From stuffing to stuff

Isn’t it ironic that we transition from a day of counting our blessings to a season of counting our things?  As soon as we dispense with the stuffing, we start thinking about stuff.

There’s the dash to the store for all the deals surrounding “Black” Friday.  Then, after a bit of a lull, we start a frantic search to find stuff for everyone on our gift list that culminates with the dash of all dashes – Christmas Eve.

Back in my retail days I was able to calculate sales figures in real time.  Yes, the day after Thanksgiving was busy.  Two Saturday’s before Christmas was the single busiest sales day of the year.  But hour by hour, sales on Christmas Eve were never topped.

And people were desperate.  Either they hadn’t done much shopping up to that point and needed to fit everyone into an eight hour spree.  Or, they had taken care of everyone on their “B” list and now were shopping for the closest members of their family.  Like their husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, mother and father.

The thought and care that went into those purchases was mind boggling.  As in negligible.

Hence, stuff. 

Take a look in your garage.  Your closets.  The basement.  Behind all those cabinet doors and drawers.  What do you see?

How much of it do you actually use on a regular basis?  Better yet, how much of it do you cherish?  The perfect gift.

This may be sacrilegious to say in early December, but we really do have too much stuff.

I know, I know – I’m beginning to sound like some sorry scold.  Reminding people of all they are doing wrong and pretending to show them the light.

But if you stop to think about it, doesn’t a lot of that stuff show up in the form of a Christmas present?  And isn’t early December a better time to have this discussion than on the 23rd?

There are many, many people who have looked their closet in the eye and decided to simplify.  From a literary standpoint Ted Levering and Wanda Urbanski got the ball rolling in 1992 with their book, Simple Living: One Couple’s Search for a Better Life.  It tells the tale of their move from Los Angeles to southwest Virginia, where they took over a family orchard.  They wanted to put more meaning in their lives while eliminating unnecessary debt and superfluous consumption.

Superfluous consumption gets to the heart of the story of stuff.  There’s even a non-profit dedicated to this, with a fascinating video that talks about stuff and its effect on us, our communities, and the environment.

Some think of stuff in terms of clutter.  Unused things piled up in the closet, garage, or basement.

I am Exhibit A in that regard.  And I have been working on this for years.

When Pam and I met we were each in small homes.  Neither one of us had much, mostly the basics.  But then we moved in together, bought a larger house, and combined things.

We didn’t get rid of anything, not even the former houses.  As our separate lives blended together into one, we continued to accumulate stuff.

When we moved to Connecticut in 2005 it all came with us.  And we bought an even bigger house – more room to put things.  Including friends and relatives.

It was wonderful.  But without so much as a single thought.  The stuff kept piling up.  In the basement.  In the attic.  And in the closets and cupboards.

Then it came time to move back south to Florida.  Except this time we paid for it.  Suddenly all that superfluous stuff turned into a real liability.  As in you pay by the pound.

That was our first attempt to shed stuff.  The Norwalk Goodwill store had a banner summer in 2010.

So did relatives and the shore house.  If there was even a hint that we didn’t need it, out it went.  Our stuff became their stuff.

And even with all that shedding of stuff, we still filled two-thirds of a tractor trailer.  We returned to Florida with boxes that had been unopened since the trip north, as evidenced by the first moving company’s sticker – untouched.  You can’t get to everything, I suppose.

We filled two large storage spaces as we searched for a new house in Stuart.  And then, once we found it, kept huge piles of unopened boxes as we progressed with our two-year renovation.

Can you see the pattern here?  It all adds up to a lot of wasted money.  First in the purchase.  Then in the storage.  Then in the size of the house and the amount of furniture needed to hold it all.

As I say, you need not feel guilty about your own relationship with stuff, because I was the poster child.

Slowly, though, our thinking about all our stuff has changed.  We have a very long way to go, but we, too, have begun to simplify.  To reduce our reliance on surrounding ourselves with stuff.

And I look at my relationship with stuff through two very different lens.

The first is monetary.  Over time all that stuff adds up to a lot of money spent.  Money that very likely could have been used more wisely elsewhere.

I would rather fill our memory bank with an evening out, or having friends over for dinner, than fill some store’s bank with my needless purchase.

Yet the want/need tradeoff is very difficult to overcome.  I am Jonesing for a Vespa, but do I need one?  No.  I would love the latest and greatest non-stick sauté pan, but do I need it?  Again, no.

Typically, all that stuff adds up to a lot of money misspent.  And for many of us, because we buy with a credit card, that means unnecessary debt.

The other way of looking at and thinking about stuff is more existential.  What do my purchases say about me and how I live my life?  To what extent do things influence my relationship with my family and friends?  What are the unintended consequences of having all this stuff around?

One consequence is stress.  It’s almost imperceptible, until it’s gone.  If you are a compulsive shopper, and have the debt to prove it, consider what that small, but immeasurably significant, behavioral change would do to your stress if you bought less.

Or consider why you buy what you do.  Is it to curry favor, or to be liked?  We’ve all been there at one time or another.  Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but we’re still stuck with the bill.

This is getting pretty heavy and I have probably overplayed my hand.

The point is, as we enter the gift giving season – more cynically, the season of stuff – perhaps, this year, we can spend a little time thinking about our relationships and what our presents mean.

The Story of Stuff Project, that non-profit I alluded to above, is offering an e-card this year that says, “Presence > Presents.  Let’s spend some time together.”

Presence is the best gift of all.  And it’s special, the kind of gift that keeps on giving all year long.  Time together.  With family.  With friends.

More stuff isn’t nearly as important as more presence.  Think about that as you reach for the rooster alarm clock for Uncle Albert.  Maybe, just maybe, the anticipation of your visit is enough to get him out of bed in the morning.


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