The thought of introducing myself to potential new clients by leaving a business card on their door was something I smacked down almost as soon as it entered my mind. As obvious as these homes are to me, it’s equally obvious that their inhabitants would be horrified that anyone could guess how they live from the street. The entire point of hoarding is emotional insulation, to create a barrier that blocks this secret world from the outside.
Doesn’t work, though. Like it or not, we’re stuck participating in this world. People can see us. Worse yet, they’d help us if we’d let them in.
That would be defeating the purpose, because isolation is the purpose as well as the cause.
What is it that I can see from the street? What makes “one of mine” stand out?
The windows are always covered, even on the brightest summer day. Curtains, blinds, sheets, blankets, cardboard, car window shades, even a sheet of plywood in one case. You can tell that it’s been this way for a long time because often objects are visible, either between the covers and the glass, or pressing the curtains into weird shapes. DON’T LOOK IN.
The front door is obscured in some way. Maybe there are a bunch of boxes stacked out there, or bags of recycling, or dead potted plants. Anything that might have said, “Welcome Friend” is noticeable in its absence. DON’T COME INSIDE.
Usually there’s a large amount of visible clutter outside. You can see it in the side yard, or poking over the back fence, or strewn in the yard or driveway. We used to have a neighbor across the street who kept dozens of rubber storage tubs stacked up in front of the garage door. When this happens outside an American-standard suburban ranch house, it says one or both of two things. 1. The inside of the house is already full and/or 2. Nobody is helping to take care of things here. DON’T OFFER.
Of course I’ve been allowed inside dozens of cluttered homes in the course of my work. I’ve worked with extreme hoarding and squalor. What you see on the hoarding shows on TV? That’s about five times more common than I think people realize. There are also a LOT of people living with a level of clutter not too far above that point. Sure, a lot of my people are overwhelmed by chronic disorganization, and they can quickly “get organized” once they’re taught what to do. I think the majority are having more trouble managing their emotions than they are their stuff.
The Anger House is the most common. This is what happens when nobody has ever worked out the power dynamics of who does what. People snap at each other every day. Who ate it? Who left it there? Who took it? Where is it? Whose turn is it? The kitchen looks like a bomb hit it because the thought of washing everyone else’s dishes touches off a radioactive cloud of resentment, grudges, quarrels, and previous fights. Doing laundry or cleaning the bathroom are battle-worthy premises, usually not worth the effort. In the Anger House, someone is often shouting first thing in the morning, before work or school have even started. Every single task is politically charged; you can’t pick up a sock without making some kind of statement.
The Sorrow House is usually a scene of mourning. Hoarding is almost always triggered by a death in the family, and sometimes a series. If there are grief boxes of the possessions of the departed, that will virtually always touch it off. The first time I saw this in action, the adult daughter had filled her entire living room, dining room, and kitchen four feet high with boxes of her deceased parents’ housewares. There was a narrow path from room to room, and she had saved herself one of three sofa cushions. (The other two? Boxes!). She would come home, weave through the box barricade, and nestle into that one available soft spot, where she had sat for several years. I can’t help but think of how deeply saddened her parents would have been, to think that this was the life she chose. Parents like to think our kids will do better than we did, that they’ll have better lives than ours, and certainly we want our kids to go on to live many happy years after we leave this world. It’s a conversation we should be having while all parties are still among the living. Our culture’s distinct lack of burial rites and formal mourning rituals leads us to these bizarre, unhelpful states of limbo. For lack of a cenotaph, we’ll pay thousands of dollars for storage units we’ll never visit, so we never have to face the sorrow of throwing away our parents’ old pot holders and dish towels.
A Sorrow House is often the result of a restructured family. Maybe divorce or separation, maybe an empty nest from whence the grown children have flown. Living alone and rattling around a big old empty house? It IS sad! I just really wish more people would shrug it off and choose to live like the Golden Girls, finding a way to be relatively cheerful with roommates rather than lonely with a television.
Maybe I should use the term ‘anxiety’ instead, but maybe it’s helpful to call things by their names and label the Fear House for what it is. Because a Fear House doesn’t feel scary to the occupant, it feels safe. In the Fear House, it just feels safer not to venture outside to take out the trash right now, or return those purchases, or run those errands. In the Fear House, there are always a million and five reasons to delay going out the door and just stay home a few more minutes. It always feels better to do the coping mechanism than to do anything else.
I teach that we should evaluate our homes by the use we get out of the space. Home should feel welcoming, a place of peace, warmth, safety, and hospitality. Kitchens for cooking, dining tables for meals, beds for sleeping, desks for creative projects. We can also go through and evaluate what emotions rise up in different areas. What parts of the home are evidence of unresolved power struggles? Unprocessed grief? Loneliness? Anxiety, stress, or boredom? What would it look and feel like if it were instead to be a happy, cheerful, joyous home?
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
A moment of truth is a realization, an epiphany, a moment of clarity. In business and marketing, it’s the moment the customer decides to make a purchase. I like to think there’s more to life than deciding to buy things, but maybe that’s just me. In some situations, all we need is one moment of truth. With others, it takes several. Sometimes, maybe no amount of information is enough to get us to change what we’re doing.
Example: When I’m giving myself a paper cut, and all I can seem to do is to watch it happen in slow motion rather than drop the paper
What are some common moments of truth?
Realizing these leftovers are past the point of no return
Looking at the clock and realizing you’re going to be late
Not being able to button those pants
The thing about clutter is that it’s not a single object. Generally, any one thing has its reasons for being there. There’s a long list of reasons to keep every single thing, or explanations for how it got to be where it is. It’s hard to single out particular items from a cluttered space and eject them. How do you know what to pick? This is why clutter tends to lead to multiple moments of truth.
One of the reasons that it’s so common to clean up a space and then clutter it up again is that each of these steps needs more examination and introspection. If all we do is Step 4 and Step 8, we’re not pausing to consider why the space got this way.
Sorting clutter is a “bottom up” process. That means we’re starting with what’s already there and trying to impose order on it. The “top down” way to do it is to start with the function and appearance of the space, what needs to be there, and then remove everything that doesn’t work. Most American homes could shed half the stuff from every room. My people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators, can usually get rid of 80% or more.
Sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, eat at the table, sit on the couch, work at the desk, go places on time, find everything on demand.
Or, if you’re one of mine: share your bed with laundry, books, papers, and food packaging; cook nowhere and never; pile the table with food, dishes, and shopping bags; bury the couch under a pile of laundry; which desk?; be late everywhere; search for stuff endlessly.
The longer I do this work, the harder it is for me to understand why so many people prioritize inanimate objects over and above their quality of life. They’ll shed genuine, bitter tears over a cracked figurine or a keepsake with water damage. But they don’t even seem to notice how cramped they are in their own homes, how their stuff interferes with their daily routine.
There are other realizations that can happen, moments of truth that allow for a new perspective:
The biggest problem with both procrastination and getting organized is knowing where to start. This is because knowing there’s a system is not the same as understanding and using a system. People who think of themselves as procrastinators or as disorganized have a strong suspicion that life is easier for other people. They’re right, too. One of the main reasons is the awareness of a system, and another is a bias toward action. Just get started! Getting started when you don’t feel like you really even know how to get started can happen when you learn to spot the no-brainer.
What is one thing you can do right now?
What’s a tiny piece that’s so small, you’re sure you can do it in just a minute or two?
What’s so obvious that it doesn’t even feel like you actually did anything?
What is so simple that you don’t even need to explain it or describe it?
A no-brainer is simple, obvious, and easy. Sometimes there are a bunch of no-brainers, and sometimes maybe there’s only one. It doesn’t matter. The secret is that finishing one step makes other steps more obvious.
What is simple and obvious to one person is not necessarily simple or obvious to someone else. For instance, it’s easy for me to know how to eat a burrito because I grew up eating burritos. It’s not so simple or easy for me to WRAP a burrito, though! There’s a trick to it. I always wind up putting in too much stuff, and then it starts to unwrap and everything starts to drip out of the bottom. I know I could learn to do this if I wanted to. I could watch a YouTube video and practice it a bunch of times.
Everything is on YouTube. I’ve used YouTube videos to help me figure out how to wrap my headphone cords, clean a shower door track, open a pomegranate, and fold fitted sheets.
“Getting organized” and “procrastinating” are different, though. That’s for two reasons. One, neither of them has a specific, objective definition and each person’s organization or procrastination problem is different. Two, almost everything written about these topics was developed by people who are very well organized or highly productive. What works for them may not work at the novice, disorganized level.
Where videos or tutorials come in is when there’s a specific task or skill to be learned. Maybe I can’t learn how to “be organized,” but I can look at a bunch of pictures of organized refrigerators or read an article on how to set up a filing system. I take it one piece at a time. Each part of my life and my personal environment that I “organize” makes it easier to figure out the next part.
I believe that procrastination comes from not knowing how to go about doing something, not liking it, feeling pressured by external expectations, and not knowing about mood management. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do something if I hate doing it and I’m rebelling against it. It doesn’t matter if I know how to do it, if I don’t know how to make myself do it. If I know how to fight my procrastinating types of moods, though, I can push through and learn how to do the specific small tasks involved.
How do I write an outline? How do I make a mind map? How do I create and name files? How do I write an effective email header? What format should this report be in? How do smart, competent people effectively admit that they’re still learning how to do something?
Start by writing out a list of everything you don’t know, everything you don’t know how to do. Why are you stuck? Give it a name. This is how you figure out where to start. Which question seems the hardest or the most embarrassing? Okay, tackle that one last.
Procrastination and disorganization usually tend to go together. What’s funny about this is that the feeling of procrastinating on a deadline is sometimes the only thing that can motivate someone to tackle minor cleaning and organizing tasks. I didn’t want to do my ironing until it was time to clean the oven. I didn’t want to clean the oven until it was time to do my taxes. I didn’t want to do my taxes until it was time to work on my book proposal.
What happens in the case of the procrastination bustle is that we realize we are surrounded by no-brainer tasks and chores. We feel intuitively that once we’ve cleared the slate, we can retrieve some of our mental bandwidth. Once something is done, we get to stop thinking about it. It’s a puzzle that we’ve solved. We can look around and see that it’s done. This is done, that is done, this is done, that other thing is done. The more we get into the habit of doing the obvious, the more types of things eventually become no-brainers. Sort the mail. Put away the groceries. Hang up the coats. File the papers. Write the outlines. Submit the proposals.
Every day, we do obvious no-brainer activities that were once too hard for us. Eating with a fork! Putting our shoes on the correct feet! Memorizing our phone number! Finding a parking spot! Buying groceries! Paying bills! We build skills as we grow older and more experienced. We get more done as we realize that it’s faster and easier to do it right away, rather than stewing over it.
Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get moving. It’s a way to feel smarter and more accomplished. It’s a way to get ready and build momentum. Spotting the no-brainer is a way to get started and, eventually, a way to be finished.
This is a story about desire, willpower, and self-control, although I’m pretty sure none of those words appear anywhere in the book. Cait Flanders has written a brave yet quietly modest account of her personal battle with addictive urges. While The Year of Less is an outstanding work about minimalism and financial independence, these are almost tangential to the struggle for self-mastery. Flanders makes a strong case that if she can do it, anyone can.
The Year of Less shows what happens when someone develops a bias toward action and plunges into something. Flanders sets a challenge that she won’t shop for a year, except for a few predetermined categories such as food. This is a process goal, rather than an outcome goal. Part of the magic of process goals is that it’s really hard to predict what will come of them, what will happen when we actually stick to the plan. Almost always, it far exceeds the original expectations. That certainly happens here. There’s something of a surprise ending.
There’s also a surprise middle. Flanders is partway through her experiment when she is poleaxed by some major family drama. She shares her anguish, and how it sends her into an emotional tailspin. It’s very impressive that she managed to stay on track with her project, and it’s also helpful to see how she did it, being honest and accepting support from some trusted friends. There’s also the deep hook of that public commitment to write about her progress on her blog, a commitment that eventually led to the publication of the book.
The insights that come from a long-term project of this nature tend to be of a different quality than the occasional sudden epiphany. Flanders realizes that she’s never thought of herself as a spendthrift because she’s not a fashion victim. Yet she’s able to cut expenses and earn enough from selling off her extra, unneeded purchases to fund a replacement bed. She winds up getting rid of about 80% of her stuff and saving $17,000 on a fairly modest income. Where was it all going in the years before? Living a default, everyday lifestyle probably never would have provided the answers.
An inside-out version of this book could be imagined, a version in which Flanders emphasizes the results of her Year of Less, with a few footnotes about the emotional component. There are dozens of books of this type already, training manuals for the DIY crowd. This book is special because it’s so personal. It’s about learning to face difficult circumstances and dwell in difficult feelings. With this, a handbook for emotional resilience, you could do anything.
Nostalgia is a mystery to me. What’s so great about the past? I say this while waving my history degree over my head. There is no past era that I’d prefer to live in. There is no time, not even the 2000s, that I’d prefer to today. Throwback Thursday is wasted on me; I liked the music of the 1980s but not much else. From my perspective, every year that I’ve lived has involved more innovation, more books and music and movies, and better-quality food. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve benefited from getting my head straight and being less susceptible to emotional drama. I have more skills and I’m a better cook. These things are also true about my family and friends. Life is harder in most ways when you’re young. The future seems like an extremely exciting place to me and I can’t wait to see it unfold. This is a basic optimism that is the key to a happier life.
Optimism is a learned trait.
What is there to look forward to? Don’t you read the news? Oh, it’s awful, it’s awful.
I agree, there is all sorts of truly terrible stuff in the news every day. There always has been, because it’s much simpler to tell stories about terrible events day by day. The photographs are much more dramatic. How do you tell a story about the decline in extreme poverty with a photo? Take a picture of an ordinary, well-fed child who is studying in a classroom? How do you tell a story about the incredible decline in casualties from war? Take a picture of an ordinary town where people are working at their jobs?
That’s the thing about having a degree in history. I know too much. Our chances of dying from almost everything were much higher at any point in the past. Most people, statistically, would have died as infants. Epidemic disease, lack of sanitation, malnutrition, constant warfare, sieges, an extremely high murder rate, brigands, even attacks by various wild animals. We can only possibly feel glum about the present day if we try to compare our conditions with some imagined glory days from the twentieth century.
I grew up in a tenement apartment and I still had a lot of things that the Emperor Charlemagne did not have, that he could not buy at any price. Central heat. Ice cubes on demand. Legible penmanship. A public library and a fire department. Paved sidewalks. Electricity, including lightbulbs, a stove, and a refrigerator. Potable water flowing out of the faucet. A telephone and a television. My mattress and pillow undoubtedly kicked butt over his. Granted, I didn’t feel anywhere near as grateful for these modern comforts as Charlemagne would have. That’s because historical progress is driven by envy and dissatisfaction.
I say this is great. There’s no reason to envy someone if you can study what they’re doing and imitate it. This is obvious if you have a growth mindset! Assume that the envied person had to acquire that trait somehow. Also, you have to envy the complete package, not one thing in isolation. That means you can’t envy a celebrity without including the paparazzi and the haters. You can’t envy any individual person without including their entire personal history, their relationships, and their behaviors. Maybe their fitness level, financial success, or emotional intelligence would come easier to you than it did for them. Observing someone else means you can skip anything they tried that didn’t work. Let envy make you a better person.
We seem to be allergic to thinking about the future. Research shows that we think of our own future selves in the same way we think about total strangers. I think a lot of us are mean to Future Us. We set ourselves up in ways we wouldn’t treat our worst enemies. Hey, Future Me! Have fun trying to survive on the tiny fixed income I’m sending you. I hope you enjoy paying off our debts. Oh, and good luck burning off this slab of cake I’m eating. Maybe you can get rid of some of those calories while you clean out this garage I’m piling with stuff. And by the way, wash my dishes.
The most commonly procrastinated goals are planning for the future and dealing with health issues. In both cases, it would be easy for us if we realized that Future Me is the same person as Today Me.
Unfortunately, most of us are captivated by Past Self. We just see ourselves as cuter when we were younger. We think we had more fun and that life was better. We don’t like looking forward, because it seems depressing, but when we do, we’re oppressed by the idea that we “should” be planning, saving money, eating better, and being more active. Walking backward, facing the past, we’re going to bump into the future and feel it as a frustrating obstacle.
This is part of why people hang on to clutter. We haven’t spent any time thinking about what we’ll want or need just a few years into the future. We have this anxious sense of What If, while never spending any time gaming it out. Get specific about those What Ifs and plan around them! What If I turn into a bag lady? Well, what would need to happen to avoid that sad destiny? (Build relationships, build career skills, learn about financial planning, save money). What If my house burns down? (Get insurance, test your smoke detectors, make an emergency response plan). What If I need this later? Well, that decision is up to you. You’re creating your response to your stuff and your home. You’re creating your response to your money. You’re creating your response to food and to how it feels to live in your body. You’re creating your friendships and conversations. What your personal future looks like depends almost entirely on how you think and what you do about it, today.
The future is an opportunity. Even an hour from now: later today is the future! There’s always still time to call someone and say the things you haven’t said, like “I miss you” and “I’m sorry” and “I love you.” There’s always still time to learn new things, to travel, to try new foods and dance to new music. There’s always still time to try to be a better person, a better listener, more patient and forgiving. There’s even time to clean out the garage. Pick any single goal or any single square foot in your personal space, and do something today that will make it more awesome for Tomorrow You. The future can be whatever you wish it to be.
The thing about little stuff is that it adds up. There are three occasions when this becomes clear:
The really insidious small stuff is the stuff we keep stored inside drawers, cabinets, cupboards, and containers. We don’t think about it because it’s hidden from view. It’s not until we have to take it all out, one by one, that we start to realize how much we really have. Then we wrap it up to keep it from breaking during the move, and the boxes somehow start filling up awfully quickly.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been able to relocate without having to stop and find more moving boxes.
Nobody? That’s what I thought.
Avoiding the accumulation of a bunch of small stuff takes a policy decision. Every single thing we bring through the door has to earn its keep. If it’s food, we’re going to eat it in the near future. If it’s a decoration, we have to believe that it’s worth packing and hauling and dusting for the next several years. If it’s a beauty product, we have to believe we’re going to use it up before it gets clumpy or congealed or whatever.
A bottle of sunblock lasts about one summer. A jar of nail polish has a lifespan. So does a tube of lotion or a bottle of perfume. Stuff doesn’t last forever. What would be the point of buying twelve of something when eleven of them are going to expire before we use them up?
We can think of small consumables in the same way we might think of packets of french fries. Sure, fries are good, but there’s no point buying thirty orders of them. They get gross, right? Buy one and eat it while it’s hot and fresh. Then buy another one for a different meal. Almost all of our personal possessions can be regarded just like french fries. That’s true whether it’s shirts or bottles of vitamins or cases of paper towels.
The other thing about little stuff is that it adds up and starts to demand storage and furniture of its own.
A case of paper towels has to have somewhere to go. Wherever we put it, nothing else can go there. We can’t go popping wormholes into alternate universes just because something was on sale at the warehouse store.
Start accumulating fabric, and suddenly you need an extra bedroom. That extra bedroom might displace so many other things that the garage is full. A full garage then creates the desire for a storage unit. The costs involved in having a storage unit and a bigger house then displace the funds that could have been used for a vacation. Or new furniture. Or a debt-free lifestyle. Or a comfortable retirement.
Collectibles ask for their own shelves or cabinets. Books obviously ask for shelves and more shelves and more shelves. “You can never have too many books” but can you really read more than one at a time? Every book you think you’re going to re-read one day is another new book that will be displaced. Each item we keep blocks another item from coming into our lives, or at least, from having a dedicated space to sit.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized, with compulsive accumulators, with hoarders, with squalor. My people really struggle with this concept that only one item can fit in one spot at a time. The disorganized people can’t quite wrap their heads around it. The accumulators are at the store anyway, distracting themselves from their overflowing homes by spending all their free time in well-lit, well-organized shops. The hoarders don’t care, there’s no way in this lifetime that they’re letting go of anything once they’ve imprinted on it. How dare you challenge MY STUFF! Anyone who lives in squalor is simply so adjusted to the feeling of being buried in stuff and things and objects and trash and junk that they barely notice one way or the other. They don’t even smell it anymore, so how would they start to see it?
Most of us haven’t crossed those lines. I estimate that about one in five people live in a chronically disorganized state. Probably half of us have so much stuff that it’s hard to keep track of it all. More like two-thirds of us who have a garage can’t use it for anything because it’s full of stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use our garages for something like an air hockey table or a kayak? Why do we create these annoying, embarrassing, unusable spaces in our own homes? Why are we willing to pay so much to keep them that way?
Take a look around. Are your kitchen counters open and available to make cookies? Is your desk clear and ready to write in a journal or make an art project? Is your dining table welcoming and inviting for friends and a seven-layer dip? Is your bedroom a relaxing oasis of serenity, or rather a haystack of impatient laundry?
There are two ways to go about solving the problem of too much little stuff. One way is to corral it in bigger stuff: armoires or bookcases or other attractive storage furniture. Sometimes selling some of it off can raise the funds to buy upgrades of this nature. The other way of solving the problem of too much little stuff is to get rid of it. Clearing all the flat surfaces in your home is an interior design upgrade that you can actually do without spending any money! If you want your place to look more selfie-ready, it’s easier and cheaper to do it by bagging up a bunch of small items. Which is it going to be, the little stuff, or your home?
I used to have a bookcase that covered an entire wall of my bedroom. It was made out of wooden crates, boards, and concrete blocks. In earthquake country, it wouldn’t do at all. Most of that bookcase contained books I hadn’t read; I just accumulated them. I bought sacks of books at library book sales. I bought books for a nickel at Goodwill. I brought them home and put them on my rickety shelves, feeling somehow safer and more satisfied to have them there. I would tell people that I felt like something was going to happen, and I was saving these books in case of some unspecified calamity. I never realized that these books wouldn’t save me.
Stuff won’t save you in general.
My people are chronically disorganized. They are almost always compulsive accumulators, bringing stuff home, feeling the impulse first and conjuring a justification afterward. Not all of my people feel a serious emotional attachment to particular objects; there’s just something they get out of the selection process and they prefer the aesthetics of jumble. Getting rid of stuff, any stuff, is a problem because the thought of loss makes them profoundly anxious.
What if I need it? WHAT IF? WHAT IF I NEED IT?
One of the greatest delights for a hoarder is to prove other people wrong about the uselessness of their hoard. If they can, even one time, pull out the perfect object and solve even the most minor problem with it, then the entire collection is vital and necessary. Justification!
There are so many arguments against this, arguments that will fall on deaf ears. The goal and purpose is to be surrounded by stuff. Interacting with stuff fills the hours that would just be stressful if instead one were interacting with people. Churn it, shuffle it, sort it, stroke it, stare at it, tell stories about it, collect it, get more of it. Never let it go.
The thing about my looming sense of approaching catastrophe was that having a bunch of used books couldn’t possibly help. I had this image of myself contentedly reading my way through an apocalypse. Yeah, but... How was this going to help? I couldn’t eat books. I couldn’t use books for transportation. I couldn’t trade books for tools, food, a water filter, or anything else I might need. If there really were some kind of apocalypse, presumably I could loot books on demand. Maybe reading books on disaster preparedness might help, but only if I knew the information cold. Knowledge might help me, but thrift store novels would not.
In most crises, what really helps is money. My people are so deep in scarcity mindset that they tend to believe stuff is more valuable than money. Nobody can take your stuff from you (nor would they want to!) but money seems to go out faster than it comes in. Money goes to your landlord, the auto mechanic, the heat bill, the emergency vet clinic, anywhere other than into an emergency fund. This is part of why broke people sometimes spend money on silly stuff.
The saddest thing is when anxiety plus compulsive accumulation turns into a dangerous firetrap of a home. It’s so common for people to be trapped in their hoarded homes that emergency responders have names for it. People get seriously injured when trying to climb through mountains of stuff to get someone onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. The guilt and shame that this image inspires will tend to cause someone to dig further in, rather than to decide to clear a wider path. The stuff they feel is so integral to their lives, so much a part of their identity, sometimes simply kills them. Crushed, suffocated, burned. Logically, the stuff has to go. Emotionally, the stuff has to stay.
My people tend to be the most deeply attached to clothes, books, holiday decorations, and fabric and craft supplies. Explain to me how a single one of these items could help someone in an emergency? Oh, sure, maybe a raincoat or some thermal underwear. More than fifty shirts, though? A tub of yarn?
Food hoarding is another common problem, a cultural issue that affects even mainstream homes. Food is so cheap and plentiful that most Americans can afford to stack up cases of it. Unfortunately, the cheapest food is also the most useless in a crisis. Cases of soda, chips and snacks, pastry, cookies, candy, breakfast cereal, crackers... We often feel a sense of security from being surrounded by food, not realizing that what would really get us through a crisis would be hot, hearty meals. Dinners. Not snacks. Entire pantries and freezers might be filled with only a few hundred calories of foods like cans of green beans or jars of salsa. We can harness the inner drive to have a burgeoning, full pantry by planning and rotating our food stores more practically.
There are a few material objects that might, in fact, actually save someone. My people almost never own these things, or if they do, they won’t be able to find them. They may never have taken the time to learn to use them or make sure they are still usable, because shopping and churning are always the main goals. Buy it, pet it, stack it. The useful things we can never find are first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and go bags. Whenever I talk about go bags, someone always asks, Tell me what to buy. This isn’t a good enough response. Buying something is never the safest response. It’s information that will save you. It’s running scenarios and teaching yourself how to troubleshoot in an emergency. It’s having a plan and understanding how to adjust it when Plan A fails.
Sometimes, what saves you is no more complicated than a clear path through a room.
We’re moved into our new “junior one bedroom” apartment. That’s real-estate-ese for “studio apartment that costs more.” There are a lot of legal restrictions in real estate that encourage truth in advertising, but in reality, you have to check it out for yourself. Beware the “peek view,” for instance. Lean over and see it for yourself before you pay a significant markup. We’re much too frugal to ever take a hotel room with a view, and daily living at home can cost even more. Anyway. Suffice to say that our studio isn’t a “studio” because it comes with a room divider. It’s missing a lot else, almost all of which is kitchen storage.
What I’m going to do is to break down the numbers behind the decision to let go of what can be very emotional attachments to very aspirational kitchen items.
Aspirational items are things we buy because they symbolize a better life. Often, they never get used; they just sit there, trophies toward an image of ourselves that we don’t like enough to live it out every day. Aspirational kitchens are so full of stuff that very little cooking goes on in them. They’re like showrooms.
A stand mixer is the big one for a lot of people. By “big,” I mean physically big, because these things are almost always too tall for the available cabinets. They live on the countertop. This is part of why they’re aspirational. They’re designed to be seen and admired. The stand mixer symbolizes a capital investment in that kitchen. I BAKE. These things are expensive for most people, and the decision to let one go would be emotionally impossible for many.
I never bought one.
I could have a stand mixer if I wanted, sure. I could buy one today. I just refuse to give up that much countertop space. The other reason is that if I baked often enough to justify the kitchen real estate it would require, my husband and I would both probably gain 15-30 pounds the first year. When we choose where to live, we can base the decision on a kitchen without needing to accommodate the huge, expensive, weight-gain-inducing stand mixer of the aspirational kitchen.
Moving right along!
What are some other large, aspirational kitchen appliances?
Instant Pot: $80-$150.
Espresso maker: $35-$700 (!?!)
Bread machine: $60-$100.
Pasta maker: $25-$160
Food processor: $30-$200
Note that we decided we would keep our Vitamix even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels. We use it every day. I’d get rid of a bunch of shoes before I’d get rid of my fancy-dancy blender, because it argues for itself through constant use.
There are tons of other kitchen appliances, of course. They’re popular gifts. I’ve given several of them myself. Ice cream makers, deep fryers, grills, waffle irons. The more of them there are in a kitchen, the harder they are to store. (Kitchens are designed around contemporary trends, and those trends change every decade). The harder appliances are to store, the harder they are to remove and use. The harder they are to use, the less they get used, adding to the feeling of FoMO and the sense that no, I can never let go of anything, because I haven’t gotten my money’s worth out of it.
IT’S WORTH SOMETHING!
This is the funny thing. I just gave away some kitchen appliances I had owned for years, over twenty years in one case. When I looked up what it would cost to replace these things, many of them cost less now and have more features. This happened with a hand-me-down microwave oven that my brother passed on to me during my first marriage. It was almost the size of a dishwasher, it had a dial, and it cooked really slowly. It’s hard to say no to “free.” We did, though, after a year or so. We gave away the free microwave, and I’m sure the next owner also gave it away, because you couldn’t sell that thing. Maybe in 1987 you could have. Now, in 2018, if that thing is still around, you’d probably have to pay someone to take it.
We downsized and accepted a kitchen downgrade because we crunched the numbers. We’re saving over $400 a month on rent. If we’d stayed in the unit where we lived last year, we would have had to pay an additional $200 a month. That’s a LOT of money just to hang onto a few appliances, even if we used them all day, every day. Which we didn’t.
We let go of a blender, a crock pot, a rice cooker, a bread machine, and a bunch of canning jars. For our purposes, it’s irrelevant what they originally cost, because what matters is their replacement cost. (If we don’t miss them and we never replace them, then the replacement cost remains zero). We’ll pretend we’d just buy them all over again.
Replacement kitchen appliances: $30 + $30 + $30 + $100 + $25 = $215
Time to amortize through lower rent: Two weeks
In reality, we’ll never replace that old blender because we already did, with a nice Vitamix. I was only keeping the old, cheap blender because I had a spice grinder attachment. We’ll never buy another crock pot or another rice cooker because we’d just upgrade and get an Instant Pot. We probably won’t buy another bread machine because my husband enjoys making bread. (It was something I used because kneading bread aggravates some problems in my wrist). These were things we had because we had them. Our ability to recognize the difference between the lifestyle we actually live, and the aspirational lifestyle we wish we lived, helps us to save the money that could one day bridge that difference.
Would I know what to do with a huge, expensive house in an expensive neighborhood? Sure I would! I’m quite sure I’d be just as good at shopping and buying and choosing high-end, high-price items as anyone else. I just couldn’t bring myself to go into debt to do it. The decision to make temporary changes for a better strategic position is an easy decision, when it’s obvious what the tradeoffs are. I’m not “giving up” my nice kitchen appliances for a kitchen downgrade. I’m TRADING what are really some fairly trivial items in order to save thousands of dollars on rent for a certain specific period of time.
Most important of all, I’m always going to value my ability to cook in my kitchen and make use of my space. There are no items, no matter how aspirational or expensive, that are valuable enough to clutter up my work area or my countertops.
Most people are never going to voluntarily move to a smaller house or apartment just to save money. Streamlining the existing kitchen so that it can actually be used can feel like a major lifestyle upgrade. Eat through the majority of the pantry stores, get rid of most of the dishes or plastic storage containers, or reevaluate the appliances and other kitchen accessories. Create clear counter space and focus more on the meals than the hardware. The point of a kitchen is to cook in it, not to have a kitchenwares museum.
We moved this weekend. This takes up a lot of mental bandwidth, which is okay, because the thought and strategy that we put in has made it easier each time. Most people move frantically, procrastinating until the last possible minute, and then keep a bunch of unsorted boxes labeled MISC until the end of time. This is an expensive, time-consuming, distracting, maximalist way to do things. We do it in two phases.
In the first stage, we’re looking at all of our stuff and asking it to justify its existence. Why does this object need to be in our home? Is it worth the space? It’s our policy to live with a short commute, and that usually means a smaller living space. More square footage is the compensation that builders offer in exchange for spending your free time on the freeway.
Here are the assessment questions:
That first question is revolutionary, because at some point we realized that we could offload the cost of ownership of almost everything we possess. We need A bed, but we don’t necessarily need THIS bed, or our OWN bed. What would happen if we got rid of everything? We’d live in a hotel and stop owning furniture or housewares. No big deal really. In fact, we kinda talked about it on our honeymoon. The only real reason that we don’t do it is that hotels discriminate against parrots. Can’t imagine why! *wink*
Second question: Do we use it every day? This is somewhat subversive, because we often keep things that we think we SHOULD use every day, like a yoga mat. Asking the question reminds us that sometimes it’s better to rearrange our stuff and our schedule to accommodate the neglected item, the lifestyle upgrade.
Third question: Would we inevitably have to buy it again? For instance, we originally bought backpacking gear for our Iceland trip, even though we already owned quite a lot of car-camping equipment. The trip fully amortized the cost of the backpacking gear, but we continue to use it several years later. We could technically buy a new $250 backpacking tent and spend maybe a thousand dollars on new backpacks, sleeping bags, and gear every time we went on a trip. If getting rid of it all means we can afford a smaller apartment, and we save more than $100 a month on rent, then it costs us to keep it. Another way to frame this is, would it be cheaper or easier to, say, give away our bed/couch/whatever and order a new one to be delivered to the new place? Usually no but sometimes - YES!
Fourth question: Have we used this since the last time we moved? If the answer is no, then we’re virtually required to get rid of it. If the answer is no, we also have to ask, how about the move before that? When WAS the last time we used this thing? With each pass, fewer things get through the filter.
Fifth question: Will it fit in the new place? I had a lot of resentment and sadness about giving up my ten-top dining table, and the first time we moved it, you couldn’t open the front door all the way because the darn thing filled our entire dining room. Then we lived in that house for six months and had to move again. I hadn’t had a single dinner party and we hadn’t needed the table at all. I found acceptance and remembered that I can always buy another one for $400 at IKEA. Or we can rent a picnic area or take people to a restaurant.
Sixth question: How much would it cost to replace? We won’t live in a studio apartment forever. Well, maybe we will if Godzilla arises from the sea and steps on our building on the way to raze Los Angeles. One day, we’ll have a larger home and we’ll put more stuff in it. Probably. Getting rid of something now is just... for now. For this year. Every single thing that we have ever owned has cost less than what we’d pay in additional rent to keep it all. We’re saving over $8000 in rent this year due to our move, and that covers a lot of objects.
Seventh question: Is it going to survive the move? This question is why we avoid keeping sentimental objects. It’s simply too crushing and heartbreaking to watch something get smashed or ruined. Professional movers broke the teapot my grandmother made and they gouged a four-inch scar into the surface of my dining table. They’ve crumpled my original artwork, scattered my manuscripts and notecards, and generally caused me to swear off of professional movers entirely. I’d rather live out of a suitcase than pay people to wreck my favorite stuff. Which means if something is my favorite, I can’t keep it. Does that make sense? I have to preemptively detach my emotions from inanimate objects because they die on me.
Eighth question: Has it outlived its natural lifespan? A pair of socks is only good for so many wears. A spatula can only cook so many meals. Stuff is consumable. Moving is when we hold things up and assess them. Broken! Threadbare! Dangerous! Stained! Energy inefficient! Separated from its accessories! Past Me called and she wants her jeans back.
That’s the first stage of space clearing. We’ve basically gotten rid of everything that’s irrelevant to the way we live today.
Stage Two: Does it fit?
Stage Two is pretty straightforward. We have drawer dividers that don’t fit in the new drawers and shelf organizers that don’t fit in the new shelves. We have furniture that won’t fit due to door and window placement, ceiling height, or smaller rooms. We have power strips and lamps we don’t need anymore. We have art or decorations or throw pillows or other housewares that now clash with the paint and countertops. As we put things away, we set aside a staging area for stuff that doesn’t work. Sometimes it gets repurposed, like a plastic storage container that goes into a different room with a different category of contents. Usually, we find that we’re fully ensconced in the new place and there are a couple of bags’ worth of “organizers” we don’t need. We’re not emotionally attached to this type of object, so when we realize it won’t work in our newest home, we shrug and donate it.
As minimalists, we tend to see our stuff as a potential obstacle as much as anything else. Throughout the year, we’re culling and setting aside and pulling out various things. The cracked coffee mug, the shirt with the stretched neckline, the uncomfortable pants. Our baseline stuff has argued for itself. What may sound like a complicated process really isn’t, because 80% of our stuff is obviously necessary to a comfortable, efficient life. The two-stage moving process merely serves to slough off the excess. We stay light and unencumbered, focusing on the life we want to have, rather than the stuff we want to have.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.