October 6, 2015
According to a 2014 study, we are all being followed by our stuff — our own “material convoy.” (The Material Convoy after Age 50, Ekerdt and Baker, Journals of Gerontology, Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 69(3), 442-450, 2014.) The study looked at data from the Health and Retirement Survey (HRS), a national panel survey of Americans aged 50 and older. For the first time, the 2010 survey had questions about possessions and activities in the past year related to symbolic and emotional investments in things. 1,814 of the 1,898 people who completed it were aged 50+ (the others were spouses who were under 50).
Activity toward possessions in the last year was measured by a question about the frequency of activity “to clean out or reduce the number of things you have” and questions about how many things have been sold by various means, given to family, or donated to organizations.
They included two measures of health: self-reported health status and questions about functional activities related to mobility, strength and motor skills. They controlled for the possibility that divestment wasn’t necessary by appraising the “possession volume” and looking at whether someone had recently moved or already divested of their “stuff.”
Stuff is not bad. It is what we accumulate as we move through various stages of our lives. The items often begin to represent those stages. Americans are good at building material convoys, so Baby Boomers are thinking about their things with increasing regularity.
It is normal to say “Why do we still have our children’s bedroom fully intact from the time they moved out to college?” Or, “Why can’t I get my car in the garage anymore?”
It is also normal to have less will (read: energy, ability, desire, time) to deal with it as we age. When the study controlled for all other factors, the main factor that impacted the ability to cope was age. The older we get, the less likely we will proactively downsize.
What makes this even more complicated is that others, especially Millennials, don’t want our stuff. They are accumulating less, and Pottery Barn or IKEA are more their thing, not Grandmother’s 12 place settings of fine china.
So what to do? The first thing is to stop accumulating. Spend your money on experiences, savings, debt reduction, or donating to worthy causes.
Then, start downsizing. The three most popular methods are: give away, sell, or donate. Remember that people may not want it or want to pay your price. Charities can’t afford to have you pile trash/donations in their parking lots, so be selective.
Start slowly by asking yourself: “Does it bring me joy? Is it beautiful? Is it useful?” If the item isn’t at least one of these, seriously think about saying goodbye to it. Spend 15 minutes a day deciding if you need or love it. Designate a place in your house to sort by gift, sell, donate/recycle, or trash. Dispose of things before you can go back and reclaim them. Some people put items in a box for six months to a year and if they haven’t opened the box, they know the stuff can go. Choose a method that works for you!
Just 15 minutes a day. If you want to go wild, spend 30, but you still need to do 15 minutes tomorrow.
Finally, think about how you use your home. Are you trekking to a back room to get things? Reorganize to bring often-used items closer to where you use them. Once you clear the kitchen cabinets of seldom- used vases there will be plenty of room to put crafting supplies closer to the kitchen table, where you actually use them.
It isn’t easy dealing with our stuff, but with a system it doesn’t have to be painful. The best plan is to get started. Dare to DREAM. Downsize. Reorganize. Energize. Act. Move on.