The Tyranny of Stuff

“Did you learn anything in England and Ireland?” a friend asked the other day. I brushed the question aside; I didn’t have a good answer. But I’ve been thinking about it. Maybe I did learn something: being gone for three weeks taught me that I have too much Stuff.

I’ve always been a packrat. When I was a boy, I had a closet that my parents called my “rat’s nest”. I stashed anything I could find in there. As I grew older and began to earn money, my urge to possess things became a compulsion: I bought tapes and records and books and clothes and comics. I would buy anything that seemed like a bargain. (I often bought on credit, of course.) I used to have a stack of Costco clothes in my closet that I’d never worn. I once brought home six boxes of free books from a bookstore’s “going out of business” sale. These books may not have cost me any money, but I now realize that they weren’t exactly “free”.

How does this relate to my trip to Europe?

When I go on vacation, I tend to overpack. I usually take a big suitcase crammed with extra clothing, electronic gadgets, and, most of all, books. I take lots of books. This time, despite being gone for three weeks, I limited myself to a single carry-on sized suitcase and one daypack. This seemed like a triumph, but after just a few days, I wished I had packed even less. Did I really need half a dozen personal finance books? Did I really need my laptop computer? Did I really need two sweaters? Though I didn’t take much, it still felt like too much Stuff.

More importantly, I discovered that I could live without. I lived without my books, without my comics, without my CD collection. I lived without my fancy digital SLR camera, or my Nintendo Wii, or my DVDs. This Stuff never entered my mind. I didn’t miss any of it. If I could live without these things for nearly a month — and feel liberated doing so — what might it be like to give up some of this Stuff permanently?

I’m not the only one thinking about this lately. The topic has come up several times in the Get Rich Slowly forums. Most recently, Fillanzea pointed to this brilliant essay from Paul Graham, in which he writes:

We overvalue stuff. That was a big problem for me when I had no money. I felt poor, and stuff seemed valuable, so almost instinctively I accumulated it. Friends would leave something behind when they moved, or I’d see something as I was walking down the street on trash night (beware of anything you find yourself describing as “perfectly good”), or I’d find something in almost new condition for a tenth its retail price at a garage sale. And pow, more stuff. In fact these free or nearly free things weren’t bargains, because they were worth even less than they cost. Most of the stuff I accumulated was worthless, because I didn’t need it.

What I didn’t understand was that the value of some new acquisition wasn’t the difference between its retail price and what I paid for it. It was the value I derived from it. Stuff is an extremely illiquid asset. Unless you have some plan for selling that valuable thing you got so cheaply, what difference does it make what it’s “worth?” The only way you’re ever going to extract any value from it is to use it. And if you don’t have any immediate use for it, you probably never will.

I love Graham’s suggestion to ask yourself, “Will this be something I use constantly?” before acquiring anything new. This is an excellent mantra to repeat whenever you feel the urge to buy something, no matter how much you’re paying for it, even if it’s free.

None of these thoughts are new, of course. People have been preaching about the tyranny of Stuff for years. I’ve even written about the problem once before, warning about the cost of buying things you will not use. I currently have two books at the top of my to-read pile that discuss coping with Stuff:

  • Clutter’s Last Stand by Don Aslett — I’ve read parts of this, but now want to read the entire thing
  • It’s All Too Much by Peter Walsh — Kris has read both of these books, and says this is the better of the two

I don’t mean to make it sound like I’m turning into an ascetic — there’s no danger of that — but I could certainly use a lot less Stuff in my life. And when I’m finished with the physical Stuff, I can work on giving up the ways of the digital packrat!

Have you wrestled with Stuff? What steps have you taken to remove clutter from your life? How did it make you feel? What suggestions do you have for those of us who are just beginning the process?

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