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

Starting Out

On my way to work recently I was listening to NPR as I often do. Because there’s so much bad news being reported in the media on a typical day it can get a little depressing. So anytime I hear an inspirational story it lifts my spirits.

As part of its Family Matters series, NPR interviewed Nicholas McDonald, a 24-year old in Capitol Heights, Maryland. Here’s a link to the interview.

Nicholas told his story about being part of a multi-generational family living under one roof. He explained that he had a rough childhood and that he didn’t have many good influences growing up. Now, unemployed and in his mid-twenties, he is feeling pressure from his step dad to find a job.

Nicholas’s story is one that is playing out in the lives of an increasing number of Americans. Because of the recession and the difficult job market, many college grads are moving back in with their parents. Even with a full-time job, young grads are finding their student loan burden is too much to handle without support from parents. They may feel hopeless because of what they hear in the media. Or overwhelmed because they have no idea what they want to do. Or pressured by the expectations of family and friends.

The first thing you should do is realize that you’re not alone. There are literally millions of young Americans going through the same thing. At 26, I still don’t know exactly what I want to do when I grow up.

Second, eliminate the negative people from your life. These people thrive telling you that you can’t do what you want. Surround yourself instead with people who will support you and lift you up.

Third, don’t feel guilty for wanting to take a little time off. After graduating from college, I took a year off to live in Europe and pursue my love of traveling. I heard from so many people who said to travel while you’re young, because before you know it you’ll be 30 and stuck in the office. Backpacking through a foreign land might be just what you need.

Fourth, don’t lose hope. You have skills and qualities that nobody else in the world has. Sometimes all you need is that last bit of effort to reach your goal. I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes by American writer Elbert Hubbard:

A little more persistence, a little more effort, and what seemed hopeless failure may turn to glorious success. There is no failure except in no longer trying. There is no defeat except from within, no really insurmountable barrier save our own inherent weakness of purpose.

Often, we’re all that stands in our way.

Finally, when you reach your goals and find success, sincerely thank those who helped you get there. These are your true friends who won’t count the costs when you need help.

As for Nicholas, he explains that as long as he’s contributing financially to his family he’d be okay still living there at 30. That may or may not be the case for you. But his example shows that by knowing what’s important to you and keeping a positive attitude, you’re likely find success.

Spend More Time Doing What You Love: Six Time-Saving Tips

My aim for this blog is to help you find ways to save money. By spending less on things that don’t really matter to you, you’ll have more to spend on things that do. This also applies to something equally important: your time. The way you spend your time is a reflection of what is important to you.

With this in mind, I’ve come up with six ways to help you save time so you’ll have more to spend doing things you love.

1. Watch Less TV. We’ve all heard the statistics about how much TV Americans watch. My wife and I got rid of pay cable last summer and I haven’t missed it a day. Simply put, watching TV is a time drain. It’s so easy to sit on the couch and channel surf that before you know it, an hour has gone by and you have nothing to show for it. In addition, watching commercials could lead to greater temptation to spend.

If you really enjoy watching TV, set a limit for yourself and subscribe to Netflix or Hulu Plus to see programming on-demand with far fewer commercials.

2. Plan Ahead. For so many areas of life, we would benefit enormously from a little advance planning. When you have several errands to run in the same area of town, try combining them into one trip. If you know you won’t have much energy after work, plan a week’s worth of easy meals so you won’t have to put much thought into it each night. You can even lay out your clothes the night before if you’re not a morning person. The idea is to make it easier on yourself by planning for upcoming needs and activities.

3. Make a To-Do List. This is a great example of planning ahead. A To-Do list helps you focus on things you need to get done. I have a running To-Do list on my desk at work and constantly add to it as things come up. Then, if I have some free time during my lunch hour or after work, I can take care of things from the list. I get a sense of accomplishment as I cross off each item knowing I took care of something important.

You may want to divide your list into things that can be done quickly and those that take more time.

4. Stay Organized. The more clutter you have lying around, the more time it will take you to find something. I’ve always considered myself an organized person. In college, I stayed on top of assignments and always had them done early. Since moving out on my own I’ve developed a system to organize incoming mail, important papers and various other things around the house. Recycling has its own container. Keys go in the basket on the bookshelf. Shoes go in the closet. In other words, everything has its place.

Develop your own organization system and you’ll find yourself wasting less time looking for things.

5. Use Online and Mobile Banking. Mobile banking has made my life much, much better. To deposit a check, I used to have to drive to the bank during lunch, wait in line, and deal with deposit slips. Now I simply sign the back and deposit it using my smartphone without leaving the house.

Online bill pay has had a similar effect. Instead of trying to remember to mail a check each time the electric bill was due, I set it up to be paid automatically each month. My car loan is also paid this way. This prevents me from the burden of remembering when bills are due and possibly missing a payment.

6. Make Waiting More Productive. How much of your week is spent waiting? At the doctor’s office. At the bus stop. At the pharmacy. Is there a task on your To-Do list that could be done during this time? Filling in gaps in your day with things you have to get done is one of the best ways to save time.

Are there any other time-saving tips that work for you?

Smart Ways to Use Your Tax Refund

Tax season is upon us. Over the coming weeks, millions of Americans will submit their 1040s and other documents to the IRS. Some will have to pony up for their tax bill. But for those of us lucky enough to be getting a refund (small or large), what’s the best thing to do with it?

That depends on your situation. All You lists 10 smart ways to spend your tax refund:

1. Set up a rainy-day fund

2. Fight credit card debt

3. Refinance your home

4. Pad your nest egg

5. Go green to save

6. Put it away for college

7. Splurge — smartly

8. Invest in your health

9. Take a class

10. Give it away

These are all great options for dealing with your refund. I’m sure if you got creative you could think of other uses as well.

For the beginner just starting out, I recommend setting aside $1,000 in an emergency fund before you do anything else. Don’t do anything crazy with that money — just park it in an online savings account. This is so important because unexpected expenses pop up in life. Cars break down. You or a child could get sick and incur hospital bills. You might be faced with unemployment one day. Drawing on your emergency fund in these situations is a much better option than relying on credit cards with 15% interest or more. Read more about building an emergency fund here.

A couple years ago my wife and I received a pretty nice size refund that we weren’t expecting. It was fairly early in our marriage and we were just starting to get our finances in order. We knew the importance of having an emergency fund, but a costly car repair months earlier all but wiped out our savings. So that year we used our refund to rebuild our emergency fund.

If you already have a sizable emergency fund, focus on paying off high-interest debt. This includes credit cards and private student loans. Only after you have done this should you consider any of the other options above.

I like the idea of investing in yourself by taking a class or improving your health. The article mentions joining a gym, but I think a good pair of running shoes is a better buy. The outdoors is all the gym you need if you’re creative.

Some of these options might not sound particularly exotic — paying off credit card debt, for example, isn’t the most glamorous thing to do. But it will put you in a much better position. Success in personal finance often requires you to choose the “dull” option even if you are tempted otherwise.

This year we’re also getting a refund, but it will be somewhat smaller than prior years. I plan to use it to open a Roth IRA at Vanguard. Whatever you do with your refund, use it as an opportunity to better yourself or your situation.

Photo by JD Hancock

Change for a dollar

I came across this video yesterday, and it really helped me focus on the spirit of generosity we each should have this Christmas season. Please take a few minutes to watch this video.

It’s amazing to me that one man who has nothing is able to take care of so many others.

When I was in college, I got my wisdom teeth taken out. After the procedure, I went home and basically laid on the couch for an entire day. I didn’t even feel like eating. But my sister, who has a caring instinct, made me some mashed potatoes and spent time with me while I recovered. It was a small gesture, but it stood out to me because it shows how the little things can make all the difference.

Try to take a break from the lights, decorations, shopping and presents for a moment and reflect on how you can better serve others. You’ll strengthen your character. You’ll improve the lives of others. And you’ll surely make a difference, whether you know it or not.

It really is the little things in life that make the biggest difference.

Could leaving early make you a better person?

At church this past Sunday, I listened to a lady give a talk about service. She spoke of how service to others was an important aspect in her life, and she pointed out an interesting way she sets herself up to serve. She would leave her house about 10 minutes early everywhere she went. Whether it was a doctor’s appointment or an athletic event, she would plan her days so that she could leave 10 minutes early. Why did she do this? She explained that by giving herself more time to get to her destination, she felt less rushed. She would arrive at least a few minutes early anywhere she went. Less rushing around led to less stress, which caused her to be in a better mood.

On several occasions, she was able to stop and help others on the way to her destination. In one instance she passed by some high school kids who had missed the bus. She stopped and gave them a ride, which saved them from having to walk a long way to school. On another occasion, when she had arrived at her destination, she saw someone who looked lost. Because she wasn’t in a hurry, she was able to help by giving directions. Had she been in a hurry, she noted, she probably wouldn’t have stopped to help in either case.

As I listened to her talk, I thought of all the times recently when I waited until the last possible minute to leave the house. I was simply focused on my destination. I hadn’t considered that by doing this, perhaps I was missing out on great opportunities to serve others.

I found her method of daily service to others to be inspiring, especially today when everyone seems to be in a hurry. Her example shows that service doesn’t always have to involve formal, scheduled events. Doing service in small spurts can have the same positive impact.

Circumstances may not always allow you to leave early. I doubt, for example, your boss would agree to let you go home 10 minutes early every day for this reason. But by occasionally leaving early, even the busiest among us can do their part to make our world a better place.

What I’m thankful for

This Thanksgiving Day I thought it would be appropriate to step away from discussing ways to save money and instead focus on what I’m thankful for in my life.

Each day I try to keep a grateful attitude for what I have and what I’ve been given. Being grateful can be difficult sometimes because it takes a lot of patience and a lot of self control. While I’ve made great strides recently in controlling my wants and desires, I admit I’m not the most patient guy out there. I believe it takes patience to be thankful because you can’t always have what you want, when you want it. Patience with yourself helps you keep a long-term perspective and keeps you from being too hard on yourself when you fail. Patience with others helps you look past their shortcomings and helps you appreciate everything that is done for you, no matter how small.

Here are a few of the things I’m thankful for:

I’m thankful to live in a country that allows me to express my thoughts and opinions without fear of repression.

I’m thankful for this beautiful planet we live on.

I’m thankful for my wife, who loves me unconditionally, and for our bright future together.

I’m thankful for my parents who raised me to be kind, to look out for the well-being of others, and to do the right thing. I’m also thankful for my wife’s parents, who treat me like their son.

I’m thankful for my sisters, who allow me to be their big brother, and for their unique personalities.

I’m thankful for my passion for learning and all the opportunities it opens up.

I’m thankful for travel, which opens my eyes and my mind.

I’m thankful to belong to a church that sets me in the right direction spiritually and always makes me a better person.

I’m thankful to be able to serve others, and for their service to me.

I’m thankful to God, who loves each one of us individually, and for Jesus Christ, our savior.

Happy Thanksgiving!