Overstuffed | Seventh Generation
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Author: the Inkslinger

Life is filled with stuff. Yet we've all become aware that having a ton of stuff isn't necessarily the best thing where certain essentials are concerned, like, say, the future of life on Earth. The world is a bit overstuffed as things turn out, and some think the era of "peak stuff" is here. But the question remains: how can we personally unstuff?

When I was growing up, getting stuff was always a positive. As middle class affluence spread, more was better, and people like my mother and father, who both came from modest rural backgrounds, reveled in the sudden easy ability to buy things that were once out of reach. It was okay for awhile. Who didn't love it when Dad brought home a new hi-fi record player or Mom subscribed to the latest Time/Life book series? But then it all turned into a bit of rat race. Instead of owning stuff, stuff was kind of owning us, and it became a bit of a struggle just to keep up with it all.

Now after having vast amounts of stuff for half a century, there are signs we've all had enough. We're realizing that acquiring and maintaining mountains of stuff comes at the expense of things that we actually care more about, like time, experiences, family, and community. The age of Peak Stuff may, in fact, be here.

In Britain, they're consuming less water, construction materials, paper, meat, and textiles than they did 10 years ago. Car use is dropping in Germany, France, Australia, Sweden, and Japan. In the U.S., total truck mileage (think shipping) peaked a decade ago and municipal solid waste has been falling since 2005, which is a key point -- it's not the recession. These trends were clear well before Wall Street nuked the economy.

That said, it's not easy to just step off the stuff treadmill. Old habits die hard and let's face it…stuff is fun at least for a little while. Here are five strategies to get clear:

  • Do not buy the spinning mirror disco ball. We did because it was cheap and looked fun. But it sat in the box for two years then was used to negligible effect for 10 minutes at a party before going back in the box for what looks like forever. A bigger waste of money and resources never existed. Learn from my mistake: Before you buy, ask yourself: is it genuinely worthwhile or just a spinning mirror disco ball?
  • Redefine "essential." It shouldn't mean stuff we simply really want or just think we need. It's about stuff we actually legitimately require, don't already have, can't borrow or rent, and are unable to find an existing substitute for. "Essential" also applies to size. Is the biggest, fanciest, flashiest model truly essential? Or will a cheaper, smaller, more modest version do just fine?
  • Take a vow of poverty. I don't mean live like a monk. I mean live like a person who's set up a new bank account, made it off limits to everyday-ATM-card-access, and each payday fills it with every last penny that they don't absolutely need for essentials (see above). That person has traded pocket change and the dumb stuff they usually spend it on for a fat savings account that'll buy something worthwhile.
  • Bury your credit cards in the backyard. At the very least leave them home and use cash for everything. You'll be much more aware of your spending and buying, and when we can feel financial pain at the point of purchase, we tend to purchase less. One fast food study found that people using "fake" credit card money bought 47% more than people who had to pull real dollars out of their wallets.
  • When all else fails, pre-owned beats the post-consumption blues. It won't work for food or toothpaste, but almost everything else we need can be bought used for less. You won't reduce your Total Stuff Load, but at least your acquisition won't consume any new resources.

Those are my strategies. What are yours?

photo: Roebot


CCATHERS0003 picture
I have a personal and household rule about having too much stuff. If there is a drawer, bookshelf, or cabinet, and you have it lined with stuff, then it is time to clean up. These types of storing spaces should never be so filled up that you cannot see to back of the shelf or the bottom of the drawer. Besides, the more stuff you have inside makes it more difficult to clean and more dust tends to collect. It is unhealthy and definitely something I remind my relatives and friends about if I notice things looking cluttered.
NYCChica picture
The size of your house matters and the home construction and furniture industries have been pushing us to go bigger and bigger for a long time. My husband and I live in a somewhat-small apartment and we have the hardest time finding new furniture that is scaled for our space. We have tried to buy/trade/inherit used pieces when we can, but that is not always possible. We have learned to manage by buying multitasking pieces like a sofa bed so we can have overnight guests and ottomans that can serve as storage and extra seating. We would rather be here than a bigger place though, that would just mean more rooms and surfaces to clean. The upside of a small home?...it forces you to be realistic and say no to extra clutter and uni-tasking items like the ones often advertised on TV. Before I buy anything non-essential I ask myself if I already have something at home that can do the same job, and where would I store it if I do buy it? This usually keeps me from wasting money. It has taken me a long time to learn how to shop this way. I keep an old saying taped near my computer that advises: Use it up. Wear it out. Make it do. Do without. It reminds me to think twice before clicking the "place order" button when I shop online. Shopping used to be a pastime for me, but I have realized I'd rather be doing stuff than buying stuff!
lesliemfischer picture
First, Inkslinger, I want to tell you how much I always look forward to your posts. You are awesome! My family and I live in a home that is exactly right for our needs. It is not a square foot larger. Most people look at our home and say "you guys are probably going to move when your third child is born". The answer is no, we're not. It is true that our home is much smaller than the typical suburban home with three kids, but we don't need a McMansion. Whenever I start to feel a little cramped, I fill a huge box to take to the Goodwill. It creates more space and also helps me to ask the good questions you listed above: do I really need this? Why is it in my house? Dear friends of ours moved to an enormous house a few years ago when their fourth child was born. "We feel so crowded" the mom told me. "We need a bigger place". I went to visit them in their enormous house a few weeks ago and it is absolutely filled with stuff. She said the same thing to me again "It is getting so crowded". Does she need a bigger house? Or less stuff? You are probably going to fill up whatever space you have, so living in a smaller home will actually help you with acquiring less stuff.
jflasch picture
I recently joined freecycle, and what a great way to unload stuff and/or acquire used stuff. So far, I've gotten rid of moving boxes, a dog crate, a microwave, a juicer, a windsurfer, baby stuff, etc. I feel like I've helped others who will use these things, and I get my garage back without sending anything to the landfill.
wildrhodie picture
Let's think a little more about redefining "essential" and maybe add another criterion in there. Something that enhances our life. I recently bought an e-reader, and it certainly enhances my life. Sure, I can read a book, but now I can do it without the pain of holding the book in my arthritic hands. This adds pleasure to my life. It also cuts down on the gas I used to visit the library so often.
AubFerg picture
It is a sad commentary on our society that shopping passes as entertain. If more people could direct their activities to such efforts as outdoor exercise, gardening and volunteering then the mall would not be such a draw and overstuffing would start to be reduced...naturally...the way it was for our parents and grandparents.