Commentary: I Have Too Much Stuff

 

 

By Mel Mann        

I have too much stuff, I feel kind of embarrassed even saying it. I sure put a lot of energy into accumulating the stuff I have. I would suspect that most people in America do as well. This could be some natural transition from starting out in life with little or nothing at all. Our modern trend toward accumulating stuff may also be just the result of really good marketing and manipulation. Unfortunately, the more stuff I have, the less valuable any of it seems despite my unwillingness to easily let it go.

It would not surprise me to learn that the poorer people are, the more stuff they seem to have. It always amazes me how many homes in poor neighborhoods have yards filled with old cars and a variety of other things. Considering how poor the households are, the amount of stuff present seems to be almost a contradiction. Isn’t the accumulation of stuff a sign of wealth?

Stuff wasn’t always this way. Stuff used to be rare and valuable. You can still see evidence of this if you look for it. Portraits from 2-300 years ago often showed an individual or family posed in front of a table with a book or silver candle holder. These pictures were often staged to show the family with the few valued belonging they possessed. Including the valued possessions in the portrait was a means of showing their success and accumulated wealth. Owning a book or two, silver candle holders or a hand carved chair were the trappings of new wealth and needed to be bragged about and recorded for future generations to see.

Closer to our own era, if you visit a home built prior to 1920 you may notice that the bedrooms don’t have closets. In those day’s most people could fit all their stuff in a single chest of drawers and the need for additional personal storage just wasn’t needed. Even as recently as a few decades ago there was a lot less stuff. When I look back at photos from the 1970s, I’m surprised how empty houses look when contrasted to todays. The neighborhood I grew up in was mostly 1300-1400 square-foot homes with families of 2 or more kids; now many of the same families expect 1800-2400 square-feet. As a kid I had what I thought was a huge fleet of toy cars, but they’d be dwarfed by the number of toys my children and their friends had at the same age. All together my Matchbox cars and plastic models tightly packed would cover only about a third the surface of my bed. When my kids were still interested in such things it was easily 2-3 times as much.

I am confident that part of the problem is that relatively speaking, stuff has gotten a lot cheaper to purchase with the passage of time, though our attitudes toward it haven’t changed correspondingly. In retrospect, I believe we overvalue stuff.

When I was first getting started in life I had very little money. I felt poor, and having more stuff seemed important, so almost instinctively I accumulated anything that stood still long enough for me to wrap my arms around it. If friends or family chose to upgrade their living room I was quickly on the spot to take the discards. If someone moved out of town and left something behind, without hesitation I was there to snatch it up. Regardless of chipped corners and dangerously exposed springs I always rationalized it as “perfectly good”. Fortunately, I never found time to start attending swap meets or visiting garage sales.

In fact these free or nearly free things have seldom proved to be bargains, because they were worth even less than they cost. More important, some of the stuff I have accumulated, I may have honestly needed at one time, but now struggle to get rid of despite being no longer needed and arguably worth less than its disposal fee. 

What I didn’t understand until recently in life was how to determine value. Initially I believed that the value of some new acquisition was related to its retail price or what I paid for it; I have since come to realize that the way to measure value is from the value I personally derive from it. Unless you are one of those people buying things cheaply, then promptly reselling, how you extract value becomes much more a function how you get immediate use from your new acquisition. Is it sitting idly on a shelf, is it taking up space in the garage, if new: have you even unpacked it yet? 

Once you’ve accumulated a certain amount of stuff, it starts to own you rather than the other way around. I know of couple’s who have deferred retiring to the town of their choice because they could not afford a home big enough for all their stuff. Under this model, their house isn’t theirs; it belongs to their stuff. I live in southern California where many of us rationalize, “why waste a perfectly good garage on a car.” I am embarrassed to say that my garage has only sheltered a car for a few days out of the last 10 years.

Unless you’re extremely well organized, a house full of stuff can be very depressing. No, I am not one of those “hoarders” you see documented on television. Nevertheless, I have found that a cluttered room seems to sap a person’s energy and spirit. One obvious reason is that there’s less room for people in a room full of stuff. But there’s more going on than that. I am not a psychologist, but I think people are constantly scanning their environment to build a mental model of what’s around them. The more complicated a room is, the harder it is to parse and categorize; The less energy you have left for conscious or complicated thoughts. I know that a cluttered space affords me a lot more things to look at, but it is also a difficult place to focus on more intense things. Ultimately, a cluttered room can be literally exhausting. 

My experience as a parent has taught me that these same cluttered environments don’t seem to bother kids near as much as they do adults. I suspect that young children are less perceptive in this manner. They seem to spend less energy digesting their environment or surroundings; instead they are more consumed by their immediate activity and what they currently hold in their hand. 

Upon graduating high school I promptly joined the Army. I was allowed to bring very little with me and living in the barracks I was afforded very little space to accumulate things. I don’t recall ever feeling frustrated or wanting for more stuff. There is very likely a strong relationship here to the peer situation. While living in the barrack, everyone around me had the same small pile of stuff and the same limited space to store it in. I was definitely not feeling deprived or wanting with respect to my peers. Is peer comparisons and “Jonesism” a driving force?

When I got out of the Army I found the boxes of things my father had stored for me initially hard to part with, it didn’t matter that these were clothes that did not fit and things I no longer used.

Companies that sell stuff have spent huge sums of money training us to think that we cannot live without their stuff; in this model the implied necessity means it must be valuable. I am beginning to believe it would be closer to the truth to treat the stuff as worthless. Unfortunately, the people whose job is to sell us stuff are really good at it. The average 25 year old is no match for companies that have spent years figuring out how to get you to spend money on stuff. They make the experience of buying stuff so pleasant that “shopping” becomes a leisure activity.

How do you protect yourself from these people? It can’t be easy. I’m a fairly skeptical person on this subject and to a certain extent feel it is a numbers game. The manufacturers, retailers and marketers have devoted large teams of people and vast amounts of money to figuring out how to rope and wrangle us into the sale. If it is me against all of them, I don’t stand a chance. There are some things you can try. One of my common practices while in the store is to ask myself, “is this going to make my life noticeably better?” This question harkens to the difference between “nice to have” and “need to have.” You can also leave the store and “sleep on it.” If it is still seems good the next day, go back to the store. Salesmen, especially for cars and appliances hate this and will pressure you with talk about how this opportunity will not exist tomorrow. Don’t worry, they need your business and can create any deal tomorrow they could offer today. For me, the best tactic has been to give up shopping. About 10 years ago I stopped walking into or near a store unless I already knew what I wanted and had a good idea where to find it. A bargain is not really a bargain if you didn’t need it in the first place.

One of the worst flavors of stuff is those things that are rarely or never used because they are “too good to use.” “Fragile” seems to be a common theme for things in this category. A good example of this for most of us is the “good china” that so many households have. After a decade of rarely touching it, our “good china” is now in use every 4-5 weeks. Owning things only for display on a shelf on behind glass doors is too similar to the renaissance era paintings previously mentioned. 

There is also the stuff acquired or kept out of fear; Sounds strange, but think about it. Do you have something because “someday I may need it”, or “if I don’t get this now, I will never be able to get it again.” We associate fear with survival, but it is also a motivator for other behavior including acquiring or holding onto things. I wonder, for that special thing you have because “someday you may need it;” If that special day ever comes, will be you able to find it amongst all the other stuff when you actually do need it?

Maybe it is just that I am getting older, but owning things just doesn’t do as much for me anymore. My family struggles to buy me gifts because of this same challenge. I have actually started parsing down my accumulated stuff as well. I am not saying it has been easy, but when I am able to let things go the local donation centers & charities have been the main benefactors when it doesn’t actually belong in the trash. 

For American’s, we live in a consumer driven economy. Vast amounts of money and energy are spent convincing us that we need more stuff. I don’t want to openly say you are being lied to, but most of us would get along just fine with less than we currently have, maybe even better. Odds are that you only use a small percentage of the stuff you have. The rest of your stuff is consuming your time, space, energy and money.

Owning stuff can be kind of like having a cat. There is an expression: “people don’t own cats, cat’s own people.” In a similar way, after you start accumulating, it is very easy to find yourself serving the stuff rather than the stuff serving you.

How much stuff do you have?

Mel Mann currently works as a software developer as well as dappling in playing the blue grass banjo.


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