We all love our stuff. We like our clothes, our knick knacks, and our DVD’s. We like our photographs, saved letters, mementos of our childhood (or our children’s childhoods), and the stuff we inherit from others. As much as we like stuff, there are many problems with stuff, ranging from the money it costs to acquire and store the stuff, to cleaning the stuff. But a big problem with stuff comes when we are older: Parting from our stuff.
If you just drop dead one day, you can avoid the painful process of parting with your stuff. (Then your heirs get the job of dealing with your beloved stuff.) However, if you live to be a ripe old age, at some point you have to begin the process of separating from your stuff. I see this in many of my relatives as they are getting older. Many are moving into assisted living facilities, smaller condos, or in with family members. None of these smaller spaces can accommodate a lifetime’s worth of treasures. My relatives are having to sort through years of saved baby clothes, books, trinkets, and various other treasures. In some cases, the decisions about what to keep and what to sell, toss, or donate are incredibly painful. It’s hard watching these people struggle with their stuff.
It’s easy to say that stuff is just stuff, and it shouldn’t be hard to get rid of it. But we all imbue our stuff with emotions. We use our stuff to trigger positive memories. Yes, you can probably remember the day you brought your baby home from the hospital without any aids, but seeing that baby blanket brings it all back. When it’s time to get rid of that blanket, it feels like you’re getting rid of the memory. We do this with everything from old textbooks to clothes to sporting goods. Getting rid of stuff that we remember positively makes us feel bad, or it feels like a betrayal of the person we want to remember. The more stuff you have to get rid of, the harder this process is to go through.
I’m learning two valuable lessons from watching my relatives struggle to part from their stuff. The first is not to acquire so much stuff to begin with. I’m not buying as much stuff because I don’t want to deal with parting from it later. The less I own, the less I have to deal with when I’m old and ready to downsize. In addition to not buying stuff, I’m turning down stuff from other people. When a relative asks if I want their china or their prized knick knacks, I say no. When someone dies and I inherit their stuff, I make quick work of sorting out what I can genuinely use and then disposing of the rest. Saying no now is much easier than bringing the stuff into my home, getting attached to it, and having to get rid of it later. Unless it’s something I can really use, I just say no. I can spare myself the emotional trauma of parting with my stuff simply by not acquiring as much.
The second lesson is to get rid of unwanted stuff immediately. I’m realizing that some of the problems my relatives are having parting from their stuff derive from how long they’ve owned the item in question. If it’s something that they’ve had for years and years and that they’ve moved from house to house, they are more traumatized by having to get rid of it. It’s like by having had it so long they feel like they must keep it. Had they gotten rid of it years ago once they realized they didn’t need it, they wouldn’t be feeling this way now.
Additionally, the longer something is owned the more it gets romanticized and memorialized. That ugly quilt you took from your grandmother’s house was ugly then and it’s ugly now. However, you’ve had it for years and now you think it’s lovely, the last link with your grandmother. Had you gotten rid of it years ago, you wouldn’t have had time to romanticize it to the point where you are now in love with this ugly quilt. I’ve learned to get rid of stuff the moment I can tell I no longer need or want it. Getting rid of stuff quickly will spare me from romanticizing and obligating myself to the stuff.
Stuff takes up our time, money and energy and, as we near the end of life, it can traumatize us to get rid of it. All in all, having a lot of stuff is a bad bargain. I’m actively working now to downsize my stuff and acquire less so that I can avoid all of the problems and pain associated with getting rid of my stuff later in life. As a result, I’m saving money (and making money by selling unwanted stuff), freeing up time because I don’t have to clean the stuff, and enjoying a more spacious house. That’s a much better deal.