Over the past few weeks, I’ve been moving my office to another room in the house. That’s involved setting up a desk and installing shelves in the new room and then gradually moving all of the stuff from my old office into the new office space (which is actually a corner in a multi-use room). The old office also served as storage for a bunch of other things.
The process of moving isn’t urgent, as the room I’m leaving is going to be turned into a bedroom for our youngest child and there’s no deep urgency in that changeover. So, I’m taking my time with this move and actually considering all of the items as I move them.
Do I really need to keep this book? Do I really need to keep these pens? Do I really need to keep these old notebooks full of journal entries and Simple Dollar notes? Do I need to keep these seven cords I’ve had stowed away in these drawers? What about these calligraphy pens that I picked up for my daughter as a potential gift last year when she was really into calligraphy, a phase that has decidedly cooled off?
All of these questions have helped bring me to some realizations about the things that I possess, the money and time invested in them, and my relationship with them.
The Traits of Things
Virtually all of the things you have in your home have a few things in common.
First of all, they cost money. Almost everything in your home cost some amount of money. Most of the items directly cost money. Even things that were free often involved a transportation cost or other cost.
Thus, all of those items represent a choice to take money away from other things you might have had in life; instead, you chose this thing. Was it worth it?
Second, all of those things take up space. They fill up your cupboards and shelves and closets and floor space. Part of the cost of your home is spent solely to store all of your stuff.
I’d estimate that if we got rid of half of our stuff, we’d probably be able to easily live in a home a third smaller than the one we live in. That home would come with lower property taxes, lower insurance rates, lower utilities, lower maintenance costs, and so on.
These things require maintenance. I don’t just mean things that require actual upkeep – I simply mean the time and energy required to keep things in your house.
For example, the effort and time I’m investing in moving the contents of my old office to my new office area and other parts of our home is more than I’d like. If we ever move, it’s going to take a lot of effort to do so, mostly because of our possessions.
Another issue is that it takes effort to get rid of stuff once you have it. If you just throw it away, you’re not only getting nothing in return for the item, it’s filling up a landfill, and you’re still investing time and energy. To sell something, you’re investing even more energy and time and likely just getting a small partial return on your initial money investment in the item.
There are many other minor issues, too: Items can degrade while they’re just sitting there, they can be stolen, and they can encourage you to buy more things (upgrading, supplies, and so on).
There’s also a psychic weight, too. If you own something, you feel like you should be using it, so stuff that just sits there can make you feel guilty about it. As I go through this stuff, I’m constantly finding things I feel like I should be using but am not for some reason or another.
What can I take from all of this? First, there is a lot of hidden cost in everything you bring into your home that goes beyond the initial financial cost.
For example, I buy a board game for $20 and bring it home, sure, but then it’s taking up space in my home – and having space for my collections has a real cost. I have to move it around whenever I reorganize or clean up my games. It becomes yet another thing vying for my attention, and I feel bad if I don’t give it that attention. If I actually do give it time, that’s time I’m not giving to something else I already own. If I decide I’m not going to play it enough to keep it around, I have to figure out what to do with it. If I just toss it, that’s $20 lost and space taken up in a landfill and even that takes a little time and energy. If I give it away, that takes some more time and energy. If I sell it, that probably takes even more time and energy and has only a small return on that $20.
Is the upside of that game worth not only the initial $20, but all of that extra stuff, too? Those very real financial and psychological and time and energy costs? Possibly, but the item has to have a lot of value for me to purchase it.
Second, the value of an item varies a lot from person to person. I’m not talking about the financial cost of an item, but the value it provides in your life. Does it entertain you regularly, or does it sit on a shelf? Does it perform a task for you that you need to do frequently, or does it gather dust in the garage? Does it really improve your life, or does it just provide distraction?
Those are very personal questions, and they connect directly to the actual value that an item has in your life. You can’t simply judge those things based on a sticker price. You don’t want to add an item to your home unless it’s going to provide enough of that value to overcome the financial price and the other costs related to an item that were discussed earlier.
A good example of this would be a Stradivarius violin. It would have tremendous value in the hands of a trained violinist, but it would have very little value in my home outside of aesthetic value. However, it has a very high cost and also provides a lot of cash if I were to sell it, which is what I’d almost immediately do if I had one. A Stradivarius has a lot of value to a lot of people, which means that it merits a high price, but it has little value as an object just sitting in my home. I’m not going to play it. I might mildly appreciate it aesthetically. However, it’s not going to have anywhere near the value for me that it would have for others. It wouldn’t make sense for me to buy it, nor should I hold onto it if I have it (unless it’s an investment in a bank vault somewhere).
Most items aren’t that extreme, but the principle still holds. Is that $20 board game really going to contribute $20 in joy to my life, considering the additional costs of storing it, dealing with moving it around if I have to move or my board game collection moves, and the fact that time spent playing it is time taken away from other things? If I can’t immediately say yes, then I shouldn’t spend the $20. However, for someone else, the answer might be an unquestionable yes.
Thus, the third lesson here is that you really have to know how important things are to you, and you have to really not worry about what other people think. You don’t have to covet an item someone else covets. If it’s not something you’ll use, then you don’t need it. Just because someone else might use or value an item doesn’t mean you’ll use or value that item. It’s about you, your life, and the life you want to live.
Quite often, people buy items to make themselves appear in a certain way to others. People want to appear fashionable or smart or attractive or whatever it is that they want to convey. The thing is most people barely notice these things. You’re going to be remembered as being friendly or standoffish, being a good conversationalist, being funny, and so on. Most of the time, people don’t notice minor details unless you’re doing something exceptional – if you dress in clean clothes that aren’t falling apart and practice good hygiene, most people are going to be fine with you, pay little attention to the stuff you have, and remember a thing or two about your personality.
Again, it comes back to not worrying about what other people think. Instead, focus on what’s meaningful to you.
Finally, if I have something I want to use and feel like I don’t have time for, that’s a strong sign that I need to have fewer possessions, not more. If I start finding books that I haven’t read (or haven’t read recently) and I’m feeling, “Wow, I want to read this!” then that’s a sign that I don’t need more books. If anything, I need fewer books. It means that there are books on my shelf that are not exciting me.
This realization ends up brushing against Marie Kondo’s downsizing philosophy, where she encourages people to keep only things that spark joy, and I agree. If something doesn’t either excite you or seem extremely useful to you, why are you keeping it around? At the same time, if you have a bunch of stuff that excites you that’s just sitting there unused, why are you buying more things?
As I’m cleaning out my office, these thoughts are coursing through my head. What do they mean in a practical sense?
The realization that I have so many things that I’m excited about using and spending time with is a clear indication that I really don’t need more possessions in my life. I just simply don’t need more stuff. Because of that, I’ve decided to put a moratorium on all purchases that aren’t necessities for a while, until I’ve actually had time to use the things that I have.
What does that mean practically, for you? Go through your closets and see how much stuff in there is just sitting there unused that makes you go, “Aw, man, why haven’t I used this?” Take that stuff out, put it front and center in your life, and actually use it! Engage with all of that stuff! Read those books! Play those games! Use those art supplies! Watch those DVDs! Listen to those box sets!
Furthermore, while you have things that excite you that are just sitting there, don’t buy more things! Instead, go home and use those things you have that are exciting to you! Engage with all of that stuff! Read those books, don’t buy more! Play those games, don’t buy more! Use those art supplies, don’t buy more! Watch those DVDs, don’t buy more!
On the other hand, if you’re not excited by your possessions, then get rid of a lot of them! Clean out your closet and your shelves and just get rid of all of that unexciting stuff. If you look at that shelf of books and feel nothing, put those books in the hands of people who would be excited to read them.
If you like to collect things, put a strong cap on the number of things in that collection or the space they take up. Assign a particular space to a collection or a certain number of items in that collection, and if something is going to exceed that space or number, you have to get rid of something to make space for it.
If you decide that you have stuff you want to get rid of, set all of it aside and make it an ongoing project to get rid of that stuff. Literally make a pile in your living room or your bedroom of things to get rid of and work through it. Have a big old yard sale this spring and sell off all of that stuff that just doesn’t excite you any more, or take a big list of that stuff to Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, or donate it to the library or to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. Try to avoid simply throwing it away if it might have value to someone else – donating it is better than just throwing it away.
It’s worth noting that if you take your time with this downsizing and handle just a few items at a time, you can probably make a solid return on the downsizing.
Finally, try on a practice of not buying something if one of your main criteria is what other people might think of it. If you’re buying something to impress a friend or to make it appear like you’re smart or to impress a potential date, don’t. Put it back on the shelf. You already have everything you need to impress that person, and if you don’t, then a purchase isn’t going to make a difference.
Instead, if you want to make a good first impression, get a good night of sleep, wear decent clothes you already have in public, practice good hygiene, and be natural in conversation by asking questions and not being awkwardly silent or rambling. Those steps are going to create a stronger positive impression on most people than anything you might buy.
The simple truth is this: If an item doesn’t make you feel genuinely excited or joyful (and doesn’t meet a basic need), it’s not worth having in your life. You don’t need things that don’t bring you joy and excitement. You don’t need things to impress others, either. Things come with a great deal of extra cost and baggage to deal with beyond that sticker price, and you don’t need them in your life without a really good reason for having them.
As I empty out my office, I find that I’m selling or giving away more stuff than I’m keeping. And it feels great.