Updated on 08.24.07

An Interesting Voluntary Simplicity Exercise That Can Really Improve Your Financial Situation

Trent Hamm

A while back, I read Duane Elgin’s book Voluntary Simplicity; lately, I’ve been reading a lot of things in that direction, like Walden and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (if you’re concerned about the pace of modern life and consumerism and your place in it, all three are very much worth reading). These books, but particularly Voluntary Simplicity, made me think about my life in several interesting ways that I hadn’t really considered before, and yesterday I found myself doing something that was, at the start, just off the cuff, but eventually turned into something very profound.

I went into a room in my house and went through every single item in it. It happened to be my office, which has a lot of random things in it: multiple computers and electronic equipment, books and magazines, a desk and a chair, and so on. One could do this with any room in a house, in theory. When I focused on an item, I asked myself honestly whether this item served a truly valuable role in my life. The key here is deep honesty – there were many items that, on a lot of levels, I was attached to, but when it came right down to it, it wasn’t that valuable in my life (many of the individual books, for example).

The amazing part? I was not attached to most of the stuff in the room. The computer made it, as did the desk and chair, but almost everything else (sans about three books and two CDs) could be tossed and it wouldn’t affect my quality of life.

So why keep this stuff, particularly if it has value for others? If I have 100 books that could be sold for $3 each that don’t have value to me, shouldn’t I sell them, invest the money, then eventually buy something that will have value to me?

Here’s an example: one of my great aunts is an artist and one of her originals in a gallery really speaks to me on a lot of levels. Not only because it is her work, but because she has tremendous talent as an artist. Isn’t it more worthwhile to just own that painting and put it on the wall, something that resonates with personal value to me, than to own those books? If I sold all the books, I could afford her highly discounted rate on the painting (I think) – she’s a reasonably well-known artist and thus her paintings can be pricey.

This simplicity would clear out a lot of clutter. I’d be left with a computer, a desk, and a couple books and CDs. I could take that money and make a sincere choice about buying that painting and know I had the money on hand to afford it, or I could invest it for the future.

What happens if I use this approach in every room? I’m thinking of doing that in a couple rooms this weekend with my wife, particularly our family room where there are a lot of DVDs just sitting on shelves. Could we eliminate some clutter, save some money, and maybe select a few very nice items that actually have meaning and value to us? I think that’s very likely.

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  1. js says:

    good post

  2. !wanda says:

    I like to live like that. I try to keep what is useful and throw away or don’t acquire the rest. But my boyfriend likes stuff. He keeps movie stubs and holiday decorations and scribbled notes from five years ago and small knick-knacks of all sorts and descriptions. (His parents are even worse- they’ve managed to cram maybe double or triple the amount of stuff my parents have in a quarter of the space.) I can’t ask him to get rid of the things he doesn’t value- the problem is that he really does value these things! How do you deal with someone who attaches inappropriate value to stuff?

  3. Sarah says:

    Thanks for the post. This really hits home for my fiancee and me right now. We are moving from our very cramped and very cluttered 423 square foot studio apartment that we’ve been living in for 3 years (while finishing college). Now that we have graduated and moving into our first home, which is 1800 square feet, we are definitely going to take the less is more approach and really ask ourselves if we really need or use an item before we decide to bring it to our new house to possibly sit there and collect dust. We want a clean slate, and have set our minds to work hard to keep our new house uncluttered and organized. We’ve learned our lesson! I think it’s a really good idea to go through like twice a year to declutter and organize your space, so the “chi” can flow.

  4. Kim says:


    Unclutter your space, unclutter your mind.

  5. s says:


    I have found the best way to make someone “ready” to get rid of stuff, is to move 4 or 5 times in the course of a few years. Once you’ve carried your 50 boxes of “treasures” up and down flights of stairs, you start to really consider whether you still need them.

    At least it worked for me :).

    You could also slowly remove items and put them in storage. If he doesn’t notice something is gone after a couple months, he might be convinced he didn’t need it.

  6. Lucas says:

    I’m about to start doing this kind of thing in preparation for moving in a couple of months. It’s a daunting task, even for someone with as little junk as I (think I) have. But the bit of extra cash and the significantly decreased moving hassle will be worth it.

  7. vh says:

    Chortle!!! If you apply that method to every room in your house, you’ll be left with a lot of echoey rooms!

    I like the “do you really WANT to carry this up two or three flights of stairs the next time you move” philosophy best. Yeah…I’d carry the books up & down…even if a few of them get used only once every year or two, they’re my decorator items. Besides, I’m an academic: books are my stock in trade.

    But this big ugleee old desk? Hmmm…betcha for what I could get for this thing, I could buy something smaller and snazzier from Ikea.

    What I’d really like to be rid of is the seven years of tax records.

  8. Monica says:

    I like this quote:

    “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” (William Morris)

  9. feonixrift says:

    One easy way to start into this is to take everything that you might want to get rid of, put it in boxes, then put those boxes in a back room. Anything you didn’t think to go looking for in a year, get rid of. Doing this lets me keep the clutter down to a level of my choice, which is a great psychological boost as well as making everything easier to keep clean and orderly.

  10. Mary says:

    I tried doing this once but I fell into the trap of trying to come up with all sorts of faux sentimental value for things that really aren’t that important. You really have to be honest with yourself when doing this, a know how much sentimental value is enough.

  11. Wendy says:


    What worked for me was a tornado that demolished my parent’s house while I was in college. My parents and our dog survived, and I still had the stuff I used all the time. The only thing I lost that I miss to this day are my high school yearbooks- not just the pictures, but what my friends wrote. Luckily, my baby pictures made it. When you are forced to wonder whether your parents are alive, everything else looses significance. I honestly can’t imagine anything short of disaster that would have otherwise halted by sentimental attachment to ‘stuff’.

  12. SAHM-CFO says:

    I like Flylady’s idea of fifteen minutes of decluttering a day for this task. Each day, pick a room and declutter for fifteen minutes (not regular tidying up). Set a timer, don’t do it any longer than fifteen minutes. Eventually you’ll start to notice progress and you don’t get overwhelmed.

    My biggest problem is not a sentimental attachment to items (my wedding dress was donated to goodwill while it was still in style!) Rather, I tend to think I’ll have a use for an item.

  13. Celeste says:


    My husband is the same way. He attaches sentimental value to (what I see as) worthless paper and plastic mementos. It’s frustrating, but I basically showed him what I was willing to part with, in order to hopefully inspire him to do the same, and then about the rest I said, “here’s two Rubbermaid bins that you can put into whatever you want to keep, and I will never bug you about them.” It doesn’t cost us anything and it’s a good compromise.

  14. tom says:

    I completely agree with this. I don’t get why some people hang onto stuff they NEVER use. I’d much rather get money for it, even it’s $5! I guess thats my money saving mindset.

  15. Andy says:

    Once I was short $80 to pay for my health insurance, so I sold lots of old books and made the payment on time. But, then I found that I missed having those books, and over time I’ve repurchased a good number of them (at a cost of much more than $80). Thats something to think about — how much will it cost to replace an object should you change your mind down the road? An old book may be worth $3 if you sell it, but it will cost more than that to buy it back. I say, if you have the space, keep it.

  16. Sarah says:

    Andy: I agree with you on the book thing. I just can’t part with my books. I know that there is a good chance that I will get around to reading/perusing those that I haven’t read or finished reading eventually. For example, I am finally reading a book that I got from a library book sale for a dollar a year ago, because recently my interest really piqued on the subject.

  17. blackliquorish says:

    I am big on saving memorabilia (every movie stub I’ve ever seen, for instance!), but I don’t have an ounce of clutter. Saving things and being disorganized are two very different topics. I have a plastic storage box for every 5-year period of my life; 6 boxes in all. Two of the same for holiday decor and that’s it. Tips on how to keep the volume down: [1] Don’t change clothing sizes! (That way you don’t have to store “fat” clothes and “skinny” clothes.) [2] Return gifts and purchases that aren’t right as soon as you can. Regift or eBay the rest. [3] Take photos of objects that you don’t need to keep but still have sentimental value. Photos store easily and will give the same emotional “I remember!” rush as the objects themselves.

  18. Helen says:

    Thanks, good post.

    I just read ‘The Road’, and while the book is flawed, I did come away from it thinking, “its all just stuff. Every last bit of it.” the only thing that matters is each other. (yeah, sure, we need some things to live, and we can enjoy some things. But it is still just stuff. Emotional attachment to it is pointless.)

    Which edition of Voluntary Simplicity were you reading, Trent? (or anyone else) – I’m looking at a secondhand first edition, but wonder if the revised is worth getting instead.


  19. Greg Hewgill says:

    I did this to my entire house two years ago, as I prepared to move halfway around the world. Since I was paying for the move myself, every extra cubic foot of stuff I moved cost me something like $15.

    I went through everything I had accumulated over the prior 15 years, and for almost every item I knew I could easily obtain in my new home, I sold it. I sold a lot of stuff to friends who were happy to pay good prices, which really helped.

    Getting rid of all my extra cruft was thoroughly enlightening (in more than one sense). I discovered how little I really needed to get by. I look around our home now and there is now a bunch more new stuff that replaces what we sold, but I’m not really attached to it because I know I’ll just get rid of it if I need to. I now know what stuff is really important.

  20. Wendy says:

    I’m all for decluttering, but when you have children I think there is a lot to be said for having a home library. Yes, your children could go to the library every week and check out books, but it isn’t the same as lovingly fingering a book you’ve read a dozen times and offering to read it to a younger sibling who you think will just love it too.

    And this is coming from an ex-military wife who has moved twice in the past three years and is moving again next week. My oldest is eight and she begged me not to pack up her books until the last minute and even then she will keep a few for the car.

    Of course, I tend to be choosy about which books are kept in the house. I prefer well written and well illustrated books to those that were made from movie or tv characters for instance.

    I know you weren’t probably talking about children’s books, but it’s never too early to start collecting a library on a well rounded variety of subjects that your family can enjoy together as read alouds or separately.


  21. Eileen says:

    No one will convince me to get rid of my books (with only a very few exceptions of some REAL mistakes) either so I am in agreement with all the book keepers here. There’s plenty of other stuff that I would happily sell and salvage some value if I could–but I find even that is a challenge to find buyers. I don’t want strangers coming to my home. I simply do not have the time or the energy to sell stuff on Ebay myself. I’ve considered taking stuff to the ISoldit stores of Ebay but some well meaning friends keep discouraging me because the store takes a cut. However I think I would be better off getting something rather than nothing.

  22. FIRE Finance says:

    Good way of clearing clutter and relieving the funds to be put to good use somewhere better suited. We absolutely acquiesce with the philosophy of keeping only stuff we need. It helps us to maintain a clean house with less efforts. Another great side effect is we need less space. Not to mention the countless hours we save in NOT shopping for stuff we don’t need. Life is short and precious. It is better spent with and among things we love and care about truly.
    FIRE Finance

  23. Nick in Iraq says:

    Like a few people here, I am a huge bibliophile (book collector). What worked for me was acquiring an eBook reader, which was a Sony Reader in my case. I could store thousands of books on a single memory stick. I’ve still got the books, yet they do not fill rooms and boxes and boxes like they used to.

    I admit, I like a room full of books, but I hate moving them. If I knew I would be in the same house for the next 50 years, I would probably acquire a few books, but they are just too much work to move and store.

  24. Elizabeth says:

    Good post.

    I agree it is wonderful to have a home library but through following a process similar to Trent’s, my library fits on a couple of bookshelves and I can safely say that I would strongly recommend any book I have kept to others, and would be happy to pick any of them up and read them again. If a book doesn’t fit those criteria, it goes. Using the library more also cuts down on book clutter…and knowing the library has a book I MIGHT want to look at again makes me more willing to get rid of it.

    As for KEEPING your space clutter free, when my husband and I lived in a 600 ft2 apartment we followed a simple rule for several years: “one in, one out.” If you buy a book/piece of clothing/kitchen implement/etc., you have to get rid of something of equal size and clutter value, preferably a book for a book, a shirt for a shirt, etc. That rule was a real boost to our frugality as it added an additional check at the point of purchase: am I ready to get rid of something else so I can have this?

    When we doubled our living space 2 years ago that rule fell by the wayside a bit, but I feel it coming again…

  25. Kim says:

    This really hits home for me as I’m finishing up packing for college. I’m looking around my room at all the stuff that I’m leaving behind. There’s two boxes (photo storage size) of mementos, some journals and some books that I’m not bringing just because I don’t have space (and probably not time) for them. But I have to ask myself what all the rest of it is worth, you know?

  26. brent says:

    good luck.

    I pulled that stunt on my wife and she assured me in no uncertain terms that she enjoys living up to her eyeballs in books that she read 8 years ago and videos (VIDEOS!) that she’s never going to watch.

  27. Afloat says:

    !wanda, you could try getting some of those cheap mutiple picture frames or shadow boxes, and arranging his “treasures” into cheap, personalized decor. Like a picture of the of two at a concert in a shadow box, with the tickets and other music related pieces of stuff. Somthing. Of course, then you’re REALLY stuck with the stuff, but at least it’s presentable! The shadow boxes especially can come out really nice, and you can get them at Ikea, craft stores, and other cheap places.

  28. chris says:

    I’ve been decluttering for some time. Getting rid of books on amazon and other stuff on ebay. It’s not that easy to make a quick buck doing this. It takes time and effort. In addtion, I have to accept the fact that I will not recoup any money on some items. These will have to be donated or, worse, trashed.

  29. Gaida says:

    I also love Flylady… they have great suggestions & the 15 mins fling really helps to not be overwhelmed and trying to do too much at one time.

    When you receive your mail… stand over the recycle bin & read it and then toss it. Another suggestion I’ve heard…is everytime you read a piece of paper, put a red dot on it… if it ends up looking like it has the measles..you’ve handled it too many times… Toss it!

    It’s so true an uncluttered house definitely helps to unclutter your mind. Giving you a great sense of freedom..

    Now where’s that rubbish bin I definitely need to start tossing!

  30. Janelle says:

    I’m getting a handle on my sentimental attachment to “stuff”, but my real problem now is that my husband has the “but I might need it someday” syndrome. He has boxes and boxes of stuff stashed around our tiny apartment – whole boxes of electronic cables that don’t go to anything we have, multiples of computer accessories he doesn’t use, stacks and stacks of clothes he never wears, and boxes of games he never plays. What can I do with it all???

  31. KT says:

    As for the husband thing: I married the only person on the planet messier than I am. Or was. I’m working REALLY hard to get everything- EVERYTHING- in my life organized in a functional, manageable way. I’ve found that I frequently have to trash/donate things that are my husband’s, and have gotten to the point that I have no qualms about it. I used to try to get him on board with the cleaning, but the effort was truly pointless. He would usually tell me he would take care of it, and then a year later I would find the same bag of crap stashed in some corner.
    So, that Raiders pillow his ex-girlfriend’s mom made for him 15 years ago? I don’t care how much of a Raiders fan he is, there is no need for this thing- collecting dog hair under the bed- in our lives. Those 70 pairs of socks, 50 of which have been waiting for him to sort them for over 2 years? Weed out all the ones with holes, and keep 10 of each- white, long black, short black. Don’t tell him about vast number of T-shirts slowly making their way into the donation bin- I’m now down to 2 out of the 12 logo Ts he had from his old job.
    I’ve also started giving deadlines. If I collect a box of stuff for him to go through, I’ll tell him about it, and then tell him I want to get it squared away by such-and-so a date (usually 1-2 weeks away), and when can he go through it? Some boxes have been “gone through”, and then I come back and go through them again- I’ve literally had whole boxes that ended up in the trash/recycling after the second processing.
    If you live with a pack rat, realize that they won’t miss the vast majority of things to which they are “attached”. Ok, high school medals I’ll allow him, for the time being- those were his glory days, and he doesn’t have anything else to show for them. But old computer books? Mmmm, nope.
    Our space is soooo much nicer since I’ve stopped waiting for my husband to take an active role in improving it…

  32. Rosa Rugosa says:

    The decluttering fits in nicely with eliminating recreational shopping too. We have a small house, so we have to really consider how badly we want/need something, and where it will go. I do have trouble letting go of books, but space considerations have forced me to get better about this in the last couple of years. I try to go through my library at least once a year. I donate the books to the library and other items to charitable organizations. I think if I were going to try to sell them, they would just hang around forever. If I were retired or unemployed, I would probably rethink that one.
    What about well-meaning loved ones, who are shopaholics and bring you little gifts everytime they see you? And act rejected if you try to tell them that you appreciate their good intentions, but please knock it off?

  33. JessicaE says:

    I wholeheartedly agree. I too am married to a wonderful person…with a bad habit of holding on to a LOT of stuff… but fortunately a bad memory. I too have stopped nagging and bugging about keeping his spaces (that overflow to the entire house) pared down, and have just proceeded to make ‘executive’ decisions about old logoed Ts, socks with holes, misc receipts lying around, and things in boxes that have not been touched or asked about in 4.5 years since our last move. This has saved me time and anxiety and frustration of having to wait on him to sort stuff that could take him weeks to get to, when I could use my designated cleaning time to just make the space nice. Since I started this method about a year ago, he has yet to ask about anything missing (including outdated textbooks that weigh a TON, and cannot be used for references in his medical writings).

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