Ten Big Mistakes #7: Stuff Without the Time to Enjoy It

Along my financial journey in life, I made a great number of mistakes. In this ten part series which runs from July 19 to July 30, I’m going to focus on ten of my worst mistakes and the difficulties and successes I’ve had in overcoming those mistakes.

I bought many expensive (and inexpensive) items without adequate time to enjoy them.

One of the most cathartic things I did in the immediate aftermath of the choice to turn my financial life around was to simply go through our apartment in order to collect stuff to sell in order to give a big initial boost to our debt repayment.

What shocked me wasn’t so much the amount of accumulated stuff, but the amount of stuff that I owned that I had invested virtually no time or energy in. Piles of unplayed video games, some still in shrink wrap. Mountains of nearly-new paperbacks, many with just some sunlight exposure, most of them unread or barely-started. Piles of CDs listened to maybe once or twice. Multiple sets of golf clubs – and piles of golf balls. A large trading card collection and a large vintage baseball card collection, neither of which had been touched in years. A closet full of nearly-new clothes. Pieces of computer hardware uninstalled.

Simply put, there were tons of things that I had purchased and barely used. Why? I had so many things that I could be using that I didn’t have nearly enough time for them all.

Obviously, my situation is a bit extreme, but over the last few years, I’ve been repeatedly shocked to find how many of my friends and family members have done similar things on a much smaller scale. Unused exercise equipment. Unused DVDs. Barely-worn clothes jammed in the back of an overstuffed closet. Video game consoles played for about five hours and then stuck into a closet. One friend had a never-used Dyson vacuum cleaner in the closet that had been sitting there for more than a year.

These experiences reveal several very vital personal finance mistakes.

First, I used shopping as a substitute for actual entertainment and other experiences. Instead of enjoying the things I already had, I devoted time and energy into the acquisition of more things. A much more worthwhile use of that energy would have simply been directed towards enjoying the already-acquired items.

Second, those purchased items, left unused, are an incredible waste of an investment. As soon as most of the items were purchased, they became much less valuable, passing from “new” to “used” in terms of resale value. They then sat around for a long time, doing nothing more than taking up space, not even repaying some of their value in terms of the entertainment or joy they could provide. Even if I had just mindlessly bought a new game when I defeated the previous one or bought a new book when I finished the one I was on or bought a new CD when I had listened to the one I previously purchased a few times or bought a new DVD when I watched the last one I bought, I would have been in much better financial shape. This doesn’t even touch on the fact that I would have been even better off wisely using rental strategies and other techniques to still get all the enjoyment I would ever want with even less financial investment.

Finally, the clutter of unused stuff takes up time, space, and energy. How do you keep 500 DVDs organized? It’s much, much easier to keep ten organized. It takes less time and space. It takes less maintenance to dust them and keep them clean and presentable. The same is true for everything else in your home. The more you have of something, the more time it takes to maintain it – and the more it costs to maintain it, too.

What can you do to avoid this trap?

The first step is to get your shopping habits under control. Eliminate the purchases you’re making that don’t directly address needs. If you’re buying something that you’re not going to go home and use immediately, reconsider the purchase. Consider instituting a “one in, one out” policy for your non-essential items. In other words, if you buy something new, you have to swap out or sell something old to make room for it.

The second step is to seek out less expensive sources for the things that you do actually buy that fulfill needs and direct wants. If you’re a movie fanatic that buys four DVDs a week, subscribe to Netflix instead. If you’re an avid reader, hit the library to get your new release fix. If you’re a gamer, join GameFly. If you like music, use services like Pandora. Join community groups that focus on your particular hobby. Look for online groups that seek out bargains in your area of interest.

The next step? Thoroughly use items you acquire before you move on to another one. If you pick up a book, read it (or at least give it a fair shot) before getting another one. Even better, get rid of the items that you won’t pick up again. Make your collections consist of the ones that you truly love and intend to revisit with some frequency in the future.

Doing this for the things you accumulate will make a tremendous difference in your financial state as well as the space, time, and energy you have to devote solely to maintain your stuff.

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21 thoughts on “Ten Big Mistakes #7: Stuff Without the Time to Enjoy It

  1. Money Smarts says:

    We’ve run into this to some degree at our house. We end up buying all these DVD movies over the past 10 years, many of which have never actually been watched to this day. They were just purchased under the idea that “I liked that movie, I’d like to watch it again someday”. Now there are stacks of movies sitting in our entertainment room just taking up space. I’ve already gotten rid of some of them, and plan on getting rid of many of the rest. Using a service like Netflix where you just rent the movies and send them back is so much smarter -and the way we’ll be doing it going forward.

  2. Evelyn says:

    If you’re a gamer, join OnLive. Works with typical home PC or Mac hardware – so no big investment. Just needs a good internet connection. And, membership is free the first year. Buy games on a 3-5 day playpass. It’s great for family gaming.

  3. Jessica says:

    This is a great article. We are trying to sell our house and I have been going through my toys and selling what I can and each item I wanted so bad and barely go any use out of them. I can sell them as almost new and it has hit me how much money I have wasted.

  4. SEC Lawyer says:

    Wise column by Trent. I would add that it’s also quite possible to purchase services that are never used even though purchased for enjoyment. The classic case is tickets to an event that are discarded rather than used. There are many other examples. My favorite one is club membership(s) that are unused. We have a home that borders on a golf club and a boat club. We belong to the golf club and, sadly, use it less than we should. Sometimes I think it would be fun also to join the boat club. But then I remember how little we actually use the golf club and as a result it is easy to decide (once more) not to join the boat club. The purchase of wasted services is perhaps more insidious than the purchase of wasted goods because there is literally nothing to show for the former whereas there is for the latter; the value of the wasted service is quite literally zero, whereas unused goods have some depreciated value, however slight.

  5. bethany says:

    here’s an additional tip my parents use: sometimes they will buy a lot of something they like because it’s a good deal or a sale or something, like an entire tv series on dvd, or as my husband and I did lately, 2 wii games to get a discount. Then, instead of using everything at once and getting overwhelmed, they get out one of the new things (maybe), and put the rest away to be a gift or to get out later when they’ve finished the first thing.This way big purchases last long enough to justify the up-front expense.

  6. George says:

    Well stated overall.

    “How do you keep 500 DVDs organized?”
    Being in this situation, I can tell you that you get a pair of jukeboxes, each with a capacity of 300 DVDs. The jukeboxes reduce handling of the DVDs and shelter them from dust. A more modern solution would be to rip them to a 6+ TB array on a home theatre PC.

  7. Nick says:

    You think DVDs are bad? How about a house? My parents bought a lot of house. They could afford to pay for it, but they barely have time to live in it. There are spare bedrooms devoted just to being “junk rooms,” financed furniture that has been sat on maybe a dozen times in a decade. They even had to pay for maid and lawn service because they didn’t have time to clean or mow the lawn (it’s not a very big lawn, either). They’re busy business owners, but why shell out for a dream house if you don’t have time to enjoy it?

  8. DivaJean says:

    Some of what Trent mentions is buying into a dream lifestyle. I see this type of behavior as saddest of all. Buying things like canoes and tents and dreaming of camping and getting away but never actually doing it– and then having the sad reminder around as clutter. Hubby was guilty of this until I pointed out that she hadn’t gone camping a once in the 15 years we’ve been together.

  9. Bk says:

    This is a great post. I definitely fall into this trap constantly. There is so much crap around the house that I need to get rid of. To make matters worse I still have my ‘inheritance’ from cleaning out my grandmother’s house. Lots of cool stuff, and sentimental stuff, but I’m getting to the point where I may just rent a dumpster.

    Just selling the stuff seems to be a lot of work. Any tips on actually getting over that barrier to start shedding unused items? Ebay is cool, but is sometimes a pain in the a$$.

  10. Amy B. says:

    I agree with this almost 100%. My problem has been with things that I USED to enjoy, but now have no time for.

    I loved painting. I painted again after my first child was born (having given it up during pregnancy just because researching which pigments could be used safely was difficult and time consuming), but haven’t been able to find the time since my second child was born. Several times I’ve started, but can never find the time.

    Since I have lots of money invested in this (and am painfully aware just how much I’d have to re-invest if things were to change), I just can’t part with these things.

  11. Sandy L says:

    I actually hate shopping in retail stores…and I still end up having to purge on a regular basis. I can’t imagine what it must be like for someone who enjoys shopping.

    My downfall is tag sales, as it’s just so easy to go home with something if it’s only $1. I do get bored of hobbies and books, etc, so it’s nice not having invested too much money in those things.

  12. Crystal says:

    My husband and I came to this conclusion a few years ago. Now we only buy games that we play regularly and he buys video games that he starts playing that evening. I’ve also embraced Craigslist selling to pare down some of the stuff we had accumulated that we weren’t ever planning to use again. Anything that may be wanted again we keep organized and easy to find so we don’t forget and buy it again. We make some “mistakes”, but overall, we are way less wasteful now.

  13. Debbie M says:

    I’m with Amy B. Probably when her kids get older, she’ll have time again. But maybe by then she’ll have different priorities. How do you really know?

    Something I had to train myself is that my house is not a museum. I do not need to archive every cool thing I ever notice.

    I also had to get out of the mentality that I am poor and that things are rare and so I need to save them. This isn’t medieval times–books are no longer rare. It’s not the Great Depression–I don’t need to save old shoe leather in case I get hungry.

    I’m still erring in the direction of too much stuff, but I’m working on the right balance for me; I’ve figured out I don’t want to be a minimalist, even though I want to copy a lot of their ideas. For example, the other day a friend of mine was ordered to provide cupcakes for a funeral (boring story) and I was able to take care of that because I still had my cupcake pans and some cupcake liners even though long ago I had vowed never to make cupcakes again because the liners are wasteful and it takes longer than making cake and people can’t choose their own serving size.

    I really do like having stuff. But I also like being able to easily find and get to my stuff, being able to easily take care of my stuff, and having money available to spend on what I most want (such as retirement and travel) instead of whatever I am most likely to encounter at a store (such as more books I might or might not like).

  14. Deborah says:

    for Amy B. I think if you have invested in a hobby or interest area you fully intend to get back to, that’s neither clutter nor waste. I have a fairly valuable stamp collection I haven’t played with in years. Working on that is a plan for my retirement, meanwhile, I store it carefully and with regard to it’s fragility.

  15. There must be something in the air, because I felt the need to write about “stuff” today too!

    The “opportunity cost” of keeping up our stuff is absurd.

    Cheers, T

  16. reulte says:

    Amy B — It depends on how old your children are. I used to read about 300 books a years. After my son was born, I didn’t read a book until he was 4 when I actually had time to read about 5 books. When he was 5, I read 96. Now that he’s 8, I’m reading about 160 books a year. In your case, perhaps you could keep a sketchbook handy and do quick sketch ideas for future painting and pack up the hard-core painting items until you have more time.

    I don’t think Trent is saying get rid of your hobbies — but perhaps simplify to one or two hobbies. I know that I have ‘stuff’ from the following hobbies: scuba/snorkeling, reading (tons of books), film photography, DVDs/CDs, metal detecting, travel (various kinds of suitcases and carryon bags, assorted souvenirs), a ‘gourmet’ cooking phase . . . I’ll be keeping the snorkeling and metal detecting equipment as well as about 1/3 of the books, switch from film photography to something like snapfish and weed through the DVDs, CDs, suitcases & souvenirs and gourmet gear.

  17. Sara says:

    Another way to avoid this trap is using a waiting period for purchases. Some people use as little as 10 seconds to force themselves to think about whether they really need what they’re about to buy. Others wait 30 days or more, sometimes with the time proportional to the cost of the item.

    I don’t have a specific amount of time, but I rarely buy anything without thinking long and hard about whether it is worthwhile for me to spend my hard-earned money (even $20) on it. If I frequently find myself thinking, “I could sure use a [whatever] right now,” that gives me an idea of how often I would actually use that whatever if I purchased one.

  18. KC says:

    I really don’t buy anything that I don’t need before sleeping on it. I’ve been thinking of getting a treadmill to stave off the effects of middle age. But I haven’t yet. If I’m still thinking about it next month I’ll go look again – cause at that point it’s more than a passing whim. But I find that the more I wait the less I want an item. I do this with most anything that I don’t immediately need. Even inexpensive things like books I’ll wait a week or so before buying. If I still want to read it after a week then I probably will read it.

  19. Rob says:

    I’m slowly but surely clearing out a book collection that is easily half again what I could read in my lifetime. And I’ve realized a big part of what got me here has been my buying in to the expectations of others.
    I’m not talking about trying to impress the neighbors, I’m saying, everyone knows I’m Rob the Book Lover. So, on some level, I’ve followed the script.
    It’s a subtle thing, going from “doing it” to “overdoing it”, and I think the bottom line for solving this problem- whatever the cause- is to really learn your personal line. What are you buying, using, and enjoying, and what are you buying and not getting the value back on….whether that value is time, entertainment, whatever.

  20. Jen says:

    I’m proud to say that I just did this before a major purchase of a 160G ipod. I really wanted one, and quite frankly, I still really want one. But at this point, being a sahm, I really don’t have time to actually listen to it, and $250 can buy a lot of groceries. Great article!

  21. Erica Douglas says:

    It’s not just the time to enjoy it – it can also be a choice. My husband and I both have pop culture collections of things we enjoyed in high school but that we’re not really interested in anymore. In the last week, we’ve been putting these things on ebay and craigslist. This has had, really, 3 major benefits: we’re getting stuff out of our house, we’re earning a tiny bit of money from these things, and the items are going to people who will enjoy them now. It’s been great for our marriage and great for us to not have that baggage any longer.

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