Updated on 09.17.07

Your Stuff And You: Figuring Out What You Really Value – And Eliminating The Rest

Trent Hamm

This weekend, my wife and I spent most of it at home trying out an interesting exercise. We went through everything we owned (well, not quite everything yet – we progressed from room to room) and looked at every possession we have.

Why? We’re realizing that one of the big keys to financially stable living is getting our possessions under control. Owning nice things isn’t the issue – the problem is when you own so much stuff that you can no longer keep track of all of it.

Here’s what we did.

First, we simply drug out everything in a given room so we could see it. Obviously, this was easier in some rooms than others – the guest bathroom was very easy, while the family room was much more challenging because of the quantity of stuff in there.

Then, we chucked the stuff that was obviously junk. An old stanky pair of shoes from our college years? Gone. An article of clothing that hasn’t fit me since high school (seriously, I grew four more inches after high school was over)? Gone. A big pile of beat up old paperbacks that weren’t good to begin with? Gone.

After that, we put stuff back slowly, only putting back things that had actual value to us. If we felt a strong attachment to something or if it served a clear purpose, we put it back where it went, but we had to describe that purpose in detail out loud.

Eventually, we were left with a pile of stuff in the room. This is the stuff that we’re simply getting rid of. That’s right – it’s all going. Where? Some of it is going to Goodwill, some is going to a consignment shop, other items are going to eBay or a similar service.

Obviously, this is a work in progress – we haven’t progressed through too much of the house yet. But it’s exhilirating to look around a room when it’s really been cleansed of the unnecessary stuff and realize that what’s left really has value to you.

Where do we go from here? We plan on slowly finishing the house with this process (it takes time) and then taking the financial proceeds and use it for quality home decoration that actually has meaning for us. For instance, I have a distant relative who is a professional artist who is giving us an original painting for our home, but it’s just the canvas. We’ll pay to get it framed tastefully using these proceeds.

Why do this? Whenever we open a closet or look at our shelves, there is so much stuff that we basically don’t need. In a way, the stuff becomes a psychological weight in knowing we have so much stuff, plus it makes it much easier to just get more stuff – the threshold for what it takes to get something new is so low that impulse buys rule the day.

After this is done, however, our house is empty of stuff we don’t need and don’t value. That means that when we make a new purchase, we all accept that we don’t buy stuff that we don’t need and really don’t value. It also makes house cleaning much, much easier and frees up a lot of space throughout the house.

Why not give this a try with one of the rooms where you live? What stuff do you actually need? Which items add real value to your life? Why are you keeping any of the rest of it? Even if you decide to not change a thing, it’s an interesting exercise in evaluating the stuff you have and its relationship to you.

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  1. iDave says:

    Good for you! I loved that show on TLC, “Clean Sweep,” where they would empty out the entire house and put things into “keep,” “sell,” and “donate” piles. Whatever couldn’t fit onto a tarp, they tossed or sold. I liked the idea.

    I think we all have that hoarding mentality, especially with stuff from the past. That old high school stuff? I’m dedicated a shoebox to it. Whatever won’t fit gets pitched.

  2. Elaine says:

    I just started doing this as well. I’ve started to sell off my 750+ CD collection on ebay and after that the DVDs are the next to go. I bought a 500GB portable hard drive for my music and a Netflix subscription for movies so there’s no need for me to hold on these things. Getting rid of unnecessary stuff really does lift a psychological weight off your shoulders.

  3. Aaron Stroud says:

    We followed a similar process two years ago when we moved into a RV. We got rid of a lot junk that wasn’t worth storing. Now we’re in our new house, we have plenty of space, and we only have stuff that we really use or want.

  4. Rob in Madrid says:

    Pack Rats are us :)

  5. guinness416 says:

    Hope you took photos and kept a list as you went along, for your fire insurance records!

  6. FIRE Finance says:

    Trent we feel there is a typo: Perhaps you meant “dug” instead of “drug” in the 3rd para.
    We have been doing this cleanup since last week. It feels so good to get rid of stuff and see clear space in the rooms.
    Recently we sold our entire CD collection on Amazon and donated the proceeds (around $500) to our favorite charity. Now we buy songs at 99c if we really feel that it is a must. Then we transfer it to our MP3 player.
    The less baggage we have the better it is for us. It saves our time and effort and keeps the mind light.

  7. Andrea says:

    I do that every time I move hoping to have less things to actually move (I used to move often, but hopefully not anymore).

    Even though my last move was just over a year ago, I still periodically go through my things, especially clothing, and ALWAYS find a bunch of stuff that I couldn’t let go of last time, but am able to now.

    I used to be a pack rat, but once I started downsizing things, it became almost addictive. And it’s definitely easier to keep things clean this way!

  8. Anna says:

    I just did basically the same thing because I was moving several states away and didn’t want to hire a truck. Since everything had to fit in my car, I only had room to take things that really had value to me. It made me look at all my stuff in a completely different way, and I realized how much I was holding on to that really had no value (monatary or emotional) to me.

  9. Mitch says:

    FIRE, I think he means they dragged everything out of the drawers and boxes and off the bookcases into the middle of the room, just like you’d drag someone out of bed. But if you had said it ought to have been exhilarating, I would probably agree with you.

    I’ve gotten rid of a lot of stuff over the years but the hard part for me is that I’ve got papers, some not useful but some with poem fragments and so forth that I would like to keep. All mixed together. What I started doing (before I moved) was sorting into multiple boxes–one for important filing, one for poem bits etc., another for recycling, etc. Made some progress before it all got scooped back up and carted away. I must say, though, that the health department in Pierre gets replacement birth certificates out fast, and even the postal service cooperated.

  10. Anne says:

    We do something similar, which we call “Beautiful, Useful or Emotional.” In order for an item to stay in the house, it has to be at least one of those three (exceptionally attractive, useful (and in use), or have emotional value), and ideally an item hits on two or more.

  11. Jen says:

    OK Trent, I hate to seem mean, but I think I’ve decided you’re a fraud. 2 mo ago, you bought your first house, and 2 weeks ago, you had another baby. About a year ago, you had a financial meltdown, but seem to be doing great now. However, you seem to have time to have a full time job, which you commute to, maintain a blog that you update several times a day. You profess to love cooking and being a foodie, which takes a bit of time, whenever you do it, you review a book a week, you profess to love to spend quality time with your son, and now you’re decluttering your brand new house (which shouldn’t even be fully unpacked yet) with a toddler and a newborn in the house.

    Now I work full time, and am a full time mother, and cook at home, and clean, and that’s pretty much my whole day, and I’m a very efficient person. So even if you claim to have really great time management skills, I think you could actually do about half of what you claim.

    I quit.

  12. !wanda says:

    * Trent, why didn’t you go through all your stuff before moving it all into a house? Did you really just throw all that junk into boxes and pay people to move it?

    * “Drug” is a nonstandard past tense form of “drag,” I believe.

    * I don’t think Trent is a fraud, but he must have been spending ridiculous amounts of money before his financial breakdown, relative to his income, to be able to recover so quickly just by selling off his stuff and cutting back on spending. I have a hard time imagining living that way. But, well, converts make the best zealots, and his blog still has helpful advice even if you think it’s fake.

  13. demetri says:

    Wonderful article that has articulated my goal with all of my stuff. i regularly do this and find I feel much more free. my folks were hoarders and Im very afraid of becoming like them. Their stuff very much owns them and they dont even realize it (and me pointing out that to them doesnt help- just makes them grumpy).

    Ill have to figure out how to get them to read this without getting mad at me again ;)

    You are very good at articulating the things I think. Love it. Keep up the good work.

  14. blackliquorish says:

    Part of Trent’s (or “Trent’s”) financial plan is making money from this very blog. He makes more money if he writes more, because then people visit more. If he writes an article about hamburger using poor math and even poorer reasoning, he gets lots of comments and discussion, driving up his ad revenue. So yeah, I’m sure most of the articles aren’t real in the sense of a real person really spending his weekend “drug”ging out his crap and evaluating it. He didn’t really do it, but he really did write about it. And make money from it.

  15. Rick says:

    What kind of people think Trent is a fake? If you think going through your stuff and getting rid of what you don’t need is fake, why don’t you actually try it?

    And if you think it’s impossible to get that much stuff done in a day, maybe you should learn some time management skills. It’s actually not hard at all to do everything Trent does. You just can’t waste any time doing non-productive activities. How much time do you spend watching pointless shows on TV? In the past, I’ve been able to do everything Trent does and even more. It’s not hard.

  16. frugalmomma26 says:

    I’m from Iowa … like Trent … and I’ll tell you that most of the people I know are hardworking, multi-tasking, organized individuals. We just grow-em that way, in Iowa! (People are capable of accomplishing amazing things if they really want to)!!

  17. db says:

    Getting back on topic…

    Trent, I’ve been doing this sort of decluttering for awhile. I do it in spurts. (you’ll probably find that if you redo this exercise in 6 months some of your treasured keepers today will be definate goners later).

    I am getting to the point now where I have very small little piles of stuff each time I do it (and also my place is much easier to keep tidy). Someday I’ll be 100% clutter free, but it’s still a work in progress. It’s kind of a fun hobby.


  18. brent says:

    When we moved house we pretty much only moved clutter. It’s just that, in our last house it didn’t SEEM like clutter.

    About 6 months into the new house we realised that we were drowning in junk. Sometimes when you move house you don’t end up decluttered, somehow it all just comes with you and ends up in your garage.

    On moving day my friends and family stacked all our boxes in our huge double garage. It was 6-8 months before we had that space clear again. Next thing I’m going to do is go through the stuff that we HAD to keep and chuck it all out. I haven’t touched it. I don’t even know what’s up on those top shelves anymore.

    (It’s ok, Trent, none of us think you’re a fraud. I think that miss whatsername must watch a lot more telly than you do. People who watch 3-4 hours telly a day don’t realise that there’s an extra 80 hours in every month that they could be using.)

  19. I really need to do this. I dread decluttering, but I look forward to the results. We have way too much junk…I mean stuff.

  20. MVP says:

    That’s what I did all last week in preparation for my in-laws’ garage sale. I found it easiest to break the sessions out one room at a time, and only one per day, so I didn’t get burned out. Unfortunately, while I certainly feel the “exhilaration” you expressed at cleaning out a room, my husband feels the opposite. He’s not exactly a hoarder, but he gets anxious and stressed out at the thought of getting rid of even the most benign stuff.

  21. Tori says:

    I’ve got to say something here: Trent is not a fraud. He and his wife have been friends of mine for the past . I attended their wedding. I am their son’s godmother. I don’t live in Iowa anymore, so I was e-mailed pictures of their house and daughter.

    I can attest to the fact once he and his wife set a goal, they make it happen. For example, Trent has been writing furiously because he’s had the goal of being a published author for as long as I’ve known him. Now he’s a well-known blogger.

    How else is Trent not a fraud? Shopping was our main social activity in college. I’m still paying off the credit card debt today. Trent is to be commended for truly learning from mistakes he’s made in the past.

  22. Mitch says:

    My understanding is that “drag” and “sneak” are two verbs that are actually moving from weak to strong in Am. English, with sneak farther along in the change. “Drug” is actually fairly common in speech in the Midwest (and I think also the South). So you’re just seeing the linguistic future there. (8

  23. FIRE Finance says:

    Trent is no fraud. He is one hardworking and honest person. If we go through his archives, we will see that he has set a strategy for this blog and he does his best to implement it. At anytime, he has written, that he has about a month’s worth of posts already in his stock. That will help TSD go on even if he is not able to write something on a particular day.
    Writing is his passion and he writes with a honest heart and sincerity. That touches us all. This is one of the reasons we check this blog several times a day to see what is latest at TSD.
    There is so much to learn from Trent, TSD and the way he is going about setting his finances in order.
    In fact, we might do a post on how TSD has helped us in getting organized and what we have learnt from his writings.
    We need to remove clutter not only from our houses, but also from our minds so that we can free it from bad habits which eat away our time. A clear mind has the ability to achieve much more in a very short span of time. This is one of the secrets of effective time management. To those who are not aware of it, the accomplishments of such a clear minded person might appear to be lies or fraud!

  24. John says:

    Great post. I was inspired to do a similar exercise by reading 4HWW, GTD, and Vagabonding in quick succession, only I focused on “categories” instead of rooms. I got rid of 80% of my books that I don’t read anymore and 80% of my clothes that I don’t wear anymore. Just pick a category of stuff you horde (books, clothing, CDs, video games, souvenir spoons, blogs in your RSS reader), spread it all out in front of you, and make each item fight for its life to get put back on the shelf. Even better: make the item plead for its life in a funny voice.

  25. Mariette says:

    I love purging! It feels great! I’ve done it a lot since I’ve moved so often and the wonderful thing is that each time I move I’ve noticed that I’ve accumulated less stuff – so I’m slowly getting a handle on keeping my life simple and not having too many possessions.

  26. RR says:

    I love the way Trent is so matter-of-fact about this process! As a hoarder, I get the heebie-jeebies at the thought of letting go of possessions. I have been working hard at letting go for the past year and a half, and Trent’s attitude is great–and, it’s true that your clutter is related to your financial health.

  27. Erich says:

    An article I recently read on the topic of stuff:
    I think Trent and the regulars should enjoy it. I certainly did.

  28. keri says:

    What a wonderful article! I’d be interested in hearing more about how you decide which items will be given to goodwill vs thrifted vs ebay. At what point does the value of the item become worth the extra effort to make money from it?

  29. Lisa says:

    Something I would really like to do to
    1) declutter my life (ahh the relief) and
    2) make more time for myself everyday
    is to throw out my internet bookmarks/favorites file.

    Then I would set new bookmarks/favorites for ONLY the ones I still really really like or need.

  30. Bjorn says:

    Erich, great article you linked to. All this has me motivated to ‘detach’ from my stuff and purge!

    One problem my wife and I have is the emotional attachment to things. For example, our college notebooks/folders. All that work we put into those classes, etc., hard to just throw it out. Yet, there the boxes sit.

    Any other good ‘rules of thumb’ people use on whether to toss or keep something?

  31. Sean says:

    Erich, that Paul Graham essay is awesome. His other stuff is really good too, I especially enjoyed Why Nerds Are Unpopular. On the topic of Trent’s post though, I have to recommend this free ebook that details a number of tactics for eliminating clutter and otherwise simplifying your life: http://www.december.com/simple/live/

  32. Bill says:

    I’m still stuck on the emotional stuff.

    Lots of family stuff left over from a late parent’s house – yes, I can use in our next, larger house,

    so, store it or just live with it cluttering our current house?

  33. Mitch says:

    The Discardian series is good. I have gotten rid of hundreds of books in the past couple of years, and here are some things that help me…

    1. Emotional–hard to get rid of childhood books. But if I enjoyed a book but probably won’t read it again anytime soon, I try to pass it on to someone else who might enjoy it. That way I get the happiness buzz of passing it on instead of the buzz of seeing it on the shelf and remembering that was a good year.

    2. Specialization–I tend to keep the books that are in my areas, especially if they are “harder to find.” So in my case I have more poetry than the Barnes & Noble had when I was a teenager, more undergrad/graduate math than any public library I’ve seen, a number of HCI books I can’t even get through ILL, and more calligraphy books than I’ve seen at some university libraries. But “classic novels” and other books that most every library has? I’ve been handing them down to my baby sister for reading logs and other school assignments, now that she’s started middle school.

    3. Reduce duplication–If you have several books on the same topic, fundraiser cookbooks, etc., choose the most important.

    4. Write it down, review it, Library Thing it, etc. If the book isn’t worth doing that for, then it’s not worth keeping. If you already log your reading, then you will have a record of books you enjoyed even if you don’t keep the book. Write down what you got rid of if you are worried you’ll want to remember it.

    5. Sell back most lower-level textbooks. By the time you want to refer to them again, they will be $5 used online.

    6. Ask a friend to help–either by moral support or by carting away the books you get rid of.

    7. Do it again in a few months. I consider it a form of CBT; you are changing your mindset slowly and things you weren’t ready to expunge last time will be jumping into the removal pile the next time.

    8. Books are a form of self-expression/-extension for almost everyone in my social group. It helps me to think of getting rid of books as creating a well-edited library rather than as losing a piece of myself.

  34. Mom says:

    I have noticed many more things offered free on Craigslist lately, and also on Freecycle. You could furnish an entire house easily from scratch from these two sources.

  35. Lindsay says:

    Well, I must say that I was a Pack Rat, clutter Rat, whatever! I kept everything from old notes I was passed in high school to movie ticket stubs on dates. I had it all… clothes that I wanted to get back into, plastic horses from elementary (Ebay money!), rocks from the ocean, everything!

    I joined the Army 4 years ago and endured the hardest thing I thought I couldn’t do: not boot camp, but live without my stuff for 3 years.

    After I returned home to California, I went through all of my old boxes that had been stored in the guest room at my mother’s house. I thought for sure I was going to find all of the goodies I had to packup before. Instead, I had 3 garbage bags of trash, 4 bags of clothes that no longer fit, pictures that were bent and torn on the corners, barbies that I odviously didn’t use, shot glasses that were more oakie than anything else, and so much more.

    The only thing of value that I ended up keeping was a bottle of Parducci wine that came from my Uncle’s winery. I only kept it to drink to the celebration of the “freeness” I felt by liberating myself of all of the stuff. It’s amazing how much you really only need; shoes, clothes, food, and shelter.

    Now, married with a husband and a one year old daughter, I find it hard to keep the clutter down; not because of me, but because the Army did not do the same for my husband, whose dirty camo pants always end up on the floor, but I make a way of getting every room the way I wanted it, and I’ve limited myself to one junk drawer in the kitchen and one in the bedroom for all of my husband’s stuff that he “has to keep.”

    I will never be cluttered as long as it is up to me! Thank you Drill Sergeants!

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