Why We Crave More Stuff

Have you ever known someone who hoarded tons of stuff? They have collected a small mountain of things, often spending a small fortune acquiring and storing their goodies. We’ve probably all suffered from “stuff-itis” at some point in our lives. So where does this compulsion to accumulate come from? To understand the roots of our material obsession you have to go way back to childhood.

Barn Wonderland 1 by fyunkie on Flickr

Quantity vs. Quality

Explaining the value of something to kids is a difficult task, especially when they are very young. Kids do not inherently understand the values we place on things, and instead instinctively desire things that are pleasing to them. For instance, if you asked a toddler to choose from three coins, a dull penny, a new nickel and a shiny dime, they would likely choose the nickel. Why? Because the nickel is shiny, and bigger than the dime.

Kids don’t understand that the dime is worth twice as much. Now ask them to choose between a quarter and ten pennies. They’ll usually take the pennies simply because there are more of them.

We take these same lessons with us into adulthood. Sure, we’ve all heard that good things come in small packages, but for the most part we want bigger and better (and more). A bigger house, a shiny car, more money, and newer gadgets. Most people crave these things without stopping to think about their real value. It’s not entirely our fault.

Since the time of hunters and gatherers humans have always valued quantity. Whether it is storing berries for the winter, or adding to our expansive collection of DVDs, human beings perceive a larger quantity of something to be more desirable. However, if you stop and consider the stress the accumulation of these things creates in your life, you may be able to reverse this thinking.

“More is the Mantra of the Ego”

Dr. Wayne Dyer had a great line in one of his PBS presentations, Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life:

“Our ego tells us that who I am, my identity, is with what I accumulate. So we become accumulation masters. More is the mantra of the ego.”

He went on to explain that the more we accumulate, the more we worry about our possessions. We worry that they may become stolen, or lost, or coveted by someone else.  We worry about their storage, and their insurance, and their maintenance. All these worries create stress in our lives. So how do we go about ridding ourselves of this stress, and our possessions accumulated over the years of feeding our ego?

Give It Away

Dr. Dyer recommends something drastic – giving it all away. Or, if not “all,” deciding what your most prized possession is and giving it away.

I’m a little more practical, even though I understand the psychological benefit of simply giving away your stuff. As a compromise, I recommend selling some of it first, either in a yard sale, on eBay.

Use the proceeds to pay off debt, or add to your emergency fund. What you don’t sell can then be given away to family members, your church, a charity, or to a complete strangers.  Imagine how good it would feel to hand over your prized DVD collection to a shelter, or to donate your Xbox 360 and 10-game library to a local Children’s Hospital.

A few years ago I sold my prized possession, a Chevy Silverado truck that I had fallen in love with at a local car lot. I could not afford the truck at the time, and was sacrificing in other areas just to make the truck payment and increased insurance costs. The experience forever cured me of car fever, but the profoundness of that experience did not stop there.

As the new owner handed over the cashier’s check (with a loan attached) I could literally feel the stress transferring from me to him. He even looked a little anxious about completing the purchase, probably because of the new loan he just took on with his bank, and knowing that his insurance, property tax, and gasoline expenses were all about to increase.

On the other hand, I was the one eliminating a car payment, reducing my insurance expense, and dropping the cost of an annual car tag.

By the way, three years after selling that truck I became debt free and bought another truck – this time with cash. So just because you give up something to sacrifice for a period of time, it doesn’t mean you have to part ways forever. It was a temporary solution to help us win with our finances.

Whether you ultimately decide to sell your excess things, or give them away, the value of having less “stuff” to worry about is worth far more than your collection of things. I challenge you to look around your own home and find things adding stress to your life. Free yourself from these burdens and enjoy the benefits of a much simpler existence.

Comments

  1. I could not agree more on too much stuff. My wife and I had a 900 square foot detached garage in our twenties. The garage looked just like your photo. We built a house and had to relieve ourselves of all the stuff in the garage(our new hose did not have a garage) After three garage sales, two pickups from Goodwill all the “stuff” in the garage left our lives. To the day we have missed none of it. We took the cash from the garage sales and paid down debt…

  2. My mom and uncle grew up during WW2 in Poland, so they both have these packratty tendencies of “you never know when you’ll need it” “save it for a rainy day.” The problem is of course that it gets to the point where you can’t find “it” when you need to because there is too much stuff to sort through.

    I was incredibly proud and surprised that when my mom left her home of 30 years to move closer to me, she was fine with leaving a truckload of stuff for the garbage man…then I remembered that she did almost the exact same thing when she came to this country 1/2 a lifetime ago. I was so impressed.

    Now that I’m in my 30′s, I seem to be constantly in purge mode. Having a smaller house helps because there are fewer places to put stuff. If I had a big closet, I’m sure I’d have more clothes.

    • Agreed. My mother-in-law is a Vietnam refugee and is a compulsive hoarder. There’s so much stuff in her bedroom that there’s barely any room for her.

      We tried the garage sale and it works wonders! It’s the only way to get her to get rid of her stuff. But any unsold items just comes back into the house :(

    • My hubby and I are all about simple and less and are actually working on decluttering for a third time this year. I wish my Mom and Nana could get into this. They have a ton of stuff everywhere. I guess it is because of how they grew up, where everything you get is cherished. I can attest to how invigorating it is to having less to worry about and a cleaner and more ogranized home.

  3. Yard sale are a practical method to dispose of accumulated junk. We have a shelf in our attic that is designated as a yard sale shelf. During the year, various pieces of “stuff” is relegated to this space, in anticipation of the spring sale. It makes for less frantic running around the day before the planned neighborhood sale.

  4. I’ve always been a believer in the idea that “stuff weighs you down”. It’s easy to accumulate too much. Although I’ve got to say I’m not giving away my prize possession anytime soon!

  5. I think that part of the reason we like to buy things is that we have all had experiences of buying things and seeing our lives improve as a result. I remember sweating over a purchase of the Beatles’ album “Revolver” when I was young and spending that amount of money was a big deal. That purchase paid off for me nicely. So there is a tendency to want to repeat it — to find other purchases that pay off nicely.

    We need to gain experiences in finding other ways to enhance our enjoyment of life. After you make enough of an income to buy pretty much whatever you want, it may be that buying less stuff provides more enjoyment because owning less leaves you with more time to enjoy the few genuinely prized possessions.

    The tricky part is that it is hard to learn this in any way other than personal experience. And most of us would never think to try out the idea of buying less. So it is usually people who were forced by difficult circumstances to try a different way who get to experience the fun that comes with NOT buying so much stuff.

    Rob

    • This is profound, Rob. What you are suggesting is that people engage in the quest for more stuff in an effort to repeat the psychological “win” they experienced from buying earlier stuff. That’s a dangerous cycle, financially, isn’t it?

      Reminds me of a gambler going broke trying to hit it big a second time, or a stock picker losing profits trying to find that next double.

      • What you are suggesting is that people engage in the quest for more stuff in an effort to repeat the psychological “win” they experienced from buying earlier stuff. That’s a dangerous cycle, financially, isn’t it?

        Yes, it can be a financially devastating cycle.

        There’s a more optimistic way to look at it, though. Many say that those who don’t save lack willpower. If that’s so, they are doomed. I don’t think that’s it. I think people just want to feel good about themselves (this is a perfectly natural desire) and turn to spending to help because there were times in the past when it did the trick.

        If this is the true explanation, we can all become more effective at managing our money by discovering new ways to feel competent and unique and fulfilled. We don’t need to go on a quest for more willpower. We just need to develop new habits, new ways of making ourselves feel good about ourselves that work better after repeated use.

        Rob

  6. Just moved, and ‘touching” everything and sorting a LOT into the garage for the garage sale. TIred of being overwhelmed..

    But, as soon as I get rid of something, I may need it. Understand that. Put a two piece skirt/top into the “to go” pile. Granddaughter says she needs to be a colonial lady for school day…. That two piece is perfect, with an apron we are making out of a white pillowcase, also in the ‘to go’ pile… for her costume…
    So even tho they WERE in the ‘to go’ pile, now they are back again….
    SEE how difficult this gets! lol!

    • That go to pile could be at the Good Will:>) That is where I would probably find that outfit for the granddaughter.

  7. There are a lot of temptations luring us to new stuff and very little incentive to get rid of the excess. The plethora of books on clearing out clutter to simplify life bears testiment to the humaness of this problem.

    If overwhelmed by the process, I suggest that people break the task down to giving away five small items a week and then gradually work up to shedding the larger things. Reducing the size of your overall living space also helps.

    Coincidentally, last night I posted a related blog entry at my site. This is a universal issue.

    Love your blog.

    • Thanks for the comments on the blog! I enjoyed your post as well. Something I struggle with constantly is balancing my desire to have a healthy stockpile of necessary items with my desire to live a simpler life. I think they key is determining what is truly “necessary” and planning a stockpile to cover most reasonable scenarios.

  8. I struggle with a hoarder’s mentality. Not so much for stuff like clothes or furniture, but for groceries – food and stuff like toiletries and tinfoil, etc. I’m pretty sure I could feed my family for about 3 months without setting a foot in a store. And personal care and household items are probably well over a year. I think it gives me a feeling of security to know my kids won’t go without if we were to suddenly find ourselves without an income.

    I’ve become more the opposite of a hoarder when it comes to “stuff”. I’ve taken to renting a small dumpster every other year or so just to get rid of all the crap we accumulate. I find I spend a lot less money if I can find everything that we do have.

  9. I think part of my issue was that I grew up without a lot of money. I bought mostly lower quality or used items, and I could afford *more* because I bought cheaper. And that *more* made me feel like I HAD more. (or I was worth more).
    Now, I buy very little, other than food and gas! And I am trying my best to get rid of as much as I can!
    Bernice
    Ahh, the American Dream and a cure

  10. Perhaps I’m different from everyone else, but I’m a capitalist’s worst nightmare – I have no desire to accumulate possessions. I’m constantly reviewing things that I currently own to determine if I use it enough to warrant hanging on to it. Perhaps this is from living in a 650 sq. ft. apartment. I’m also very hesitant to buy anything until I throughly examine whether or not I will maximize its use. I like possessions, but only if they provide some sort of meaningful value to my life.
    I would recommend Ebay and craigslist for getting rid of excess stuff.

    • Ever since moving overseas, I have become like this too. I don’t want to buy it knowing that when I move again it will either get trashed or I’ll have to give it space in my luggage. Since neither of those are appealing for most purchases, it really cuts down on what I want to buy.

  11. I agree 100%.
    My history has been as an accumulator of things that are vintage especially toys, tools or watches. Now that I am quite overwhelmed with my things, I hear each and every object whispering (even if it is neatly stored away) and it grates on my sanity (hmmm… hearing my stuff whisper may mean my sanity is already gone, eh?).
    But even after this new feeling about my own space, I have to admit seeing a space like that workshop photo you have at the top of the post gets me all excited at the POTENTIAL and interesting stories hidden inside. I love forgotten piles, they are fascinating (but not in MY house!)

    • That’s funny – I sort of had the same reaction to that photo. Ever watch that show Storage Wars? People bid on abandoned storage units without being able to go through the units beforehand (they are only allowed a quick glance from outside). I suppose if I had an endless supply of money and space that would be fun. Just imagine the treasures.

  12. I wonder if there is a way to re-channel the psychological need to hang on to stuff? For instance, after selling the items at a garage sale, use that money to go on a small day trip or a nice restaurant. In effect, instead of collecting stuff, you are now collecting memories.

  13. So many of us have gone through stages in our life, or know someone else, who can’t let go of material things. It’s almost like giving away a part of themselves. I’m not that extreme, but it’s in me to prefer holding on to things just in case – or in some cases, for sentimental value.

    The thing is, as I get older, I realize that some things in life may be permanent, but most is transitory. Really, it’s a bigger picture philosphical discussion that probably isn’t needed here, but I’m learning that it’s important to focus on the most important things while being flexible. In terms of clutter or things we haven’t used in years – time to get rid of them.

    The notion of purging one item for every new item brought in is one that makes sense conceptually.

  14. For the last year I have been purging my home and life of unwanted things. A lot of what I have can’t be sold, so I donate it, but what can be sold is usually done so via Craigslist or Ebay. I wish I could have more yard sales, but I live in an area where people don’t visit for yard deals lol. I will try again and sell some stuff this summer, but I find it easier to donate and sell the good stuff on Ebay.

    I wish I could bring myself to sell my video game collection or some other similar stuff. I could pay some of my debt off, but I also want to enjoy the games too. :(

  15. There are different reasons we hang on to different types of stuff (sentimental, functional, etc.)

    You briefly allude to childhood roots. Many people I’ve met who were collectors and/or hoarders (it’s a fine line to define. are extreme couponers hoarders? If they use the stuff, no. They basically buy inventory at next to nothing and use it up.) were very very very poor as kids.

    Ironically, many did not even know how poor they were (there was a time when you could grow up in the 40s, 50s, even 60s and not have stuff and it wasn’t odd). If you have been homeless, have had the little “stuff” you owned (including toys) sold off to get money to live, if life was a struggle with very few if any perks (a meal could be a perk), the ability to have stuff “for a rainy day” is based on a deep down fear that came from the reality you lived.

    Even today, we know that people are doing extreme couponing and hanging on to stuff because they fear, and rightly so, that they may NEVER again have the money to buy certain things. I’ve seen this with folks in their fifties and sixties who have lost jobs and can’t get rehired (and cannot just start their own business). Those folks know that they may never be able to replace what they have now. These are often the new “hoarders.”

    It’s funny. If you have enough space, if you keep it neat and categorized and you have money, people don’t speak of you as a hoarder even if you have lots of stuff. But if you’re living in a small space for decades, accumulate even the normal amount of stuff, but don’t have a storage closet, garage, basement or attic, you’re often deemed a hoarder because of the sheer space (even if it’s just a room with lots of closets and shelving).

    One way I’ve found that helps me part with stuff is to think that someone else in the universe can use this and that if I am not using it, someone else could. It’s wasteful to not have someone use it.

    When I consciously focus on how much better it would be if a piece of furniture, clothing or appliance was IN USE by someone who needed it, I’m able to say “goodbye.” I remind myself that sometimes I’m just one person in a long path who will own this, and I move it along to the next person. Knowing that something will be put to use makes it very easy to let go. (Just tossing it, ugh. No)

    Space imposes lots of limitations on even the average person who does not hoard. (Frankly, I’m always amazed when I watch these shows and people literally have the equivalent of a garage, attic, basement filled with clothing with tags on. Where did you get the money in the first place to buy them? And if you did, why not use them? That’s a lot different than holding on to clothes that are in good shape, still fit and you need because you can’t afford to buy them.)

    It’s often not how much you have, but what it costs you in time and energy to maintain, in space to store, etc. (Psychologically for some things; some things should be tossed as part of putting the past in the past.)

  16. Have you ever seen the Wal-Mart commercial in which the actress says, “We just bought a house — now we have to fill it with stuff!”

    She LITERALLY says the words “fill it with stuff”!!

    People do tend to fill large spaces with stuff — with objects — and so the knee-jerk reaction tends to be to downsize to a smaller living space. That works only to an extent, but you shouldn’t take it too far. My boyfriend and I shared a cramped room in a tiny downtown apartment that we also shared with several roommates, and the lack of space would make everyone fight … we literally ate out all the time because there was no space in the refrigerator or pantry, given the number of people sharing the apartment.

    The best option is the “Goldilocks” variety: not too big, not too small. Your space should be just big enough to have some personal space and privacy, to be able to store things that you use occasionally (e.g. seasonal items like skis, ice skates and heavy winter coats), and to be able to accomodate an expanding family (even if you don’t plan on having kids, you’ll at least have guests and pets that take up space).

    Then you’ll naturally be prone to keeping only as many items as you can reasonably store within this space.

  17. Excellent post. You hit the nail on the head. “Stuff-itis” has to be the number one cause of the massive debt burden many folks carry. I think frugality and simplicity have to go hand in hand, and when they do, you have a solid footing for reducing debt and changing your future for the better. Thanks for the great reminder.

  18. Very interesting and timely. Although I’ve been pretty good at avoiding “stuff collecting” over the years, I’m still not where I want to be. It’s about time I get to looking over my possessions and getting rid of the stuff I know I won’t miss (a good 40% of the stuff in my house at least).

  19. I find that in Europe (or at least in Paris) there is not the same fixation on “bigger and better.” People live in small yet uncluttered apartments. Here, we buy the big house then break the bank trying to fill it up with (usually) crap. I am proud that my wife and I just bought our first house and it is less than 1100 square feet. It has the three bedrooms we wanted and we do not have children so we could potentially regret the decision, but the plan is to stay there. House sized today are so much bigger than anyone really needs. Growing up my house didn’t even have a shower (only a bath) and had no window units in Philadelphia. Yet my parents raised two kids there and always had food on the table. They also paid for my undergrad (if only I had quit while I was ahead). Point is, even on modest salaries if you turn down the more is more theory you might be able to have what is really important. I think the Parisians get that and lately more and more Americans are getting that too.

  20. Great post!
    I recently got a new TV, never had I spent more than $50 on a used one before this. So now this gorgeous flat screen makes me worry about possible break-ins, had to increased my contents insurance, had to get HD cable along with the new TV. It’s like we spend money to acquire stuff to worry about and incur expenses to protect the stuff etc,etc,etc. When does it stop.

    • Your story of the new TV hits home only for me, the item in question is a new cell phone. I currently have a ten year old cell phone because to upgrade I would need to purchase a data plan at a minimum of $10 a month before taxes. I often think I am the only person in the universe without a smart phone.

      Also, the $10 plan is a low budget plan with limited usage which would leave me with two choices, pay for something I do not use or stress about going “over” and being charged an additional amount.

      As you say, when does it stop.

  21. It’s about time I get to looking over my possessions and getting rid of the stuff I know I won’t miss a good 40% of the stuff in my house at least recently got a new TV, never had I spent more than $50 on a used one before this.
    _____________
    Paul

  22. I think you made quite an assumption regarding the purchaser of your Silverado truck. You have no idea what his financial situation is like or whether he was able to afford the gasoline and insurance. He may have simply been anxious because he feared you would see what a great deal he was getting and worried you might want to back out of it. He also might have been able to secure a loan at a low rate, thereby freeing up other money that he planned to invest at a higher rate. Just because you could not afford it doesn’t mean he could not.

    I also fail to see how getting rid of one’s prized possession, so long as it does not cause a financial burden, can possibly feel good. This kind of attitude smacks of holier-than-thou. Why give away something you truly enjoy having? What does it hurt to hold onto it? Why assume that you’ll be a better person for not having it? I just don’t get it.

  23. Having lots of stuff needs more space. I agree that we should evaluate our things every once in a while. This may give you more space for other stuff and also you can earn money from by putting it on a garage sale.

    “We help Americans find jobs and prosperity in Asia. For details, visit http://www.pathtoasia.com/jobs

  24. @Sheri
    I totally agree. We have some prized possessions (mostly art) that we would not give up. There are already discussions between the kids as to who will get what when we pass….
    Some of those possessions have already moved to kid’s houses for us to visit.
    We went through times of extreme stuff, but have moved into “tiny house” mode. Both felt good for the stage of life we were in.
    BUT—cleaning out my FIL’s house–OW! They never made more than $30,000 a year, but had dumpsters full of stuff that we had to get rid of when he passed.

  25. I certainly agree with the overall sentiment of your post. But why throw in a historical reference that’s wrong and that you didn’t support with any research? You write “Since the time of hunters and gatherers humans have always valued quantity.” That’s not true. Hunters and gatherers owned almost nothing and didn’t not crave quantity (other than possibly with limited food items) – they had to be light on possessions to move from dangers as needed, and they mainly sought food from day to day. And for parts of human history, people sought to own fewer things of actual quality. (Notice how closets are TINY in old houses – people had just a couple of outfits that were of high quality.) The explosion of stuff is relatively new culturally speaking. Don’t carelessly throw in historical arguments that are not well researched to make a point that you can make without them!

  26. When buying things, you need to make sure that you will be able to use it for a long time. For example, it is just like buying a hairbrush today but next week you will be shaving your head bald for a change of image. So buying hairbrush just went to the expenses not to investment. A good example that I can provide for a service that you can use for long-term, is advancedwebads’ unlimited banner impressions and click service that can back one up in promoting their website.

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