it’s exactly what I blog about every day: http://www.missminimalist.com/ Great idea to pretend you’re moving into a smaller place. Better yet, make it an overseas move–that way, you’re really forced to pare down to the essentials. My husband and I did just that (for real) last summer. We moved from a 3BR house in the US to a small flat in the UK. We sold almost everything we owned, and brought with us only one duffel bag each. Talk about purging! It was so liberating, and now we’re determined to… Read more »

Chris
Chris
10 years ago

I’ve been on a major purging spree lately. I’ve even “earned” around $500 doing so. 🙂

It just feels so good getting rid of stuff you don’t need. It also makes you think real hard before purchasing something new.

Joseph | kickdebtoff
Joseph | kickdebtoff
10 years ago

This is a great reminder. I liked your statement that people in Belize..are “not choosing small homes because they think it’s virtuous.” I drive a 93 Honda accord it’s been in perfect condition since i got it. Do i like driving a 17 year old car? Heck no! i want one of those tech loaded cars, i also want a Honda bike… but at the moment i cannot afford it. What if i was able to afford? That is where judgment calls comes in. My wife and i started cleaning out anything that we have not used or worn in… Read more »

bon
bon
10 years ago

Guess what JD? Your $40 REI shirts are going to be with you for a long time — they have a 100% satisfaction guarantee. My husband had some trousers whose zipper broke after a year and he returned them and got a replacement pair no questions asked. http://www.rei.com/help/returns.html

Jason
Jason
10 years ago

A side benefit of divorce.. it’s an excellent way to purge stuff too. I went from a 2400 sq. ft. farmhouse, to a two bedroom apartment, to a single room, then back to renting a furnished home. Sad to get rid of things that were sentimental and not all was thrown, but very liberating to unload the unhealthy weight of stuff. I suspect my ex still has her shoe collection. I still cannot part with the 8 banana boxes full of art/museum books, that’s where I had to draw the line.

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

One of the many benefits of a historic home is limited closet space. So evertime I buy new shoes or new clothes I really have to think about getting rid (either to Goodwill, our neighborhood yard sale or other charity) of old clothes or shoes. Although we plan to add closets to our home at some point in the future, we will never have a lot of closet space and no basements in Florida so we have to be careful about limiting stuff. Books, I’ve really gotten better at books, I get most of my books from the library these… Read more »

Terry
Terry
10 years ago

Yes! That. All of it. Yay, you. And I thought I was doing good this last weekend getting four pairs of shoes that I never wear, bagged & ready for the Goodwill. (To be fair, that’s half my number of pairs of shoes.) More! I want to unload more!

*is pumped up*

Daddy Paul
Daddy Paul
10 years ago

How much stuff do you really need? I am going to say about ¼ of what many people have. I was out in the shed a few days ago. I had to build the shed because of our junk. I found in the box a brand new well point still in the box that my dad bought in 1964 and he was always going to use it. He never did. I think he paid 30 bucks for it. I was always going to use it. I have come to the conclusion I never will. I asked my kids if they… Read more »

Deborah M
Deborah M
10 years ago

I’m a fan of smaller homes and in fact live in a townhouse/semi of less than 1,400 sq ft., but we mustn’t beat ourselves up over the fact that people in other climates may live in much smaller homes. They may be able to comfortably accommodate a great many activities immediately outside the home on their property (and may have more property to boot!)
Sure, in northern climates we can get out and enjoy winter, but we can’t extend sleeping quarters outside, for instance. Unless we had enough snow and the skills needed to build an igloo!

Carrie
Carrie
10 years ago

Before putting our house on the market we purged alot of stuff. It was difficult as you think “I may use that some day” but if it’s been packed up in your basement for the last few years it’s time to let go.

I have to say that having less junk sitting around feels better. I’m not terribly clean/organized by nature, but when our house was clean and decluttered I felt a bit more peaceful. I’m trying to stick with it.

Great post!

Steve R
Steve R
10 years ago

When I sold my 4BR house to take a job in the US, I did the purge. I was moving into a 1BR apt so considerable stuff had to go. I think I took 7 car loads of clothes & kitchen items to the Sally Anne. While boxing the stuff up, all I was asking myself was “how could one person have so much?” The answer now is what I call the “Occupization of Space” Law or OSL. This involves how much space one has and the unconcious need to have something there to fill the space. This brings me… Read more »

Masafumi
Masafumi
10 years ago

It certainly helps to imagine that you are moving into a smaller place! For me, I would aim at owning only what can be carried in a 40l backpack. Or perhaps that plus a cardboard box or two.

Getting rid of books will be the toughest part for me. How did you manage that?

De
De
10 years ago

I could really relate to this post… there is pack-rat-itis on one side of my family, which I fought for years. Now I’m going crazy decluttering and purging and boy does it feel good! I pulled alot of doo-dads from shelves (took most to a consignment shop) and the place looks so much better. Stuff worth more than $10 is going on eBay (and surprising little is worth that much.) I have a book problem as well – the ones I never plan to re-read went to bookscouter.com, paperbackswap.com, and the local used book store that will take anything. It’s… Read more »

Luke Myers
Luke Myers
10 years ago

@JD, I sure can identify. What’s more, your circumspect wording allows me to share this post with my friends. 😉

EscapeVelocity
EscapeVelocity
10 years ago

I live in a 1948 house, so there are limits on the amount of stuff I can have–but the house is almost twice as big as the apartment I was in before, and I have got it pretty full. Stuff definitely expands to fill the space available. I’d like to bring in a second person, but that would require pretty major purging on both our parts.

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

Yes! It’s a constant battle though. I’ve been on 3 week trips living out of a suitcase, six month trips living out of two suitcases – and yet I can’t bear to get rid of a dress that doesn’t fit me and I haven’t worn in years? Craziness.
Less stuff = less cleaning too.

Slackerjo
Slackerjo
10 years ago

When it comes to clothing, I use the 1 in, 1 out rule. If you are going to buy a piece of clothing, get in the mindset that it’s to replace an existing piece of clothing not to augment your wardrobe.

lupalz
lupalz
10 years ago

We started implementing a strategy when purchasing new stuff: we always try to buy the best quality we can possibly afford. This has been very successful so far, as the pile of old stuff gets smaller, we use a very large portion of what we own. This also has the advantage of curbing impulse buying and make you really think before buying. There is no 10 pair of shoes or 20 sweaters, only 2 or 3, but they are gorgeous, and much more durable.

David
David
10 years ago

That’s a benefit of living in NYC. No attic space + no closet space + no room = no stuff. Even so, I managed to purge about 3 boxes worth of clothes a few months ago. Go me.

miss minimalist
miss minimalist
10 years ago

According to the Pareto Principle, we wear 20% of our clothing 80% of the time — which means we could pare down to 1/5 of our current wardrobes, and hardly notice a difference getting dressed in the morning! Here are some great strategies for paring down: 1. One in, one out. Every time you bring something new into the house, get rid of something similar. 2. One-a-day declutter. Commit to purging one item from your household every day. 3. Count your stuff. When you know you already have 30 shirts or 20 pairs of pants, you’ll be much less likely… Read more »

Jonasaberg
Jonasaberg
10 years ago

Me and my girlfriend recently had to move because our apartment was going to be sold. Carrying box after box of useless crap really got me thinking about getting rid of stuff as well. So instead of having a moving in-party, we’re going to have a “free stuff-party”, where we invite our friends and they can choose items they want from a big box of items we don’t want or need. Of course, it would be easier to minimize the amount of stuff if you lived in a warm climate. Living in Finland, temperatures can range anywhere from +40Celcius to… Read more »

David C
David C
10 years ago

I started my annual purgefest last week. I found a box of auto parts from a car that I haven’t owned in 16 years. I am going to dig deeper into the recesses of the attic to see what else that I can get rid of. Not only does it remove the burden from my rafters, but from my shoulders as well.

I come from a long line of packrats and reformation is a constant struggle. Thanks for this post, it has given me yet more desire to win the battle.

Tim
Tim
10 years ago

I can’t help but think of the movie Fight Club while reading this post. Don’t let your possessions own you.

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

Great article and excellent questions. Seems the answer to the question of how much stuff does this girl need is – enough to fill the house and keep her from feeling lonely in an empty house. *sigh* Not pretty, right? But you’re inspiring me, stuff doesn’t really keep you company anyway, so I’m starting a list right now of things that I can get rid of.

Ron
Ron
10 years ago

Is there a diminishing rate of return for minimalism? Sometimes I wonder if we’re taking this idea a bit too far.

olga
olga
10 years ago

My favorite time passing besides running is de-cluttering. Just past weekend I packed 2 grocery bags of clothes. Not much? I do it every month, I haven’t bought anything for myself in a year, and I moved across the country 6 months ago in Honda Civic (with a teenager son and a cat, so deivide the space).
My mom is a packrat, and my sister and I, when I come back home, ask dad to distruct her, and we purge from behind the shelves and odd spaces. That’s our bonding time:)

Adam
Adam
10 years ago

Great article JD! I live in a ~720 square foot condo, as I live in a very high cost of living area. Going home to mom and dad’s is a nightmare for me because they are packrats to the extreme. By necessity, I have very little storage space for any clutter and also like to keep all my surfaces neat! Clothes and books are my biggest “clutter” items, and I regularly fill a garbage bag of clothes to give to good will. The books, I need to find a way to get rid of them in Canada that doesn’t involve… Read more »

Bananen
Bananen
10 years ago

I’m not sure that I agree with the minimalist aspect of the PF movement. I believe it’s important to consider what you don’t need so that you can save money to buy stuff that you really want. But I don’t consider minimalism by itself to be virtuous but rather an idea that turns the mean (saving money) into an end. I want lots of stuff and I want a huge home, but I also want to be able to afford those things without going into debt, thus to me it is a necessary evil not to buy everything I desire… Read more »

ami | 40daystochange
ami | 40daystochange
10 years ago

This post resonates with me – I feel like we own way too much stuff, so reading the specifics of your purging process helps me visualize what that might look like for us. Sarah Susanka wrote a book a few years back called the Not So Big House – suggesting that bigger is not always better, and a well-designed small house can work better for many families than yet another McMansion. (think of how efficient a sail boat can be in providing storage for necessary items) Wonderful ideas – and yet it still seems that the prevailing trend still favors… Read more »

Raghu Bilhana
Raghu Bilhana
10 years ago

JD

Finally I was able to beat Leo at one thing. I own less than what he has :-). I have less than 50 things.

Of course it is a different matter altogether that he beats me at million other things. He is a really great man. He changes lots of people’s lives.

sandy
sandy
10 years ago

I agree with those who say that moving is the best cure for packrattery!(Is that a word?) My husband and I moved 11 times in the first 10 years of our marriage. I was very strategic with whatever I bought. Well, kids come along and they bring a bunch of stuff with them. Then, as they grow, they outgrow clothes, toys, etc… and we purged not terribly long after they outgreww their early childhood items. Over the Christmas break, our family took 2 days and did nothing but purge. Both girls were in charge of their bedroom purging, and we… Read more »

Geek
Geek
10 years ago

I may be moving from a big apartment with my SO (1300sqft or so) to a smaller loft cottage/townhouse (950sqft or so). Lucky for us, 1300 is still waaay too big, but I imagine there are things we’ll have to get rid of. I don’t know how anyone gets rid of books though. I want to live in a library of my own making, surrounded by them. Maybe with a spiral staircase leading to them. But I guess that’s what’s important to me, and I only keep the ones I’ll reread more than once. If my problem is books, his… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 years ago

We’re moving to a smaller place next month, and are in the midst of this process as well. In reality it’s not all that much smaller (maybe 1000sf instead of 1100) but we always take this time as an excuse to purge. I hate clutter and knicknacks so it’s always a satisfying experience for me. My husband used to be a pack rat but lately he’s been talking about how good it feels to get rid of “stuff.” We do collect some things (records, books) but I think there’s a difference between that intentional collection and just having crap everywhere.… Read more »

Mike Lutter
Mike Lutter
10 years ago

I love this topic. I had a similar rant on my blog about it:

http://quitbeinglazy.com/2009/12/get-your-house-in-order/

One of my all time favorite quotes is: “People don’t own things, things own people”. If you can get past the idea that you have to accumulate “stuff” to compete with the Joneses, you can easily get past the urge to overspend.
Cleanliness in you house is a great companion to budgeting and personal finance.

Mrs. Money
Mrs. Money
10 years ago

I agree- we are always downsizing! I am bad about my clothes though- I hold onto them because I think that I am going to wear them! I need to just get rid of them.

KC
KC
10 years ago

My husband and I used to live in a 1400 sq ft condo for 8 years. We purged a lot over the years due to space demands. Now we are in over 2Xs as much space, but we still have the same habits as far as buying and storing. I’m a little more relaxed about what I keep since I have more space. But we still have rules. One rule is that the garage is for cars. If at any point we can’t put both our cars in our two car garage we’re getting rid of stuff that is cluttering… Read more »

Suzanne
Suzanne
10 years ago

The $40 shirt is the expensive choice? Wow.

Martin
Martin
10 years ago

I just moved in to a smaller place this weekend and managed to move everything except for a bookcase in a taxi. I love having plenty of books around me, even if I have read them and probably wont read them again. But it would be so great having the freedom of being able to fit everything in a taxi and just go at any time.

Books or fitting in a taxi… Argghh, tough call…

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

@Suzanne (#39)
My baseline for clothing prices are what things cost when I was in high school (I graduated in 1987). If something costs more than I would have paid new then, I think it’s expensive. So, t-shirts over twelve bucks? Yikes. Jeans or shirts over $20? Too much. This makes it very difficult to shop anywhere other than thrift stores or Costco. But I’m learning that it’s okay to spend a little more for quality, and for clothes I love.

Golfing_Girl
Golfing_Girl
10 years ago

After having our 2nd child, I just left my job of 7 years to be a stay at home mom. I packed up my desk and had 3 giant boxes of stuff. Since there is a strong likelihood I will return to the same company when the kids are a little older, I was afraid to throw most of my “work stuff” away. But storing 3 big boxes or buying another bookshelf to accommodate this stuff is crazy. I’ll give it another look and try to get it down to one box. After all, if I were a new employee… Read more »

Shara
Shara
10 years ago

If you have less stuff for less space, why have that much space? As long as I have not outgrown my space I don’t really care. I purge things to declutter or simplify my space, or so someone else can use what I don’t. But I don’t really see the need to purge for the sake of having fewer things. More space, yeah. Better aesthetics, of course. But the fact is very often I do use something I haven’t touched in a while. That window scraper I haven’t used in four years didn’t take up much space, and it sure… Read more »

Jackie
Jackie
10 years ago

Wow, you have enough clothing for at least 4 people. For me it feels like stuff weighs me down. I still feel like I have a ton of things, but I suspect I have very little compared to the average American. I just literally feel uncomfortable with so much stuff. Maybe I like the idea of being able to move across the world on a whim, even if I don’t actually do that.

Bradley
Bradley
10 years ago

I love Belize. Went there for the first time last spring. I also only took what would fit into one small backpack. At the end of the trip I realized that I took too much stuff. I have been on a slightly minimalist goal for the past couple of years. I still have struggles getting rid of stuff though. What was the biggest help was moving. I took so much stuff to Goodwill. I am down to one bookshelf, and it holds all my books, cd’s and dvds. Out of necessity my closet now only holds the clothes that I… Read more »

Beth
Beth
10 years ago

At the risk of sounding like a World of Warcraft player…. can I have your stuff? 😉 I really loved getting rid of stuff last summer. We sold all of our dvds and cds and many of our books. The house feels lighter and more airy without all that stuff! On the other hand, I’m not a clothes horse — I shop only at Goodwill and usually at the outlet where you buy clothes by the pound. So, JD let us know when you make that Goodwill run in June so I can be sure to pick up some nice… Read more »

Charlie Boy
Charlie Boy
10 years ago

>>”In the U.S., the average new home was 2349 square feet in 2004″

Hey, the sky is the limit when you can buy more than you can afford.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

I wish our town had a better library. No way am I getting rid of my books.

Other than that I think we’re doing ok. Mainly because I hate to shop.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

I think that sometimes the “maybe I’ll use this sometime” thinking is a cover for “I feel bad that I paid for this and didn’t use it up.” I try to think about “cost per wearing” and not feel bad when I give up something I’ve worn for a while, but it’s hard, I feel guilty over every piece of clothing that isn’t completely worn out! Recently, though, illness made me lose weight and I’m taking that opportunity to Goodwill a lot of old clothes. The “one thing a day” that missminimalism suggests was my New Year’s Resolution — working… Read more »

Kate
Kate
10 years ago

As a librarian working in a university library that has had terrible budget cuts and hasn’t had a book budget for two years and won’t have one this year…I PLEAD WITH YOU….. If any of you are purging books, magazines, comic books, DVDs, Videos, CD’s, etc – PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE consider donating to a local library before you donate to Good Will. The nice thing about something being added to a library collection is that the item can be enjoyed for free to a large number of users rather than go back into one more living room. With the bad… Read more »

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