The Zen of Giving Away Your Stuff

>Here’s something marketers don’t want you to know: Stuff cannot and will not ever make you happy. In fact, stuff can make your life more complicated and miserable than you can possibly imagine.

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.

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13 Responses to The Zen of Giving Away Your Stuff

  1. Roger says:

    Great article. You are so right with this, I think we all need a hurricane in our lives (figuratively not literally :)) to sort out what is really important to us.

  2. Susan says:

    This is a wonderful post. Getting rid of stuff definitely frees you in so many ways. You have more room to think, create, spend time with loved ones and overall enjoy your life much more. It definitely confirms the axiom that “the best things in life are free.” Thank you.

  3. Sashka says:

    Very insightful. I had a similar experience when I had to leave my home in a hurry – I knew I wouldnt be able to retrieve anything left behind, and whatever I took had to fit in the trunk of my friends car. And I only had 10 minutes to decide. What did I take? My dog, my photo boxes and my grandmothers jewelry.
    As a reformed pack rat I cant begin to tell you the huge sense of freedom.
    In the 2 years since then I have carefully thought out each acquisition. The one time I started to feel bogged down again I realized I had too much ‘stuff’.
    I will never carry around that much baggage again.

  4. Alex says:

    I can only Amen your wonderful article–especially the first paragraph. I’ve learned the hard way, and I’m still trying to get rid of all the stuff I foolishly bought (yes, most of it on credit cards0 that was supposed to make me happy and has had the opposite effect. Thank you, Denise, for your insight, wisdom, and priceless
    P.S. I’m so glad Squeaky made it through Katrina.

  5. Carol says:

    I am so glad that Squeeky made it!
    I totally agree with all that you wrote about. I am a clutter-phobic. My bf teases me about ‘de-clutterizing’ all of the time. I dont like to have ‘stuff’ and I think we are all better off without it. The less that I buy they less that is made and I know that is not good for the economy but it is better for the earth to not have the chemicals and air pollution coming from the factories making the junk and the landfills that fill up when people decide to throw their junk in them. I am a huge participant in my local ‘freecycle’ organization. It is online shopping for free. We all need to recycle, reuse and stop buying ‘stuff’!

  6. Linda says:

    I agree with you wholeheartedly. When I downsized to a smaller place, I let go of many things. I still have lots of photos to probably let go of, however. Whenever I bring home a new or gently used item, I try to replace it with something else, and take that like-item to a second hand store, or Freecycle it. It’s such a great feeling to share things with the universe!

  7. Sharon says:

    I loved this post. Very thought provoking. Thanks very much.

  8. Daphne says:

    Great post. Glad you made it though the hurricane just fine. Yes it’s amazing how something like that makes you realise what’s really important.

    I do spring cleaning once a year, and it’s so therapeutic giving away what I don’t need. You just reminded me that perhaps it’s time to do it again!

  9. I couldn’t agree more. I’m also glad to hear that Squeaky had a change of heart!


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  13. Michelle says:

    Great article! I have felt the same way for the past three years, actually since we sold our comfortable smaller house and bought a bigger brand new house. What a wake up call! I didn’t need a natural disaster to discover I don’t need this big house and all the crap that filled it. You are right, more to clean. Takes more of my time that I would wrather spend with my husband and my son. I’ve always said, things don’t matter, I can’t take it with me when I die. Relationships are more important to me. The older I get the more people I know have passed on. Life is just too short to stress out about all of this crap. I just wish it didn’t cost us 150,000 to discover I don’t need it or want it and it doesn’t make me happy. All of that money and we didn’t even make a dent we might as well be renting. I’m sorry if I’m rambling, it’s 2am and lately this is all I can think about. I want out of this money pit. I want a simple life. I want to enjoy every minute of every day that I have with my family.

    Thank you for your article. I feel validated! Take care.

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