Americans are known for their love of shopping—it’s one of the reasons that online retailer Amazon.com today has a $432 billion market cap and how consuming (whether for pantry staples at Costco or presents at the mall) became a national pastime.
But ultimately, all our stuff comes at a cost. It’s not just what we paid to buy it, but what we pay in terms of our time to manage it or the cost to move it. There is even a mental health toll when we lose sight of why we own so much of stuff and why we’re driven to buy more.
So before you click on that “Add to Cart” button take a moment to think through your relationship to the things you buy.
Do you own stuff or does it own you?
If you’re renegotiating your relationship to stuff, you’re not alone. Recent bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, written by a professional organizer, advocates streamlining possessions as a means to reclaim sanity. It’s a stance echoed by a duo who call themselves The Minimalists, authors and documentarians who track how voluntary simplicity and minimal living have amplified their happiness.
One hint you may be hanging on to stuff: Do you own a storage unit? The storage industry is a thriving business predicated on people owning more belongings than they can fit in their home and renting an external closet for the goods.
While those who live in America’s biggest cities may need storage units because they live in a small footprint, or those who rent out a second home may use units to stow personal items away from renters, many people rent these units because they’re too sentimental or otherwise unwilling to take a hard look at whether they really need the items they are paying to store.
The Economist jokingly referred to the thriving storage industry’s “hoardonomics” in which feckless consumers park their belongings and pay dearly to store them for years at a stretch. Some people forget to pay their storage rent, meaning the storage company may auction their belongings “Storage Wars” style.
Others simply keep paying and paying—as with an unused gym membership.
Planned Obsolescence vs. Perceived Obsolescence
Manufacturers employ what’s known as “planned obsolescence” with many consumer products, especially technology products and inexpensive garments—meaning that they aren’t built to last forever.
On the one hand, rapid advances in consumer product development may mean it makes sense to roll out a product with such vastly different features many consumers will want to replace their former version. On the other hand, if you can live with a slightly older computer operating system for a few more years or your mobile phone’s main job is keeping your toddler busy, maybe you don’t need to replace your tech just yet.
In addition to planned obsolescence, many products carry what is known as perceived obsolescence. This is where a product’s shelf life has expired in the eyes of the beholder—sometimes fashion items, cars, or even mattresses are perceived as no longer functional when they still are. Often, it’s a matter of perception—or a persuasive salesperson.
The Actual Shelf Life of Your Belongings
To develop a more rational sensibility around your belongings, consider buying and reading consumer purchase analysis from personal finance magazines or third-party organizations such as Consumer Reports that provide objective information and testing of common household items.
You may learn that you don’t need to replace a major purchase as often as you’ve been taught to. A mattress, for instance, is considered “older” if it’s more than a decade old. But a mattress in the guest bedroom won’t likely suffer the same wear and tear as the one you sleep in each night for years on end. Or if you turn your mattress over regularly and take other precautions, and aren’t waking up with stiff limbs, perhaps it can go for 15 or 20 years.
Do you need to own it? Or can you share it?
If you own something—a car, a spare bedroom—and want to monetize it when you don’t need it, you can always participate in a sharing economy business such as Uber or Airbnb. Similarly, if you need access to an item but only temporarily—a pressure washer, a rug cleaning machine, a sander—you can rent one or possibly even get use of one for free.
Grocery stores and hardware stores often rent some of these items, while many neighborhood community centers now maintain “tool libraries” which let you borrow hardware that you may only need a few times a year. If you live in a busy metro area and can easily access or share a once-a-year item, why buy it? There may be a case to own certain items in a rural area (a tractor mower, a backup generator)—although you and neighbors may overlap.
What do you need to spend money on?
Feeling guilty about all your stuff? Everyone has some stuff. Even the most minimalist-inclined person living in an off-grid tiny house has some key belongings they can’t part with, such as family photos, artwork, books, treasured furniture pieces—or a flashlight.
Most financial planners recommend that clients spend some time tracking where their money really goes, then build a budget that leaves some room for discretionary expenses—aka, little luxuries or planned major spends. Some planners agree with a budgeting approach touted by Senator Elizabeth Warren, who recommends a 50-30-20 budget where 50% of your spending goes toward needs, 30% toward wants, and 20% to savings and debt repayment.
Read more: How to Make a Budget
There are many ways to play with percentages in a budget, but the big idea is that any household budget should permit room for some frills (dining out, new clothes, a Pez collection) while also allowing for savings and debt repayment. If your appetite for stuff is outsized relative to these metrics, it’s time for a rethink.
Of course, sometimes having the latest stuff makes sense from a productivity and professional standpoint—and that stuff may be a write-off or something you can “amortize” on taxes. If you’re a freelancer leasing a laptop as a work expense or a realtor who needs a reliable and comfortable car to take clients on home tours, replacing these purchases intermittently makes sense and is also permissible when you take deductions at tax time. On the other hand, if you’re rushing the Apple store running-of-the-bulls style because a new iPhone is out or trampling your neighbors at a big-box store on Thanksgiving, you may need to ask yourself whether you need the latest item or it’s an empty status symbol.