My mother has been out of the hospital for two weeks now. She's home and recovering well. The past two Sundays, Kris and I have driven down to see her, and the three of us have spent part of the afternoon sorting through mom's Stuff.
“Do you still want this?” I asked mom again and again, holding up an old computer printer, a plaque with a pithy saying, or a calendar from 1998.
“No,” she'd say, and sometimes we'd laugh. Who still needs their calendar from 1998? But not everything was funny. “It seems a shame to get rid of some of this,” she said as she sorted through her clothes. “They're all still good.”
We've thrown away some of the Stuff (calendars from 1998, for example), but last Sunday Kris and I hauled a lot of it to Goodwill. We dropped off nine large garbage bags filled with clothing and a couple more containing books and gadgets.
The idea of having
When we got home, I spent some time alone, thinking. I sat in my office and looked at the bookshelves. I looked at the rows and rows of comics. It occurred to met that although I've gained control of my current and future spending, I still struggle with the past.
“Will I ever read these?” I wondered. “Or are they just clutter?” I remembered a conversation Kris and I had last week.
“You know why you can't get rid of Stuff, don't you?” Kris had asked.
“Because I want it,” I said.
“You think you want it,” she said. “You like the idea of having certain things, but you don't actually use them. You've got dozens of books stacked in the guest room. They've been there since the last time you purged Stuff a year ago. Have you needed any of those books in that time?”
“No,” I said.
“That's my point. You can't bring yourself to get rid of them, yet you don't use them, either. You don't even really want them. So they sit there. You wouldn't even notice if you got rid of them.”
Kris is right. It's the idea of having that appeals to me. When I look through my stacks of books, it pains me to think of purging them. Yet it also pains me to have them cluttering my life, always within eyesight, taxing my mental energy. I like the idea of having them, but not the actual possessing.
Who we were or wished to be
After I told my friend Amy Jo about our clutter conversation last week, she shared her own thoughts. “We each have so many interests, and certain things — like books — keep us connected to those interests, or give us the illusion that they do,” she said.
“But they also clog up our lives and make us less efficient at doing what we are and what we want to do right now. It's hard to let go of the things that we believe represent parts of ourselves, or we hope represent us. In many cases, these things represent who we were or wished to be at one time — not who we are right now.”
Looking around at my collection of comic books, I had to ask myself, “Is this who I am? Is this who I wish to be? Are these books a part of me?”
I didn't have an answer, and I don't have one now.
The purpose of money
I truly believe that by gaining control of my desire to have things, I can better control my personal finances. Many people struggle with lifestyle inflation — increased spending with increased income — which is nothing more than a battle with Stuff. This problem is common, even for those who don't spend beyond their means.
I've become adept at preventing new Stuff from entering my life, but it's difficult for me to part with the Stuff I already own. This is a very First World problem, and in a way it makes me feel guilty. We're trained not to be wasteful. That's not a bad thing, but I think it can prevent us from making smart decisions.
I also continue to struggle with sunk costs. I know that I spent $30 on this book, for example, or $20 on that pair of pants. It pains me to think of getting rid of them. It feels like throwing money away. And so I stack Stuff in piles and carry it to my workshop where it will sit, doing no good to anyone, for months or years.
There is nothing wrong with buying things that you will use and enjoy. That's the purpose of money. If you're spending less than you earn, meeting your needs, and saving or the future, it's a wonderful thing to be able to afford the things that make life easier and more pleasurable. But when you purchase things based solely on the idea of having, I believe you've crossed the line from using money as a tool to becoming a tool for money.
Author: J.D. Roth
In 2006, J.D. founded Get Rich Slowly to document his quest to get out of debt. Over time, he learned how to save and how to invest. Today, he's managed to reach early retirement! He wants to help you master your money — and your life. No scams. No gimmicks. Just smart money advice to help you reach your goals.