Updated on 11.23.08

Clutter Is Money

Trent Hamm

Recently, I was browsing through the Creative Commons pictures on Flickr (those that have been given permission to be shared freely) and I came across a few pictures that actually reminded me of my early professional years.

shelf by YellowDog on Flickr!
by YellowDog

Dinner Party People by rjw1 on Flickr!
by rjw1

I love clutter by sindesign on Flickr!
by sindesign

I see several things when I look at these pictures.

I see people who enjoy and are proud of their possessions. For some, there is a great deal of personal pride associated with their possessions, and to post the pictures of their shelves and living spaces in public, they’re quite willing to show them off. Accumulation of possessions has become something of a point of personal pride.

I also see a lot of money devoted to things. At the same time, it takes only a quick glance at a shelf full of items to recognize that there’s often a lot of money tied up in those items. A large collection of anything not only had a great deal of cost invested in assembling it, but also has a great deal of cost tied up in merely sitting there. If a person has overstuffed shelves but is also facing financial trouble, there’s a direct conflict going on.

I also see a difficulty in organization brought on by having so many things. When I see an overstuffed shelf or a room full of stuff, I usually wonder how easy it can be to find the item you need when you need it. It’s often buried under mountains of items or filed away on long shelves, meaning that when you have the desire to enjoy one of the items, you have to invest some time in actually finding that item.

I also see a lot of items left unused because of the sheer number of items. Another thing that I notice is that if a person has a lot of things, he or she can only devote a progressively smaller sliver of time to each of those things. That means the cost per hour of enjoyment of each item goes way up.

Think of it this way. Compare a person who has 10 DVDs to one who has a thousand. The person with ten DVDs can watch those DVDs at their leisure, has likely enjoyed all of them multiple times, and doesn’t have to devote much effort at all to storing them. On the other hand, the person with the giant DVD collection has to devote significant time to organizing the collection, likely has not enjoyed his or her collection (many were likely watched only once, some not at all, perhaps), and has to devote significant time, cost, and space into storing them.

This is where libraries and other “borrowing” mechanisms come into play. If you’re unsure as to whether something is going to have significant repeat value for you, borrow that item. Your cost for enjoying the item is then very cheap – nothing if you use a library, or a buck or two if you use a rental service. There’s also no storage cost or effort involved, plus you retain access to a very large library of options.

But what about the “good feeling” of having a lot of stuff? For many, it feels good to have a lot of things. I know that, for a long time, I felt that exact same way. I was very proud of the media collection I had assembled, and I was quite willing to show it off to anyone and everyone.

What I eventually learned was that clutter is the enemy of good personal finance habits. It encouraged me to continually sink my money into items that would simply add to the clutter, and thus my actual cost per bit of enjoyment from those items went up significantly. The end result was a painful financial situation – and the best route of escape from it that I found was getting rid of at least some of the clutter.

If you live in a cluttered environment, take a serious look around and ask yourself whether the clutter is giving you real “bang for the buck” in your life. If it’s not, consider taking a new approach to things.

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  1. imelda says:

    What a fantastic article, Trent. I’ve been struggling with my Dad’s clutter-mania for my whole life; can’t wait to show him this article. You make a lot of great points– lost money, inability to use most of your possessions when you have that many, etc.

    At the same time, I appreciate those pictures because they make me realize I’m not alone! Maybe that’s why people put up the photos, rather than pride.

  2. Louise says:

    I used to have bookshelves that looked like these photos. I thought they sent the message, “A reader, an intellectual lives here.” And it is true that one shelf of well-loved books does not send the same message.

    The key moment for me was realizing that I didn’t NEED to send any messages at all. Whether or not I was a smart, well-read person was independent of my bookshelves. Getting rid of the books did not in any way diminish what was inside my head, what I had actually learned from books.

    They were clutter. The shelves and shelves of books were there for other people to admire, and I no longer needed that.

    We sold hundreds of books so we could move into our RV and live full-time on the road. Now I have even more time to read, and can easily borrow a book or purchase a used one, read it once, and then pass it along to someone else.

  3. Logical1 says:

    I read the blog almost daily and have to say this is not one of my most favorite posts… It is sitting on the edge of being offensive to the people that posted the original photographs.

    For example, the photograph posted by sindesign is extremely cluttered and messy. If you go to his site, he actually has it mapped out and it can give you the impression that he functions well in his “clutter.” Is there a bunch of stuff he could throw out or sell? I’m sure there is. I don’t think his intent of posting the picture was to have someone berate him as messy, cluttered and wasteful of money. For all we know, he could be loaded with money and working on the next great technology invention.

    That said, I do enjoy your site 95% of the time and find a lot of your thoughts and tips very useful and helpful. What attracted me to your site is your openness of your experiences and those around you. I’ve always felt like you knew the issue at hand you were talking about and that brought a lot of validity to it. This post seems more like a writer’s block post where you didn’t have anything but needed to post something.

    I’d much rather see a post on getting the best deal for Christmas, or how you approach Christmas presents with your kids compared to a typically family that goes out and buys a bunch of stuff just to make the tree look full underneath.

    p.s. My desk is a mess and If you asked me for a specific item, I can close my eyes and give it to you. On the rare occasion that I clean and organize it…. I have to search for things.

  4. I still have some shelves that look like that myself- although when they are yours, they don’t seem so bad! And as you’ve mentioned before, sometimes you can make a little money from your clutter by selling it and killing 2 birds with one stone.

  5. Carol says:

    #3 – You are way off. I agree with Trent on all points. Clutter ruins homes, relationships, wastes time and money. I don’t think Trent was pointing a finger at these folks, just using them as a general example of the chaos and havoc that is probably going on. Cleaning is a breeze with less clutter, and my home way more inviting since over the last six years I’ve gotten rid of everything but what we truly need and use. It’s so freeing. Less is more!

  6. Tom says:

    There is a short documentary on this topic called Possessed: http://www.vimeo.com/603058
    It’s about four people whose packratting has gone beyond the normal and raises the question whether it is a mental illness.

  7. George says:

    Our books are organized by subject and author, most of them are NOT available at the library, and they’ve been read many, many times. The nearest library is 10 miles away.

    Our DVD collection resides in a pair of 300-disk DVD changers and are indexed. It’s as easy for us to use the remote control to dial in the DVD we want as it is to change channels.

    There’s a lot to be said for being organized, but just because something appears messy to your eyes is no reason to make a judgement call that it is unorganized and unused.

  8. MGF says:

    Hi. I found this interesting, but it made me wonder how a Kindle fits into the idea of too much stuff. I have a ton of books but only keep the ones I am likely to reread (and they still pile up!).

    With a Kindle you have the organization and lack of physical things, but you can’t trade, share, or sell the items.


    And I don’t find your picture selection offensive. You never criticized the folks, rather stated it reminded you of yourself. Seems fair game to me.

  9. spaces says:

    Look! That’s my husband’s office! You have captured its essence with your picture box. Except he actually knows where everything is.

  10. grad student says:

    well I am a graduate student in the humanities and my shelves look like that and so do those of other graduate students and academics. It is part of our job. I get a book grant every semester of $500 from my school (and a living stipend) to build a professional library. It doesn’t indicate waste and the books are necessary for teaching and writing footnoted articles. What do you think, Trent?

  11. uncluttered says:

    The intensity of feeling people have to their things is quite evident from some comments posted.

    I think this is one of my favorite articles and the link between buying and having stuff and finances is solid. I am an avid “declutterer” and I still have odd attachments to things. In my life, living with less improves budget and mind.

  12. Lori Beth says:

    My husband looks upon his clutter as showing that he is able to buy “stuff”. It drives me mad. I can feel the house closing in around me as he continues to bring home “things”. His parents came for a visit and brought 2 boxes of … well, junk. Instead of taking the money and buying 1 gift that we really could use, it’s more about quantity than quality, “Oh, look, we brought you EIGHT gifts!”. Or, better yet, don’t give us any gifts, save that money, and use it for gas to visit more often!

  13. guinness416 says:

    Good post Trent and GREAT comment, Louise. You’ve definitely got something with the “I thought they sent the message, A reader, an intellectual lives here” comment. I too grew out of this. People are very threatened when you suggest they get rid of their books, but it feels good, frees up money to act on some of the things you’ve been reading and allows room for many library books. In my case, my parents’ shelves look something like those in the photos and I wanted that too, but moving a lot forced me to pare down and I noticed a lot of those would-be intellectual’s shelves are doing nothing more than gathering dust. I wouldn’t have thought it a few years ago, but it feels really good to simplify and declutter my book collection.

  14. Matt says:

    I used to have a massive collection of computer books that I was keeping for ‘reference’ but the reality was that I was using these books to show up and to prop up my self confidence. I got rid of about 90% of them and surprisingly I haven’t needed a single one of them. Your post is absolutely correct in that there is a lot of money, time and effort tied up in these massive collections of clutter and by getting rid of them or cutting them back the owners can stand to benefit greatly.

  15. Moneyblogga says:

    I’m working on this very thing right now. As I have to move house, I will only be taking the things I actually use on a consistent basis. Everything else will be sold off. I discovered that I like wide, open spaces (indoors and out) and the ability to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. Also clutter free living will mean that we have even less stuff to sell when we hit the road for a decade in the RV. Can’t wait.

  16. Chris says:

    Why do people take offense to such dumb things? Trent does a VERY good job of varying his topics. To say that this one is offensive or unfound because of your particular situation is narrow minded.

    Personally, I very much agree with the post. Why? Because it is relevant to my life. If it is not relevant to your life, then check back tomorrow for the next post. There are frequently times when posts do not apply to my life so I skim or skip them. Why get angry about it? It’s a waste of time (just like clutter).

    Are there people who are functional in their clutter? Absolutely. But, are they as efficient if they would organize even a little. I have a guy who works for me who has a disaster for a desk. Whenever I ask him for something, he always has it, but only he is able to locate it. Guess who gets to stand there waiting while he opens one drawer and then closes it, then lifts a stack of papers and puts it down on the floor, moves some books, opens and closes another drawer, and on and on.

    If you don’t like the topic, check back tomorrow. Don’t like the implications, find another blog. But, as a long time reader, I honestly feel that Trent is a very genuinely good guy. It actually kind of annoys me how syrupy sweet nice he is. I still love this blog though.

  17. Jamie says:

    I am stationed overseas. I recently packed out of our house. We tried to ‘prepare’ the house by getting rid of some stuff before the movers arrived. The outcome of our move has made me both sick and annoyed. We have 2 adults, 2 small children and 10 crates of stuff. This is about 9,000 lbs of stuff.

    Yes, this is everything. I now know we have too much stuff. Upon arrival back to the US, we will go through our stuff again. The only plus is that our house back in the US is smaller than our current one. So this will mean 1 of 2 things – we will have that clutter room or we will have the chance to get rid of many of those things we do not really need.

    The real question is how do I get rid of the stuff I do not want? Donations and the pennysaver will be the first choice.

  18. dandyrose says:

    @logical1: I don’t think Trent’s post was belittling or disrespectful at all. And actually, he never said “messy”. I think he did a good job of conveying that neither method (saving or parsing) is right or wrong, but both have different goals, motives, and consequences.

    I’ve been cluttery, uncluttery, and now I fall somewhere in between. I don’t save reference books or media, but I save sentimental things (projects from my son when he was little, arts/crafts made by my parents, etc). I’ve learned creative uses for items, so I can get rid of extra “unitasker” things.

    Note: I live in a city, and square footage is at a premium. It is worth it, to me, to regularly declutter.

  19. Heather says:

    I love this post because I struggle with being a packrat and I’ve been struggling a lot recently. I am sick and tired of having so much junk! It owns me! I don’t understand why it is so HARD for me to get rid of things!

    I have two huge reasons to declutter right now: we are in desperate need of extra cash, and we are temporarily moving into one bedroom in a relative’s house next month (long story) with a little bit of attic storage available to us. I’m proud to say, we’ve made about $1500-2000 over the past 6 months by selling things in 2 garage sales, 3 consignment sales, on ebay, on craigslist, and taking tons of books to a used bookstore. Yet I look around and still our place is extremely cluttered, and we will have to get rid of a lot more so that we don’t overload our relatives or need to rent a storage unit. I’m trying every psychological trick I know on myself to convince myself to part with things. Thanks for the encouragement!

  20. liv says:

    i think it’s ok to own whatever are your favorite movies/books/whatever. shelves like that may not be a sign of overspending, but possibly a sign of just being super disorganized and/or messy.

    but still, if there are a ton of movies/books/whatever that you still want to see, but not own, then god bless the library/netflix/blockbuster/etc.

  21. Moolah says:

    I personally love when you stumble upon something valuable hidden among all your clutter. My house is quite cluttered however I have an immense CD collection which makes me disagree slightly with your post. I do enjoy organizing my collection, however maybe I could sell it, but I would need some personal financial advice first.

  22. Clutter is not just bad personal finance, it’s also very unhealthy.
    A Dawn Journal

  23. Okay, I understand where you are coming from but my husband and I are collectors and that isn’t changing anytime soon. It was blog articles like this which caused me to respond on my own blog:

    I love your blog and subscribed for that very reason, but naturally I don’t agree with everything you say. Oh, and yes, the pic on my blog post, is one wall of our library. I AM proud of our possessions.

  24. gsb says:

    I think this is a great post. I’ve recently been looking around at my own possessions and how many of them I don’t even use or look at any more. What’s the point in having “stuff” if it serves no real purpose other than to show that I wanted it I had the money to buy it? I don’t think the point in Trent’s post was to point out that having clutter or a lot of stuff is wrong, but more to point out that if you have so much stuff that you can’t even use it all you could have saved a lot of money by not buying it in the first place.

  25. KC says:

    You bring up some very good points. Something I learned about clutter was realized when I started to sell my house. The realtor said “get all the clutter out” Why would she say that if clutter shows off our things and our prosperity as so many of us think it does? Well the truth is, it doesn’t. I’m not knocking the people whose pictures are in this article, but I’d never entertain nor be entertained in a room like that. It looks very unkept, even if it is clean. It’s ok for a home office to look like that, but not a main room of a house.

  26. Chris says:

    This is a great post, especially for those that struggle with their basic finances. Far too often I see individuals spending money on dvds, books, collectibles, or other space-takers only to later find them scratching their heads with how to pay for their broken-down car. Heather makes a good point that there are many ways to profit from the clutter that is on all of our shelves. Use garage sales, ebay, consignment shops, Craigslist or any means by which to get rid of junk and shore up your checking or savings account.

    Quickly see where you are headed financially at http://www.buildmybudget.com

  27. robina says:

    I can agree with those offended and those agreeing with Trent’s idea here. But it all just goes to show that there’s not one way to live for everyone. For some, this clutter IS a problem, while others, its organized chaos & treasures. Do with the advice as you will.

  28. Greg says:

    A writer, Gordon MacDonald, once said that the condition of the inside of your car is often a window into the condition of your life. Although I admire organized people and try, I fall short, blaming it on ‘busyness.’ When the back seat of my car is a mess, I am generally a mess, too. I enjoy the posts and then the counter-point offered by the comments. Keep up the good work.

  29. Kathy says:

    The library suggestion is generally a good one, however there are some books that I read over and over again that are not available at the library. I’m not planning on getting rid of those :)

    I think some of it is that we feel as though we are committing a sin by throwing away (or recycling) a book. Almost as though we are killing a physical, living being.

    That being said, the more stressed I get, the more things clutter up around me.

  30. It is gong to be a major challenge for people to learn to do with less, considering that the idea of overconsumption itself is what the economic system depends on. I wonder how many people might have to go through some major changes to survive an economic recession:

  31. Jillian says:

    I wonder if there’s a magic number of DVDs a person should own. My husband and I have about a two dozen between us and that seems to be almost enough to ensure we don’t get tired of them (obviously we don’t watch a lot of TV).

    I actually wouldn’t mind having a slightly *larger* collection but there are very few movies that interest me enough to want to watch them more than once.

  32. Paul says:

    @KC: There’s a very big difference between showing off your own personality and trying to sell a house. Clutter distracts from how the house you’re trying to sell is perceived – you’re selling the house not yourself. The same with decoration, furniture, etc. It helps sales if a house is neutrally furnished & decorated and clean, but that has no bearing on how you live in it.

    As for the article, I agree on some points but it’s all about personality. I’ve amassed hundreds of DVDs over the last decade but I doubt I’ve spent more than a couple of hundred bucks a year on it (e.g. not much more than a Netflix sub) – I buy a lot of cheap second hand disks, and buy job lots on eBay selling off the disks I don’t want afterwards, often making back more than I paid). I prefer being able to dip into a collection of favourites at any time, and yes I’ve watched them all at least once – some of the older discs more than 20 times. Hell, I’ve watched the audio commentary to The Thing at least 6 times, let alone the excellent documentary and the film itself!

    With other items, it’s a matter of taste again. Some people like listening to the same CD over and over, some like to listen to it once or twice or rip it and keep hold of it so the rip is legal. Some people read books multiple times while others never read the same novel twice. Some people get more pleasure out of simply owning a collection than they would the money. People also enjoy the perception of themselves by others. An avid movie fan gets pleasure out of owning movies. An avid reader gets pleasure from having shelves full of favourites, etc. Some people also function better in a cluttered environment – for me, totally clutter-free rooms always feel sterile and uncomfortable.

    It’s a matter of taste, and it’s a little cheeky to suggest that these collections are wrong on the face of it. Yes, if a person is facing financial problems while hoarding these things, they should take stock and get rid of what they don’t use. But clutter itself is not a problem.

  33. Frugal Dad says:

    The point where my finances began to really turn around was the moment when I realized that I got more satisfaction from having less things than acquiring more. I began to sell or give away many of my own material possessions (and collections) and now enjoy a much simpler existence.

  34. When I see cluttered shelves like this I think it’s time for a garage sale or even better and eBay house cleaning.
    Don’t forget about food shelves and Goodwill when looking to get rid of the clutter.

  35. I didn’t really see anyone really offended–I certainly wasn’t–just disagreeing. Not everyone sees having possessions/collections as clutter or sees clutter as necessarily a bad thing. It is for some, but not for me (most of the time,at least–my office is a bit cluttered and is slated for cleaning–but our collections aren’t going anywhere!).

    And I am definitely in the boat where the stuff on my shelves is not available at a library. My husband’s collection of books is mostly obscure out of print children’s series books. That’s what you see in the picture (previously linked in my other comment). (if that comment ever gets out of moderation, that is!) :)

  36. Battra92 says:

    @Jillian: Magic number? I’m sure I surpassed it a while ago but I don’t care. I don’t buy all that many now but I have accumulated quite a few over the years. It’s fun for me and well, I don’t see anything unhealthy about it.

    I’ve sold a few over the years but there really aren’t all that many to get rid of now.

    To me it’s just my entertainment budget.

  37. Louise says:

    @Kathy #21 wrote, “I think some of it is that we feel as though we are committing a sin by throwing away (or recycling) a book. Almost as though we are killing a physical, living being.”

    Wow, there’s a whole article just begging to be written in that statement! A very emotional reaction to decluttering books. Interesting.

  38. KC says:

    I’m a bibliophile (and a librarian) and have a great love of knowledge, reading, and books. I have a decent collection of books but most of them are things I use actively (mostly personal finance or baseball books), were hard for me to find and thus I want to keep them in case I can’t find them again, or I know I’ll read again (and I usually do).

    So if I think I’d be interested in a book I bookmark it on Amazon. Then I check my local library. If they have it…I’ll check it out and read it – FREE. If they don’t have it and its new I wait a few weeks to see if they get a copy. If they don’t eventually get one or its an older title and they don’t have it I’ll look for a used copy. When I finish the used copy I either resell it on half.com or I donate it to the library (they will either add it to their collection or sell it at a used book sell). If its a hot or new title and the used copies sell as much as new I’ll buy it with amazon and combine it with something else for free shipping. The I’ll resell the book on half.com when I am finished. Very few of the books I read end up on my shelf for good.

    This is a great system for me. It feeds my need to read and my need for entertainment and it also satisfies my need to pay attention to my personal finances.

  39. Katie says:

    Hi All,

    Why not donate those used but unwanted DVDs and books to our soldiers? Some agencies collect these now and the soldiers really appreciate them! They don’t care if the items are used.
    Rehabilitation hospitals and nursing homes need magazines. My husband was in a rehab hospital recovering from a very bad head injury for 6 months and I can tell you first hand that these institutions need rotating magazines for the patients and families both to pass the time and to help with therapy by looking forward to getting out of the hospital ! – a much better use than only paper recycling.

  40. Louise’s comment fits me to a T. Certainly not everyone with incredible book collections is just trying to impress, but I know that I certainly was. The fact that I actually liked a lot of the more obscure or challenging titles was just a bonus.

    Finally, I started realizing that in my case, letting my books do the talking was just a form of insecurity. I can’t say I’m totally over it (after all, the Toni Morrisons are in a bookcase while the Stephen Kings are in a closet), but I’m having a lot of fun reading just to read and learn, not to amass some sort of tally.

    Hats off, Louise! I wrote a whole post on the subject, and it didn’t come out half as clearly as your comment.

  41. Shevy says:

    What Louise is doing obviously works for her. Living in an RV is an extreme art, comparable to sailing across the ocean in a sailboat. It requires minimalism, organization and many other skills that most of us probably don’t possess (or haven’t developed to the extent necessary to live in such a tiny space).

    I admire her for that, but her comments about the books just boggle my mind. My books (which look most like the 2nd picture) are not there to impress anybody or make any kind of statement about me. They’re books I care about, that I read and reread, that I now read to my 5 year old and my young grandchildren.

    I’ve weeded through the collections, saving out the ones that I keep rereading but there are still thousands of books. And that’s just fine. I don’t need to show off how few books I can make do with. When you consider the appalling number of semi-literate people in North America the problem isn’t that people read or keep too many books. Rather they are exposed to too few.

  42. This article hits home for “ME” because I am really a pack rat who never wants to get rid of anything for some reason.

    I have been working on it for a while, and will continue to do so. I am in the process of selling some things off that I don’t need.

    And for those who are offended, listen. If you use all of the books that you have, or all of the so call “clutter” that you have, then This Post Doesn’t Apply to you.

    I don’t think that the intent was to throw everyone who has a lot of books and/or items in that box, but I could be wrong.

  43. Jules says:

    Of all the things I miss the most about the US, my “library” is one of the biggest ones (it’s sitting with my parents). I’m not one to indulge in needless clutter, but in all seriousness I don’t think I could live in a house without a decent library.

  44. G. Jules says:

    That middle picture isn’t someone showing off his possessions; it’s someone who loves reading and writing. (Look in the middle, at the stack of what’s obviously the same book. I’m guessing it’s the book he photographs for.)

    A book collection doesn’t have to mean the same thing for everybody.

    I have similar bookshelves, and they’re not there to impress people or to prop up my intellectual self-esteem. They’re there because I read the books. I weed through on a bi-annual basis and I try to keep them organized enough that when I’m looking for my research books on the Victorian Era, or I want to reread my Rex Stouts, I can find them.

    I do use my local library for books, DVDs, and research, but it isn’t ever going to meet 100% of my book needs. I like buying my friends’ books. I like hanging on to books I know I’m going to reread. And there are some books my local library and the libraries they borrow from don’t have.

  45. reulte says:

    Jillian #20 — swapadvd.com . . . it’s great for watching a program once and then letting it go or deciding if its worth keeping.

    I have 4 bookcases of books (am weeding down the ones in storage next week!) . . . many are non-fiction and specialized (how often do you see books titled “Sumarian Grammar” or “Risk Assessment for Object Conservation” on someone’s bookcase) and are keepers.

    However, since joining Paperbackswap and Bookcrossing, I’ve become less loathe to send many books on their way through trade or sales after I’ve read them.

    One easy way to make bookshelves look less ‘cluttered’ is to put objects between the books/DVD cases (i.e. a vase, a nice bookend, a framed photo) rather than in front of the books. I actually use a memory object at the start of a section – such as a replica of the Malta “sleeping priestess” in front of my archaeology section and a piggy bank in front of the personal finance books.

    For DVDs, we put them all in a DVD binder and pack up the cases under the stairs. I will be pulling those out also next week — going through the annual ‘Yule get more’ sort-through.

  46. Andrea says:

    I’m with KC. As a working academic, probably the biggest collection in my house is, of course, books. I have a number of books that are out of print, are hard to find, are not owned by more than one library here in the States, etc. Moreover, I currently teach in a system for working adults in which the main library of the university is 80 miles away in the next town; the nearest big university library’s hours are highly restrictive for people from other institutions.

    So I keep academic books! The time involved in storing them is less than heading 15 miles to the nearest academic library and praying that they haven’t changed when “community” members can access the building–more than once I have called, been told they were open to non-“Big Private University With Attitude” patrons from X time to X time, only to be turned away at the door because only students and faculty of that institution could enter that day, regardless of time.

    However, I try to follow the “borrow first” rule for personal books, and periodically purge the ones I accumulated when I was less careful about Stuff. (Most of them, though, came from secondhand shops; even so, it’s money and time!)

  47. Sally says:

    Interesting comments. I think the issue for many is that their “stuff” is an extenstion of themselves. Which of course in reality – it’s not. It is just a “thing” – not a real live human being. I try to have just enough – useful, necessary and simple. I have saved hundreds if not thousands of dollars by adopting this attitude.

  48. AD says:

    I might have disagreed before, but after clearing out so many clothes, books, movies, and other types of stuff over the past two years, I wholeheartedly agree.

    I do hold on to some books, but only those I truly loved. The others go to the annual book sale my division at work holds to fund adopting families at Christmas.

    I’ll always have a decent collection of books. As a writer, I’ll often think of a part of a book that I loved, and go to my shelf to reread the passage. I’m not likely to bother going to a library or checking a book out just to reread a few pages. The classics, I keep close at hand.

  49. MKL says:

    Each picture that gets displayed in a common space will likely have differing reactions. While some may feel it inapporpriate to reference such photos for this purpose, it does help illustrate that, in many cases, the points made can be bolstered by the nature of the shelves. Whether or not it is truly clutter or well organized to the person’s involved isn’t really relevant.

    I’m sure that people could look to pictures of my back yard and say “tsk, tsk, wouldn’t this place look so much grander with *this* type of landscaping?!” The answer is, yeah, it probably would, but it’s not liketly to be something I’ll perosnally do. Still, if someone looking at a picture of my backyard that’s posted in a public free-domain place, and decides to use my picture for such a thing, I’m OK with that. Who knows, I may go back and say “hmmm, this person makes a good point, maybe I *should* consider that”.

  50. Well put!

    I recently discarded a LARGE (at least 3″) looseleaf binder that was overflowing with magazine articles. I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted over the past 10 years in collecting and organizing the articles, & whenever I found more I’d just stuff them inside.

    However, the last time I went to open the binder and try to organize that big fat mess, I realized something important:

    I never used the binder.

    I had a section for leg exercises. Never used. I have a section for diet. Never used. I had a section for home design. Never used. I might have used a strength training program featured in Self magazine, or a cardio routine, but that was it. I never used any of it.

    So, instead of organizing it, I trashed it.

    The dividers went into the drawer to be reused, the articles got recycled, and the binder got trashed.

    It felt like I lost 10 pounds.

    Now, when I find an article I like, I either find it online & bookmark in it delicious, or I’ll put the info I need into my address book (when reading about a restaurant I want to try, etc). It’s saved me so much time and brain space!

  51. This is also my take on the ‘stuff’ matter too. I have realised that Living it down Small is the best way in life … removing all that clutter and living in a simple manner does wonders for your mind.

  52. Sally says:

    I think people hold onto “things” as if they were human. For some, that is a stumbling block to getting rid of too much stuff. And some people look at their stuff every day and don’t even SEE all the junk.

  53. Bonnie says:

    I struggle with being a packrat when it comes to books, CDs, etc. I also save too many “sentimental” items such as my college notebooks and pamphlets from places I’ve visited. I am slowly but surely taking clothes and other items to Goodwill, and I’ve traded in quite a few DVDs and CDs for credit to buy gifts. Still, it hardly seems as though I’ve made a dent. :)

  54. Cathy says:

    I’m trying really hard to declutter my life. It’s better, but I still can’t quite get to the level of ‘zen’. My parents were packrats, having both grown up in war time poverty, thus they had a tendency to save everything. It was passed on to me through clutter and disability in getting rid of anything. I’ve managed to unload an ungodly amount of books and clothes on Amazon, eBay, Goodwill and Half Price books, but I’m horrified I still have a huge stack that is still on my “For Sale” stack. Plus when I went home to visit the folks for the holidays, I found even more books and clothes.

  55. Nick says:

    Make sure you put eBay to use to when clearing out that clutter, and donate anything else. You can make some extra money and do some good by donating useful items.

  56. Kevin says:

    I certainly couldn’t work or live like that (the pictures). But I know there are people that do…somehow. I tend to be a minimalist though and like to declutter often, which sometimes drives the wife crazy.

    I like the comment about the backseat of the car though – it is true in my and my wife’s case. (Her’s tends to be on the messier side – but then again, she’s hauling our son around most days.)

  57. Dana says:

    I’m struggling with this myself. I buy books to read them, not because I really care what other people think when they see them–in fact, given some of my esoteric interests, I have to *exercise caution* sometimes in who sees my books. Back in the Army, someone from my clinic noticed one of my Scott Cunningham books lying around and next thing I knew rumors were flying that I was a witch. (If you Google the name you’ll know why that happened. Technically, I wasn’t a witch, as I wasn’t Wiccan or any variation thereof. It was more the rumor-mongering itself that bugged me.) But mostly I read for the sheer pleasure of it, and the books I keep, I tend to keep them because I find them inherently valuable for the information they contain.

    Generally my packrat tendencies get me cluttered up for one of two reasons: One, I enjoy the item or the general subject matter of the item and like to keep it around. (I.e., I used to collect cat figurines, but I like art and I like cats, and I tended towards the unusual sculpture rather than, say, dollar store stuff. Or, I collect foreign currency because I find it fascinating.) Or, two, I acquired something unthinkingly and haven’t gotten around to clearing it out yet.

    I’d say most of my clutter is in the latter category. And I’m in the process of thinking about what serves me and what doesn’t and where I need to pare back. Let’s just say I’m starting to recognize email addresses on my local FreeCycle list. :)

    It’s something you grow into, though. When I came to the realization that there was no point in keeping books that the library stocks when the library is free and I have been living near a branch for the past four years, I stopped buying so many books at Barnes & Noble and Half-Price Books too, even from the clearance rack. It’s got to be pretty special before I will consider keeping it, and I sold a bunch of books to Powells.com before I moved this last August as it was.

    And then I put into practice the notion that when you clear away detritus you make room for good things to come into your life: With the store credit I amassed at Powell’s, I purchased a Cajun language dictionary, language textbook and audio CDs. I’d been meaning to try to learn Cajun for years because my parents learned English at home and I never got to learn any as a kid. I wouldn’t have been able to afford the books if I hadn’t gotten rid of ones I wasn’t reading in the first place.

    One person’s experiences, FWIW.

  58. Melissa says:

    This is a timely topic for me. I’ve lived with clutter my entire adult life, and am currently training myself to banish it for good. Books and paper have been my nemesis, but I’ve also packratted away other potentially-useful things “for later.”

    And that’s how I’ve ended up with three pairs of pruning shears, a half-dozen Phillips screwdrivers, enough pairs of scissors to stock a good-sized fabric store, and other multiple purchases of tools I needed but couldn’t find amid the chaos. And pens? Oh, lordy. I could sit on a streetcorner, selling them out of a cup for a quarter, and enjoy a very nice dinner from the proceeds.

    Another cost of clutter, I would like to add, is damage caused to one’s belongings as a result of that clutter. When the stack of books and papers on your desk tips over, knocking the contents of your watter bottle or coffee cup into your keyboard (or, in my case, onto the $270 Wacom tablet), your clutter is costing you money. When you can’t find important receipts or tax documents, clutter costs you money. When things get shoved to the bottom of a pile and end up damaged from being in the pile, that’s money lost.

    And time? If time is money, clutter is expensive. All the time I’ve spent searching for lost documents and other items never seems like much as I’m doing it, but it adds up.

    I used to insist that my clutter wasn’t a problem, that I knew where everything was and could find whatever I needed, no problem. But in truth, it has made my life very difficult, and cost me a lot of money over the years.

    I also used to insist that clutter went hand-in-hand with being a “creative” person. Neatness and organization? How boring! But living amid clutter has hindered my creativity in so many ways–from not having a clear surface on which to work, to losing tools and materials, to getting depressed or frustrated and giving up because making art would have required cleaning up a big mess first. How much creative work did I not do because of clutter? Thinking about it makes this tough bird want to cry.

    As for books–I’m as much of a bibliophile as anyone here, but in recent weeks I’ve taken 50+ boxes of books to Goodwill. Yes, I could sell them, but right now my priority is clearing out my living space as quickly as possible, so I’ll take the tax writeoff and the extra free time in lieu of cash, thanks.

    I still have a lot of books, but I’m gradually whittling the keepers down to the hard-to-find, the out-of-print, reference books, books I frequently re-read, and books I have yet to read (and it’s appalling how many of those I re-discovered whilst clearing the clutter).

    It was hard getting rid of books at first; I admit that I’ve used them as props to my identity and self-esteem (creative person, intellectual). Letting go of books was like letting go of pieces of myself. But with each box I filled, and each carload I dropped off at Goodwill, I felt lighter. It got easier. Now I’m downright ruthless–a book has to justify its continued existence in my life in order to stay.

    There’s no reason I need to hang on to any book that is still readily available or that I don’t think I will re-read. Those books will be available to me in the future, should I ever want to read them again. I’m also listing the more valuable books (anything I can get at least $5.99 for; anything cheaper isn’t worth the time it takes me to list, pack and ship it) on Amazon, and those are selling well.

    @ Kathy:
    “I think some of it is that we feel as though we are committing a sin by throwing away (or recycling) a book. Almost as though we are killing a physical, living being.”

    Don’t throw them away; if there are no used book stores in your area that are willing to buy them, donate them. I can’t tell you how delighted I am whenever I find a book I’ve wanted to read at Goodwill for $.99-$1.99.

    Or, if you like, post them on Bookcrossing and leave them in public places for other people to find and enjoy. Or leave them in the break room at work for others to take. There’s no need to throw away books you no longer want; someone out there would love to have them.

  59. Sandra says:

    I find link between self esteem and acquiring possessions to be incredibly strong. Some people shop to make themselves feel better. They browse stores to distract themselves from problems, or “unwind” after a hard day. They get a rush from getting a good bargain. They feel protected, prepared, and safe knowing they have a spare whatever-it-is on hand in case it’s needed someday. The result is lots of crap they don’t need and a solution that doesn’t address the problem.

    As a recovering packrat married to a minimalist I have learned that the more of something you have, the less valuable it is. Who needs 4 multi-bit screwdrivers? And how frustrating is it to not be able to find what you need when you need it because of all the other junk in the way? Or to have to pick up and rearrange the “gift bag collection” each day when it spills out of it’s storeage place?

    I am well acquainted with “things” having emotional value; having lost my mother when I was young I save everything of hers I could find. Letting go of them feels like letting go of her. There are some items that are irreplaceable, and some books out of print, and some small collections of whatnot that are unique and meaningful to who you are. But there is a fine line between having stuff and stuff having you.

  60. DebtGoal says:

    A wiser man than I once said that we should own our things, not the other way around. Trent is spot on in his analysis. Henry David Thoreau once said: “As you simplify your life, the laws of the universe will be simpler; solitude will not be solitude, poverty will not be poverty, nor weakness weakness.”

    It’s a true principal and comes back around to solid money management–creating order in your life eventaully bleeds over into all areas, including money management.

    It’s also interesting to note that as we talk to DebtGoal users, we see the same effect over and over. Many people seek out help for debt, but wonder where it came from. Only after self-reflection do they realize that the piles of “stuff” they have around their house is what put them in the situation they’re in. In that light, getting out of debt often starts with the same process in reverse–liquidating things purchased on credit to put toward debt. Although this can be straightforward and easy given the number of online sites for selling, including eBay and Craigslist, sellers take an expensive haircut. But perhaps the best result is that as people sell off seldom-used items, they find their lives simplified and even better positioned to meet future goals.

  61. INTP says:

    People can display an image in any outward participation to the world. Care must be taken in interpreting that participation. This article (while the intent may be different) seems judgemental in a very mildly constructive sense.

    The reasons for clutter are varied (as above – it is part of some academics jobs) In old esteemed mansions, libraries are common – and while well organised with ladders and mahogany shelving, the idea remains the same. To disappear inside a world of thought – the freedom to pluck a divine set of ideas from an abundant well connected array of stimuli.

    Perhaps the idea that you are extracting here is that the vision of knowledge is not power. This is in fact no different to the vision of cookware not creating a cook, or any other collection of clutter. Though clutter purpose (really a bookshelf of books is rarely clutter, as it’s so easy to keep clean…) is different for different personalities.

    Just as a cluttered bookshelf can mean to that individual ‘I am displaying what an intellectual I am to other people’ the books that person sold to live a life on the road could be displaying a similar insecurity ‘oh look how free I am’ Some find living in an environment that stimulates ideas freeing, others find leaving it all behind liberating.. We could find here a similar spiel on ‘Is getting rid of all your stuff you just trying to escape your memories?’

    That however, would be the reflection of an INTP – whose stuff is often like a photo album. For example – seeing a book gives me a string of ideas. Flipping to a random page stimulates my own thinking, with reasons of my own. Knowledge is rarely absorbed by rote (the equivelant of reading a book the whole way through, even when read actively) Knowledge is created to be applied, connected, created upon.

    Perhaps it’s different if the books are fiction (again, to some these are to be re-read because of their jobs) Books are written from years of another person’s experience, and are most often worth much more than the 5 or 10 dollars you’d get for one.

    “We stand on the shoulders of Giants” and should be careful not to make knowledge, creativity and stimulated thought all about instant gratification and disposability. Read it, integrate it, throw it away or sell it? Perhaps it’s not all about you and me. Perhaps there are some ideas that are bigger than that and take a little longer to develop. A disposable society that is training itself to treat information integration with greater speed than ever before is in danger of removing the ethical aspect of decision making, as the ethical centre centre of the brain takes a longer time to reach than the outer, basic comprehension sectors.

    No, not all is about speed and 5 dollar lots.

    If you are interested in pursuing this idea, may I recommend some of Antonio Damasio’s work? … ;) I have been pondering his contributions for a number of years and shall continue to do so as my life experience becomes ‘richer.’

  62. deRuiter says:

    “There’s a lot to be said for being organized, but just because something appears messy to your eyes is no reason to make a judgement call that it is unorganized and unused.” We all make “judgement calls” every day. My judgement call means that’s how I feel, it doesn’t mean that you must feel the same way. The writer of this quote makes judgement calls all day and fails to realize it, “Do you want steak or chicken for dinner?”, “Do you want red socks or blue socks?”, “Do you want to drink late into the night and get hung over or go home after one glass of wine and read a book?”, “Do you want your child to attend the church choir rehearsals or hang with the gangbangers as they plan a convenience store robbery?”, “Do you want to send your child to a good school where he will be safe or a ghetto school where he is at risk and will not learn academics?” (The President of The United States makes judgements like these, especially this last one, and diversity be damned, I might add, when it comes to his children. THESE ARE ALL JUDGEMENT CALLS AND WE MAKE THEM EVERY DAY.

  63. Cade says:

    Great post, Trent. I’m glad I came back to read this. I do real well on staying a minimalist and spending my discretionary income on having “great experiences”…but I still have trouble giving up any book I have purchased. I’ve gotten a lot better at trading in paperbacks, but it is still difficult.

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