09 March 2011

Environment: Letting Go of Stuff

It seems redundant to write that I love my stuff - but I do. I don't have much stuff anymore (it's taken years of dedicated culling to get to this point), but the stuff I have is useful and brings me joy or makes my life easier.

There was a time however, when I was much more impulsive about buying things. I used to collect beanie babies; though I have the good sense to be embarrassed by it now, I was crazy about those little bean bag stuffed animals. In retrospect, though they were cute, I really enjoyed the rush of locating obscure toy shops and finding beanies I did not yet have - especially if I got a "good deal". Soon, I had added Barbies and Star Wars action figures to the things I collected and spent a great deal of money.

I lived in a tiny apartment in San Francisco back then and had no room to display the fruits of my ceaseless searching and purchasing. Every one of my beanie babies were carefully packed away in hard-sided plastic boxes after gently placing a plastic protector over the heart-shaped Ty tag. Barbies and action figures were, in collectors-speak "mint in box" and stored similarly in large plastic bins. All of these bins were stacked neatly in the closet, from floor to ceiling.

One day, it was like a bolt of lightning struck me. Suddenly, it felt like the walls were closing in and I felt suffocated by the amount of stuff I had. The sheer amount of plastic I had was appalling enough! I put an ad on Craigslist and had a "garage sale" in the lobby of my old-fashioned apartment building. I sold all the barbies and action figures and several of the beanies too. I unloaded books, kitchen items, clothing - all kinds of things. At the end of the day, I ended up taking the remaining beanies and walking up the four flights of stairs to give them to a neighbor whose daughter loved them. Although I made a few bucks from my sale that day, in reality, I had lost hundreds of dollars. Maybe even thousands...

I know from experience how traumatic it can feel to even consider selling or donating stuff that one has accumulated over the years. We feel guilty donating or selling gifts received, we feel ashamed and perhaps cheated if we get rid of collections or impulse purchases, we worry that we will waste money if we relinquish tools, household items or decorations - even if we haven't used them in years. We ask ourselves, "What if we need them again?" Some of us even may feel as though we will lose status if we shed items that might be useful to others, especially if we take pride in being the person with all the stuff.

The easiest way I have come to tackle clutter and excess is to start by picking one room at a time. There is no rush, we didn't fill our homes and cars with stuff in a day. I bring two big boxes or garbage bags; one is 'Stay' and one is 'Go'. Sometimes I will set a timer for 15-20 minutes and move as quickly as I can, tossing items into one of the boxes. When the timer goes off, I take the box or bag of 'Stay' items and put its contents neatly away.

The 'Go' box is further divided into three piles: donate, sell or trash. The trash is usually the easiest to dispose of and I take that out to the large bin outside immediately. The pile for donation goes into a box or bag and is taken out to my car for delivery to a donation station. I like Goodwill the best because they provide jobs for handicapped and underprivileged individuals - don't forget to take a receipt for your tax return - especially if you itemize deductions.

The sell pile is the most tricky; large or fragile items that would be costly or difficult to ship usually go on Craigslist. Items with a higher monetary value end up on eBay, while more specialized items may go on internet forums or bulletin boards with a classifieds section. Once in awhile, if I have a Saturday to kill, I'll have a yard sale.

The lightness I feel after de-cluttering a room is difficult to describe, but it can build momentum so that eventually the entire house is free of unused, broken or outdated stuff. An obvious benefit is that it is far easier and faster to clean and maintain my home.

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