Do We Have Our Possessions Backwards? Some Thoughts on the Stuff We Own

A few weeks ago, Sarah and I took a serious look at a piece of land for sale in the country not too terribly far from where we live now. We talked about things like where we might build a house on the land, about how big it could be, where we might eventually put a barn, and so on.

Afterwards, we both found ourselves thinking about this potential change in our lives. For me, those thoughts bent toward the practical. I wandered around our house and I couldn’t help but notice all of the stuff and that led me to a few big questions. How would we move all of this stuff? Why are we storing some of this stuff that we basically never use? What’s the point?

There are several factors that go into that thought process, many of them financial, but some that bridge into other aspects of life.

First of all, and this should be obvious from the above description, the less stuff we have, the less space we need for our next house, and thus the less that house will cost. There comes a point where additional space in our next house amounts to nothing more than storage space for our stuff, and if we’re not using that stuff very often (or not at all), that seems pretty wasteful. It’s much like buying a storage unit for a bunch of your stuff, but then never actually using or even looking at the stuff.

Second, many of those items just sitting around are worth something. They represent at least a dollar or two, and many items represent quite a bit more than that. Yet, the vast majority of those items go untouched for long periods of time. What good are they doing me? That value, however small, is a lot better off in an investment than in the form of some item I’ll never use.

Third, the more stuff you have, the more time it devours. It takes longer to find things. It takes longer to dig through several bins to find the one item you need. It takes longer to dust and maintain stuff. It takes longer to clean out a room or to rearrange a room when there’s a lot of stuff in there to move. It takes far, far longer tomove when you have a lot of stuff, and it will probably cause some expenses as well.

All of those things are caused by holding on to some stuff that I rarely use.

This has been troubling me quite a bit over the last few weeks, and so today I do what I often do when something is troubling me. I turned to a handful of books on the subject that I trust and that I believe to be full of wisdom. I leafed through them until something leaped out at me.

This time, the answer I was looking for came from Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker. As I was leafing through the book, I came upon a section that really made me think.

Here’s a quote from that section, found on pages 122 and 123 of the print version:

It’s hard to determine where everybody got the bright idea to turn their houses into warehouses, but a very simple solution to this problem is to move all unused possessions into a storage unit, which is better suited for the purpose. The problem is relatively easy to solve, but is perhaps best attacked during a relocation. Go through all of your possessions. For each possession, each book, each tool, each appliance, each toy, try to recall when you last used it and put it into one of the following categories. It’s important to be honest. To avoid ruining the statistics, a box of 500 nails should be counted as one possession, whereas your stack of plates doesn’t count as one stack of plates. You’ll likely be using only one plate at a time with all other plates being for either guests or to supplement the stack of unwashed dishes in the sink. Be reasonable.

1. I used this today (keep it).
2. I used this within the past week (keep it).
3. I used this within the past month (keep it).
4. I used this within the past six months (get rid of it).
5. I used this within the past year (get rid of it).
6. It has been more than a year since I last used it (get rid of it!).
7. I did not even know I owned this?! (get rid of it!!)

[…] Don’t be surprised if you use fewer than three percent of your possessions daily and 90%+ of all possessions less than annually. This is a normal consumer pattern, but a waste of space and money.

The goal is to [reverse that trend] so that most possessions are used daily, with fewer possessions used weekly, only a few used monthly, and only a couple of keepsakes that rarely see any use. Usually one’s possessions will then fit into one or two suitcases.

Here’s an example of what he’s talking about. Let’s say you took an inventory of 1,000 possessions that you own. For the average American, they would likely fall into categories something like this:

30 items you used today
50 items you used in the past week
70 items you used in the past month
100 items you used in the past six months
150 items you used in the past twelve months
250 items you haven’t used in more than a year
400 items you probably forgot that you even owned until you see it again

His argument is that you should change this curve around so that the “items used today” is the highest count. It should look something like this:

70 items you used today
50 items you used in the past week
40 items you used in the past month
30 items you used in the past six months
20 items you used in the past twelve months
10 items you haven’t used in more than a year

To me, that makes sense. What’s the use of having tons and tons of things around that you only use once a year or even less frequently than that? Sure, there’s room for a memento or two, but what’s the reason for having more of them than items you use every day?

Some people might wonder why the number of items used daily would go up. Think about dishes, for example – if you had fewer plates and cups and forks, the ones you have would be used more often instead of gathering dust in the back of the cupboard. So, instead of rarely using the plates on the bottom of the stack, you’d use the middle and top plates more frequently, and the same is true for silverware, cups, and so on.

So, for the reasons stated above – the money, the space, and the time – I’ve been spending some time over the last couple of weeks moving from the traditional “consumer” model of item ownership, where most of my owned items are used less than once a year, to something at least closer to the other model, where most of my owned items are ones I use daily. I’m hoping that through this process, I can free up some money, free up some time, and free up some head space, too, while also making our next move easier.

Here are some of the strategies I’m using along the way.

Strategy #1: If I Acquire Anything, I Have To Get Rid of Something To Replace It

This is a very simple “one in, one out” rule. If something new comes into our home, then something else has to leave. This keeps me from accumulating more stuff during this process of reducing my possessions.

Naturally, there are some exceptions to this strategy. I’m not applying it to perishable things like food or to frequently used household items like toilet paper. I’m also, for now, applying this strategy to things that are clearly mine, in that they are items that are highly unlikely to have entered our house without my involvement.

If I pick up a new board game at Goodwill or at a swap meet, for instance, I have to get rid of one from my collection. If I pick up a new item for the kitchen, I have to get rid of an older item from the kitchen that this is theoretically replacing.

It’s a pretty easy strategy that puts a cap on the total number of possessions overall. Since the overall number isn’t going up, that means that I’m not working against the other strategies on this list.

Strategy #2: I’m Focusing Heavily on Reducing Rarely-Used Items

As is almost assuredly the case at your house, my house is full of things that are rarely used. Some of them have not been used in years. Some of them have never been used, as they were gifts or items bought on sale that were stowed away and never looked at again.

Obviously, there’s no real point in keeping the vast majority of this stuff. It’s just sitting there, gathering dust and taking up space. Simply having this stuff means that we need more space than we otherwise would need.

So, how do I find these things?

They’re buried in the bottom of closets. They’re inside bins in the rafters of the garage. They’re in the back of the bottom shelf of the pantry. They’re in the back of kitchen cupboards. They’re in the bottom drawer of bedside tables. They’re in toolboxes and other storage spots in the garage.

As I go through our house and look in cupboards and bins and other hidden places, I find more and more and more things that we just own without having any real purpose.

Those things need to go.

For now, I’m just moving from area to area in the house, spending a few hours focusing on this closet, for example, and then spending a few hours another day focusing on a few shelves in the pantry. My goal with each stop is to find all of the items that we either don’t use or barely use and simply get rid of them.

Many of the items are easy to make that choice about. I recognize that I will likely never need or want this item again and even if I did I could acquire something similar.

The tricky ones are the items that I will likely never need or want again, but if I did, it would be hard to find a new copy of that item. For those items, I ask myself what the true worst case scenario is and if it’s not really that bad, the item is going away.

Just because I might use an item again someday does not mean it is worth keeping.

This means I’m throwing away some items. Others are going to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Still others are hitting eBay or Craigslist.

It’s a slow process. It will take me many months to complete it. But that’s okay. As long as I’m acquiring fewer items than I’m getting rid of, it’s all moving in the right direction.

Strategy #3: I’m Identifying Items I Can Effectively ‘Combine’ by Eliminating Duplication

A surprising number of the items I own are actually just duplicating the function of other items. I don’t really need two or three tools that do the same exact thing. Instead, it’s better to just have one tool that does the job well.

Here’s an example. Right now, I have three toolboxes full of tools. Over the years, I’ve received a couple of sets of tools as gifts and picked up more sets at yard sales. Many of them are quite useful, of course, but in many cases they’re basically duplicates. I have tons of screwdrivers when I really only need a few well-made ones. I have three different sets of Allen wrenches. So, it becomes easy here to eliminate the duplicates.

Another example comes from kitchen knives. I have several chef’s knives and a few other middle-sized knives that I never use. Honestly, for almost everything I cut up in the kitchen, I use just my Global chef’s knife and a cheap paring knife. I don’t really need anything else. So why keep the duplicates?

In our basement, we still have an old DVD player hooked up, although the Bluray player we have also plays DVDs. Let’s get rid of that DVD player because it just duplicates the function of something else.

I could list many, many things like this if I’m looking carefully around our property and being honest with myself.

The real result of doing this is that I eliminate some items from the less-frequently-used counts and I move a few items into the more-frequently-used counts.

For example, let’s say I used each of our three chef’s knives twice a week. If I eliminate two of them, that moves the chef’s knife that remains into a daily use item. My weekly use count goes down by three, while my daily use count goes up by one. That’s a very good change.

Strategy #4: I’m Purging Several of My Collections and Selling Some Valuable but Unappreciated Items

Like many people, I have a number of collections. I have a few shelves full of books, a bunch of pocket notebooks, some sports cards collected over the years, some board games, and a few other odds and ends.

I enjoy these collections, don’t get me wrong. I play a board game or two almost every day (on average). I’m an avid reader and read about a book and a half in an average week. I am constantly carrying a pocket notebook and taking notes in it.

Yet, in almost all of these cases, my collections are really bigger than I need. It’s awesome to have a small number of things that you turn to over and over again, but in most collections, you have a handful of truly valued items and then everything else is less appreciated and less used by comparison. It’s time to cut back on some of those less appreciated and less used items.

One great example of this comes from my drawer of pocket notebooks. I’ve been using them for many years and always pick some up when I see them on sale anywhere, and I also receive some as gifts each Christmas. That’s all great, but I’ve ended up with more than I can use in at least a couple of years.

My solution is to sell some of them off. I’m selling off editions that are in formats I don’t like – I prefer ones with grid or dot-grid paper on the inside – and ones that have some secondary market value, as some older ones do. Although I will eventually use the pocket notebooks I have and I view them as a temporary resource, I have plenty right now. I don’t need as many as I have, so purging much of my backlog and saving only the ones that are really perfect for my use is a great strategy.

I’m in the process of doing the same thing with my board game collection, as I’m selling off roughly half of it at a convention in a few months. Again, I’m selling off the ones that I often skip over to play other games; I’m keeping the games I most enjoy playing with my family and friends and getting rid of the others.

Over time, all of my collections will face this kind of scrutiny. Do I really need to keep all of these physical items, especially the less-appreciated ones? Not really. They don’t serve any real value if they just sit on a shelf or in a box.

Strategy #5: I’m Encouraging My Children (and Gently Encouraging My Wife) to Do the Same Things

Part of the reason I’m doing this is to lead by example. I’m not the only one in the house with a bunch of extra and unnecessary items that could be considered “mine.”

I’ve been encouraging my children to apply these principles to their own items, particularly their toys. How many of these toys do they actually play with? How many have sat untouched for years? Maybe they could donate these toys to less privileged kids or even sell some of them.

One of the biggest challenges in this process is my wife, who is very frugal but channels that frugality into saving all kinds of things. If she buys something, she’s pretty loathe to ever let it go and she always sees potential future uses for items.

For her, the path is a slow one. I don’t push her to get rid of things, but I do talk about redundant possessions that we share, like that DVD player, and help her to see why it makes no sense to keep it.

It’s a slow change, but it’s one that I’m hoping to lead by example over the next year or so.

Strategy #6: I’m Reinvesting the Proceeds, Not Spending Them

Obviously, these strategies are going to generate some significant revenue. Many items are being sold on eBay and Craigslist and in some private sales. I’m also planning a big yard sale next May, as I’m already filling up some “yard sale boxes” with items that we’ll sell at that point.

The trick is to make sure that I use these proceeds in an intelligent fashion. It would be very easy to take those proceeds and reinvest them in more “stuff” after I just went through this effort to reduce the amount of “stuff” that I have.

So, whenever I receive some revenue from selling off stuff, I’m intentionally investing it. I’m using it for extra contributions for our country house savings for now, but I also may make some extra contributions to our children’s 529 college savings accounts.

The goal is to make sure that selling these items doesn’t just become a method for bringing more items into the home.

Final Thoughts

My goal isn’t to become some kind of minimalist that can live out of two suitcases (though there is a bit of appeal in that to me). My goal is simply to get my possessions in line with some common sense. There’s no need to hold onto piles of possessions that I’ll likely never use again, especially when those possessions have value.

Sometimes, I fondly remember my college years, a period during which I actually held all of my possessions in my backpack and a single Rubbermaid tub. It was really easy to move from place to place and I never felt tied down by my possessions and the locked-up money that they represented.

Hopefully, through this process, I can unlock some of that money and taste just a bit of that lightness and freedom again. Perhaps you’ll go on a journey like this, too.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.