Simplify Your Life: Stop Collecting and Start Experiencing

In the old apartment Sarah and I used to live in, I had one whole wall filled with books. The bookshelf stretched from the floor to the ceiling and from wall to wall and, frankly, it was overstuffed.

That bookshelf wasn’t too surprising, though. I’ve been a voracious reader since my early childhood, reading more than a book a week for as far back as I can remember. Reading has been a big part of my entire life, progressing from Judy Blume and Roald Dahl to Margaret Atwood and George R. R. Martin.

Yet, sadly, that overstuffed bookshelf was mostly full of books that I had not even bothered to read. It was all sunk money, money that could have been working for me by paying off debts or sitting in an investment.

Why? How could that happen?

I hadn’t stopped reading. I still read at least a book a week.

The problem was that there were many, many books that I wanted to read and that desire was coupled with an income that seemingly provided a lot of spending money.

I’d discover four or five books per week that I wanted to read – just like I did when I was younger. The only difference was that now I had the money to acquire all of those books that I wanted to read.

This wasn’t just a phenomenon limited to books for me. I did the same thing with video games and DVDs, too. I’ve witnessed this phenomenon in other people, too, with other things ranging from clothing and shoes to motorcycles and golf clubs.

How does this phenomenon happen? Here’s my theory.

A Changing Balance of Time and Money

When people have passions or hobbies, they tend to fill up their spare time and, often, their spare money with those passions.

In college, for example, I was a voracious reader in my spare time, so I would read as many books as I possibly could. Some were bought with my own money, some were gifts, and some came from the library.

At that time, money was the biggest limitation on my reading hobby. I was forced to rely mostly on the library, which would often not have the book I wanted. I would often hear about a book or discover it in a bookstore, find myself without enough money to buy that book, and then struggle with balancing my very limited spending power between just buying that book anyway or waiting until I could get it from the library. I had enough time to read all of the books that found their way into my home then.

As I grew older, though, two things shifted. First, my free time became smaller because I moved from being a single college student to being a married professional (one that would soon have kids). At the same time, my income level grew almost by an order of magnitude.

My financial ability to buy books was no longer limited. If I wanted a book, I possessed the means to buy it.

At the same time, my time available for reading shrank, at least a little. I didn’t have the endless afternoons for reading that I once had, though I could still enjoy the hobby.

This lack of time was a frustration. I missed those lazy afternoons of being lost in a great book. Since I couldn’t have that experience nearly as often, I searched around for a substitute … and I found that buying lots of books made for a reasonable substitute.

Buying books that I wanted allowed me to feel as though I could at least be close to a book that I wanted to read, even if I didn’t have time to read it. I could have that book in my home at the ready for when the moment appeared that provided me time to read – and I seemingly had the resources to do it easily.

My large unread book collection came from a drastic increase in income paired with a reduction in time.

This is the same experience I’ve seen from almost everyone who has a significant change in their time-money balance that either limits their time or increases their money.
Their passion seeks another outlet, and that outlet often involves buying things.

How Do You Beat Over Collecting?

The challenge with overcoming this type of “overcollecting” of anything is that it’s based on two fundamental facts that you can’t really change. One, you’re passionate about something. Two, you have more money than time.

Over the last several years, I’ve found a good method for fixing this kind of “overcollecting” that has repeatedly worked for books, DVDs, video games, and other things. I barely spend money at all on these things at this point.

Here’s how I did it.

Step One: Recognize the Unnecessary Loss

My first step in turning the ship around was recognizing the real problem: books sitting unread on my shelf were actually costing me money just by their presence.

When you spend money on something that you don’t use, you’re truly wasting that money.

Money spent on something that sits on your shelf untouched for several months is money that’s purely wasted.

Think of it this way. If you had simply waited until you had the time available to actually use the item, then you could have had that money for months (or years) and nothing would have changed. You would still be able to use that item when you could actually use it.

During that time, that money could have been applied to debts to keep your interest rates lower or earning you money in an investment.

When you sink that money into clothes or books or golf clubs that just sit in your home unused, that money can no longer work for you. In exchange, what do you get? Nothing. You’re not using the item, so all it’s doing is taking up space.

Step Two: Adopt a Shorter Queue

Since I no longer have the need to acquire every book I want – because I recognize that it’s a huge waste until the moment I am about to use it – I mostly just focus on the next few books I intend to read. This gives me a month or two to find the best deal on that book.

Often, that deal is found at the library. Since I no longer have to have it right now, a book request at the library works really well. I just wait for a little while, then I have the book in my hands. Often, the book’s availability at the library determines which book of the several I’m thinking about that I will actually read next.

This works for other things, too. You’ll usually know when you need a new pair of shoes long in advance. You’ll often know when you’ll have time to watch a film or two long before it happens. This means you’re not pressed up against a purchase and can shop carefully for that item, giving you the same item at a far lower price.

This switch doesn’t deny me any book that I want to read.

All it does is cut back on the accumulation and gives me a window to find better deals. When I want to experience a book, I still get to experience it. I just spend about 95% less than I used to on books.

Step Three: Reconnect

One difficult part of this switch is that, in the process of buying so many of an item, you’re taking away time and mental energy from the actual hobby you enjoyed to begin with. Rather than reading books, for example, you’re buying them. Rather than choosing well-thought-out outfits, you’re buying new clothes.

One big trick is to just deeply reconnect with your passion.

I actually spent a weekend – one that I remember quite fondly – doing nothing but reading. I read two long books and a short one, dumping about eleven hours each day into it.

I realized at the end of the weekend that I truly loved reading – and, more importantly, it didn’t actually involve buying anything. I reconnected with the real core of that passion, separate from the buying.

It made me realize how much buying had become a substitute for my true enjoyment. Every time after that, whenever I’d spend time thinking about buying a book, I’d wonder why I wasn’t just spending that time enjoying a book instead.

Step Four: Look Ahead

When you want something, record it instead of buying it.

Naturally, as a passionate reader, I often hear about books that I might want to read but can’t necessarily buy right now.

The temptation is there to buy it right away before I forget it, but simply keeping a to-read list sates much of that desire. I just add interesting books to my to-read list when I hear about them. When I look at that list, the ones I added first are at the top of the list, while the newest additions are at the bottom.

What happens quite often is that I’ll see a book I once wanted to read and I no longer find it interesting, so I just cross it off of the list. That’s far better than having to deal with a book that I paid for and is now sitting in my hands, because then I have to find a way to get rid of that book and I’m probably taking a loss on it.

Usually, just the simple act of adding the book to that list sates my desire to acquire the book because I know that if I still want to read it in a while, it will be there on that list.

Step Five: Catalogue Your Experiences

When you keep track of your actual achievements regarding your passion, it feels deeply fulfilling.

A list of books I’ve read blows away a list of books I want to read or a list of books I own, for example. Writing short reviews of the books as I complete them is a lot of fun, plus I share the list with friends so they can see the books I really liked (and the ones I didn’t). They sometimes ask questions about them, too, whereas they couldn’t care less about a list of books I’d like to read.

A collection of things you achieved is something that just feels really good every time you add to it and every time you review it.

Final Thoughts

I stick with the example of books throughout this article, but the same idea works for everything that you find yourself spending money on without using, whether it’s trading cards or journals. So often, it’s just a cheap substitute for the experience because you lament the time you no longer have for that hobby. Recognize that shift and seek to reconnect with the hobby itself and you’ll be a lot happier.

Trent Hamm
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.

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