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These 2 Trends Are Burying Americans Under an Avalanche of Stuff

By Motley Fool Staff – Sep 20, 2018 at 8:54AM

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Our consumer culture is only getting more excessive, and the underlying drivers of our shopping sprees aren't likely to fade anytime soon.

The inimitable comedian George Carlin had it right: "A house," he said, "is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. ... That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!" And as he noted, this leads us to wind up with too much stuff, necessitating a bigger house that can fit more stuff. It's a vicious, expensive, globally damaging cycle -- and Motley Fool Answers cohost Robert Brokamp learned just how much worse it has become in the years since Carlin first performed that routine, thanks to Alana Semuels' article in The Atlantic last month, "We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things: How online shopping and cheap prices are turning Americans into hoarders."

So in this episode of Motley Fool Answers, Brokamp and cohost Alison Southwick are on a decluttering kick, talking all about our stuff problems: Why so many of us have too much of it, how harmful it can be, and how to start getting rid of it. In this first segment, they lay out some of the biggest reasons our lives have become so over-stuffed.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 11, 2018.

Alison Southwick: So Bro, what's up?

Robert Brokamp: Alison, I do an awful lot of reading. Actually, I was trying to analyze it. I think about half my job is reading. And sometimes I'm reading stuff and I'm like, "Oh, I kind of do that sometimes." I pick up a new thing or two. But sometimes I read something that really makes me question, frankly, like how I'm living my life.

And that was my experience recently with this recent article from The Atlantic by Alana Semuels and it's entitled, We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things: How Online Shopping and Cheap Prices Are Turning Americans into Hoarders.

It was pretty shocking, and the fact that we're a nation of spenders isn't necessarily news, but the stats were pretty stunning. And like every Atlantic article, it was pretty long, so I'm not going to go through every one of them, but here are a few quotes from the article.

In 2017, Americans spent $240 billion [twice as much as they spent in 2002, and that's adjusted for inflation], on goods like jewelry, watches, books, luggage, telephones and technology according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Over that time, the population grew just 13%, so it's not due to population. It's just that we're spending more on this stuff.

On average, Americans spent almost $1,000 on clothes last year, buying nearly 66 garments, according to the American Apparel and Footwear Association. There is such a thing. On average, Americans bought 7.4 pairs of shoes last year, up from 6.6 in 2000. So we're just buying more stuff.

Of course, you need a place to keep all that stuff, so last year the average size of a single-family house in America was 2,400 square feet, a 23% increase from the size of two decades ago, according to Harvard.

And then there's the number of self-storage units. There are around 52,000 such facilities in the country. Two decades ago there were half that number. A few years ago there was a research report that found out we have more storage facilities in this country than we have of Starbucks, Subway, and McDonald's restaurants combined. Something like 21 square feet of storage per household.

So that's 5,200 storage facilities. How does that compare to the rest of the world? The whole rest of the world has 10,000.

So we have more than 5X as much as the rest of the world. The other aspect of the article is that things have become cheaper, and part of that is because they've become lower quality, which means they don't last as long. So one example of that was that the share of large household appliances that had to be replaced within five years grew 13% in 2013, up from 7% in 2004. Things just aren't as good quality, because we're demanding cheaper prices.

And then there's the question of, of all this stuff that we buy, do we make good use of it? And of course we know that a lot of it just sits around the house. Sits around the storage facility. Doesn't get used. Lots of examples of that were in the article, but here is one.

The 16,000 students who lived in dorms at Michigan State University left behind 147,000 pounds of goods like clothing, towels, and appliances when they moved out this year.

A 40% increase from 2016 according to Kat Cooper, who's a spokesman for the university. And Ms. Semuels, who wrote the article, visited the massive Goodwill Warehouse in California that covers like San Francisco, San Mateo, and those areas and just saw how many of these items still had the price tags on them. People buying stuff, never using it, and donating it.

And a lot of the stuff we end up donating in the end doesn't get sold, anyhow. According to Elizabeth Cline, the author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion, she estimates that 85% of the clothing that is donated to second hand stores ends up in landfills every year.

So, why is this all happening? Well, one of the things that was covered in the articles is that 30 years ago, if you wanted to buy something, you had to wait until the store was open. And then you had to go to the store and buy something.

Southwick: Brutal!

Brokamp: Not anymore! Here's a quote from the rough days of actually having to leave your house to buy something.

Southwick: I ordered something on Amazon. We're talking about Amazon, right?

Brokamp: Right.

Southwick: Sorry, spoiler. I ordered something on Amazon and they delivered via UPS. It was Tupperware. It was Tupperware. I could have gone to Target and bought it. It's fine. They were like "Sorry, we can't deliver it to your house." You have to go to this random convenience store in the middle of nowhere that had like bulletproof glass in this convenience store and like five things on the shelf. I'm like, "I'm here to..."

Brokamp: Really?

Southwick: Yes! It was crazy. I'm like, "I'm here to pick up my package," and they just had this big pile of packages. "Sure enough, here you go!" And if I ever order something from Amazon and they make me go to this convenience store to pick it up again, I'm going to be really upset. But probably just ordering stuff from Amazon, people weren't being honest. I was like, "Why are you doing this to me?"

Brokamp: That's kind of crazy, of course. But we can wake up in the middle of the night and order something, and it will be at our house in a couple of days. Speaking of Amazon, choose the example of Alexa. We could say, "Alexa, order me new underwear," and two days later, there it is. And it's pretty cheap...

Southwick: Fantastic!

Brokamp: That's right. And it's probably pretty cheap, which is great on one hand. There is the question of quality. But on the other hand, because it's so cheap we don't give it a second thought. Like why not? It's only $5. It's only $10.

So what's the cost of doing all this? Well, of course, being the personal finance guy, I'm thinking like, "My goodness gracious. The amount of money that is being spent on this stuff." And we know that the average American isn't saving enough. We've cited the Federal Reserve stats in previous episodes that more than 40% of Americans couldn't cover a $400 emergency. They would have to turn to their credit card or borrow money from friends. Then, of course, there's all the stats about people who are not saving enough for retirement.

Northwestern Mutual just came out with a recent survey. One in three Americans have less than $5,000 saved for retirement. Of those who do have money saved for retirement, the average they've socked away is $84,000. A nice bit of change, but not enough to fund their retirement. So obviously when you think of it, why aren't people saving enough? Obviously, for many people, it's because they're spending too much.

And then there's the environmental cost of all of this. According to the article, in 2015 Americans put 60 million tons of textiles into the municipal waste stream, as they called it, a 68% increase from 2000. We tossed away 34.5 million tons of plastics, a 35% increase from 2000 according to the EPA. Some of this ends up in landfills. Some of it ends up in the oceans. Earlier this year there was a study published in the scientific journal, Scientific Reports, finding that the Great Pacific garbage patch... Are you familiar with this?

Southwick: I am familiar.

Brokamp: Is now twice the size of Texas, 3X the size of France, and growing. It's essentially a giant island of floating trash off the coast of California and that's just one. There's something like five of these major garbage patches. If you remember when Malaysia Airlines 370 disappeared, the search initially was hampered by the amount of trash that's in the ocean. One of the scientists looking into it said, "It isn't like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's like looking for a needle in a needle factory. It is one piece of debris among millions floating in the ocean."

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Alison Southwick owns shares of AMZN. Robert Brokamp, CFP owns shares of SBUX. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AMZN and SBUX. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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