I’ll be joining Lorie of The Clutter Diet tonight for a conference call on money, stuff and happiness. You can register for the call here. I know we have over 80 people signed up already, so please come join the party! If you want to ask a question, you can post it on Twitter to @clutterdiet.
So what is the link between money, stuff and happiness? In the course of writing All the Money in the World, I started thinking a lot about what we spend our money on. We live in a consumer culture. We have nice wide roads leading us to clean, well-lit stores. The merchandise is appealingly arrayed. People with advanced degrees in psychology figure out how to urge us to part with our money in exchange for stuff. One way? Call it a bargain — one thing I try to keep in mind when people get excited about coupons and sales.
But does stuff make us happy? It can. My laptop makes me happy because it enables me to do work I love. I love my Kindle because I like being able to start reading a book as soon as I decide I want it. I have a pair of high-heeled leather boots that I wear over skinny jeans that always make me feel glamorous. An investment in cold-weather running gear has enabled me to run outside in almost any kind of weather.
But then, of course, there is other stuff. Broken toys, jeans that no longer fit, books I’ve never read, endless glassware, papers that may or may not matter, towels that could be useful but look a little frayed. Moving from Manhattan to suburban PA was enlightening to see just how much stuff we’d managed to pack into a 2-bedroom apartment. The stuff can breathe a little here, but some of it was probably never necessary. Or really wanted.
The question is, how much could that stuff buy? If you piled together the purchases you’ve made that didn’t work out, what else could you do with the money? A handful of clothing purchases could represent a weekend vacation. Dishes never used might pay for a dinner party. It’s sobering to think about. On the other hand, it’s hard to know in advance what will work out and what won’t. I love that one pair of boots, and think they’re worth every penny. But I’ve bought other boots that eventually I just gave away. How do you know what category your stuff will fall into?
Unfortunately, no one will ever be perfect on that matter (though perhaps a minimalist might come close). Things can go in and out of the useful category. Sometimes I am better at lifting our weights, and sometimes I am worse. My keyboard went unused for a few years, and now I’m playing at least once a week. I also think that bringing stuff into one’s life can be a skill like any other. Over time, you can become better at it. You can become more mindful of what you actually enjoy, and what you use. You can fill your time with more enjoyable things so you’re not at the mall.
Or you can try to confront yourself about acquisition. For my birthday this year, I decided to take a kid-free trip to Costco. We buy a lot of food and paper towels there, but I’m always drawn to the clothes, toys, books and household items in the center aisles. I gave myself a little budget, I told myself I could take my time, I could look at things, and if I really wanted something I could buy it. But when it came down to it, I really didn’t want that much. A pair of running shoes. A pair of yoga pants. I looked at a sweater and put it back. Just because it’s a deal doesn’t mean it’s worth having in the house. That shopping trip helped me see that Lorie’s metaphor of the clutter “diet” is apt. If you deprive yourself of all tasty food, that’s all you’ll think about. Likewise, by telling yourself you can buy things if they’re important to you, sometimes you discover that they’re really not.
What constitutes “clutter” around your house, and what could be clutter but is not?
Photo note: Oh, do I love irony. When I noticed Lorie’s book sitting on top a pile of clutter in my old office/bedroom, I had to take a picture.