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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Nick in Iraq
Nick in Iraq

Great post, and I agree wholeheartedly. I don’t think people realize just how much stuff they have but don’t need.

After being in Iraq for several months, it’s not the Stuff that I miss. Everything I have now can fit in a couple bags. I’m starting to forget that I ever had a house full of junk. I wrote a post about it here:

http://sloaninvestments.blogspot.com/2007/08/what-matters.html

Bob
Bob

Taking off from your last point, about being a digital packrat. I’m not convinced that it’s a problem at all. What’s the major dilemma with having physical Stuff? For me, finding a place to put it all, plus worry about moving it if you have to relocate. But that’s where digital media saves the day. My dad recently went through all of his mother’s old slides (thousands) and scanned them all in, then threw the orginals away. They were taking up too much space. Now all of those memories can be easily accessed on a hard drive, which is cheaper… Read more »

Joe
Joe

I’ve actually been working on this myself and read It’s All Too Much. Merlin Mann has a great series of articles on 43folders.com talking about this subject as well. Once you start clearing the stuff out, it’s scary but very liberating. I found that there’s a lot of stuff that I was keeping around, but every time I looked at it I thought, “You know I should really start working on that.” or “I should get that out again and try to learn how to play it.” (Thinking of my guitar there) Getting rid of stuff like that also gets… Read more »

Emily H.
Emily H.

I think digital storage can have a cost. It’s not trivial to either find things when you need them, or organize them so that they’re easy to find. (I have always had a humongous email inbox, because I don’t delete stuff; but that’s been a huge liability in the past, because it’s been hard to search for the things I really NEEDED. Now I actually have a decent search function for my email, so it’s better).

Tyler
Tyler

This reminds of me of a quote by John D Rockefeller’s business partner:

“I wore a thin overcoat and thought how comfortable I should be when I could afford a long, thick Ulster. I carried a lunch in my pocket until I was a rich man. I trained myself in the school of self-control and self-denial. It was hard on me, but I would rather be my own tyrant than have someone else tyrannize me.”

I have this quote pinned up here at work.

April D
April D

I fall into a terrible cycle of getting rid of tons of “stuff,” only to find I’ve begun to accumulate it again. I’m trying very, very hard this time to really evaluate how often I will use something before I bring it home.

dingbat
dingbat

I found out the drawbacks of stuff somewhere between living in a 500-sq-ft. apartment and living in another country for short stretches of time (6 weeks and 3 months). For the 3 month trip, I brought one suitcase, and more importantly, left with one suitcase. Last time my family came to visit, my sister looked at my dresser and my closet and asked “where do you keep the rest of your clothes?” I think she can’t fathom wearing the same three pairs of jeans for years, wearing the same three sweaters for years, and always, always, always getting rid of… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine

I agree with this post as well. I’ve been on a “buying freeze” for quite a while now. It’s not a “pact” or “to see if I can do it.” It’s because my husband and I now know, really know, that we don’t have the financial security that we want for our girls. I don’t want to be rich, I want to be free. And freedom is worth more than stuff. Interestingly, I was reading through Dr. Dobson’s book, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. I “inherited” this book, and am not generally a big fan of Dobson.… Read more »

Anon
Anon

I swing back and forth on this topic. As a child I moved around a lot with the family and we constantly were purging “stuff.” I missed some of that stuff and don’t know what happened to it. My glass animal menagerie, my comic books, etc. I began to equate wealth with being in one place where you can easily accumulate stuff and never give it away. Then, I got divorced and found myself giving away far more costlier things. I kept some and those are the things I cherish now even though I didn’t when I took them. It… Read more »

Dickey45
Dickey45

I’ve made an artform of getting rid of stuff. It is sadly addicting. I look around the garage and house looking for stuff to get rid of. I am packing to move so it is continual:
http://kathyandcalvin.com/free-stuff-my-corner

Jenny
Jenny

I’m in a similar spot – everything I own fits in a 12×15 room, and it still feels like there’s way too much. A couple of resource recommendations:

As Joe pointed out, Merlin Mann’s War On Clutter series (http://clutter.43folders.com) and Peter Walsh’s “It’s All Too Much” are great reads and very inspirational.

Unclutterer (http://www.unclutterer.com) is a fantastic resource, and through Unclutterer I’ve found Stuck In Stuff – the author has made the decision to limit himself to owning 100 things. He’s tracking his progress at http://http://guynameddave.typepad.com/stuckinstuff/

Mike P
Mike P

Do you live near a library? Make a deal with the selector and put your books into circulation. I had a really bad book ‘problem’ that had just recently been solved. For years I had been lugging around about 400+ books. All the problems associated with this amount of paper didn’t seem to justified by the unrealistic need to have all these book available all the time – but just getting rid of them was unthinkable, physically revolting to me. I wanted to be able to use them when I needed to and be without when I didn’t. I wanted… Read more »

JenL
JenL

This post is excellent thought fodder for me…I’ve typically swung back and forth between accumulation and drastic purging of stuff. Seems I think through purging quite well, but apparently I need more practice at the thought process before accumulating STUFF.

As for suggestions for those just starting the purge process? Take it slow, one area at a time, limit the time you spend going through stuff else you may become overwhelmed and either chuck it all or keep it all. Trash it or give it away…just get it out of the house asap as you go through your stuff.

guinness416
guinness416

Nothing un-packrats you like moving a lot. I’ve hopped around quite a bit (lived in 4 countries in the last 10 years, periods as a student working abroad etc) and it’s definitely turned me into a minimalist. We still probably own more than we should but have no book fetish, minimal electronic gadgets, clothes with their labels on in the closets. I also did a possessions list for home insurance backup recently, and it was also an interesting experience. We literally listed and thought about every item we own, and both agreed the only things we’d “save in a fire”… Read more »

Ben
Ben

I like that “Will this be something I use constantly?” question. I have a kayak which I use 1-2 times a year. It’s crazy but sometimes I look into buying a folding kayak, reasoning that if it’s easier to transport it I might use it more. I think what’s really going on is I like to imagine myself kayaking a lot. But it’s a fantasy. The fact is 9 times out of 10 I choose not to go kayaking b/c I’d rather do something else (like sit around imagining going kayaking ;).

MoneyDork.com
MoneyDork.com

It seems my wife and I can’t even travel 60 miles to the in-laws and spend the night without a trunk full of stuff. Clothes, laptops, backpacks, reading material. It’s pretty sad.

Paul
Paul

JD> When I go on vacation, I tend to overpack. Heh, I know how you feel. Every year we vacation at a family cabin very far from civilization. The cabin is on a lake, but has no electricity or phone. We bring our kayaks, so between that, fishing, swimming, and hiking in the near-by mountains, there’s tons of stuff to do. For the first few years we’d pack the car to the hilt with all sorts of stuff. We usually go for a week at a time, and we’d both bring multiple changes of clothes per day. Then the kids… Read more »

Mrs. Micah
Mrs. Micah

I just moved for the first time in my life (not counting trips to school) and was astonished by how much stuff I’d accumulated. Some I threw away, some I made homes for, some I left with my parents. Last week, for the first time, I was able to travel for a weekend with just a little overnight bag and a backpack of books. And my teddy bear, but he fit in the overnight bag. It was amazing! I’ve always been prey to a fear that I’ll need something and now have it around. Kudos on packing light for Europe!… Read more »

Hazzard
Hazzard

I tend to think of everything we have as rental items. I bought them and am using them but at some point I’m either going to sell them or give them away. Then I just average the cost over the time I used it and consider it a cost of being alive. I can’t stand having too much stuff. It’s an amaazingly liberating feeling to get rid of items. I come from a long line of pack rats and never want to be one. The opportunity cost of being saddled with all that stuff is too high. My dad had… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.

Ben wrote: I have a kayak which I use 1-2 times a year. It’s crazy but sometimes I look into buying a folding kayak, reasoning that if it’s easier to transport it I might use it more. I think what’s really going on is I like to imagine myself kayaking a lot. But it’s a fantasy. Exactly, Ben. This is exactly what happens to me. For example, I have a nice set of Nikon camera equipment, including an SLR, a digital SLR, and several lenses. Before GRS took off, I was actually working on developing my skills as a photographer.… Read more »

Dave
Dave

I would encourage everyone to check their Death Clock, as it has a funny way of putting all this accumulation of stuff into perspective —

http://www.deathclock.com/

Claire
Claire

@Hazzard That’s a fabulous attitude. I’ve been packing to move this week (I’m a grad student, and I’m moving back to dorms for my last few months…) and so I’ve given various bits of furniture away on freecycle. The fact is, they cost me a few pounds, they’re worth nothing on resale, and I would have to either pay someone or rent a vehicle to move them. Not worth it. However I rely on my frequent (at least yearly) moves to actually put this into action – I imagine it requires a lot more self-discipline if you’re staying put.

Dickey45
Dickey45

I honestly have no idea of why people rent storage areas. After several months, even years, they could buy their stuff new for the cost of rent.

Paul
Paul

Obviously I can’t speak for all those who rent storage areas, but I expect some are doing so because they’re in-between permanent residences. Ironically, we’re helping someone empty a storage unit this weekend by purchasing some of *their* stuff which is currently in one of these units 🙂

Paul
Paul

It’s funny that the blog post about removing ‘stuff’ from your life has a Google ads banner on it…

Awesome
Awesome

I’ve wrestled with stuff my entire life. My whole family suffers from some sort of packrat gene. Fabric, scraps of paper, old “things” I might start a project with – waste not, want not, sure, but it gets too tough to handle. My boyfriend has actually told me he is not visiting until I get rid of the stuff, and he will never live with me until I get rid of 3/4 of what I own. My initial steps have been to move everything to the basement, where at least it’s out of the way. I had a book addition… Read more »

Shelly
Shelly

I am, thankfully, through no effort of my own, not a packrat. I tend to view empty space as a possession in itself. When I want to acquire something I ask myself if I’m willing to give up my empty space to have it. I’m often surprised that some item I thought I wanted was not as valuable to me as the empty space I would have to give up to have it.

Amy
Amy

I’ve moved 7 times in the last 6 1/2 years, following a Navy husband. Each time, we get rid of tons of things, and each time, it seems to creep back up. However, for this last move, we put 90% of our remaining stuff in storage (courtesy of the military so no cost) and rented a tiny apartment to save money while we looked for a house to buy – hubby just retired from his first career. We lived three months without all that stuff, and I was dreading having it come back… Yesterday was the scheduled day and the… Read more »

Sistah Ant
Sistah Ant

i get rid of stuff every time i swap my winter wear for summer wear. i purge through everything in the house twice a year, and that keeps me pared down for the most part. another thing that helps is having a small place. before buying anything my first thought is, “where am i going to put it?” that really helps.

Kris77
Kris77

@Amy
I totally hear you. I’ve moved seven times in the last eight years, and each time it’s a pain in the butt because of the possessions that creep back. It’s gotten much better since starting this whole frugality thing, and the next step is tackling the boyfriend’s stuff. That’s gonna be tough.

Shelly
Shelly

One more thing- Sometimes I just want to go on a retail binge. Truth is though, I rarely NEED anything I don’t already have. So I sometimes satisfy my need to spend money in one of two ways. #1. I buy presents. No matter what month it is Christmas is going to come around. When I see something fun that’s perfect for a friend or family member and I feel like spending money-I buy it! I have a “PRESENT BOX” in my closet. I put all those goodies in it so I can find them again come present giving time.… Read more »

Amy
Amy

Kris77 – good luck with the boyfriend’s stuff! Maybe get him that Peter Walsh book from the library? And I’ve found that just setting a good example by being happier with less stuff helps a lot.

Shelly – I have gotten into the gift-buying habit as well. It really helps spread Christmas spending across the year, so it’s not an all-at-once hit.

Josh
Josh

I’ll take your Nintendo Wii if you are getting rid of it. 😉

But seriously, lots of us have found the need to remove a bunch of gunk in our lives. I’ve started the process myself and it is painful.
More so for my wife, as it is easy for me to say “chuck it” for her stuff than mine.

Melissa A.
Melissa A.

I’ve always been a huge packrat too, but less so now that I’ve moved three times, and about to move a 4th time. My parents always joked that my bedroom at home was a fire hazard. Now I’m fairly organized and don’t buy a lot, unless it’s something I know I’ll use. For instance I love to cook and like having neat little gadgets like a garlic press. I don’t need a garlic press, but it’s something I use a lot. I don’t buy books, DVDs or CDs much these days, or clothes. I just use the library. I also… Read more »

Mike
Mike

When you unclutter your life, can I have your Wii? 🙂

Seriously, good post. I’ve never been much of a “stuff” person, I’m the kind of person who feels trapped by a lot of stuff. But a Wii… that’s priceless.

Paula
Paula

Peter Walsh’s book is just fabulous. I’ve read it twice as part of the decluttering process for an expensive, arduous long-distance move, and it was incredibly helpful. People who knew our previous home gasped when they saw our new place (which is much smaller) yet everything important fits beautifully. My own way of thinking about clutter has evolved a lot. Not only have been married to packrats (twice!) I’m not without a hoarding tendency or two myself. So I’ve been struggling with the “stuff” thing for years. How much stuff can you really deal with (use, enjoy, clean, maintain or… Read more »

Joann Loos
Joann Loos

Last time I moved, I gave most of my furniture away. I moved the bed, a few family treasures and my pots and pans (I also got rid of most of the kitchen stuff). I sold about $400 worth of books to the used book store. I think my books are much happier with someone who will read or use them. I did replace the couch and armchairs in the living room, the tv and the dishes. I’m also a craft packrat. I decided to choose only 3 crafts to focus on, rather than the supplies I had for about… Read more »

redhead68
redhead68

One of the biggest packrats I ever met was struggling with poverty. She kept everything! The first time she came to my house, she said “Where’s all your stuff?” I told her “This is all our stuff,” but she wouldn’t believe me. I think there’s an on-going conflict for most people between the concepts of frugality and simplicity. Obviously, I tend to the simplicity side. Strangely, the more money I accumulate in the bank, the less physical stuff I want to accumulate. Perhaps it’s because I don’t feel the need to save things for a rainy day. I know that… Read more »

jc
jc

I have started decluttering in the past year (thanks to trying to do the FlyLady thing) and I have already gotten through tons of stuff. I sold/gave away the following in the past 4 months: – 3 bags of clothing to a resale store – 2 bags clothing, 2 bags housewares to charity – vintage toys to a friend – a kitchenette table and stools (Freecycle) – window guards (Freecycle) – a box of craft stuff/house stuff (Freecycle) And I still have a bag or 2 of winter clothes for the resale shop when they start buying for winter. I… Read more »

Kai Jones
Kai Jones

I don’t have anything in my house that I haven’t used in the last year, except family memorabilia (my sons’ baby books, for example). However, I still have a lot of things. I like my things, and I use them. It may be that my perspective is different because twice during my childhood my mother, sister, and I had to flee a dangerous situation with only the clothing on our backs; not having familiar and useful things around me represents a time of chaos and trauma in my life, and having them is my proof of overcoming those circumstances. Like… Read more »

Chris Vee
Chris Vee

Recently I got together with a few friends and we cataloged all the tools that we had. Between us we pretty much had everything anyone would have needed to build a house and we decided to just trade tools as needed. I ended up selling off some of my larger equipment that was duplicated in our group and it’s made life a lot easier not having to worry about my kids playing with the table saw. If we can’t use something more than 1 a month we’ve decided to just rent or borrow it as needed. Makes life a lot… Read more »

telly
telly

My husband and I moved in together when we got married. Because we had lots of wedding stuff going on and I didn’t have a lot of time to sort through my things, I pretty much packed by just throwing my “stuff” into boxes. A few months later my husband decided he wanted to clean out the basement. I let him go through my “stuff” and he tossed most of it. Three years later and I haven’t missed a thing. Going through your stuff with someone (or letting them do it for you) is a good plan I believe. More… Read more »

Leslie
Leslie

I go through periodic purging of my stuff. I purged big time before my son was born 5 years ago to make room for the nursery. Then I purged even more when I was pregnant with my daughter (who is now 18 months old). I was moving my son into what was our guest room so that his sister could have the nursery. This involved cleaning out a very large closet full of just stuff. I got rid of my wedding dress during that purge which flipped my mom out (she is apparently more sentimental than I am – it… Read more »

freecia
freecia

My dad likes to say “If you don’t buy it, you could save even more.” So those deals and must haves of stuff, well, just say to yourself, “Hey, if I don’t get it, I can really save!” This really works when applied to things you want but don’t need. Or as the boyfriend would say “You have two feet, how many pairs of shoes do you need?”

Elena
Elena

Ok, that’s it! I’m cleaning house! Clear it out! Watch out junk, here I come! (Please note the determination in my tone)

plonkee
plonkee

Mate, it took a ridiculously expensive (purely based on the exchange rate) trip to realise that you don’t need stuff. Good. Move on. You are not the sum total of your possessions.

I was hoping you’d learnt something profound from you trip that I could use against my compatriots.

BTW if anyone is looking for some supportive people to help them declutter, I cannot recommend enough the forum at http://www.organizedhome.com.

sfmoneygal
sfmoneygal

Be careful with what you purge like the woman in Elmira who sold a ceramic turtle with her husband’s ex-wife’s ashes. http://www.newsday.com/news/local/wire/newyork/ny-bc-ny-odd–ashes-sold0806aug06,0,6576703.story There’s a fine line between junk and memorabilia. The woman got lucky thanks to an anonymous tipster. Books are something I struggle with. I haven’t purchased any except a cookbook in March that I rarely use. The Internet’s a great resource for all kinds of recipes. On the one kind they say knowledge is power and you can’t measure your wealth without the help of books. And when I read of CEOs and their vast libraries I wonder… Read more »

Dan
Dan

I’ve recently started watching “Clean House” on the Fashion Channel. It and my clutter have inspired me to start throwing or giving away all those projects and parts I’ve packed away–VCRs that “only need a belt”, old wood, used car parts, all my stuff that my friends have been calling “junk” for years but I was sure I’d use or fix or sell eventually. You know–I feel richer now than I did, and I am starting to feel organized again. Still working on it, but so happy I’ve started, and the house looks so much better, and I have a… Read more »

wxgurl
wxgurl

I have read the Peter Walsh book, and it was fabulous!!! My husband and I have two households currenty. One we are trying to sell in another state, and one I am living in while we try to sell the other one. (Sounds more complicated than it really is.) We purged before I moved out of state. We purged when I moved from an apartment to a small house, and we have borrowed a realtor’s furniture to stage our house that we are selling. It is so liberating! I find that once I purged the second time, I have not… Read more »

Dave
Dave

I love Plonkee’s comment about how we’re not the sum total of our possessions … I think many people buy stuff for its symbolic value rather than for its useful, functional value. You know, Object X shows that one is fashionable, Object Y shows that one is wealthy, Object Z shows that one is an intellectual. Then people play this game of displaying and exchanging these symbols w/ one another, tho the objects themselves have no true value to the person other than what they represent. As Tyler Durden said in Fight Club, “You are not your f*cking Khakis!”

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