Why We’re Obsessed with Stuff

Enter the average American’s home and you’ll be greeted with plies of clutter. A stack of magazines on the coffee table. Old mail sitting on the bookshelf. Kids toys lying around everywhere. We’ve bought so much stuff that our houses are bursting at the seams.

When asked why we have all this stuff lying around, we make excuses like “I just don’t have time to clean with everything else going on” or “Shopping makes me happy” or “That’s just always how it’s been.” The reality is, these excuses mask the underlying truth: Our stuff makes us comfortable.

We’ve been conditioned by savvy marketers to consume every time we have a problem. Sex life not what you’d like it to be? Here, buy this Cosmo magazine. Bored? Come to our mall and buy a bunch of stuff you don’t need and probably can’t afford. Instead of being creative, we consume our way out of a problem.

In their book Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin invented the term “gazingus pins” to describe the stuff we buy through unconscious habit. From the book:

A gazingus pin is any item that you just can’t pass by without buying. Everybody has them. They run the gamut from pocket calculators and tiny screwdrivers to pens and chocolate kisses. So there you are in the mall, a shopping robot on your weekly tour of the stations of the crass. You come to the gazingus-pin section and your mind starts cranking out gazingus-pin thoughts: Oh, there’s a pink one…I don’t have a pink one…Oh, that one runs on solar cells…That would be handy…My, a waterproof one…If I don’t use it I can always give it away…Before you know it, an alien arm (attached to your body) has reached out and picked up the gazingus pin, and off you go to the checkout, still functioning like a wind-up zombie. You arrive home with your purchase, put it in the gazingus-pin drawer (along with the five or ten others) and forget about gazingus pins until your next trip to the mall, at which point you come to the gazingus pin section and…

Now this book was written in the early ’90s, so their pocket calculators and screwdrivers are our e-books and cups of Starbucks. Every time we journey to the mall or the outlet stores to bargain hunt we’re bringing home gazingus pins. Of course we don’t need them. Try telling that to our subconscious.

We even have shows now glamorizing clutter. Hoarders is a show everybody has seen. These people would rather live up to their eyeballs in old newspapers and dead cats than confront their problems head on. They’ve learned to cling to their stuff because supposedly nothing else makes them happy. Then when the cleaning crews arrive, you’d think they were taking a child away.

Not only is hoarding glamorized, it’s supported by the booming self-storage industry. At $23 billion, it’s among the fastest growing areas of commercial real estate during the last 35 years. 84% of US counties have at least one storage facility. One in ten US households now rent a storage unit, up from one in 17 in 1995. This is something that really puzzles me. If you’re in between houses and need a temporary place to store your stuff, fine. But these customers aren’t the prime targets of self-storage companies. No, their target customers are the hoarders who can’t bear to part with their prized possessions. Their target customers have so much stuff that they can’t even fit it all in their houses. 

We must learn to rid ourselves of this false romance with “stuff”. It’s costing us our paychecks, our relationships and our freedom. Set up a plan with your family to go through one room each day. Set up 3 large boxes in every room: one for things that belong in that room, one for things that go in a different room and the last one for giving away. Your goal is to get your life back, one room at a time.

Photo by cbsnews.com

3 thoughts on “Why We’re Obsessed with Stuff

  1. I hate clutter, and even though my place is mostly clutter free, I still do inventory quite often and get rid of what I can. I think of it in terms of, if I were to move tomorrow, would I really want to pack and move all this crap? The answer is no.

  2. Pingback: Friends of the Family: Holiday Party Edition - The Family Finances

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