How Much Stuff Do You Really Need?


Image courtesy of Protopian pickle Jar


USA Today and The New York Times (among many others) have published articles about the Baby Boomer generation starting to pass down treasured heirlooms to their GenX and Millennial children.  Unfortunately, those trinkets and other items are being looked upon with some disdain.

We don’t want them.

We don’t value these items the same way our parents did or their parent’s generation did.

Screws, Bolts, and Bent Nails, Oh My

A few years back, I bought a duplex from a gentleman that was in his early 80s.  The duplex was a two-level building with a full basement.  In the basement was the boiler for the radiator system that serviced the two apartments.  It was also the laundry room for the building.

George (not his real name) would spend a couple hours every week puttering around the building.  He had owned the property for over fifty years.

After I purchased the building, I spent several days cleaning out the basement of various bits and pieces that were collected through the years.  There were the odd screws and nuts that were kept, never to be used for anything.  There were also bent nails that were kept in a container.  What the heck would someone reuse those for?  Old scraps of dirty cloth were tucked into various locations as if he always had a handy rag at the ready.  Unfortunately, after so many years they weren’t clean nor handy any more.  There were also old scraps of wood and flooring, along with more than a dozen paint cans that were filled with no paint at all.

To me, this stuff was all clutter at best and garbage at the worst.  For George, though, it meant something.  I’m sure he thought he was being thrifty.

I’m not sure if he remembered the Great Depression, but I’m sure his parents raised him with the fear of another, so it was ingrained into him as a child.

I wasn’t raised in the Depression and neither were my parents.  I dislike clutter and don’t keep any assorted odds and ends like George.  While I do have a garage, it’s clean and tidy.  My bin of screws and nails are separated according to type and size.  Old, used or bent fasteners are tossed quickly.  Empty paint cans are removed.  If I want to store some “thing” in the garage, there better be a good reason and a short-time span.  Otherwise, it’s being relocated to Goodwill or the trash. 

We don’t need stuff we’re not using.

Are We Throwing Away Stuff We Should Keep?

A few years ago, a local vacuum supply company decided they wanted to expand into another part of town.  They were a small operation with a long-term history.  They had a nice business and figured it was time to grow.

They opened a second location and, unfortunately, no one came.

I asked the owner why it happened.

Their business sold very high-quality vacuums, such as Meile.  These brands can run upwards of $300 apiece.  He said his customer base is very small for this quality of product which he understood.  However, he can service just about any vacuum.  The problem is that when a customer can purchase a vacuum at Walmart or Target for $50.00, there’s no need to bring it in for a repair.  People just throw it away and buy a new one.

I thought about that for a moment and realized I had in fact thrown away items that could have been repaired, but instead chose to buy a new one.  The cost might have been close to the same, but the impact on the environment was radically different.  One was now in a landfill somewhere.

Your Stuff Is S#!t

One of my favorite comedians of all time, the late George Carlin, had a great bit on your stuff and my stuff.  Basically, your stuff is s#!t and my s#!t is stuff.  My takeaway from that bit is that at the end of the day … it’s all s#!t.

We cram our houses with stuff until it overflows into our garage, thereby pushing our cars out onto the street.  How many houses do you see in your neighborhood where cars are parked in the driveway or on the street because the garage is so full of stuff?  If my neighborhood is like yours, I’d say it’s more than 75%.  (That’s a strictly unofficial guess, by the way)

When there is no more room in the garage, we get a storage unit, so we keep stuff in there “temporarily.”  I love that idea.  That’s a booming industry for temporary storage.

I once heard that my city was ranked very high in the nation for temporary storage.  I’ve tried to verify that claim for this article and couldn’t find any decent source of tracking.  Regardless, we have these storage units through-out the county.  They are everywhere and more are being proposed.

I love commercial real estate but have always thought of storage units as a blight upon our communities.  They aren’t providing anything except a home for our stuff.

A retail strip center allows people to come and shop for products they need (or want).

An office building provides a place for folks to come and work.

An industrial building creates a place for things to be created or processed.

A storage unit allows you to deposit your extra s#!t in a 10’ x 10’ square so that you have extra room in your house so that you can go buy more s#!t.  Nothing happens at a storage unit except for stuff sitting around until someone realizes how stupid they’ve been to pay for a storage unit.

As a caveat, I don’t blame the owner of the storage unit complex.  Hey, if some ding-dong out there wants to pay you money to store his s#!t, then by all means, provide that man with a place to do it.  That’s capitalism.  But if consumers would wake up, by a little less crap, we wouldn’t need so many storage units, now would we?

There are Shows About Stuff

There are (or were) shows about helping people clean up their stuff.  Some of them dealt with personality disorders while some of the shows dealt with plain ol’ disorganization. 

Hoarders (A&E), Clean House (The Style Network), Clean Sweep (TLC), Mission Organization (HGTV), and Neat (Discovery) are some of the shows that made it to the airwaves.  Hoarders has had the longest run (since 2009), but I’m sure there are others I missed.

Seriously, we watched other people battle stuff while many of us had our own stuff to battle.   We can’t get enough stuff that we’re actually watching shows about other people’s s#!t.

Are You Catering to Your Stuff?

Have you ever been to an elderly person’s house where there are knickknacks and tchotchkes scattered throughout the living room?  They are on display, hoping visitors will take time and effort to examine them and as the host questions.

The owners of those priceless little nothings must dust them every now-and-then or they look dirty after a time.  They also need to pick each one up occasionally and wipe down the counter they sit on.  Think how many times those little knickknacks are getting touched just to keep them clean.

I used to have a room full of comic books and toys (I told the story in – I Was Broke Because I Wanted to Be.)  Man, I wish I still had a picture of that room.  I would be ashamed, and you would be entertained.  I had toys displayed everywhere.  They hung on the wall and on shelves.  I had some models that were displayed proudly.  It wasn’t a man-cave.  It was a man-child-cave.

Every couple of weeks, I dusted and cleaned that room.  The toys and their packages had to look clean.  I was proud (ugh!) of those toys and wanted any visitors to my man-cave to check them out in awe.  I’m sure people were in awe, all right.  The were in awe of my stupidity of buying so much childish stuff.

Regardless, I was maintaining it.  I spent my time, taking care of stuff (s#!t) when I could have been doing things that were more productive.  Just walking outside in the sun would have been more valuable than dusting a mint-in-the box Partridge Family die cast bus (it’s painful to type that last sentence).

Are you maintaining stuff or is your stuff maintaining you?

What’s the Answer?

I think we all need to get back to really looking at things as needs and wants.

You know a need is basically food (including water), clothing and shelter.  And when I say basically, I mean basic.  Just because you can afford a 10,000 SF house, doesn’t mean you should buy a 10,000 SF house when a 2,500 SF house would do.

Wants are everything else.

I’m not saying we need to look at life as financial prudes, but rather stuff-aphobics.  Especially when the market is so good, it’s hard to reel ourselves back in and take a breath.  Do we really need to be buying everything our hearts desire?

Maybe you’ve come up with a rule of not bringing a new item in unless an old item goes out.  However, to do that we’re thinking about stuff again.  We’re giving stuff too much mental space.  That just seems wrong doesn’t it?

I’m not saying to have nice things or just things in general.  You can do what you want, right?

But maybe we all need to take a breather every now and then and remember, our stuff is s#!t to everyone else.  If that's the case, why are we in such a hurry to spend our money on it?