Friday, February 1, 2013

The True Cost of Owning "Stuff"


We sometimes use the term "stuff" to describe the collection of things that we have accumulated over the years. A better term might be "baggage" and it costs you a lot more than you realize. Everything has a purchase cost. This is whatever you paid for it. But that's just the beginning of what it costs you to own stuff.

"My husband gave me a necklace. It's fake. I requested fake. Maybe I'm paranoid, but in this day and age, I don't want something around my neck that's worth more than my head." ~ Rita Rudner

I recently helped a friend move a lot of stuff out of a storage unit. It's now at our house until she can sort through it and get it to her house. That's OK, we like helping her. But it got me thinking about possessions. They are really expensive and have many hidden costs.

Storage Costs
All stuff has to be put somewhere. Usually somewhere protected from the elements outside. On the floor, on the wall, in the closet, on display, etc. Then we get more stuff. The floor is getting kind of full. No more room for stuff on the wall. It's time to start filling boxes and making piles of stuff.

Then we acquire more stuff. Maybe it's something inherited that we greatly value. It's time to get a bigger house. It's time to rent a storage unit. It's time to fill the basement. It's time to fill the garage. It's time to park the car outside because the garage is full. It's time to get a better (but more stressful) job so we can afford to store all the stuff. I'm not saying this stuff is not valuable. Maybe it is. I'm not saying it's not important. Maybe it is. I'm not saying that it will never be used. Maybe it will. Maybe it won't. Only you can decide.

Some friends of mine had a 5 bedroom house full of stuff just for the two of them. It took some time, but they gradually got rid of most of the stuff. Then they realized that the big empty house was a waste for them. They sold it and moved to a much smaller less expensive place. Then their cost of living was lower and they could afford to get rid of those stressful jobs and work at what they loved.

Moving Costs
Most of us move to a new house several times in our life. We have to take the stuff with us. We need a bigger truck or another truck load. We have to pay more to the movers. We have to buy a house big enough for all our stuff. What if we acquire more stuff when we are on vacation? How do we get it home?

I know of someone that was stressed about retiring. She had so much stuff in her basement that she knew would never fit into the space available in their new place to live. She couldn't bear the thought of moving to a smaller space. At one time I could fit everything I owned into my car. I did and moved it across the country.

Opportunity Costs
Opportunity costs is a term used by economists. It refers to lost opportunities when we make choices. I have limited money. Buying new things means that I have to make choices about what else I cannot spend my money on. If I buy a new car, I can't afford to take that vacation this year, and so on. We all have limited money and we can't get everything we want. You aren't going into debt to buy stuff, are you? Do you have any idea how much THAT costs?

Like most people, I have some art on my walls. Nothing too expensive, but the stuff on my walls cost me enough to feed a family in Africa for months. Is my desire for art more important than the desire to eat for people that don't have enough?

It's your money or your time. What did we have to do to get that money to buy stuff? Chances are we had to work. We trade our time for money. Then we trade our money for stuff. What else could we do with that time if we didn't spend money on stuff?

There is time involved in taking care of stuff. If we own stuff, we need to take care of it. Sometimes that not too tough. Maybe we just need to dust or clean things once in a while. How much time do we spend taking care of our car? Car washes, refueling, oil changes, etc. How much time do we spend taking care of our yard.

Take a moment and think about it. How much time to you spend taking care of your stuff? Add it up. Wouldn't you like more time in your life that doesn't include taking care of your stuff? Time to enjoy the company of your friends. Time to read. Time to think.

Environmental Costs
Everything we buy costs energy to make. Much of that energy comes out of the ground in the Middle East or the tar sands of Canada. Fracking in North Dakota or Pennsylvania. Is that really a good idea?

Everything we buy has to be disposed of eventually. If it can't be reused or recycled, it ends up in a hole in the ground. Is that really a good idea?

Other Costs
When we have more stuff, we have more to lose. So we worry about losing our stuff. Or we worry about it getting damaged. We have been taught to equate possessions with success. In American English, it's called "keeping up with the Jones's", where we feel we have to buy something because our neighbor did. We are taught to believe we have to do it to be happy. It's a lie. The more stuff we own, the more we have to worry about.

There are other costs of owning all that stuff. Everything wears out or gets old. You have to replace that stuff. More cost. More worry. More anxiety.

We don't usually like to think about it, but we are all mortal. What happens to all our stuff when we are gone? Chances are high that our heirs will throw away or give away almost everything.

Final Thoughts
For those of my readers that are Christians:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal." ~ Matthew 6:19 to 6:20
"And he said to them, 'Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.'" ~ Luke 12:15

For those of my readers that are Buddhists:
The truth of the origin of dukkha  ~ Second Noble Truth
"Your money, your respectability, your power, your prestige — they all can be taken away from you. That which can be taken away from you creates a clinging in the mind. You become poorer and poorer, because you have to cling more and more, you have to protect more and more, and you are always afraid and trembling." ~ Osho

For those of my readers that are philosophers:
"It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly." ~ Bertrand Russell
"Anything you cannot relinquish when it has outlived its usefulness possesses you, and in this materialistic age a great many of us are possessed by our possessions.” - Mildred Lisette Norman (Peace Pilgrim)

What's that you are saying? "I deserve it. I worked hard for my money!" Have you ever seen how hard someone has to work for subsistence living or at minimum wage? Working hard does not mean that we deserve anything. We all have to work hard. Only the wealthy can afford to be lazy. I was fortunate enough to have born in a country where I have the opportunity to make enough money that I never have to worry about being hungry or having a roof over my head. I wish everyone had that opportunity.

I'm not saying that we shouldn't have anything. We're not monks or nuns. I'm saying we should buy what we need and no more. I have lots of tools of many kinds: my computer, cooking utensils, chairs, tables, etc. I need them. We need some decoration and/or art in our lives. I have some art on the walls. I have some music. I'm getting rid of most of my books, but I do have thousands of books on my computer.

Get good stuff so you don't have to keep replacing it. Don't get attached. Don't cling to your possessions. Don't let the desire for more "stuff" drive our actions and our thinking. That's a dead end that causes endless misery and anxiety.

Tell me again why you believe that owning "stuff" makes you feel good?

© 2013 Eric Borreson