I have a complicated relationship with stuff. My grandfather grew up during the Great Depression and instilled in his children–my mom included–the ethos of never throwing anything away. Of reusing, of finding good deals, and of making do with what you have. These were valuable lessons for me and they form the basis of my frugal worldview. However, the dark side is that this approach can engender a scarcity mindset. It can make me feel like I can’t get rid of anything because I might need it one day and so I should hold onto it just in case.
Frugality’s Tension With Minimalism
I wrote about my overall quasi-minimalist lifestyle a few years ago in Frugal Minimalism: Do Less, Buy Less, Worry Less, Live More, which delves into the concept of guarding how I spend my time, money, and energy. Today I want to talk more granularly about the minimalism of stuff.
I have three sets of queen-sized sheets in my linen closet: one a creamy buttercup gold, the second a deep sage green, and the third a rich burgundy.
They were wedding gifts eleven years ago and they’re barely used because my husband and I later bought a king-sized bed for–I kid you not–$279. Now, we only use queen-sized sheets on our guest room bed, which means we don’t need all these sheet sets.
Nevertheless, I refuse to give the sheets away because they’re in near-perfect condition and I might need them someday.
Those words, “I might need them someday” are dangerous. I imagine hoarders uttering this phrase as they create towers of empty Metamucil bottles next to their kitchen sinks. I’ve heard myself say this about those queen-sized sheets, about the heart-shaped mini cake pans in my basement, about the double umbrella stroller I got for free when I was pregnant with Littlewoods. I might need them someday.
What if–in a horrific turn of events brought on by my failure to complete classroom parent paperwork–I end up in charge of the preschool Valentine’s Day party and have to bake 10 mini heart-shaped cakes?!? What if we fly on a plane with both kids and need that double umbrella stroller in the airport?!? WHAT IF a volcano erupts in our guest room, destroying the set of queen sheets on that bed and then THANK GOD I have those THREE sets of unused queen-sized sheets in the linen closet (which somehow was not involved in the volcanic activity).
In the same breathless state, I can cite dozens of times when having stuff saved for the future was a boon. When having things stored away saved me money. When keeping was a wise decision. So I persist in this uneasy, liminal state of frugality-fueled saving and simplicity-driven minimalism.
Our Dumpster Rental
Last month, I spent $825 to rent a 30 cubic yard dumpster to clean out our barn. 30 cubic yards, it turns out, is a lot of yards. This dumpster could’ve swallowed our cars. Both of our cars. One of our cars is a truck. After years of pulling things out of other people’s dumpster, I found myself on the other side of the equation.
The previous owners of our homestead, and the owners before them, left behind piles of junk in our barn. Most of this inherited junk was stacked, overflowing, in a corner of the barn and most of it was in moving boxes that I guess the previous owners moved here and then never unpacked. Mr. Frugalwoods and I unpacked them. Each and every one of them. And tossed their rotted contents into the 30 cubic yard dumpster. Then we moved onto the upstairs of the barn–similarly junk-ridden–as well as the glamour shed and our front field (former site of a derelict camp trailer and sundry junk).
Here begs another frugality question: why did we pay to rent a dumpster?
We wanted it done. My parents were visiting in June and they offered to watch the kids while we tackled the barn mess. Since we rarely have windows of time with both adults available and zero kids, we jumped on it. Before paying for a dumpster, we gamed out several different scenarios:
- Taking stuff to our town trash drop-off site (we don’t have trash pick-up). We ruled this out real quick because our town charges $2 per bag of trash and we would’ve filled up about a zillion bags. Plus, there was a lot of large stuff (such as an old toilet) that wouldn’t fit in trash bags.
- Filling up our pick-up truck with the junk and driving it to a dump. This got nixed because you have to pay per load of junk. PLUS, the dump is a 40 minute drive (each way) and we would’ve had around 12 pick-up truck loads, which very quickly becomes not worth it (gas, mileage, and most importantly, the TIME it would take to drive back and forth).
- Doing it slowly over time. Since we’ve lived here for over three years and this was the FIRST opportunity we had to tackle the barn kid-free, we didn’t want to drag the process out for fear it would never, ever get done. We wanted it done this summer so that Mr. FW has the full barn available for his winter woodworking projects.
How we saved money on our dumpster rental:
- We recycled all of the cardboard boxes (our town offers free recycling) and the cardboard ALONE was two pick-up truck loads! This saved dumpster space.
- I donated the precious few usable items we found to save even more dumpster space.
- Most importantly, I shopped around. While $825 might sound like a lot for a dumpster rental (with drop-off and pick-up), it was actually the cheapest price I found. As is usually the case, shopping around saved us money. The quote I received from Casella (the “name brand” dumpster company) was $1,219.92 for the same size dumpster. But I asked around town, I got some leads, and I found a locally-owned, small company that gave me this $825 price. That’s $394.92 less! For the exact same thing! Always, always, ALWAYS shop around.
- The only downside with using a smaller company is that I couldn’t pay by credit card and earn cash back on the rental.
Don’t Be Owned By Your Stuff
Going through these discards, these once-treasured items was a lesson on the unimportance of stuff. We say all the time that “people are more important than things,” but I saw it unfold last month. I found the details of someone’s life in these abandoned boxes. There were mildewed clothes, a cracked dish drying rack, a water-stained painting of a fox covered by broken glass. I found vases and shoes. I found boxes filled with recycling: empty yogurt containers carefully rinsed out and depleted laundry detergent jugs.
It was a disjointed, un-curated, un-narrated peek into a stranger’s life. It was sad and uncomfortable–even though this stuff was left behind in what has been our barn for nearly four years–it felt voyeuristic. I never want to do that. I never want to have so much stuff that I lose control of it and leave it for someone else to deal with: my kids, an estate auctioneer, strangers.
Years ago, I wrote about the idea of not being owned by your stuff. We–as a culture–spend a lot of time on stuff. We spend time researching and discussing it, we spend time buying it, we spend time talking about it and looking at it and using it. Then we spend time cleaning it, maintaining it, we spend time storing it, and ultimately, we spend time giving it away or throwing it away or re-selling it. This can create a cycle of reverse ownership.
Instead of us owning and utilizing our stuff, the stuff owns us and monopolizes our time, money, and energy. In cleaning out the barn, I could not get over the fact that the previous owners spent time, money, and effort buying these things, packing them up in boxes to move them, unloading those boxes into the barn, and then, abandoned them. Because in the end, stuff really is meaningless.
Or is it? Stuff also gives us a sense of place and context and history. Humans are collectors and appreciators of art for art’s sake and of couches that are nice to snuggle on and of necklaces given to us on our fifth wedding anniversaries. There’s a tension here; one that I feel all the more after this dumpster experience. The amount of stuff we threw away left me feeling simultaneously victorious (because: clean barn), and devastated (because: so much waste). This stuff sat neglected in our barn for so many years that mold and mice rendered it useless and unable to be donated or re-purposed. There’s a depressing undertone to that.
How Do We Combat This?
What can we do to make sure we don’t end up with a barn-full of stuff so decrepit no one can use it? One obvious metric is money. Stuff costs money and so, if we want to save money, we can decide not to buy stuff.
But this logic breaks down when things are:
- A super good deal (I’m talking $0.25 at a garage sale good deal)
- A gift
- An inherited family heirloom
Without turning our lives in storage units for stuff we never use or see or think about, how do we co-exist with what we need, but without too much? I don’t have answers or prescriptions, but I’ll share what I do, just in case you too find yourself trapped by this cognitive dissonance. I hope you’ll share your advice in the comments section.
My (Imperfect*) Four Steps To Limiting The Amount Of Stuff I Have
*because I still have too much stuff
1) Give Stuff Away. All The Time.
I have a continuous cycle of giving things away, particularly as it relates to baby stuff. Once the baby outgrows clothes, toys, and jump-a-roos, I give them away. This is easy to do because it’s obvious when the baby outgrows stuff and I know a bunch of parents and parents-to-be who can use our hand-me-downs.
2) Re-gift Gifts.
I have a box in our basement that contains any new (in box/wrapper/tag-on) gifts we receive that we won’t be able to use. I re-gift them because it makes more sense to me to give them to someone who might enjoy them than to throw them away, let them collect dust, or hate-use them.
3) Thing in; thing out.
I never manage to do this, but I love the concept: when you get something new, you give away something commensurate. For example: if you get a new sweater, you give away an old sweater. Brilliant!
4) Follow The 72 hour rule.
I made this one up and I have to say, I’m pretty pleased with myself because it works so well for me. Here it is, excerpted from my full article about it:
Do not buy anything (except for out-and-out necessities like prescription medication) for at least 72 hours after you initially consider buying it.
Here’s a step-by-step breakdown:
- Next time you feel the urge to buy something, write it down instead (or save it in your online shopping cart).
- Allow 72 hours to elapse (also known as three days).
- During this waiting period:
- Consider whether or not you actually need it.
- Calculate what else you could do with that money.
- Explore if you already own something that could suffice.
- Ask yourself if it’s something you could find used for a much cheaper price.
- After 72 hours, reevaluate how you feel about the item. Do you still want it? Or has the desire faded?
Impulse spending is the result of buying something in the heat of the moment, before we’ve had a chance to fully consider the ramifications of the purchase. By forcing yourself to wait 72 hours before making a purchase, you’re putting some space in between desire and action. Consider it a cooling off period. And if you still really want it after 72 hours, it’ll still be there for you to buy. And if you do decide to buy it, it’ll be with full knowledge of the implications of your purchase.
Saving Only What Matters
The empty Metamucil bottles I mentioned earlier aren’t apocryphal. My grandfather had them in a box in his basement (which my parents cleaned out after his death). They’re a family joke now–one my eccentric, brilliant grandfather would appreciate–but they’re also a reminder to me of the dangers of taking frugality too far.
Next to the box of empty Metamucil bottles were old family photo albums: pictures of the grandmother I never met, shots of my mom as a baby, her sisters as children, their house and garden, their dog Mike. What a treasure to have these. What foresight my grandfather had to keep those safe and ready for new little hands to marvel over. So, there’s the balance. There’s the eternal tension. Keeping what matters; discarding what doesn’t.
It’s often obvious to us what someone else should get rid of (ahem, Metamucil bottles), but it’s not always obvious to ourselves. Creating an internal metric for what matters and what doesn’t isn’t easy, but I think it’s important. I don’t want to leave a dumpster-load of junk for my kids to contend with. I don’t want them to find empty recycling in my basement. But I do want them to cherish the jewelry from their great-grandmother, the first communion dress worn by their grandmother and mother, the bouquet from their parents’ wedding.
Right now, I combat this fear through organization. Thanks to my manic pre-baby basement organization project, our basement is a temple to neurotic systemization. Everything is categorized, labeled and in order. I don’t pretend this is a perfect answer, but at the very least it assuages my guilt over owning–and saving–so very much stuff… most of which I didn’t buy, most of which was free, and most of which means something to me.
Keepsakes For My Kids
In this vein, I’m trying to save a representative sample of my kids’ stuff for them (or more likely me) to wax nostalgic over at their high school graduation parties after the guests have left and I’m sitting on our scarred hardwood floor with my third glass of Malbec wondering where 18 years went. I don’t want to save it all because I know what it looks like when someone saves it all. But I don’t want to throw it all out because I know what that looks like too. I need my daughters to have a sense of place, knowledge of where they’re from and what they did when they were two years old.
My 3.5 year old, Kidwoods, can bang out five paintings in one 30-minute painting session. I don’t keep them all. Right after she creates art, I hang it either on the refrigerator or the “art wall” (using a detailed and attractive system of taping it to the wall with scotch tape… ). Then, as new art crowds out old, I keep one painting or one drawing or one craft. I recycle the rest.
I don’t have a lingering attachment to every single thing she creates because for her, the joy is in creating it, not in keeping it. She likes to see her work displayed on the wall (via the super classy tape method), but she doesn’t need or want to hoard her art forever. It’s ephemeral to her.
During the phase last month where she drew the letter “T” on everything, I saved one “T’ drawing. The rest are recycled. This lets me remember the “T” stage without hoarding the “T”s. Also, to be honest, all those T’s kinda looked like a bunch of gravestones… I have a box of her artwork (in the basement, of course) and I put her name and the date on the back of each picture. When I went to add the “T” masterpiece last week, I was surprised at how few things are in that box. A full two years’ worth of art barely makes a dent. To me, that’s a good thing.
This way, when we sit side by side after her graduation party, she can look through this box quickly enough to appreciate each phase of her fine motor skill development, but be done in time to meet her friends for the after-party. I don’t want to burden or overwhelm my kids with how much stuff I expect them to treasure or keep. They deserve to not be laden with what I think they should have. They will form their own decisions about how much to keep and how to save and what to give away. I will not burden them with my near-hoarder past. Or maybe I will. It’s early days yet, but I will keep giving their clothes and toys away and I will continue recycling their art. I will keep those representative samples in the basement, even though I know my husband and I might be the only ones to ever sifts through them with misty eyes.
My Quick Guide On How To Save What Matters
1) Make decisions in the moment and have “keep” and “give-away” boxes at the ready.
One of the ways I get stuff done is by doing it in the moment. It’s like the “clean while you cook” philosophy, which my husband follows. As my youngest outgrows clothes, I sort them into two boxes: give-away and keep. I make the decision right there in her bedroom, the minute I can’t squeeze an outfit over her head. On the floor of her closet sit those two boxes and I toss the un-sentimental, utilitarian outfits into give-aways and I tuck the treasured clothes into keep. I limit myself on that “keep” box, but I’m also aware that since my kids are only 27 months apart and are both girls, they wear all the same clothes. Given that, the keepsake clothes belong to both of them
The other morning I pulled out a t-shirt that turned out to be too small and so, before I even got the baby dressed, I popped it into the “give away” box on the floor of her closet. By having this system in place, I don’t feel overwhelmed by a mountain of clothes–I’m just dealing with one t-shirt at a time.
When the give-away box is full, I transfer the clothes into a trash bag labeled “baby clothes to give away” and store it in the basement until I have a chance to take it to the thrift store or give it to a friend. When the “keep” box is full, I transfer the clothes into a plastic storage tote in the basement labeled “baby clothes to keep.” I have the same system set up in both of my daughters’ bedrooms (although I keep almost all of Kidwoods’ clothes for Littlewoods to wear in the future).
2) Limit yourself to keeping only a representative sample.
I kept one newborn-size onesie to remind all of us how teensy the girls once were. I kept one “T” drawing. This cuts down on the amount of stuff I’m storing, but also lets me feel confident that I can, in fact, pull out that tiny bitty little onesie to coo over.
3) Find people to give hand-me-downs to.
This is another way I motivate myself to give stuff away. If I kept all the newborn-sized onesies in a box in my basement, no one else would benefit from them. They might as well not exist for all the good they’re doing.
Conversely, if I give away all but one onesie, I’m putting clothes back into circulation and continuing the cycle of free hand-me-downs for who knows how many other newborn-sized babies! I received (and continue to receive) tons of hand-me-down for my kids and am grateful to continue that system of giving to other parents.
The cycle has a five-fold benefit:
- It’s cheaper for everyone
- It keeps stuff out of landfills
- It reduces our carbon footprint by avoiding the embodied costs of buying new stuff
- It creates community
- It eliminates clutter
I can’t live with nothing, but I don’t want to live with everything. How do we construct heuristics to guide our decision-making around bringing stuff into our lives? When is it right to save things for the future? When are we wise to let go? Twining frugality and minimalism isn’t always straightforward, but I think there’s a nuanced third way to carve out. Frugal minimalism must be about keeping what matters from either a sentimental or practical standpoint. Frugal minimalism must be about valuing good deals and taking free hand-me-downs, coupled with a commitment to giving stuff away. Frugal minimalism must be about being thoughtful and continuing the cycle of give aways that we often find ourselves grateful recipients of. Frugal minimalism is attainable, I think. Let’s keep trying for it and figuring it out together.