Knowing what you need clears a path for an uncluttered life

Back on September 1, 2009, the ABC News program Nightline aired the segment “Antivirus Software Pioneer John McAfee Gets Dose of Reality.” The segment discussed how McAfee lost close to $90 million that year, and how it changed his understanding of possessions.

McAfee’s net worth dropped from within the ballpark of $100 million to less than $10 million, he told ABC News. But instead of feeling a sense of loss, he says he feels free.

“I feel a sense of freedom,” he said. “People think that it’s a joy to own things. But it really isn’t.”

The article continues:

“I feel freer. I have less responsibility and obligations. And I have enough money left to feed myself,” he said.

After 65 years, his attitude about money, he says, is forever changed.

“I think most people don’t sit down and ask, ‘What do I need?” not “What do I want?” Because we all want everything,” he explained. “But what do we need? We don’t need very much. We really don’t … The things we want and the things we need are two different things.”

The perspective is a good one, even for a man with $10 million still left in his pockets. Knowing what you need is an essential component of an uncluttered life. When you can tell the difference between the things that are important, and those that are not, you can clear the clutter and pursue a life focused on what really matters to you.

The full article.

Image from Quorumex, McAfee’s new company based in Belize.

36 Comments for “Knowing what you need clears a path for an uncluttered life”

  1. posted by Rich on

    dude has $10 million dollars. He’s saying he no longer has enough to buy his “wants”?

  2. posted by Jodi on

    Going from a high income to a low income causes problems no matter what income level. I get very frustrated when I hear people complain about money because I have never (NEVER) met anyone that has income as low as ours, yet they are all struggling to pay this bill or that one. Its no more insulting that this guy has 10 million left than it is to hear my friend with two kids complain about her $40k a year salary making times tough.

    Living within your means is hard, and the more you make (generally) the more you spend, which in my mind makes this story all the more impressive.

  3. posted by Jen on

    While it’s certainly true that it’s not that hard to feel “free” with $10 million in net worth, I think the point Erin was trying to make is that we may still be able to take away something from this guy’s experience. The idea that we can take a step back and ask ourselves what we really need in our lives instead of what we want can be freeing. It seems a little like starting over after a massive house fire, deciding which items you’ll replace rather than de-cluttering and deciding which items you’ll keep vs. get rid of. I’m not going to lose any sleep over this guy and his lost $90 million either (and honestly some of his comments do sound a little condescending to those of us who don’t have millions in the bank), but that doesn’t mean I can’t learn something from his experience.

  4. posted by Erin Doland on

    To those who have sour grapes with how much money he had afterward, stop thinking about the money. My point with running this piece was to reflect on what the guy is saying. Income is irrelevant to the message. Re-read the original article and his words if you’re not seeing anything except for dollar signs.

    Additionally, with his millions, he started a new company with hope of saving lives through new medicines. If he didn’t have that money, there wouldn’t be any developments. My guess is that you’re not paying for them (I’m certainly not paying for new drugs to be developed), so I’m glad someone with money is working to cure and treat awful diseases. I think it’s pretty noble to spend his money the way he is now, especially in contrast to how he was spending the money before …

  5. posted by MT Nickerson on

    I think difficulty of using McAfee’s life as an example is the fact that for the reader, McAfee’s wants and needs are so different than ours that we have trouble relating. I make less than thirty thousand a year and worked fulltime at the same company for almost fourteen years.

    My life is not uncluttered because I have a life reduced to needs. I have no other choice but to focus on my needs. My life is cluttered perhaps more so because of the lack of money, just as it is for many other people reading about McAfee.

    I see your point, but trust a working stiff who has had no raise for five years in a row, I feel nothing for McAfee or his story or his $10 million. I’d rather try to unclutter my life with a little more dough in my pocket and trade a few needs for some of those wants I can never seem to get.

  6. posted by Jane on

    Two things:

    First – If his belongings were being auctioned off, how does he have $10M left?

    Second – Yes Erin, we do all pay for drugs to be developed. NIH funds billions of dollars of grants focusing on drugs, devices, etc. If you pay taxes, you’re funding this.

  7. posted by Jen on

    @Jane – a second way that most of us pay for drugs to be developed is that pharmaceutical companies build in the costs of developing new drugs into the drugs that they already sell. For example, it’s something like one in 10,000 drugs that enter clinical trials that will make it to the market in the US. All that testing/developing costs money and 9,999 of the drugs won’t make a dime for the company. Not to mention the others that don’t even make it into trials. So they know what all the failures cost and they charge accordingly. We all pay through our copays, outright payment in full, and/or health insurance premiums.

  8. posted by Miriam on

    I am a polite and respectful person – to a fault, my friends would say – but I have to say this post offends me enough I am unsubscribing. It’s not a question of sour grapes, Erin (which was a profoundly disrespectful thing for you to say to your legions of readers who are struggling with financial survival). It’s a matter of once again seeing someone in an incredibly privileged situation trying to share meaningful life lessons as if he’s the first one to learn them, with people who have been grappling with them for a long, long time. Let him survive on food stamps, make hard decisions about what bills not to pay so he can feed his kids and worry about having a roof over his head. And if it’s not him trying to impose his “wisdom” on us, but you, Erin, then shame on you.

  9. posted by Jodi on

    Erin, I can tell you I sincerely appreciated this article. I suspect that financial clutter underlies the reaction of so many. I imagine many would have the same reaction (jelousy) if they knew my family has no debt (except mortgage), is able to pay all our bills, and has enough money left over to comfortably meet many of our wants as well as put money in savings. I bet that emotion would be stronger to learn our mortgage is almost paid in full and I have been (unsuccessfully) trying to hire a housekeeper once a week so I can have surgery.

    From this, most would assume we are financially well-to-do, but they would be wrong. We have a family of six, and my husband makes less than $18k per year. In my entire adult life, my highest annual income was $25k. I have never gotten an inheritance, don’t come from money, never won the lottery. We simply don’t have financial clutter in our budget.

    I would encourage all the naysayers to reflect personally on your life. Is your life cluttered with the desire for more money? Are you spending time away from your family to keep up with the Jones’?

    “The results show that giving $50,000 to $150,000 to people only postpones bankruptcy,” the authors concluded.”


    If this man gave you $1 million dollars, would your life really be uncluttered? Or would it be filled with yachts, summer homes, new cars and the property taxes and insurance that go with it?

    As someone who lives (comfortably) far below federal poverty guidelines, I can say this article was inspiring, and I am glad Erin shared it.

  10. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Miriam — Income level does not determine a person’s relationship with possessions. Most of my childhood was spent with a single mom on food stamps. I still make a salary of less than $25,000 a year (my salary has actually decreased since I’ve been the editor of this site). And, throughout this entire time, I have fought with clutter.

    Watch an episode of Hoarders and you’ll notice that none of the people they feature are millionaires. I’m sorry that you don’t agree with me, but no matter what you feel, money has nothing to do with a person’s relationship with clutter. There are people in developing nations, people in the slums of Port-au-Prince, who struggle with clutter, too.

  11. posted by Asha Dornfest {Parent Hacks} on

    So glad you posted this, Erin. The fact that there are multi-millions involved is irrelevant. The point is that clutter — ANY kind of clutter, whether it is too many possessions, too many responsibilities and obligations, or too much stuff piled on the dining room table — is an energy-suck.

    I’ve spent a lot of time these last couple of years thinking about priorities and (marginally successfully) clearing out clutter. I have a long way to go, but I agree 100% with the spirit of this post.

  12. posted by bryan on

    Great article that reminds us of what we should already know. Focus on what you need not on what you want. 10 mil is still a lot of money but once you’ve had 100 million, its tough, and I’ve been there. The good thing is he knows how to get back to 100 mil

  13. posted by Paul on

    I think he’s absolutely right!
    But just because this man feels like he does, should nobody (state, majority) give the right to tax (steal) the riches and take their money, because they don’t “need” it.

    Sorry to get political, but a lot of people draw these conclusions. Even a friend of mine, who just read your post.

  14. posted by Tasmanian Minimalist on

    “I feel a sense of freedom,” he said. “People think that it’s a joy to own things. But it really isn’t.”

    So true. I swear when I was in a cluttered home I could literally feel the weight of my possessions sitting on my shoulders. Great post.

  15. posted by chacha1 on

    Thanks for running this, Erin. It is another counterpoint to the constant consumerist drumbeat in North American society … where as noted here quite recently, a magazine called “Real Simple” exists for the purpose of selling “better” replacements for things we already have.

    I often hesitate to refer to money in the forums here because I am financially well-off and there are some people whose buttons get pushed by that. (The “oh well it’s easy for YOU to say” reaction.)

    But then, nearly any subject will push *someone’s* buttons. Some folks are primed to take offense. Doesn’t matter what you say or how you say it.

    I too began decluttering not from any kind of necessity but because I felt oppressed by my Stuff. I appreciate the things I still have all the more in light of the many, many things I have given away.

  16. posted by kylie on

    Wow this post seems to be pressing a few buttons for some people but as for me, i’ve found this post (and the comments) more than usually helpful.

    Firstly: @Jen – regarding your comment about starting over after a house fire……

    and Secondly: @Tasmanian Minimalist “I could literally feel the weight of my possessions sitting on my shoulders”

    these two comments have hit me between the eyes this morning. My family and I are about to undertake a major cross-country move after 5 years in the one house (an unprecedented period of housing stability) and i am in the process of working out what to do with all our *stuff*. And boy is there a lot of stuff in our house (the packers told me it would take 170 packing boxes!!!! plus the furniture)….

    anyhoo your comments got me thinking about the weight of belongings weighing down on me (a sensation I too have felt in the last year or two) and i glanced around my (messy cluttered) desk and realised that there are at least a dozen (or fifty, or a hundred) things on my desk alone that i would not replace after a house fire!! And would you believe that even just thinking about it like that has made me feel much freer to put them in the garage sale box and not the packing boxes!

    The ‘worth’ of this guy in this article was pared down to 10%….(yes i know that that is still $10M) but there has to be a principle here….. can i pare our stuff down to 10% (whoa nelly! that seems extreme) but what about 50% or even 75%….

    food for thought….

    thanks Erin 🙂

  17. posted by Alix on

    Instead of feeling offended and assuming that McAfee is talking down to people, why not assume that he’s paying you the compliment of assuming you’re sophisticated enough to realize that a drastic shift in income can affect anyone, regardless of how big that income was to begin with.

    And let’s stop the self-pity parade here. There’s no one — NO ONE reading and/or commenting on this site who isn’t a virtual millionaire compared to 90% of people on the planet. As you spend your leisure time on a computer, bellyaching about people with incomes bigger than yours, think about Somalians who literally walk miles for clean drinking water, and only hope they don’t get raped or killed along the way. Then maybe you’ll get over yourself.

  18. posted by Me on

    My family of 5 went from making 45K, got laid off, making 20K off unemployment. We are making it just fine. Because we are living within our means.

    I think great when anyone realizes that you don’t need TONS of money to fulfill your needs. Spend what you have. If you have extra, enjoy it or save it for a new house or car.

    I have a friend whose family struggles living off 45K, because they spend more than they make.

  19. posted by PracticeMakesProgress on

    What an excellent post, Erin. I also appreciate your follow-up comments, which clearly restate the point of the article. Looks like people are either gonna get it, or not. The folks who’re focusing on peripheral issues, such as funding drug research v. paying for it, are missing the mark, and I truly feel for them. The income level, the dollar signs, are the wrapping. The heart of the matter is emotional, perhaps even spiritual, uncluttering.

    I speak as someone who had a blue collar upbringing the 50s and 60s. My parents weren’t acquisitive people, having come up in the Depression, and having loads of common sense. And things were simpler then, not in the syrupy sentimental ways so popular currently, but in quieter, but important ways.

    A perfect example is birthday parties. We didn’t have them until were were 4 or 5 years old, old enough to actually understand what was going on. Friends were invited to the honoree’s house, 5 or 7, or 10 when we were older. Each kid brought 1 gift. One simple gift. A playground ball, baseball, jumprope, bag of marbles, Wooly Willy or the like. Parents gave us the bigger gifts like a new board game, books, a basketball or items we’d been hoping for for months. The boring but necessary gifts too: outer- and underwear, pajamas. Homemade cake (my brother’s and mine were always out of the Betty Crocker Cookbook, nothing fancy, no grand decorating) was served with ice cream on everyday dishes with real flatware, but paper napkins were used. Party hats were a festive addition. The actual parties varied from family to family. Some moms weren’t bakers, or didn’t have the time or inclination to do domestic things, so they always served store-bought cake, and always used paper goods. Contrary to what some believe, we weren’t a Stepford society. Not a big deal, and relatively simple all the same. After eating, we ran around and played with the new toys for a while, then left, with the celebrant’s sincere thanks. Start to finish, the party lasted an hour or so, and we had great fun.

    I have a passel of nieces and nephews, all of whom have children of their own, and I even have one great-grandniece, so I’ve been to loads of kid birthday parties, as I imagine many of you also have. I am routinely appalled at the overdone, expensive, wasteful spectacles that are today’s birthday parties. They begin with the first year, and guests bring multiple gifts (no one needs, or can possibly use, that many clothes or toys). They’re themed, or branded, which involves the use of massive amounts of paper and plastic goods advertising a cartoon character on everything from the cups to the cake to the tablecloth to the pinata. Parties are held at venues: pizza parlors cum video arcades, bowling alleys, indoor play spaces, paintball ranges. They last for hours, cost exorbitant amounts of money, and leave participants depleted physically, emotionally and nutritionally (such fun to drive kids home from one of those parties).

    Then there’re the goodie bags. When did it become common practice to send guests home with gifts, and such useless, junky ones at that? My guess is that it began as a way to avoid telling children, “No, sweetie, this isn’t your birthday. You don’t get any gifts. They’re for the birthday girl.” I’ve noticed an absolute abhorrence on the part of many parents to tell their children “no,” as though it’ll destroy their confidence for life or something. Quite the opposite, I think it gives children the damagingly unrealistic idea that there’re no such thing as boundaries (children need and *want* boundaries), and they’re left to navigate life without the guidance of the very people whose job it is to provide said guidance. Yeah, goodie bags as a symbol of physical and emotional clutter.

    I’m not sure how the people throwing this type of party see themselves, but in thinking about it, I see a direct link between Erin’s excellent topic and what I’ll call the cluttering of modern kid birthday parties. And nowhere is there anything having to do with level of income. It is, as is said in recovery circles, an inside job.

  20. posted by vickie on

    @Jen re: drug development costs – you’re absolutely right. This is also why there is a patent on new drugs for a few years before others are able to manufacture generic. This allows the drug companies to recoup their development costs and make profits.

    If you’ve taken any ‘name brand’ drugs at a premium price because there is no generic available, you’ve paid for drug development.

  21. posted by Alix on

    @ PracticeMakesProgress: What you said! I remember going to an “event” birthday party only once as a kid and I felt like I was partying with the Rockefellers. Only once or twice did I ever attend a party at which favors were given out. Nowadays parents fret more about appropriate “gifts” for the guests than for the birthday boy/girl (I’ve seen family do this!). My feeling’s always been, you’re getting free cake, ice cream, and a couple of hours of fun with your friends. What more do you want?

  22. posted by organizingwithe on

    Saying this is a touchy topic would be an understatement.

    Yes, clutter is caused by excess of anything, whether fueled by money or not. Choosing to live your life in a simple way automatically reduces clutter. You usually find happiness as a result.

    But the definition of simple resides with the individual. One man’s 10 million may equal another families 20k as the path to happiness.

    Who can be the judge?

  23. posted by Kelly on

    “Knowing what you need clears a path for an uncluttered life.” Great. Super. Laudable. Instructive. Is this best expressed by a millionaire whose latest endeavor is based in Belize? I’m impressed Erin can afford health insurance for her family on an income of 25,000. That’s an amazing amount of clarity. I’m mortified that a woman in Somalia doesn’t have clean water to drink. She’s probably really clear about what she needs and really uncluttered.

  24. posted by adlkjf on

    Call me callous, but 10 million is not uncluttered.
    And, uncluttering isn’t about money, anyway… it’s about simplifying your belongings and time. You could have $100 million in the bank and have a very simple life with minimal possessions.

    What’s a legitimate challenge is the lady above with a family of 5 making $22,000. What if some of the kids are in college? How do they afford rent/mortgage? What about health insurance? With all the bills pilling up and side gigs and part-time retail temping jobs, I highly doubt such a person would have an uncluttered life.

    Bad example. We can’t relate, and this guy isn’t an unclutter. He’s into charity. He lost money. And he has less money to buy opulent toys. But, he’s not an unclutter.

  25. posted by Janet on

    Great post, Erin.

    My thoughts as I read through these comments:

    This is all relative and someone who made $100 million one year will feel the pinch if his income is slashed to $10 million. It’s neither good nor bad – it’s an example.

    PracticeMakesProgress and I must be the same age because I could relate to everything that was said in that post. On the whole, our entire society has chosen to live very cluttered lives. I think that the successive generations of parents following WWII have gotten something very wrong – they seem to believe that sparing their children any deprivation or difficulty is actually doing their children some good.

    It has not done anyone any good. It has created the situation that we are seeing today – massive consumption of junk. Junk foods, junk belongings, junk culture. More, more, more. We even idolize people who have junk for morals.

    And how is all of this paid for? Everyone must work more hours, more jobs, isolating themselves from what is really true and meaningful. Families – especially children – grow and thrive on time and attention. But there’s no one home anymore to give attend to that. You can’t buy time and attention.

    I applaud Jodi and others like her. A good life can be lived on very little money if your priorities and values don’t reflect the current consumer mentality. My own sister made a decision over 25 years ago when she and her husband had their first child that one of them would be home with the kids. They have lived on one salary all that time – the same way we were raised. Imparting their values to their children has always meant more than vacations to Disney World.

    And income level has nothing to do with clutter – the most cluttered houses I have ever seen have belonged to people either hopelessly in debt or making very low salaries. People who buy things to make themselves feel better will use their last dime on more junk.

  26. posted by Erin Doland on

    @Kelly — My company generously provides me with health insurance. I truly appreciate this benefit of employment, as I do not qualify for individual insurance with my skin disorder.

  27. posted by DivaJean on

    I definitely agree with most of the posters here.

    There is something very odious and distrustful about someone “slumming” on $10 million dollars and somehow wanting to impart wisdom from their situation. Especially in this time where so many are doing with far, far less.

    I also agree that overall, expectations about possessions and experiences are ramped up in the US to where we collectively as a society need to take a step back and get more in touch with core values. I personally can tell you that there is a backlash when you really own up to getting more in touch with this. For example, in my family, I am the sole wage earner for the 6 of us (2 adults, 4 kids). My 12 year old can’t seem to understand why she can’t have a full blown web ready phone like “all her friends” have. When I point out that we simply cannot afford that, could you believe PARENTS of the friends came to us about the “situation” and actually wanted to put her on their plan? How ridiculous is that? The adults in my home don’t even carry phones like that! And before anyone cautions me about how times are different now and she “needs one” for safety- believe me- we are FAR more in touch with who she is with and where they go than any of the other parents involved. I would rather walk her to a friend’s house than have her “call me when she gets there” or have a phone in her pocket for emergencies. Just another example of throwing money at something rather than actually participating in being a good parent or citizen- and I think that’s what we ned to get back to.

  28. posted by Visty on

    “There’s no one — NO ONE reading and/or commenting on this site who isn’t a virtual millionaire compared to 90% of people on the planet.” I think this bears repeating. I grew up dirt poor. Still rich compared to most human beings, because I had shelter, almost enough food, more than one thrifted change of clothes, and I was able to attend school. If we’re going to say that this man has nothing to offer us “regular folks” simply because he is rich, then what do we have to offer 98% of the world’s population?

  29. posted by JustGail on

    I haven’t read the article yet, but from observation and personal experience, finances and closets have much in common. Just as our physical stuff expands to fill the closet space (and many times beyond)and financial stuff expands to fill income. Whenever we face a reduction in either, we all have some serious and sometimes painful thinking and cleaning to do. It will be interesting reading the article while keeping comments on both sides in mind.

  30. posted by Alex on

    va to Jodi. I would love to learn more about how you are so frugal. Do you have a blog? I am going to start the Dave ramsey program. While I agree that people of any income can have clutter I think the more money you have,the easier to spend.

  31. posted by Alex on

    Oops, my first word got cut off. It was brava to Jodi. By the way I am tired of people making comments critical of Erin here. I am constantly inspired by her and this column. When I watch tv and dislike a show I switch to another channel. Critics, you should quietly do the same.

  32. posted by Christina Rodriguez | The Diva's Home on

    McAfee is right. I used to have a successful business outside my home. I closed it because my blood pressure was through the roof on a daily basis. I haven’t taken medication since. I have less money now than I did then, but I am happier because my family has everything we NEED. If I WANT something, I have to save for it because we also got rid of all of our credit cards. Life without debt is so much nicer and I find that my wants are simpler. It was scary at first, but I am glad I made the change. And now I can pursue the career I want!

  33. posted by Ninkasi on

    Erin, I have to respectfully disagree with the idea that money has nothing to do with a person’s relationship with clutter. I understood you to mean that people with lots of money can be trapped by clutter like anybody else, or despite the fact they could buy (almost) anything, they may choose to live an uncluttered life. But I think money can sometimes make it possible to help a person unclutter. It could be by having the money to hire a housekeeper for a few months one has time to devote to a project that will make their life better in the long run. I also think money can remove the mental clutter of worrying about how all the bills will get paid and the family will still be fed. Yes, a person can have clutter problems no matter what their financial status, but there are some things money *can* unclutter.

    “There are people in developing nations, people in the slums of Port-au-Prince, who struggle with clutter, too.”

    Have you been to Port-au-Prince? I have. People in Haiti are so busy trying to survive that they hold on to that flattened cardboard box, that six-inch piece of rebar, because they think they may need it someday. Don’t know where, don’t know when, but…maybe someday. They “struggle” with clutter in the sense that they’re surrounded by it but are too busy surviving to be able to do anything about it.

    Going to Haiti is always a humbling experience for me. The first time I came home I dropped my bags, looked around my house, and thought, “My life is so easy. I am so fortunate. I have so much.” Most of the rest of the world doesn’t have the “luxury” of clutter.

    I too don’t have a lot of sympathy for Mr. McAfee; his (very valid) point is eclipsed by the way he unfortuntely comes off as thinking that since he fell so much farther than most of us ever will, his uncluttering experience is somehow more “authentic” or relevant.

    This column had a lot to think about. Thanks for an interesting read.

  34. posted by Someone on

    It’s not just about wants and needs. There’s actually THREE levels, and that’s what a lot of these types of articles seem to miss:

    * Survival
    * Quality of Life
    * Luxuries

    Survival= having enough food to eat.
    Quality of Life = being able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables, and quality healthy food rather than cheap, pre-processed crap.
    Luxury=eating at a restaurant, buying a late, grilling steak.

    Housing, the availability of medical care, education –all of these things and more break down along these THREE levels. Not just the binary “need” and “want”.

    People who are struggling to improve quality of life get lumped in with people who are trying to get better luxuries, because both are “wants” rather than “needs”.

    But there’s a huge difference between “quality of life” wants, and “luxury” wants, and it’s understandable for people struggling with the former to be resentful of being asked to learn lessons from people merely struggling with the latter.

    And even more frustrating for people struggling with needs, when they feel like they’re being told everything would be fine, if they are would just prioritize better (I don’t think that’s what’s being said in this article, but it IS said, A LOT, in other places, so it becomes something of a sore point).

  35. posted by Someone on

    Addendum to my previous post about the three-way breakdown:

    * Survival
    * Quality of Life
    * Luxuries

    Some people are in a position of trying to figure out what’s “survival” and what’s merely “quality of life”, and trying to prioritize that way.

    Some are better off and trying to distinguish between “quality of life” and “luxuries”.

    Some people are even better off, and trying to distinguish between the luxuries that are adding value to their lives, vs the luxuries that are merely adding (physical, conceptual, or temporal) clutter.

    All three groups are prioritizing “wants” vs “needs”. And all three groups may be struggling with what they are giving up. But the three experiences can’t be treated as equivalent.

  36. posted by Someone on

    And if someone is struggling to get by, it makes a difference whether it’s over a luxury issue (misjudged and bought more house than they needed or could afford) vs a quality of life issue (pushing the budget to be in an area with a lower crime rate and a more competent school district they can afford) vs a survival issue (there is no place cheaper. But still struggling.)

    Often these three types of “struggling” are treated as equivalent. But they really aren’t.

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