The question of clutter

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.


12 thoughts on “The question of clutter

  1. I feel like I have a confession to make. I have a purchase that has been sitting in the corner of my bedroom for a month now. It was an impulse buy, something I did not need, and I was sucked into the sales pitch by the people who work those stalls in the middle of the mall. I have not used this lotion/cuticle/nail buffer set yet, and every time I look at it, I think about the $75 I wasted. What was I thinking?? (Obviously I wasn’t.) I thought I could return it, but on the receipt, it says “no refunds.” I guess that’s part of their tactic — lure you in, get you to make the purchase, and you’re stuck.

    This is not typical of me to make such an impulse purchase. It happens every few years and usually on something small ($50-$75, not hundreds…) and every time I do, it never lives up to what I want it to be. I always look back with regret.

    For the last year, I’ve been paying attention to our family’s spending habits, trying to rein in the clutter and identify what is a true need. I’ve discovered many of the same sentiments you described in your post. You’re right on target! Your posts and your new book are giving me quite a lot to think about…

  2. @Amy – oh yes, purchase regret. Is the nail set still wrapped? You could give it to someone else as a present. $75 spent nurturing a social tie would be a good use of cash. But don’t beat yourself up. As you said, it’s $75, not hundreds.

  3. Very interesting. I grew up with a mother who was never shy about buying what she wanted, but she was also very exacting in how much she spent; she may have not denied herself things, but the things she bought were never impulse, and nearly all good value. She also was fanatic about clearing out what was no longer being used. And I inherited those impulses 100%. I think going through our stuff — mine, the husband’s, the kids’, the household’s in general — several times a year (or every time a charity leaves a note on the door that they’ll be in the neighborhood!) is an excellent exercise in seeing what you really don’t need. Stops me from buying stuff. Sometimes.

    1. @Denise: I think going through stuff is good. One of the reasons we decided we needed a bigger place, though, is that after multiple rounds of getting rid of stuff — like 6 bags of clothes at a time — we still didn’t have space. Now that I can actually see all my clothes, it’s easier to get rid of stuff. Sometimes 🙂

    1. @Kristen – and I was once 5 minutes late to a speech I was giving on time management. I told the audience to go ahead and have a hearty laugh and get it over with.

  4. One of the other joys of working motherhood is I have like 0 time to shop… and I don’t love to shop anyway so I try to get by with what I have especially with clothes and jewelry etc. I’d love to sometimes have more time to look at shoes or things but find a trip to the dry cleaner or to have something ironed and ready is just easier than having a lot of stuff ! the toys are a big issue.. there are so many and even though I don’t really buy them we have tons!

    1. @Cara- I think toys reproduce on their own. I’m not sure how they pull it off, but somehow they do…

  5. My feeling is that if things are not beautiful or useful, they can be classified as clutter. Really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing all your insight 🙂

  6. If it doesn’t have a place to get put away and/or it doesn’t have meaning, it’s clutter. For years we collected pretty things for our house, and then we bought a smaller house without the same amount of display stuff, and all of sudden my treasured items became clutter because I don’t have any place to put them. We’ve been getting rid of things steadily for the last 10 years (or at least it feels that way) but of course other things come in to fill the gaps. Not that there are gaps.

    I used to firmly maintain that books could not be clutter, but I’ve come to realize that if I don’t have enough bookshelf space, they are – and we can’t possibly have enough space in this house. More book purging is coming, and more thinking about systems and place to put things that actually work.

    Plus I am steadily trying to reduce the paper that comes in by setting up bills and statements to be sent electronically. And I’m considering using the scanner to store the statements I currently file.

    1. @Jay- moving to a smaller space has a lot going for it (less stuff to clean! And it’s probably cheaper!) But the stress of getting rid of stuff or finding a new home for it is definitely not one of the upsides. While moving from NYC to PA was stressful, the fact that we had more space made it less so.

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