A parent dies; a child moves out. Time passes and we accumulate things, usually at a faster pace than we rid ourselves of them. And one day we look around and realize we have a problem. In many ways it’s a problem of good fortune, but it’s a problem nonetheless.
The problem is stuff. Well, I take that back. The problem isn’t stuff. It’s what stuff does to our mental and physical spaces. Stuff is in our way.
What spurs you to finally get rid of stuff? A change in circumstances, such as a move, an addition or absence of a family member in the household? A look around in disgust or frustration? How much time do you spend moving things, cleaning around things, pushing through things? How much stuff do you need?
In my prior career, I worked with trust officers in a large bank, which often served as executor or administrator for estates. In that capacity, or as trustee for some of our clients who could no longer take care of their own affairs, the trust officers cleaned out homes. They didn’t physically do the cleaning, but they needed to fully assess the assets and determine where things should go. It could take many days immersed in other people’s stuff. Then they would wash their hands, go home, and get rid of things in their own homes.
A lot of us have dealt with the belongings of parents after their death or move to a nursing home. A lot of us understand the emotions of making those decisions, and the tangles of decisions when multiple family members are involved. In some ways, the trust officers’ job is easy, because they have the luxury of objectivity.
There is a spectrum, of course, of those who keep things. When my dad moved to his last home, a small townhouse, he got rid of everything that wasn’t useful to him, or aesthetically important. Music and artwork he kept. It was easy for him, not a sentimental guy. I am not as far to that end of the spectrum as he was.
But one thing he did keep is a teddy bear, which my son and I had sent to him after his divorce. He’d said one thing he missed was having someone to hold. Son was about 5 at the time, and helped me pick a teddy for my dad.
When Dad was in the hospital for the last time (dying from lymphoma), we went to his townhouse and saw there, on his bed, was the teddy bear.
That bear lives with us now, and is not a thing I would give away, either.
Aside from a few things like that, I’m not very nostalgic for things. Scrapbooking, photo albums, boxes full of sentimental items – that’s just not me. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of five children born in quick succession. Most of my clothes and toys when I was a kid were hand-me-downs. By the time I was done using it, it was used up and went away. And mostly I didn’t have a sense of anything being just mine, so I’m not very possessive that way. It makes it easy to get rid of things.
As a quilter, I do have fabric. Some quilters have rooms full of fabric, garages, basements, extra sheds, full of fabric. Compared to many quilters I know, I don’t have a lot. All of it fits in the top of one TV armoire, neatly separated into plastic bins by color. When bins are overflowing, when there is too much fabric to fit, I feel uneasy, as if I need to get busy, sew more, use more, justify the possession of such wealth. I do use it, but I can’t shake the feeling that my inflow of new fabrics shouldn’t be more, on average, than what I use.
I do not want to die with a room full of fabric that should have been quilts instead. I’ve heard too many stories of women who die, whose relatives end up taking all that cloth to the dump. That’s not just a waste of money – at $10 a yard or so, quilting fabric is expensive! It’s also a waste of opportunity.
But fabric isn’t the only issue, is it? As you look around, what do you see that would baffle your heirs? Is it the secret stash of plastic grocery bags, more than enough to cover your city in plastic? The glass jars with lids, which are never used again? The books falling from every surface, ones you’re no longer attached to for the content, but just can’t seem to part with? A closet full of clothes that no one will wear again? The full contents of your parents’ house?
Stuff. Everyone has it. No one knows what to do with it.
Generally, there are three things to do with stuff, besides just keep it. Throw it away, give it away, or sell it. That sounds simple, yes? Of course it isn’t always.
Most of us can’t throw away books, but you can give them away, and sometimes you can sell them. To give them away, consider: stand-bys like Goodwill, local prisons, domestic violence shelters. To sell, there are consignment shops, used book stores, and online outlets. Don’t expect to raise much from book sales.
As with books, these can go to charity resale stores, prisons, and shelters. Schools are often interested in material for the minimal art programs now in place.
Charity resale stores and transitional housing groups make good use of your kitchenware, dishes, vacuum cleaners, and small appliances. If it is electric and doesn’t work, don’t try to donate it without checking first. Things like that end in their dumpsters, making extra cost for them, not benefit.
Similar to household goods, these can often be donated through resale stores and transitional housing groups. Your community may have other venues, as well. In our community, there is an annual day to move stuff from one home to another. People bring usable furniture to a local parking ramp and leave it. Someone who needs it can take it. It keeps a lot out of the dump that otherwise would have ended there. Freecycle, mentioned again below, is another choice. Nicer items can be sold, often through a Craigslist listing.
Worn socks and underwear should be thrown away. Almost anything else can be given away, or possibly resold. Infant and children’s clothing is especially popular in consignment shops. But your old wedding dress, unless exquisite and in excellent condition, might not sell.
Old make-up should be thrown out. Hair dryers that have died, and other small electrical devices that no longer work, should be pitched, too. Otherwise check with the shelter to see if these will be useful to them. Hotel and sample bottles of body wash, shampoo, and conditioner, especially, can be helpful.
Depending on the item, these can be quite attractive for resale. Craigslist is a good outlet.
Donations of musical instruments are always appreciated. Check with your schools and your senior center to see if they would like your unused clarinet. Freecycle can get your instrument to someone with a specific interest and need. And Craigslist is always available for sales. Also check with your local music shops to see if they will do resales. Many will.
When donating to a non-profit organization, your donation may have value for your taxes. There is an IRS publication for determining value of donated property. Remember, if you are giving an item to an individual instead, there is no tax value.
Above I mention the Freecycle Network. According to their website,
The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 5,085 groups with 9,338,005 members around the world. It’s a grassroots and entirely nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns. It’s all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of landfills. Each local group is moderated by local volunteers (them’s good people). Membership is free.
We have given a lot of things away through Freecycle, including a used elliptical trainer, a small refrigerator, and a swinging bench for outdoors.
What do you do with stuff? Have you found great ways to deal with specific types of items? What frustrations have you had with your own “wealth” of possessions, or that of a loved one? How do you feel when you get rid of stuff? Is it freeing or difficult?
No blog post on Stuff would be complete without George Carlin’s take. Note: there may be blue language, and there may be an ad.
I’m glad we aren’t over-run with stuff. We keep the things most important. Yes, there are a few special items not too important. But, they have some particular meaning and get to stay.
It’s good to feel like we control our stuff, instead of that our stuff controls us.