Simple Life: It’s Just Too Much

by Elizabeth on August 21, 2012

Depending on your definition of “too much stuff”, I’d posit the following:

We all  have too much stuff.

It’s a side-effect of modern living, really.  There are a bunch of reasons for it (accessibility and pressure among them), in fact.  We live, we consume.  It’s not just typical, it’s expected.

Take a look around.

Right now.  Right where you are.  What do you see?

For me, it’s folders and three external hard drives (all only partially used), a phone and a bevy of notebooks.  The computer, the laptop, the iPad, the printer.  A smattering of pencils.  A stack of washi tape that could restrain a water buffalo with some left over.  A bottle I liked.  A stack of to-do-list notepads.  Three dogs.  An impressive thirteen blank and partially-used journals.  A basket of an unseemly number of Moleskine notebooks I got on clearance.

There’s almost nothing I don’t actually use (or love, in the case of the dogs).  But what do I actually need?

“Have nothing in your home that you don’t know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”  – William Morris

This whole idea of having more stuff than we actually need to survive is a fairly new one.  Sometime when you’re thinking of it, hop over to Flickr and look up pictures of real people’s houses in the 1950′s and 1960′s, for instance.  For the most part, the houses were smaller back then (with an average of 290 square feet per family member, versus today’s houses, which average 893 sq. feet per family member. reference.), and in photos, you can see that there simply weren’t as many things in them.  And that’s only 60 years ago — just over half a century to more than triple our living spaces…and our stuff in them.

We like to blame the demands of modern life, you know.

Sure, folks in the 1950′s didn’t have to deal with computers or a ton of electronics equipment.  There were no CD collections to wrangle; no DVD boxes to make room for.  But most of those things that we think are so necessary for modern life are marketed as being smaller, with more storage.  And sure — if you had fifty thousand record albums in 1950, you’d be living in a house made of them.  LP’s were huge, especially in comparison to one iPod that would hold them all.

How many of them could you actually listen to?  Or is it just stockpiling after a certain point?  Collecting for the sake of collecting?

The same goes for most other things, too.

Which kind of hits on the crux of the problem, right there:  marketing and accessibility.

Marketeers have always used their wily ways to try and instill a need in people that a product will fulfill.  (And this coming from someone who’s in marketing, so trust me when I say that the first thing agencies often ask about a client’s product is why does someone need this? and what kind of person is it for?.  It’s so we can find what’s desirable about the thing and appeal to people who want to be the kind of person who uses that kind of thing, and thus, needs one.)  It’s actually good business for people who make things:  there’s no profit or purpose in making a thing that nobody wants.  And nobody’s going to want it unless it’s meeting a need, even a psychological one.

There’s a great book I read once called (de)Materializing, by Jane Hammerslough, that goes over, in detail, the various needs that advertising instills in people.  (And, as expected, once you know about these approaches, you see them everywhere.  It changes the way you look at advertising and makes you much more critical, in a good way.)  These needs are the same ones advertisers have always used, though — even the snake oil salesmen with truckloads of sugar water would play on fair-goers’ need for health and security, and fears of being sick with no cure.  It’s not new information.

What’s new, though, is the accessibility to things.

Folks, we have the internet.  Where literally every single thing you’d ever want or want to know about is literally a few mouse-clicks away.  Type in a URL, pop in a credit card number, and voila — the things you want will miraculously appear just days later, right at your door.  It’s the next best thing to a Star Trek replicator, really.

Moreover, those things are cheaper than they ever have been in the history of civilization.  Seriously.  A television, for instance, was around $250 in the fifties — which translates roughly to around $2100 in today’s dollars.  (And now, the average household has 2.8 television sets.  Correlation, anyone?)  Food costs alone have gone from around 32% of a family’s actual budget in 1957 to less than 15% in 2007.

Which leaves more income to go for…you guessed it…more stuff.

“A house is just a place to store your stuff while you’re out getting more stuff.”  – George Carlin

There’s a WalMart in nearly every town of a reasonable size.  And if there’s not, there’s probably a Target.  Or a Dollar General.  Or some other big-box discount store, that sells cheap stuff even cheaper than everywhere else.  It’s not hard to acquire, given our incomes.  Even those with bills to the rafters can go out on almost any weekend and find garage sales or church rummage sales or a thrift store to pick through.

Between the BUY BUY BUY messages we see all around us and the social pressures of keeping up with the Joneses (which isn’t just about rampantly out of control things like cars or houses, but can also be in almost any subsegment of the culture, too — an artist feels the need to try this great new paint seemingly everyone is raving about; a knitter hears about a yarn that’s a dream to work with, etc.), it’s just not all that surprising that shopping has become recreational, and that our places are crammed to the gills with too much stuff.  We fit in when we have too much.  We look at people who don’t have too much and dismiss them as hippies or lower-class citizens for not wanting more than they use.  We aren’t left out of discussions about things we (all) own.

But — and here’s the big question — is it healthy?

Psychologically, I’d say no.  There’s a study done by a group of social psychologists at UCLA that was compiled into the book “Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century” that confirms that too many treasures actually leads to a storage-locker’s worth of stress for people.  (And, interestingly, that women are more prone to stuff stress than men.  Women’s stress-hormone levels spiked dramatically when confronted with too much clutter; men’s, not as drastic.  Which is why it’s interesting to me that so many of the confessed minimalist “experts” are men — you’d think there’d be more women, due to our natural tendency toward biological distress.  I’m wondering if it’s not social pressures on women that make them surpress the biological response?  No idea.)

Financially, an acquisition addiction can be devastating.  Beyond just the costs of acquisition itself, there’s storage, maintenance, and the potential structural damage that can occur if there’s a pathological amount of buying/acquiring.  How many people do you know with maxed-out credit cards?  And how many of those were buying actual necessities with that money?  (And I’m not talking about people who think that new work pants are necessities, despite having sixteen pairs at home and so forth, either.)

So what can you even do to be healthier when all the odds are stacked against you?

It feels that way sometimes, doesn’t it?  Like the race to have the most shoes or the most books or the most something is never going to change, and that everyone has more stuff (read: is happier) than you are when they buy things.  Everywhere you turn, an advertiser is telling  you you need more things in order to be more something you want.  There’s cheap, good stuff all over the place, and why not go shopping when you’re bored?

Being aware is the first step.

Let me say that again:  being aware is the first step.

Look around you again.  Right where you are, this moment.

What, in light of the idea that you really don’t need to hoard things for the coming revolution (that never comes), do you actually not need?  What do you not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful?  What haven’t you used?  What “necessities” are really not all that necessary?

Keep your eyes open over the next day or two.  Watch what you buy, and really look at what you have.  Notice what you read or see, and how it’s meant to sell you things you aren’t using, even when it’s just a rash of Facebook posts of your peers talking about something they have.

We’ll talk about some specific strategies for clearing out stuff later.

It’s important, though, to really be aware of what’s going into your brain as much as what’s going into your house.  And if you’re raring to go, start there first.  Clear out the ideas that make acquisition so much fun, and the idea that if you just got organized enough, you’d be fine, and not have to change a thing.  Ditch the receptivity to outside influences that tell you you’ll be loved (or safer, or happier, or more attractive) if you just buy this one thing.

Start there.




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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rain August 21, 2012 at 4:30 pm

So true. I’ve been really struggling with this idea, what is need vs. what is want. What is enough and what is too much. One thing that’s becoming very clear is that needs evolve and change as our lives change – what was once necessary for a family of 4 is not necessary for a family of me and some cats. It’s a process. This was much food for thought! xo


Ceire August 21, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Myself and the Husbeast went back to college two years ago and due to living on a reeee-heeee-heeeely tight budget we just haven’t been buying “stuff”. The weirdest (and possibly coolest) thing is that after a few months of buying just basic living requirements, I had less desire to buy/get new “stuff”, not more.


Elizabeth August 21, 2012 at 6:28 pm

That was me, too, Ceire — we had some serious budgetary constraints for a while, and once we got rid of all the junk and had to replace it slowly, we didn’t want to replace nearly as much. It’s like we get acclimated, and start finding out what’s *really* important…and the rest becomes mind-bogglingly unimportant. Go you! :)


minnie August 22, 2012 at 3:43 am

believe it or not, i don’t buy much yarn. i do feel like it’s a necessity, so that i don’t kill other people. i feel calmer when i knit or crochet. in fact, yarn is one of the few things i really “collect” any more, lol.

hubs thinks i collect papers, but that’s because he tends to take everything i get and put it in boxes, so i can’t go thru it (why is he putting away empty envelopes and expired catalogs?!? would’t those obviously go into the recycle bin?). also, by law i’m required to keep 3 years worth of my income papers. even trying to keep it organized as possible, i end up with boxes every year. ugh.

other than that, i tend to collect exotic foods, lol. i buy stuff, and then wait to eat it. and wait. and wait. sooooooooooo, guess what. you’ve inspired me. i’ve got a blueberry bar mix that is begging to be made up. will be doing that tomorrow (bedtime tonight, lol)


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