For seven years, this was everything I owned: A MacBook Pro, an iPad, an unlocked iPhone, seven shirts, two pairs of jeans, two jackets, one coat, one sweater, two pairs of shoes, a suitcase, a backpack, some gym shorts, bathroom stuff, socks and underwear. That’s it. Everything I owned could be easily packed into a small suitcase and moved within thirty minutes.
In Fight Club, Tyler Durden made the bold claim: “The things you own, end up owning you.” Although I think that’s true, I’m not going to be a zealot here and try to convince you to throw away all of your possessions and go live on a mountain or something. Obviously, you have a life and a home, perhaps a family, and needs, and a radical shift in lifestyle wouldn’t be practical for many of you. These days, it isn’t for me either. I have commitments and obligations and people who depend on me now, so I’ve had to root down.
But what I am going to try to convince you is that you probably don’t need all of the stuff you think you do and that getting rid of much of it can be surprisingly liberating as well as make you happier.
Back in 2007, I went broke after graduating from university. To deal with this, I sold most of my possessions and moved onto a friend’s couch temporarily. At the time, it was painful. I had to get rid of my bed, my desk, a lot of my books and CD’s, pictures, and who knows what else. It felt excruciating. But despite my perception of “selling everything,” I still moved into my friend’s place with two large boxes of crap, a full suitcase of clothes, desktop computer, desk chair, guitar, TV stand (don’t ask), and other odds and ends. For the six months I lived on that couch, 75% of everything I owned sat neatly in boxes, untouched.
The next year, with a struggling online business, no money, and nowhere to go, I moved back home to live with mom for a while. Since shipping a box full of stuff from Boston to Texas was expensive, and I was surviving almost solely on peanut butter, I jettisoned even more stuff. On Craigslist, everything went: goodbye bicycle, messenger bag, the high-end poker chip set I won in a tournament, framed pictures, dumbbell weights, yoga mat, basketball, Playstation 2, and games. It hurt. It’s funny now, but looking back I really felt like a failure because I was selling all of my possessions to keep my business afloat. Like it was this massive sacrifice. Aside from my clothes and suitcase, all I kept was my guitar and a small box of books.
Six months later, I began my foray into the digital nomad lifestyle. I visited Brazil and moved to Buenos Aires. I took one large suitcase with me and spent hours the days before I left deliberating over how I was going to fit everything I “needed” into one single suitcase for 3-6 months abroad. Which tools do I bring? Which raincoat should I bring? Fitness supplements, external hard drives, an extra pair of running shoes, clothes iron, and cooking spices all seemed like necessities at the time.
I was an idiot.
I didn’t use half of the stuff I packed. I started a habit of unloading unnecessary junk by leaving them in the apartments, hostels, and hotels I stayed in. Finished reading a book? Here you go, intrepid next traveler! Eventually, I ended up with the small suitcase of a week’s worth of clothes and a laptop and essentially lived like that for most of my 20s.
That may sound a little extreme to some of you. And it is. But… and this is a big “but,” so I’m going to bust the italics out: Every step along the way, getting rid of what I didn’t absolutely need was painful, but at no point did I ever miss anything once it was gone. Ever.
I don’t remember most of the crap I owned, much less miss it. I couldn’t tell you what hung on my wall, what color my couch was, where I bought my television, which video games I owned without thinking very, very hard.
In fact, not only do I not miss anything I got rid of, but the thought of spending money on more of the same possessions instead of life experiences and relationships with others sounds absolutely insane to me now.
Identity Investment and Loss Aversion
There are two psychological factors at play in owning a bunch of stuff and I think both lower the overall quality of life: identity investment and loss aversion.
Identity investment is what Fight Club ribs at when it makes fun of the need to own a bunch of nice stuff—people tend to become emotionally attached to their possessions and see their possessions as a part of themselves. This is particularly true in more materialistic cultures where people are encouraged to express their identities through consumerism. People become attached to the companies that make their car or truck, their computers, their clothing, their appliances, etc. They spent months saving up for an item, spent a lot of mental energy choosing which item “represents” them best, therefore they begin identifying themselves as a “Ford guy,” or a “Mac user,” or whatever.
This becomes part of your identity—no matter how small—that you portray to others in your life. And if you’ve learned anything from this blog, it should be that investing your identity in factors outside of yourself (sexual interactions, what people think of you, how much money you make, stuff you own) isn’t healthy and generally backfires.
The second factor, loss aversion, is a sad fact of life. Psychology has shown that humans perceive the pain of losing something to be much greater than the pleasure of having it.1 This is true for everything—relationships, possessions, competition—and it’s hard-wired into us. All of us. So that poker chip set I won and swore I had to keep and felt crushed when I had to get rid of, I never actually used it once when I owned it. The guitar that I thought I loved just sat collecting dust, yet I couldn’t bear to sell it.
Happiness studies consistently bring back a couple of findings: 1) that we derive far more happiness from experiences than we do from possessions,2 and 2) that we’re better off investing our energy in our relationships than the things we own.3
Getting rid of unnecessary possessions can therefore indirectly improve our quality of life in the following ways:
- Frees up more time and money to spend on experiences and with people.
- Forces one to invest more of their identity in their behavior and attitude and less in objects around them.
- Removes the stress of loss aversion and trying to hold on to what one already has.
- Saves money (always a stress reducer).
Keep in mind, the goal here isn’t to get rid of everything. It’s simply to get rid of things that don’t actively make you happy or improve your life. It’s about owning as little as possible to optimize one’s well-being and happiness.
What Can You Get Rid of Today?
Now comes the fun part. Let’s talk about the useless crap you have that you can get rid of today. I’m going to start with the easiest objects to trash and move to the most difficult.
90% of What’s in Your Storage Closet, Attic, or Garage
This is the easy part, the spring-cleaning part. Those old golf clubs you never play with, the rusty toolbox, the beaten up board games, the bicycle pump for the bike you don’t have anymore, the old pool toys, the posters from college, on and on and on.
This is the stuff you would have thrown out ages ago except you told yourself, “Well, you never know,” or you stopped because they brought back a really good memory or two. Look, if you haven’t used it in the past three months and don’t think it’s likely you’ll use it in the next three months, toss it. Don’t think about it. Don’t reminisce. Just toss it. You won’t miss it. I promise.
About half of my readers just gasped when they saw this. Yes, video games are fun, and they’re nice to blow off some steam every now and then. But most people who play them, particularly young men, play them way too much. Not only are they a massive time sink, but they waste a lot of money and all but kill your social life.
Ask yourself, if you spent half the amount of time you spend playing video games out socializing the past five years or reading books, what would your life be like? Chances are your stomach dropped as soon as you thought about that. If it did, then it’s time to put the Xbox and PS3 on Craigslist. Delete Diablo 3 off your hard drive. Get living.
Yeah, there are some good TV shows, but you can watch them on your computer for free whenever you’d like. Forget the television. Having it around only encourages you to get sucked into pointless crap. Like sports? Go watch your favorite games at a sports bar. Watching sports with other people is ten times better, even if they’re total strangers.
I’m a bookworm and love the good ole glue and paper as much as anybody. But buy a Kindle or iPad and start downloading your books. This one hurt me a lot and I resisted it for a long time. But I’m glad I did it.
Clothes. For guys, all you need is 3-4 dress shirts, 3-4 T-Shirts, two pairs of jeans, a nice pair of pants, some shorts, exercise shoes, dress shoes, a coat, a jacket, a sweater, maybe a sweatshirt, socks, and underwear.
For women, I know this sounds crazy, but you don’t really need a whole lot more than most guys. Instead of dress shirts, maybe just 3-4 dresses (if you’re into that). And the great thing about dressing for women is that accessories can really change the whole look of an outfit. So, with a few scarves or pieces of jewelry or hats or whatever, you can mix and match the same few pieces and still look like you have an endless closet.
Now we’re getting serious: that nice chair you never sit in, the dining room set you touch once a year, the extra table in the office, the bookshelf that held the books you just sold. When you toss your unneeded furniture, you’re likely to find that you can easily live in a house/apartment half the size of your current one. That may be a traumatic realization for some of you, but if you can handle it, then you can use the money you make now to live in a smaller place in a far better location.
Remember, experiences bring happiness, not stuff. So what’s going to make you happier, the futon grandma gave you for a graduation present, or living down the street from your favorite concert venue?
And if you live in a better location, and in a city with good public transportation, chances are you don’t need a car anymore. I haven’t owned a car in 9 years and I think it’s very unlikely I’ll ever own one again.
My friends think I’m crazy, but they’ve never lived in a city with quality mass transit. If you don’t own much stuff, you can live in the best location in the city and then use buses or metros to get where you need to go. Not only is it far cheaper, far more convenient, and far more enjoyable, but it leaves a much smaller carbon footprint.
The only situation in which I can even fathom wanting a car again is if I one day end up with four little kids and need to shuttle them back and forth to football practice and dance recitals. But let’s cut this article off right there before I start envisioning my soccer mom future a little bit too clearly.
- For implications of loss aversion on behavior, see: Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1991). Loss Aversion in Riskless Choice: A Reference-Dependent Model. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 106(4), 1039–1061.↵
- Some would go so far as to design experience to maximize happiness.↵
- See for example: Demir, M. (2008). Sweetheart, you really make me happy: Romantic relationship quality and personality as predictors of happiness among emerging adults. Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(2), 257–277.↵