Friday, February 29, 2008

Don’t Waste Your Money

According to a Washington Post article just this week, Americans are buying more of virtually everything these days, yet our incomes have not risen in real dollars. And it’s the major reason so many of us are in debt up to our eyeballs. Our houses are bigger, our televisions are bigger, we buy more of everything. And that’s just those of us who are normal, who don’t have heaps and heaps of stuff making our homes burst at the seams.

But maybe “normal” is the wrong word. It is becoming common to hear about people who have entire houses full of collected things, or sections like their basement or garage or a spare bedroom that are piled high with miscellany. Several television series and specials have been dedicated to helping these people pare down. Professional de-cluttering has sprung up as a career. News stories about younger people who have huge collections of science fiction or movie memorabilia are growing. Although the tone taken is often mocking, it’s clear that some people have taken a love of C3PO to extremes, trying to own every licensed product with Star Wars on it, for instance. And we already know that a lot of elderly people who lived through the Depression or the Holocaust are hoarders who keep freezers full of extra food, and garages full of things that “could come in handy someday.” These collections are not necessarily trash. They can be valuable or useful, as with the Star Wars collectibles and the frozen food. But the problem is that when a person buys too much, collects too much, the result is waste. And wasted money.

We’ll give the elderly folks a pass, even though each year many are found dead in apartments and houses that are completely choked with possessions. Elderly people are well known to be set in their ways. The sad thing is that often the mess they leave behind gets thrown away regardless of value, because sorting through it is too time-consuming a task for whoever is stuck with it. That’s how junk dealers make their living, after all.

But what about the rest of us?

Everyone probably has something they ought to go through some day and get rid of. But real hoarder/clutterers don’t just keep too much stuff around. They acquire new items irrationally. And they waste money and also the very items they possess.

I just came across an instance of a person who had stockpiled batteries, ordinary AAs, AAAs, Cs, Ds, and 9 volts. This person doesn’t have a lot of extra income, and in fact does without health coverage as do millions in our country. But what the person does have is 76 C batteries. That’s right: 76. And that 76 total was derived only after we threw out the expired ones. Among the expired and soon-to-expire batteries were lots of 9 volts, the size mostly used for smoke detectors. Would you risk a soon-to-expire battery in your first line of defense against a fire? Of course not. These batteries were literally sitting in a closet, rotting and leaching hazardous chemicals, doing no one any good. Meanwhile, very conservatively estimated, this person had $200 invested in batteries, most of which were going to go unused.

What could this person do with $200? Oh, so much. We all have a long list of things we could do with an extra $200. What could this person do with 76 C batteries? Save a reasonable number (we decided on eight, approximately $10 worth) for consumption this year, and gave the rest to a school that could use them right away. The expired ones were carefully recycled at the dump. But what a waste!

I’m not saying don’t buy anything. But don’t waste your money buying too much of everything. It’s not that big a deal to run out and get a battery if you don’t have a spare one today. It’s a waste to have so many spares that they rot before you can use them. And that goes for just about anything: buying an item of clothing in multiple colors when one would do (pick the one that’s the best color for you, and wear it out); grabbing two sale boxes of cookies at the grocery store when buying one would net you the real price advantage (one box at $2.50 costs less than two boxes for $5.00) and fewer fat calories; or, the besetting sin of so many of us, buying too many hobby items that will never recoup their value unless we ourselves take the time to sell them one by one.

Buy things because you need them. Buy them because you want them, even, but be careful about how much you want. And don’t buy things just to have them around. We all can manage nicely on far fewer things in our lives and in our homes. And I for one would prefer to have that $200 earning me some money somewhere, rather than rotting away and causing hazardous waste.

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