The Closet Lesson: What the Stuff in Your Closet Can Teach You About Personal Finance

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been working on a long-term project of cleaning out the various closets and storage spaces around our home, determining which if any of the things I find need to be kept, putting the things back in a sensible fashion, and then figuring out what to do with the remaining things. Yard sale? Craigslist? Goodwill? Trash can? Hand-me-down? There are a lot of options.

In the process, a lot of objects have passed through my hands. Virtually all of them were things that someone in our family chose to spend money on at some point, but eventually that item was pushed aside and essentially forgotten.

Perhaps the item wasn’t as useful as was originally thought. Maybe it’s a book that was read once and was recognized as probably not worth a re-read. Maybe it’s a movie that went through the same process. Maybe it’s an item for a baby or a toddler and now that our children are well beyond the baby/toddler stage, the item has no real use any more.

The worst items, in my opinion, are the ones that were never opened. There are a few scattered in there – movies bought that were intended to be watched with the family but other options won out on family movie night, for instance. I’ve found a few baby items that were never opened, like a bottle warmer, as well as a few gift items, both purchased and never given as well as received and never used.

There’s really no purpose in keeping all of this stuff. When I’m honest with myself, the truth is that we’re never going to use these things. They’re just stuffed into storage with reasonable intentions that will never be fulfilled.

But here’s the painful truth.

Each one of those items represents some amount of money that we spent. In a few cases, they’re items that we received as gifts, but we still usually had to give a gift in exchange.

That money spent was essentially wasted. Even when I’m looking at books that I read once and put aside, I can’t help but wonder why on earth I didn’t just check the book out at the library. Did I really need to own End of Watch in hardcover? No, no, I didn’t.

Even if I sell off all of this stuff, I’m not going to recoup nearly the cost of all of these items. It’s lost money, no matter how I slice it. It’s money down the tubes. There were so many better ways I could have used that money, too: saving for retirement, doing something meaningful with the kids… the options really are endless.

So, what I’ve been doing as I sell off or get rid of each item is to get a little bit of extra value from that mistake of a purchase.

First, I’m asking myself what on earth possessed me to buy this item to begin with. Why did we buy this movie? I suppose we thought it would be a good option for family movie night. Why did we buy this bottle warmer? I suppose we envisioned scenarios where we might want to warm up bottles in the night. Why did we buy this book? Sarah wanted to read it pretty urgently.

The answers go on and on and on like this, with every item pulled out and every item put aside to be sold or given away.

I follow that question with another question. What can I do, in each of those cases, to avoid making the same foolish mistake?

This is the real question here. Avoiding the mistake to begin with would not only have saved us money, it would have also saved me from this project of digging through closets and figuring out what to get rid of and what to keep. If I had simply made better decisions to begin with, not only would I have more money right now, I’d have more free time right now, too. I could be reading a great book instead of cleaning out this closet. I could be playing a game with my kids. I could be working on a couple ongoing hobby projects that I’d way rather be doing.

I don’t want to repeat this.

So, with each item, I’m trying to understand not only why I bought that item, but how I can avoid making that same purchasing mistake, and it turns out that each and every item that I pull out has a lesson to teach me.

The baby bottle warmer? It teaches me to actually look for real problems in the routines I have right now rather than guessing what kind of problems I might have someday. Don’t buy things just because you can visualize a use for it that hasn’t happened yet in your life.

The book? It teaches me to look at the library before buying a book. If I check out a book at the library, finish it, and then decide that I want to reference it again or even read it again down the road, it might make for a good purchase then. Now? I might as well go to the library. Don’t buy things if it’s trivially easy to borrow them.

The movie? It teaches me that buying more movies when we already have a flood of options isn’t always the smartest choice. We already have a ton of family movies available to us thanks to our already-existing DVD/Bluray collection and the flood of options on Netflix. We easily have a thousand movies available at our fingertips for family movie night. Why are we adding more to the mix? Don’t buy things if you have an abundance of similar options already underused at home.

The toddler toys? It teaches me that sometimes children outgrow things, and when they do they’ll almost never return to them unless it is a deeply-loved item. An attentive parent can tell when a child has outgrown an item, and once you’re sure that you won’t have more children, putting that item in storage is kind of wasteful. It also teaches me that children really don’t need that many things. They often have more things than they can ever truly enjoy, so adding more to the mix isn’t helpful. Don’t buy too many things for kids; focus on quality over quantity every time.

The pieces of exercise equipment? It teaches me that buying equipment isn’t going to start a new routine all by itself. If you have an exercise routine, that equipment might help enhance it, but all of the gear in the world isn’t magically going to create an exercise routine for you. Don’t buy things to create a new routine or behavior for yourself; only buy things to support a routine or behavior you’ve already established for yourself.

As I pull them out of storage and put them to the side to trade off or to sell or to trash, each of those items is giving me a valuable lesson about my own spending choices going forward. Often, the lessons are repeated over and over, but those are the most important ones.

Don’t buy things just because you can visualize a use for it that hasn’t happened yet in your life.

Don’t buy things if it’s trivially easy to borrow them and you won’t continuously use them.

Don’t buy things if you have an abundance of similar options already underused at home.

Don’t buy too many things for kids; focus on quality over quantity every time.

Don’t buy things to create a new routine or behavior for yourself.

Those are some great guiding principles when it comes to deciding whether or not to purchase something new. They guide you away from buying things that you’re not going to get full value from and allow you to instead focus on things you’ll actually use and which will provide a lot of value to you.

The next time you find yourself cleaning out a closet or making decisions about what to do with your abundance of stuff, take a look at each item. Why did you buy it? Why didn’t you use it very much? Why did it wind up in storage? And why are you now considering giving it away or selling it? Those questions, when answered, will teach you valuable lessons about your own spending behaviors and help you shape a better set of principles going forward.

The end result will be more money in your pocket and less unwanted stuff filling up your storage spaces.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.