Most of us own too much junk. But after a couple of interstate moves in just as many years, I've learnt the value of owning less.
Illustration: Jim Cooke
Lesson 1: Most Things I Owned Were Useless
After living in the same house for five years, I had a lot of shit. I had specialised, single-purpose kitchen utensils. I had books I'd never read again. I had records I'd never listen to. I had clothing for climates I no longer lived in. I had bike parts for bikes I didn't even own anymore. I had furniture to hold all this stuff. I had storage to keep all this stuff around in case I needed it.
When I finally left Denver for Seattle a couple of years ago, I sold or gave away most of that stuff. My plan was to just replace the things I'd given away, because most of it was cheap and old anyway. But by the time I got to Seattle, I realised I didn't need most of that stuff, and didn't bother replacing most of the things I thought I would.
Since then, I've jumped between apartments a couple times and most recently moved states again — now down to Los Angeles. This time around, it took me two hours to pack up my stuff and about an hour to load it all into a truck. I still have everything I need. It just turns out I don't need much. Everything I own, I use on a regular basis.
The forced downsizing you do with moving works wonders here, but I think a good old fashioned spring cleaning can do the same. Personally, I'll put everything I don't think I need into storage for a month. If it's all still there a month later, I just take that box straight to a thrift store without looking inside. I rarely miss any of it.
Lesson 2: I Only Buy What I'll Use in the Future
When I'm shopping, it's easy to get caught up in the "now". I'll look at something and want it because I can think of how I'll use it right that second. We all know that's the basis of impulse purchases, but over the last couple of years, I've changed my thinking to curb those purchases by asking myself: "How will I use this tomorrow?" If I can't answer that question, I don't need it. Plus, a lot of those times you only need to use something once, which is when renting is a better idea than buying.
The great thing about ordering from the internet is the forced waiting period. Sure, Amazon has same-day delivery now, but it's still not immediate. I ask myself: "Will I still want this in two days?" If the answer is yes, I'm on the right track. If the answer is "no", then it's not worth buying. As you'd expect, this has done wonders for my budget.
This sounds self-explanatory, but it's something many of us don't think about. At one point I had a blender and a food processor. I rarely used either. Instead of blending food, the only purpose they served was wasting space in my house. When I got rid of the blender, I was perfectly happy with just the food processor. People with more culinary skills than I have can certainly have and utilise both, but that's not the point here. It's more about filling your home with items that you use and discarding the rest.
My uses are different than yours, which is why there's no such thing as a universal set of tools. We don't all need the same things, but I found I owned a lot of things because I thought I should, not because I actually needed them. That was a pretty good sign that I could get rid of them.
Lesson 3: Durability Matters, but Not for Everything
IKEA furniture is not durable. But that doesn't mean it's not useful. When you're in the stage of life where you move a lot, you don't want to settle on big, expensive furniture items that might not fit in your next place. I learnt to pick and choose what mattered to me, and work from there.
Subsequently, I have a small couch and coffee table that I love. I have a desk I built myself that I'll take with me everywhere until it falls apart. I have an office chair that will last me a lifetime. But pretty much everything else is replaceable at a moment's notice. I will happily spend a lot of money on something I know will last, but only if it's something I actually care about. A book shelf? Some random shelf from IKEA is fine. TV stand? Just give me whatever cheap one fits in this space.
It's the same basic premise as the comfort principle, where you spend money where you spend your time, but with the added question of "would I move this halfway across the country if I needed to?" If the answer is "no", then it's probably not worth spending lots of money on. This simple question has kept me from wasting money on all kinds of things.
Lesson 4: Almost Everything Is Fixable
Earlier this year, I was shopping for a new bike. Mine was old, wasn't outfitted how I wanted, and I was just itching to buy a new toy (we all know the feeling). But I caught myself before I dropped a few thousand dollars on something new and decided to just fix up my old bike. $400 later, it was exactly what I wanted, and for a far cry less than the thousands I'd spend otherwise.
You've probably heard this time and time again, but I can't say it enough: fixing is often better than buying new. My 2009 iMac has been through both a hard drive and video card replacement. I tore apart and fixed an old Roland keyboard instead of replacing it. Why? It's not just about being frugal, it's because I've gradually rewired my brain to ask myself a few simple questions before replacing something:
- What are my major complaints about what I already own?
- Can I remedy these complaints on my own?
- How much time and money would it cost to fix this?
- Is it easier and cheaper to just buy a new one?
More often than not, I've realised that what I own is perfectly fine for my uses, and I can make the minor improvements and repairs on my own.
Lesson 5: The Less I Own, the More Time I Spend with What I Like
We have an abundance of choices in how to spend our time. As a nerd, I've fancied myself a connoisseur of many things: comics, video games, bicycles, technology, novels, music, music production, writing, movies and more. I can survive in my house for years without getting bored. But at some point, I realised I'd stretched myself too thin. I was into so many things, I didn't spend enough time with any of them, and all the while they were cluttering up my apartment.
So I decided to cut down. As much as I love graphic novels, I gave myself a rule that I could only buy one at a time and I have to read it before I could buy another. The same goes for books, movies, games and everything else. It's not just about storage and moving either. Most of this stuff is digital these days, but that only worsens the problem. If I'm not careful, I'll forget I even own something because I'm not seeing it everyday, and I'll have spent money on something I never used.
By tempering my entertainment purchases, I've learnt to spend more time with the things I love. I'll play and enjoy a single video game until I've finished it. I'll take my time reading books because I'm not rushing onto the next one. I'm never bored, but I'm not overwhelmed with options either. I've played fewer games or read fewer comics, but I've appreciated those experiences so much more because I've spent more time with them.
Lesson 6: Cleanliness Is Easy When You Don't Own Junk
Every time people came over to my apartment in Seattle, they'd ask if I cleaned up for them. I never did. Tidiness is just often confused for cleanliness.
Once I downsized to only owning what I needed, everything I owned had a place, so my apartment was always pretty tidy. And, because I use pretty much everything I own on a regular basis, things don't get all that dusty.
The main lesson here is pretty simple: if I don't have a place to put something, I don't need it. This makes it super easy to keep a tidy house. There's nothing quite like relaxing in a clean apartment, and when guests come by, I don't have to do any work to prepare. It just looks fine all the time.
(However, I do need to remind myself to actually deep clean my house. It's not always apparent at a glance, and I've definitely neglected cleaning at points because I won't even realise how gross it gets when things look tidy from afar.)
My main takeaway from all this moving is really simple: I've learnt to appreciate what I own and only buy what I'll use. Because of this, I've nearly killed off clutter and kept my pocketbook full for spontaneous holidays (and moves halfway across the country).