Monday, May 17, 2010

Penny Pinching or Profligacy?

I don’t want to constantly rag on the NY Times or the Washington Post, but they are two of the nation’s most widely read and influential newspapers. (Even though printed newspapers are a dying breed, they still are read by many people, especially online.) Here’s yet another article about personal finance, whose headline says one thing but whose body says another. Since headline writers are a different group from reporters or columnists (although I suppose with newspapers collapsing, those jobs might be collapsing, too), the writer of this article on personal finance probably is not at fault for the misdirection of its title. The headline says, “Penny-Pinching Is Fine, but It Won’t Save the Profligate,” but the article by Alina Tugend mostly talks about small economies and how little difference they make in our financial bottom line. Nothing about the profligate as a group.

Yet the profligate in our society are the leaders whom we follow into hell. They’re the ones who started installing home theaters in their houses, so we all had to have them, too. Now they’ve got “outdoor rooms” instead of decks or patios, so vast numbers of us think we have to somehow take the indoors (no bugs) outdoors (bugs). No way. About the only advantage I can see to fancy outdoor cooking setups is that they appear to be mostly used by husbands. Which might mean that the wives don’t have to spend the whole party inside anymore. Or not, because who makes potato salad on a barbecue?

Tugend interviewed a couple of experts and cobbled together a mishmash of advice. Although the experts talked about making big money-saving choices, she focused more on smaller changes, the less painful cuts, if you will. Then she trotted out the old cliché about eating out less making a huge difference, as if it’s a major revelation. I’ve got news for her and for America: Grandma isn’t in the kitchen anymore, and neither is Mom. Constant eating out (or taking out, or ordering in) is now a common way of life for most Americans, so we might as well move on to the next item where we can be penny pinchers. Only in the case of dire financial crisis will we change this new paradigm. Tugend may be eating out a little less, but she’s still eating out. The handwriting has long been on the wall for the rest of America. Every crossroads has as many pizza places as it has gas stations. Don’t expect this to change.

What about the other big item one of her experts cites? Don’t carry a cellphone? Even Tugend knows this is ridiculous. More and more people are giving up landlines in favor of cellphones. It makes sense if you don’t know where you’ll be living next year because you’ve lost your job and may lose your home. At least your phone number won’t change when you’re living in the shelter. Why doesn’t Tugend challenge her expert and engage in a dialogue about the unrealistic expectations inherent in such advice? Because this is an article about penny pinching, I guess, and a sad little waste of space it is. I’m still waiting to hear about the profligate.

Why skim the surface of a tough issue? That's my real objection to this kind of article. Oh, it satisfies all the rules we learned in journalism school in our reporting classes. But it only touches the highlights, and it fools us, by dipping into the reporter's personal choices, into thinking that the message has significance. It doesn't, because it's a mixed message that blandly ignores our realities.

Perhaps I should check out a selection of some dumb online articles on personal finance, instead of ragging on the poor old NYTimes and its hardworking reporter who at least called two experts before she wrote this article. I should give equal opportunity to the banality of the web. I promise I will in future.

Friday, May 14, 2010

One Final Word About Clutter

One more post about clutter and then I’m on to other topics. Decluttering requires constant vigilance, but it is easy if we keep our decluttering muscles limber. Gail Blanke’s book Throw Out Fifty Things is a nice guide to room-by-room decluttering, and she of course includes lots of stories about other people and their clutter issues. This is fun reading for those of us who want to be assured that we aren’t as bad as the Collyer brothers—at least, not yet. Blanke has a good website and some helpful video on it, to encourage us to take the plunge and declutter.

Of course her advice is simplistic; it has to be. Most serious clutterers have very complicated mental justifications for their continued ownership of anything, and no book is long enough to present the opposing arguments for each and every retained possession. I read in a comments skein on Salon about someone whose mother insisted there was still edible food in her basement—which was flooded with three feet of water. Yuck.

The majority of us are not so far gone yet, so the issue is to keep from clogging up our surroundings. Here’s where we ought to honor our brains more than we do. Our memories of the people we have loved, the places we have been, and every other experience in our lives are in our minds. Souvenirs may jog some memories, but if we lost everything in a fire we would still have those memories. Some people do lose everything, but when they talk about what stings the most it is not piles of expired food or stacks of newspapers that they mourn. It is not receipts, broken toys, and old clothing. It is not even familiar furniture and beautiful accessories, though certainly people spare a sigh for them. It is family photos. Family photos are all we need. These days we can scan them all and put them on CD or DVD and toss extra copies into our safe deposit boxes at the bank, post them on the Internet, archive them on the net also, and of course e-mail them to family members. Once we have safeguarded those photos, we can breathe easy. The rest of what we currently own can join the choir invisible if need be.

I don’t know what you’re keeping, so I won’t tell you what to get rid of. I’ve started my own list of fifty things I have thrown out, courtesy of Gail Blanke’s encouragement. Like her, I am not counting multiples; if I toss a dozen pairs of socks, they count as one item. It may not seem quite fair, and it may not be entirely helpful to people who think that their issue is that they have hundreds of one particular item that need culling. Blanke’s concept is that we all have excess stuff in many categories (and rooms), and attaining the fifty-tossed goal means checking everything out, going from room to room and drawer to drawer if need be. She believes that we gather momentum as we go, and that’s why the goal of tossing fifty items is such a high number. I agree.

So, start your own list, and remember that “throwing out” means removing it from your household. You can recycle, pass on to friends, give to charity, sell, or whatever.

My one caveat about recycling/giving to charity/selling at a yard sale is that if the condition of the item is not good enough for you to use it today, it’s not good enough for anyone else, either. No one needs your stained, broken, and worn-out possessions, so do us all a favor and deposit them in the proper places: textile and metal recycling or the like, or the trash. Yes, the trash. Landfills already have machines that can extract everything of value that you may toss in the trash, so don’t worry too much about not being able to directly recycle every single thing you’re done with. As I’ve said before, the universe will take care of this; it’s not your responsibility.

Good luck!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Deciding Not to Clutter

How do we keep from becoming clutterers/hoarders? Call it a disease or call it a bad habit, cluttering is a threat to many of us because of the increasing volume of our possessions. We must be diligent in removing any excess we have. As I said in my last post, only when we’ve divested, detoxed, and learned how to avoid our acquiring triggers can we face who we want to be and how we want to live.

If we don’t want to slide into becoming clutterers (and then hoarders), we have to make decisions about the things we keep. We can’t keep acquiring without deciding. That’s the basic. Every item we already own must constantly be subjected to a test: Is this useful to me today? Today, does this bicycle work? Today, will I eat off this chipped plate? Today, is this silver tray adding beauty to my world?

Beauty has as much right to be in our lives as utility. I have a silver tray sitting in my foyer, and that’s where we put our outgoing mail. Since I was a child watching movies, I’ve wanted a silver tray to hold my mail, and friends gave me one. Every time I see that tray, it delights me. Don’t be afraid to keep your own version of my silver tray. Just remember I’m talking about one tray, not fifty.

Ah, multiples. If one tray is good, surely two are better? No. I bought another silver tray at a thrift store. Now I have two trays, almost exactly alike. The sad truth is that I have little or no use for that second tray, and every time I look at it I am reminded that it is an extra I don’t need. Maybe once or twice a year, for a party, I’ll find something to put on it. Is it worth keeping for years under those conditions, especially since it has no personal associations? No. Even though a tray hardly takes up any space physically, it does take up psychic space, and I am responsible for keeping this additional possession in good condition, for displaying, storing, and using it. It’s a burden. It is clutter. I could declare that I am a collector of silver trays, but that would be pointless. These trays are manufactured in the millions, and they all look the same, and a stack of silver trays is neither more beautiful nor more functional than just the one I use every day for mail. Substitute any other possession for my second silver tray and subject it to the same test. Do you use it daily? Does it add beauty or merely a burden of upkeep to your life? Do you have space for it in your home?

Some of us imagine that by saying we collect certain items, we are free from making any decisions about them, but this is not true. Collections should have upper limits, and proper collections are well maintained and displayed. If something new comes in, something old should go out. True collectors constantly cull their treasures and keep only the best. Most of us collect items of mass manufacture, so by definition it is impossible to own them all. We can’t own every coffee mug that was ever made, and why should we? By keeping up with the quality of our collections and removing the least attractive or least functional items, we can ensure that they don’t turn into an ocean of clutter. Yes, Star Trek fans, I am talking to you.

A third type of clutter is junk. Junk mail, old wrappers and cartons, stuff that doesn’t work, and so on. We don’t need to spend a lot of time thinking about these possessions. We simply have to decide to get rid of them. Strangely, a lot of us don’t, not even our junk mail. My mother used to ruthlessly rip junk mail in half the moment she recognized what it was. Today, you may want to send all your junk mail through a shredder, but the concept is the same: ditch it fast. Have the shredder set up right next to where you open your mail. There even are special junk mail shredders that can handle unopened junk mail if opening it is an issue. As for the rest of the junk, with all the recycling available today, few of us have any excuse for stockpiling empty cartons, dead batteries, broken appliances, or any other category of of useless possession. If you don’t have curbside pickup for everything, there’s probably some place nearby where you can take the rest of your junk. Just load up and head out. And don’t visit any thrift stores or yard sales on the way home.

You say it’s not that simple, that you must think about this. That’s the road to cluttering, which leads to hoarding. We can let go of our unneeded possessions and trust in the universe to deal with them. We are not responsible for their ultimate destination. My second silver tray can go back to a thrift shop. It’s shined up now, so perhaps the charity can get a couple more dollars for it the next time around.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Attaining Our True Desires versus Hoarding

In a perfect world, we would not fritter away our time or our money acquiring possessions that don’t help us attain our true desires. Cluttering, and its advanced stage, hoarding, is the act of burying our true hopes and needs under junk. The junk may look pretty and be neatly organized, or it may look trashy and be thrown helter-skelter throughout our living areas, or it may be secreted away in rented storage spaces or garages or attics. How we maintain the stuff is hardly meaningful. What counts is why it is there.

I could go into a long diversion and discuss our stated intentions of honoring the value of the work put into crafting these items, or of the sentimental value of retaining every possession once owned by a beloved relative, or of the possibility that these objects might one day prove of practical use to us. But what’s the point? We’re completely fooling ourselves if we play this game. The reality is that if our lives are scary or empty or too difficult to face, retreating into a passionate relationship with possessions is one method of temporary escape. Some people hide behind alcohol, drugs, food, or sex with strangers. More and more Americans hide behind massive quantities of possessions, because they are legal, cheap, and easy to acquire. The very act of obtaining them gives us a measurable high. That’s right; researchers have proven that a part of the brain lights up when we get new stuff. Unfortunately, that pleasure area of our brain does not stay lit, and we have to keep replicating the experience to get the same high. It’s exactly like drug addiction.

Meanwhile, what we truly want in life is buried somewhere under the rubble. That’s why it’s important to talk about what we want our lives to be, and not about the clutter itself. Sensitive therapists and decluttering experts ask us what we want our home to look like, how we want to feel when we walk into our bedroom, for instance, or our kitchen. They want to know what we see ourselves doing in an ideal life. They want to draw us out of hiding, and empower us to have the courage to live authentic lives, and free ourselves from the cycle of addiction.

How do we identify our true desires so we can acquire what we most want in life? We ask ourselves what we want. What would make us happy? We make lists, if need be, of all the things we want to do before we die, of all the places we want to visit, or people we want to meet, or accomplishments we want to achieve. Then we consider, logically, which ones we can do, and how to do them. It’s that simple and that scary. Instead of living in a haze of confusion brought about by constantly collecting new possessions, we face the reality of who we are right now, and who we want to be tomorrow. Of course it’s frightening. Buying a new blouse or a new chair or trash picking an old bookcase or yard sailing a completely unnecessary lamp might be a lot easier. But we’ve already discovered that things themselves do not bring us lasting satisfaction.

Sometimes we need to fine tune our dreams. If we dream of travel, we need to pick a place to visit, and research how we could get there and what we would do there and every other detail. A trip to Paris is not that expensive compared to a weekly trip to the mall or the discount store. If we want an education or to live somewhere different or to learn the piano or even to start dating, listing these goals and breaking them into their component parts makes accomplishing them easier. Everyone has goals, although some of us will deny it until pressed. None of us wants to wake up tomorrow without a sense of purpose.

Cluttering our lives with possessions obscures our true desires, and that’s why cluttering usually has to stop before we can achieve those desires. People in the throes of addiction have to go through rehab. They have to stop the addictive behavior and then get the toxins out of their system. Then they have to learn their triggers and practice substitute behaviors that will help them to cope with the stress that previously has sent them to their drug of choice. No one expects an alcoholic to get sober while living in a bar, and clutterers can’t continue to live in their messes and hope to get their heads straight at the same time. It might seem possible that a clutterer could simply lock the door and walk away from a mess and start a new life. But that doesn’t happen. Clutterers need to deal with their stuff and get it off their backs.

If you think you aren’t quite a clutterer or hoarder yet, but are headed in that direction with your collection of this or your collection of that, now is the time to ask yourself if your collections are helping you attain your true desires. If not, it’s time to be diligent in shedding the excess.

More about reducing clutter next time.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Too Much Stuff

I promised in my last post that I would not merely rant against hoarding, and so here is where I delve into the dilemmas we all face about possessions, things, stuff. It’s a two-part issue. There are many decisions we make when we acquire things, and many other decisions we make when we choose to keep things. Even no decision at all is a decision.

First let’s talk about acquiring possessions. Acquiring new possessions may be the biggest threat we face, yet it is behavior that our culture pushes on us. Our economy runs on the consumer model. Since at least the end of World War II, manufacturers have deliberately created objects that are not meant to last a lifetime. This is called planned obsolescence: the parts are manufactured to fail. When companies progressed to using mostly plastic parts, they converted to parts that barely function at all, that break easily and cannot be repaired even with Crazy Glue. In the past, there were many repair shops in our country. Now there are very few, because it is cheaper to buy a brand new television than to have one repaired. To push us to make the transition from keeping objects to tossing them in favor of brand new ones, manufacturers constantly add upgrades; each new television has some new feature that supposedly makes it superior to the old one. Advertising is relentless, and it has crept into every corner of our world. It’s no wonder that after being exposed to hundreds of messages telling us to buy something new, we want to.

“New” is constantly touted as the optimum of our culture. Fashions in clothing have always been the ultimate in planned obsolescence; there is a new fashion every season of the year. Clothing designers collude to use the same colors and fabrics at the same time, and to make them as different as possible from what came before. The effect is to make whatever you own and wear now look “so last year.” Women and men who get caught up in this are forced by their learned hypersensitivity to newness to constantly update their wardrobes.

Of course personal issues enter into this acquiring spiral. We want to be perceived as on the cutting edge of technology, not old-fashioned. We want to be seen as fashionable, not dowdy. Not buying new means being out of step with the rest of our culture. Everybody else has a cell phone, so why don’t you? Elderly people are the only cohort that consistently opts out of this frenzy. No computers, cell phones, or even telephone answering machine technology for them. There are exceptions, but since most elderly people also are living on limited incomes with little or no hope of increase, they are wise not to be wrapped up in ceaseless acquisition. The truth is they can’t afford it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us do have laptops and cell phones, but what about that old desktop computer, and that old pager? They’re sitting somewhere in our homes, usually gathering dust. Along with the broken televisions and last year’s clothing. But do we get rid of them? No. They still work, or they could be fixed, or they still fit or…something.

That’s part two of the hoarding problem. As much as we are victims of advertising hype and the peer pressure in our culture that pushes us to keep acquiring new possessions, there’s a part of our brain that knows arbitrarily abandoning old possessions is wrong and unnatural. That blouse is perfectly good, and it cost half a day’s pay; why throw it out because something else is fashionable this year? There’s nothing wrong with that television that a halfway competent mechanic couldn’t fix. And surely there’s some reason to keep that old pager, which still works, even though nobody sends pages anymore? These are reasonable arguments. Unfortunately, the new possessions crowd out the old. That’s because there’s a gap between our good intentions and our actions. We’re busy. We throw the old pager in a drawer and forget it rather than decide what to do with it next.

We also keep possessions because of sentiment. Mothers typically keep some souvenirs from their children’s babyhood. Maybe a rattle or tiny booties or even a few toys in anticipation of becoming a grandparent. Where mothers begin to cross the line is when they keep every toy the child had from infancy on, and every piece of crayon artwork and every spelling homework paper, and so on. (Turning these items into endless scrapbooks is just moving the clutter from one shelf to another, unless 99% of the collected items are tossed in the process.)

The clutter problem starts with our natural outrage at the waste implied in tossing out something that still might have some value. That television was fine until the moment it stopped working. It originally cost $400. We want it to be fixed, but that is not our reality today. The pager is outdated technology; it’s hopeless, but it still works. How frustrating is that? What about the stuffed animal collection that was so cute when the baby was three years old? The baby is a strapping teenager now and those toys could make some little child happy, but can we bear to part with them?

If we do not throw out stuff, move it along, we run the risk of letting the mere trappings of our lives turn into piled-up trash, or totems. If our rooms contained every item we wore or played with or worked on in or ate from in our entire lives, we wouldn’t be able to move. We must live in the present without being constricted by the past. To do that, we must engage in a constant winnowing process, sending off and throwing out items that no longer are useful to us. Even when we wish they still were. Sorry about that, old faithful television.

In most homes, there are some items that need to be chucked, but we just haven’t gotten around to dealing with them yet. In the home of a clutterer/hoarder, the total number of these items keeps increasing, often exponentially and with no relation to rational thinking. Hoarders not only keep everything from the past, imbuing every item with sentimental totemic value, but they also keep bringing in new possessions. This kind of acquiring does not seem to be a response to the overmarketing of Americans. It’s related to a sense of not having enough. Hoarders frequently report feeling safer and more comfortable with all their excess possessions packed around them. They literally use physical objects to protect them from the world. Some trash pick, but the majority simply overbuy. Hundreds of garments, hundreds of food items, hundreds of containers in which they imagine they will one day sort their excess possessions.

How do we keep from becoming clutterer/hoarders? How do we avoid falling ill with their disease? We already know that the entire force of our culture is pressing us to keep acquiring. The logical response is two pronged: one, we need to identify our true desires so we can acquire what we most want in life, not what ads tell us we should want; and two, we need to be diligent in divesting ourselves of any excess we have.

More in my next post.