Two years ago I got rid of almost everything I owned. I sold, donated, or trashed over 150 pounds of stuff. Eventually, I owned just under 100 items total — including all of my clothes — after a phase my friends had nicknamed as the 'Purge'.
Rewind three months before the 'Purge' and I had just crammed three 22x22 boxes jampacked with my stuff into storage. Each of those boxes weighed over 50 pounds. I don't know how I had ever managed to accumulate that much crap.
The Purge started at the end of my sophomore year of college when my friend Sank suggested we live together over the summer to save money. I figured he meant renting a small two-bedroom apartment or a one-bedroom double in a cheaper part of town.
It turns out he meant splitting a studio single. Before long, we roped in a third friend to join us. Three guys in a studio single for a summer. It boiled down to $200 per person, per month.
I never measured it precisely, but I'd guess the room was around 10 feet wide and 15 feet long.
This meant we didn't have much room for stuff. There were three closets, but two were already filled with stuff from the guy we were subletting from. So the three of us agreed on an list of permitted items for the summer:
- One mattress
- One futon
- One sleeping bag
- One chair
- Kitchen utensils
- One chess set
- A week's worth of clothes each
- 1-2 pairs of shoes each
We were surprisingly good about not allowing any exceptions to the list.
I owned a lot of stuff. My freshman and sophomore year dorms were jam-packed, and packing for the summer was always a nightmare. The summer I moved into the three-man studio, I had stuffed the aforementioned three 22x22 boxes into campus storage and still had a TV, formalwear, and a large suitcase filled with clothes to deal with.
The first mistake cluttered people make is believing that they may someday need the things they hoard. Parting with my collection of hoarded stuff I never used wasn't easy. Think Tom Hanks and Wilson parting ways in the ocean in Cast Away, but with me and over 150 pounds of crap.
Every aspect of 'three-man studio' life was better than my cluttered dorm life. We didn't have much stuff, so we had virtually no cleaning to do other than the occasional kitchen cleanse. Over the course of the summer, this saved a surprising amount of time.
Since we didn't have any clutter to busy ourselves with, we had to do real things that folks don't seem to do these days, like going outside or reading or talking or sitting around just being people. The stress of owning and caring for things was gone.
What a first-world luxury — to be free from the stress of owning things.
Suddenly, that line from Fight Club — the one that goes "the things you own, they end up owning you" — started to make sense.
Our evenings were Breaking Bad marathons or chess competitions. Our third roommate would sit on the futon wearing only his underwear, making wisecracks. Another buddy named Marko would come over every now and then and kick my ass in a chess game, reminding me of where I belonged on the Chess Food Chain.
I spent hours on my Kindle and read what would become some of my favorite books. And during the first month or so when we didn't have wifi yet (did I not mention that yet?), we had nothing to distract ourselves with other than conversation, so the three of us got to know each other quite well.
Fast-forward to August and I couldn't even remember what I had packed in those 22x22 boxes. One hundred and fifty pounds of I-don't-know. I could have never opened them again and I wouldn't have missed a thing.
I dragged the boxes out of basement storage, carted them a half-mile across campus and up a small hill to my new room, and decided immediately that everything in those boxes had to go. Sold, donated, trashed, stuffed in the back of my roommate's underwear drawer — but gone.
The first thing I realized was how normal all of the stuff looked. It looked like the kind of stuff an ordinary person, like you or me, not a hoarder, could end up with. Even if you own lots of small things, it's crazy how fast the weight adds up.
A quick glance in those boxes looked like this: clothes I rarely wear, especially "memorabilia" clothing like that t-shirt from summer camp in 2007; winterwear that I didn't need during the summer; books I read once and kept only so I could stack them on my desk and look smart; textbooks I bought for school and never opened; an external keyboard and monitor for my laptop which already had a keyboard and screen of its own; free cups and pens and blankets from college orientation; notebooks and assignments from past courses that I'd convinced myself I'll be glad I kept one day; and so on.
You don't need to be a hoarder to end up with 150 pounds of junk.
Living minimally for a summer gave me the chance to reflect on my previously stuff-filled lifestyle. I noticed a few things I hadn't noticed before.
The Bell Curve
The first thing I noticed is that the relationship between the amount of stuff you own and how happy it makes you is shaped like a bell curve. If you don't own anything, you probably aren't very happy because you're always in need of something. If you own a lot of things, you probably aren't very happy either, because of clutter or because you're a shopaholic.
There's a sweet spot in the middle where you own just enough to make life easy but not too much where it causes you stress.
Owning things is stressful. I'd experience it in one of two ways: either from not using a particular item enough to justify owning it or from the need to take care of it to maintain it.
For example: I had two tablets. I had received both for free: an iPad for winning a debate tournament in high school and a Windows 8 tablet as a gift for helping plan a conference. Tablets didn't fit my workflow, so I had never needed to use one and had never previously considered buying one. But now I had two of them. I was convinced I needed to use them, otherwise having them would be a waste.
So I'd make lame excuses to use them. "I'll read this PDF on the iPad." Or "The Windows 8 Netflix app is nice, so I guess I'll watch TV there." And in order to use these things that I didn't need, I'd need to charge them, know where they were, put them away during parties, buy cases, keep the screens clean, keep track of the proprietary chargers...
Clutter and Time
It seems obvious enough, but its worth mentioning that the more stuff you have, the more clutter you'll have. What most people forget is that managing clutter takes time.
I don't just mean time spent cleaning up, although that's a large part of it. Every cleanup operation is exactly that — an operation — and if I wanted to avoid hours-long cleanup efforts, then regular cleaning was required. Week over week, the time spent on regular cleaning adds up too.
What I'm talking about is the time spent on the hidden costs of clutter. One hidden cost is in losing things. Especially small things, like keys or ID cards. They always seemed to disappear amongst the clutter, requiring an unexpected full-blown cleanup operation in order to find them.
I noticed this in my other friends too. Those with more clutter were always losing things. Especially their keys and ID cards. Damned keys and ID cards. The hours we'll never get back.
The other hidden cost of clutter is distraction. How well can you really focus when your desk is covered in stuff you've collected over the years? You need to finish this Excel model, but hey, your lava lamp just made an awesome shape, and there's that Luau Girl Bobblehead you got in Hawaii three years back, and its standing so still, staring at you, begging you to tap it and let it bobble...
Eliminating clutter from my life has easily saved me hundreds of hours.
You ever see that guy who walks into the airport with a small carry-on, wearing a sharp outfit, clean shaven or with a light stubble, looking 10 times more put together than you? I always wanted to be that guy. But you can't be that guy when you're breaking a sweat from lugging two suitcases filled with crap you don't need.
It's tough to express how having too much stuff limits your mobility without explaining what you can do when all that stuff is gone.
When all that stuff is gone, you can pack a normal, carry-on sized suitcase and feel confident that you have everything that you need. You can pack this carry-on suitcase in very little time, because you don't need to spend hours debating what you need and what you don't. (You're smart and have already followed my Purging process outlined later in this essay, so you don't own anything you don't need.) And you don't need to spend hours hunting down your passport, because it's right where you left it, in one of the very few spaces you need to store your stuff. When you get to your destination, you don't worry about losing extraneous things, because you don't own that kind of stuff anymore.
Having more stuff means spending more money. After-purchase expenditures add up quickly: maintenance, storage, travel, and moving.
Paying for your stuff is only the beginning. Then your stuff needs other stuff, like cases, cables, screen protectors, and warranties. And then your stuff breaks and you have to pay to fix it. And then you move and you have to pay insane amounts of money to move your unnecessary stuff so that it can stress you out in your new place.
The summer before the 'three man studio', I worked in Washington, D.C. I owned a ton of stuff back then and was convinced I needed a lot of it with me in D.C., so I crammed what I could into one 22x22 box and still needed a large suitcase. The cost of the box aside (~$10), it cost me somewhere around $80 to have this thing shipped because it was so heavy (70 lbs). And then the same price to have it shipped back to school in Pittsburgh at the end of my internship.
I could have gone skydiving for that money.
As for travel: that guy you see at the airport who's 10 times more put together than you? He doesn't need to pay $25 for his first check-in bag and $35 for his second because he only brings what he needs to his flight. He can live happily for at least two weeks out of a carry-on sized bag. Instead, the money he saved from check-in baggage is spent on a drink or two at an expensive airport restaurant, and he still gets on the plane with more money left in his wallet than you.
You want to eliminate clutter, reduce your stress, save money, and be more mobile. You hate losing your stuff and you think routine cleaning is as unbearable as infrequent cleaning operations.
Below is the framework I used to get rid of over 150 pounds of stuff. The process is as simple as answering three simple questions:
- Do I use this?
- Do I need to own it?
- Do I sell it, donate it, or trash it?
Do I use this?
Here's the general rule: if you didn't use it this past month and you probably won't use it next month, get rid of it.
How do you know if you'll use it next month or not? Check your calendar events. If the chances of you needing it are below 95%, it's a goner.
Do I need to own it?
There's this huge category of stuff that you did use last month and you will use next month, but you don't need to actually own it. You can borrow it from a friend, find it for free, or buy it as-needed.
Some examples include desk accessories (staplers, hole punches) or repair tools (screwdrivers, duct tape). While it might make you feel safe to have them handy at all times ("what if I urgently need a screwdriver if my IKEA desk breaks??"), it's unnecessary. Unless your IKEA desk breaks weekly, don't buy and store things which you can borrow.
Somewhere in the middle of owning and borrowing are per-use purchases. Sometimes, buying per-use makes more sense than owning something, which involves buying (often in bulk) and storing. A good example of buying per use is chewing gum. Just buy a pack when you need it. You don't need a 20-pack stuffed in your drawer. A good example of not buying per use would be plastic plates and utensils. Don't use plastic plates and utensils. They create clutter and increase your waste output. Get real plates and utensils and spend a few minutes a day doing your dishes.
Do I sell it, donate it, or trash it?
I apply a basic formula to figure this one out.
- A = TIME spent posting item on Craigslist/Amazon/Ebay + TIME spent delivering/shipping the item + MONEY spent on shipping
- B = MONEY you'll keep after you pay your Amazon/Ebay fees
If A > B or if A = B, you don't sell. Losing money is a no-go, and breaking even isn't worth the time.
If B > A, then consider selling, depending on how much the profit means to you. If the profit is $1, it's probably still not worth the time.
If you've decided not to sell, then the next question is whether or not this item is useful to someone else. If it's clothes or shoes, I almost always donate it, even if it is a little damaged. Whether or not someone in need wears damaged clothing is not my decision — there's always the chance that someone will benefit from any clothing or shoes, even if it's damaged.
Trashing something is a big decision. You should only do this when you definitely can't sell the item and you know it would be useless to someone else. A good example of this might be your old schoolwork or your collection of Taco Bell sauce packets.
Things You Keep
The most important part of the Purge is holding onto enough to make life enjoyable. Purging isn't about living like a peasant. It's about eliminating clutter. So with that in mind, some miscellaneous tips:
- Love your books? You can sell them back to Amazon or donate them to a library and buy the Kindle version instead. A Kindle can hold thousands of books and stays the same size no matter how many you own. In my experience, Kindle books are around 25–50% cheaper than their paperback counterparts.
- Have important papers? Scan them into Evernote. Evernote's apps have excellent scanning capabilities (Use Evernote Scannable on iOS or the standard Evernote app on Android). Even on the Evernote free plan, you have 200MB of storage per month, which is more than enough room for your papers. Once your papers are in Evernote, they can't get damaged or lost.
- Have lots of shoes? Keep at most two for each purpose: activity, casual, formal, etc. Do you have more than two for each purpose and feel ridiculous for still wanting to keep them? You should.
- Love your accessories? You can do one of two things. One: do the same as you would with shoes and organize by occasion: formal and casual. Have one pair for each, and get rid of the rest. An alternate strategy, and my preferred approach: just have one of each accessory that you need. If your smartphone isn't good enough as a clock and you need a watch, just get one, high-quality all-purpose watch. If your watch isn't good enough to be one you wear daily and you think you need multiple watches for different scenarios, then the watch is probably not that great anyway, so get rid of it. Same for your sunglasses, wallet, etc. Unless you're really special or really spoiled, one item of each should be enough.
Update July 2015: I've posted a list of everything I own