Does your stuff make you happy? Or does it stress you out? How does it affect the quality of your life? Does it enhance it? Or detract from it? I was recently struck by a column written by financial guru Jonathan Clements, who ended his stint a few months ago as a columnist for the Sunday Wall Street Journal. In his last column, he gave his five top pieces of advice for “How to Live a Happier Financial Life.” One piece of advice in particular resonated with me and the work that I do every day. I’d like to share it here:
“Best way to spend money: Experiences.
I believe money can buy happiness, but you have to spend with care. My advice: Use your spare cash for experiences, not possessions. Pay for the family vacation. Go to a concert. Head out to dinner with friends. This will strike many as counterintuitive. Possessions seem appealing, because they have lasting value, while experiences leave us with nothing tangible.
But this is also the reason experiences can bring more happiness: We have not only the event itself, but also the anticipation before and the fond memories after – and those memories aren’t soiled by the messy reality of some object that gets dirty, breaks down and is eventually discarded.”
As I work with clients who are trying to get their spaces organized, many of them because the amount of their possessions and the way they live with them affects their lives in a negative way, and hear story after story of the challenge that downsizing presents for so many (and their children), I have become more firmly convinced that our material possessions have reached the point of suffocation for many of us. We buy and buy, accumulating more and more, and very little of it brings us joy. And what do we do with all of it? Throw it away, take pile after pile to donation sites, and stuff it into our closets, attics, basements and garages. When we run out of room in our living spaces, we pay someone else to store it for us. A recent New York Times article revealed that there is now enough self-storage unit space in this country for every man, woman and child in the United States to stand in the existing units. Think about it. The entire population of the US – about 319 MILLION people – could take up space INSIDE the amount of square footage this country has in storage units. That is, if most of them weren’t crammed with our stuff.
My question is, are we any happier with all this stuff? Is it bringing joy into our lives on a regular basis? When the credit card bill comes, does the stuff we bought make us feel good? And all the stuff we’re inheriting from others, and saving for our children. Box after box, bag after bag of it. Does it all bring back happy memories? Are we getting the warm glow of the happy times we spent with loved ones when we look at it all? (If we ever take it out long enough to actually look at it, or can even find it to begin with.) I find it hard to believe that most of this stuff brings anyone any kind of joy, or stirs any happy memories. I’m not talking about treasuring a few cherished mementos of good times, or displaying and actually using some inherited items from loved ones. I’m talking about boxes and boxes full of stuff, packed away in attics, garages, basements and storage units, overflowing bookshelves, filing cabinets packed with paper, closets crammed so full we can’t find anything, and living spaces so full of THINGS that we can hardly breathe anymore.
The quote in the opening picture was taken from a slide at a NAPO (National Association of Professional Organizers) conference, in a presentation by two interesting guys who call themselves “The Minimalists” – Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus. They have committed themselves to living their lives with minimal possessions, and travel the country speaking and writing about the minimalist movement, along with people like Joshua Becker (Becoming Minimalist) and other folks. While not all of us can or want to live a minimalist life, their message, to me, is incredibly valuable. Instead of accumulating stuff, let’s accumulate memories. Let’s spend our time and our money on experiences, including helping others who may not be as fortunate. Let’s stop building and filling storage units and start building lives, one memory at a time. And leave the souvenirs in the gift shop!