Friday, December 16, 2011

Stuff, stuff and more stuff

NOTE: The Financial Tip will be on break while the University of Missouri is on break. The next scheduled Financial Tip will be January 20, 2012.


Stuff.  Most of us have it—tools, toys, knick knacks, collections, clothes, files, school papers, tech gadgets, appliances, etc.  Many of us save and collect items.  Some of it was given to us as a gift, some was inherited, some bought and other stuff seems to just miraculously appear.    According to Sartre “to have” is one of three basic forms of what we do as humans (the other two are “to do” and “to be”). 


What do we do with it all?  Sometimes we keep it, try to organize it, store it somewhere else or sometimes the stuff piles up in a room, on a desk or in a drawer.  Regardless, taking care of items (even ignoring the stuff) requires our resources of money, time and energy.  These resources can be better spent in many other areas of our lives.


If the stuff becomes clutter or becomes overwhelming, it can add stress to our families or work situations.  People often set new goals during this time of year, including getting rid of things or getting organized.  A search on Google for “cleaning clutter” gives over 9 million results and “organizing” brings up 125 million hits.  Stuff is obviously on our minds and many consultants and companies make a living helping others take care of what they have.


Organizing and cleaning out make a big difference.  Sometimes we fix a space only to have it fill up again.  In order to get rid of things, it is a helpful to understand why we keep what we do and questions to help us deal with the items.


I got this as a gift or it was inherited

“I can’t get rid of this; my friend gave it to me.”  We often feel like we have to keep a gift to be respectful to the person or out of obligation.  Even if we don’t like the item, we hang on to it.  One way to let go of the object is to shift the focus from the object itself to what your friend or family member wanted for you. 


Focus on the kindness and what the friend wanted for you.  “That was so nice of her to give me that vase.  She wanted me to have somewhere to show off my garden flowers.”  The focus becomes gratitude toward your friend and remembering good things about the relationship.  You can take a picture of the object if you want to “keep” it. 


·         Does this bring me happiness or truly serve a purpose?  If not, find someone else who would really like it, or donate or sell it.


This can be even harder to do with heirlooms (furniture, dishes, etc) given to you by a family member.  For that family person, that object meant something—it was tied to a memory or to another person.  You, however, may not have that connection or that item does not bring you happiness or a special memory.  Once again, you might use the strategy of thinking about what this meant to the family member and how that family member wanted you to have the same type of feeling. 

·         Does this bring me happiness or truly serve a purpose?  If not, find someone else who would really like it, or donate or sell it.  Or choose one piece (if it’s a set of something) and donate the others.  You might decide you do want to keep it, but you do not want to display the item in your home.  You can also see if a different family member would like the piece.


I spent money on it—I have to keep this to get my money’s worth.

You spent your money on something—and often the more expensive the item, the harder it is to get rid of it.  For example, you bought a high tech toaster oven.  It takes up a lot of counter space and takes longer to toast bread than you thought it would.  You haven’t really made other recipes in it, either.  But, you spent $89.99 on it and don’t feel like you can get rid of it. 


You are holding on to the item because of a sunk cost.  In economics and business decision-making, sunk costs are retrospective (past) costs that have already been incurred and cannot be recovered. (  You spent the money and that is done.  But you might look at the other costs that are involved—what is this toaster oven costing you by keeping it?


What happens every morning when you see the toaster oven?  How much time do you spend thinking about how much you don’t like it and how you wish you would have spent your money on something else?  You spend energy and time that takes away from other experiences.  Maybe you could brainstorm your presentation for work.  Or be more present with your family, instead of thinking about this toaster oven.


Is the frustration worth it?  Are these other costs worth keeping the item? Ask if anyone wants to buy it, give it to someone who wants it, or donate or sell it.


I’ll save this for when I get older or when I am retired or when I….

In The Clutter Cure, Judi Culbertson writes about a time when she was waiting in line at a store.  An elderly man in front of her was talking with the clerk (obviously enjoying life by his conversation) and then hefted a propane cylinder to take with him.  The author had the thought that he probably wasn’t going home to read old Christmas cards like the ones she kept at home.  He was living his life. 


That passage truly resonated with me.  That’s me trying to capture and save memories to relive at some later point.  What am I missing in the here and now by putting so much energy into those papers and pictures?  The author asks the reader to think about future moments.  Won’t we always want to live in the moment and keep on having new moments, instead of looking back through boxes?


Do I really need all of those papers and scraps?  How can I live in the here and now?


I might need this one day

We hear messages daily to reuse items, recycle and not be wasteful.  In our “consumer” culture, this can be overwhelming.  Think about all of the number of items that we come in contact with on a daily basis—yogurt, milk and food containers; school papers; mail; e-mails; packaging, scraps of metal or fabric.  We might have gifts, toys, fans, books, fixtures and decorations that we keep for that future need.  And that’s what is so difficult—we don’t really know what we will need. 


·         Set a limit for what you can keep (e.g., 10 food containers and recycle or throw out the rest, 4 packages of nails and give the rest to a local charity or vocational school). 

·         Focus on using what you have at home and not buying more of that (e.g., craft materials)

·         Remind yourself that if you do need something in the future, you can figure it out (either using something you already have on hand or getting something from a neighbor for example)—you do not have to keep everything



Questions to ask yourself as you go through your stuff:

·         Can I live without this?

·         If this thing were destroyed by a fire or flood, would you replace it? (From Culbertson; if the answer is “no” then you do not need to keep it)

·         What do I want for myself or my family? 


These points are a starting place for dealing with “stuff.”  There are many web sites, books and places to help you with the process.  I wish you peace, calm and positive energy in the new year!  I hope you find ways to use your resources in ways that you and your family want and to help you be in a better place.


Note about hoarding

For someone who is a true hoarder of stuff and clutter, there are many other issues involved.  Many do not hoard because they did not have things growing up—many grew up having things and food in their homes.  They are just not able to get rid of things.  Many are not able to discern between items (e.g. a family picture and a scrap of paper hold the same amount of meaning).  Furthermore, forced clean-outs do not work.  Finding counselors who specialize in hoarding can be very helpful for the person or for family members.


Drs. Steketee and Frost offer insights and research into compulsive hoarding.  You can find an overview, questions and answers with the authors and pictures of degrees of hoarding on the following web site:


Lucy Schrader
HES Associate State Specialist and
Building Strong Families Program Coordinator
University of Missouri Extension
162 Stanley Hall
Columbia, MO  65211





Culbertons, J. (2007). The clutter cure: Three steps to letting go of stuff, organizing your space, & creating the home of your dreams. McGraw-Hill.


Steketee, G. and Frost, R. (2011). Stuff: Compulsive hoarding and the meaning of things. Mariner Books.

Overview; Q&A with authors; pictures of degrees of “hoarding”


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