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What to Do When Your Stuff Starts to Own You

By Alison Southwick and Robert Brokamp, CFP(R) – Sep 20, 2018 at 8:45AM

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We're all buying more, wanting more, keeping more, and generally drowning in more. Here's why -- and how -- to make some changes.

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.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 11, 2018.

Alison Southwick: This is Motley Fool Answers. I'm Alison Southwick and I'm joined, as always, by Robert Brokamp, personal finance expert here at The Motley Fool. Hello, Bro!

Robert Brokamp: Hello, Alison!

Southwick: In this week's episode, it's just all about stuff...

Brokamp: All about the stuff.

Southwick: ... and when stuff starts to own you. If you're dealing with too much clutter, you're not alone, and we're here with advice on how to get rid of it. All that, and more, on this week's episode of Motley Fool Answers.

__

Southwick: So Bro, what's up?

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."

[...]

Southwick: All right, Bro, so now that you've made me feel sufficiently bad about ordering stuff [a lot of stuff] through Amazon and contributing to the Garbage Patch of the ocean and spending too much money, you're here to help, right?

Brokamp: Right. So as you hear this, I think there's three questions for people to ask. First, is this a problem for me; second, if so, what should I do about it; and third, there's the question of buying more stuff and there's the question of what you do with the stuff you've already accumulated and you don't necessarily use anymore. Let's start with No. 1. You would ask yourself, "Is this a problem for me?"

So first of all, let's address the whole savings question. If you're not saving enough for retirement, and if you don't have an emergency fund, and if you're not saving enough for your kids' college educations [whatever goal you have], then clearly looking at your spending is one place to start.

And as we've talked about on the show beforehand, rather than spending throughout the month and then seeing how much you have left over to save, you should reverse it. You should figure out, "This is how much I need to save every month to retire. I need to get that out of my checking account. Get it in my 401(k). Into my IRA. Do that and then just stick to whatever I have left over."

But even if you're saving enough for retirement and if you're generally OK, that doesn't necessarily mean you should go on spending sprees spending on stuff that you end up not valuing. So I think its valuable for everyone to, of course, look at their spending [whether it's your credit card statements, your bank statements, Mint or any other tool that you use] just to look and say, "OK, I bought this thing six months ago. Was that a good idea? Was that a good purchase?"

Take a look at what you have in your house. You have to look everywhere. Your closets, your drawers, your dressers. Your cabinets. Your car. Your garage. Look at all the stuff you have and if you do have a problem, or if there are ways you could improve your situation, you're going to see it, probably.

But I also thought you probably look at your stuff all the time and it doesn't occur to you. What if you imagined that we were looking at it all with you? If you were looking at it with the Answers team and you had to expose what you have to other people, is there anything you'd feel particularly guilty about or a little bit ashamed of?

Southwick: What are you getting at, Bro?

Brokamp: Do you know where I really got this from? I was doing some research on hoarders... And one of the issues for hoarders is they get to a point where they're so ashamed of their hoard that when something goes wrong in their house, they don't call people to come fix it because they're too embarrassed. And then that reminded me [me being the good Catholic boy that I am] of reading a couple of times about "the bad side of Catholic guilt."

I remember reading a couple of articles and maybe even a sermon about, "There's an upside to guilt. It's often a marker of you realizing you're probably doing something you shouldn't do." So if you imagine that you would expose your spending to the rest of the world, you might feel like, "Oh, yeah. I'm kind of embarrassed by the number of shoes I have. The number of comic books I have." Whatever it is that you maybe should cut back on.

Southwick: This has been an episode of Better Living Through Public Shaming with Robert Brokamp.

Brokamp: Yes, there you go! But I think as you listen to this, if there is something you probably shouldn't be spending money on, it's probably occurring to you already. The question is what you should do about it, and that's the next part.

So what should you do if you do have a problem with spending?

First of all, just get it out of your bank account. Put it into other accounts so you can't spend it. Another thing is just to limit the amounts you could spend on discretionary stuff. Everyone should have a little bit of fun money. Just put that into a separate account. Have it only accessible by either cash or an ATM so you can't use a credit card for that. And you're allowed to spend that on whatever it is -- every month, every two months, every year -- but then once it's done, it's done. You can't spend any more on that.

If you do have a problem with online spending, or it's just something you'd like to limit, there are a couple of ways to handle that. First of all, every browser has a way to block websites and I've done this for situations where I know I'm visiting websites when I should be focusing on work. I've blocked Facebook (NASDAQ: FB)...

Southwick: Bro!

Brokamp: What?

Southwick: You are killing me in this episode!

Brokamp: What?

Southwick: No, I just want to hear all about the websites that you're going to. That you feel guilty about going to.

Brokamp: No! N! No! All right. For example, there are some interesting things going on in politics right now and I was having trouble ignoring the political stuff and focusing on my work, so I blocked the typical news websites. It's easy to unblock them, so it's not like you permanently do it. But it is just a way to put that extra speed bump and say to yourself, "No. I need to focus on my work. I can look at the news later." You can do the same with any website that you go to buy things.

I also found this interesting thing. It only works for Chrome, but it's called Icebox. First of all, I should say it's based on a principle that Rick told us about. Rick, do you want to explain your principle about putting it into the cart first?

Rick Engdahl: So if you feel the urge to shop because, I don't know, you're hungry, or depressed, or whatever it is that makes you want to shop, you go through and you find all the things that you dream about and you put them in the cart, but you don't hit the "Buy" button and you just wait. You get all the satisfaction of doing the hunting around and finding things. You put them all in the cart and you get all happy about that. But then in the morning when you wake up, you'll look at all that stuff and say, "Oh, I'm glad I didn't buy all that stuff."

Yes, I have a cooling-off period. Now I have an Amazon cooling-off period where if I recognize that I'm just bored and throwing stuff into the cart, then I just leave it there and I come back 24 hours later [or whenever later] and then I'll be like, "Wait. Why did I want to buy bright yellow leggings? What was that about?"

Brokamp: Well, I found this extension for Chrome...

Engdahl: They look really nice, Alison!

Southwick: Well, it's a Halloween costume.

Brokamp: It'll be great!

Southwick: It will be great, because I make great Halloween costumes!

Brokamp: Yes, you do.

Southwick: So do you. And you.

Brokamp: Thank you! Anyway, so I found this extension for Chrome called "Put It On Ice." It basically replaces the "Buy" button on most popular e-commerce sites with a button that says, "Put It On Ice." So when you click on it, you put it in your Icebox and it's there for 30 days. Now you change that, but that's the default. And if you absolutely need to buy something, they have this workaround, and you have to put in a magic phrase; but again, it's just a speed bump. It's just a way to be like, "OK, I'm not going to buy immediately. I'm going to wait for a cooling-off time and then decide if I still want it."

The other big cause of problems for people are catalogs. People getting stuff in the mail. They read them and they order things. According to the NYU School of Law, 5.6 million tons of catalogs and other direct mail advertisements end up in U.S. landfills annually. 44% of junk mail gets thrown away immediately. So it's another environmental concern, but if you also have an issue with spending from stuff that comes in, the first thing to do, of course, is just cancel them. You can contact the provider directly, but there's also a website called CatalogChoice.org. where you can unsubscribe from all kinds of the most popular catalogs if that's an issue for you.

The holidays are coming up. It's always important to think about what you spent last year and maybe the previous year if you're doing a good job of providing stuff for your loved ones. Stuff that they value. When it comes to Christmas, of course, those of us with kids buy a lot of stuff.

I found this kind of interesting. According to Jeanne Arnold, who's an anthropology professor at UCLA and lead author of a book called Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century, the U.S. has 3.1% of the children, but consumes 40% of the toys in the world. So we buy our kids a lot of toys.

It was interesting. In a video she described her book along with some of her co-authors and how toys have spread throughout the house, now. It's not just like the toys are in the kids' room. Like they're everywhere.

Southwick: Yeah, they're everywhere.

Brokamp: So as the holidays come up, just think thoughtfully about what you're getting. Do you want to do experiences instead of stuff? Other things that you could spend your money on.

And then the No. 1 thing I think is a problem [and it's, perhaps, the most important, at least, for a financial website] is to appreciate how much spending less and saving more pays off over the long term. Assuming an 8% annual return, for every $1000 you cut from your budget and instead put into some sort of investment account, you'd have $2,200 after 10 years, $4,700 after 20 years, and $10,000 after 30 years. Of course, if you could cut a few thousand every year, each and every year, that adds up.

So especially for those who are behind in their savings, it's important to really think about how much you're giving up in the future by spending money today often on stuff that you don't value.

And then finally just what to do with all the stuff you already have. I don't really have anything revolutionary here. You basically have three choices: throw it away, sell it, or donate it.

For the sell it, of course, there are the normal options: yard sales, classified, Craigslist. I started coming up with this long list of specific websites for specific items and it just got too long. My basic advice is if you have something you want to sell like maybe a tuba, for example [Ross Anderson], just go to your favorite search engine and put, "Ways to Sell Used Blank" and you'll find websites, services, and things like that.

Of course, if it's just random stuff, go ahead and have the yard sale. But there's so many specialized services for specialized items and it varies where you live in the country. Just do a little research. But there are ways to recover a lot of the money that you spent on stuff that you no longer use.

As to donating it, I've mentioned Michigan State previously about all the stuff kids leave behind. They started a program where they now encourage kids to donate their stuff instead of throwing it away. This year they collected 900 pounds of personal care items and 4,000 pounds of non-perishable food items.

[Also from The Atlantic article], Pomona College in California has done this. First of all, they've noticed that the amount of packages being shipped to students has increased 325% in 12 years. All these kids are getting all these packages from Amazon that just didn't happen 10 or 20 years ago. But they also encourage kids to donate stuff at the end of the year rather than throw it all away and collected 42 tons of clothes, furniture, and office supplies.

Yes, it's amazing. Again, where you donate stuff is very specific to what you have and where you live. But just by doing a little research, you probably can find someone that can make good of something that you have.

And if you don't want to donate it, there are other ways to get rid of stuff to other people who might use it. For example, there's Freecycle, which is a website. You sign up for your local area and people post, "I have a lawnmower I no longer want," and people [who want it] will say, "I'll take it."

If you belong to some sort of neighborhood or community Facebook group [Nextdoor or anything like that]. Here at The Motley Fool we have a Slack channel called "Classifieds." People are often putting up stuff that they are either selling or giving away. Here at The Fool we've had Stuff Swaps for parents organized by the wonderful Kate Herman. I was talking to her earlier today. She said that we've done it about 4X, over the last eight years, and it's always been successful. And at the end, either parents of the stuff that no one takes can take it back or we donate it to someone who will use it.

So lots of ways if there's something you no longer like. Somehow someone else can make good use of it.

Let me close with a quote from Jeanne Arnold, the UCLA professor I mentioned earlier. She said this on a YouTube video that I watched. "One of the things we discovered and documented is that contemporary U.S. households have more possessions per household than any society in global history."

In many ways we're very fortunate to be living in the times that we are, and in the place where we are, but we might be even better off by changing the ways we expend our resources. So for the good of your personal finances and for the good of the planet, strongly consider how much stuff you really need.

Southwick: Want less.

Brokamp: Want less.

[...]

Southwick: Well, I'm really excited to welcome our guest in the studio today and it's Lacey [Poliakoff].

Poliakoff: Hi, everyone!

Southwick: The people who are listening don't know who you are and that's OK. You've been at The Fool for...

Poliakoff: Thirteen years.

Southwick: Thirteen years! A good long run. And the reason why I wanted you to come in, today, is that you have a really remarkable personal story of being able to help a loved one throw out a lot of stuff.

Poliakoff: I do.

Southwick: And you were kind enough to come in here and tell us your story and share what worked for you because it really was a success story. I remember talking to you beforehand. I just happened to be sitting there and you happened to come by, and you were like, "Well, I've got to get on the road and get to New Jersey," or wherever it was you had to go. "I've got to help a family member clear out a storage unit." I could tell that you were nervous about it.

Poliakoff: Right.

Southwick: But ready. So can you talk a little bit about what led you to needing to go to New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, or somewhere and clear out a whole storage unit?

Poliakoff: New York. Close enough.

Southwick: New York. Got you.

Poliakoff: My family has had a storage unit for 15 years, and when my mother moved out of a large house into a condo, everything went in, and eventually the goal was the kids would get some stuff out of it, and my mom would go through and downsize.

Nothing happened. We talked about it for 15 years. We paid for it for 15 years.

Southwick: You and your husband paid for the storage unit for 15 years.

Poliakoff: Yes. So it was time to go. We have a son entering school and it was time to get rid of that expense. No one really knew what was inside the storage unit. That's the amazing part of it.

Brokamp: It was a big mystery.

Poliakoff: A huge mystery. It was about downsizing. My sister and I were off at school. Everything got thrown in boxes. Like pencils and erasers are in boxes. So we had no idea what we were getting into, and I prepared for this event knowing it was going to be tremendous for my mom.

Southwick: Emotionally challenging.

Poliakoff: Emotionally. It's overwhelming for her to think of things she's been gathering for a lifetime that are important to her, and my childhood, and growing up. It's everything for her wrapped in a unit that she can go visit. She knows it's there, and so when that disappears I knew it was going to be a big problem.

Southwick: So how did you prepare? You actually hired a small army of people to help you with this.

Poliakoff: I did. I did some research and spoke to a lot of people. We broke down items into garbage, special items [things that you care about, like, and want to have memories of], and then things that we're going to keep. Photo albums. I wanted all the photo albums. I took them with me. Essentially, we needed everything to go and we had a weekend to do it out of a huge storage unit.

I hired a photographer for items that she loved or had a memory of that nobody wanted, which is hard. I hired a company that specialized in throwing things out and then I also had a smaller unit that I had taken over for two months where we had someone coming in to take donations. We had a truck coming in for donations. We had two trucks, we had movers, a photographer, and I was going to have an emotional therapist, there, but in talking it over with my mother, I knew she was prepared to handle it. And on the day of, she was ready to go.

Southwick: That's awesome! Did she sit there and people would present stuff to her and she would say, "Toss. Take a picture. Donate."

Poliakoff: Exactly. And that was, I think, empowering her in knowing she was making all the decisions. That was it. There were many items that were from my childhood that she was happy to see me getting to look at and make a call on but, of course, we took many photos of items because that was hard for her to let go.

Southwick: But I think you mentioned before the show that they were like trophies and things, like, "I want this. This has always meant a lot to me."

Poliakoff: Old CDs that may be valuable to someone. There were a ton of magazines. Seventeen magazines.

Southwick: But it was your stuff.

Poliakoff: My stuff. So I would think I reserved the right to make the decision. She was great. She did. She made the call. We worked with excellent movers. I think you can find movers that specialize in this type of thing. They opened every box. They let her look into them. We very quickly, after a few hours, had a rapport where she trusted the movers. So if they opened a box and yelled, "Magazines," we would immediately say, "Garbage pile!" And that was huge.

And I would say the other way that we prepared was just talking about it, and how the day was going to go. And we didn't have a lot of people, there, besides, obviously all that help. We didn't have everyone from my family represented. We sent some quick text messages for items, but other than that, we kept it very minimal and made sure that she felt empowered.

Brokamp: How did you find the company that would come and take the donations?

Poliakoff: That was a local company that I researched. That I knew about. It's a boutique kind of donation place. You can research that. Goodwill. I'm sure some of the big companies will come to your house. I do know, personally, that I do donations and they come to my house. But this was really mostly clothing items and not so much furniture. A lot of the furniture we ended up getting rid of. It was old.

Brokamp: Were they picky at all? Did they say, "We don't want that," and you had to throw that away, or were they pretty good about taking whatever you were willing to donate?

Poliakoff: No, they didn't take everything, and everything they didn't take we had an agreement. It went.

Southwick: When we had Matt Paxton, the hoarding expert, at The Fool like a year ago, he talked a lot about baby boomers and empty nesters and how they have so much emotional attachment to all of their stuff. A lot of people here at The Fool I know are going through the same thing that you went through. Or at least they need to.

Poliakoff: Or they know it's coming up.

Southwick: A lot of them know it's coming, and so it's been really great to have you here to talk about this, because I think a lot of us are going to go through this in the future.

Poliakoff: I think so, too. I clean my house on a regular basis. I probably err on the other side of the spectrum and get rid of things all the time because of this experience. But it was really positive, I will say. Once you decide that something has to be done, overwhelmingly the relief my mother, and my whole family, and everyone feels is tremendous. There are moments that even I think, "Gosh, I threw something out that I really needed in one of those boxes that we didn't really sort through, but there were too many." And if you haven't needed it for 15 years, you probably don't need it.

Southwick: You're probably going to be OK.

Brokamp: I recently read a study where there's a connection between having too much stuff and being stressed by measuring the cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Like people who have a lot of stuff are more stressed.

Poliakoff: That's unbelievable. It doesn't surprise me. You have less things to monitor and take care of.

Southwick: Lacey, thank you so much for coming and sharing your story!

Poliakoff: Sure! It was so great to be here! Thank you! And good luck to anyone else who has these challenges! It's tough!

__

Southwick: Well, that's the show. It is edited pack-rat-ingly by Rick Engdahl. I don't really have anything else to add here, so I guess that's it.

Brokamp: That's it!

Southwick: For Robert Brokamp, I'm Alison Southwick. Stay Foolish, everybody!

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. Lacey Poliakoff owns shares of AMZN and SBUX. Rick Engdahl owns shares of AMZN, FB, and SBUX. Robert Brokamp, CFP owns shares of FB and SBUX. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AMZN, FB, and SBUX. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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