We tried an experiment on this, our most recent move. If I'm counting right, this is the sixth time we've moved in eight years of marriage. The idea was to track what is in each box so that we could find anything we needed. We've never done anything like this before, so I thought I'd report back on how it worked out.
Answer: It was AWESOME! Still is, in fact, because we started unpacking on Saturday afternoon and we only have seven boxes left. That means we're already 90% done!
It worked like this. We went around the house, visually estimating how many boxes we would need of each size. This worked really well; we were short about five small boxes at the very end, but otherwise we nailed it. Then we set up a numbering system so that we could both number boxes while working independently. My series started at zero and his started at 100.
We didn't do anything about trying to keep boxes of the same size together. We didn't stage them in numerical order. They didn't get loaded on the van or stacked in storage by numerical order. They were simply numbered and labeled. My husband taught me to write the number on all three corners on the same side of each box, so they would be visible from the top, front, or side.
The labels are the most important part, aside from the inventory list. We started with the ROOM and then a few of the key items in the box. Such as: BEDROOM, machete, yoga mat, ukulele. Getting the boxes staged in the appropriate room in the new house is the most important part. This is why I don't believe in the concept of 'miscellaneous,' also known as MISC (the dreaded misc). Everything is "a thing I use in this room." If the room a thing belongs in is not clear, then it is probably a useless thing.
The inventory is the slightly more complicated part. It's especially complicated when you accidentally delete it off your phone and then have to hunt it down. (Don't do that). It could easily be done with paper and pencil; index cards might be useful. We only had about 70 boxes, so even a handwritten list would not have been unmanageable. I dictated our list because my phone has speech recognition. I would list the number of the box and then list off the contents in detail - more detail than we wrote on the box itself. For instance, Box 106 included a pair of ski gloves. I was able to indicate that the base of the blender went into one box, while the pitcher went into another box of more fragile items. Like that.
Having this inventory while we unpack has been incredible. It is SO helpful to know what you're getting into before you open a box. There have been several occasions when we needed something specific and were able to go right to it, such as the dog's bowls, the mattress pad, and the power strips. In some cases, we were even able to figure that certain boxes could go on the bottom of a stack with more urgent boxes on top.
Almost everything on this move was boxed up. In previous moves, we have always wound up with a lot of loose items. Last time, we made a couple of trips per night over about a week, and I hand-carried the most fragile stuff, one load at a time. That method makes it really challenging to estimate how many boxes you'll need, and thus there are never enough. The van winds up being full of all kinds of loose items, like garden hoses and lamps, and it's really hard to unload. All the loose things are much harder to unload than they were to cram into every available nook and cranny of the moving van. I am now a total convert to boxing every possible thing, even myself if that means I can hide and avoid having to carry another mattress down a ramp.
We have had professional movers twice, once when they stored everything for three weeks between homes. While professional movers are incredibly hard-working people with great spatial skills, I would rather avoid ever having to hire a service to do this job again. After a certain point, they just start carrying things in and setting them down wherever they fit. Last time, we had a floor lamp next to the toilet, because, isn't that where everyone puts their lamps? They even pack wastebaskets with stuff still in them. I can honestly say that with this move, we were more organized than professional movers. That is when minimalism really starts to pay off.
We got rid of three carloads of stuff before our move, after holding a yard sale and eliminating roughly another carload. After we saw our new apartment, we realized that a lot more would have to go, and we dropped off the equivalent of another pickup load, mostly consisting of plastic garage shelving. By far the easiest way to take inventory and pack up for a move is to get rid of as much stuff as possible first! Start with the fragile stuff and continue with anything irregularly shaped or hard to pack. Fill grocery bags with as many small items as you can bear to eliminate. When you are twelve hours in on moving day and haven't had dinner yet, you will thank yourself.
Moving does not have to be a horror show. The better organized and the more streamlined, the easier it is, and the sooner we can all get back to relaxing and playing with our phones, the ultimate proof that we don't use, need, or even enjoy most of our possessions anyway.
Things get complicated. Life itself gets complicated all the time, of course, and the things in our lives can add to that complication. An example of this is when my husband got an offer for his dream job, and we had TWELVE DAYS to move or accept a four-hour daily commute. This is when theory meets practice.
We had three things to do. The priority was for my husband to fill out the numerous Human Resources forms for the new job. Second was to find a new place to live. Third was to pack our stuff and vacate our house. Oh, and the timing just happened to fall during the same week we were getting rid of our car. The game was to balance the schedule, the finances, the transportation, the pets, and the material goods in the optimal way.
Bonus rounds: try to get a refund of prorated rent from our current landlord if he can get a new tenant in early; find a new home with mass transit access; find a new home that does not cost more than the current place but also takes exotic pets.
Due to the tight timeline, we realized that we simply wouldn't be able to pack up the house and look for a new place at the same time. There was just too much to do and it was too far to commute to screen new places. We made the unconventional decision to move our stuff twice, using a storage unit as a temporary stopping point and sleeping at an Airbnb. If we owned as much stuff as the standard American household, this would have been crazy talk.
Everything we own fit in a 20' moving van.
The next constraint was that we were moving to the beach, and there are two basic choices in our price range. A sad shack with no garage or yard, or a relatively nice apartment. There were very few houses available at any price, and they included: two that were only available for a 3-5 month lease; one with NO HEAT that recommended using space heaters in the actual ad; one with a bedroom too small to contain a king-size mattress. The standard seemed to be original 1960's linoleum, no dishwasher, and sub-600 square feet. Meanwhile, the apartments all included gyms and a long list of amenities, some of which were nicer than a few hotels where we've stayed. Hmm. Depressing hovel, or permanent vacation? Apartment it is!
A 680-square-foot apartment at that. A two-car garage is 400 square feet if that tells you anything.
I should take a moment to talk about the dream job. Space mechatronics. My husband is an aerospace engineer, and after 24 years, he's finally getting the chance to work on what he wanted to do when he was still in school. He's so excited it's completely adorable. Honestly I think he would sleep under his desk if that's what it took to get this job. Living in an apartment instead of a house is a perfectly reasonable tradeoff, especially an apartment on the beach.
The standard response to most unconventional choices is I COULD NEVER DO THAT. That statement is never literally true. It's only emotionally true. Anyone CAN move to a new place. Anyone CAN get rid of physical possessions. It's not complicated. We decided several years ago that we would relocate anywhere for the right job. We also decided that our lifestyle was more important than our stuff.
This is how it worked out:
Got boxes at 6:30 PM on Tuesday
Picked up moving van at 10 AM Friday
Finished loading van AND doing full move-out house-cleaning by 8:30 PM Friday
Moved entire contents of van into storage unit between 12 and 5 PM Saturday
Found and applied for apartment on Sunday
Started new job on Monday
Reserved rental van on Tuesday
Picked up keys for new apartment on Friday
Picked up van at 8:30 AM on Saturday and returned it at 9:30 PM
Unpacked from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM on Sunday
Dropped: one bedroom, two-car garage, laundry room, yard, 48 square feet of living space
As of right now, the bed, couch, and dining table are set up. I was able to cook a proper meal in the kitchen. We still need a shower curtain, but over the weekend we turned an empty apartment into an 80% functional, messy home.
We were able to accept the job offer and relocate in only twelve days because we had the savings to cover double rent, move-in fees, and a security deposit, pet boarding, two van rentals, and a storage unit; the credit scores to get accepted in the new place; the physical ability to pack and haul our own stuff twice in the same week; and the emotional wherewithal to downsize and get rid of an entire garage's worth of tools. Yes, we get to live our dream life and play on the beach now. It came as the result of being stringently frugal savers and yet profligate in donating and giving away anything that wouldn't fit in a 680-square-foot apartment.
If you could live your dream life, what would you keep and what would you give away?
Do you have a dream life?
Which do you spend more time thinking about: your stuff or your life?
Guess what? You'll never guess. Actually, you probably will, if you've followed my exploits for more than a year. Surprise, we're moving again! Cue party noisemakers and confetti. This will be our first move in... *counts on fingers*... fourteen and a half months. This is why we're minimalists, and getting to be more so every year. I'll be writing about this process over the next few weeks, as we strategize, pack, move, unpack, and get settled in.
We decided not long after we got married that we will probably never own a house. The reason for this is that mortgages are structured in favor of the bank, and the interest and fees are front-loaded. If you aren't completely positive that you'll still be living in the same house at LEAST five years from now, it's financially extremely risky. You are almost guaranteed to lose money. If you're underwater on your home loan and you're forced to sell, you're sunk. We looked at our situation after the crash of 2008, realized that we were unlikely to spend THREE years in one house, much less any longer, and accepted the nomadic life. Now, when my husband gets an enticing job offer, it's a simple matter for us.
Accept offer. 2. Give notice to landlord. 3. Order moving boxes. 4. Reserve moving van. 5. Pack. 6. Move to whatever new city has the latest most awesome job opportunity.
We did the first four of these steps in about an hour. Two days later, we advertised a yard sale. Now, we're still waiting for the delivery of the moving boxes. We're not sweating it, though, because our house is only 728 square feet. We can fit both our entire wardrobes in a pair of large suitcases. We've scheduled three days to pack so that we can take breaks.
I plan to use a stopwatch when we pack each room, so I can get an estimate of how long packing really takes. This is one thing I've never done before. I've counted the number of moving boxes we've used before, which is 100, but I haven't tallied them by room yet. I have a strong suspicion that we won't be needing 100 moving boxes this time.
Minimalism is all about strategy. We made a policy decision not to buy a house. We made a policy decision not to spend more than a certain percentage of our income on rent. We made an aesthetic agreement that we prefer small houses, and for comfort, we both prefer putting our bed in the smallest bedroom.
When my husband began his job search, we understood that we had about a 5% chance of being able to stay in the same neighborhood. Another of our policy decisions is that it's not worth it to us for him to have a long commute. We'd rather spend one week packing and unpacking than have him sitting on the freeway for five hours or more every week in perpetuity. I married him and I kinda like seeing his face from time to time.
The clock started ticking two months out. We started planning meals around what we had in the fridge, freezer, and pantry. Points for every meal that finishes off a container of something. The last time we had professional movers, we learned that they would not take certain items overnight, including food, any kind of liquids or chemicals, explosives, firearms, plants, live animals, and various other items. We wound up with an entire truckload we had to haul ourselves, partly consisting of our suitcases and the crates for our pets, but mostly made up of pantry boxes. I was very embarrassed and annoyed, and made an effort from that point forward to eat it up and buy less. That is another policy decision: a streamlined, minimal pantry.
Every time we've moved, we've wound up in a smaller house with a smaller garage and less kitchen storage. We wind up downsizing twice: first, before we move, and second, after we try to unpack in the new place and realize that certain things just won't fit. This will be our sixth move in eight years, and we're much more serious about it this time. Anything we don't use physically, literally, every single day, is under scrutiny. Even some of the things we DO use every day are subject to analysis.
We base our plans around our emotional experience of life. What do we do in our living room? We lounge around relaxing with our pets. What do we do in our kitchen? We cook a lot and we like to talk at the dining table. What do we do in our office? We like to work on our passion projects. We plan what we keep in each room based around how we are using the room. Heaps of junk mail, mounds of dirty laundry, stacks of dishes, and piles of random, unsorted stuff are not on any of our lists for Favorite Use of Space. Knowing how we like to spend our time at home is a big help when we start scrolling through pictures of dozens of houses and hundreds of rooms, looking for our new place.
The less stuff we have, the smaller a place we can fit in. The smaller our home, the better the neighborhoods we can afford. We have found that our quality of life improves immeasurably when we can live close enough to work for a short commute. That often means fitting in a really small home. It's not just about high rents: a lot of areas don't even have large homes at any price. We learned that a 1500 square foot home in our current city would cost $1000 a month more in rent, and I don't know about you, but... yeah, no. Most people probably would choose the larger house with the longer commute explicitly so that they can keep all their stuff. We're the opposite. Calculate your hourly wage including your commute time, and then go and get your crying pillow, because you're going to need it.
At time of writing, we have a moving van to pick up on Friday, a storage unit reserved for our stuff, and a pending Airbnb reservation. What we don't have yet is anywhere to live in April, because WING-IT METHOD. Watch this space for exciting dispatches from the Place of Uncertainty!
I just sold my elliptical. Man, I loved that thing. I tried out at least half a dozen different models before settling on it, the one with the stride that felt most natural to me. I put more miles on it than I have on some of my shoes! It was hard to say goodbye, but I made the decision. It had to go.
BUT IT'S WORTH SOMETHING!
Stuff is worth its use to us. If it's not being used, it has no value. In many cases, it has LESS than no value. Most stuff costs us money, time, and convenience to keep. It gets in the way, gathers dust, and ties us down in ways we don't even realize. I've moved so many times that I see physical possessions as a liability. The elliptical I loved so much is something I really shouldn't have bought at all. I knew that going in, so I already had an exit strategy before I went shopping.
Exit strategy - how you're going to get out of a situation, whether it's a job, neighborhood, relationship, or anything that won't last forever, whether that's good, bad, or neutral.
Why did I buy a 300-pound piece of exercise equipment?
I knew with absolute certitude that I would use it. I have a long track record of self-discipline with working out. In fact, sometimes self-discipline means I don't allow myself to work out, because I'm tapering or nursing an injury.
Compared to a monthly gym membership, the cost would eventually be fully amortized.
I bought it used, and it cost significantly less than a new model.
I had the space for it, in our oddly shaped, disproportionately large living room. It would also fit easily through the sliding glass back door. (But then we moved, and it would only fit in the garage).
I lost 25 pounds on that elliptical. I did part of my marathon training on it. There were a lot of late nights when I used it out in the garage, rather than make my husband nervous by running around the neighborhood.
Okay. These are reasons the item was valuable to me. It sounds like a list of compelling arguments to keep the thing. The way I look at it, this is actually a list of reasons why I derived full value from its use. I used it up, in the same way I would use up an apple or a pair of socks. The only difference is that it still retains value that can be used by someone else.
How much was losing 25 pounds worth to me? That would have been full value.
How much was running a marathon worth to me? That would have been full value.
How much was it worth to me not to pay a gym membership for three years? More than the cost.
According to my calculations, I've gotten more than triple the sticker price out of this machine.
More importantly, though, I consider the cost of ownership. There are several reasons why it would now cost me money to keep.
It's obsolete. The model has been discontinued. It's huge and bulky and heavy and it lacks many of the features of new models. New models do more for a lower price. Thus, if I waited another couple of years, I might never be able to find a buyer.
It might have cost me money to dispose of it. Not only might we have had to pay a dump fee, we would have had to rent a vehicle big enough to haul it off, or pay someone else to do it.
If we kept it and took it with us to our new place the next time we moved, we would either have to rent a bigger van just to make room for the elliptical, or make two trips. It was bigger than a couch.
Moving it had elements of risk. Either we moved it ourselves and risked an injury, or we would have had to pay someone else to risk the injuries. That would be sad and awful and also a legal liability.
Our new place wouldn't have enough room to keep it. It would be really, really dumb to rent a bigger place specifically to accommodate a depreciating asset. How many thousands of dollars would that be?
The default answer when most people consider getting rid of something involves cognitive bias. We value our own stuff much more highly than we would value the same item if it belonged to someone else. We also tend to drive away opportunities because we refuse to let go unless our mental price is met, even if that price has no basis in reality. This is how we get stuck. We stay rooted in one spot, missing out on who knows how many opportunities, until we finally decide we're ready to let go, and then find that we missed the peak sales window. Our treasures have turned into old junk.
Eventually you can't even give it away.
I used to have an elliptical. I had some great times on it, and it's a good memory. But my life changed, and it was time to let it go. It would have cost me so much to keep it that I would have paid someone to take it away. I got so much value out of it that I could have given it away for free. It would have been expensive to keep, but I managed to sell it! The purchaser rented a van to haul it away, and for that plus the bidding price, he could have bought a new model. I believe I sold my used old elliptical for as much as the market would bear.
Two of the most expensive mistakes you can make are made by the majority of people every single day. One is to pay a higher mortgage or rent because you have so much stuff that you need extra rooms. Calculate the price per square foot of your place and then ask yourself why you're in debt and can't afford to go on vacation. The second, and far more expensive mistake, is to stay nailed down in one area when you could have a more interesting and better paid job by relocating. There is also the factor of a long commute time. Many people choose to live farther from their place of employment so they can have a bigger house or yard, which they can then never enjoy because they are always on the freeway. We live in a tiny house because it means my husband can walk to work. This is so awesome that we'd live in a studio apartment if we had to.
Stuff versus lifestyle. That's really what it comes down to. There is no piece of equipment so excellent that it would be worth needing a bigger house, having a longer commute, losing our geographic mobility, or eating into our travel fund. I wouldn't drag around something that big any more than I would strap a boat anchor to my back. Nothing is worth as much as our freedom and peace of mind.
If you've tried other organizing and decluttering books and been stymied, then you need Scaling Down: Living Large in a Smaller Space. While the book is aimed at a more mature audience who are downsizing to smaller homes, the way it addresses the thought processes and emotional work of decluttering would be good for anyone.
The authors, Judi Culbertson and Marj Decker, have been professional organizers for many years. They have obviously heard it ALL. Scaling Down includes many anecdotes of various people who succeeded (or failed) at downsizing in different scenarios. There are cartoons and a lot of humor, although there are some sad moments. For instance, it never ceases to amaze me how grown adults will allow a trivial family trinket to destroy relationships, and there are examples of that here.
The most valuable part of the book is the way it walks through the way to make different kinds of decisions about stuff. Not just physical possessions, but downsizing to a smaller home, clearing out storage units, disconnecting from a career at retirement, setting boundaries in new marriages or with adult kids, and more. There is a chapter on dealing with the possessions of an older relative who has become incapacitated or passed away. For those of us who haven't yet had to confront the types of issues that are common to senior adults, it brings true perspective to the effort of downsizing. Future Self is simply not going to need all this stuff. It's so much easier to make the decisions and do the sorting now, while we're relatively hale and hearty.
I'm currently living in a space slightly less than half the size of the house we moved into as newlyweds. We've had to downsize the kitchen four times in seven years of marriage. We've found that we prefer a cozy, snug, human-sized space, the type that was common in the early 20th century. It feels more homey. It's also easier to clean, easier to find things, and cheaper to heat and cool. With two middle-aged adults and two messy pets, we can attest that everything in Scaling Down is true.
In my professional work with hoarding and squalor, I have seen a lot. I can't say I've seen everything, though, because I know there's one thing I've never seen. I've never been in a home with an empty closet.
The paradoxical thing about closets is that they're meant to hide things, yet they are usually so full that most of the stuff that they're meant to hide has to be left out in the open. We use our closets to store things we never use. Then the space isn't available for our "real" stuff when we want to put it away. There's no away to put it.
The clothes we really wear are either in the laundry basket, on top of the dresser, draped on a chair, or in the dryer. Meanwhile, the closet and dresser are full of clothes that don't fit or that we forgot we even owned.
The coat closet is so full of random junk that there's no room for coats or backpacks.
The kitchen cabinets are so full of mismatched plastic containers and travel cups with no lids that there's no room to put all the dishes away.
We rent storage units we can't truly afford because we think we don't have enough space. We use them to store stuff we can't bear to get rid of, that we think we really love, and we demonstrate that by keeping it away from our house and never using it.
I live in a 728-square-foot house that was built in 1939. All the houses in our neighborhood are about the same size - or smaller - because that was the norm back then. The bedroom closet rod is four feet long, and that's supposed to be for two people. There is no coat closet. Even though this house is half the size of the house we moved into when we first got married, there's plenty of room. It turns out that even the tiniest studio apartment has room for the true necessities: toiletries, linens, a functional kitchen, enough changes of clothes for two weeks, some books, and a file of important papers.
There isn't as much room for things that didn't exist in 1939, like a large-screen TV, a desktop computer, a set of every small kitchen appliance ever made, or my hula hoop collection. When our house was built, people had an average of nine outfits. They didn't have massive inventories of craft supplies or holiday decorations like we do today. Kids only had a couple of toys each. Stuff cost more and most people didn't have access to credit. People believed in these mysterious things called "nest eggs" and "life savings." They got their sense of security from their family, friends, jobs, pantries, and savings accounts, not a thick insulation of material goods.
Most of us live in homes that were built more recently than the 1930s. Living space has expanded over the years, adding roughly three hundred square feet per decade. As of 2013, the average was 2600 square feet, which is more than triple the size of the house I rent today. What the heck are people doing with all that space? How do they clean it all? How can they afford the heating and air conditioning? I'm starting to think the answer is that we can't keep up with the cleaning, and it's stressing us out. We can't afford the heating and cooling, either, or the mortgage, and that's stressing us out even more. We think we need all the space, though, because it's the cultural norm and because WHERE ELSE WOULD WE PUT ALL OUR STUFF? We live in historically unprecedented ginormous houses and yet we still think we need storage units.
What if we started prioritizing the home itself over the stuff it contains? What if we paid more attention to the experience of living where we do? How much of our time do we spend looking for lost items, arguing over housework, fretting over money, or grumbling about the laundry? Home should be a sanctuary. It should be a place of comfort and relaxation. Our living space should reflect our personal tastes and show that YES, this is how I choose to live! This is intentional! I have one place in all the world that I can shape to reflect my preferences. In this little corner of the world, everything is exactly the way I want it.
That can't be the case when our closets are bulging and our dresser drawers are cracking. I should know; my closet rod snapped under the weight of all my clothes one day. There can be no tranquility or serenity in a cluttered, grubby house full of power struggles and money worries. The structure of the home itself teaches us that there are natural physical limits. Just as we have physical limits for sleep deprivation, thirst, and excess food consumption, our homes have limits for how many objects they can logically contain. We start by looking at the available space and using it for the obvious: our practical needs. Anything that doesn't fit and isn't a practical necessity is under suspicion for getting in the way and lowering our quality of life.
I know why we surround ourselves with stuff. Because we’re bored.
We can’t think of any reasons to clean up that are interesting enough to actually get down and do it.
We’re totally okay with doing almost the exact same things almost every single day. We’re fine with having the same things to vent and complain about. We’re good with having the same unfinished projects, open loops, and procrastinated chores from one week to the next.
Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Eat. Get maximum amount of screen time. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There are thousands upon thousands of things we could be doing with the physical space that we’ve claimed with our clutter. We simply choose to leave it filled up with stuff because we don’t have any better ideas.
I’m a horrible snoop. When I walk around town, and someone’s garage door is up, I always take a peek. Here in the US, almost every garage looks about the same: full of boxes with a goat trail over to the washer and dryer. Sometimes there will be one that’s set up with a “bedroom” space or two. People sleep out there in the heat. That’s interesting, but maybe in a bad way?
What else do I see?
Surgically immaculate space with nothing but a car, a laundry area, and a rack of mops and brooms.
A woman’s kickboxing practice area. (I’d offer to make friends with her, but unfortunately we were already planning to move).
Various weightlifting gyms.
Various motorcycle and custom auto shops.
Various wood shops.
Ping-pong tables, pool tables, air hockey tables, foosball tables – open and actually in use.
The neighborhood social hub, with a dozen laughing people in their 20s and a couple of hookahs and bean bag chairs.
What I’ve noticed with the working garages is that they’re all really cool in their own unique way. The guys who run custom vehicle shops usually have a bunch of signs, neon, and often a mini fridge. The many gyms I see in use are clean, well-lit, and usually playing music. The dens of socializing tend to have chairs and party lights. It often seems like the garage is the center of the home, that at least one household member spends more time out there than the rest of the house put together.
The only thing they all have in common is that they’re not boring. They’ve all been carefully arranged for maximum use and enjoyment.
Patios can be the same way. Everyone in my 1930s-era suburban neighborhood has a back yard. Tiny SoCal yards, but yards all the same. Some people have a lot of yard parties and barbecues. Others don’t. Some have them filled with stacks of rubber tubs covered with tarps. We can thank whoever remodeled our rental house for putting in a covered patio with a ceiling fan and leaving behind a great outdoor dining table and chairs. It’s the first yard I’ve had that makes me want to be out there all the time. In fact, I like it so much that I took a picture of it and put it on the lock screen of my phone. There’s nothing out there but the table, the fan, and my parrot’s climbing tree, but it looks perfect to me. Noelle loves it so much that she resists every time it’s time to go back inside, even if it’s getting chilly and windy.
Why do we buy things we don’t need? I think it’s usually because we’d rather be at that particular store than back at home. Every store tends to be better organized, cleaner, and better lit than most people’s home living areas. It’s the same reason we like to go out to eat, even when the food is contributing to problems such as our rapidly expanding debt. We don’t have to fight over who does the dishes and we don’t have to clear counter space first. Home and hearth aren’t nurturing, relaxing spaces where we feel our most fulfilled. Our homes are instead places of irritation, resentment, frustration, and boredom.
When we got back from Spain, we realized that we physically hadn’t sat on a couch in three weeks. We had been everywhere in planes, trains, buses, ferries, funiculars, and taxis. We had slept either in sleeping bags or the beds of four-star hotels. We had climbed a few hundred flights of stairs. What we hadn’t done was to simply sit on a couch. It was a revelation! We wallowed in it. We were jet lagged, so we unapologetically lounged all over it with our dog. A month later, it had somehow transformed from Cushions of Wonder to plain old ordinary couch again.
We’re careful, though. We put our planning focus, after maxing out our retirement contributions for the year, on travel. That means whenever we pick up an object and think about buying it, we see the price tag in terms of what experience we’re trading off. The two of us took a day trip to Morocco for about $65. We could spend the same amount on an average Saturday by going out for breakfast, picking up Starbucks, going to a movie, and buying a bucket of popcorn. Or I could spend it on a single pair of shoes that were too uncomfortable to even wear. We could also fritter it away slowly on sodas and bags of chips. It’s the same money, but we’re more likely to notice the impact when we plan a peak experience versus letting it trickle out on dumb stuff over weeks or months.
We didn’t clean out any closets while we were in Spain. We didn’t clean out the garage, either. That’s because we didn’t have to. We have the money to go on cool trips every couple of years because we don’t spend it fighting everyday boredom the rest of the time. We don’t have to clean out closets all the time because we don’t fill them with stuff. These things are connected. We build our lives around activities other than shopping, screen time, and procrastination. I sometimes rush to work ahead a bit, because I like leaving an immaculate house before locking the door for a long trip. We keep the house clear because we’re paying for the smallest house we could find, and we physically don’t have the space to fill with anything we don’t actively need. Our version of a life worth living doesn’t include a bunch of extra physical possessions.
What could you do with your space that would be more interesting than the way it is now? Clear out a storage unit and use the money to take a class, or to free yourself from the shackle of debt? Clear out a “spare” room, scour the house top to bottom, and start renting the space on AirBnB? Have an empty room for dance or yoga? Have a home office and start seeing clients? (Bookkeeping, palmistry, or what-have-you). Clear out the garage and make a robotics laboratory? (Oh, that’s us). What’s the most interesting thing you can think of doing? If you’re not doing it, what could you do to make it happen? My guess is that it would include freeing up either space, money, time, or all three. What’s stopping you?
I found a note tucked into the slats of the picket fence around our front yard. A film production company wanted to advise our neighborhood that they would be filming on Saturday. They politely explained that extra crew trucks and vehicles would be using our street parking, and provided a permission slip for us to check off. There was contact information for the film company and the relevant city office. Essentially, we were being informed that this was happening, like it or not, and they had the legal right to be here. The next morning, a surfer-looking guy knocked on my door and asked for the form. I signed it and gave it to him.
We have no reason to be concerned about our house being in a movie. We also have no concerns about street parking. We only have one vehicle, and there’s room for at least two in our driveway. We rent this house. The two owners of our house live next door, and they send a yard service once a week. It comes out of our rent. That’s standard in suburban SoCal. This is all a roundabout way of explaining that we don’t identify with the way our house looks from the street. It’s fine; it’s a nice place to live, but we don’t expect it to reflect our personalities or anything. I’d be surprised if we still live here in four years.
It made me think, though. I work with hoarding, squalor, and chronic disorganization. Most of my people would freak if they knew someone might capture their house or yard on film. The idea that someone would knock on the front door and potentially see inside the house for a moment would be a very creepy thought. Picturing their home displayed on a big screen in front of a national audience would be depressing and overwhelming.
There’s one like it in every neighborhood, and often more than one. Sometimes when I walk around my ambit I wish I could leave a business card in the mailbox. I know my crowd, though, and such a gesture would more likely catalyze a shame spiral than anything productive. “People can see! They are JUDGING ME!” It’s hard not to notice that some houses are different, even if they don’t have a feature like a waist-high wall of rubber tubs of clutter under a tarp. Nothing about one of these yards actually says “home.” All that shows is lack of love, neglect, trouble, or even danger.
It’s not a judgment on the occupants if the house doesn’t look so great from the outside. Passersby are generally going to guess that someone elderly, ill, or financially strained lives there. Maybe they just moved in and are working through a long list of repairs and remodeling before they tackle the landscaping. Who knows? New roofs are expensive. Painting an exterior is a lot of work. The drought (here at least) is affecting everyone, and there’s a wait list for lawn removal and drought-tolerant landscaping. The nearest neighbors may impatiently be waiting for a makeover on the least-attractive house in the neighborhood, but nobody else really cares. They’ll only notice after something starts happening to make it prettier.
When the tubs and piles and stacks start showing up, then people do start judging. It’s one thing if the bags are going out to the street and getting hauled away on a regular basis. It’s another thing if a dead couch or recliner or mattress or television suddenly appears on the curb and sits there for weeks or months. Every single person who sees something like that there on the second day starts muttering, “It only costs $20 to drop that off at the dump.”
The nightmare is really on the other side of the door. Almost everyone who lives in a troubled house would fix it, if only it were that easy. We don’t always know what to do. We often have some kind of mobility or health issue that makes the physical aspects of space clearing too difficult to do alone. Usually the financial situation does not allow for repairs, remodeling, or hiring people to help. In every case, we’re in such a bad emotional space that we can’t even imagine what “better” or “good” would feel like. My people try hard, but when I assign them a visualization exercise about a perfect day or a fantasy outcome, they can’t do it. They don’t have a dream of something better, and trying to come up with one is one of the hardest things I ask of them. That’s why having their house in a movie would be a horror scenario, not a romantic comedy.
Everything is simple at my house. It’s only 728 square feet, but we downsized until we fit. There’s a tiny front porch, and we brought out two of the metal patio chairs from the back. We had a couple of decorative pots, and we spent a few dollars on rosemary and lavender. Then we really went nuts and bought a rosebush for $16. That’s it. We sit out there sometimes and watch our dog roll on his back in the grass. We bring out the parrot and watch as she learns to climb the steps all by herself. (That’s tough when you’re only nine inches tall). The only maintenance we have to do is to bring in the mail and NOT ADD any physical objects. As a result, if our house appears fleetingly in someone’s movie, it’ll be nothing more than a smooth backdrop. Nobody would ever remember seeing it. That’s a good thing. If my home is going to be in a movie, I’d prefer that the house and yard be the least interesting part of it.
This is basically a pro-junk book, in the sense that Alison Stewart treats junk as an interesting subject. It is, of course. Nobody would collect clutter otherwise. Junk is a sympathetic and funny look at what is increasingly becoming a major part of American culture.
The book begins with Stewart’s quest to clear out her parents’ basement. She has the help of her sister and a friend. Still, it takes them eight months. This includes a mutual agreement not to even glance at any photographs, but put them aside for later. The project introduces her to the world of junk haulers and professional organizers.
Apparently, the need for organizers and junk haulers still provokes skepticism in many people. All I can say to that is that they must have only well-organized friends. My work over the past twenty years leads me to estimate that at least 20% of the population in the US has trouble with chronic disorganization, Stage One hoarding, squalor, or all of the above. This was probably not the case earlier in our nation’s history, as people had to make their own material goods and repair, reuse, or do without. Now, we are constantly surrounded by junk mail and cheap consumer goods.
Stewart explores these issues, even including an interview with the man who sent the first spam email. Anything described as ‘junk’ has a place in the book, including space junk. I learned that ‘junk’ began as a nautical term for worn-out rope, giving the word a connotation of stuff that is not only useless, but worse than useless, as trying to make it last longer can be dangerous and destructive.
Minimalism and tiny homes make their appearance. A couple of people who are profiled live a minimalist lifestyle in tiny homes. There is also a tiny home community for people who are transitioning away from homelessness. Junk hauling plays a large role in the continuing function of this community. It is interesting how some of the people whom Stewart profiles wind up absorbing some of the junk they haul, while the work causes others to shy away from it and cut back on material things in their lives. (I fall into the latter camp, getting rid of more stuff every time I do a job).
Junk is a really intriguing, sometimes funny book. It includes discussions about all the clutter-related reality TV shows, from Antiques Roadshow to Pawn Stars to Hoarders. Stewart interviews various professional junk haulers, showing how many of these businesses are owned by or employ veterans or the formerly homeless. She shows how much of the hauled junk is reused, donated, and given a new life. She interviews the founder of Freecycle and explores an organization called Repair Café, something that caught my attention and made me look for one in my own area. Maybe I’ll make an appearance some Saturday and help people mend some old clothes. It’s a bit of a paradox, but valuing our old things enough to repair and care for them may be the only solution to the never-ending tidal wave of stuff that we send to the landfill every day.
Coat closets are rare in California. Since I moved into my own place here in 2006, I have lived in 7 different homes, 5 of which did not have a coat closet. I grew up in Oregon, however, and my husband is from Mt. Shasta, so we keep heavy winter gear for family visits. Where do we put these coats that we only really need for two months of the year? What about all the other stuff that tends to be stored in a coat closet, when we have one? That includes the dog’s leash and other paraphernalia, our luggage, mops and brooms, the earthquake water, Roomba accessories, and canvas shopping bags. Our coat closet conundrum is one example of the way that home infrastructure does not always match the material needs of the inhabitants. It’s also an example of the way that we insist on putting stuff in particular places in our home, regardless of whether there is space for it all.
We just moved into a 728 square foot house that is 53% of the size of our old house. Part of the space that was cut from our accustomed living area includes the aforementioned coat closet, a bedroom, about 2/3 of a linen closet, half a bedroom closet, a pantry, and a walk-in storage closet off the garage that had considerable built-in shelving. We also accidentally destroyed a cabinet that used to hold all our office, art, and sewing supplies. It was really challenging to find places for the last 10% of our stuff and make our office a usable room.
We’ve been traveling back in time. When we first moved in together, I had been living in a 900 square foot “granny unit” built in 2001 that would technically qualify as a mini-house. Our newlywed house was built in 1988, had 1544 square feet, and came with a walk-in closet in the master bedroom, an astounding amount of kitchen storage, two living rooms, a cavernous garage, and, of course, a coat closet. The next house was 1056 square feet, freshly remodeled but built in 1972. Then we spent a few weeks in temporary housing that was part of an apartment complex. After that, we moved into the 1346 square foot, 1961 house where we lived last. Our current house was built in 1939. The closet rod in our bedroom measures 40 inches. This closet could have hidden behind some clothes in the walk-in closet of our newlywed house, and we wouldn’t have noticed it was there. We’ve learned a lot about what distinguishes homes of different decades, and how what is considered standard changes over the years.
As a newlywed couple, we combined two complete households’ worth of furniture, housewares, and linens. The 1988 house was so big, and had so much built-in storage, that we were able to keep both our couches, both our dining tables, and enough pans and utensils for 3-4 kitchens. We never really had to negotiate about downsizing anything. Four years later, we moved to another city, and the new house was 1/3 smaller. If the move had gone the other direction, starting in the 1972 house, we probably wouldn’t have chosen such a large house. We would have been used to the smaller space, and we would have wondered what anyone would do with an “extra” 500 square feet. If we were looking at buying a new home built in 2015, well, the median is around 2400 square feet! That’s more than 3x bigger than what was, judging by the 5-mile radius around our new house, absolutely ordinary in the 1920s and 1930s. Believe it or not, maybe 20% of the houses around us are smaller than ours.
We moved into our new bedroom, and I felt proud that I could fit all my clothes and my hanging shoe racks on a 40” closet rod, 4 inches shorter than my half of the previous closet. What’s missing? My husband’s clothes. They’re all in the office closet, because he often wakes up at 5:30 AM and considerately leaves the room to get dressed. In 1939, our “office” would almost certainly have been a children’s bedroom, and there might have been 2-3 kids in there! (In the late 50s, my mom shared her bedroom with two of her four siblings). My hubby and I would have fit our entire wardrobes on that 40” closet rod, including our coats, because that’s all the clothing we would have had. The shelf where I keep my sweaters and pajamas probably would have held our hatboxes, a suitcase, and perhaps a box of old letters from our courting days. We would not have had our current California King mattress, because they date to the 1960s, so there would have been room for another dresser that we don’t have, or perhaps a vanity table.
What else would have been in our 1939 house, if we were 1939 people? We would have had a radio cabinet in the living room, probably with a built-in turntable. We would each have had an easy chair, and next to mine would have been a workbasket for my knitting. Every night, I would darn socks, sew buttons, or work on a sweater or blanket while we listened to The Benny Goodman Show. I might have a sewing machine set up in the corner, or I might have my clothes made by a local seamstress, who would come over and hem them right on my body. We would not have had a dishwasher, clothes dryer, or microwave, so more of my time would have been spent hanging our clothes out to dry, ironing, washing dishes, and cooking. I’d be spending upward of 30 hours a week on domestic tasks, instead of six. 1939 happens to be the year that my maternal grandparents were married, so I have built this narrative from family photos and oral history, as well as a certain amount of web research.
Part of why we modern folk have a clutter crisis on our hands is that we have easy access to uncountable masses of cheap consumer goods. We have more leisure time than middle class suburbanites could ever have imagined a few generations ago, because machines do all our domestic labor. (Most time use statistics compare today with the 1970’s, which presents us as wage slaves [true] rather than presenting our grandparents as slaves to housework and food preparation). We want to know where we’re supposed to put all our collectibles, fabric hoards, laundry piles, DVDs, CDs, software, electronics, charging cables, shopping bags full of items with the tags still on, and other things that didn’t exist when our homes were built. We would never have been able to afford to buy these things in such volumes in the past. In 1974, my mom got a pocket calculator for a high school graduation gift. It would have cost about $150, or over $700 in 2015 money, for an item that now costs $3, fits on a keychain, and has more functions – IF you don’t just use an app on your phone. A few months ago, my teenage nephew sent out a group text of his Christmas wish list, including a Go Pro, a tablet computer, a PlayStation 4, and a TV for his room. Quod erat demonstrandum.
What are the 2015 items we’re having trouble storing in our 1939 house? The eBay stack. My extra ergonomic keyboard. A handy place to charge our two tablets, three smartphones, my Bluetooth headset, my Apple Watch, and my laptop. A half-gallon plastic bucket of Spike’s racquetballs. Some board games. A dry erase board. My husband’s Arduino workbench. We have plenty of room for our kitchen wares, tools, books, and clothes – things that we would have used in 1939 – but the modern stuff doesn’t seem to fit quite as well.
It seems that on a society-wide level, our material goods ballooned from the 1980s through the 2000s, and are now starting to contract again. One example is the boom box I bought in the late 90s. It played CDs and cassettes, neither of which category I own any longer, and it was bigger than my gym bag. Its place has been taken by my phone. My clock radio from the same era suffered the same fate, as did my answering machine. What happens is that we hand our obsolete items down, either to younger relatives, yard sale patrons, or Goodwill customers. Eventually, even the poorest households will wind up with things that were expensive and state-of-the-art a couple decades earlier. In 1939, the year our current rental house was built, apartment dwellers would have had one bathroom per floor that they shared with other tenants, while rural people would still have used outhouses. Almost everything on the house rental market is 20-50 years old, meaning what used to be curb-appeal innovations gradually become standard, even for broke people. Thrift stores are full of items of every description that were top of the line a decade or more in the past. Eventually, our more minimal lifestyles will trickle down *cough* and having a house crammed with clutter will seem as weird as it actually is.
Minimalism is a stylish luxury commodity in the same way that having a lean, toned Pilates body is. In the past, only the wealthiest of the upper crust could afford to be fat or to have possessions beyond ordinary functional housewares. Most people through most of history did not own a second outfit. Now it’s flipped the other way, and our poor people are the ones who carry the extra weight and the housefuls of extra stuff. Conspicuous non-consumption of particular goods and foods marks the elite. I’ve been talking a lot about my new neighborhood, because we’re so excited to be here, and part of the reason is that it’s a safe, well-manicured (read: expensive) oasis. Most of our new tiny-house neighbors also seem to be quite house-proud. We can brag about how far we are below 1000 square feet, rather than how far we are above 3000 (or 10,000, not all that far down the road from us). Gradually, social comparison will pull more and more people toward a more minimalist lifestyle, in the same aspirational manner that more people have quit smoking, adopted healthier diets, taken up yoga practices, and joined book clubs. More and more of us will show off the way our capsule wardrobes fit so neatly in our vintage closets, just like we would have shown off our increasingly tiny phones a decade ago.
We’ll still have to figure out where to put our winter coats, though.
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.