In my twenties I was striving to find my place in the world. I went to college, got some tech training, and started working in my career. In the beginning my fiancé (now my wife) and I rented a cheap apartment and filled it with used furniture, used kitchen ware, and a few items we bought new. We slowly stocked our new home with the necessities.
We were pretty minimal when we first started out, but it was more by necessity than by choice. The big thing for us was to upgrade our cars. Both were old used models that were starting to have problems. Mine was barely running when I traded it in. We did what everyone does, went out and got a loan to by a car that was more than we needed and more than we could afford. As our income rose we gradually added more and more luxuries.
After a couple of years we moved to another apartment and then to another. We rented three different apartments before buying our first house. Each move included more stuff the the last. We stayed in our third apartment for several years before moving to our house and had time to accumulate more and more stuff.
The move from our third apartment to our first house was difficult. We filled a big U-Haul truck and had to make several more trips later to gather the stuff that didn’t fit in the U-Haul. We ended up with a couple of pick-up truck loads and a few car loads. I’m thankful that we had friends to help.
That was possibly my first realization that we had too much stuff. But… We had lots of space in the house, so I set that realization aside and continued on our path to more.
Thinking back on it now, I think we just wanted to prove that we could make it — that we were successful. And to do that we bought stuff. It’s fun buying things, there is a high that you get when you buy something new. We bought kitchen appliances, stereo equipment, computer stuff. I bought a Jeep and soon after upgraded it with a number of accessories. We upgraded my wife’s car to something newer and nicer.
Along the way, money started getting tight. Some of that was due to the economy and the sky rocketing gas prices. But part of it was due to our lifestyle choices and our consumption habits.
I didn’t have an epiphany moment when it all became clear, but clarity came slowly over a number of months. We were drowning in our house, and drowning in our stuff. My wife and I had a long talk about where we stood and what our future should look like.
That began the Big Purge with a goal of moving towards selling the house and renting a smaller apartment.
As we went through all the items we owned and assessed our need to keep these items, I started to realize how much useless stuff we had accumulated over the years. I was also amazed at the duplication of items. Many of the things we purged were duplicates, and often we were using the cheap items while keeping the nice stuff put away.
With each item purged a shift occurred and an attachment was broken. Even though much of the stuff was useless, we had mental attachments those items. I had a number of t-shirts full of holes, yet I found it difficult to part with those shirts. Same with dishes, and books, old magazines, and tools.
I had a bad case of “what-if-I-might-need-it-one-day”. I had to break through that barrier and ask myself the tough question. What happens if I need it and I don’t have it? The answer is quite simple — I would have to buy what I needed. When that happens, there is a nagging voice inside of us that says, “I told you — you should have kept it.”
Silencing that voice is a slow process. It helped when I looked at all the things I got rid of and told that voice, “See all this junk, this is what happens when I listen to you.”
A major milestone happened when I realized that I didn’t often use all that just-in-case stuff. In fact I almost never used it. That’s when I set the rule that anything not used within the last six months must go.
Breaking the mental attachment to stuff was a slow, slow process. It happened long after the decluttering process started. With each item we purged I slowly became less attached to things in that category.
With books, I treasured the collection of books that I read. It was a physical representation of the good times I had reading them. I didn’t really need that physical representation though, I can keep the memories while removing the books.
I had a lot of magazines that I kept, just in case I wanted to look back through them. Perhaps also as a physical representation of the fun I had reading them.
When we downsized to an apartment, I sold my stereo equipment. Since we’d be sharing walls with neighbors, I didn’t think it would be polite to crank up the music or the TV. I was pretty attached to that stuff, but I let it go anyway.
In each of these cases, time has chipped away at the attachment I had for these items. Once they are gone and not replaced, I began to realize that I don’t need them as much as I thought I did.
I’m at the point now where I could lose pretty much anything I own and not feel too bad about it. It took me a good three years or so to get to that point.
Getting rid of the stuff was only the first step. After that it took a few more smaller declutters. The moves may have helped as well. With each move we could see how many possessions we actually had. Seeing all your stuff packed in a moving truck gives you a good idea of how much you own.
I used to think it would be the end of the world if I lost something major, like a TV, computer, or car. Now, I would be a little annoyed that I have to replace it, but I don’t feel like I’m so attached to that exact one item. I no longer feel like all my items are treasures.
Another realization that helped me to break my mental attachment to stuff is to realize that everything is only temporary. A TV is temporary, a computer is temporary, furniture is temporary. These items don’t last forever, so why worry about when their time is up? Heck, even we are only temporary, living just a blink in the time expanse of our universe.
Breaking the mental attachment to stuff has helped me place more value in other areas. Instead of valuing my stuff, I value time.
I value the time with my family. I value the time with our daughter while she is still a child. I value the time I spend doing fun things. I value the time we spend being entertained by movies, live music, and live shows. I value our vacation time where we can explore new places and see new things.
You don’t have to sell your house to break your mental attachment to stuff. That’s the path we chose, but everyone has a different path. Decluttering, however, is a necessary step. You have to get some stuff out of our life before you can start breaking the mental attachment. First come the physical detachment.
It’s hard to physically break from items without the mental break, but that is a hurdle you must jump. You may feel some pain or sense of less when you start decluttering. That is normal and natural. You might even grieve over some of the loss. It may not seem like it when you first start, but over time, it gets easier to let go of stuff.
With decluttering and time you can break that hold that your stuff has on you. You can, and will, get to the point where stuff isn’t as important as it once was.
Where are you on the path to breaking the mental attachment to stuff? I’d love to hear from folks at all points on the spectrum. Are you hitting any roadblocks that seem impossible to pass? Share and let us help you get past them.