Over the past month, I had been thinking a lot about this month’s blog post, tossing around ideas for what I’d write. At first, I thought that I’d do a sort of recap of work that I had done over the past few months with before and after pictures and some data about how much my clients purged and donated, but then I thought that what I really want to write about and start a conversation about is stuff in general. The stuff we own. The stuff we continue to buy. We buy and buy and buy. We take free stuff; we collect things; and we continue to add to our already overflowing closets and drawers.
I see this in friends’ homes, family members’ homes, and clients’ homes and offices. As a woman who once owned over 50 handbags, I understand it, and that helps me to help my clients. But it really is getting out-of-control. I can see the stress and frustration on my clients’ faces when we start an organizing job. They are overwhelmed, and they can no longer find things on a daily basis. I work with them to put systems in place so that the clutter doesn’t come back, but this involves lots of conversations about why the stuff piled up in the first place. Here’s my take on how we got here based on what I have seen, experienced, and read over the past 40 years about shopping, society, and how the mind works. And my idea to put this into a blog post all started with sitting in traffic listening to the radio.
I was in the car the other day when Ariana Grande’s song 7 Rings came on. I know the song with its catchy lyrics about a strong woman with money who doesn’t hold back if she wants to buy something: I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it. OK, not the life that I can afford to live, and I’m guessing that it’s the same for many of you reading this, but more power to her, right? Does the song reflect today’s society? If we want something, we can find it on Amazon.com, have it shipped within two days, and our credit cards are automatically charged because that’s how the website is set up. No typing in all of those numbers once they are in there the first time. Easy. Right? I should say that I’m not faulting Grande; I’m glad to know that there are young women out there today who don’t need to rely on a man for financial support. But it did get me thinking. And as I scrolled through stations while sitting in traffic, I came across a song from 1979 — 40 years ago! — that was, in my opinion, overplayed on the radio that year, and its message was very different from that of Grande’s. It went something like this: If you like pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain… and the song was about a personal ad that a wife took out in the newspaper, and her husband answered it; sorry to spoil it if you’ve never heard the song. As a 7-year old, I didn’t know much about the song’s meaning, but boy could I sing along to those lyrics! It’s comical now on many levels, but it reflected the time period. For those of you who know the song, apologies for the ear worm I just created!
Music definitely reflects the times and reminds us of what was popular at a given moment. If we look back — also to the late 1970s — we see the rise of storage unit facilities. Luckily no songs were written about this topic! Storedge.com states that even though there were storage facilities prior to 1979, “1978 is generally acknowledged as one of the greatest growth years in the industry.” According to the Self Storage Wiki page, “the first self-storage facility chains opened in Texas.” Why am I not surprised? A state that boasts, “everything’s bigger in Texas” started the first storage facility chain. Today it’s a billion-dollar industry, and you cannot drive down any main street or highway without seeing those ubiquitous rows of concrete and metal boxes housing everything from old sofas to dining room sets to expensive artwork to family heirlooms. Clients often tell me that what’s in their storage unit isn’t worth what they’ve already paid to rent the unit.
So why has this happened? From my experience, as a teenager in the 80s, I remember the need to have the latest and greatest stuff. To have all of the best clothes and handbags. To try to not repeat an outfit. This was a thing! I envied a classmate and then later a coworker who never repeated an outfit. For some reason, in the 80s and 90s, the phrase “keeping up with the Jonses” was what people did or tried to do. And it just got easier and easier to buy stuff. When big retail stores started to sell things for less and less, that just made people buy more. Amazon was established in 1994. Online shopping became big from that point on. But anchor stores were still big then too! I can recall conversations with friends and coworkers about sales at Macy’s where one of us would say, “it was on sale for $5!” To which the rest of us would oooh and aaaah about how great a deal that was. Also, there wasn’t as much of a concern for the environment (sadly). If something were $5, and if in a month it fell apart, then we just threw it out. I cringe to think about this now.
But here’s the thing: there are many people out there who still have all of the stuff that they bought way back then, and they have continued to buy at that rate up until recently. And some of those folks now have their parents’ stuff too. So now they have a lot of stuff. When the stuff became too much to store in their homes, they got storage units. Storage units used to be for temporary life transitions: a death, a divorce, or if a family were not able to move into a new house right away. But now, they are being used to store stuff that no longer fits in a home. And it’s no longer temporary.
Luckily there is a way out of all of this! There are lots of donation centers around the country. If you have stuff that’s still in good condition, you can donate it. There are also textile donation drop-off bins in most major cities so that you can recycle those clothes that are not nice enough to donate.
Next, you can just stop buying! Yes. Resist the urge. Some experts advise things like not storing your credit card on shopping sites as one inconvenient way to keep from buying. If something is not easy, then there’s a good chance many of us won’t do it. Also, stop taking free stuff. When we go to an event, a party, a wedding, etc., often we get free things: a glass, a mug, a favor, something plastic with a name and date on it to remind us of the event. Refuse the free stuff.
Know that times have changed. Sure, you can still sing that song about pina coladas, but it’s no longer popular to never repeat an outfit. I know. I know. Some of you don’t want to hear this. But it’s true. There’s more concern now for landfills and oceans. We have to reuse and re-purpose. Recycling alone won’t cut it. So we have to change our thinking about what we buy. There are lots of websites out there now about sustainable fashion and capsule wardrobes. A simple Google search will pull up lots of info and resources. There’s also a movement to just wear the same thing every day. Remember what Steve Jobs used to wear? And now Mark Zuckerberg wears the same t-shirt and jeans all the time. There’s an article on Medium.com titled, I Wore the Same Dress Every Day for a Year, and it explains the benefits of not having to make a decision each morning before work. The author, Kate Rose, says that it helped her finances, and it felt good. And I’d bet that at least a handful of people did not even notice!
If this is something that you’re struggling with, check out the writings and podcasts of some of my favorite minimalists, folks who have made it one of their life goals to live with less so that they can focus on what’s really important in life:
Also, watch these videos about stuff:
There are more resources and videos out there. A quick Google search will find them for you. Also, if you’d like to talk more about this topic or hear more about my own personal move toward a minimalist lifestyle, I’d be happy to chat with you over coffee! Reach out to me! This is one of my favorite topics, and it’s an important one, so I’m always happy to share information and answer questions.
Good luck in your own journey toward freeing yourself from the burden of stuff. We all can live simpler, happier lives. And if you’re already there, then that’s great! Please share what you have learned with others.