Guilt and Gifts



Valentines Day

Mothers Day

Fathers Day

Grandparents Day


Bar/Bat Mitzvas

Wedding Showers

Baby Showers

Apartment/House Warmings

Going Away





New Job


It can sometimes seem that we spend half our time shopping for, receiving, and, sadly, returning gifts. As the year turns, gift exchanges produce some of the worst stress a person will feel, up there with surgery and first dates. We fret about finding the right item; we worry about spending too much or too little; we fight through crowds, regardless of the time of year. And then, once the gifts have been exchanged with each other, we fight our way back into the shops and malls to exchange it for something that is the right size, or color, or design.

And we do this year, after year, after year, after year . . .

Remember that saying about insanity, and doing the same thing over and over, but expecting different results? Yeah, that.

I realize how heavily our economy depends on consumer spending. But we cannot use that as an excuse to allow items and possessions to take control over our actions.

And then there is the other side of the equation: the clutter of gifts. We are trained from birth to graciously say “thank you” and take whatever it is back home and find a place for it, because someone took the time and effort to find and buy it for us. Maybe it goes into storage, only emerging when whoever gave it comes for a visit. Maybe it just takes up space.

This is a tricky situation. You don’t want to refuse something, because that will hurt the giver’s feelings, and it would be rude of you to do. But you also have to recognize the possibility of being buried beneath a mountain of cat-themed cardigans.

So, what are your choices? Well, it really comes down to two areas:

1: Specific Requests. When people get married or have a baby, they register for gifts. These are items that they genuinely want or need. So, if someone asks you what you want for a present, give a specific answer.

2: Charity Requests. If you honestly can’t think of anything you want/need/can use, the best thing to do is ask the giver to make a donation in your name to your favorite charity. $20 can get you a novelty t-shirt you wouldn’t wear on your worst day. Or, it can feed a 3rd World family for a month. Take your pick.

This is a delicate topic. People like to give gifts as signs of affection. But, if you are dedicated to the idea of clearing your clutter, be firm. This is your life, and if you want to live it cat-cardigan free, that is your choice.

Next: Finding Space

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Posted by on June 14, 2011 in Uncategorized


Sentimentality of Objects

When my Great Aunt, who was an antiques dealer for more years than I was alive, died, we did what we could to help go through her house and discover just what was in the mountain of boxes and crates, what was hidden in desk drawers and dusty cabinets, and what had survived the mice in her old shop. It was overwhelming. In the end, we stopped really looking through things and trying to attach some sort of sentimental value to it all and decided, outside of useful objects we actually needed (I don’t really own much by the way of furniture), we would each choose one object that brought back good memories.

I chose an inch tall, bright pink, plastic mouse that does backflips when wound up. In the grand scheme of things, it is probably worth about $0.25, and I promise she didn’t pay that much for it. But, when I was a child and we would visit, I would get that mouse down from the cabinet and play with it for hours on end. They had never had kids, thus didn’t have toys to play with, other than this mouse and a little train that played music from little plastic disks. I’m not sure where that went. Perhaps my sister took it. I hope so.

Anyway, that little mouse represented my Great Aunt to me. She loved mice, and loved when we visited, something we didn’t do often enough. I couldn’t bear the thought of that piece of her going on some auction, so it came home with me, where it sits next to my Tibetan singing bowl and my miniature Stonehenge.

The point is, I could have brought home crate after crate of “sentimental” objects. But they wouldn’t mean as much as that mouse, and would have taken huge amounts of room. After awhile, I would probably forget what they were supposed to mean to me and forget them in the bottom of a plastic storage box.

We grow attached to objects, and assign all sorts of meaning to them. But, it can all become too much after a while. I am currently taking care of a house that is packed to the brim with sentimental objects. If I remember correctly, the owners have both of their parents’ sets of wedding china, along with their own, none of which is used. But, and understandably so, they are reluctant to dispose of any of those things, because of what they meant.

I am not sure why this phenomena occurs. Do we feel that disposing of something valued by a loved one would be a slap in their face when they’re gone? Do we want to caretake, in the off-chance that a future generation might want the objects? If this trend continues, our houses will become unlivable museums of past generations, where no one remembers why they are saving things.

Fighting this trend can be very personally difficult. We don’t want to dispose of our memories, particularly when a death is involved. But, there is a way to fight this, which is easier with modern technology. What you will need is a digital camera and a computer (or notebook if you feel like going old-school). The purpose is to preserve the memories. So, do that. Take pictures of the objects, then write out the memories they invoke. Create a memory document of the photos and stories. Print it out, or save it to a jump-drive (or both). If you feel fancy, bind the document into a book and put it on your bookshelf. Then choose the one or two objects that you have the greatest attachment to and keep them.

I cannot say that this is an easy process. But, in a few years, when you aren’t buried under a pile of other people’s things, you will be thankful.

Next: Guilt and Gifts

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Posted by on June 7, 2011 in Uncategorized


Space Exchange

Question: How do you know when it is time to go grocery shopping?

Answer: When you’ve run out of things to eat.

Space exchange is a very simple concept, and most people use it on a daily basis in some parts of their lives without even thinking about it. Nobody goes grocery shopping when their refrigerator is packed to the brim, their pantry is stacked to the ceiling, and their cupboards are bursting at the seams. With food, we know when we have enough on-hand, and don’t add more until at least some of the old is used up. It is simple common sense.

Why is this so difficult with the rest of our lives? One of the most common requirements people have when house/apartment shopping is closet space. We seem unable to have enough closet space. But, when people look at what is actually in those closets, a large number of those items are things that unused or unusable. Clothes that are too big or too small or that will never be worn again under any circumstances; shoes worn for one occasion, then tossed to the back; boxes of half-finished projects, stalled at a lack of interest, talent, or time; boxes that haven’t been opened in a decade. And that’s just the worst of it!

People are not going to stop shopping. That is a given. But, maybe, people can start shopping smarter if they set themselves a discipline of space exchange. Here’s how it works:

1: Determine the magnitude of your closet overflow. How much remaining space do you actually have, and how much do you need? This will help you set up your personal golden ratio.

2: When you have figured out how bad the problem is, decide what your exchange rate is going to be. Someone with plenty of space can handle a 1:1 exchange, or even a 2 in/1 out exchange rate. Those with major space problems, I strongly recommend a 1 in/2 out or even a 1:3 exchange rate. If you can stick to your discipline, you are still able to shop, but you have to remove things before you can add anything.

3: STICK WITH IT! Do whatever you have to do to stay on task: Take photos of your worst closet, leave notes in your wallet, whatever it takes to remind you that anything brought home is going to kick out something that is already there.

This will do two things. First, ideally, people will become more conscious of their shopping habits. They will think longer before they fill their shopping cart. They might even start choosing quality over quantity. And, second, it will create space.

I can foresee a danger to this, if someone only goes halfway. For this to fully work, every item removed must be taken OUT of the home, permanently. No storing it in the basement. No packing it up and shoving it to the side. It has to be out of the house ASAP! Make a trip to Goodwill the start of any shopping trip.

I’ve spoken mostly of clothes, but this can be applied to ALL things. You want to bring home those West African wooden tribal masks from the flea market? Decide what is coming off the walls before you shell out. Found a new set of Fiestaware that you can’t live without? Time to get rid of the lime-green chipped plates Aunt Jenny gave you for your first apartment.

We seem to have a fear of getting rid of things. We’ve spent money on them. We own them. But if they aren’t being used, or enjoyed, or doing anything but collecting dust in the back of your closet, are they really valuable?

Next: Sentimentality of Objects

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Posted by on June 5, 2011 in Uncategorized


Coupon Culture

The Coupon: That lovely little slip of paper, carefully trimmed out of the weekend newspaper and preserved with an eye on the expiration date, covered in promises of grand savings on all sorts of useful household items. I can remember my mother clipping them and putting them in a special plastic recipe box that was kept on top of the refrigerator. The only store where we could use those coupons was an hour’s drive away, and we had to make a special trip to get there, which would inevitably include lunch at a fast food restaurant and a stop to the shopping mall where my teenaged older sister would look at designer jeans and I would bounce between the bookstore and standing outside the video arcade, too intimidated by the local kids to dare enter. I’m not sure I can even do the math, particularly as those trips occurred during the 1980s and I have no idea what money was worth from then to now, but I doubt those little slips of paper even covered the cost of our burgers.

Coupons are great in theory, and afternoon TV is full of people who manage to save enough money in a single shopping trip to send an entire mountain village in Tibet to Disneyland, as long as they have a half-price ticket coupon.

But, in reality, coupons are one of the major culprits in needless accumulation. Two for one sounds great if you were originally going to purchase two of whatever item. But, if you were only going to purchase one, all you have done is given yourself less space and more junk. Lets take a look at how this works:

Billy finds a coupon offer of 2 for 1 on store brand pasta sauce. This sounds good to Billy, as he is hungry for pasta, and just so happens to have some unused noodles in his cupboard. Off to the store goes Billy. He picks up the pasta sauce, but remembers that he only has enough pasta for one meal. Since he’s right there, Billy picks up a second box of pasta. All together, Billy spends about $6. When he gets home, Billy looks over his receipt:

1 Box Pasta      $2.99

1 Jar Sauce       $2.49

1 Jar Sauce       $0.00

Tax                   $0.33

Total                 $5.81

The only thing Billy wanted was a jar of sauce. If all he had bought was the one jar, his total would have been $2.64. He spent an additional $3.17 in order to make the coupon worthwhile. Now he has an extra jar of sauce and a box of pasta that he will have to store until he is in the mood again for them. 

Poor Billy. He now has items he doesn’t really want, but he has to store somewhere. Maybe he will use them. Maybe he will forget them.

The non-food items are even more insidious with their coupons and special offers. There is a certain discount shoe store chain that likes to make the offer of “buy one, get one half off” for their shoes. This is a great deal if you are intending to buy more than one pair of shoes at a time, such as that dreaded activity of school shopping for multiple kids. But, if you are just shopping for yourself, that second pair of shoes is nothing more than a space-taker.

I could go on. Instead, here is a handy checklist to use before you wield your scissor through the Sunday inserts.

1: Is this an item I would buy without a coupon? Yes, continue to #2; No, stop.

2: Is the specific store my usual shopping place? Yes, continue to #3; No, stop.

3: Is this an item I will use in a reasonable time? Yes, head to the store; No, go read a book.

This is not to say that all coupons are evil. A 2 for 1 offer on diapers may well bring a tear to the eye of a new parent, and a special price on pork-and-beans may make your next family gathering that much more entertaining. But, beware the price of saving money!


Next: Space Exchanges

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Posted by on June 3, 2011 in Uncategorized


Start the Process

There are certain things we need, certain objects that we require for our lives. I see no point in going over Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s fairly well known. And I will be the first to admit, as I type this on my MacBook Air, with my Iphone4 in my pocket, that in the here and now, we have created a life that is made easier by certain objects. I’m also not going to preach about Minimalism, as that is a personal philosophy, and there is not a philosophy in the world that can be applied to all, let alone most, people.

Instead, this blog is about the things we have that we don’t need. What sort of things are we holding on to that we quite simply don’t need? Those knickknacks on the shelf from a vacation you barely remember; that combination food dehydrator, hair curler, home liposuction kit; the pile of out-of-date and never again used game systems; the shoes you never took out of the box; the collection of bridesmaids dresses that steal closet space with their rampant poofy-sleevedness; old computer bags you update with each new computer; the pile of freebees from banks/car dealers/gas stations/radio stations/grocery stores/etc; anything you’ve put in a storage box for more than a year. The list goes on.

Why do we keep these things? Is it because of the money we spent? The time invested? Because they were free? What excuse do you use to justify your crap? Take a look through your house and ask yourself: Do I really need this?

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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Uncategorized