My library has a flyer entitled: New Donation Guidelines. It caught my attention because I'm always interested in the flow of material possessions from one use case to another. The flyer had two sections, one for "Yes, Please!" and the other for "No, Thank You!" Apparently they have to tell people not to try to donate used furniture, probably the stuff that Goodwill and the Salvation Army refused to take. They also can't use encyclopedias, multi-book sets, cassette tapes, record albums, catalogs, magazines over a year old, or textbooks or computer books over two years old. It brought home to me how little most of our unused physical possessions are worth.
We hang onto things out of anxiety over getting rid of them. This is true even when we have forgotten we ever owned or even saw the items before. It's called the sunk cost fallacy.
We go through our days, never giving a moment's thought to these old things, until they resurface and remind us that they are Worth Something. It might come in handy one day! It was expensive! They don't make them like this anymore!
These are looking-backward ideas. We just can't quit Past Self's stuff. There's never any room for anything new or better, anything more relevant to how we live today, because Past Self kept saving stuff for Future Self. What is hilarious about this is that most of us would be quite happy with nothing more than a couch and a way to get on the internet uninterrupted. The farther we go as we time-travel into the future, the less we need. Even little kids would rather play with a tablet computer than the vast majority of their toys, books, and art supplies. One day it will all be done with holograms generated out of a little finger ring.
The value of something is in its use. If it isn't useful to you, it had better be pretty to look at, because otherwise it isn't earning its keep. We pay RENT on the space where we store all this stuff. I just looked on Zillow for comps of the house we're renting, and we'd have to pay an extra $1000 a month for an additional 500 square feet. That's talking about small homes with two bedrooms and one bath. Our house is 728 square feet, smaller than the apartments of our twenty-something friends, and even the more-expensive comps I found would still be considered small by contemporary standards. Add in a storage unit, or more than one storage unit, and the cost per square foot to keep random old unused stuff can be quite high. I don't know about you, but my retirement account is not as high as I'd like it to be. I don't want to spend my old-age money putting a roof over old magazines, beat-up paperbacks, or anything else I don't use every day.
In my home visits, there are always vigorous discussions about how something is Worth Something. Now, I'm not in the habit of going around and criticizing anyone's treasured possessions. All I do is to help organize it based on the agreements I've made with the client. That means that sometimes I have to ask what something is, because there are a lot of objects in the world that have no clear purpose. This triggers the apparent need to be the object's defense lawyer. Don't explain to me why you have it - explain it to yourself! I'm not the one who has to live with it. It reminds me of the night my dog guiltily showed me the sopping-wet, muddy stuffed animal he was bringing to bed with him. It's like he was asking my permission to sleep with his toy. Spike, if you want to snuggle with that cold, wet, muddy old thing you just dragged in out of the rain, go right ahead. I'm not stopping you. Just like I'm not there to stop my clients from keeping several board feet of a certain yellow geographical magazine, twenty pounds of outdated clothes that don't fit, or boxes of old paperbacks with silverfish crawling out. Hey, knock yourself out. But don't go thinking you can put a cash value on that stuff.
I was at a used bookstore a few weeks ago, trading up for an expensive business book I wanted. There were two different people unloading what looked to be the contents of two entire wall-to-wall bookcases. I always snoop and read over the titles of the books people are selling. I noticed that, in both cases, I had read many of these books - 25 years ago. It should come as no surprise that most of the books were being rejected. Who is really going to buy bestsellers from 25 years ago, when the same authors have new books out this month? In my opinion, it's good to pass along our books shortly after we finish them, so that other people can read them while they're current. It's part of the Great Conversation. Books are just as perishable, while just as necessary, as food.
Food is another area where we spend more money than we need, buying and storing things we don't need, that are then hard to get rid of. We take a loss. We can't donate expired canned goods to the food bank, first because it's wrong, and second because they have enough to do without sorting out our old garbage. The sense of scarcity leads us to panic at the thought of letting anything go. It also leads to a tendency to over-buy, and if anything can create a true scarcity, it's that. Again, we need to be mindful of Future Self. Saving money now is the best way to make sure that Future Self will have plenty to eat.
Almost every possible consumer purchase depreciates immediately. Cars, food, entertainment media, clothes, housewares, appliances. In many cases, we can't even give the stuff away, but rather have to pay to have it hauled off. I noticed this while walking in my neighborhood recently. One house had two 1990s-era big screen TVs out front, waiting for "bulk waste pick-up." At one time, those televisions must have cost thousands of dollars. Now, not only would nobody buy one, but the family has to pay to have them taken to the dump. Once, when we were moving, we spent an entire Saturday holding a yard sale down the street from a major regional flea market. We sat out in the heat for hours, and not even a dozen people stopped by all day. Nobody is ever, ever going to think our stuff is as cool or as valuable as we do.
What's really worth something? Our relationships. The skills we contribute to the world. Our experiences. Our daily routine in the personal environment that we have created. The possessions that contribute to a pleasing atmosphere and a welcoming place for our friends. Whether anything else has any value is debatable.
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.