Sunday, March 30, 2008

Find the Couch

In moments of financial stress people often resort to looking under the couch cushions for loose change. Before you get that desperate, first examine the piles of items all over the couch, and on your tables and your chairs and other pieces of furniture. And the floor. Ask yourself this:

Why do I own so much stuff?

Everything we buy that we don’t need is wasted money. Everything extra that we own is wasted time and energy, and money, too. It takes time to care for possessions, even to navigate around them if they’re on the floor. Blogs are filled with posts about how overwhelmed people are with clutter. How preoccupied people are with neatening up their dwelling spaces and organizing their possessions. De-cluttering expert Peter Walsh has even credibly linked clutter to obesity. Owning too much stuff is obviously related to financial problems, because owning, storing, and moving excess possessions is expensive. But we don’t only buy excess things. We often inherit them, are given them, or pick them up off the sidewalk. And then, unable to make the decision and actually get rid of them, we stuff the items into our homes, or worse, put them in storage. Some people have bought second houses just to hold their extra stuff. Many thousands of people are paying for storage spaces that hold a variety of supposedly useful items they are able to live without, but that they can’t seem to let go of.

Why do we own so much stuff? Because we can. The wealth in America is so great that people can collect broken bicycles off the street, stockpile them in the dozens in their back yards, and nobody comes and takes them away. Nobody even knocks on the door and asks for one of those extra bicycles. Perhaps whoever needs a bike doesn’t live anywhere near the person who is hoarding them. But the bottom line is that we live in an age of mass production, and the thousands of useful items that people are holding onto are replicated again and again in many other households. At one point I discovered that I had 13 can openers. I had bought two of them, one of which was inferior and I stopped using. So why hadn’t I gotten rid of it? Sheer inattention. Nobody I knew needed a bad can opener, so of course I never gave it to anyone. And my kitchen was large enough to store it and all the other excess can openers without ever having to confront the folly of owning so many. I’ve probably paid to move all these at least five times, too. And I’ve wasted time packing and unpacking them with each move. It’s a minor issue, you say. But what if it was 13 bicycles?

When we worry about de-cluttering or about cleaning or sorting or organizing our possessions, we focus our energy away from the important tasks of our lives. Maybe we have books to write, muscles to exercise, or jobs to find. We intend to make big changes in our lives--after we do a major cleanup. But the cleanup never happens, and neither do those big changes. By acquiring, holding onto, and endlessly arranging and having to detour around excess possessions, we are hiding the couch. How are we ever going to find the loose change under the cushions if we can’t find the couch?
And just what is this loose change under the cushions? I know I’ve strained that metaphor to the breaking point, but bear with me. The change is the hope of a better life. The coins found under the cushions are just what we need to stave off a disaster, or bankroll a new success. They are extra capital exactly when we need it. Stored bicycles and can openers are not, because they are not liquid assets. Their value is dependent on a market. If we are bound and determined to have extra stuff around, we should make it be extra money. That’s something that we can use in an emergency. We can’t pay an unexpected dental bill with a broken bicycle or a can opener.

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