Decluttering Your Life, Letting Go

Odysseus Couldn’t Have Resisted a $5.00 Shirt Either

Consider this statistic:

“Self storage – a business devoted to providing people a place to house their extra stuff – has become a 17 billion dollar annual industry in the United States, larger than the motion picture business.” (Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind)

Hmm…do you get the feeling that it’s not just those people on Hoarders that are holding on to stuff? Storage units have become a convenient metaphor for our need to control our own lives and emotions by placing them neatly away from ourselves. How many of us hide our stuff away in storage units? And why does it have a hold over us? Why not just let it go? Self-storage, unlike compulsive drinking, has few, if any, stigmas attached to it. How many people say things like, “Yeah, he’s been hanging out at the storage unit again”? Storage units aren’t located in dark corners of questionable neighborhoods. No wife is sending her children into the storage unit at 2 AM to collect their father after a night of heavy storing. Self-storage is a perfectly respectable way to hold onto the things you no longer need but somehow can’t bear to let go of.

Yet it is bigger than Hollywood. Maybe not so shiny or celebrity-making, but bigger, nonetheless.

And then there is this mind-boggling and maybe even psyche-warping fact: “The United States spends more on trash bags than ninety other countries combined spend on everything. In other words, the receptacles of our waste cost more than all  of the goods consumed by nearly half of the world’s nations (Daniel Pink, A Whole New Mind).

So if stuff is so important to us, why do we throw so much of it away? Or, an even better question: Why do we buy so much in the first place?

When asked about why we keep a certain item of clothing, knick knack, stack of papers, and whatever we keep, most of us do not readily admit that we keep it only because we can’t figure out a way to let it go. On the contrary, we come up with a long list of reasons and justifications for why this thing is such a vital possession. Recognizing these excuses in yourself and then dealing with them is the key to ridding your life of the things that do not serve you. The first of these is the ultimate siren to me: the bargain.

On my sister’s refrigerator is a cutout comic. In it there is a man standing, looking in bewilderment, at the dog house that his wife has just purchased at a yard sale.

“It was only five dollars!” she says.

He says, “But we don’t have a dog!”

“Well, we might as well go ahead and get one,”she says.

After all, who doesn’t love a bargain? The bargain is a siren to many of us and even a prostitute to some. “Look at me,” she says. “I am here, I am ready to be snatched up, and I am cheap. You won’t get another chance like me. You had better grab me before that person behind you sees me.” And it’s true, there might be someone standing behind you, a look of hunger in his eyes. He is just waiting for you to waver. Of course, this just makes the bargain that much more appealing in your glazed over eyes. Need I say more? Bargains make us do irrational things sometimes. They make us buy things we don’t need for sure, but they can also make us buy things we don’t even want.

Because often we are not buying the item because it is a bargain.

We are buying a story.

In my family and in yours too, perhaps, we share stories of our bargains much in the same way Cave Men might have told of their successful hunts or soldiers might have spoken about their heroic deeds. Getting a bargain is not generally known to be a heroic deed, but for those of us who are willing to wake up at 6AM on a Saturday to see if we can get a Coach purse at a yard sale for a dollar, it sure feels that way. In fact, any time someone in my family receives a compliment on an article of clothing, the standard response is to grab a small handful of the material and proudly proclaim where we got it and how much it cost. It goes like this:

Random Person: “That’s a nice shirt.”

Miscellaneous Family Member: “Thanks! Marshall’s. Five bucks.”

Random Person: (awkward silence)

Notice that random person did not ask where said shirt was purchased or how much it cost. It would be pretty rude if the conversation went like this:

Random Person: “That’s a nice shirt. Where did you get it, and how much did it cost?”

Miscellaneous Family Member : “Thanks! Marshall’s. Five bucks.”

Notice Miscellaneous Family Member’s response did not change; it’s just a slightly more appropriate answer to a slightly more inappropriate question.

When we remember how much we spent on every item we own, we have attached a value that makes it hard to let it go. If you couple the dollar value with the bargain factor, well, now there is a story attached to the item as well. God forbid you add the triple whammy of some kind of sentimental attachment (paying 25 cents for the Fred Flintstone Pez dispenser just like the one you had as a kid, for instance), you might as well just find a permanent place in your psyche for that piece of your childhood and a permanent place in your garage for the memento.

Do you buy things that you don’t need or really even want just because they are good deals? Are you afraid that if you don’t snatch it up, someone else will get it? Do you fear scarcity and live with the anxiety that there isn’t ever enough? Do you like to show your economic savvy by recounting tales of money saved and bargains gained? Rest assured that you are not alone, but be warned that this behavior can ultimately cause you pain.

It’s hard to refuse a good deal. Businesses know this, which is why they spend so much of their money touting their “great deals” to consumers. Just think of how much money you can save if you buy this new 60-inch HD TV. Sure, you’re spending $2499.00 on it, but you’re saving $800! That’s a great deal! Companies don’t want you to think in terms of what you are spending, but rather in terms of what you are saving. They know that rationalization is a powerful ally to get you to buy their product, and saving money is like Miracle Gro for rationalizing our purchases. I love advertisements that say, “The more you spend, the more you save!” Of course that is nonsense, but the honest version of “The more you spend, the more you spend” probably wouldn’t encourage a buying frenzy.

And what if the old television that works perfectly fine? Well, there is always the garage. Or the garbage. There’s only one letter separating the two, and “B” is for bargain.

A bargain is only a bargain if you needed and were actually looking to buy that exact item anyway. If those two conditions are not met, you do not have a bargain. You have a thing that you didn’t need which cost you money that you were not planning to spend. If you had not spent the money you could have saved 100 percent instead of 50 percent, and you would not have had to add yet another life-sucking item to your already overcrowded garage and life.

But how do we resist this temptress? She looks so good (well, pretty good – there might be a thread or two unraveling, but I can sew that. Or she might have a slight imperfection, but hey, nobody’s perfect). And I really need her (well, that’s not exactly true; I have three or four just like her already at home). But she’s just so cheap (well, maybe she is, but do you really want to bring her home to your mother?)

Okay, first of all, you have to start looking at bargains as money you are spending, not money you are saving. The sweater that is on clearance for $8.00 with that luscious red sticker pasted onto the old price, revealing just enough to let you know that it used to be $14.99 is still costing you $8.00. I repeat: you are still spending money on it. Tear your eyes away from the lure of the lipstick-red clearance sticker for a minute and ask yourself these few questions:

  1. Do I need it?
  2. Do I love it?
  3. Am I more attracted to the look or to the label?
  4. Would I buy it if it were not on sale?
  5. Am I willing to part with something else in my life to make room for it? If so, what, and how and when will I part with it?
  6. Do I care that someone else might get it if I don’t?

Now, you can lie to yourself or rationalize, but that won’t fix your problem. If more than one of those questions causes you feelings of unease (ie: “I like the sweater, but I don’t really need it” or “I don’t really love it, but if I don’t buy it, someone else will snatch it up” or “It’s not the cutest purse, but it is Michael Kors, and it’s only $39.99”) then you should simply walk away. If you are buying something because you sort of like it, it is cheap, it has an appealing label and you’re afraid someone else will get it if you don’t, then you don’t actually want the thing. You want the story. You want the feeling. You want to give in to the siren.

The bargain is not really as romantic as we make it out to be. Imagine choosing a life partner that way. “Well,” you say, “I didn’t really like him or need him, but I married him because I was afraid that someone else would take him if I didn’t. And he was wearing a Ralph Lauren shirt. Plus, he was a real bargain.” Does that sound like a good deal to you?

In closing, if I had to choose one small appliance that has stood out for my entire life, it would have to be the toaster oven. There have been many in my life, and though each has its own legacy, one in particular stands out for me. One year at Christmastime, Dad bought a brand new toaster oven from B.J.’s Wholesale Club. New appliances were not the norm in our house – he usually went for used garage sale fare, so this was a big deal. He lifted it proudly from the box and placed it on the counter.

Immediately, as if the toaster oven had been told about the house it would be living in, it fell forward off of the counter corner, which was specifically designed to hold a toaster oven. Apparently this particular toaster oven came forward just about a half inch too far and would not sit completely on the counter. Dad’s face fell. He pushed it back so that it was just teetering on the edge of the counter, but as soon as he opened the door, the whole contraption came crashing down again. He proceeded to do this several times before looking up at me.

“I guess it doesn’t fit,” he said.

“Nope, I guess not,” I answered. “Are you going to take it back?”

“Yeah, maybe,” he said. “It was a good deal.”

Uh-oh.

We suffered through the falling toaster oven for a few months, during which every time you opened the door to remove the toast, the whole oven would come crashing forward and downward off the counter step. It bothered him enough to look for a solution but not enough to bring it back to the store. In a swoop of genius one day, Dad went out to the garage and found a wooden sign that was about ¾ inch thick. He expertly wedged it underneath the front of the toaster oven so that the two front haunches could sit on top of it. It fit perfectly, and as long as you didn’t move the toaster oven too abruptly, it worked just fine. So for the next year, the oversized toaster oven sat on the counter atop a sign that read “WELCOME.” It was as if we were telling any and all visitors, “Welcome to our toaster. Please sit and allow us to fix you a slice.” After all, who doesn’t love toast? Celiacs, you say? No problem – we even have gluten free bread!

Anyway, the toaster oven didn’t last. The final nail in the coffin came one day when I arrived home from school to find it sitting on the front lawn, just outside the kitchen door. Upon closer inspection, I noticed a sticky a sticky white substance covering the grill. I treaded lightly into the kitchen to find my father sitting at the head of the table, going through the mail, seeming not at all concerned that there was a small appliance on the front lawn.

“What’s with the toaster oven?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, assuming his irritated tone of voice, “one of your kids got melted marshmallows all over it,” he said. “It almost caught on fire, and I had to throw it outside.” He stared at me and waited for me to form a response.

“How could they have gotten that much marshmallow all over it?” I asked. “They only put in like two s’mores at a time.” Oh yeah, side note: my children make s’mores in the toaster oven.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They must have put it in there and then forgot about it.” It sounded fishy. I walked back outside to investigate. Picking up the now cooled toaster oven, I reached in to touch the white substance, surprised to find that it was not sticky. In fact, it was as hard as…well, plastic. In fact, it was plastic.  I walked back inside.

“Dad,” I said, “that is not marshmallow all over the toaster oven,” I said. “It’s plastic.” I showed him a piece that I had peeled off of the grill.

“How did plastic get all over it?” he said. It’s amazing how he thinks I can possibly know such things. I walked to the trash can to throw the piece of evidence away when I saw something that brought full realization. Tucked suspiciously in the trash was a white plastic frozen food container, melted so beyond recognition that one could barely tell where the plastic ended and the mashed potatoes began.

“I think just I figured it out,” I said. “Artie.” (Artie was an elderly man that lived with my parents.  Long story for a different time.) Apparently, Artie must have thought that microwaving plastic was the same thing as cooking it in an oven. When he realized that the plastic had melted all over the oven, he simply took it out and threw it away, probably more upset at his ruined mashed potatoes than he was at the ruined toaster oven. My dad just shook his head and continued with the task of sorting through the mail.

About a week later, I came home to find the welcome sign gone from the counter and a yard sale toaster oven on the perch.

“Got it for five bucks,” Dad said proudly.

The new toaster oven burned everything, but at least it didn’t fall off the counter.

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