Clutter. Think you know how much you have? Think again.

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Clutter: How much do you actually have?

According to the National Association of Professional Organizers, 80 percent of what we own we never use. That is a lot of clutter.

If an average American home contains 300,000 items (including things like paperclips and nails) that means we can discard 240,000 items that we don’t even use!

Let’s play the numbers game on clutter-clearing.

If you’re an average American, then you can toss 240,000 items not used.  If you toss 21 things a day, for 365 days, you’ll get rid of 7,476 items a year. That means it will take you 32 years to clear all your clutter–assuming you make no new purchases.

Wow! No wonder doing 15 minutes of tidying doesn’t make a significant dent in things.

What if you didn’t buy those 240,000 items in the first place?

Think how much richer you’d be today. Even if every item only cost a dollar, a conservative estimate, that is an extra $240,000—enough to pay for the average American home.

As of February 2011, according to a study reported on in the Wall Street Journal, based on Commerce Department data, it was estimated that US consumers spent $1.2 trillion (11.2% of total consumer spending) in non-essential items (e.g., jewelry, candy, gadgets–all clutter).   The number suggest that US consumers are spending more on non-essential items than they are on their essential items (e.g., food, housing). It’s no wonder that about 50% of American’s can’t put their hands on $400 in an emergency.

Why should we stop buying things we don’t need?

If we really want to achieve financial freedom, we need to think of ways to save more. So, we could, in theory, put away that 11.2% of unnecessary spending. If we did, not only would we be saving more but also we’d have less clutter to clear.

Let’s also consider this: the average house size has more than doubled since the 1950s. In the 1950s, the single-family home was 983 square feet. In 2004 the average single-family home was 2,349 square feet. Despite this, 25% of Americans can’t keep their cars in their garage because they are too full of clutter.  What’s more shocking, considering the increase in home size is that there are five times more off-site storage units than there are Starbucks locations! Consumerism gone mad?

If Americans reported a greater increase in happiness, maybe we could justify having all this excess stuff. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that happiness increases with house size or possessions.

In fact, the reverse is true. The research on happiness (see Happy Money) points to happy experiences and memories (e.g., trips and holidays with friends and family) as the key to a happier life.

Okay, a confession: I do have a lovely, big house. We did try downsizing and didn’t like it. So I’d recommend not up-sizing in the first place so you don’t get used to having more space. This will force you to keep your possessions to a reasonable minimum if you resist the temptation to go for offsite storage.

It is true that the more space you have, the more you’ll be tempted to fill that space. So, up-sizing (or finding off-site storage) could become an endless game of “stuff” acquisition. But none of that stuff will make you happier; you are actually more likely to feel overwhelmed. There is a point of diminishing returns where more is worse, not better.

Does your stuff own you?

If you feel like a slave to your house–constantly tidying, cleaning, mowing, maintaining– that is a good indication you’d be happier with less.

It is all about finding your own happy balance where you have enough space to relax and feel comfortable. That is a very individual choice. Some of us prefer large, open spaces,  while some of us prefer small, cozy spaces. Some of us are are minimalists by nature, while some of us are maximalists. I’m very happy as a maximalist, but given my husband is a minimalist, I’m always trying to fight my natural tendencies to buy more stuff . For us, peace is best maintained with a happy medium. I keep thinking that I will one day wake up and be a minimalist and my husband will be delighted, but it hasn’t happened yet. However, since I was able to switch from spender to saver, I figure it should be possible to switch from maximalist to minimalist. With savings, I had to find a compelling reason to save. For me that reason was to become free and independent because I place a high value on freedom. That motivated me to stop shopping as much and  to increase savings.

So the key will be finding sufficient reason/motivation to change. Perhaps making my husband happy should be enough, but finding the internal motivation is the key to making a lasting change.

What is your internal motivation?

Take this free quiz to uncover your unmet needs.

“The more you have the more you are occupied. The less you have the more you are free.” — Mother Theresa


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