One couple describes its years-long battle to purge their home of the stuff they don't need.
In the United States, there is a tremendous amount of focus on people who buy things they can’t afford, and why that’s bad. We’re an example of an overworked married couple who bought a lot of things we could afford but should never have purchased. This is the story of how we went from asking ourselves “can we afford to buy this?” to “should we buy this?” The shift was harder than we ever thought it could be.
Cara Kitagawa-Sellers: I’ve spent a lot of time attempting to pinpoint the moment when I started to buy stuff I could afford, but shouldn’t own. I’d always accumulated extra things, but it really got bad when Doug and I drove cross-country on our move from D.C. to San Francisco. We wanted something more than photos to commemorate each stop of the trip. We decided on coffee mugs. By the time we reached the West Coast, we had eight new coffee mugs we didn’t need. Doug already owned more than 30 mugs at the time.
When we arrived in San Francisco, we each scouted new apartments. I found mine first, a large one-bedroom in San Bruno, right outside the city. Doug put his stuff in two storage units in the building while he searched for a place of his own. Eventually, he stopped looking and moved in with me. We kept the storage units.
Doug Sellers: We always felt a little bothered by the fact that we had so many things in storage, but not bothered enough to stop buying stuff. After a year in San Bruno, we upgraded to a two-bedroom apartment in Haight-Ashbury. We thought a bigger apartment was the answer to all of our to all of our stuff problems. We quickly realized that even two bedrooms weren’t enough to hold all of the stuff we owned.
We were frustrated, but not frustrated enough to start getting rid of stuff. Instead, we kept the living room, kitchen, and one bedroom well-organized, and used the second bedroom as storage. Whenever a guest came to stay, we did our best to hide our excess stuff and make the spare bedroom presentable. We always felt a little embarrassed that we had a spare bedroom full of stuff we never used, but not embarrassed enough to stop buying more.
Cara: The turning point was when we moved out of that place and back into a one-bedroom. We took the opportunity to make a pile of things we didn’t need or want. By the time we moved, we calculated we had donated, given away, or trashed more than $10,000 worth of stuff. Left by the wayside were a flip camera, an extra rice cooker, an immersion blender, a closet full of clothes, numerous books from college and beyond, pots and pans, and picture frames we had never used. Then, there were the items we kept but thought about shedding—a Dolce and Gabbana skirt (worn once), an ancient copy of War and Peace (read once), a bowling ball and bowling shoes (used in one bowling league in 2005), stuffed animal bunnies (of no use, but gifts from Doug’s mom from childhood), and numerous cookbooks (never used, but full of potential).
Doug: We hadn’t hit rock bottom yet.
Cara: That happened when we moved to Los Angeles. The apartment was spacious, but once we unpacked our U-Haul, the place looked like it belonged on Hoarders. For about a month, our moving boxes were stacked to heights taller than me. I often wonder in horror about how much stuff we'd have today if we had never moved.
Doug: We began experimenting with every possible method of getting rid of stuff. Nothing worked. We tried focusing on individual problem areas and purging hard. Books—which we had hundreds of—and jackets—of which we owned more than 40—seemed like natural areas to start. We got rid of half of our books and about 15 of our jackets. At first, it felt like we were making hard cuts and real progress. Then, we realized we still had 25 jackets and 75 books we would never read again. We needed something more radical.
Being two type-A intellectual types, we began with research. We knew we weren’t the only ones who had stuff we didn’t need but couldn’t get rid of. Google led us to the "100 Thing Challenge." The rules were simple: Downsize to 100 personal items or less. We thought we could do it! We were wrong.
After defining our own rules for what constituted a “personal item”—kitchen stuff was communal, underwear was considered all one thing—we found that we had more than 300 personal items each. We struggled with each and every cut. We didn’t get anywhere close.
Cara: At that point, we got truly desperate. Doug suggested we attempt to sell all of our worldly possessions for a lump sum of $10,000. I thought that was crazy. I tried to get my brother-in-law Mike, a self-proclaimed minimalist, to take things from us. That was an equally crazy strategy, although my logic at the time seemed sound: Mike didn’t have a salad spinner, an extra colander, an air mattress, photography books, or cookbooks—why wouldn’t he have wanted to take our “extra” stuff? He politely declined all of my offers. Eventually, we managed to pawn some camping stuff off on our coworkers and pass some kitchen supplies on to our parents. But we knew this was not a long-term strategy—we began to see that the people who accepted our things didn’t really want or need them, either.
Over time, we came accept that we needed to do more than whittle—we needed to change our entire relationship to our possessions. We’ve discovered that hanging on to stuff we “might use one day” is a fast-track to becoming a junior hoarder. Now, we donate things we haven’t used in a year or two. We try to be ruthless about getting rid of sentimental things, but not too ruthless. I still have a collection of birthday cards that friends and family have sent me through the years, but I’ve done away with the mix tape I made in the 7th grade. When we receive bills or other physical papers, we keep what we have to, scan what we can, and throw the rest away.
Most importantly, we try to buy only what we need, and always keep the size of our apartment in mind. We’re much happier with the amount of stuff we have now, but we failed to find the silver bullet to getting our clutter under control. Necessity is something we have to actively consider every time we make a purchase. But in a country where many of us can afford to buy things we don’t even really want or need, that’s how it should be.