The hidden subsidies of stuff

We closed on the sale of our house today. It feels great to have that part behind us!

I would like to say, however, for approximately the 136th time, that I cannot believe how much stuff we had and still have. We have been through multiple waves of evaluating and eliminating, and we’re not done.

Two Important Lessons

  • It is not possible to go from too much stuff to just the right amount in one step. The logistics are too unwieldy. And it takes practice to break habits and become efficient at doing something in a new way (in my case, shutting off nostalgia and familiarity and looking at stuff for what it truly adds to my life).
  • It takes mental and physical energy and a surprising amount of time to identify, evaluate, and eliminate stuff. Just getting to the stuff can take time and energy (I’m remembering stacks of plastic totes; piles of tools; yard and garden equipment; bikes; hand me down kid toys; paint cans, plastic sheeting, hazardous materials,  and scrap wood from 13 years of house projects; and uncategorized items, all crowded into our dim and cobwebby basement).

So a logical question would be “If it’s such a drag to scale back possessions, wouldn’t it be better to just skip it and invest in something else, like going to a movie?”

What has helped me—beyond the momentum and newfound lightness I already feel—is taking stock of the effort required for me to acquire the stuff in the first place:

— the list making
— the time spent looking for the item in a store or online
— the decision-making (right look? right size? right price?)
— the driving
— hauling the stuff into the house
— recycling or throwing away the packaging
— making room for the stuff (and for me at this moment, that includes renting some cheap off-site storage, which I never thought I would do)
— finding ways (and buying more stuff) to hold and organize the stuff
— insuring the stuff
— spending time on everything listed above—in addition to the hours worked to pay for the driving and the purchases—and not on other things

And then there’s the ongoing cleaning and maintenance and storage of the stuff.

That’s a lot of effort on behalf of stuff that I hadn’t really considered before I started working to scale back. It makes me think of conversations about investing in new mass transit systems versus expanding our current network of roads. If we look only at the cost of building the new transit system and building new roads, the new transit system appears many times more expensive. But that surface level comparison does not include other kinds of costs (for example, the cost to our health of a sedentary lifestyle exacerbated by our dependence on cars), and it does not take into account all of the ways the status quo is subsidized (for example, through state and federal taxes to maintain roads and bridges or the auto industry bailout).

I think that we subsidize acquiring stuff without realizing it, and that makes the process of getting rid of stuff seem costly by comparison.

My advice if you are trying to live more simply is to take the process in stages (you didn’t acquire that stuff all at once), and to focus on what you are trying to achieve:  living better.

2 thoughts on “The hidden subsidies of stuff

  1. i totally relate. we were so pleased after our garage sale when our garage, attic, and basement were all more empty. and the purging just continues. so much so, in fact, that my attic is now partially full again of totes i need to take to goodwill. it definitely feels like progress, but it is slow. and painstaking. the nice thing is that the whole family is (slowly) buying into the zero waste mentality. and since we’ll never achieve zero waste, it’s easier to remember that it’s all about the journey.

    • Thanks for reading and for sharing, Carole! This reminds me to read up on zero waste. I did check out the “30 day skirt challenge” on – impressed that the writer could make it through a 30-day trip to Europe with only a carry-on bag AND look seriously fashionable along the way.

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