I learned this lesson a really hard way. I nearly lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.
I say nearly because we didn’t know what happened to our house and everything in it until more than one month after the storm hit and broke the levees in New Orleans. We didn’t know if we’d lost everything in a flood or if our house was even standing.
To our surprise, my husband and I mourned very few of our possessions during that time. The flat-screen TV? Nope, not a thought about it. The fancy stand mixer in the kitchen I thought I couldn’t live without? Nope. Didn’t care about that either.
All we wanted were our photo albums, the quilt my mother-in-law made out of my wedding dress, the bird feeder my late grandfather had made for us, and Squeaky, the semi-ferile yard cat who flat-out refused to get in the carrier when it was time to evacuate.
Realizing we didn’t care about all the other stuff we owned was profound. It wasn’t what we expected. And it caused us to seriously rethink our relationship with stuff.
We had never spent a lot of money shopping. Big-ticket items were few and far between, but I admit that I used to fill the void left by my crappy job with knick knacks and furniture. My husband would buy lots of books and CDs. All those little purchases added up to a lot of stuff over time.
Then, in a time of disaster, to realize we didn’t care about the little things that we bought to make us happy was profound. Especially because it turned out that none of our stuff was ruined, and we had to lug it all from our house in New Orleans to our new house in the Midwest. It’s no fun to lug hundreds of heavy moving boxes full of stuff you no longer care about onto and off of a moving truck.
That moment we knew we had to change, and our realizations about stuff turned into action.
We began to simply get rid of our stuff. For free. Yes, some of it has sold on eBay and Amazon, but most of it has gone to families who needed or wanted it more than us through our local freecycling group. We’ve given away a full-size bed, lamps, clothes, garden tools, and computers, just to start. We’ve also donated myriad items to the local Salvation Army. We’ve given things to friends who truly appreciated them more more than we did.
Our goal is to get to the point that we only have what we truly need, plus a few objects that give us a significant amount of joy, rather than dusty boxes and shelves filled to the brim with a lot of things that we thought would make us happy, but that have since lost their luster.
We still have a lot of boxes of stuff to give away, but with every item that goes out the door, we feel more free, like a great burden has been lifted off of us.
Giving away your possessions changes your relationship with material goods. When it’s gone, you realize that you don’t miss it. This has a cascading effect. It’s good for the spirit and good for the pocketbook.
You no longer want that must-have whatsit, because you can see that you don’t really need it. Or, that you won’t be interested after a month or two. You also become aware of the stories you tell yourself in order to rationalize a purchase, or to rationalize keeping something that is no longer useful to you. We are very tricky, telling ourselves we need things we never or rarely use.
Having fewer possessions shows you how much upkeep owning lots of things requires, from space to store it, to money to pay the Visa bill you ran up buying it, to maintenance and insurance costs on big stuff like extra cars or boats. When a box of stuff leaves my house, I am relieved because I no longer have to find a place for it, dust it, and I am no longer responsible for its well being.
You can live more comfortably in a smaller space when you have less stuff. And smaller spaces come with lower bills.
It’s also much more relaxing to live in a house filled with few objects you really enjoy than with a lot of things you only kind-of like. Physical de-cluttering leads to mental de-cluttering.
You start to truly understand that once you get to a certain level of comfort economically and physically, owning more doesn’t appreciably improve your happiness in the long or short-term. In fact, once you have shelter and some basics, you can live a comfortable and happy life without all the extra stuff. I didn’t fully understand this until I thought I had lost everything.
Stuff for the sake of owning stuff is worthless. It saps your energy and your pocketbook.
Why give it away? It feels good to share what you have with others. And if you are serious about unloading years worth of purchases, it’s a lot faster and easier to give it away than it is to sell it.
This is how we’ve made peace with our stuff, and made a lot more room for Squeaky, who has had a serious change of heart when it comes time to get in the cat carrier.
Image courtesy of euart