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On The Accumulation of Stuff

I just recently had the experience of going through everything I’ve collected over a quarter century of life.

The reason for doing so was two-fold.

One was a simple requirement; my family and I were moving across the country, and we were going to do it with only one sedan sized car.

So if it wasn’t essential, we weren’t keeping it.

The second reason was a little more profound.

Around the same time that we decided to pack up and move across the country, my wife and I decided to embark on a quest for minimalism.

Now before you lose interest and write us off as hippies or extremists, hear me out; you just might have your perspective on the world changed.

I, like a lot of my fellow humans, have a penchant for buying, consuming, using, and having stuff.

I specifically have a thing for high quality stuff and I’ve been buying it for almost a decade.

Pair that with 26 years of getting gifts and other stuff from family and friends and it’s easy to see why we had so much stuff (double all of that for my wife).

Which means that we had a pretty significant pile of stuff in our home when we decided to move. Looking through all of it brought some interesting things to light and changed the way I look at, use, and now buy stuff.

You see, when it came to using all of that stuff I had collected, I found that more than 90 percent of it was used only rarely and sometimes never. The other 10 percent of stuff that I owned was used all the time. Sometimes multiple times a day.

Here are just some of the things I found in my collection that rarely or never got used:

  • 20 plus pairs of pants.
  • over 40 t-shirts.
  • 25 pairs of socks.
  • 30 pairs of underwear.
  • hundreds of pens and pencils.
  • boxes full of trinkets, wires, cables, etc.
  • 7 set of sheets for our bed.
  • hundreds and hundreds of books.

There was a lot more, but what I realized is that most of the things I had were for “just in case” or “what if” scenarios.

Then there were a lot of things that I had kept because someone had bought it for me and I never used it, but felt bad getting rid of it (I called this sentimental value).

So let me tell you about some of the realizations I came to about the accumulation of stuff and the filling of space.

  1.  If you have space, you’ll fill it with stuff.
  2. Stuff is a lot less ‘needed’ than you think.
  3. Memories are not tied to stuff, they are tied to experiences.
  4. Stuff is a slave master. The more stuff you have, the more of a slave to it you are.

Filling Space

This is something I noticed when I first moved out of a college dorm room and into my own place. Before I had my own place, all of my stuff was just the bare essentials because all I had was a 1/3 of a tiny dorm room. Before the dorm room I lived at home and my stuff was dictated by my parents.

But when I finally had my first home (it was a crappy rented place that I shared with a few roommates, but it was mine), my first impulse was that I needed stuff for my home.

So, I called my dad and had him bring me some of my furniture that I had as a child (I call it mine, but he purchased it).

He brought me my rather expensive mattress (the one thing I actually bought in high school), my dresser, my desk, and other small things that were mine.

I had the space for them now, so I wanted my stuff to fill it.

This phenomenon got more pronounced as I moved into larger places or reduced the number of roommates I had.

Then when I got married and really had a place that was mine… it got really bad.

I bought vacuums, kitchen stuff, big tv’s, desks, tables, chairs, beds, decorations, and lots of other things whose primary purpose was to fill up the space we had with what we believed to be essential and useful stuff.

I believe that my journey of stuff accumulation is probably very similar in a lot of American families.

As soon as I took the time to examine the stuff that I had and really thought about why I had it, what was really essential, and what was important to me; here is what I realized:

Most of our stuff is a result of the space we have to fill.

Let me use our last apartment as an example.

We had a living room, so we had to get couches, chairs, a sound system, a big screen tv, a lamp, pictures, and other decorations.

We had a kitchen. So we had to get a table, chairs, pots and pans, a new set of cups, silverware, cooking stuff, ice trays, a broom, and tons more.

We had a bedroom. So we had to get a bed (we had this already, but you get the idea), a desk a couple of night stands, more pictures, more lamps, hangers, and more decorations.

We had a kids bedroom (and a kid to put in it). So we had to get a toddler bed, a toy box, a dresser, some extra drawers, more pictures, and more decorations.

We had a bathroom. So we got towels, shower curtain, shelves for the shower, shelves for behind the toilet, rugs, and more.

We had carpet in the house. So we had to get a vacuum. We had hard wood floors and linoleum. So we had to get a broom and dust pan… and a steam cleaner.

Now, I know what your thinking: “But if you have a home, then that stuff is essential… seriously dude, have you ever tried to sweep a dirty floor without a broom… it totally sucks to have to lick your floors clean. Broom = necessary!”

Actually I agree. If you want a home and you want to enjoy what that home provides, then a lot of the stuff I listed is “necessary” in a sense.

 My point is simply this:

The more space you have, the more stuff you are going to find “necessary” to fill said space with.

The question that going through all of my stuff led me to ask was, “How much space do I really want?” – Notice I didn’t say “need”.

In reality we “need” very little to survive, but I’m not interested in simply surviving. I’m interested in living well.

So, when going through my stuff and deciding what I really wanted, I started asking myself what stuff I really needed to live my life well.

Which leads me to my next realization.

Stuff is a lot less “needed” than you think.

This is a tough thought process to really understand.

 If one has a floor and intends to stay healthy, then a keeping the floor clean are essential, thus making floor cleaning supplies essential.

Which brings up two questions: How much space do we really need and what stuff is less “needed” than you think?

Memories are not tied to stuff, they are tied to experiences.

Stuff is a slave master.

My new rules for stuff

With those realizations in mind, I have come up with a few rules for the stuff that takes up space in my life. It must meet one of these rules, or I don’t buy it or keep it if you buy it for me.

  1. Stuff should enable me to earn money.
  2. Stuff should enable basic life functions, like: cooking food, staying clean, keeping healthy.
  3. Stuff should enable me to gain new experiences.
  4. Stuff should be as versatile as possible.