Updated on 09.05.14

Rule #8: Take Care of Your Things.

Trent Hamm

14 money rulesA reader asked me if I could break down my ideas into a handful of principles. After some careful thought, I came up with a list of fourteen basic “rules” that summarize my money and life philosophy. I’ll be presenting these as a weekly series.

Whenever I’m in a financially destitute area, I start seeing many of the same things.

I see homes that are creaky, often with paint falling off. I see front yards and back yards full of items left out in the rain to fall apart. I see cars in poor shape, a mixture of rust and lots of hard miles on them. I see overgrown and patchy lawns. I see air conditioning units that sound like they’re about ready to explode, covered in dust and cobwebs.

In short, I see a lot of items that people own that simply have no care given to them at all. Unsurprisingly, these items will have to be replaced sooner than they would with even a little bit of TLC – or else they’re items that were bought completely frivolously, were barely used, and will never be replaced.

The True Cost of Poor Maintenance

A poorly-maintained air conditioner? It sucks down more energy than one that’s well maintained – adding to your energy bill – and it fails quicker – adding to your repair and replacement bills.

A house with paint falling off? It needs repainted and treated or else you open yourself up to additional weathering from the environment, reducing the lifespan and resale value of the house itself.

Items left out in the yard? The sun bleaches them, the rain wears away at them, and they live a very short life. You’ll be buying a new basketball before you know it.

I’m not picking on people who make these lifestyle choices. Instead, I’m drawing a connection between their financial state and the way they treat their stuff. With every item that sits out there and dilapidates, some of their financial resources are simply blowing away. Taken together, those resources provide the opportunity to have the things you dream of.

Take the air conditioner, as just an obvious example. An average air conditioner has a lifespan of fifteen years. If you maintain it well, you can likely stretch that a few more years – let’s say eighteen years. If you do nothing with it, the lifespan will be shorter – say, twelve years.

An average central air unit uses 161 kilowatt hours during an average summer month. A well maintained conditioner, with clear vents, might shave 5% off of that, while an unmaintained unit might add 5% more to that.

Replacing such a unit will cost about $4,000.

So, what’s the total cost over a thirty year period? If you maintain your unit well, you will have replaced it once and be two-thirds of the way towards replacing a second unit – a total unit cost of $6,667. Over thirty summers, you will have used 13,765 kilowatt-hours of energy – at a price of ten cents per kilowatt hour, that’s $1,376.50. Your total cost? $8,043.50.

What about a poorly-maintained unit? You will have replaced your unit twice and be halfway towards a third replacement – a unit cost of $10,000. Over thirty summers, you will have used 15,215 kilowatt-hours of energy – at a price of ten cents per kilowatt hour, that’s $1,512.50. Your total cost $11,512.50.

Spending a few minutes each spring and a few minutes each fall making sure the air conditioning unit is clean and in proper working order saves a family $3,469 over a period of thirty years.

Start carrying that across other expenditures. Your house – the wood, roof, and foundation. Your equipment. Your clothing and shoes. Your vehicles. All of these things have significant savings that come around when you put even a small amount of care into maintenance. Over a decade, you can easily save tens of thousands of dollars by properly maintaining your belongings.

All earned by spending a minute or two here or there taking care of your stuff.

Save Money By Taking Care of Your Things

It’s pretty easy to do, actually. You can get started by using a home and auto maintenance checklist and running through it on a regular basis. Most of the home maintenance tasks you do are pretty simple ones – they’re just somewhat numerous and are easy to forget at times.

What you’ll find when you do this is that things run just a bit better. Your air conditioner doesn’t kick on quite as often. Your dryer runs efficiently. Your appliances rarely seem to have problems. Your refrigerator doesn’t run constantly.

All of those little things add up to a bit of energy savings now – and a lot of savings later, when you’re not replacing these expensive items.

You can carry this through to more items in your home as well. Take your shoes, for example. Making sure they’re clean, treating expensive shoes well, and storing them in places where they won’t continually take bumps is a good step towards extending their life. Or your lawnmower – taking the time to occasionally sharpen the blades and check the oil reduces the wear and tear on the engine greatly, saving you money on gas and also on replacing your mower. Or your roof – keep those gutters clean and your roof will take less wear and tear.

It doesn’t take much time to do these things, either. Compare the two minutes here or there spent doing maintenance to the time you’d have to invest buying a new unit early – research, shopping around, and so on – and the time begins to balance out, too.

You can easily expand this philosophy beyond the material. Take care of your relationships. Take care of your work contacts. Take care of your career. Take care of your body.

There are other positive effects, as well. Take the environment, for example. The fewer items you replace, the fewer things that wind up in landfills. The less energy you use, the fewer fossil fuels you burn.

There’s also the positive psychological benefits of taking care of your things. In many ways, it’s akin to taking care of yourself psychologically. You’re doing positive things with your time which fills you with positive feelings all around. You’re improving your things that you value, which by extension improves you.

Adding together all of these benefits, I find it to be essential to take the time to maintain the things you have.

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  1. J says:

    “Maintenance is always cheaper than repair”.

    I’ve also found that if you put off maintenance of something, it will fail at the most inconvenient time possible — your car will fail when you have to get to the airport, job interview or make it to work for that meeting with the big boss. The air conditioner will break on the hottest day of the year. The computer will succumb to the virus that’s going around because the anti-virus software is not up to date, right after you finished that important document. The snowblower won’t start after 2 feet of snow fell. And so on and so forth.

    Then, of course, there’s the thing you need to take care of the most — yourself. But that’s likely a whole other post!

  2. Susan says:

    “It needs repainted”

    You forgot the “to be”. If you want to be a respected writer, you need to use proper grammar.

  3. CJ says:

    I agree with you up to a point. It is easier and cheaper to maintain your things, but I counter that it also takes energy and effort. Two things those in “destitute areas” are running low on. Mostly from using those up in the blue collar jobs they work in to just put food on the table.
    I have noticed that when my energy level is up I am far more willing and able to maintain.

  4. Baker @ ManVsDebt says:

    Honestly, this is one area I’m constantly working at improving. I’m not handy by nature and have to put forth more effort than most to repair things. Therefore the power over preventive maintenance is even GREATER for me.

    The longer I live the more “stupid tax” I pay in this area. And the more tax I pay the more I’m able to convince myself that it’s worth it to take care of your stuff up front!

  5. tentaculistic says:

    I think that’s a really good point. I spent several years of my adult life in a state that ranged from being quite severely financially pinched to living paycheck to paycheck. I think that I still tend to worry about money the way I did then. I have a really hard time with the idea of preventative maintenance, particularly with my car, it always feel like a bird in the hand kind of thing: yes, neglecting it might make it fail sooner, but maybe then I’ll have more money, and right now I really need that money for something else. For cars, for instance, I’ll get my oil changed on time, but I have trust issues with mechanics, so I try to stay away until it’s critical. Not a good idea. I just got a great new (to me) car, so I need to get over that. I think I’m going to go print out a service guide by mileage right now. Thanks for the nudge.

    Oh, and this post also made me even more determined to live in a condo for the rest of my days. I am SO glad I don’t have to mow the lawn (and sharpen the mower’s blades), worry about foundations, pay for painting a house, etc.

  6. lurker carl says:

    Preventive maintenance usually spots problems and allows for repairs before the item breaks down. Unfortunately, PMs are only as good as the technicians performing them – there is a shortage of smart technical folks willing to get their hands dirty.

  7. You make a really great point. This is something that many of us are guilty of doing, but don’t even realize it. We usually have to suffer the consequence of our negligence before we choose to fix it. We’ve all heard it before but, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

  8. HebsFarm says:

    There are a lot of sad stories behind those shabby houses with the overgrown yards and the bleached, broken toys. Often those are disabled people, old people that can barely see or walk, or single moms… after they work their shift (or both their shifts), feed the kids, help with homework and wash the clothes, please forgive them for not heading out to pick up the yard and clean the gutters.

  9. Damester says:

    Your points are well taken.

    However, you have to factor in what can happen to a family and why they may not maintain everything as it is needed: It’s called $$$, which it does take.

    My mother, a meticulous woman, as she aged and fell into true poverty (despite family help) after a divorce in her 70s,desperately wanted to keep her home, even if she could not maintain it (you try keeping a house in great shape in a place like Florida).

    A woman who once had a showplace that could have easily been in a magazine layout could no longer afford the help she needed and could certainly not do the repairs, etc. herself. (and her family did not live near her, nor did we have the thousands of dollars needed, once we found out about problems, that were needed to fix major problems)

    She’s not alone. Many people find themselves without the resources they once had (family death, divorce, job loss, health problems…my mother had them all).

    What we need are local volunteers (many skills are needed). I will never forget (or forgive) the people on the local community group. All they did was threaten my mother and make her life a living hell. No one tried to find out how a home that had been a showplace ended up looking awful. No one offered to help.

    Today, you have people who are much younger than my mother was who find themselves unable to maintain their big, fancy homes once hardship hits.

    Keeping stuff maintained these days is not easy, because people really don’t have the money, as needed, without incurring debt, when stuff happens unexpectedly. And please, don’t keep saying: Use your emergency fund. THat’s what people have been doing. These days, nothing really lasts and lots of people find themselves in situations where stuff falls apart all at once (roofs, windows, basements, etc.)

    You absolutely have to take care of people, stuff, etc. But what you fail to grasp is that many times, people’s physical health, resources are limited. And once you fall into a hole, what a lot of people don’t get, is that you don’t have help to get out. And it just gets deeper.

    So the next time you see someone’s home in obvious disrepair in your community, try and find out what’s going on. Then, don’t judge. Offer help. Because someday, it could be YOU or one of your loved ones.

  10. Amber says:

    Awhile back, some friends of mine took in his grown niece and her two small children. The niece let the children jump on the couch. My friends asked them not to do that and the niece said, “sorry, we’re not used to having nice things so I just let the kids do whatever they want.” Well, gee, maybe your stuff would be a bit nicer if you didn’t treat it so carelessly?

  11. Paula says:

    I got 23 years out of a heat pump/ac unit that way – far more than the expected life span of 15 years!

  12. Verbose says:

    You make a good point about the financial payback of maintaining an air conditioner. However, I believe that some things we think of as maintenance have very little value compared to the effort put into them. The two things that come to mind are lawn care and car washing.

    I can’t see the financial downside to failing to maintain your lawn or wash your car. The only reason to do these things is if you value a pretty lawn or a shiny car.

    If you just mow whatever grows in your yard, you get an ugly lawn. So what? What’s the financial cost of that?

    If you neglect to wash your car, you get a dirty car. Cars on the road today don’t rust through like they used to. A dirty or damaged finish is not going to shorten the life of your car. If you intend to drive this car until it dies (usually a frugal choice), it doesn’t even matter what the resale value is.

    Both of these activities take a lot of effort, offer little payback, and are not so good for the environment either.

    On the whole, I think Trent is right. It’s just that you should think about what the payback is for the money and effort of maintenance.

  13. Jim says:

    I constantly talk to my 4 children about taking care of “our” things. If they don’t, there is generally some form of punishment. Leave a toy outside and you owe me 15 minutes of work, it’s thrown away or conficated for a period of time. It teaches them a lesson and keeps the yard looking better and safer. Ever mow and not see something left laying in the yard. Sometimes I wonder if it does any good, but I have to always hope that it will sink in. It certainly does some quicker than others.

    I also applaude Damester for her comments. We need more folks willing to give of their time. I posted an ad in Craigslist earlier this year to raise a garden for an elderly person at no cost other than a space to do it. I received no calls. I assume no one trusts anyone anymore.

  14. George says:

    Your conclusion is drawn from insufficient facts. These could very well be rental homes with absentee landlords that have peeling paint and unmaintained A/C. The cars were probably purchased cheap in the current condition rather than not being maintained by the current owner.

    Honestly, Trent, you could have written this same piece without jumping to conclusions about the people.

  15. CC says:

    I am a big fan of preventative maintenance. I’m constantly making lists of what needs to be checked or worked on. Sometimes I wonder if I take it a little too far, actually.

    But in response to Verbose, sometimes there are actually are financial reasons to keep your lawn maintained. The father of a friend of mine let his yard turn into a jungle during a period of illness, and although he recovered and getting back on track now, he is also in the midst of court battles with his HOA and fighting bank garnishes. Neighborhood covenants are not to be taken lightly.

  16. Kat says:

    I think this is really true of clothing too. I’ve ruined many a piece of clothing because I washed it wrong, ripped it by being careless, or got a stain on it that I didn’t pretreat and it set. Especially if you work somewhere were clothing is important, ruining your outfit may mean needing to go out and buy new, when what you had was perfectly fine until you were careless with it.

  17. Brian DR1665 says:

    I’m still in the very early stages of getting financially organized, so this sort of thing is reassuring to hear.

    I recently refurbished the lawn mower I earned my allowance with that my dad bought back in 1976 (before I was born). There’s no bag for it and I still need to adjust the carb, but it fires up on the first pull and, even with the purchase of a new blade, carb kit, and air filter, I still saved more than $50 compared to buying the least expensive new mower I’ve seen.

    All three of our cars are paid off and I make a point of keeping them clean and running well. I’m a gear head, so I struggle with the balance between doing it yourself, and doing more than is needed yourself. The brake pads need replaced, but I see more value in up-rated equipment when replacements are needed.

    Right now, my struggle is my daily driver. A 17 year old, limited edition Mitsubishi sedan (only 3000 ever sold in North America), it’s got a sun roof, black leather interior, and I didn’t get into installing the AC during last spring. I live in Phoenix and spend a lot of time driving in 114* heat in that car.

    I still have some AC bits and refrigerant to buy to complete the job, but I almost wonder if I should go without AC a while longer, if I’ve made it this far? The savings would be minimal (less than $100 to install and charge the system), but it’s the principle of saving, right?

    Finally, I think that things like mowing the lawn and washing the car are critically important. What is the value of your self-esteem that you do not live like a slob? If you are physically able to keep your yard and vehicles maintained, yet do not, it means you’re lazy. A freshly mown lawn or shiny car might not add value, but fail to maintain the two and values decrease rapidly.

  18. Kevin says:

    This was a thought-provoking post. The first thing that came to my mind was, “If these people had the kind of initiative and self-discipline it takes to take care of their things, they probably wouldn’t be poor in the first place.”

    However, reading through the comments, I realized there are more possible explanations than the obvious lazy welfare-queen. For sure, our country’s trailer parks are overflowing with lazy, divorced, deadbeats who’d rather sit on their threadbare, stained couch, watching Jerry Springer and chain-smoking bootleg cigarettes than change the oil in their rusted-out ’88 Camaro. But on the other hand, there are no doubt those who would like to take better care of their things, but are simply unable, for health or financial reasons.

    That said, I think Trent might have oversimplified a bit, too. Sure, most of the time, taking care of your things only takes a few minutes. But a few minutes per task can really add up fast (sort of how a few dollars a day in savings can add up fast – funny how that works!).

    Tonight I might change the oil and filter in my car. Tomorrow, I have to mow the lawn. This weekend, I’ll clean my gutters. Next week, I’ll replace the water filter in my fridge. And on top of all of that, I have to do the usual things (preparing meals, doing dishes, laundry, emptying kitty litter, putting out garbage and recycling on Tuesdays, cleaning the bathrooms, vacuuming once a week, weeding my garden, paying the bills, etc. etc.) And if I’m lucky, I might find a couple of hours in there to decompress, have a beer, and watch a little TV. I honestly don’t know how people do all of this and add children to the mix. But I can see why some of the more “preventative” tasks can fall to the bottom of the to-do list (“I know I’m due for an oil change, but letting it go another week or two isn’t going to kill it”) when there are more immediately-pressing things at the top. If I’m out of clean underwear, and my air conditioner is running fine, am I going to do laundry, or clean my air conditioner?

  19. Craig says:

    So true, take care of them now because the longer you wait, the more it will end up costing and being a hassle in the end.

  20. Mike says:

    While I do agree with several poster’s analysis that Trent did oversimplify the issues and bascially portray a stereotype, keep in mind that stereotype is based on reality to at least some degree.
    There are plenty of folks who are simply clueless as to how to maintain their stuff or too lazy or cheap to do it at any rate. Not taken into consideration that there are those who are disabled or finanically unable to perform those same tasks.

    For the average person the best advice I could give is to learn how to maintain this stuff yourself. I can’t replace a transmission or engine in my truck but I can darn sure change the oil and filters myself and that skill has saved me thousands over the years and not left me at the mercy of shady or inept mechanics.

    Getting yourself a hands on lifeskill is investing of the best kind- in yourself. Once you have these skills you can teach them to others or help the less fortunate maintain their own stuff and be a helper, not a critic.

  21. Tyler Karaszewski says:

    While I generally agree in principal, and acknowledge that your AC calculations were intentionally very “back of the envelope”, you left out one *very important* factor:

    Maintenance is not free.

    You save almost $3500 in your calculations — but how much do 30 years of maintenance cost? It’s not the $0 that you imply.

    Also, what’s up with the recent prevalence of this type of phrasing: “It needs repainted”. I keep hearing people say this and it sounds like they dropped out of school in the 6th grade every time I hear it.

    “It needs to be repainted,” or if you wish, “it needs repainting”.

  22. Tom B says:

    How can you fight off “I’ll do it tomorrow”-ness? My lack of motivation makes me lazy, even though I see the benefits of not being like this.
    — Tom

  23. lurker carl says:

    Cleaning leaves, grass clippings and debris off the heat pump coils isn’t rocket science. You wouldn’t need to call a professional to perform a simple task, but it’s the most common cause of poor performance. It takes a minute or so each week or so to pick the crap off the coils and away from the unit.

    Filters are another neglected item. It costs one dollar (on sale) and takes about 10 seconds to replace. You may need to replace it as often as once per month if your house has lots of shedding animals, otherwise most folks only need one each season. A clogged filter is the second most common problem.

    These two issues are responsible for roughly 75% of the AC service calls. The other 25% are beyond the capability of most homeowners to diagnose and repair.

  24. Michael says:

    Trent is absolutely right that poorer neighborhoods are messier. It’s a rule with very few exceptions.

  25. Michael says:

    We just bought a foreclosure. While it’s not in as bad of shape as some foreclosures, there are a bunch of expensive fixes we need to do because preventative maintenance wasn’t done.

    The results are a moldy basement, a rotting back porch, rotting soffits….and a broken AC.

  26. Marc says:

    Very good post, definitely proof a bit of effort and time can make a difference even if you don’t notice it.

    To Verbose: Keeping your things in good condition can yield benefits you don’t/can’t predict. A few years ago I bought a used car which I cleaned thouroughly and took good care of (mechanically and cosmetically). At one point it was vandalized (spoiler ripped off) but I fixed it. 2 or 3 months after this happened the car was in a pileup and was written-off (not severe but it was 10 yrs old). I had owned it for 2 years and the insurance check was $500 *more* than I had paid for it 2 yrs prior. Would I have gotten the same amount if it wasn’t clean in and out and had a clearly damaged (broken screws holes) trunk? It’s anyone’s guess, but I honestly think that netted me hundreds more than I would have received otherwise.

    That’s the craziness of it, you just never know it will be important to be at your best, sometimes they really are “accidents”. Nobody wants to dwell on “what if I had just picked that stuff up?”, “what if I had just shaved that day?”, “what if I had just fixed that little thing?”.

  27. There’s a lot of merit in this post, but for a lot of people, the cost of maintaining what they have is beyond reach.

    Some of this is because of the economy, people who are unemployed, under-employed or who have seen significant declines in commission, overtime and bonus income aren’t in a position to afford it. It’s an axiom that when money’s tight, maintenance is the first thing to go.

    But another problem is the fact that so many people have acquired too much stuff or have bought things they could barely afford in the first place. If you bought a house that was at or beyond the reasonable maximum you could afford, how much money will be left over for maintenance? The same with cars, especially since repair costs are generally greater on higher end vehicles than on cheaper ones.

    For a lot of people, maintenance was sacrificed at purchase, because “we have to have the best”. Few people consider maintenance expense when making a major purchase. Maybe the economy will force some common sense in this regard???

  28. Josh says:

    Most of the people who are saying Trent is wrong are wrong. People need to start taking more personal responsibility and stop playing the blame game. But then again, this is America where we can do no wrong, and everything is someone else’s fault.

  29. fairydust says:

    Tyler, dropping the “to be” from sentences is rampant in Central PA. Don’t know the origin, but when I hear it in local news broadcasts and see it in the local newspaper headlines, I really do cringe :)

  30. Jessica says:

    @Marc (#18) I’d say you just got a good deal on the car in the first place. Insurance companies do not take into account how well maintained your car is, or really much else specific to your car (such as recent repairs or a new paint job). Generally, they only give the fair market value for a similar vehicle based on year, make, model and mileage.

  31. Holly says:

    This post immediately made me think of the neighbors I had growing up. My whole life, we lived next to a family that had two working parents with good jobs. but their house literally looked like it was about to be condemned. The kids wore clothes and threw them in the garage when they were too dirty. They never washed, they just bought new. They never cleaned their bathroom or mopped up the overflow water from the tub and one day their toilet fell right through the floor. They didn’t cook, always got takeout and were too lazy to put the wrappers in the trash. They had a 50 gallon trash can in their living room so they could throw wrappers into it but no one ever took it out – so it overflowed. The kids put up a tent one year in the backyard and it stayed until it quite literally rotted away. I could go on for pages about the state of their home but the bottom line was that they didn’t take care of ANYTHING they bought and guess what? They were always broke. We had one working parent, much fewer toys and clothes. We took very careful care of all our things and my parents never had to use a credit card, a title loan, etc.

  32. Areas with automobiles, air-conditioners, or houses which get painted are not “financially destitute”; they are wealthy. Societies which can afford to let such luxury goods rot away and go to waste are drowning in wealth. Only 13% of people own cars, 7 out of 8 of our brothers and sisters who we share the planet with do not own an automobile. Owning a car, even one which is rusted through, puts you at the upper tiers of human wealth, unimaginable either historically or globally. The average middle class citizen of our planet earns US$300/month and couldn’t afford to fuel up a car, probably doesn’t have a paved road to drive it on, and couldn’t afford to run an air-conditioner. That is global MIDDLE CLASS, not destitution, I’m talking about – destitution is at an entirely different level, which I doubt you could ever imagine.

    An example of “not taking care of things” due to financial destitution, would be plowing the fields with your crippled water buffalo despite the fact that he has a broken leg, because you couldn’t feed him proper nutrients, because rain season was light, and what little food you are actually able to scare up is ensuring your malnourished children do not starve to death.

  33. Gwen says:

    I don’t think Trent carelessly expanded a stereotype or that he was dogging on people that are poor. Remember Trent grew up in a poor situation; I think he is the last person that would intentionally malign people just because they are poor.

    I have known people that misuse their things. One family I knew growing up in particular. Our family helped them out quite a bit and even gave them a perfectly good couch, albeit with out-of-date fabric, when my family bought a new couch. Within a few weeks there were slash marks, stains, etc. on the couch. They didn’t care for the couch at all.

    You don’t have to be a rich person or a poor person to keep track of and take care of your things, whether it is a new couch or one with out-of-date fabric.

  34. Rachel says:

    I think you nailed this one right on the spot. The difference isn’t necessarily the gap in income, its the gap in attitude and pride.

  35. Marc says:

    FYI- Yes what I got was based on comparables, however I bought the car from a dealer (not likely to be fleeced in the first place as it was a popular vehicle) and I did put a lot of mileage on it.
    In any case, I was just trying to point out that there can be unexpected instances where maintenance can pay off, financially.

  36. L says:

    I don’t think this is stereotyping at all. In my area it’s very common. I do it myself.. but I am getting better. Once I decided I will drive my car until it dies, to avoid car payments or debt, keeping up with maintenence, repairs, and keeping it clean became much more important to me!

    Not taking care of things – whether it’s a house needing paint or shoes needing cleaned – is pretty common in some areas.

  37. Dan says:

    Hey Trent,

    Our house might look that way, paint peeling, lawn not the best….but we’ve been improving it since we bought it. We started with the inside. And if it weren’t for all the debt from the remodeling, the outside would be done now too.

    We aren’t painting the house- we are saving money for siding- and though it’s an eyesore now, in a year or two it’ll be great

  38. kristine says:

    I was a single mom after my divorce, and maintenance is not free. Peeling paint? Even oops paint was beyond my budget-it was struggle to pay rent and put food on the table. Clean the gutters? I had no ladder, nor could I afford one. Nor could I afford to fall, as I had no health insurance. Wash my car? That was an indulgent luxury that was not possible. Was it humiliating to drive a filthy car? You bet. In warm weather I’d use a sponge and soap from the dollar store, and a bucket (hoses are expensive)…if I had enough energy on the days I did not immediately collapse after 14-16 hours of work and putting the kids to bed, and doing the dishes and laundry. Re-caulk the tub? A tube of caulk- beyond my means. Mowed lawn? Who could afford a lawnmower- are you kidding? And if I had one, any gas had to be to get to work, not for house-pride, or the neighbor’s approval. And yes, they looked down on me, and never once stopped by or offered to help. (AC- no idea- I used a discarded fan.)

    My kids were fed, clean, and well loved. Sometimes that is all you can do. When it comes down to it, that is all that really matters.

    I understand the connection between poverty and lack of maintenance. What I find offensive is the assumption of a connection between lack or maintenance, poverty, and lack of character, or common sense.

    The assumption that it would be just as easy for someone else to do the kind of maintenance you could easily fit into your routine is erroneous and presumptuous.

    Now I teach in a gold-plate district, with the average house in the 2 mill range. I can tell you right now not one of these people maintains anything- they pay for maintenance, or just replace stuff. And even so- I have seen some filthy mansions that looked very well maintained from the outside.

  39. Jules says:

    I agree–upkeep saves you money. Keeps things looking nice, etc. I do agree that many of the costs for replacing certain things could be avoided if the things were maintained.

    I don’t think Trent meant to include people who work hard for 16 hours a day and struggle to put food on the table when he wrote this. That said, he might have done a better job at making sure that was clear.

    I also find myself obligated to add that many times it’s not money that’s the issue, but knowledge. I wouldn’t know which end of a car to start at if I had to change the oil (that we don’t have a car kinda makes this a moot point). On the other hand I do hem all of my clothes and clean the apartment we live in obsessively. Plus my renal-failure cat goes in for vet appointments regularly.

  40. deRuiter says:

    Less successful people tend to be sloppy and careless, Trent is correct. As a landlord with modest housing to rent I agree. For starters, I won’t rent to people unless I’ve inspected their car without them realizing this is part of the test. A vehicle in immaculate conditon inside means the tenant will keep the apartment that way. Any vehicle ankle deep in fast food wrappers, crumpled aluminum cans, dirty clothing, old newspapers, and cigarette packs means NO RENTING TO YOU, FOLKS! A car’s condition signifies the conditon in which the apartment will be kept and whether the tenant will be sloppy about paying rent on time. Poverty ghettos are dirty, depressing, disgusting and falling apart because of a lack of pride on the part of the occupants. It doesn’t cost anything to pick up papers and trash from the yards and sidewalks, pull weeds, wash windows and floors. Tatoos, police records, bankruptcies or government welfare checks, section 8 checks are all signs of poorly run lives, bad financial decisions, and potential problem tenants. Want to fail in America? It’s easy! Have illegitimate children, a single parent home, don’t graduate high school, don’t go for any job training, smoke, drink alcohol, take recreational drugs, buy frivolous things, live on fast food, get lots of tattoos and body piercings, don’t maintain your stuff. Welfare tentants are not desireable because they hang around the house all day, wearing it out faster than those who go out to work, they use more utilities, they’re bored, restless and dissatisfied with lots of itme on their hands so they cause problems for themselves and the landlord, they tend to require more intervention by police and social services which is disruptive to the neighbors. How is it that foreigners come to America not speaking our language and so many of them open small businesses and buy houses so quickly while native, English speaking Americans often fail and wallow in poverty? SOME PEOPLE MAKE GOOD FINANCIAL AND PERSONAL DECISIONS. All day long there are decisions, small and large, which indicate our potential for success or failure: shall I drink soda or milk for breakfast? Shall I go to work or call in sick? Shall I get that tattooo and belly piercing or put the money in the bank for an emergency fund? Shall I have unprotected sex and get knocked up or remain childless until I am educated, married and financially settled? Shall I steal this car or pay the fare and ride the bus? Shall I take a part time job delivering pizzas after work and bank the money for college or hang around the pool room? Shall I go to the mall and spend money I don’t have for things I don’t need or buy a tee shirt at a yard sale for a dollar? POVERTY FOR MOST IS A LIFESTYLE CHOICE. No education but willing to work? Open a cleaning company, hire your friends, and make your fortune. Quit making excuses!

  41. ImJuniperNow says:

    As a house and pet sitter, I see this all the time. I can’t understand why people who have (lovely) homes let them get into disrepair. Even worse, why they let them get filled with crap. They seem like normal, well-adjusted people. So why keep piles of 1962 TV Guides?

  42. Sami says:

    The first thought that came to my mind when I read this post is, “Trent. You are a snob. Don’t presume to know everything about a situation until you actually ask.”

  43. anne says:

    hey- kristine stole my post!

    i’m remarried now, but for years i was a single mom. my husband is now a good earner and hard worker, but for quite a while i was the sole support of this family, and i was exhausted form working two or three jobs- not just one.

    i used to be too broke for quarters to go to the laundromat, for gas to put in the car- people who have never gone w/out really don’t know what it’s like.

    i worked, i didn’t have a tv, let alone cable. i cooked and baked almost everything we ate- we never went out to eat. and i did the best i could. i really did, but noone could have done all the things that needed doing w/ the little bit of money i had and all the work that needed to be done.

    kristine and the others are right- it costs money to maintain things. it really does.

    i think some of the replies to this article are very judgmental and nasty. deruiter- after my divorce, i was a single mom, and according to you, i have failed in america.

  44. dsz says:

    I’m a fairly new reader but I’m inclined to believe Trent wasn’t maligning those who simply are not in a financial position to spend money they don’t have on home and auto repairs and mainentenance. No reasonable person would criticize the elderly, disabled, or financially struggling for not keeping their homes and cars ‘just-so’ and those who would are not worth listening to, IMHO.
    I think the practical application, and possibly the intent of the post is to ask-what can we do with what we have? Sure, you may not be able to redo your landscape, but can you pull a couple of weeds every day? Can’t buy new clothes, but can you promptly treat a stain in the sink (with hand soap if needed-soap is soap, after all) so it doesn’t set? Don’t get your car detailed, but don’t let trash pile up in it, either. Some maintenance does cost, but quite a bit only takes your time and usually it takes less time than you think it will.
    I think the whole message is in the last two paragraphs-keeping yourself and your things in the best condition you can is good for you not just financially but physically and emotionally. Maybe you can’t change your financial situation just yet, but you can change your attitude towards it. I’ve known people of limited means who were grateful for all they had and treated their posessions and family with loving care and well-off folks who were careless and callous-who do you think was ‘poor’? Poor habits make people poor, no matter how much money they have.
    If you see yourself as poor-don’t. Poor is an attitude, not an economic state. Do the most with what you have and you will feel better about yourself and will project a better image and good things will come your way. Maybe not all at once, but it will happen. People judge you-and whether to invest resources in you-based on your actions and appearance. A good boss will promote neat and careful over sloppy and careless every day. If there’s a special program available at school, the teachers will select kids who they think will benefit from it-not ones who will waste the opportunity. Neighbors or a local organization might pitch in to paint a house, but probably not if the family doesn’t bother to weed or leaves junk lying around.
    Those in a position to help others choose to invest in those who choose to invest in themselves. Take care of yourself, your family, and your things the best you can and you will attract those willing to help you. At the very least you will be proud of yourself and your efforts and a positive attitude is priceless.

  45. deRuiter says:

    Dear Anne, Of course you didn’t “fail” America. You had a husband before you had children. Sadly husbands, die, they get sick, they leave unexpectedly, these things happen. Study the welfare rolls, unmarried teen aged children having children keep the cycle of poverty and dependence going. Illegitimate children have a much higher rate of juvenile tangles with the law, incarceration as adults, drug involvement, alcoholism, problems in general. Children with two involved parents have a much higher chance of success in life.

  46. Jenn says:

    This post is all about thought! Taking care of your home and posessions takes some thought. Taking care of yur financial lfe takes thought. Taking care of your personal life takes thought. We cannot be successful at any of these things if we don’t take the time to reflect and consider! You can react to the surface of Trent’s message, and get caught up in being mad about stereotyping, or you can reflect on what he’s really saying.

    I’m not a big fan of wasting water and time on having a perfectly green lawn either, but my lawn is mowed and my yard is free of clutter, and these are decisions I’ve come to through thought! You might be suprised how litttle time folks spend thinking about the choices in their life. Thoughtless decisions are always bad decisions, and they lead to failure. DeRuiter’s post may not be nice, but his essential point about the cumulative effect of a thoughtless life is spot on!

  47. Linda says:

    I would wager that many people who have the skills and/or means to keep up their property and don’t are depressed. When someone is depressed, it is so hard to get up off the couch and do anything. The longer one lets things go, the harder it is to bring things back into working order, especially if one cannot see his/her way past the mess. It’s hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when the tunnel is such a mess, and people with depression have a harder time looking for the light to begin with.

  48. Carole says:

    I thought this was a very good and worthwhile post. I can’t believe how nitpicking and defensive some people can be.

  49. There is a difference between structural maintenance and cosmetic improvement that passes for maintenance.

    A very successful handyman in my area once told me that in his experience, people spend fortunes improving their homes with wood blinds, wood flooring, granite counter tops and the like–all components of “show”–while basic maintenance like caulking, replacing wood rot and dealing with water issues–all actually less expensive to perform–would go untended. He would finally be called in when the deterioration reached levels that could no longer be ignored.

    And he said something else which I think is vitally important for all homeowners. When figuring the carrying cost of your house, you should add in $300-$500/month for maintenance. That’s what an average house would cost to maintain over any given 10 year period.

  50. urbanbanjogurl says:

    I totally agree!
    I live in a rural Montana mobile home park and
    my husband who is “handy” seems to always be helping others fix things with their home that preventive maint could have prevented.
    We have learned to take care of our “stuff”, and for years everything keeps on running smooth,and when something does start to get in need of TLC,we get it done!

  51. Shevy says:

    The discussion in general has been good. There are 2 groups of people whose possessions may look shabby. The first don’t bother to maintain them and don’t care about them. If something deteriorates to the point where it no longer functions or it starts to bother them, they just replace it.

    The other group doesn’t do maintenance for a reason. Lack of money, ill health, working 2 or more jobs, depression, mental illness, being elderly and frail, etc.

    Of all the items mentioned, I think painting a house is the most difficult all around. It’s a lot of physical work to even prepare a house for painting. In order for the new paint to adhere properly you have to sand down all the areas where paint is peeling and then prime those areas. It’s hard work and much of it must be done on a ladder, not something a person who is elderly or not in good health can really do. Once the house is prepared you have to do the actual painting.

    This isn’t like painting your living room. There, a gallon of paint, a roller kit, a paint brush and a day or two of your time will take care of it. You should be able to do it for under $50, even buying new brushes. House exteriors on the other hand, are extremely expensive. You need a lot of paint and most people are not really “up” for doing the work themselves. That’s an additional cost. Having your house painted costs thousands of dollars.

    For many people, I suspect the cost is the deciding factor. Replace your car that’s falling apart or paint your house? Get your kid’s teeth taken care of or paint your house? Reshingle the roof to take care of the leaks or paint the house?

  52. Linda, you said it for me! I’ve been depressed – which can fall into the ‘health problems’ category and no, I could not figure out where to start with my house. I have belonged to a website called Flylady.net since 2004, but it’s been only recently that I’ve really been able to apply the lessons and daily routines.
    I whole-heartedly agree with Trent. We’ve let many things go here at our own home from lack of attention. (I’m about to scotch Gard some yard furniture cushions in hopes of saving them from rotting!) In our case, we just put 90% of our effort into our home business, and then when we want to relax, yard work and other home maintenance tasks really aren’t on the agenda. For us, personally, ‘balance’ is another problem. As someone else mentioned, it does take time to do all the tasks we need to in a day. But that’s when you have to decide what level of ‘clean’ you are comfortable with on a daily basis (wipe-off counters or move everything to clean under-it every day?!) and ditch the idea of ‘perfection’. The idea that we can’t do it ‘right’ – whatever ‘it’ is and whatever ‘right’ means to us personally – at this moment, will cause many people to not bother at all. And then everything falls into dis-array.

  53. kristine says:


    For the record, I was a single mom leaving an abusive marriage. It was leave with the shirt on my back, or eventually leave dead, and then my kids, too.

    I had a BFA, and married a wealthy MIT grad/entrepeneur. Seemed like a prince. A good choice, no? Leaving when things changed completely, and I feared my kids would be next- good choice, no? Losing everything to a custody battle- absolutely necessary.

    I was from a solidly middle class family, but I am not ignorant to the social phenomena called “the cycle of poverty” DeRuiter may want to do some research on that. Ignorance is a life choice, too.

    Consider this: a hardworking, good character intelligent student is 14, and sitting in the Bronx at high school. A hardworking, good character intelligent student is 14, and sitting in high school in a blue ribbon school district on Long Island. They do the same work, they get the same grades. They will absolutely not have the same opportunities or life choices available upon graduation. What good or bad choices, exactly, did either child make to deserve their life-course opportunities, or lack thereof?

    There are rise above examples everywhere. But one should not judge all by a standard of “outstanding achievement”. Most people are average intelligence, and average talent, and average temperment. You cannot expect everyone to be as ambitious or driven as an immigrant here for opportunity, especially in a culture that preaches entitlement.

    I happen to be extremely lucky-I am smart-I joined Mensa after my divorce as a self-esteem builder. My kids have that too. But it’s just genetic lotto. I went on to get 2 masters degrees, and marry a wonderful professor. My artwork has been in the NY Times. But had I not the intellectual resources, and the middle class connections, I would be a welfare mom today, or just impoverished, and I know it. So I do not judge people in that position.

    DeRuiter- volunteer in a soup kitchen. The best thing you will learn is that there is a story behind every beaten down face, some poor choices, but often, just insurmountable obstacles handed to very ordinary people, or, sadly, people so damaged by their youth that they will forever be the walking wounded and limp through life.

  54. Kathy says:

    I was wondering just yesterday, what would Trent do if his foundation just fell apart, like ours did. We have very poor soil and have to soaker hose the foundation. Which we have always been faithful to do. It apparently washed away some of the soil from around the house and under the driveway. The neighbors also have trees whose roots go from their yard to the opposite side of our house. Anyway, the house is now leaning, the driveways just fell apart, like a small earthquake. I know this will cost us about 10K which we do not have. We are still trying to payoff insulated windows, which we bought to save money on electricity. The hubby does clean lint from the dryer, drain the AC, clean the gutters, etc. Appliances are meant to wear out. Which literally makes me insane. Air conditioners last 10 years, after that you’re pushing your luck.

    I had it to do all over again, I would set up a savings account just for home maintenance because you are always going to need it.

  55. Tordr says:

    The example about the air conditioner was made to illustrate a point, but it had many mathematical assumptions that might not be correct.
    -Inflation was not considered. The example could still be valid if you assume inflation adjusted prices, which might be the case.
    -New air conditioners might be more energy efficient and cheaper as technology progresses.
    -The difference was made at the end of a 30-year time span. But the average timespan is 15 years, and nobody lives in the same house that long, unless they have settled down for good.
    -If you sell,move,rent then this examples do not apply to you. They are the landlords problem not yours, which is often the case with run down neighbourhoods. The land lord and the tenant both do not care about the property. The land lord looses in the long run, but for him it is just a short term investment, and inflation might make it more attractive to spend less now for an inflated bill later.

    A car is a much better example, it rusts and almost all people own their own car. But taking care is time consuming and not very fun, and things like road condition and having a garage or not might make more difference on your cars lifetime than anything you can do.

    In short for any concrete example about taking care of your stuff, I can give you 10 reasons why that example is not valid. And finally all we REALLY want to do is not to take care of our stuff or our lives and just waste it away on the sofa in front of the television. We just need the financial freedom to do that first.

  56. lgott says:

    Recently, I was flipping through my car’s recommended maintenance schedule, being as my car just recently his 130,000 miles, and noticed my timing belt needed to be replaced 20,000 miles ago. My husband and I both agreed that we would rather pay a few hundred dollars to replace it now than thousands later for repair it when it broke. We got so much slack from our family (who think that because we are young, are financially ignorant, even though they are the ones that are on the brink of financial collapse) for “wasting” so the $300. It makes me feel good to know that we are not alone in what I feel is common sense!! My husband used to tease me because every few weeks or so I would take our vacuum completely apart and wash all of the filters and wipe the whole thing down. We have had the same $59 vacuum for 6 years! Same way with our couch, every several months I pull out the steam cleaner and go to town, and my husband and our friends used to think I was nuts. We have had the same couch for six years and it still looks great, despite the fact that we have a two year old and a dog.

  57. Lynn says:

    I’m one of those people whose house desperately needs painting. Sorry, but even if I could afford to buy the paint, I can only reach so far from my wheelchair. You’re way off base on this one, lumping everyone into the same category. I care about my home, I just have neither the funds nor the physical capability to do anything about it this year.

  58. Pizpo says:


    You may cover this in another area, but shouldn’t “take care of your things” be extended to taking care of your body (since that is your ultimate “thing”)? This is another place where finances and health overlap. I may be wrong but given the choice between health and wealth, all other things being equal, wouldn’t most of us chose health?

  59. Pizpo, that exact topic is on my website today!

  60. MLe says:

    Keeping up a home is costly, and deferred maintenance is even costlier. Most lower income households can’t handle it. Many communities have deferred loans available for this type of work, with assistance in contracting, etc. to help maintain the housing stock. It would be worth it to mention this to readers, as many folks don’t know about them or even think they are eligible. Contact your city or county.

  61. Caroline says:

    I really want to say all of this to certain people I know. I hate it when people buy stuff and let it rot!!

  62. Jennifer says:

    I’ve just found this site and find it very interesting with some good advice. However, I’m wondering if there are any sites for those who follow many of the suggestions and still find it a struggle to make ends meet.

    I may scream if I see one more helpful hint telling me to “brown-bag it once or twice a week” to save money, when I brown-bag it EVERY day. I’m lucky enough to be employed, but I’m thinking of those who aren’t. Is there information out there for them, super-cheap tips and the like?

  63. steve says:

    A surprising number (to me) of people are extremely incompetent, ignorant, or just don’t care when it comes to maintaining or understanding their possessions, particularly mechanical ones.

    Checking up on your possessions periodically (not just when they break) gives you a fantastic heads up on what kind of work will be or might be needed in the future and helps prevent catastrophic failure at the most inconvenient times. Personally, I find it relaxing, as long as I’m not doing it on a deadline. It is calming to know that I am ahead of the curve and am fixing something or planning ahead for replacement so there won’t be an inconvenient equipment failure in the future. Some (not all) of my “decompression time” is time spent doing maintenance tasks and projects around the house and car.

  64. steve says:

    @ A car is a much better example, it rusts and almost all people own their own car. But taking care is time consuming and not very fun, and things like road condition and having a garage or not might make more difference on your cars lifetime than anything you can do.”

    IMO It’s neither road condition nor having a garage that impacts how soon people get rid of their cars. Paint last a long time and suspension components rarely fail, and are mostly just pieces of shaped steel that can readily be interchanged and bolted on. The actual most important factor is that people don’t keep up with maintenance and then finally give up on the car because they have begun to conceive of it as a “piece of junk” due partly to their own neglect, then suddenly they get faced with what seems (but usually really isn’t) a large repair bill or series of repair bills.

    Not all people find car maintenance “not fun”. My nearly 20 year old Honda Accord is going great because I maintain it regularly, and has never broken down on me (except once, about 5 years ago–a dead battery). The only reason it is in the shape it is in (besides the superb engineering and manufacturing quality) is that I know that car bolt by bolt, component by component. And know when I’ll need to replace the next thing and what it is.

    By the time I get another car, in 5 to 10 years, it will probably be something completely different like the Chevy Volt.

  65. Christine says:

    I would bet that habits of keeping things tidy are not always directly related to a person’s self-worth or self-esteem. If your personal belief is that mess or clutter means that you do not respect yourself, by all means, keep things clean! I am the type of person who tends to be absent minded and my home is a little cluttered for that reason. Sometimes I prioritize fun, exercise, work or other activities over keeping on top of my cleaning and decorating. Does that mean I don’t respect myself? Absolutely not! If it meant that to me, you’d better believe I’d have things as clean as I would need to feel good. I guess my mess radar bar is set pretty low. One problem happens when other people see my surroundings and infer that I don’t have self-respect. Sometimes I clean just to avoid that misunderstanding.

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