This is how it went:
December. Decide we want to move to a place with lower rent. Coincidentally get notice TWO HOURS LATER that our rent will increase $200 a month. Shrug.
January. Negotiate lower rent with property manager. Spontaneously decide to look at a “junior one bedroom” unit and realize we like it better. Apply for a unit and get it. Give notice.
Two months after we decided we wanted to move, we were sleeping in our new, cheaper apartment.
Two weeks elapsed between when we started packing our old place to when we finished unpacking in our new place.
I packed four boxes a day for the three days before the move. We could have done more, but in a 680-square-foot apartment, there isn’t very much room for a staging area to stack boxes.
My husband has alternate Fridays off, and we spent a couple of hours packing on the Friday before the move. Then we took off to run some errands and see a movie.
Moving Day was a Saturday. We had breakfast around 8 AM. Then we spent an hour filling out paperwork in the rental office before we could pick up our keys. A friend came over to help us move at 10 AM. He left around 1 PM. We were done packing, hauling, and cleaning at 11 PM, including two meal breaks.
Because we moved from one unit to another within the same apartment complex, there was no way for us to use a moving van. Both units are down a walkway from the parking lot. We had to use a dolly and a rolling skidder, or simply hand-carry everything. The move would have gone much faster if all we’d had to do was to load and unload a van.
By mid-afternoon, the place was already livable. We had set up and made the bed, hung the shower curtain, loaded the fridge and freezer, unpacked the medicine cabinet and all the bathroom cabinets and drawers, put away most of our clothes, set up the couch and the pet crates, and unpacked the kitchen drawers. From that point it was possible to go to bed; wake up, shower, and dress; and make breakfast. We carried on hauling boxes.
On Sunday, we finished unpacking our clothes. I set up the entire kitchen while my husband set up his work station. We unpacked all but a small stack of boxes. We cooked dinner for the first time in our new home.
Monday and Tuesday were ordinary workdays. We unpacked the remaining 20% and found spots for everything.
On Wednesday, I waited around for the internet installer and caught up on laundry.
On Thursday, we left town for the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, we made a to-do list. We gave away some furniture and the now-empty moving boxes.
We kept the rental car an extra day, since Monday was a holiday, and dropped off a load at Goodwill. We also picked up a few things at IKEA and the Container Store.
Now all that’s left is to hang pictures! We’ve found that it’s best to save the final decorating touches for at least a few days, while we get used to the space and the light levels. Sometimes we change our minds about where furniture will be, and it makes more sense to get that settled before pounding nail holes in the walls.
Because we didn’t have very much stuff to move, we were able to take our time. We had photos and measurements from our first viewing of a similar unit, and we’d spent time at our weekly status meeting drawing out diagrams and figuring out what went where. Many of the early loads got unpacked directly into their place, partly because we needed to reuse the empty moving cartons. I had a small “box of holding” that I used to do each kitchen and bathroom drawer separately, while carrying a small backpack with stuff from the fridge and freezer. I would walk over, unpack the box into its new drawer, unload the backpack, and do something like hang up the shower curtain or put sheets on the bed. This meant about a ten-minute turnaround. With this method, we eliminated the middle stage of a dozen box towers, all labeled ‘MISC.’ It was like magic!
Just as we’ve done every time we’ve moved, we’ve gone through two stages. We got rid of a bunch of stuff that we knew wouldn’t fit before we even started packing. We had a pretty solid estimate of how many boxes we’d need, and we bought sixteen small book boxes and ten large boxes. It would have helped to have another half-dozen small boxes, but we were fine without them. After the move, we had another round of culling to do. Even on the first day, we knew that our next move will involve even less stuff than this one did.
The point of minimalism is to focus on what is most important to you in life. Experiences, not things, and it should also be emphasized that the experience of daily life is most important of all. We prefer to live in a streamlined space where we have room to relax, room to cook, room to live. The better we get at this, the more we can enjoy fringe benefits, such as an efficient, straightforward minimalist move.
Note: I continued my twenty-five-year streak of getting my full cleaning deposit back. This amount was roughly equivalent to what I spent buying myself a nice new wicker easy chair for the front porch.
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.
Expendable, or expandable? Most people somehow find themselves surrounded by more and more stuff every year. As the amount of stuff expands, it fills up the home. Eventually, either the place is hoarded or the family has to move to a bigger place with more capacity. What, do you think everyone with a three-car garage is filling it with... cars? That’s the difference with minimalism. We focus on our lifestyle. No single item rates above our experience of living in our home. What’s more, nothing we own has more clout than our strategic position.
Clutter means it’s getting in the way.
This is a concept that most people really, really don’t grasp. It doesn’t matter what emotion you feel while you’re holding an object. What the heck does that have to do with anything, unless it’s your engagement ring?
This is how we decide what to keep:
Are we in the optimal job?
If we’re in the optimal job, are we in the optimal home?
If we’re in the optimal home near the optimal job, can we do the things we need to do?
Do we actually use this thing?
See how these questions are radically different than our feelings about an object? Oh, how much did it cost? What color is it? Does it work with my interior design philosophy? Does it make me feel all sparkly inside? Getting emotionally caught up in small-scale objects like a book or a shirt is totally beside the point when we’re making decisions based on career path, financial independence, or domestic contentment.
These are the questions.
If a better job came along in another city, would we or would we not go after it? Our kid is already in college, we don’t own a house, and we can’t live near family due to my husband’s specialized profession. Since it’s just us and our stuff, why not?
Since we’re moving, what are we taking with us? What are the rents like in our new city? We realized several years ago that if we busted down from a full-size, 3BR/2B suburban house with a two-car garage and a yard, we could save a fortune. Was it really worth the extra tens of thousands of dollars in rent and the extra hours of weekend maintenance to keep up that lifestyle? We reconsidered and realized that in many ways, living in an apartment would be a lifestyle upgrade. No more yard work, lower utility bills, less housework, and access to a pool, hot tub, and gym!
At that point, the question becomes how we fit our household into a cute little apartment. Due to where we live, there simply are no larger places in our neighborhood. Even the multi-million dollar houses are really small. Requiring a larger place also requires a longer commute, which is the exact reason most people tolerate a long commute. Where else would we put all our stuff???
Now we crunch the numbers. We have to calculate rental cost per square foot. We have to calculate utility costs per square foot. We have to include incidental costs, like a larger moving van, more gas, and more boxes. We have to include the extra furniture that people buy for their extra stuff, like bookshelves and cabinets and vanities and entertainment centers and desks and armoires and filing cabinets. All of it costs, and much of it has extra carrying costs as well. That’s before you even calculate the cost of buying it on credit.
Due to our income tax bracket and the sales tax in our state, every dollar we spend basically costs us two dollars. It would be more if we carried a balance on our credit cards.
In our complex, a two-bedroom apartment that is barely bigger than our one-bedroom costs $4000 a month. If we’d insisted on keeping all our sparkly cute lovely things, we would definitely have needed that extra bedroom to store them in. But how would we have afforded that rent? It’s not like our stuff is going to go out and get a job and start contributing to earn its keep...
Actually, in rare instances, stuff does pay the rent. We rented a storage unit for about a week and a half during our last move. The manager told us that a few of the tenants used their units to store their work equipment. Landscapers, painters, contractors, people who needed somewhere to store their bulky equipment to earn a living. You can’t exactly keep a lawn mower on the carpet in your second-floor apartment. Or, I guess you can, but you’re probably paying to have that carpet replaced when you move out!
Our first consideration, when we decide what to keep, is what we need to do our jobs. Even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels, we would keep our electronics. My husband has some active reference textbooks that he would keep. Obviously we would maintain our professional wardrobes, or what would fit in two suitcases, anyway. That’s pretty much it. Virtually nothing else that we own is directly related to our ability to earn money.
In my opening list of strategic questions was a hint about something. Can we do the things we need to do? What I mean by this is that we need to be able to sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, bathe in the bathroom, eat at the table, work at our desks, and live in the living room. That means that absolutely nothing gets to be in a stack or a pile. We value our space and the use of that space more than any amount of stuff. It doesn’t matter where it came from, how much it’s “worth,” who gave it to us, or how we feel about it. Even if it’s holding its little inanimate arms out and asking for a hug. If it’s in the way, it’s out the door.
Do we actually use our stuff? This question means that we focus on our enjoyment of the things that we do have. We invested in the most comfortable bed we could find when we were newlyweds. It’s kinda romantic that we’ve been together almost long enough to need to replace it! We also comfort-tested our couch. When you buy or keep very few possessions, you can afford to spend more and to put in a little more effort making sure that you really like something before you bring it home.
Here is the math concept behind why we say that our possessions are expendable. We know roughly how much it would cost to replace every single thing we own. If we ever took a job overseas, it would literally cost more to ship our stuff there than it would to give it all away and buy new furniture and appliances. (Plus we wouldn’t have the use of it for the two months of the voyage. If we can go two months without it, do we need it at all?). Renters insurance is mandatory in our apartment complex, and the minimum policy covers $10,000 worth of belongings. That’s WAY more than all of our stuff is worth! If something happened to destroy all our possessions, like the upstairs neighbor leaving the tub on until the ceiling collapsed, or whatever, it would be kind of amusing. Since all our photos are saved to the cloud, there isn’t anything in our home that we’d be devastated to lose. We’d wind up going on the biggest, craziest shopping spree of all time. I don’t even know how we would spend $10k on furniture, clothes, and housewares.
So many people spend more than that on their stuff, though. I have a friend who has spent more than $10,000 on a storage unit. No joke. She would have been financially better off just throwing all that stuff in the trash. Or she could have sold some of it and made a little folding money. The saddest thing in the world to me is that people pay to store stuff that doesn’t even have a resale value. I know because I’ve seen it. Boxes of school papers. Boxes of sentimental but grubby and worn-out dolls and stuffed animals. Garbage bags full of outdated old clothes. Worn-out mattresses and box springs. Boxes of paperback books. Boxes of funky old plastic storage containers with mismatched lids. Why would someone spend thousands of dollars to store stuff they never use?
They do it because they think their stuff is actually worth something. They value their belongings over their quality of life or their financial stability.
Possessions are expendable. As soon as you start to see that, you start to look around at all your stuff with new perspective. Hey, stuff, what have you done for me lately?
T minus eleven days and counting. We’re moving again! Probably time to start kinda thinking about packing. Eh, or not. Moving only has to be a big hairy traumatic hot mess if you have a lot of stuff to pack.
I’ve helped out on several moves when the household had barely started to pack and it was already moving day. This is how it normally works. Nobody has done much of anything because they’ve all fallen victim to the planning fallacy, which is that humans are extremely poor at estimating how long it will take to do something. There aren’t enough boxes; maybe there are no boxes at all yet. Any time someone got up and started thinking about maybe finally getting around to doing some packing, 80% of the time was consumed in helplessly standing around, arms hanging down, gawping at random corners of the room, and then wandering off. Nobody counted on how much stuff was hidden from view in closets, cupboards, and drawers. This is all before factoring in the cleaning. Then the helpers show up, thinking all that’s being asked of them is to carry neatly taped cartons out to a van. HA.
Our last move took the two of us eight hours, and that’s what fits in a 680-square-foot one-bedroom apartment. When we moved out of our newlywed house, it took a team of four professional movers three days.
I singlehandedly packed an office during a certain person’s move. (Not a client; clients pay me!) After three months’ notice, nothing had been done in what was the most disorganized, crowded room of the entire house. An entire wall of bookcases, photo albums, VHS tapes, and various binders. Two desks. A computer and all its multifarious peripherals. Art on every wall. Various tchotchkes and conversation pieces. Snowdrifts of unsorted papers. It took me three hours. If it had been my own stuff, I’m sure I could have spent three years fondling it and fussing with it.
Most of us do.
When it’s someone else’s stuff, it’s fairly easy. We look at it and estimate its weight and volume. Professional movers are great at this; they do it all day, every day and they know how many dishes or books fit in a carton. We can scan someone else’s personal belongings and visualize them going out the door, up the ramp, into the van, and back out again. We know full well that we’ll still be working at 10 PM because there’s a LOT.
When it’s our own stuff, we can’t see it as bulk, as mere dross to be measured and analyzed. It’s our stuff! It’s... it’s ourselves, really.
This is because the majority of our belongings stand in for the intangible. Our stuff isn’t stuff to us, not at all. It’s our aspirations, our character and personality and intentions. Stuff is one of the many ways that we try to exist outside of the time dimension.
The clothes that don’t fit, that don’t match any of our other clothes, especially the clothes we’ve never worn even once - they stand in for our image of a possible future. The unused fitness equipment that stands in for our intention to make a total physical transformation. Even the vegetables spoiling in the fridge, they represent ideas and possibilities.
There are three types of things:
In the first category, I include art. A planned room, a room of comfort and fun and relaxation and purpose, tends to look intentional. It says, this is our taste and this is how we like a room to look and feel. That’s awesome. It’s exciting to step into a room like this, even when it expresses a wildly different taste unlike my own.
In the second category are all sorts of things. They hang around mostly due to inertia, because we haven’t taken the time to assess and realize that we don’t need, want, or like them anymore. Sometimes, the stuff we no longer use is kept because we use it to store our memories. We’re surrounded by the past, not always even our own past, but our family’s past. Legacy and heritage. We may have no idea of what our own taste might look like because we believe we have to keep and display the stuff that was handed down to us. Keeping things we don’t use is a way of living in the past, outside of the time dimension.
In the third category is aspiration, stuff we still think we’ll get around to using one day. It also includes a certain amount of guilt and shame over money and time we’ve wasted, over our bodies that fail to magically transform, over our total misunderstanding of how goals work and how habits are changed. We also fall victim to the sunk cost fallacy, thinking that we should keep stuff because of what it cost, not realizing that keeping things incurs a carrying cost. Keeping things we believe we’ll use eventually, despite the evidence of today, is a way of living in the future, while also preventing that future from materializing.
When I accustom myself to living in rooms filled with things I don’t use, they become wallpaper. I quit seeing them. They aren’t on my to do list, they aren’t on my agenda, they aren’t blocked in my calendar. I exist on one timeline, and my things exist on another. It’s almost like they live in an alternative dimension that I can’t visit.
The gift of the nomad is that a relocation stops the clock. Time’s up! We evaluate every piece of furniture and all our individual housewares. Moving frequently really makes clear that stuff is a hassle. I don’t feel like cleaning and wrapping and packing and hauling and unwrapping and wiping down and organizing anything unless it’s worth it to me. Sometimes, at some point after the sixth time I’ve handled such an item, I’m just done. I can’t even.
Why do I have a pepper mill? Do I even grind pepper? Does this thing even work anymore?
What would happen if I got rid of it?
That’s the first question. It goes like this:
Do we use it every day?
If not every day, would we need to buy it if we got rid of it?
Have we used it since the last time we moved?
Will it fit in the new place?
How much would it cost to replace?
Is it going to survive the move?
Has it outlived its natural span of use?
In the time dimension, we can always buy stuff for Future Self later. It’s senseless to carry around aspirational “one day” items we don’t use now, because at that future point on the timeline, the one we would actually use may be of better quality or a different nature entirely. Like when I Finally Lost the Weight and the aspirational size eights I had kept for all those years were too big.
In the time dimension, we don’t keep things that belonged to Past Self. Past Self used them, and the maximum value was extracted. It cost what it cost. Maybe Present Self is more frugal and gets a lower cost per use, and when that’s true, it’s because of lessons that Past Self paid for. Stuff we aren’t using anymore was the cost of tuition. Let it go back to the Stuff Place.
Time’s up. The day has passed, the week has passed, the month is almost up. This is how the years go by. At any given moment, we’ve been surrounded by a different assortment of objects that properly exist along a continuum. Baby Self had a crib and a stroller and a high chair. Grade School Self had a child-size bicycle and child-sized clothes and shoes. Twenties Self had rickety mismatched furniture and obsolete electronics. Today Self carries the memories of those rooms, those scenes, those times. Today Self just doesn’t want to carry them all up the ramp into the moving van.
One of our key policy agreements is not to have a storage unit. Since we don’t have a car, anything we put in storage is a red flag that we won’t be using it. In our area, a 10x20 storage unit costs over $200 a month. What on earth do we own that is actually worth $2400+ per year? If we aren’t using it, then by definition it is WORTH NOTHING.
Or, worse than that: It has NEGATIVE VALUE. It COSTS us to keep it.
Paying rent on stuff we don’t use is precisely what we mean by serving our stuff, rather than having our stuff serve us. I am not commuting to a job I hate just to earn more money to pay a monthly fee to store something I don’t even look at. I don’t care if it’s the Hope Diamond!
When people put supposedly valuable things into storage, they are discounting the likelihood that the item will depreciate while it’s buried in that storage unit. Things crack under the weight of boxes that get stacked on top. Anything made of paper, wood, or fabric deteriorates. Metal tarnishes and corrodes. Porcelain gets crazed. Wax melts. Cloth smells funky and starts revealing mysterious stains. Photographs clump together and mildew. Stuff never comes out of a storage unit in the same condition it went in, especially if it’s been stored in cardboard. Storing it is basically kissing it goodbye.
I’ve seen a lot of anguish and sad tears in the course of my organizing work. My people believe in stuff. They believe that stuff exists in a perfect Platonic form, as immaculate and unblemished as an icon or a digital avatar. In their minds, their stuff looks exactly the way it would in a well-lit, professional-grade catalog photo. They’re often not just disappointed but absolutely gutted by the reality. It’s scratched! It’s dented! It’s broken! It’s ruined! One of my first clients had a black plastic trash bag containing the powdery remains of a smashed plaster bust. Years later, she still believed that it could be fixed somehow. What would a new one have cost, $40? $15? Why would anyone want the crushed, demolished old one rather than a new one that actually functions?
I used to have a storage unit. It cost me about $20 a month and I had it for, off and on, a total of five years. That’s $1200. Not much? In 2000, I actually earned less than that. What’s worse, I was paying storage fees for a bunch of old school papers, used books, a box of childhood toys, a totally unsuitable cheap desk, and three boxes of kitchen stuff. I doubt the stuff in that storage unit was worth twelve dollars, much less twelve hundred. Doing this kind of calculation was completely outside my wildest dreams at the time. It simply never occurred to me.
When I met my current husband, at some point, the subject of my storage unit came up. He immediately said that I should get rid of it. “But then I would be destitute and I would have nothing!” I replied.
These days, I actually believe in money. We make these calculations together because it’s our policy as a couple. Money is where vacations come from!
Do the math. If we save $2500 by not renting a van and taking stuff to a storage unit for a year, that’s $2500 we can (and do) leave in the bank. We could use it to buy replacement stuff any time we like. If we save $500 a month by renting a one-bedroom instead of a two-bedroom (and sadly, where we live it’s more like $1200 a month), that’s then $6000 a year that we’re able to save. (Or $14,400!). One day, maybe we’ll buy a house. If we ever do, we’ll plan around the idea of buying suitable new furniture and housewares and doing all the upgrades and landscaping. Why pay thousands of dollars to store old, outdated, banged-up, deteriorating stuff that might not fit that house, anyway?
Scarcity mindset. Scarcity mindset! We hang onto our old stuff, paying to keep it even when we aren’t using it, because we don’t believe in money. We don’t believe that saving money actually works. We don’t believe in our own earning power. Downsizing is an act of faith and trust, belief that we can increase our earning power and accumulate wealth.
We’re moving. Again. Each time, we get a little better about this thing called ‘minimalism.’ The first principle of minimalism is that our stuff should serve us, not the reverse. The second principle is that what we keep should be determined by its function and use in a particular space. The things we would use in a backwoods cabin would not be the same package as the things we would use in an urban loft or a suburban house with a garden. This is why we reevaluate every time we move: floor plan before stuff.
We just visited an empty apartment. What did we do? We took pictures for reference. I keep a measuring tape in my work bag, believe it or not, and we used it. We took pictures of the location of the power outlets. We took pictures of the insides of the cabinets and drawers. We measured the depth and height of the shelves and marked up the digital photos. The next step is to reevaluate our stuff based on whether it will fit the space available.
As newlyweds, we moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath suburban ranch house with a two-car garage and a yard. It was about quadruple the amount of living space that we have now. Every time we have moved, we’ve downsized. First we lost half the garage space and half the kitchen space. Then we moved, and both got cut in half again. Number of square feet has a little bit to do with how we use our living space, but it’s not everything. The function of the space has a lot more to do with closets, cabinets, cupboards, shelves, and drawers.
Most people, given a choice, would take more built-in cabinets and shelving over a larger living room. Am I right?
What we miss the most about our previous homes isn’t square footage. It’s having a coat closet, a linen closet, and a pantry cupboard.
The containers and dedicated storage that we need is determined by all the small incidental things we own. Sure, we’ve had to get rid of things like our ten-top dining table, when they physically would not fit in a smaller room. Sometimes the walls are just too short, sometimes the available space is broken up by doors and windows. Sometimes something won’t even fit through a door! This is a problem when it was originally moved in through a sliding door, or when it was carried in as a flat-pack shipping container and assembled in the room.
We almost had to get rid of our couch the last time we moved because it barely fit through the front door. By ‘barely,’ I mean that we had to do naughty things to the hallway light fixture to make it work.
In our new apartment, the floor plan does not allow for a dining table. It has a kitchen counter that works as a bar top. Our current arrangement is a bistro table with tall chairs. We’ll be able to use the chairs at the bar, while removing the legs from the dining table and storing it somewhere. Top contenders are flat under the bed or vertically in the closet behind our hanging clothes.
Okay, so we only keep things we actively use. They have to earn their keep. How do we know?
The most important thing to us is that we can live our lives in our home. Walk from room to room without turning sideways or stepping over anything. Cook in the kitchen, sleep in the bedroom, relax in the living room. Work at the desk, get ready in the bathroom. We’d rather live out of a suitcase in a basically empty room than have to live among piles of dishes, laundry, and papers.
That’s a false dilemma, though. It’s totally possible to live a comfortable, fulfilling, efficient life in a maximalist house. The priority is simply to be able to get around easily, to have systems that create the absolute most free time and mental bandwidth possible.
Second priority is that we can both be happy without annoying each other. Anything that causes persistent problems, quarrels, arguments, or irritation has to go. We’d be better off owning two dinner plates than having a maximalist kitchen and nagging each other about whose turn it is to wash the dishes.
We have pets, and they’re a consideration, too. It’s not fair to Noelle to leave a charging cable out where she can reach it, because it’s in her nature to want to put her beak through it. (Tally so far: five charging cables and one set of earbuds). It’s not fair to leave laundry in dog zone, because Spike can’t resist grabbing shirts or socks or underwear and running around whipping them over his head. Pet-proofing is the kind-hearted way to keep our fluffy little dorks out of trouble.
The thing about downsizing is that it’s not permanent. Stuff creeps up on us. We have the same cultural exposure to massive volumes of cheap consumer goods as everyone else. We buy stuff in bulk or on sale, we come home with souvenirs, we upgrade, we receive gifts. All of a sudden, the place is full again. It’s not like getting rid of a few boxes of clothes or books or plastic storage containers means we can never own anything again. It’s reversible.
We assume that the new stuff we might buy in ten years will be nicer and more attractive than what’s available to us today. That’s especially true for electronics! It’s also true, though, for the bulk of what most people store in their homes. Food, right? Clothes - probably won’t fit us the same way in ten years. Our mattress - probably won’t be nearly as comfortable in ten years. Entertainment - books, magazines, movies, music - probably won’t even be in the same format in ten years. It also raises the question of whether our interests will still be the same a decade from now. Won’t our favorite authors and musicians have put out anything new by then?
We think back to the stuff we owned when we were in our twenties. I had a rock-hard futon and a bookcase made from boards and bricks. My computer was an 8086 with an amber monochrome monitor! I was six, no, seven clothing sizes bigger back then. My hubby wore his hair in a mullet, and that’s all we need to say about that. We’re, um... mature enough now to realize that our stuff does not define us, and that much of it is even embarrassing for us to even admit that we ever liked or used.
Stuff comes and goes. We can wave goodbye to it. We can take pictures of our various living rooms and kitchens and bedrooms, saying “thanks for the memories!” If we wouldn’t want anyone to see evidence of how our rooms really look, that’s something to consider. Let’s reevaluate whether our personal belongings are really helping us to live happier, easier, better lives. Floor plan before stuff.
I’m about to mess with your head in a big way. What would happen if you *gasp* *clutch the pearls* considered getting rid of a bookcase?
Okay, okay, I get it. Being a reader and book lover is a huge part of your identity. Mine, too. I read over three hundred books last year. I like hiding in the aisle of a bookstore and sniffing pages just like anyone else. I’ve gone on many trips where my carry-on was heavier than my suitcase because I brought more books than clothes. Just because my entire life is built around books does not mean that I need to demonstrate that by showcasing a bunch of them in my home.
Yes, and you’re going to continue to do that at your place. Granted. I hear you! Nobody is going to come and make you give up your books. Just hear me out for a minute.
What would you do with the space where your books are now, if you could put them somewhere else? Hypothetically speaking... what if you pushed on your bookcase, and it suddenly swung aside and there was a secret room or tunnel back there? Then what would you do?
What I literally did was to get rid of a bookcase and use the space to put a desk. You have already cleverly grasped this from the title of this post, of course, so let me elaborate.
My apartment is small. Not the smallest space I’ve ever lived in, no, but 680 square feet for two adults, a dog, and a parrot is pretty modest. We had to get rid of a bunch of furniture and other stuff when we moved in, because even though we wanted to keep it, there simply wasn’t a way to make it fit. My husband is an engineer and we literally drew schematics of alternative floor plans. Having a bookcase was a firm tradeoff for other uses of the same space.
Why not keep it? You can put almost anything in a bookcase, right?
First of all, I don’t have a lot of other stuff. I’m not a keeper of tchotchkes or collectibles. My life is my husband, my electronics, and my little parrot whose beakie I kiss throughout the day. Also the dog, who needs enough space in our living room to chase his tail in both directions.
I was annoyed with this particular bookcase. The Roomba won’t fit under it and Spike keeps throwing his ball under it. One day, a lizard got in and hid out back there, much to the consternation of the dog... It’s old and scuffed up, and it comes from my bachelorette days, when all my furniture matched. Over the years of marriage, merging households, relocations, and furniture upgrades, it is now the lowest-quality, oldest, and most worn out furnishing we own. Since we’ve downsized, it also has to be in the same room as our couch and dining table, when in the past it could be in a room where it didn’t clash. In short, the bookcase I assembled myself with so much excitement has now become an eyesore.
But the BOOKS!!!!!!!!
Look, I read constantly. Like most people, what is in my bookcase is not actually representative of what I actually read. Most people use their bookcases to display books they read IN THE PAST. The active reading is usually on the nightstand, the coffee table, or perhaps the top of the toilet tank. My grandma buys purses based on whether they’ll fit a thick paperback. My dad keeps his daily read in the cargo pocket of his pants. Me? Almost all of my reading is either digital, or it’s a library copy. The books I have in my bookcase are books I bought and put away without reading them. It’s an anomalous and foolish habit. I hang onto them, moving them from house to house, packing and unpacking them, because they’re not available as digital copies, the library doesn’t stock them, and I can’t bring myself to give them up.
Can’t seem to bring myself to read them, either.
This is a project I’ve been working on for the past five years.
What finally happened was that the desk I’ve had my eye on since last August went back on sale, after a price increase of $70. I bought it and called a Lyft to bring it home, even though I knew I wasn’t done with the bookcase downsizing project yet. My mounting frustration with my lack of a desk led me to the breaking point. Time to find a way. I want a desk more than I want two feet of unread paperback books.
My husband thoughtfully dropped everything and helped me. When he came home, he culled his own bookcase, freeing up a full quarter of the available space so I could have my own shelf. He also assembled the desk and helped me rearrange all this heavy stuff. His bookcase went two feet further along the wall, and the new desk sits exactly where my old bookcase used to sit.
That very evening, I pulled up a chair and set to work. Almost immediately, it became my favorite spot in our apartment. While my husband sits at his desk, a combination of soldering station, robotics workshop, and auxiliary workstation, I have somewhere to sit and work on my own projects. We both got a massive lifestyle upgrade.
What would be different for you if you did something similar?
What this is about is a focus on creation instead of consumption, making a work space for something you do rather than a storage and display area for things that you have. (Don’t argue with me; when they’re on a shelf you are not interacting with them or reading them, unless you have laser eyes). This is about stasis versus motion, your home as wallpaper and decoration rather than your home as a place where you live, work, create, and do things. Does your space serve you and your interests, or is your stuff physically blocking and preventing you from doing that?
Could you really use a space to spread out and make things? A work table? What would you do there? I can think of quite a list:
Making armor for your cat
Finishing your thesis
Writing a book
Playing a keyboard, piano, or organ
Labeling and shipping products for a side hustle
A lot of people have garage space that they have theoretically dedicated to a craft. This works better for a lot of projects that involve grease, wood dust, metal shavings, loud noise, fumes, shop tools, or special power outlets. In practice, garage workspaces usually have poor lighting and they’re either too cold in winter or too hot in summer, so they wouldn’t get used even if they were empty. The sad reality is that nearly all would-be project spaces are packed full of boxes or sporting equipment, mostly belonging to the kids or the romantic partner. The space can never be used because it’s being bogarted by someone else, and that’s a conversation/confrontation that will never happen.
Now hold that example in your mind: the would-be workspace that is unusable because there’s stuff in the way. Do you see how that can apply to having a bookcase where a desk or art space could be instead?
Most desks, in practice, aren’t functional desks either. The desk itself is there because it was inherited, because of inertia, or because it suits the decorating style of the owner. The reality is that its style doesn’t suit its supposed function. The knee well is too narrow or shallow. The drawers are heavy and they stick, and they’re the wrong dimension for what would logically go in them. They face a wall in an isolated room where the owner does not like to work alone. The lighting is, again, not good enough. Mostly, the desk is buried under depressing stacks and piles of papers and other objects. It’s not a functional workspace, it’s a storage area for stuff that has nowhere else to go. It’s like a kitchen for cooking boring things that taste bad. Making a desk into an art space would seem to require many hours of hard focus and concentration.
At my home, I no longer had a desk at all. This is why my battle was not between the desk-that-was and the art-that-could-be. It was a battle between the books-I’m-not-reading and the writing-I-do-every-day.
You can, as usual, do whatever you want. I encourage it. Do what you want! While you’re busy doing what you want, also pause for a moment and consider whether you are also getting what you want. Do you have adequate space to actively work on all your favorite hobbies? Are you getting to do what you want to do in the space that you have?
The rent? It’s too damn high, as I’m sure we can all agree. When I first moved out on my own, my rent equaled precisely 100% of my income. Two months later, I had it down to 80%, and eventually 50%, which is the case for 11 million Americans today. I have a deep distrust of property management companies. This is true even though I have a perfect 25-year track record of always getting my cleaning deposit back. I’m a great tenant with great credit. Even so, I only learned recently that you can negotiate your rent.
I’m not just saying that you can negotiate your rent with a private landlord, such as when you rent a room in a house.
I’m saying that you can even negotiate your rent with a big property management company.
What? How can this be?
The first principle of negotiations is that it’s possible for all parties involved to get the thing they want the most. The act of negotiation itself, when done with skill, can even bring all interested parties closer together. They’ve had a transaction of mutual benefit and demonstrated that it’s a smart idea to talk to one another. A good negotiation sets the stage for further good negotiations.
In the case of rent, the landlord or property manager has the goal of maximizing revenue from the property. This includes keeping reliable tenants in the unit as long as possible, minimizing maintenance and turnover costs. Reliable tenants also displace the unknown quantity of new, unproven tenants. Every month that a reliable tenant occupies the property is a month of income, rather than a month sitting empty with no rent coming in. An empty property is also vulnerable to squatters and vandals.
A tenant obviously has the goal of minimizing rent and utility costs, while living in the nicest neighborhood with the shortest work commute. My position is that many people tolerate conditions or deals that they should not. Skilled negotiation can help the owner or manager to understand that it is in everyone’s best interest to maintain and improve properties and to encourage civil behavior among residents.
By that I mean, neighbors who don’t clean up after their dogs, neighbors who fight on their balcony at 1 AM on a work night, neighbors whose car alarm keeps going off at 7 AM, neighbors who continually blare loud music out their open window, and this list is so far only covering one building in our complex.
It’s like this. If you want me to pay higher rent, I’d better be getting more value from it.
This is what actually happened.
We got an email saying that our lease was coming up in March, and that the rent would be going up $200 a month. Like fun it is! We had the option of renewing for six months, ten months, or month-to-month. Not even a year?
Was this rent increase to be coupled with a property improvement? Say, the removal of the fugly popcorn ceiling? Upgrading the oatmeal shag carpet to, perhaps, bamboo flooring? Putting in an air filter or air conditioning? Free wi-fi? Maybe just refreshing the battered, squealing equipment in the gym?
Haha, no. None of that.
WE are going to charge you MORE RENT, because we can. YOU are getting nothing except for the opportunity to PAY MORE RENT.
The thing is, this is not a fixed, final position.
Even they don’t think it is!
They just increase the rent, again, because they can, and also because most people never question it.
Most people are stuck. They’re either trapped by a mortgage, constrained by lack of savings, or emotionally attached to the neighborhood or their kids’ school or something. People will tolerate absurd commutes, homes that are not energy efficient, obnoxious neighbors, lack of amenities, and all sorts of persistent problems. Why is that?
Why do people hate moving so much? Because they have so much stuff!
My husband and I live in a 680-square-foot apartment. Everything we own fit in 65 boxes in one 20-foot moving van last time, and we’ve gotten rid of quite a bit of stuff since then. Our starting position in these negotiations was that we can simply find a cheaper place with a shorter commute. Pack in three days, move in one day, be completely unpacked in a week.
We’ve got the credit, we’ve got the savings, we’ve got the references. We are totally unafraid of relocating; we’ve already moved six times in our eight years as a married couple.
There’s a funny part to this story. When we got the letter claiming that our rent was going up (no, not if we move away it isn’t), my husband did some research. There were two one-bedroom units in our complex coming up for $500 LESS than what we were CURRENTLY paying! What’s more, the photo in the advertisements was of the unit that we actually occupy right now. Not just a similar unit, a unit with the same floor plan, but the same one!
Just to be cute, we can say at the beginning of the negotiation that we want to pay that rent for the unit we’re in. How about if you go right on ahead and LOWER our rent? We’ll pay the rent you’re advertising and you won’t have to bother vetting a new tenant. How about that?
The property manager claims not to be the decider. She does come back and offer us an increase of only $100, rather than the $200 we were initially shown.
See? It works! You can negotiate your rent!
Or at least, my husband can. I have to give him all the credit for this. I tell him I’ll pack the kitchen. Come on. It might not be saving us $5000 this year, but it will take a lot longer than the negotiating conversation did...
It doesn’t stop there, though. We learned that our building has higher rent than other buildings in the same complex because we supposedly have “a view.” *cough* We have a “peek view.” This means that because we can go to the very edge of our balcony, lean way over, and see a postage-stamp sized glimpse of the ocean, we have the luxury of paying an extra six thousand dollars a year in rent.
Well, forget that.
What we actually do is to apply for, and get, a “junior one bedroom” unit. (Popularly known as a “studio.”) It’s over $400 a month cheaper than what we’ve been paying. The layout and built-in shelving makes it feel larger, even though we’re dropping 70 square feet. The best part is that the new unit is right next to the pool, hot tub, and gym, as well as the nearest park, and it’s even slightly closer to the library, grocery store, bus stop, and post office. For our purposes, we’re getting a better apartment at a better price.
So there you have it. We decided to stay in our overpriced apartment complex because we like the location and because the property managers were willing to entertain our negotiations. If they had not, we would have simply found another place a couple of miles up the road and enjoyed both lower rent and a shorter commute. As of February, we’ll be saving over $400 a month rather than paying an extra $200 (or $100, the first result of negotiations).
We counted it up. The difference between what we will pay vs. the default we would have been charged is a full $8160 a year. This is part of why we 1. Don’t carry consumer debt and 2. Get to go on all these rad vacations. Because we put our financial independence first and because our physical possessions are expendable.
We have a month before our move-in date. We’re not going to bother even thinking about packing for three weeks, not because we’re disorganized or procrastinating, but because we already know how long it takes us to pack. We’ll spend the time hanging out in the hot tub and gloating because we’re such ace minimalists. We’ll also high-five because we’ve already finished one of our New Year’s Resolutions, which was to lower our rent. High five, babe!
How about you? Are you satisfied with all aspects of your current living situation? How about your finances? It’s always good to pause periodically and analyze your circumstances. This is where strategy begins.
It’s that time of the year. The winter holidays are officially over, giving us nothing but actual winter to think about until mid-March. Epiphany has passed, so Christmas is officially done. I’m talking to you, retail establishments I visited this weekend that still have fully trimmed Christmas trees on display. All the other holidays took their decorations down! It’s time to put all that stuff away. By “all that stuff,” I mean, of course, all the gift bags that are sitting around with their contents back inside, all the goodies that are still set temporarily on tables and counters and the fronts of bookshelves, and definitely all the packaging. How do we make room for all the new material objects that have come to stay?
When I do home visits, it never fails to amuse me that we find so many intact gift bags with the tags still on. Usually you can tell what year or what occasion they arrived, because there’s a card. It’s like an archaeological dig. We find stacks of unspent gift cards. We find ornaments and decorations. We find white elephants and gag gifts. We even find candy and other food! Sometimes the unused gifts are quite nice, and my client will exclaim over them. When you forget that you got something, and then rediscover it, is it twice as fun?
There are a lot of different reasons for why my people don’t open and use their gifts. It depends on the person and on the situation.
Got distracted and forgot all about it
Planning to use it “soon”
Felt guilty about receiving something nice
Felt ashamed for not having reciprocated the gift, or some other reason
Conflict with the gift-giver
Dislike of the gift
Disappointment at not receiving that year’s heart’s desire
“Saving it for later” because it feels so special and valuable, too nice to actually be used
Creating a time capsule to preserve the memories of the special occasion
No idea of where to put the new gift or how to use it
Want to get rid of the gift, but don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
Lost it somewhere in a pile
Allergic to money and can never just cash a check, use a gift card, or put cash in a wallet
Got sick and lost a few weeks
Regardless, having unopened gifts years after the occasion in question is almost never anyone’s intention. The gift-giver wants to make you happy, or, at least, remember you and make you feel included. Even if it’s an obligation, at least you were on the checklist. When you receive a gift, if you like it, you should use it and enjoy it, because that honors the giver and it was the purpose of the gift. If you don’t like it, then why are you keeping it?
Unwanted gifts are a potent symbol of failed communications.
In my family, we make wish lists. If someone wants to upgrade an appliance or something, we spread the word, and then others in the family can pool resources and buy it. We’ve given each other everything from stoves to doors to fruit trees. There isn’t much room for silly gifts, because we’ve always focused on the practical stuff. Unwanted gifts often come from the giver’s total lack of ideas of what you might want.
Sometimes unwanted gifts come from the giver’s desire to push something on you. This is very mysterious, but common. I want you to decorate for this holiday - why won’t you do it my way? I want you to eat these foods - why won’t you? I want you to dress this way - why can’t you look like my image of you? I want you to have hobbies I understand and live out my values. Use these gifts so you can be the way I want you to be.
Sometimes, the gift was the most the giver could afford. Their desire to please you and delight you involved things that were outside their price range, so they did as well as they could.
I sometimes imagine what it would look like if various forest animals brought me gifts. This can be blamed on a children’s book I made my mom read to me over and over again when I was four. (The Party That Grew). A parakeet had a party, and the other birds brought stuff for a potluck. Mayhem ensued when the owl showed up! I imagine that a squirrel might bring me a pinecone, a Stellar’s jay might bring me a blue feather, and a raccoon might tear up my tent and steal my breakfast. Maybe it can help to look at the gift-giving process as a way that various people just demonstrate their innate characteristics, something they do that reflects almost entirely on them and not on you, or even their relationship with you.
What do we do with it all, though? Where do we put it? What do we keep and what do we... thoughtfully regift?
I used to take any random silly gift that I might have gotten, say from an office “Secret Santa,” and bring it to my in-laws’ white elephant exchange.
Sometimes I would have a “free box” that I would put out if a group of friends were coming over. It might include random gifts, a book I had finished, nail polish that turned out not to be my color, a seed packet, or who knows. This is similar to a “Naked Lady” party where a group of friends-of-friends meet to trade clothes and accessories.
I might also unload stuff I wasn’t going to use at a charity rummage sale, or give it to a friend’s child.
Giving gifts is THE END of our power and control over the gift. We don’t get to say that other people have to keep stuff in their house. We can’t force people to like things, or to be grateful, or to feel more affectionate toward us. Not with gifts, or love, or money, or sweet words, or magic spells, or hot fresh pancakes, or anything. All we can do is give. Hey, and, that works both ways. We accept the gesture graciously, we work on our inner feelings of regard toward the giver, and our work is done. The object that remains is just that, an object.
This time of year, it can be fun to go through the house and make space for new things. A new book takes the place of a book we got bored and quit reading. A new pair of socks take the place of an old, threadbare pair, like the rainbow-striped pair I just discarded with the hole in the heel. The cycle of seasons and ritual gift-giving reminds us that sometimes, it’s good to evaluate what we already have. Out with the old and in with the new.
PS Those expired gift cards? They aren’t really expired. You can call up the retailer and have the amount reinstated with a new expiration date. It doesn’t even cost anything. Go out for the day and use them up on things you’d like, or donate them to a cause you care about.
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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.