6. The Hidden Cost of Stuff

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Typically, an important part of the organizing process is to let go of things that don’t serve and support what’s important in your life. This process I call simplifying, because reducing the amount of stuff makes organizing and everything else more simple.

Often, when people are deciding whether they should keep something or let it go, they only look at one side of the story. They only look at “what do I lose if I let this go?” They forget that there’s another side to this question, namely “what do I gain if I let this go?” “What am I losing by keeping it?”

Sometimes, there’s a belief about the object that could be expressed like this, “I already have the object, so it’s effectively free. I’ve already paid the money to buy it, or received it as a gift, so at this point it doesn’t cost anything to keep it. I have nothing to lose by keeping it, and everything to lose by letting it go.”

I’d like to point out that this belief doesn’t take into account everything from a big picture perspective. I’d like to point out that there is something that you lose when you keep an object. There is a cost associated with every object. There’s a cumulative cost to keeping lots of stuff, and a corresponding cost associated with each individual object.

Sometimes this cost is obvious. For example every item takes up space, and there’s a cost to the space that it takes up. If you’ve run out of space, you may need to buy or rent more space or a bigger place to make room to store it. It’s not uncommon for people to pay $200 a month or more for a storage unit.

If you’re moving from one location to another, the cost of every object becomes quite clear. There’s a significant cost in terms of time and energy and money that you will have to invest in packing up every object, transporting it to the new location, and unpacking it and arranging it on the other side.

Every item kept can make everything else harder to find. I’ve heard people say, “I have so many things that are unimportant it’s harder to get to the things that are important.” If you’re not organized, looking for items is like looking for a needle in a haystack, and the most important factor in how long this takes is the size of the haystack. Furthermore, if you lose track of bills in that haystack, there could be the additional cost of late fees, penalties, and possibly even a damaged credit score which could make it harder to buy a home or a car.

There can be an additional cost of buying things that you already own. Sometimes people forget they already own something, or they may remember that they own it, but realize it would be easier to buy a new one that to find or access the one they already have. In this case, they spend money that they wouldn’t have to, while at the same time bringing in even more stuff and compounding the problem by making other stuff harder to find and access. It can be a self-feeding cycle.

All the costs I’ve mentioned so far are obvious costs, however there are many other more subtle costs that while not requiring a physical outlay of cash still lessen the quality of life in some way or another. Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it.” I would restate that as “The cost of anything if the amount of life you put into it.” With that in mind, let’s look at some additional costs, including emotional costs, social costs, and other quality-of-life costs.

How do you feel in the area where you spend most of your time? If you don’t feel supported by your environment, in other words, if you don’t feel pleasant, relaxed, even inspired in the places where you spend most of your time, then your stuff could be negatively impacting your quality of life. Some people don’t feel comfortable inviting guests into their home, so the stuff can have social costs as well.

In addition to the physical space occupied by an item, there’s also the emotional space the item takes up. I will have future podcasts dedicated specifically to stress and emotional complexity, so for now I’ll just say that people who have an overload of stuff tend to be more stressed and have less clarity.

Most things that you have need to be maintained in some way in order to maintain their condition and usability. Objects need to be cleaned and used at least occasionally or they tend to deteriorate over time. Pests like moths and mice are attracted to areas that are undisturbed for long periods. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across items that one time were very valuable, however after decades of no use, they deteriorated to a point where they couldn’t even be donated, and were fit only for landfill.

There can be an additional emotional cost in the self-criticism that can sometimes accompany a state of disorganization. It’s one thing to have an environment that doesn’t support you. It’s even more harmful to beat yourself up for it in a way that erodes your self-confidence and joy of life.

Finally, there is an opportunity cost associated with each of our possessions. The physical space, emotional space, and energy invested in that object could be invested in something else that is more important to you. One of my clients told me he wanted to take up woodworking, but he had no room to either do this activity or to store the necessary supplies.

Space is freedom. If a particular storage space is filled with an item, that amount of space is only used for one thing, to store that item. Of course, if that item supports something important in your life, then that’s an appropriate use of that space. Consider however that if that space is empty, the possibilities are endless. You have the freedom to use that space for anything that you could imagine or envision, or for something you haven’t even thought of yet. And the same way that space is freedom, also time is freedom. Having some free time in your schedule gives you the freedom to do anything, or nothing, with that time.

I spent this entire post looking at the cost of our objects, both obvious costs as well as costs that might not be so obvious. There is a cost associated with every object. This of course doesn’t mean that you should get rid of everything. We just want to ensure that the benefit you get from an object, in terms of what’s important in your life now, justifies the cost of keeping it.

In addition to looking at what you’re letting go of when you get rid of something, also make sure you look at what you’re letting go of by keeping it. You may be letting go of space, simplicity, uncluttered spaces, clarity, a better social life, new activities, or any of the other things I’ve discussed in this podcast. If what you’re letting go of by keeping an object is more important to you than the object itself, then it’s time to let it go.

In the next post, I’ll look at some challenges in simplifying, including one of my favorite topics, our emotional attachment to our possessions. Until then, may the benefit you get from each of your possessions justify the cost of keeping it.

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