Reflections on living with too much stuff

I spent last Friday in Lancaster County, Pa., visiting the towns and farms of Pennsylvania Dutch country. The austere homes of the Amish made me wonder how those families manage their simple way of life when surrounded by the excesses of 21st century America.

A couple of months ago when I was preparing to move to Hays, a friend told me moving gives the unique opportunity to handle everything you own and decide how important it is to you. During my moving experience -- and reinforced by my recent trip to Amish country -- I came to this conclusion: I have too much stuff.

Maybe you have too much stuff, too. A friend once reflected she spent the first half of her life accumulating stuff and the second half of her life trying to get rid of it.

It wasn't always this way. Stuff used to be rare and valuable. Take the 1900s farm house I grew up in -- the closets were tiny and there were only two cabinets in the kitchen. Today, abundant storage space is a must-have in a modern home.

Many of us save and collect our own stuff. Some of it was given to us as a gift, some was inherited, some purchased for a costly price and some bought as a bargain. What do we do with it all? We keep it, try to organize it, store it out of sight or sometimes the stuff piles up in a room, on a desk or in a closet. Regardless of where it ends up, taking care of our stuff requires our resources of money, time, energy and floor space. Could these resources be better spent in other areas of our lives?

One author says the value of our stuff isn't what we paid for it. It is the value we derive from using it. Take my set of "wedding china" as an example. I certainly wasn't going to use it when my children were small -- why, they might break it. So, a few years ago when I offered to pull it out for our family Christmas dinner, my college-aged son said, "No, I don't want to be responsible for breaking those dishes. Let's use the everyday stuff so we can all relax and enjoy our meal." So, really, how valuable are those good china dishes to my family and I?

In order to break the stressful clutter cycle and reduce our stuff to the valuable things we love to use, it's helpful to look at a few reasons why we accumulate stuff and what to do about it.

* This was a gift or an inheritance. We often feel like we have to keep a gift out of obligation or to be respectful to the person who gave it to us. Instead, concentrate on the kindness and the intent of the gift. Then the focus becomes gratitude toward the giver and the good things about the relationship, and less on the material items. Ask yourself about each piece -- does this bring me happiness or truly serve a purpose in my home? If not, find someone else who really would like to use it, or pass an heirloom on to another family member who wants it and appreciates the family story. Take a picture of the item as a keepsake, then you still can enjoy the memory of your relationship with the giver without owning the piece forever.

* I spent money on this, so I have to keep it to get my money's worth. When you spend money on stuff, often the more expensive the item, the more difficult it is to get rid of. You end up holding on to the item because of the "sunk cost," the past cost that already has been incurred and cannot be recovered. You spent the money on the item and that is done. Now, it is time to focus on the other costs involved in keeping an item you no longer are using well. Instead of just hanging on to it, try to recoup some value by selling the item to someone else who will use it. Or, donate it to a person or organization that will be able to get some usefulness from the item.

* I might need this one day. The challenging problem is we don't really know what we will need in the future. But, you can be pretty certain if you're not using something now, chances are slim you'll use it later. Ask yourself, "Do I really need this? Can I find satisfaction in living without bogging down today with the stuff I might -- or might not -- need tomorrow?" Remind yourself if you do need something in the future, you can figure it out then. You do not need to keep everything on the chance it might become useful some day.

Linda Beech is a Kansas State University Research & Extension agent in Ellis County specializing in family and consumer sciences.