Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Stuff - Part 2


In my previous post I touched on the following points:

1)  We ALL have more stuff than we NEED.

2)  Most of us were not raised by parents who had any idea a) how easily stuff was going to be acquired, b) how quickly technology was going to change, c) how shopping would become a MAIN SOURCE of ENTERTAINMENT for people, and d) how easy credit was going to transform our reality and our perception of NEED.  Therefore, very few of us were raised with the skills we'd need to manage the onslaught of stuff, the consumer-driven economy, and the overwhelming pressure to acquire we all face.  (To those of you who were raised to resist, go hug your parents.)

3) Acquiring things feels good, at first.

So, where does that leave us?  What is the point of all this?

Well, let me take a step backwards for a minute and tell you why I'm thinking about this at all.  I recently had the opportunity to help out some friends who were in the process of moving.  They really needed help packing, so some of us got together to help.

Packing someone else's stuff is really quite interesting, because you have absolutely no emotional attachment to the stuff you're packing.  Instead, you consider each and every item based on its intrinsic value, not some emotional value assigned to the item.  My friends had a lot of stuff to be packed.  Seriously.  A lot of stuff.  Frankly, I found it overwhelming when I paused to see just how much stuff we were talking about.  (Don't worry, they know I feel this way...I told them.)  Here is the thing:  They were overwhelmed by their stuff, too.

So, as I was packing (and packing and packing), I started thinking about my own life, my friends, our society and our relationship to our stuff.   I thought about the causes of our consumption (above) and then I thought about the end result of acquiring all this stuff.

The causes might be interesting, but the end result of having all this stuff is what we're dealing with.  Seriously.  I'm not a big believer in wallowing in the past trying to come to the roots of a problem.  I think you can get lost in the past instead of ever fixing the present.  Look back a little, say "hmmm" and move right along.

So, the problem:  Too much stuff.  The symptoms:

Anxiety:  How am I supposed to take care of this stuff?  Store this stuff?  Pay for this stuff?

Guilt:  I don't even like this stuff, but it was a gift.  I don't even want this stuff, but X does and doesn't want to let it go.  I paid X for this stuff, so I have to keep it.  I haven't even paid off this stuff, so how can I possibly get rid of it?

Shame:  What if someone sees how much stuff I have?  What if someone knows how I can't manage the stuff I have?  What if someone becomes aware of the debt I incurred to get this stuff?
 (For a little bit of transparency, I confess to being in the "debt for stuff" group.  I tend not to have too much stuff, but I have not always paid for my stuff wisely.)

If you're a repeat offender, like I am, what you really need is a new way of thinking about stuff.  A new way of understanding the stuff you bring into your house and the stuff you keep in your house.  But what?  How to change the way you think about stuff, acquire stuff, and manage stuff?

What we really need is a new way of owning our actions.  Shame, Guilt, and Anxiety are passive ways of thinking/feeling.  As if we're victims of circumstance, victims of our stuff, if you will, rather than co-conspirators.  Make no mistake.  We did this to ourselves regardless of the outside forces encouraging us and we have the ultimate responsibility for resolving the situation. 

What we need to do is change the manner in which we acquire things.  All things.  Big things.  Little things.  We need to have a way of being deliberate as we acquire stuff.  Notice I'm not telling you not get stuff.  Life changes, your needs change, you'll need stuff.  Instead, I'm telling you we need to be deliberate about how stuff enters our homes.   We need to think it through.  But how?  Everyone has different circumstances, different wants and needs, and different thresholds for "clutter" (mine, I can tell you, is very low; my sister says hers, in contrast, is very high).

Whatever we do has to be simple and universal.  It has to be quick, too.  It has to be something you can do wherever you are, whether you're shopping at Target, Nordstrom, Wal-Mart, online, at a garage-sale, or face-to-face with some well-meaning friend or relative trying to gift you with something.

As I was thinking about this, I thought of getting pets.  How often we say decline to accept pets, even free pets!  And I got it...

What if every single time you think of buying something, accepting something, of keeping something you already own, you acted as if that something were alive, like a pet? Living things need obvious care and maintenance, but so do possessions.  At minimum they need to be stored and cleaned.  They need a specific home.  Each and every item you bring into your home requires a home and maintenance and some will even require "feeding" (ie., ancillary equipment or materials to keep them running).  Given these realities, what if you asked yourself these questions every time you consider adding stuff to your household?:

1)  Where will this stuff  live? Think about it for a second.  If you buy that cute little end table because it is such a deal or it is just so beautiful, where EXACTLY will you put it?  If you buy that absolutely sublime sweater, will it fit in your sweater drawer?  If your brother and sister want you to take Aunt Edna's china, where will you put it?

2)  What is involved in caring for this new item?  Is it going to need "feeding", special arrangements, a combination of things, just to keep it minimally functional? When Superman and I bought this house, it came with a hot tub and an above-ground pool.  Superman was thrilled.  So, was I, at first.  Then came the maintenance:  filters, heaters, chemicals, water testing, covers (oh, and let's not mention gas bills).  With our really hard water, it was pretty much impossible to keep our water stable.  We were constantly having to test the water and even the pool people were struggling to help us keep it clear and clean.  It was a LOT of work.

3)  Will you be glad to put energy into care for this stuff?  Remember, you'll be spending time caring for this item instead of other items.  Back to my pool/hot tub example.  We worked our butts off to keep the pool clear and the hot tub clear.  All this for a swimming season that barely last three months.   I quickly determined I hated the pool.  I wasn't grateful for it.  I resented the time, energy, and money it took to keep it up.  The hot tub?  I didn't hate it, but I didn't like it.  I resented the time, energy, and money it took to keep up, but not as much, at first.

Can you imagine if you asked yourself these three questions every time you bought something?    Think about it.  I know it sounds weird, but seriously.  When your child (or your spouse) says, Oh, please, can we have a kitten, puppy, rabbit, or whatever? do you just say sure, throw it in the cart?  Of course not.  You are very clearly able to stop and think about the responsibility for caring for the animal that would be introduced into your home.  You make a determination as to whether or not you can care for said living thing and, the vast majority of times, you decline to bring a new pet into your home.  Yet, when it comes to more stuff, we don't stop to think of the maintenance involved in adding more stuff to our homes.

And we should.

Every item we bring into our homes should be deliberate.  It would make our lives so much richer, because we would have clearly chosen, not just impulsively accepted the stuff in our lives. 
Are you consciously accepting the work that bringing MORE into your house will require?

Just because something is a good deal, doesn't mean it has a place in your home.  Just because something looks really handy, doesn't mean it will work well in your life.  Cute isn't very cute when it is covered with dust or in the back of a closet.  Just because you already have something, doesn't mean you need to keep it. 

As for Superman and me?   We realized we felt burdened by the pool and I realized we were burdened by the hot tub.  We sold the pool and six months later we sold the hot tub.  Superman agreed immediately to me selling the pool and, after more persuasion, grudgingly said if I found a buyer for the hot tub, he'd agree to it leaving, too.  Well, I did (oh, please, did he really think I wouldn't?).  And you know what?  The second that hot tub left was loaded onto the buyers trailer, he felt a sense of relief that was so strong, he was amazed.  He didn't realize how much pressure he was feeling to maintain that thing.  (Oh, and we're chipping away at our debt and not incurring any more debt...finally learning life lessons that have vexed us for years.)

(To be continued...Part 3 - the emotional baggage associated with our stuff.)


Anonymous said...

Haven't gone through all this several years ago, I now know how you feel. I don't buy much stuff these days. I go in, get what we need, and back out. Wish I could teach my mother the same principals because she will mega buy, then purge perfectly good things when they overwhelm her and at this stage in life, she needs financial security more than she needs gadgets. Yesterday I was looking at clearance stickers .75 for 8 stickers. I wonder how many people in today's economy are living hand to mouth, yet have packs of those stickers on the floor of their kids rooms. I've really cut back on our spending. We are debt free, and are trying to get two kids through college that same way. Yes, it is stressful and I am not sure we will make it the entire four years, but at least they are learning the basic principals of working hard, saving money and spending it on things that matter and not on frivolous things like McDonald's toys. Hopefully, someday when they start their families, they will not join the buy till we die generation.

Alicia said...

I used to be sentimental, but I hate clutter now. And I also learned a good tip from a friend. If she does buy something new, she then will also get rid of something too!

Nancy Jacobs Basketmaster said...

What a great series you are posting. I was raised with parents who went through the depression and we ALWAYS kept things for a rainy day. My parents are in their 80's and are wanting to downsize. Mom wants me to have this and that because she has emotional attachments to items. I don't have the same emotional attachments, but I can't tell her no and not accept the items either. I completely understand about the whole maintenance of things. Vehicles need tons of maintenance. Look forward to reading part 3.

pam said...

Erin, What a thought provoking and inspiring essay on the "stuff" in our lives.

From one who was raised by parents and grand parents who survived the depression and has lived into the "super consumer" era, you words are wise and welcome and true.

Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Nancy, My mom wanted to do that too when she was downsizing. I told her I would not store her stuff. She could keep things that had meaning and by that I meant, things she was willing to show me she cherished by not storing them on the floor. The rest she needed to get rid of. If you love something, give it a nice home, in a curio cabinet, in a nice frame, etc. If you don't love it enough to house it well, get rid of it. Attics are not places for treasures, neither are basements. Granted we do have to store some things we use only occasionally like Christmas there, but if you truly love something, make a place for it. Otherwise, give it to someone who will. Once Mom realized I wasn't going to become her Ustoreit place, she found other homes. I did take the family photos, her cuckoo clocks and some pictures I wanted from childhood that had meaning to me. They are all prominently displayed in my home and she can enjoy them when she visits. I do not miss the dishes she inherited from my aunt who bought them on sale at the Dollar store and melted several on the stove over the years. Granted they may have some sentimental value, but not enough to crowd out the new memories I am making with my family. I kept a few plates that were my great grand mothers. They are on display in my kitchen. I was able to make a home for them and enjoy them so I kept them. Otherwise I have lots of cousins with empty attics.