Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Sue Weaver: Too Much Stuff

I’ve just begun decluttering for the year. What a mess! How do two people accumulate so much stuff in such a short time? To compound the problem, we’re still living in the smallish mobile home we bought to use “just until we build the cabin.” That was 8 years ago, and the cabin has yet to materialize.

Keep in mind that this was bare land when we bought our property, so outside storage is limited, too. I have an 8 x 12' office building to write in and one large storage building that serves as a feed and tack room, but most everything we own shares a 14 x 52' mobile home with us and seven (yes, seven) medium-to-largish dogs. Space is at a premium, need I say?

I used to be a pack rat. Each time we moved, I boxed up years and years of vintage horse magazines, collections of figurines, appliances we rarely used, and closets of old clothes I might want or need some day. John had tools — mountains of tools — that came along, too, of course.

One day, precomputer, while researching a magazine article at the library, I happened upon one of cleaning guru Don Aslett’s early books, Clutter’s Last Stand; It's Time to De-Junk Your Life! I flipped through the book and thought, why not? I checked it out. That book changed my life. As I read about the real and emotional cost of maintaining my stuff, I realized I expended more energy maintaining it than it was worth.

I didn’t shed my pack-rat ways overnight (it’s hard to say good-bye to 14 glorious years of vintage Arabian Horse World magazines), but gradually I began letting go. Each year I purged my bookcases of extraneous reading and donated it to the library’s annual sale. I starting filing tidbits instead of maintaining piles of old research materials. And would I ever wear size 30, mega-bell-bottom, hip-huggers again? Off they went to St. Vincent de Paul. Then along came my first computer, and I discovered eBay. Stacks and stacks of horse magazines and cases full of figures set off for new homes.

The acid test came when we traded our spacious two-room vintage schoolhouse for a tiny cabin in the Minnesota woods. Not only did our extraneous stuff have to go, we had to think carefully before adding anything new.

Then we farm-sat for a year before moving from Minnesota to Arkansas and collected more stuff. We pared it to a bare minimum before the move but still somehow brought too much along. So we turned our larger bedroom into a walk-in closet. There! That’ll work.

However, since then I’ve staged a massive cleanup and giveaway at least once a year. I feel lighter, less encumbered after each decluttering. Don Aslett was right!

If you’re feeling clutter overload and would like to divest your life of excess stuff, pick up a copy of Donna Smallin’s Unclutter Your Home, Organizing Plain and Simple, and The One-Minute Organizer A to Z Storage Solutions before you begin. Mary Carlomagno’s Live More, Want Less; 52 Ways to Find Order in Your Life is a good book, too. Thinning out and organizing your stuff is a difficult, emotional process, so it helps to be inspired before you begin. If you don’t have the books but don’t want to wait, download Oregon Extension Service’s Declutter Your Life handout and get started.

Organize your clutter, sell it, or give it away, but keep in mind that your excess can make a difference in other people’s lives. If you aren’t familiar with Freecycle, check it out. According to the organization’s website, the Freecycle Network is made up of 4,864 groups with 7,603,875 members around the world; there is almost certainly one in your locale. Our part of the Ozarks is very economically depressed, and subscribers to our local Freestyle Yahoo group post requests for basic living essentials all the time. And there is always someone happy to take clutter off your hands. The broken Mantis tiller to use for parts? This year’s stack of accumulated horse magazines? The big bag of nice but “not me” clothing a relative sent home with John for me to wear? All found homes within hours of posting.

The most important thing I’ve learned, however, is to prevent clutter before it happens. That means organizing things, certainly, but more important, don’t buy or bring home things you don’t truly want and need. Ask yourself some hard questions before buying anything new or adding a well-meaning gift (like that clothing) to your clutter.
  • Will I use it on a regular basis? If not, consider borrowing or renting what you can. Or buy it planning to eBay or donate it after it’s served its purpose.
  • Is it a want or a need? This is a hard one for me. Wants are okay, but they quickly spiral out of hand. I love collecting figurines, but how many do I need?
  • Do I already have something that will work instead? Last week a sick goat needed a warm blanket but I didn’t have the money to buy one. I dug out my horse blankets, found a large foal blanket I didn’t need (yes, clutter), and refitted the front to better suit a goat.
  • Do I have room for this item in my home and a place to store it where I can find it when I need it? My rule is: if it isn’t essential and it’s bigger than my fist, I don’t need it. (I still collect sheep and goat figurines and items depicting water buffalo, but acquisitions are tiny and fit neatly in a single display case.)
  • Is it durable or is it junk? Junk wastes our money and inundates our landfills. Buy the better item. After going through three junky Wal-Mart toasters (that fortunately found a home with a Freecycle fixery man), John visited eBay and bought a toaster that might have belonged to June Cleaver. It’s substantial, and it works.
This is the perfect time of year to sort and organize your stuff. Read up on clutter, and vow to streamline your life. Less to clean, less to maintain, less to dig through and fuss over equates with time (and money) saved.

Sue Weaver sold her first freelance article in 1969. Since then her work has appeared in major horse periodicals, including The Western Horseman, Horse Illustrated, Chronicle of the Horse, Flying Changes, Horseman’s Market, Arabian Horse Times, The Appaloosa News, The Quarter Horse Journal, Horse’N Around, and The Brayer. She has written, among other books, Storey’s Guide to Raising Miniature Livestock, The Donkey Companion, and The Backyard Goat to be published in 2011. Sue is based in the southern Ozark Mountains in Arkansas.

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