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Five Ways to Become Clutter-Free

The Tyranny of Clutter

As I write this, I'm on a 10-hour train ride from Cuzco, Peru, to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest navi-gable lake in the world. For the past three weeks, I've been hiking the Peruvian Andes, living out of a 46-liter backpack--and I'll continue to do so for three more weeks.

Whenever I travel like this--carrying only my camera, my laptop and a few changes of clothes--I'm struck by how little I need to really be happy. If I can get by with a handful of possessions on the road, then why do I need so much stuff at home?

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We Americans live in a materialistic culture. It's part of who we are. And there's nothing wrong with owning things that make life easier or make it more enjoyable. But like many people, I've begun to discover that I own too much stuff, and that this materialism carries a high price.

Stuff costs money: It costs money to buy, money to maintain and money to store. It even costs money to sell. Plus, there's a very real mental cost associated with owning too much stuff: You think about it and worry about it; it becomes a burden. (Remember the quote from Fight Club: "The things you own end up owning you.") What can you do to guard against the invasion of stuff? Here are some ways to keep your life clutter-free:

  • Ignore your neighbors. Peer pressure is powerful, and one of the most dangerous paths to clutter (not to mention overspending) is the urge to own what your friends own. Life isn't a competition. Learn to be content with what you have.
     
  • If you don't need it, don't buy it. In his book, Clutter's Last Stand, Don Aslett argues that value comes from using things, not owning them. "No matter how you look at it," he writes, "clutter is a poor investment." Buy only what you need and will use.
     
  • Emphasize quality. In the past, I thought it was frugal to buy the cheapest option. Now I know that's not always the case. Many cheap things break easily or are ineffective. I've learned that in many cases it makes more sense to have one excellent, expensive item than several lousy, cheap ones.
     
  • Borrow and lend. If your neighbor owns a rototiller, why do you need to own one, too? When you borrow and lend among friends and family, each person owns less.
     
  • Focus on experiences, not things. Experiences are more likely to make you happy than material goods. Experiences have another benefit as well: They don't take up space. You get value for your money without any residual clutter.

On the first night of my Peruvian odyssey, I met my roommate, Stephen. He'd flown from Sydney to Lima, Peru, by way of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Somewhere along the way, the airline lost his luggage. "Bugger.

I don't know what I'm going to do," Stephen told me that first night. "Everything I need was in those bags."

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But for the past three weeks, Stephen has managed just fine. "I never thought it was possible to travel without heaps of stuff," he told me, "but I was wrong. In many ways, this has been liberating."

Travel is instructive. It teaches us about who we are and what we value. From this trip, I've learned that stuff is less important than I thought it was. When I fly home from Lima in a few weeks, I'm going to spend some time evaluating the things I own.

J.D. Roth is the founder and editor of the personal finance blog getrichslowly.org and the author of Your Money: The Missing Manual.

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This article was originally published in the January 2012 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: The Tyranny of Clutter.

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