Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
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.
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