5 steps to taming materialism, from an accidental expert

When I was a kid, there was money everywhere. My great grandpa was a lawyer for the Chicago mob in the 1920s, and today, my dad’s generation is still living off that money. Sometimes I wonder if the key to being able to squash materialism is to have a lot of it as a kid. I’m not sure. But let me tell you this: I grew up with a laundress and a housekeeper and unlimited cash from a drawer in the dining room.

When I went to college my parents cut off my money. I think this might have been normal at the time. I remember crying. Really. Crying over the fact that I’d never be able to shop at Lord & Taylor. But it didn’t take long for me to see that people don’t wear Lord & Taylor skirts to class. In fact, I realized that most people don’t wear Lord & Taylor skirts anywhere because some of those skirts could feed a family for a month.

1. Test the meaning of money by doing stuff that’s scary.
One of the first things I did after college was sell three strings of pearls to get myself to Los Angeles. I was really scared when I did it, but in fact, the only time I missed those pearls was when my mom asked where they were.

When I was making a lot of money, I had great work clothes and a BMW (hey, I lived in LA), but that was about it, in terms of splurging. I kept an inexpensive apartment, and people used to tell me I was nuts to live there when I had so much money. They told me I was uncomfortable with success, and I worried they were right, but I stayed there. In hindsight, I realize it felt safe to live somewhere I could afford if my company went bankrupt. Which it did.

2. Put a bunch of stuff in storage to see what it’s like.
When I moved from Los Angeles to New York City my husband and I rented a 500-square-foot apartment. We told ourselves we’d only be there for a year, until we got more settled in the city. So we put all our books in storage, most of our furniture, clothes that were not in season and everything we wouldn’t be using in the next three or four months.

The only way I could put the stuff in storage was to tell myself I could go back and forth every week getting stuff I missed. We ended up staying there six years. We took almost nothing out of storage.

I quote Daniel Gilbert all the time about how we can adapt to anything. Gilbert says that we think some changes will be terrible – like losing a limb – but in fact we are great at adapting to circumstances that don’t change. This is true of putting stuff in storage. You quickly learn to live without it.

3. Understand the concept of aspirational clutter. Get reality and throw stuff out.
When we had a baby, we thought we would move for sure, but 9/11 was too traumatic. It didn’t feel like the right time to move. So we threw stuff out, and we learned a lot about how what you keep in your small apartment is a statement about your values.

So much of what we hold on to is what we wish we were using — objects that commemorate a life we aspire to but do not have. The six books we bought a year ago and haven’t read, for example. We don’t want to admit that we’re not making time to read, so we save them. The treadmill is another object that is loaded because if you throw it out you’re admitting to yourself that you’re never going to use it. Keeping it, even unused, maintains your dream of getting into shape.

In fact, we had to think very hard about every single thing we let into the apartment, and we instituted a rule that if you brought something in, you had to take something out. Maybe other New Yorkers in small spaces had this rule, too, because there is always really good stuff left on doorsteps in New York City.

Then we had another baby. And that was it. With four people living in 500 square feet, I started having recurring dreams about living in a bigger space and I’d wake up to be disappointed that it was only a dream. I decided the small space was driving me crazy, and I started compiling research about where to move.

4. Know this: You could dump everything if you had to.
And then we got bed bugs. We didn’t know that much about them but we captured a bug and checked it on the Internet. When I left the landlord a message to tell him we had bed bugs, our usually completely inaccessible landlord called me ten times in one day. I should have known we were in big trouble.

In fact, our whole building had bed bugs, and maybe the whole city. There is a lot written about bed bugs. There is an epidemic in the United States at all levels of the economic spectrum. (Our bed bug expert said that the worst clients he had were up and down Park Avenue because they felt they had been assaulted by the dirty underclass.)

Bed bugs bite you in your sleep. We had two kids under four years old, and I started staying up all night keeping the bugs off them. Finally the landlord paid for a hotel (about $300 a night in NYC) while we negotiated with him about what to do.

The bugs and their eggs could be in anything in the apartment made of fabric or wood. Here’s how long the bugs can live without food: eighteen months. There is no way we could starve them. We had to poison them. And the only way to do that is to get them to come out of hiding and walk through the poison. The only thing they’ll come out for is human blood.

How would they get human blood? We had to live in the apartment. What do people on Park Avenue do? The staff lives there while the family goes to the summer home or a hotel. What do the not-rich people do? Use themselves as bait. That’s what our neighbors did.

We tried using ourselves as bait for one night, and every bug (by now there were forty or fifty a night) went for the kids. I developed near complete insomnia, always fearing that the kids were getting bitten as soon as I shut my eyes, even in broad daylight when the bugs are asleep.

The bed bug expert said that the most common thing he sees is that people move, but they won’t give up their stuff, so they take the bedbugs with them. We had two kids bitten everywhere. We took no chances and we took with us only things that could be boiled in hot water or thrown in a hot dryer – to ensure no bugs. We took from that apartment less than half of the size of a small U-Haul truck. We left almost everything.

5. Throwing stuff out is not wasteful.
In Madison, we started with just about nothing. Sort of like college kids. You think that throwing everything out is so costly and such a waste of money. But in fact it taught us how little we needed most of the stuff we had, which made us buy much less going forward.

While we have bought a lot since we got here, the years in New York City taught us about living in a small footprint (we still have one of the smallest two bedrooms around) and losing all our stuff to the bed bugs taught us that we didn’t really need much after all.

People often ask me how was I able to switch careers so many times (professional volleyball, corporate marketing, entrepreneurship…) And how have I been able to do so many high risk things (for example take a 70% pay cut and start new as a freelance writer when I had my first baby and was supporting the family.) The answer is that I had very little to lose.

It’s a cliche for a reason. If you have a very low-cost lifestyle and very few physical things that you treasure, you cannot really imagine a rug being pulled out from under you because you don’t own that great a rug anyway.

People think that what’s holding them back from taking risk is some big financial idea of stability and well being, but it’s really fear of losing your comfortable material life, whatever that is. Mine is so spare that I can easily replace it, even if we got bed bugs again.

Which we won’t. Because we had our new house treated before we moved in; even big risk takers draw the line somewhere.

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126 comments on “5 steps to taming materialism, from an accidental expert
  1. Joselle says:

    Man, this was just what I needed to read today. This particularly struck me:

    “People think that what's holding them back from taking risk is some big financial idea of stability and well being, but it's really fear of losing your comfortable material life, whatever that is.”

    Or mental comfort, even if it’s truly uncomfortable, it’s known so much easier to cling to. It’s just habituation. That’s what I’m dealing with it. And I don’t even have a rug to be pulled out from under me now, let alone a fancy one, so I really have nothing to lose. And that’s a great place to be right now.

  2. HollyP says:

    Great column!

    Maybe this is why I feel so uncomfortable, now that I’ve hit a point where my life is comfortable.

  3. Matt Rearden says:

    Penelope – Thanks for the very truthful and insightful post. So many times we get caught up hoarding “things” that we fail to remember what is necessary and important. Always climbing the corporate ladder just to acquire additional stuff leads one to an empty and unfulfilled life, not to mention a sometimes stressful existence. Though I have not experienced the 500 sq. ft. apartment with a family or a complete wipe out due to bed bugs, it seems that each time I have moved I realize how much unnecessary junk I have accumulated. Thanks for your honest and insightful look at career management. You have a way with words and truly speak to relevant issues!

  4. Matt Rearden says:

    Just read Joselle’s comment (it was being written simultanious with mine) and I have to agree 100%. The fear of changing jobs, careers, or location has more to do with losing what you have than taking the risk to do what you truly desire.

  5. Nina Smith says:

    Penelope,

    You've touched on so many interesting topics in this post. I'll only comment on the stuff in storage — what compels people to spend money on storing their idle belongings? Awhile back, Tom Vanderbilt at Slate wrote this fantastic article about the self storage business.

    He writes, "One in 11 American households, according to a recent survey, owns self-storage space – an increase of some 75 percent from 1995 – How did self storage, or – €˜mini storage,' as it's sometimes called, become such an enormous enterprise? And what on earth are people keeping in there?"

    The two main culprits: mobility (used during a move – the average American will change residences 11 times in his/her life) along with the greater evil: consumerism.

    "Throwing stuff out is not wasteful." Not buying it in the first place is even better! Thanks for such a thoughtful post.

    * * * * * * *
    That is SO interesting. Having been in New York City for so long, it didn’t even occurr to me how weird storage space is. Great new perspective. Thanks, Nina.

    –Penelope

    • McK says:

      I agree and I love that phrase. My job ended (temporary requirement for a degree) and I was forced to move home and put nearly everything I own in storage. It was a little weird, but I grew to love it. Stuff clutters your life and soon you are busy dealing with the “stuff” that you can’t remember how you got it or why you want it, but refuse to throw it away.

      It was very freeing to live without all the “stuff”. It has made me a picky shopper and I try to minimize the junk and the extra, material stuff. Rather, I try to save money and use it for experiences I will enjoy.

      Also, I read a great book my Micheal Pink about this topic..

  6. RayC22 says:

    A needed reminder of us all.

  7. dawn says:

    This is very good advice. The reason we have been able to make the leap to relying on full-time freelance income is that when we were making money we paid down debt and built up savings. We live on very little so we can be flexible in our choices.

  8. Sue says:

    Ding, ding, ding…that is the sound of a bell going off in my head!! What excellent advice, I just need to reprogram my life and habits!!

  9. Erin Hallstrom-Erickson says:

    Very good read.

    My husband and I are fairly good at living modestly. We can afford to buy stuff but choose not to.

    I myself am one of those organizing freaks that holds on to very few things. I hold on to a few sentimental items, but for the most part I pitch.

    My husband and I moved three times in two years. I learned to treasure a few things but recognize the “stuff” for what it was: useless clutter that didn’t make my life that much better.

  10. Sarah D says:

    Great post! But something really funny’s just happened – of ALL the stuff you’ve posted before, nothing’s made me baulk more than the info that your grandpa was a lawyer for the Chacago mob!! LOL!! (wonder what that says about me?!)

    :)

  11. Pirate Jo says:

    The more crap you have, the bigger your house payment has to be, and the more you have to clean!

    What’s very useful to me is to remember how I lived when I was poor as a churchmouse and then make a mental list of the things I have now that I couldn’t afford back then. This is how I distinguish between “wants” and “needs,” and it makes me really appreciate the “wants” that I have.

  12. Brian Johnson says:

    Absolutely brilliant post. Perfect.

    Along this line, I discovered in my years doing personal financial planning that people are overly fixated on the concept of personal net worth when what usually makes people happy (or at least free of financial anxiety) is positive cash flow. For example, my wife and I put a ridiculously large down payment (55%) on our home to ratchet down our monthly fixed expenses. The result is a lower monthly income required to maintain our comfortable existence.

    I’d certainly have a larger net worth had I gone the traditional route of 20% down and leveraged the rest, but 5 years later we’re able to live comfortably on one fairly average income (working for a non-profit) which allows my wife stay home raising our kids while all of our friends have to have two incomes in order to make their mortgate palatable.

    In addition to consumerism of material goods, fixed monthly expenses (huge cell phone contracts, monthly cable bills, house cleaning services, large car payments, etc), can cripple your decision making as well. Thankfully, I can’t comment on bed bugging…

  13. Pirate Jo says:

    Brian J, I have noticed the same thing! Financial planners always want you to focus on your net worth, but that doesn’t really do you much good until that net worth can generate cash flow. Which would be retirement age, or whatever. Meanwhile, life is passing you by! You are *smart* to have put that money down on your house. Having your wife at home to raise the kids means something NOW – while life is happening – investing that money for retirement wouldn’t do you much good until you got old, and the kids would already be grown by then. If you’re going to save money, save it FOR something for crying out loud. Or just spend it!

    Personally, I think I will always have to do something in the way of work, even if it is not full-time and even if it is a “for-fun” job that doesn’t pay very much. I got an easily affordable mortage as well and pay ahead on it every month. That means I have less to invest in my retirement portfolio (sacrilege!) but I will be minus a house payment that much sooner and able to enjoy the flexibility it brings.

    My financial planner offers good investment advice and generates good returns, but I could not get him to read “Die Broke” by Stephen Pollan. When he starts having Gen X’ers and Y’ers as his customers instead of boomers, he will be ahead of his competition if he can grasp the cash flow mindset you just explained.

  14. Matt Bingham says:

    Great Great advice…I have friends that need to read this! They try and “trick” the system into cashflow when in actuality, if they just lived in their means they wouldn’t need such a complicated system. My wife and I do a “fairly” good job living below our means – but there are times when we “Need” something. Retail Therapy can come in handy at times ;) My point is that our system is easy – (Income after savings – bills = fun). Living below our means allows us to do that. I’m not saying that we don’t own things we don’t need…but we also don’t have anything that puts us in a position as Brian said, “Crippling” our ability to make a decision. Great line by the way! Sometimes the most simple concept takes a lifetime to learn.

  15. Tim Shisler says:

    Penelope,

    You have nailed what I try to tell my friends on a daily basis. When the iPhone came out, several people I knew dropped their credit cards and spent over a grand to get their hands on one. There were hidden costs– dropping their previous account, starting a new one, buying the phone and taking themselves out of the inner-circle of friends. Since they weren't Verizon anymore, every call cost money. Now just a month after giving in to the Apple PR machine, they are regretting their decision.

    I might not be as cool as them with my old "brick" of a phone, but at least I didn't cost myself any more money to do something I could do for free if my friends were directly in front of me.

  16. leslie says:

    I have talked to so many people who put all their extra stuff in storage only to visit in once or twice a year. The storage rental costs really add up after awhile so it ends up that you “buy” your stored items all over again with the rental fees.

  17. Peter Varhol says:

    Penelope . . . you rock!

  18. Doug K says:

    Brian Johnson has it right I think, so does Charles Dickens:
    “Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen six, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pound ought and six, result misery.”
    (Mr. Micawber, in David Copperfield).

    Don’t throw things away, that is wasteful. Instead put them on Craigslist or http://www.freecycle.org/

    • emily says:

      Doug – you have to throw them away if you have bedbugs. And even throwing them away, you have to put up a big sign that says “WARNING BED BUGS!!!!” so that unsuspecting college students don’t take them home thinking that they’ve found a great, slightly used sofa on the curb on trash day. Bed bugs are bad news.

  19. Steve says:

    Clutter is the enemy!

  20. Terry says:

    What makes you a great blogger is that you write from experience and tell a great story.

    So, now that I’ve stroked your ego, can your parents give me 20 grand for my start up…eh..eh…eh???

    Terry

  21. d says:

    This was, indeed, a very good post.

    I think you’re right, though, that a very comfortable childhood informs your perspective. So let me push back and ask, Why tame materialism? Materialism–defined here as liking your creature comforts–is not inherently a bad thing. It’s when you start getting greedy and abusive to other people that it starts becoming a problem.

    I’ve been very poor (both as a child and as an adult) and I’ve been comfortably upper-middle-class. I far prefer the latter. And when our life brings us to an event (such as a new baby) that has the potential to upset our economic applecart, I’m generally pretty good at figuring out how to sustain our lifestyle without going into debt or retreating to a lower standard of living.

    The point I guess I’m meandering toward is that “taming materialism” can also be a copout. To me, the first question to ask is, Is there a reasonable way I can raise my income to what we now need to remain comfortable? Only after I’ve exhausted that line of thought does “taming materialism” come into the picture.

    In fact–as you and I both know from our grad school days–“taming materialism” can be an enabler for fear and laziness, as opposed to pursuing your potential as a professional and an earner. How many grad students and other professional bohos drape themselves in the nobility of poverty?

    Again, I think that what you’ve written is very valuable–especially insofar as it’s a brand-new insight for a lot of people. But I also think it can also be a seductive excuse, too.

    • Alan says:

      I agree more or less with both sides — that most clutter is crap and that material lust is an inspiration. But I have to consider other things too. Like much of what I own is a tool of some sort and if I abandon my tools I abandon my abilities. And after three days of hard work I spend three days totally incapacitated in bed because I’m fragile.

  22. Quasar9 says:

    Now Penelope, that is One inspirational post.
    And I’m not just saying so because of your grandparents links with the mob –

    The fine line between mortgaging oneself to the hilt in the hope of promotion and a pay increase, and the ability to live with less to move and even take a pay cut.

    PS – The bed bugs bite wherever people live. Any mattress after a few months will acquire them, they live on our dead skin, but sounds like you had their vampire cousins …
    Not al bats are vampires, some are fruit bats

  23. Almostgotit says:

    We lived a sabbatical year in England, in a small but sparely-furnished house, and after looking into household shipping costs which no one would reimburse, we decided to move with only what we could take with us on the airplane — without paying for extra luggage! — clothes, toys, books, and all.

    Amazingly? We did just fine. Nor are we “poor” people. Nor did we feel deprived. It was a *very* eye-opening experience!

    The bed bugs sound awful — so sorry! We got head lice in England. I was beside myself (this was before I’d even heard of them in the US… now I know they are getting fairly common here, too.) I called the kids’ school in Oxford, horrified, to report it… and instead of being banned from school, we were laughed at for being so worked up. Every kid there gets lice, multiple times usually, and no one is kept out of school because of them. Fortunately, they are a lot easier to get rid of than bed bugs (they can only live off-host for a few hours; don’t fly or jump; and don’t require the poisons, etc., that most Americans try to use against them.)

  24. John C says:

    It is amazing how materialistic our society really is. Every day we are bombarded with clever marketing campaigns convincing us that we need to have the next best thing in order to keep up with the Jones. And unfortunately, most of us take the bait and jump onto the consumption treadmill. The problem is once you are on the treadmill it is very difficult to get off.

    Materialism is ultimately what holds most people back from achieving their true life’s aspirations. It’s a shame, but most people would rather have the shiny new BMW parked in front of their big house in the best neighborhood and be members of the local country club (boring) that truly live life.

    In your post, you stated “People think that what's holding them back from taking risk is some big financial idea of stability and well being, but it's really fear of losing your comfortable material life, whatever that is.” You clearly and eloquently hit the nail on the head with this statement. Materialism becomes an addiction and trying to break the habit naturally creates fear.

    I know this fear personally. As a financial advisor, I have been lucky enough to earn a nice living. But I too have jumped onto the materialistic treadmill. Yes, I have all this “stuff,” but none of it truly makes me happy.

    The reality is that I would rather live a comfortable life, and have more opportunity to spend time with the people I truly care about… my family and my friends. I believe that is what brings real happiness in life. But if you need the new BMW, the big house, and the country club lifestyle, you most likely won’t have the time to enjoy those things with the people that ultimately bring you the most happiness if life.

    Great post as always Penelope!

  25. Working Girl says:

    It was being poor that made me not afraid of being poor. Once you’ve been there, it’s no longer the unknown and it’s the unknown that’s so scary.

    It never occurred to me that having been well-off could also make you not afraid of being poor!

  26. Dianne says:

    The 80-20 rule apparently applies to clutter too. Most of us use 20% of what we own and could get rid of the 80% that we never use but keep anyway “just in case we need it.” Peter Walsh in his book “It’s all too much” talks about the epidemic of acquisition, people getting buried under the crush of their own possessions — it’s easy to get caught up in buying more and more (especially the lure of the newest electronic toy), but maybe it’s not necessary to fill every empty space with stuff that has no purpose other than to satisfy the urge created by an advertising campaign. Now I question why I’m buying something — do I need it? Or is it something I want? Is it something I really want? Or is it something I want because someone else has it or the media tells me I should have it to be part of a herd? I long ago decided I didn’t need to add more clothes to my closet just because there is a new seasonal fad (fashion designers need you to buy new stuff every year for their business bottom line; that doesn’t mean you have to buy into their sales pitch). I just need to apply that rule to other things. Clearing some space and reducing the load would be a good thing. One of your best columns, Penelope. Thanks!

  27. Leslie M-B says:

    Another excellent post! Penelope, thanks for reminding me of what my values really are regarding “stuff.”

    Also: Bed bugs? Eeeeeeeeeek!

  28. J. says:

    Quasar9 seems to be confusing dust mites (which really do occur wherever people are) with bed bugs. They’re not the same thing. Dust mites aren’t even visible to the naked eye, nor do they produce a biting sensation.

  29. John Goodman says:

    A very timely article. Both of my wifes parents and my mother passed away within 3 months of each other in 2000/01 and we “inherited” all of their stuff. Being reluctant to throw out anything for fear that it would be a keepsake or our children would want it the “stuff” has resided in our garage for the last 6+ years. Last weekend we started going through it and are throwing away 98% of it. After reading your article I think that number will climb to 99.5%!

  30. Miriam says:

    I am under the perception that Americans (and Canadians) aren’t even aware that there is a problem with materialism, so I’m impressed with this post.

    One of the factors that led to my emigration from Canada was the rampant materialism. I would hear people complaining that they didn’t have money, but that was because they were spending more in a month than many people make in a year. Values were ignored in the pursuit of that almighty dollar. I didn’t want to live in that type of society, or raise my (eventual) kids there.

    Since I left 14 years ago, it’s only gotten worse. For example, at that time weddings would be dressy, but only the occasional one would be black-tie. Now, I’m going to Canada for a wedding that is black-tie with a ridiculous budget that matches those of small countries, and I understand that this is an “understated” event. Who do people think they are?

    Such waste, when people don’t even have food on their table. I’m not saying that weddings are bad, but a little self-control would be nice. This keeping-up-with-the-joneses is ridiculous.

    One of my professors in University, himself an immigrant to Israel from the US, once told us that the God mentioned on the American dollar is the dollar.

    Life in Israel has taught me to live small and lower my dependence on expensive items. I drive a car here that 16 year olds wouldn’t be caught dead in in Canada. I live in a tiny apartment with a whole bunch of kids, but I love it. There’s little pressure to have fancy stuff and live fancy. Name brands, those marketing ploys, thankfully mean little here.

    There is more freedom where there is less materialism.

    • Terumasa says:

      Simon_GNR: hooray! Someone else from the doecise of Hallam! Which parish, if you don’t mind me asking? As far as my experience goes, it has been fairly positive so far. A few people got mixed up with and with your spirit to start off with, my wife among them, but by the end of Mass most people were starting to get the hang of it all. It’s just a shame we’re still stuck with the awful propers until Advent, but one step at a time, I suppose. I have to say, it is thoroughly liberating to finally be able to say Et cum spiritu tuo in English! And, on a slightly egotistical level, it’s nice to be able to be a part of history. In fact, my wife and I went to the very last old new Mass on Friday morning, and the very first new new Mass (vigil) on Saturday evening. That’s how much we’ve been looking forward to this! :-)

  31. OHK says:

    Loved this! It did make me think though that there are a lot of people (like me) who live frugally, but still find themselves missing out on the stability and freedom that frugality can bring because of one thing: student debt. You may have already done it (though I did do a search), but I would love to see a post on this blog by you devoted to advice on dealing with large amounts of student debt. Because no matter how much scrimping and saving we do, there’s still $140,000 that we have to pay back.

  32. James Buggles says:

    I’m curious — since you took some stuff with you in a U-Haul, why didn’t you bring that U-Haul to Terminix and have it gassed? This way, you could have saved more items and known for sure that you killed any lurking bed bugs. Did someone advise you against this option?

  33. James Buggles says:

    Quasar9, you’re confusing dust mites with bed bugs. Very BIG difference. Google it.

  34. Kim J. says:

    OHK – Absolutely agree!! It is NO fun living like a pauper despite making good money – all because you have to pay the piper (and I’m happy to pay him, since I *did* incur that debt…I’m just saying it’s no fun).

  35. LaDawn says:

    I came home from work a couple weeks ago when the Environment Agency called to tell me that my home was under a severe flood warning. I picked up the photo albums and moved them to the upstairs. I put the dog upstairs. And then i stood in the middle of the house and realised that there was absolutely nothing else that couldn’t be replaced or meant all that much to me. My computer was backed up off site with all my recent photos so that about covered us.

    The best wake up call I’ve had in years!

  36. Penelope Trunk says:

    James, I like that you ask why we didn’t gass the bed bugs, because this gives me a chance to reveal how uttery hopeless it is to try to get rid of them.

    You can’t gas them. They just don’t die that way. Or else believe me, all New York landlords would do it.

    Penelope

  37. Yvette says:

    … taming materialism can be an enabler for fear and laziness, as opposed to pursuing your potential as a professional and an earner. How many grad students and other professional bohos drape themselves in the nobility of poverty? …

    Ya know, this post was so good that reading the comments was almost as much fun as reading the original post. Good job PT. The post was full of lessons, personal and professional, and you were honest about details that many people would rather not have talked about. Telling it like it is, takes courage as well as intelligence. It’s one think I admire in Gen-Y folks. (I liked the link to the cool DKNY clothes too, but that’s me.) The NYT article was priceless (pun intended) and a main reasons I like PT’s blog (and recommend it to others) is her excellent links. (Hey I even liked the compete.com link!)

    As for the great comments, many I liked, but the above quote hit home for me. I’m one of those grad school kids that tried to say poverty was noble, and btw some spiritual traditions say the same, but the reality is that poverty is only noble if your children aren’t crying for lack of food, or medicine.

    The reality is, whether we like or not, the global business world is based on capital building and you build capital by having positive cash flow (as several comments correctly pointed out). But most importantly, if you value happiness, then as PT pointed out, you need to rethink your priorities because positive cash flow is not enough. You also need time with your family and friends, your loved ones, a feeling of connection, and a lack of life-threatening disasters…. Warm regards.

    * * * * * *

    Tidbit: The most popular outbound link in this post is the one about my great work clothes. I should be a spokesperson for DKNY.

    –Penelope

  38. Ken says:

    Whew, thanks for the lifeline. Those flatscreen TV’s were starting to look inviting.

  39. Dale says:

    Penny,

    It must be a socio-cultural thing, but fear of loss is but one of the incidental variables that come into play when I think of doing something potentially risky in my career.

    I grew up poor in the third world sense of the word. My neighbors were an extended family with 3 generations of siblings, their current partners, their children, and their children’s children – all with one steady job between them -living together. Note there was just 1 wedding ring in the household – that relationship to its credit lasted 14 years – and only three of the seven to ten children present at any time had the same father.

    My father and mother were teachers for 33+ years each, but at their peak career incomes, they made less than anyone here made on minimum wage in the seventies. But we were “respectable.” My parents were married, had jobs, and as such had that intangible quality that made them pillars of our small commumity. NOTHING, was more important than being “respectable.” And one of the main things that differentiated a respectable household from others, was the accumulation of well cared for “stuff” that was acquired over time.

    Children seldom do what their parents say, but they invariably do what their parents do. My programming seems to have predisposed me to avert career risk, especially after marriage and our first of many children. I worked like a demon while going to school, and did not give up my restaurant job for 14 years – I even kept it after I graduated with my MBA from a Big Ten college. My parents collected everything! We threw nothing away, not jobs, and certainly not material things unless they were rotting, dangerous, or embarrassing :). I find myself doing the same thing much to the chagrin of my wife – who came from a more forward thinking family. It explains my intense fear of failure, my reluctance to seek better career opportunities, and my worry about how I am perceived by others – good family men do not take chances with that which feeds their family – even if they are starving slowly.
    When you are poor, and black, you are often judged by others, both inside and outside of your subset of the general community, based upon what is on the outside. That which shows becomes really very important. And if getting what you want means risking what you have, the dynamic becomes even more “interesting.”

    When thinking about materialism, please try to see it from a multi-dimensional viewpoint. This willingness to explore different paradigms is what sets you apart, and is really important because it can only enhance your understanding of people who may be very different from yourself.

    • Jenny Blankety says:

      Wow, Dale. This comment really hit home for me, I had a similar environment growing up that taught me to obsess over doing things “the right way” and “being respectable.”

  40. Jay Hargis says:

    Here’s some advice that somene told me and I found it very insightful…Go through your closet. Pull out ever piece of clothing that you own that is too small, too big, out of style, never in style, bought for one occasion, or still has the price tags hanging on it from a year ago.

    Now, put all of that stuff in a big pile in your bedroom. Next, get a chair and sit down next to the pile.

    Reflect on all of the time and energy that pile took to build. How many hours did you waste shopping? What about the natural resources burned driving to get to the store? How many times have you moved it, driven to Target to figure out how to store it, how much money did you spend on it, or have you actually sold your home so you could put it all in a bigger room?

    Now, for your final energy spend, pick up the pile, put it all in trash bags, and drive it down to your local homeless shelter or Goodwill. From now on, buy only quality and buy only what you need (with a few items thrown in for fun).

  41. tamar says:

    Thanks. We need people we respect to teach us that material is just that and not more. With all the problems in the world, we – moneyed or otherwise, too often toss do-re-mi in material forms at the problems. Surprise. Things usually get worse. Ethics, good stewardship of the earth, universal health care, and quality public education pre-K through college for all people are some of the orthy goals to get behind and to lose sleep or sweat over. Not collecting material beyond the basics. And anyone can define those, with a glance at your post if the imagination freezes. Will the pep talk help the crazed shopaholics filling their empty-feeling souls with that thirteenth white blouse or zillionth perfect black dress? Nah. Yet please keep sending the message.

  42. Pirate Jo says:

    I agree with Yvette – John C’s post was a bullseye for balancing out this discussion. Dale, thanks for posting your story as well – I have noticed that my parents’ behavior still influences me as well. That is a good thing in many ways, but I also tend to be too risk-averse and worry too much about money if I’m not mindful of it.

  43. James Buggles says:

    Penelope, you misunderstood me. I’m not talking about a bomb that you might buy at Home Depot.

    If you live in a house and get bedbugs, you can hire someone to tent the house and pump vikane gas in for a day or so. This gas, first developed to kill termites, kills all insects, including bed bugs.

    If you live in an apartment building, you’re out of luck in most situations, but you can place your possessions in a U-Haul truck, drive out to Terminix, and have the back of the truck gassed. It should work. It’s expensive, but probably cheaper than discarding all your belongings (unless you just got out of college and did all your shopping at Ikea or worse).

    It sounds like you didn’t know about this option.

    PS: Homeowners should also check out ozone treatments, which basically does the same thing as Vikane gas.

  44. jim says:

    Hi, I just started reading your blog and I like it a lot. You have a nice writing style and I enjoy how your topics unfold. Keep writing.

    :)

  45. Odysseus Valise says:

    Penelope-

    With a family rolling in cash from the mob payoffs, it seems you have a pretty good backstop in the event you losing everything, or all your money. How do you suggest the not so fortunate readers handle the risk of running out?

    * * * * * * *
    My family doesn’t work that way.

    I think how families handle money is very similar to how married couples handle sex: You should never make assumptions about the rules people follow by looking at things from the outside.

    Penelope

  46. Tiffany says:

    Well, this one hits me hard, but I need that. I’m a compulsive pack-rat, along with a compulsive bargain hunter, so I usually end up with some really great stuff and then just tons of junk I rarely use. So much that I have boxes labelled “garage sale” that I’ve carried with me in my last three moves. Seriously. I haven’t even opened them in years. Thanks for this challenging post – I feel inspired to de-junk immediately.

    Funny how much more desirable your parsed down version of things seems compared to my junk-hauling ways.

  47. Oliver Bendzsa says:

    The same day I read your blog I also read a counterpoint that suggested that “too many of us are living with a poverty mentality.” http://summitconsulting.com/balancingact/balancingact_august07.html

    The author, Alan Weiss, suggests that we cling to our fears that we don’t belong — some call it the Imposter Syndrome. (Might be a good topic for you to write about). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_Syndrome

    You were able to liberate yourself by choosing to abandon materialism whereas Weiss seems to be able to liberate himself (discretionary time to do the things he wants) because of his materialism. I guess I’m a believer that it is “free will” not “free beer” that counts in the end. Cheers.

  48. SAHD in Chicagoland says:

    Great post about clutter and things we think we need. My wife and I have moved 6 times in the 12 years we’ve been married. Unpacking during Move #5, we found a few boxes from Move #2 that we’d never opened. After some debate, we agreed to pitch them, without opening them first. Not sure what we tossed, but fairly sure we haven’t missed that stuff!

  49. L. Bates says:

    I’m 40 and the hubby and I have been married 17 years this Saturday…we had nothing when we first got married – our 1,100 square foot house had an entire empty room in it! Now, 5 moves and three kids later, we obviously have more stuff.

    But our best rule about stuff, since, it seems, we move every 3-4 years (although, I hope not, anymore)is that if we haven’t opened a box since the last move, it goes to Goodwill as we pack for the current move, UNOPENED. If we didn’t need it in years, there’s no point in opening the box.

  50. Carol Saha says:

    This concept of how much is enough is something I’ve been struggling with for a while. My situation got to the point that I was going to move into a tent for the summer until I could get back on my feet and get an apt. Instead I moved into a one bedroom apt with a friend and got rid of most of my “stuff”. I do have a storage unit that I share with a grown daughter but when she moves her stuff out I’m getting rid of it. The only thing I miss is the hundreds of books I don’t have room for anymore. Going to the library is a nice alternative but I have an emotional attachment to my books and they are hard to let go. Loved the article. Keep them coming.

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