Free stuff is the hardest to let go. Why is that? It's one of the many paradoxes of clutter. Another is that we tend to want to control stuff even after it leaves our possession. We want to give it a Forever Home, as though it's a lovable elderly pet. We'll happily give it away, as soon as we can find a properly worthy recipient who will truly treasure it and use it more than we do. Likewise, we'll cheerfully take in other people's clutter when they need someone on whom to pawn it off.
Now that we're past Peak Stuff, there are hundreds of billions of small, portable objects in the world that nobody really wants. Things were over-manufactured in absurd quantities for a long time. Things like race-car-shaped VHS tape rewinders, shoulder pads, and promotional t-shirts. It's hard for us to countenance the reality that our epoch's greatest monuments will be our landfills. Therefore, we'll live in piles of clutter before we'll throw things away. One day, we'll be able to dump all the excess coffee mugs and souvenir pens of the world into our 3D printers and turn them into useful things, or jettison them all into space toward the formation of our own planetary ring. Until then, someone is going to have to rent some storage units for all this stuff.
Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. All this clutter has to go. Who's a sucker that I know?
My grandma gave me her exercise bike. She bought it at some point around 1980. When she dropped it off, she said, "And I don't want it back!" She said she had been trying to give it away for years (nearly twenty years, given the date) and that people kept bringing it back. I probably spent less than an hour on it, total, and it went away during my divorce. Goodwill could have its own chain of fitness centers, completely empty, yet full of equipment. The sound systems could be from old 1970s stereos. They could use the machines to drape all the donated clothes on.
You could probably set yourself up with a complete houseful of items that were cutting edge in 1980, for free. Possibly even 1990. Go back too far, though, and suddenly it's vintage.
Fitness equipment. Yarn and fabric. Construction remnants. Hobby kits. Baby clothes (maybe). We'll habitually throw away hundreds of dollars of spoiled food in a year, we're delighted to spend money on things we don't need, but when it comes time to evaluate our material possessions, suddenly we're concerned with tracking every last penny. If we can't sell it, we want to make sure it isn't "going to waste."
Sometimes, the great clutter swap actually goes well. We made jam last month with my dad. He was given all the equipment by a guy who was clearing out his house and knew he wouldn't use it. A pressure canner, jars, and all the accessories - he even got equipment I don't have, and I've been canning for ten years. I crocheted an entire king-size afghan out of acrylic yarn remnants collected from my crafter friends. It's called the Ugly Blanket and my husband loves taking naps under it. I don't crochet or knit any more, though, so don't be trying to send me your cast-offs. (See what I did there?)
When I give something away, I want it to be without strings. I no longer want any psychic ties to the item in question. It's played its part in my life and I'm done with it. I read the book, I'm not that clothing size any more, I'll never use whatever the heck it is, so goodbye. Most likely I never should have bought it or accepted it in the first place. When my goal is to own only things I use, need, want, and like, there's no place for anything else. I can't care what happens to something after I let it go. Who's to say where that item will go next? Maybe the carefully vetted, hand-selected person I give it to will never use it, while there's someone looking desperately for something just like it at the Salvation Army a mile from my house. The important thing is that I unload it while it still has some life in it. While it's still relatively stylish or before it becomes obsolete.
Everything becomes obsolete eventually. Refrigerators, for example, are one of the two items it's actually better to replace even when they still work, because the newer models are so dramatically much more energy-efficient. (Incandescent lightbulbs are the other). Appliances and cars make way for less resource-draining models, as does anything else that takes batteries. Electronics are obsolete almost as soon as they hit the shelves. Any "media," whether music, movies, or software, that exists in corporeal form is already done. Clothes, games, toys, books, art and decorations - almost everything will eventually look funky and dated. That's why we're trying to give it away in the first place. Stuff is like the first bite of dessert. It's overwhelmingly delicious! Oh [moan]. Then the second bite is awesome. The third bite is great. After that, it's just eating it to be eating it. When we buy shiny new bags of stuff, it's the same way. Temptation, followed by thrill, followed by excitement, followed by complacency, eventually followed by the stuff hangover. What is all this junk and where did it come from??
Clutter comes from our insatiable desire for MORE. If we only bought what we absolutely needed, well, the economy wouldn't be doing too well. If we only bought what we actually used, we'd spend most of our time at home because we'd be busy using our stuff. We'd be busy reading, watching movies, making all sorts of crazy stuff in our kitchens, and using up at least a skein of yarn a week. Instead, what we do is to buy everything we want. Or, well, we buy what we think we can afford out of the ever-lengthening list of what we want. The less secure we feel about our finances, the less we feel we can ever have of what we truly want, the more focused we become on getting and acquiring and shuffling and churning material objects.
This is why rich people often have virtually empty rooms with nothing but a couch and a million-dollar view, while poor people have stuff piled everywhere. This is also why homeless people push shopping carts.
When I was poor, I loved thrift stores and library book sales. I took home a lot of hand-me-downs as tips from my babysitting and housekeeping clients. Basically, any chance I had to take something free, I would. As a result, I had a storage unit for several years. I bought a lot of small, worthless junk, much of which I never really used. It wasn't until I was in college that it finally struck me: I could have nicer things if only I focused on buying fewer, higher-quality things. Five pairs of ill-fitting shoes from Payless that gave me blisters would equal one pair of comfortable, higher quality shoes that lasted three times as long. I started living a nicer lifestyle without earning any more money.
I've gone from sub-poverty to upper middle class. As I've become more financially comfortable, I've noticed that I'm much less interested in shopping, owning objects, or going to restaurants. I started to feel at a visceral level that I would always have plenty to eat - and I lost 35 pounds. I started to understand that I could afford almost anything I wanted (any book, any album, any movie ticket, basic clothes, camping gear, a kayak) and thus, there was no hurry to bring any of it home. If I want it, it's there. Stores will bend over backward to sell you anything you want to buy. They're not going to run out. Waiting until there is an immediate need means I am getting the freshest food, the most current clothes, the cheapest and highest performing electronics, etc. There's no rush. I can just rent a kayak if I want, anyway.
We can only wear one outfit at a time. We can only read one page out of one book at a time. We can only work on one project at a time. Yet we're uncomfortable if we feel like we're running out of options. That sense of needing an object to represent a choice is stronger under a feeling of scarcity.
Part of the attraction of owning stuff, of buying stuff right away, comes from the sense that the money will disappear. When I was poor, I often used and heard the expression that a certain amount of money was "burning a hole in my pocket." It's pent-up desire for things we haven't felt we could afford, coupled with the full knowledge that an unfortunate need will come up and the money will have to go to that. We've never been able to keep more than a certain amount in our savings accounts at any one time. What's the point? Buying a small, inexpensive object is as close to luxury and leisure as many of us can get. I can't go on a vacation to Europe, so I'll go hit up the thrift store instead. I can't go on a cruise, but I can buy more fabric. It's not hurting anyone.
It is, though. Having tons of stuff restricts life and reduces options. Storage units are the worst example of this. Spending $100 a month to store boxes of things with literally no resale value. I know of someone who spent $20,000 on a storage unit, and is now finally downsizing it. The years go by before you know it, and meanwhile, the stored stuff is getting funkier and sadder by the month. Usually when people finally realize they can't afford a storage unit, they try to bring everything home and cram it back into the house. Tons of stuff makes the house harder to clean, causes stress and quarrels, and can even lead to accidents. It creates a fire hazard. Being surrounded by stacks and piles and boxes is the opposite of abundance. You can't possibly use it all at once, you can't remember exactly what's where, and you can't find the really important stuff when you need it.
The way around it is through appreciation. We finally realize that we've always had exactly what we truly needed, or we wouldn't be here. We understand that we can't level up in life until we release our hold on the current situation. We stop being so eager to bring home bags of stuff. We stop caring so much exactly who receives our cast-offs. The constant trickle of clutter stops, and with it, the constant trickle of money. We remove our focus from material objects and start thinking more strategically. What do I want out of this life that doesn't revolve around stuff?
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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