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You may not have jumped on the Marie Kondo train yet but I’d be willing to bet you’ve at least heard of her or the Konmari method for decluttering when we have too much stuff.
But just in case you’ve been cut off from modern society for the last few years, I’ll explain what I’m talking about.
Marie Kondo is a Japanese organizing consultant and creator of the Konmari method of decluttering and organizing. The concept of Konmari is simply to get rid of anything that doesn’t bring you joy.
Sounds easy, right?
Except for many people the act of getting rid of their stuff brings a feeling that’s a lot closer to panic instead of joy.
What makes getting rid of physical things – things that may no longer have any value in the normal sense of the word – so freaking hard?
Maybe we need to understand why we ended up with too much stuff in the first place.
The Subtle Art of Accumulating Too Much Stuff
We all buy things we know we really don’t need. Oh, I know we try to convince ourselves that we need it but really, how many scented candles does one need in order to live a happy life?
If you’re me, that answer is “a lot” apparently.
It’s not entirely our fault, this tendency to spend money on things we don’t need. Advertisers, heck even influencers on social media, know that we buy things based on feelings instead of actual need.
Or rather, we buy things because of the feelings we think we’re going to get.
We’ll never admit it to ourselves or, gasp, out loud because that just sounds crazy. Imagine telling your friends and family that you spent $500 on home décor because of someone you follow on Instagram.
That’s cuckoo bananas.
There are plenty of reasons we have for buying things above and beyond what we need to fulfill basic necessities in life.
It’s all there, in our subconscious, guiding our hands to our wallets when we see something we want.
But it wasn’t always this way.
A Brief History of Shopping
We didn’t always have too much stuff. In fact, back in the old days before shopping malls or retail stores, we didn’t have hardly any stuff.
And you know what? We were okay. As they say, you don’t miss what you never had so we weren’t even aware we were missing out on anything.
Shopping consisted of Pa hitching up the wagon and heading to the general store in town to grab some material so you could make what you needed. (I don’t know why, but in my version of the “old days” everyone lived in the old West, or in the Little House on the Prairie).
It was time-consuming to make what you needed but you damn well took care of your things because you didn’t have time to spend making more when there was a cow to be milked (apparently, we were all on a farm too).
That all changed when department stores made their appearance in the mid to late 19th century.
After that, it was game on. Or game over depending on your perspective.
Instead of toiling away, making everything for ourselves, we could just buy what we needed and our lives became so much better.
The industrial age gave us the ability to produce goods at a greater rate which in turn led to lower prices.
Suddenly, we had access to more stuff, stuff up to that point was only available to the very rich.
It also introduced the concept of competition, which for consumers meant choice. This opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
Our need for basic necessities like clothes, food, and shelter didn’t change.
What changed was how we perceived purchasing those things.
Once we had the ability to buy the same things that the wealthy owned, we felt as though we were one step closer to being more like them.
It was a private club we were invited to join and the price of admission was simply buying stuff. We were well on our way to having too much stuff and we didn’t even know it yet.
Fast forward to the 21st century
In 2018, the advertising industry was worth $1.2 trillion dollars. They’ve learned a thing or two in the last hundred years or so.
Mainly what they’ve learned was right there from the beginning. They’re selling us the feeling that our lives will be improved if we buy things. That we’ll be one step closer to the ideal life we all want.
And it’s so easy to buy stuff now. Our access to information has increased exponentially over the last few decades because of the internet.
We can find anything we want with a few clicks on the Amazon website and it’s delivered right to our doors with a day or two.
No more hitching up the wagon to purchase goods. Nope, not us. We don’t even have to leave the couch to buy things.
We Have Too Much Stuff Yet We Continue to Buy
Here’s another fun fact. Sales of home organization products are projected to reach $20 billion dollars by 2021.
We’re not only buying way too much stuff but we also need to buy things to store all that stuff.
Talk about cuckoo bananas.
If we’re reaching maximum capacity on our homes and storage spaces to the point that we need to buy more things (or bigger homes) just to store all of it, why do we keep buying things?
Because we’re still buying the feelings that material possessions give us.
A perfect example of this is how we’re influenced by social media.
Why do you think advertisers have been quick to jump on the social media train and partner with influencers?
Because influencers are in the best position to sell you the dream. They share their stories, their homes, their image of that perfect life everyone wants.
They’re real people, someone you might be friends with if you met them. They’re not actors in a commercial, paid by some company to pretend to be happy.
And if someone you follow on social media drops a link to something they bought for their amazing home, you’re a lot more likely to trust them.
They’re a real person, I’m a real person, ergo I shall be one step closer to being like them if I buy this thing.
There are other reasons we’re inclined to buy more stuff, even when we don’t have the money for it.
Things Equal Security
I think this is especially true for people who grew up without a lot of money.
It’s hard as a child to see other kids with the latest fashions and coolest toys and know that your family can’t afford those things.
As we mature into adults and start managing our own money, we feel a compulsion to buy more things to make up for what we didn’t have as children. We convince ourselves that as long as we have a lot of stuff, we won’t have to experience that feeling of “less than” again.
Having material possessions surrounding you in your home in itself brings a sense of security.
“These are my things that I paid for. No one can take them away from me.”
In a world that’s increasingly confusing and chaotic, it makes us feel better to have control over our homes and the things we choose to put there.
When we’re unhappy with our jobs, our relationships, our homes, or just our lives in general, we look to find a little happiness wherever we can.
When we buy something new, we experience something that feels like happiness.
It doesn’t last but. dang, didn’t it feel good?
So, we do it again.
We do it when we don’t have the money for it, or we put it on our credit cards to “worry about later”.
It’s that kind of thinking that caused credit card debt in America to reach $870 billion dollars in 2018.
We don’t admit we buy things to make us happy, nor do we ever really examine the reasons for our unhappiness.
Instead, we buy things to fill the gap temporarily and go on.
We humans are a competitive lot at our cores.
We pay attention to what others in our circle are doing and buying.
If one of our friends rolls up in a brand new car and we’re still driving an old 2001 Toyota Corolla with mismatched wheels, we’re gonna have some feelings about that.
Social media has only amplified this need for comparison.
I follow a lot of DIY’ers and home décor accounts on Instagram because I have an interest in having a nice home.
They are frequently doing fabulous projects and buying new things. And yeah, I feel jealous that I can’t afford to constantly be buying things and working on my house as they seem to do.
We follow people on social media for a reason. Maybe they inspire us, or make us laugh, or we’re just interested in the things they share.
That also means we’re likely to be a little envious of what they have when we feel we fall short in our own lives or homes.
If there’s something we can buy that allows us to feel like we’re the same as them, we’ll jump at the chance.
We Rationalize Our Purchase Decisions
Our ability to shop is only outdone by our rationalizations for doing so.
Here are some of my own greatest hits. Sing along if you know it.
- I need it
- I want it
- I’ll use it someday
- It’s on sale
- It’s on CLEARANCE
- If I had that, I’d finally be able to start (crafting, getting healthy, solve world peace, insert excuse here)
- I work hard – I deserve it
Deep down we know we don’t need half the stuff we buy. The practical part of our brains realizes there’s a better use for the money we’re spending.
Psychology is a difficult thing to overcome.
STOP THE MADNESS
There are a ton of articles out there with tips on decluttering.
But doesn’t it make more sense to just stop the behavior at the beginning before you have too many things and need to declutter?
How do we stop this endless cycle of buying, storing, and purging?
Put Yourself on a Spending Freeze
In The Year of Less, Cait Flanders details how she put herself on a year-long spending freeze in order to break the cycle of buying so much stuff she didn’t need.
She also did some major decluttering and got rid of 70% of her possessions. Over the course of the year, she found that she was more fulfilled and happier with fewer possessions.
While I’m not suggesting such drastic action for everyone that has too much stuff, I do believe there can be lessons learned from being more mindful with your spending.
I tried a spending freeze for a month earlier this year and I was amazed at how my attitude changed toward spending. Not only did I manage to save money but I didn’t really miss shopping for the sake of shopping.
I found that I was a lot more intentional about everything I bought, even the things I deemed as necessary. I really had to think before I bought and that made a huge difference in what actually came home with me.
And it’s something that’s stuck with me even after my freeze technically ended. I still think about purchases before I buy instead of just grabbing it and putting in the cart.
To be clear, a spending freeze doesn’t apply to the essentials you need in order to live. I mean, you gotta have things like toilet paper and food. (Is it weird that I rank toilet paper up there with food in my “things I need to survive”?)
The focus should be on the non-essential purchases that you get just because you want to. It can be whatever category you feel like you could cut back on.
If the idea of a month seems too long, try a week instead and see how it goes. I think you’ll be surprised at what you learn about yourself and your spending habits when it’s over.
Set Up a Savings Plan for Purchases
If a spending freeze doesn’t sound like your thing you could also try setting up a savings plan for non-essential purchases.
Set aside money in your budget for either big or small purchases.
I have a category in my budget for small purchases, or “mad money”. After my spending freeze, I’m more conscious about what I buy so there are times when I have money left over. When that happens, I just roll it into the next month’s budget.
I’ve also set up a savings account specifically for bigger purchases. Each month I add to it until I have enough for whatever it is I’m saving for.
And I add to it every month, even if there’s nothing specific I want. The money will be there whenever there is something I want to buy.
We’re happier with purchases we have to plan and save for. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment when we look at those things.
And there’s less of a chance for buyer’s remorse if we wait until we’re sure it’s what we really want.
Take an Inventory of What You Have Now
I have things in my house I totally forgot about buying.
How does that even happen?
Because they were impulse buys, things I got because I thought they were pretty or they were on sale or I just wanted them at the time.
Take a look around your home and make an inventory of the things you own. Yes, even the stuff shoved in closets, or the basement or attic.
Try to remember how you got it in the first place. Was it something you bought? A gift? Something free?
If it was something you paid for, do you remember why you bought it?
Think about how you feel about that thing now, today. Are you sorry you paid for it? Would your life be negatively impacted if it wasn’t there anymore?
Don’t fall into the trap of thinking something has value just because you paid money for it. Once you buy something and bring it home, it doesn’t really have any value other than what you give it.
The idea here is to stop buying things on a whim without giving it much thought.
In order to do that, you need to recognize how much you’ve already bought in just that way.
Decluttering Will Only Help So Much
It’s easy to blame the advertising industry and social media for our compulsion to continue to buy things we don’t need.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty enough blame to go around and advertisers should get their fair share.
Honestly though, advertisers and social media are only capitalizing on what’s already there. Namely our own doubts, insecurities, and desires for a better life.
We don’t all have to be minimalists and get rid of our worldly possessions to live a happy and productive life.
But we don’t need as much stuff as we have either.
Our homes are an extension of ourselves. It should be a place where we feel happy and accepted. If you’re feeling overwhelmed because of how much stuff you have, decluttering is only going to solve part of the immediate problem.
Once you have an understanding about your triggers and reasons for buying more than you actually need, you can finally break the cycle for good.
If you’re interested in learning more about this, here are some resources for you to check out!
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo
If you’re interested in learning more about minimalism, check out Joshua Becker.
Simplify by Joshua Becker
And for more organization posts, check out these:
Things Organized People Use to Stay Organized
Beyond Paperless – A Guide to Organizing What Matters
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