Several years ago, a neighbor friend of mine who knew that my husband and I wanted to get in shape offered us--FREE--a treadmill that had been sitting idle for some time in her basement. We were ecstatic! That treadmill was just what we needed to transform ourselves from couch potatoes to svelte beach bodies by the time bathing suit season rolled around (well okay...give or take 50 pounds). Best of all, the price fit right into our meager (read: nonexistent) budget. We’d have to be crazy to say no to that...right?
While impulse purchases are a real thing, most of us actually do weigh the cost vs. benefit before we acquire something new. Thus, something free + something we want = YES! So why are our closets and garages so crammed full of stuff we never use? Clearly, we are miscalculating something. Perhaps we're leaving something out of the equation. I propose the correct formula should be:
Financial cost + Space cost + Convenience cost + Opportunity cost = True Cost
Most of us don’t see past the money and never even think about the last three components of this equation, probably because they are difficult to quantify. But omitting them from the equation altogether is how we wind up feeling disorganized, frustrated and suffocated by all our stuff. Let’s take a closer look:
This is usually the primary and often the only cost we consider when deciding whether or not to acquire something new. If you want proof, look no further than the ridiculously long checkout lines at your local Dollar Tree. How many times have you bought something just because it was “such a great deal”? And note that I keep using the word "acquire". That's because considering the cost of something applies even to--especially to--items for which we paid no money at all. Interestingly, the more money we pay for something, the less willing we are to part with it once we realize it was a poor purchase. And the longer we keep it in some vain attempt to “get our money’s worth” out of it, the more it ends up costing us...in space, in convenience, and in opportunity. As my husband and I would eventually discover, that $0 treadmill was most certainly not free, after all.
Ah space…the final frontier! Most people completely underestimate the value of empty space. We see it as something to be consumed instead of recognizing the important role it plays in keeping us organized and sane. Every single item you own--from vegetable peeler to king-sized bed--costs you valuable space. Like money (and cake), you cannot keep (have) it and spend (eat) it too. Overspending your space--or cramming as many objects into your empty spaces as you can--leads to clutter, visual noise, stress, and sometimes even guilt. The more spacious your environment, the easier it is to maintain and control. Purging items you no longer need/use makes it infinitely easier to see, access and keep organized the things you do. That “free” treadmill ended up costing us significant space in our small basement.
Life gets really inconvenient when you lack space. If you’ve ever watched one of those hoarder shows, you’ll be struck by how much more effort it takes them just to accomplish everyday tasks like cooking a meal or taking a shower. When your access to the items you need is restricted, it takes more time, energy and effort just to get them out and use them...much less to put them away again when you're done. Pretty soon, you stop bothering to put things away at all. This leads to clutter, chaos, frustration and a sense of defeat as you either lose items or they continually get in your way.
Also, the more stuff you accumulate, the less visible everything becomes. If you can’t see what you have, you’ll either buy it again or you won’t use it at all. So why are you keeping it? And owning too many belongings makes you less nimble...the sheer inconvenience of moving all that excess stuff out of the way in order to make home improvements or repairs can lead to procrastination, sometimes causing or worsening damage and costing even more money in the long run. Before you know it, you’ve increased the financial cost of ownership well beyond your initial investment.
Remember our treadmill? Well, we had to sacrifice some of the space we had been using for sorting and folding laundry just to make room for it. This made doing the laundry an even bigger chore than usual. Laundry baskets often ended up stacked up on the treadmill because there was no place else to put them. Talk about a motivation killer! If you think I’m going to do laundry first just so that I can exercise, think again! In my book, Exercise + Laundry = Forget it! The convenience cost of that treadmill in doing laundry was huge, not to mention that actually being able to use the treadmill itself was so inconvenient, it ended up just sitting there collecting dust for months. So why keep it? Good question!
What are you missing out on because you’ve acquired too much stuff? If you had just said NO to some of those “great deals” would you have had the money to go on a weekend getaway with your sweetie? If you could've just made do with fewer kitchen gadgets, might you have more space to share your love of cooking with your grandchildren? If you cleared all the “some day maybe” stuff you paid good money for out of the guest room closet, would you be more likely to entertain overnight guests?
It was summer when we said yes to that treadmill, so we forgot that the only spot we had available to put it in is where we normally put our Christmas tree...right across from the fireplace, next to the big recliner where my husband reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas to the kids every Christmas Eve before bed. There was no room for our tree in the basement that year. No enjoying the beautiful lights by the warm glow of the fire. That treadmill ended up costing us a valued family tradition that Christmas, and it was truly a bummer.
The good news is that you can mitigate the costs of the things you own if you just ask yourself a few simple questions before you acquire anything new:
We’ve all made mistakes in saying yes when we should have said no, but that doesn't mean you have to keep paying the price for your error. That treadmill? We gave it back to our neighbor and joined the gym instead. You see, we concluded that the financial cost of a gym membership was worth what we would save in space, convenience and opportunity. Don’t let what you paid (or didn’t pay) for something interfere with righting what's wrong.
With a little honest contemplation about the true costs of ownership, even saying no to a blowout sale can be easy peasy!
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Space truly is the final frontier! Everyone seems to be on an endless quest for it...for space in their homes...on their desks...in their busy lives! Yet it eludes most of us. Just as soon as we find some....poof! It’s gone and the search begins anew. But what if instead of spending all of our space, we kept some of it….empty?!! Today, I’m making a case for space!
First, how is empty space even useful?
Preserving your empty space boils down to choosing space over stuff. You may be asking...if empty space is so valuable, then why do people tend to choose stuff over space? Good question! Clients usually call me when their lack of space begins causing a problem in their lives. They are aware that they need more space, yet still seem compelled to fill it back up again when given the opportunity. Why? Here are some of the most common reasons, along with my counterpoint for each one: Do any of these sound familiar?
Fear of being without something you may need (clothes, paper towels, shoes, serving dishes).
Counterpoint: If you run out of something, you can go shopping, do laundry, borrow from a neighbor, order online. If none of these are possible, you will likely find a way to make do in an emergency. Such emergencies will be very rare and far outweighed by the everyday benefits of having more space. Think up a back-up plan in advance if that makes you feel less afraid to part with something. (Personal aside: At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis when toilet paper was difficult to find, I came up with multiple contingency plans for if/when we ran out. I never had to use any of them, but now that I have them, I don’t feel a need to use up my valuable space hoarding toilet paper.)
Avoiding a deep-seated (and usually misplaced) perception of poverty and/or a misperception of “wealth”.
Counterpoint: Having more stuff doesn’t make you rich. It actually costs you more in the long run. Would you rather be “rich” in stuff that gets in your way, or rich in time and energy that can be spent on having new and meaningful experiences, learning more about the world, and forging/maintaining important relationships? Which will matter more at the end of your life? Remember, that old adage “You can’t take it with you” refers to your material wealth, aka your "stuff".
Unwillingness to make choices (aka decision deferral).
Counterpoint: Making decisions gets easier and quicker with practice and takes less time when you do it on a daily basis. Developing a habit of making decisions in the moment takes effort but will pay huge dividends in the long run.
Need to fill up the other aspects of life that feel empty (relationships, self-esteem, productivity, sense of control).
Counterpoint: Space gives us freedom. We need space to live in, move in, fill up with the people and activities that bring us joy. When we do that, we will not feel emptiness; we will feel fulfilled.
So how do we create and maintain empty space?
Simple: Choose space over stuff. Now that you understand the value of empty space and why you may have chosen stuff instead in the past, it will be easier to make more intentional decisions in the future. There are three key components to this:
With a little conscious decision-making and a few good habits, even holding onto empty space can be easy peasy!
Let's face it...relationships can be hard work, especially when it comes to sharing living quarters. Whether it's with your spouse, roommate, parent, child, sibling, friend or co-worker, occupying the same space day-to-day adds a whole new dimension--and often tension--to even the healthiest relationships. As a professional organizer, I've helped quite a few couples, families and work teams negotiate a peaceful resolution to their turf wars with just a few simple strategies. With good communication, a little compromise, and the right attitude, you too can arrange a ceasefire on some of these common war cries:
He/She never puts anything away!
He/She has too much "junk" and won't get rid of any of it!
He/She wants everything out and easily accessible, but I like the visual peace of having it out of sight (or vice versa).
Sometimes just understanding why you or your co-inhabitants exhibit certain habits or behaviors helps to defuse a potentially explosive situation. Don't let your frustration reach the boiling point. Think it through, talk it out, and be willing to compromise. With a little bit of effort, even sharing space peacefully can be easy peasy!
Valerie Sheridan is a professional organizer, wife, mother of two, and Founder/Owner of EasyPeasy Living.