The Wastefulness of Decluttering; or How to Make Less Count for More

‘It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.’ ~Bertrand Russell

Post written by Leo Babauta.

I know there are many of you who want to declutter, or who have already gotten started … but you hit a roadblock.

And it’s a big one: you don’t want to be wasteful. Your gut tells you that getting rid of perfectly good things — things that cost a pretty penny to get in the first place — is wasteful as hell.

I recently received this letter from Marissa, a brilliant reader:

“I am currently going through my possessions for the umpteenth time to have/own less. My issue I am having now, is that when I donate/throw away items I don’t “need” I feel like I am wasting money. At one point in time I used my hard earned money to buy this item and now I just want to get rid of it. Though this does help in my future shopping habits so I don’t buy anything on a whim or just because I want to have it, I feel like I am throwing away money into the trash/donation bins.”

This is such a common question that I thought I’d address it here — if you’re holding onto stuff because you feel it would be a waste of good money if you got rid of it, here is the answer you are looking for:

I hereby release you of your burden.

You are free. You bought these items with hard-earned money, and you don’t want that money to go to waste, so you’ve been holding onto them. It’s a burden that keeps you from freeing yourself of these unneeded possessions — it forces to you keep the space they occupy, to maintain these possessions, to constantly see them every day even if you don’t want them, to walk around them or trip over them or live in a cramped, cluttered space. This is a burden, paying penance for your initial wasted expenditure of cash.

But: the waste was when you bought it, not when you get rid of it. You bought something you didn’t really need — and the real waste would be to ignore this and not learn from it.

So here’s how to make sure that by decluttering possessions you don’t need, it’s not a waste:

1. Learn your lesson. This might sound condescending, but it’s not meant to be — if we don’t realize our mistakes, we can’t learn and avoid them in the future. So realize: you shouldn’t have bought the items in the first place. Avoid doing this in the future, by buying as little as you possibly can. Stop being a consumer, and start living.

2. Realize that keeping the items is wasteful. If you keep stuff you don’t need, it costs you money — you pay for the space to store it (lots of possessions means bigger homes or storage containers), you pay to maintain it, it costs you time (and therefore money) to keep it and go around it, you have to fix things when they break, you have to sort through things to find things, you spend time moving things around, and so on. Getting rid of this unnecessary stuff frees you of this waste.

3. Find someone who will use it. It’s a waste to keep something when you’re not using it (a good reason car-sharing is a much better use of cars than private ownership, btw). So find a friend or family member who needs it, or give it to Goodwill or some other such charity, or donate it to a library that will let many others use it. Consider starting a neighborhood tool library, or a book-sharing spot in your community. When someone else uses your items, it’s not a waste.

4. Test the waters. If you’re unsure of whether you’ll need something later, put it to a test: have you used it in the last six months? If not, you probably don’t need it (unless it’s seasonal — then ask if you needed it in the last year). If you’re still unsure, box it up with today’s date, and check on it in six months — if you never needed to open the box, you didn’t need it.

5. Don’t let your possessions own you. If you hold on to possessions because you feel it would be wasteful to get rid of them, they are controlling you. They are dictating your life, rather than you creating the life you want, living how you want to live. Let go of possessions and be free — living otherwise would be the true waste.

6. Make better use of your time and space. Once you’re freed of this clutter, don’t waste your freed time on acquiring more stuff. Spend your time on incredible experiences, not on possessions. In the end, get a smaller house, now that you need to store less stuff, and help save the earth while you’re at it (a smaller home, along with ditching your car and becoming vegan, is one of the most important things you can do to reduce your carbon emissions).

‘Don’t water your weeds.’ ~Harvey MacKay