Money for nothing

MSN Money columnist MP Dunleavey talks about “The High Price of Too Much Stuff” in a recent post:

Never mind that we live in a culture that encourages constant consumption. Or that few can afford all the stuff that is supposedly part of the American dream. Or that debt is a drag on your personal financial health.

The relentless focus on having and buying and wanting and owning — and using your credit card or your home equity to cover it — has landed us here: with crates of things we don’t need, stuffed into compartments where we never see it, throwing yet more money down the drain for the meaningless thrill of knowing we have it.

Why? Because we don’t want to admit we were wrong, that buying all that stuff didn’t add up to what we had hoped.

I don’t agree with all of her statements (I’m reluctant to blame In Style magazine and the t.v. show Friends for current economic issues), but her general conclusion is a good one:

When I drive past those ugly, sprawling storage facilities, or even the bright cheery ones, I feel depressed. Someday these early years of the 21st century will be remembered as the Crazy Aughts, a time when Americans spent more money on nothing than ever before in our history.

And we are not richer, we are not happier, for all that getting and spending.

Thanks to reader Margaret who sent us the link.

26 Comments for “Money for nothing”

  1. posted by Fit Bottomed Girls on

    Not to mention how much of that stuff ends up in our landfills. We’re all guilty of it to some degree, but ugh.

  2. posted by Deb on

    Having moved my stuff seven times in the past 12 years, I have to agree that the stuff gets overwhelming. My grandmother had a house full of stuff after living at one address for 50 years and raising four kids. I guess that was my setpoint for what my surroundings should feel like.

    Combining households with another person who keeps everything has been a challenge. We are also both teachers, so the books and papers that expand all over the space keep us working all of the time because they show us that we are never prepared enough!

    Has enyone ever noticed that as soon as you get out on the hiking trail with just some water and a few things in a backpack, the entire world disappears except for the place your feet are hitting the ground and the air you are breathing. THAT’s simple pleasure!

  3. posted by Ann at One Bag Nation on

    Our consumerism troubles me so much, especially when I see it in my daughter, who loves money and buying stuff (she’s 6).

    As I work so hard to declutter my life, she continues to acquire, usually in the form of gifts. And when she spends her own money, most of the things she’s dying to have are forgotten quickly – it’s very depressing.

    Having money and spending money is new for her this year, and I guess we needed to be more proactive in how we talked to her about it, but there’s no time like the present to start!

  4. posted by Karyn on

    We are a culture that is drowning in stuff. Just watch the ads for “Space Bags”–I always yell at the screen, “Get rid of half that stuff and you wouldn’t need those!” Or the PODS. Or any storage spaces. It’s a combination of buying and then not wanting to admit we really don’t need the stuff in the first place.

    My son is eight and just started earning an allowance. We are working on teaching him that a) he can’t get everything he wants when he wants it, and b) not everything you want is something you need.

  5. posted by battra92 on

    If I ever get to the point where I need a self storage for a non-catastrophe, I think it would be a good wakeup call.

    My parents did rent an on site storage container a few years ago when they redid the entire upstairs and roof and needed all the attics and upstairs empty so there are legitimate uses for them.

    I do agree on owning too much and storing it. I just bought a digital SLR and have told myself if I don’t use it enough by Christmas-time it goes up on eBay. I’m already peeved that it doesn’t like the autofocus on my old Nikon lenses and I see no reason to own two versions of the same lens for both my film and digital equipment.

  6. posted by Patty on

    I bought my first home when I was thirty. I had no furniture, just a bed and chest. I made due. Five years later between marrying and acquiring some furniture I was still okay. It was when we moved from that house hubby and I saw how much we acquired. Between wedding presents we never used, his clutter, my clutter, tools, you name it, we had it was stunning. So many trips to the Goodwill and landfill. It shocked us. Not to mention cleaning the house and putting thing in storage so the house would “appear” larger than it was. It was large, just cluttered. It amazed me.

    Second point
    Once I married, I stopped hitting the malls. I haven’t been to a mall in years. I shop online and I think it has stopped the impulse buying. I also took a look at the people in the mall. Everyone was looking for the new thing, something to make them happy, these people looked really sad.

  7. posted by cdelphine on

    Yeah it’s really depressing when you think about it. We all have houses jam packed with stuff we never use so then we decide we need to clean it out. Then we schlep all the stuff to goodwill or yardsales in the vain hope that someone else wants it. Eventually it goes to the land fill. Then we have extra space in our houses and fill it up immediately with new things we don’t need.

    It’s hard to stop too with all the economic and cultural ramifications. Every generation is supposed to be doing better than their parents which was good when ya know people didn’t have food to eat. Now, however, there is no need to do better than our parents but we are still driven by that desire.

    Mcmansions especially depress me. They’re so ugly and what do people do with all that space if they have less than six family members??

  8. posted by Matt on

    I don’t know when Western culture adopted the stuff mentality but you’re dead on the money we really don’t need it and if we think about it most of us don’t even want the crap, I mean stuff, we buy. If you get a cell phone why would you need to get a new one 3 months later unless it was broken? But for some reason people replace perfectly good items that they use with the latest and greatest. And that’s the tip of the iceberg – I moved recently and the amount of stuff I threw out boggled my mind. I tried to avoid thinking about how much money went into that crap that I ended up throwing out, some of it practically new.

    Over the past few months I’ve been buying less and less stuff and the reality is I’m happier for it. I don’t have buyers remorse nor do I feel like I need to spend time with a piece of stuff that I bought on a whim.

  9. posted by Jeff Janer on

    As I get older, I think a lot about “being lighter” – both literally and figuratively. Just how much stuff do I really need and will I use (as opposed to the new stuff just ending up in the closet I just cleared out of those old Christmas lights, TV table and remnant carpet I thought I might have use for in the future).

    Is simplifying life by having less stuff an age thing?

  10. posted by Sarah on

    @ Ann:

    This year, our twins turn 2. Last year, we were SHOCKED at their birthday party by all the gifts. We certainly didn anticipate a mountain of presents. We put away half of it to put under the tree. We couldn’t imagine bringing even MORE stuff into our home.

    For their birthday this year, we’re planning a memory birthday. We’ll take them to the movies for the first time and go out to lunch someplace fun and kid-friendly. No big family party.

    I can tell you, I don’t remember what I got for my 5th birthday or how much I liked whatever it was.

    What I do remember is getting dressed up with my mommy and going to see a dinner theater production of “Annie.”

    That’s the kind of birthday I want to give my kids.

  11. posted by mmr on

    This is an interesting time for this article/editorial to pop up.

    I have a co-worker in Italy right now and her assistant asked me what my glove size was. Already having a pair of gloves, I asked if it would be rude of me to decline getting a pair of something that I already own.

    Her assistant said that it is ‘fine italian leather’ and that I should be happy that she is thinking about me while on vacation.

    My issue with this is, why do people assume we want these random gifts? Yes, Italy might be known for their leather goods, but at the same time, I have made no request for new gloves, and being someone who has lived on the east coast for 25+ years, I already have several pairs of gloves for various occasions.

    You can exchange the gloves in this story for any number of things that, while practical, you just don’t need. And I’m at the breaking point where I am just telling people that if they buy me something it is most likely going to end up at good will. I would rather get nothing from my friends and not contribute to waste than convert a closet in my apartment into the Re-Gift Empire.

  12. posted by Emma on

    Great article, thanks for linking to it.

  13. posted by timgray on

    I have a stuff addiction… my wife calls it my “OHHH SHINEY” illness. I will not quit it, but I found a way to make it work for me and the family. Any new Item I want must be financed mostly by my current items. I.E. I have to sell on ebay 1 or more items to cover 70% of the cost of the new SHINEY. It works great, has cut clutter by 2/3rds over the past year and it makes me rethink every purchase.

    My latest Shiney is a new motorcycle. It was mostly paid for by the sale of my Band gear I have not touched for 4 years. (the 80’s will not be back, my Moog synths and keyboards can go away) I cleaned out an entire closet of musical gear that was unused and I get a new toy!

    she’s happy, I’m happy, the checkbook’s happy.

  14. posted by Yarrrr! on

    My brother made a wonderful comment as my mom despaired of ever being able to deal with a lifetime’s accumulation: “It’s hard when your stuff owns you.”

  15. posted by Peter (a different one) on

    My biggest wekaness is books. I have nearly 100 books on programming, a lot of my old college texts, and of course some pleasure reading books.

    Even though I could have gotten some of these books electronically, I feel much better when I can crack open a book and lay it on my desk while I use it for reference.

  16. posted by sky on

    It is amazing how much stuff we all seem to have. I have been decluttering and I swear the crap is multiplying! I have sold on ebay, taken tons to Goodwill and given away more stuff to my sons than you can imagine and still….there is more.
    I am so through buying cleverly advertised “stuff”. Magazines and TV ads are just hell bent on undermining my efforts….but I WILL overcome and live a simple “less stuff” life!
    Thanks for the help UNCLUTTER!

  17. posted by Michele on

    mmr – I agree totally with your comment. I am VERY selective about anything I buy. Even basic items of clothing have to pass an extensive selection process – I like to own very little, but have it fit my needs and taste perfectly. Thus, I feel about many gifts the way you describe feeling about the gloves. I have all the gloves I need, and they fit my needs and taste perfectly.

  18. posted by Maggie on

    Erin, have you seen the new(ish) Pixar film, “Wall-e”? It projects our crazy spend-spend-spend into the future and they are not subtle about the effects.

    Although my boyfriend pointed out the irony of a Disney-affiliated film taking a anti-consumerist stance…

  19. posted by Sarah on

    @ mmr: whatever happened to two-sentence postcards?

    sky: i’m in the same boat. please stop giving stuff to your kids, though. that’s how we wound up with boxes of crap we realized three years later we didn’t want!

    @ peter (a different one): ugh. the books. i was the same way. i JUST cleared out the bookshelves. i was an english and drama major; my husband was a drama major (with too many philosophy courses thrown in there).

    i had the paperback college bookstore version of every classic book written since time began. at least it felt that way. i wish i had taken “before” pictures. our house is so much more beautiful without them! you say you use yours, though. i don’t have time to reread books i’ve already read.

  20. posted by Mer on

    Great post, pause for the AMEN!

  21. posted by Daniel on

    I personally love recreational shopping. I haven’t found a woman who can outlast me (a man!) shopping.
    Where I differ is that I little temptation to buy. I already have what I want, so shopping just reaffirms the good choices I’ve made.
    When I do get tempted, I ask myself what I’ll get rid of before I take in something else. That usually nips temptation in the bud, and lets me enjoy shopping without the stuff.

  22. posted by emmy on

    This reminded me of a ‘drug’ for this consumption disorder we’re all talking about here:


  23. posted by sky on

    Emmy: That’s funny!!

  24. posted by Ken Silver on

    I find this website invaluable not because it stops me buying stuff, but it helps with the organization of it. Some of you (hey – maybe all of you!) may feel that with the following contrary viewpoint I may be the wrong person to comment on this topic. But comment I will ๐Ÿ™‚

    I love stuff. It doesn’t own me. And I enjoy looking after it. None of my stuff goes to the landfill. When it goes anywhere, it’s not because it has worn out, but that I am upgrading and someone else benefits from my careful selection.

    Stuff doesn’t make me feel bad in the least. I look around and reminisce over the times when I had the most pleasure buying and using it. It helps that I have chosen wisely by only buying quality and with consideration, and I can’t help feeling that the stuff that makes most people feel bad about themselves has been bought on impulse, in respond to some great advertising, or as compensation for an emotional blow or shortcoming.

    If you buy in those conditions, well – you get what you pay for!

    Some readers have commented on the downside of large homes. After 6 decades of life’s ups-and-downs I have a large, uncluttered and architecturally designed home, and with 4 cars between my wife and I this is nirvana for me! I am not greedy nor mentally unstable, but take pleasure in nice things and sometimes sharing them with others. I have worked hard and boxed clever to earn my modest treasures, and now is the time to enjoy them. And there is an upside advantage to owning as many cars as us: We can only use one at a time! That means we’ve saved the world in a small way by not using the others which would have been in use if owned by others. The more I buy, the more virtuous I feel ๐Ÿ™‚

    While it seems a fatuous argument in the face of times of cutting back and saving the planet, there are many millions of people who depend on us to buy their stuff so they can earn a living. You cannot talk about greedy monopolies in the same breath as denying the tens of thousands of people they employ their livelihood, and who would be homeless without our financial input.

    Money makes the world go round, and it’s naive to think that we can all exist in an nonstuff vacuum.

  25. posted by Angela on

    @ patty- Give me a break. Everybody at the mall is not sad. Some people actually go to shop. They can afford it, too!

  26. posted by Elaine on

    I will never forget one day, taking a walk north of Atlanta, and passing by an apartment complex. Someone had gotten evicted. A household’s stuff was out on the grass: dishes, clothing, furniture, toys, cosmetics, etc. Once upon a time it was in a store, clean and shiny and beckoning, ‘come buy me, I’ll make you happy.’ Now it was sad, dirty, wet from the rain, sinking into the earth, unwanted. Surely the people who had owned it had taken the time before moving on to snatch up the items that they really needed: clothes to live in, food to eat, toiletries to wash with, linens for a bed. The rest was left to be collected by the sanitation department. There was so much of it. So much excess stuff, so many misplaced priorities. The afterimage of this pile of discards rises in my mind’s eye every time I browse in a store and think about making an impulse purchase. It’s a huge help in paring down expenditures.

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