How to Live With Less Stuff


I hate stuff, and by “stuff” I mean material objects. I hate lugging stuff around, packing stuff up every time I move, storing stuff, cleaning stuff, searching for stuff when I misplace them. My dislike of physical items might be a reaction to my father’s pack-rat habits. Our garage is filled from floor to rafters with never-used gardening tools, dilapidated sports equipment, unfashionable bookshelves and chairs, and all sorts of tchotchkes. My father brings home this ever-growing collection from the local recycling facility, aka the dump. Wellesley’s dump has a reusables section where someone who doesn’t want his ugly-looking garden gnomes can drop them there and rest assured that some crazy, old lady with a penchant for jolly, ceramic creatures will give it a nice home.

My number of material possessions peaked right before college and has declined ever since. For many teenagers, preparing for college means hitting up Best Buy, Staple, and Cosco to purchase consumer goods like life itself depends on it – ironing board, hamper, butt-ugly medusa lamps, boxes of instant ramen, etc.

As I packed up my stuff after my first year of college, I took stock of where I actually spent my time. Did I need a dozen spiral-bound notebooks or did I need more time (and spending money) with friends? And so I slowly became a minimalist because of ideology and utility. Instead of buying lined paper, I took filler paper from library printers. I “borrowed” kitchenware from campus dining halls. Instead of going broke over textbooks, I searched for free pdf downloads and used library reserve copies.

Less stuff brings more mental ease. Life is already complicated. Why make it more complicated with physical clutter? I want my living space to be simple, beautiful, and functional.

I’ve seen friends toiling for days stuffing boxes, calling storage companies, and arranging shipment for mountains of marginally useful objects. After my first year of college, I went through all my possessions one by one and thought to myself, “Do I really need this?” If not, I chucked it. At first it was difficult, but after a while throwing away or not bringing something became easier and easier. By senior year, my system was a science. While my friends spent days unloading and unpacking their baggage, I set up my room from car trunk to lying-on-my-back-admiring-my-new-room in two hours max. It was spartan and ascetic, and I loved it.

A recent article in the Times talked about how up to a certain point, material goods doesn’t make one that much happier. Hello, law of diminishing returns. Studies have shown that buying goods that provide or enhance enjoyable experiences has a longer-lasting payback.

New studies of consumption and happiness show, for instance, that people are happier when they spend money on experiences instead of material objects, when they relish what they plan to buy long before they buy it, and when they stop trying to outdo the Joneses.

One major finding is that spending money for an experience — concert tickets, French lessons, sushi-rolling classes, a hotel room in Monaco — produces longer-lasting satisfaction than spending money on plain old stuff.

Further reading:

The Onion wrote an article about the ridiculous shit Americans will buy.

Here’s one journalist’s hoarding confessions. Don’t let this happen to you.