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When Too Much Stuff Gets in the Way of All the Good Stuff

“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” ~Socrates

When Hans and I relocated from Chicago to Ann Arbor, we wanted to live in a house with a big yard so we could plant flowers and get a dog.

There were two backstories feeding these wants. I grew up on a farm and we always had a dog or two. And having lived in Chicago three-flats for a decade, I was ready for some green grass.

There were other things on our wish list, including enough space (to live in and for our stuff) and a garage (for the car and more stuff). And I think granite countertops might have been mentioned.

After looking at a dozen houses, we found our home. By today’s standards, it was actually on the small side at 1,400 square feet (compared to the average size home of 2,500 square feet).

There was a living room, family room, dining room, and kitchen. There were four bedrooms and two and a half baths. We don’t have kids, so that’s two bedrooms and a bathroom each—with half a bath left over!

We earmarked a room for my home office, a workout room for the elliptical, a room at the far end of the house for Hans to loudly watch hockey…

It seemed there was a separate room designated for every possible activity. And with so many rooms to choose from, it’s a wonder we ever ended up in the same room at the same time.

Filling the Space

Conventional wisdom says when you have space, you fill it up. And we did.

We brought furniture from Chicago and we bought furniture in Ann Arbor. We went to home stores and container stores and hardware stores. We acquired things to fill the space.

Whether we needed all that stuff wasn’t really discussed. We had the space and it needed to be filled (or so I thought back then).

But a funny thing happened as we settled into our new home after years of apartment dwelling. We realized a couple things that would have been nice to have figured out beforehand.

First, we hated yard work. Mowing the lawn felt like a huge waste of a weekend afternoon. My would-be green thumb forgot how much I dislike getting sweaty and dirty and toiling in the soil.

And the dog? Yes, we really wanted a dog to love and pet and love some more. It would’ve been easy to just focus on the wonderfulness of having a chocolate lab…

But as we started to notice the disconnect between the dream of a big yard and the reality, we realized the doggie dream was much the same.

What Freedom Feels Like

We started to embrace this about ourselves: The less commitment and obligation in our lives, the freer—and better—we feel.

Initially, this was really uncomfortable for me to admit. I worried not wanting responsibility and obligations made me less of an adult.

But as soon as I have that thought, the record skips and I say WHHHAAAT?!

Because I’ve realized being a mature adult is knowing who you are, what makes you comfortable in your own skin and at peace in your own mind—and then designing your life around what’s true for you.

In our more-is-better consumer culture, it’s easy to buy into all the messages about what we’re supposed to want and supposed to have. But what if you get those things and … meh … they just don’t resonate. Then what?

Because that’s what happened to Hans and me.

Everything looked great from the outside, but just didn’t feel quite right. It took us awhile to figure out the disconnect between what we thought we wanted and what we really wanted.

So, after the first year in our home, no flowers were planted. We paid someone to take care of the lawn. And I made sure to pet other people’s dogs whenever I got the chance.

But… we couldn’t unknow what we now knew: We’re not house people. Or the landscaping-on-the-weekends type. And while we’re totally dog people, we’re dog lovers—not dog owners.

So Now What?

Hans and I started to have the conversation:

  • If we’re not house people, who are we?
  • If we’re starting to have a different relationship to space and stuff, what does that mean?
  • If we quiet the voices about how we’re supposed to live and what we’re supposed to want, what do we hear that’s really true for us?

We began to realize we wanted less. Less space and less stuff. Less housework and less upkeep. Less overhead and less oversight.

If you’re on your own, making a life-altering change can be a solo decision. But when you’re partnered up, it would be a tough compromise if one of you wants the McMansion and the other wants to go live in a Tiny House.

Luckily, Hans and I were on the same page: We had a short list of new wants.

We wanted to downsize.

For us, this meant we wanted to significantly reduce our square footage. We made a conscious choice to define “enough” for ourselves.

We rejected “more is better” as a default and really thought about how much space we need to be comfortable and how many rooms we want to clean.

All in all, we went from a house of 1,400 square feet to a hotel room of 300 (for six months while our apartment was under construction) to our current abode of 733 square feet. We have a kitchen, living room, bedroom, and bathroom.

And I can honestly say we’ve never been happier or felt closer. In fact, Hans and I joke that we could easily go lower, perhaps to 500 square feet. But, for now, our 733 square feet is home sweet home.

We wanted to rent, not own.

Home ownership has historically been something you’re supposed to want, save, and strive for. For me, renting an apartment equals freedom. Freedom from maintenance, but also the freedom to decide next month I want to move to Denver or Sweden.

Home ownership, on the other hand, feels locked in, less fluid.

I’m frequently asked: Don’t you feel like you’re just wasting money renting? Don’t you think you’ll regret not building up equity?

My answer: No and no. We’re paying rent to buy a lifestyle that works for us. And while we’re not building up equity, day-to-day peace of mind is priceless.

Of course, I’m not advocating apartment renting over home ownership for everyone. I’m only speaking to what I’ve come to realize is true for me—even as it goes against the societal norm.

We wanted less stuff. 

When you halve your square footage it follows you’ll need to do the same with your belongings. In our case, we also gave up a garage (aka: three walls lined with large blue storage bins), which meant dramatically reducing our possessions.

In a smaller living space, every possession needs to earn its keep. Less square footage necessarily raises the bar for what comes into your home.

I found these questions useful for deciding what to keep versus what to get rid of:

  • Do I love it? Is it beautiful? Does it enhance my well-being?
  • Is it functional? Do I use it?
  • Does it reflect who I am today and where I’m headed—rather than keep me rooted in the past?
  • Do I only have this out of guilt or obligation?
  • Am I okay with the price I pay for owning it—the overhead to maintain, the time to clean, the cost to insure, etc.?

I also noticed this about downsizing: Stuff is not just stuff.

We have all kinds of complicated relationships with the things we own. In fact, at times it can feel like our stuff owns us rather than the other way around.

When we decided to downsize, I realized I had to stop coping with life’s boo-boos, disappointments, and frustrations by acquiring more stuff. It’s easy to stuff feelings with stuff. They don’t call it “retail therapy” for nothing.

I also had to untangle my relationship to my belongings. For instance, if I get rid of something my grandmother gave me, does that mean I didn’t love her? Of course not, but it can be challenging to look at items objectively and separate the person from the thing.

We wanted to live in a walkable downtown.

When we decided to downsize we were lucky to already be living in a city with great walkability. In fact, Ann Arbor is often rated as one of the most walkable communities in the country.

We wanted to be able to stroll to a nearby restaurant for dinner on Friday night and walk to the farmer’s market on Saturday morning. We wanted to be able to walk to the post office, library, cafes, and movie theaters.

We all value different things, so walkability won’t be at the top of everyone’s list.

The key is taking time to really consider what’s most important and be intentional about the kind of life you create around that.

We wanted to be car-free.  

In some ways living without a car has been even more interesting than downsizing. I’ve had a driver’s license and a car since I was sixteen years old. While Hans lived for a time in New York and L.A. without a car, he’d become accustomed to the convenience of 24/7 access to his own set of wheels.

So why did we want to be car free? We could just have easily changed our living situation and kept our car.

It was simply the answer to this question “How much overhead do we want to support?” Because even when you own your car (as we did), there’s the ongoing overhead of gas, insurance, registration, maintenance, repairs, parking, etc.

It comes back to knowing ourselves and embracing who we really are. I’ll say it again: Hans and I are not big on too much responsibility and obligation. Owning a car feels like both.

If public transportation or walking are not options, we get a Zip car for an hour or two or book a rental car for longer weekend trips.

We make living without a car an adventure rather than a sacrifice. There’s something fun about figuring out how to get from Point A to Point B when you can’t just step outside and hop in your car.

And I never say, We don’t have a car—as if it’s about scarcity. I always say, We are car-free to emphasize it’s a choice, an intentional act.

The capacity to enjoy less 

Our journey of downsizing and living with less stuff has been one of redefining “enough.” Of figuring out the disconnect between what we thought we wanted and what we really wanted.

We have far fewer possessions and so much more time and freedom. With less square footage, we have less housework, less upkeep—and less stress.

Can you say less really is more?

Here are ten journaling prompts to help you explore your relationship to your stuff and your space.

1. What do you believe about how much living space you need? Where do those beliefs come from? Have they changed over the years?

2. Look around your home. Is everything useful or beautiful?

3. What truth about yourself are you on the verge of embracing? What will be different or possible when you embace this truth?

4. Do you think we live in a more-is-better consumer culture? How does this play out—or not—in your life? In what ways is less more?

5. Is there anything about your life that looks great on the outside, but doesn’t feel so great on the inside? What can you do to close this gap?

6. What is your definition of “enough”?

7. “Stuff is not just stuff. In fact, at times it can feel like our stuff owns us rather than the other way around.” Agree or disagree? Be specific by stating why.

8. Have you ever tried to shop away boredom, worry, or pain? What’s your experience with “retail therapy”?

9. What five factors are most important when it comes to your lifestyle wish list?

10. We don’t have a car versus We are car-free. How can you use this type of distinction in your own life to emphasize choice and intention?

About Jennifer Bailey

Jennifer Bailey believes less really is more. The answer isn’t buying more storage containers to organize your things. It’s not getting better at time management so you can get more done. Instead, Jennifer is an advocate for getting rid of stuff and taking things off your plate. Read more about creating the life you crave at Jennifer365.com.

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  • katie weinberg

    I LOVE this. I, too, have come to the realization that I don’t want what society makes us believe we’re supposed to want – a big house with a lot of stuff. I have downsized a lot, but I still question myself as to whether what I want (a small space with minimal things) is “right”. I have to keep reminding myself that it’s right for me, and that’s all that matters!

  • suznengrace

    best thing I did was reduce and simplify…

  • Jane Bird

    love this article. 🙂 In the last 2 years i have gone from a 4 bed house in the country to a 2 bed unit in the city. I now own a 3 bed unit in the suburbs but it still feels too busy for me. 6 months after moving i am still trying to get rid of stuff. It has been hard making these decisions for myself but by having gone through the process i now know what the “happy medium” is going to be for my future. Like you say you have to remind yourself what it best for you not what family/friends or society says you should have. It is probably no coincidence that when i declutter it happens on a number of levels (spiritually, emotionally and physically).

  • Monica D

    Thanks for this article, it’s created a great discussion between my husband and I. We are going to live on the road but have storage for our things in case we change our minds after a couple of years. It’s 5×3 storage container and hopefully it will all fit. We’ve had 12 months to prepare and donated a lot of gear. One thing now though I can see we have still packed up too much stuff. I thought going through 2-3 times each area and culling was enough but I can see now I needed 1-2 more going through in order to halve it again. Main culprits were books, nic nacks and kitchen. This is where the emotional attachment was/is. I do feel a bit sad and disappointed in myself. The main question I asked myself when throwing stuff out was – would I buy this again? I also realise I could have kept one momento per significant era not half a dozen. I guess it’s something we can only keep doing and keep learning!

  • Annemarija Linka

    This was a really interesting article. It’s interesting that by getting rid of physical stuff, you also kinda get rid of emotional cluster as if your mind can breathe more freely.
    Also I wanted to mention that this post reminded me of a song by Eddie Vedder – “Society”. I think the lyrics of that song makes a great match to this post!

  • Aly Newas

    After 15 yrs in a flat, with a patio, I realised my ‘dream’ & moved into a 2 bed semi with front and rear gardens, after 5 yrs I couldn’t manage the gardens on my own or the stairs so have now downsized to a 1 bed flat on the ground floor with a communal garden of which I have sole use, I put up a shed and rent a garage. So much happier now.

  • Abbie Sue Bauer

    Loved this! I’m going through “that age” where you’re supposed to get married, buy a house, and have a kid but I’ve been living the simple life for over 8 months now and the more days that pass and the more countries I travel to the less I want those convential “life goals”–being able to go where I want, when I want is amazing!

  • Monica

    Wonderful article! We have owned 3 houses and our last was a 2800 sq ft 4 bed/2 bath with a pool. Lots of work. We decided to downsize and rent. We were fortunate to find an 900 sq ft apt home on an estate on the river with dock access. It is lovely to be able to come home, sit on the dock and watch the changing moods of the river. The hardest part of the whole process was and is getting rid of stuff. As you stated, not for everyone, but it is so freeing to not have yard work, minimal housework and no house maintenance. The other benefit, we are able to save more money for retirement.

  • So true. My wife and I are in the same predicament. We bought the big house, the fancy toys, the nice yard, and all the “stuff” that goes with it only to find out years later that we actually didn’t want any of it. All we wanted was a simple life with each other and to raise our family.

    We are now in the process of downsizing, selling off our “stuff” and getting our lives back on track.

    Funny how it works out this way, isn’t it?

  • That’s great that you and your husband were able to have a constructive conversation about downsizing. My wife and I started to downsize before we had our son, then a bit more space seemed like a necessity.

    Luckily it seems like I may have rubbed off on her a bit with my simple living habits. Just a little bit, though. I think we’ll be living lean and close to one another for quite some time before it’s time for another small “purge” of our possessions.

  • I’m a lifelong minimalist and couldn’t imagine living any other way…

  • ritalyn

    I have moved 40 times in my life. I have lived in as small as 80 sq ft…. so I have a different relationship with stuff than most people. Stuff is just…..stuff. I am so thankful for my strange upbringing and life because i feel no pull to keep up with the joneses but also no pressure to only own what fits in a backpack.

  • kddomingue

    Well, I guess I’ll be the odd ball in this discussion. The hubs and I are in our late 50s. Our double wide mobile home is approximately 1600 square feet and is paid for. We have a half acre of property and a Labrador. We have a two car garage and attached shop. We own 12 year old car and a 17 year old truck. The hubs has a motorcycle. We live in a semi rural area and have no desire to live in the city so vehicles are a necessity. Our grown children, grandchild and cousins live within walking distance of our house. We very rarely eat out and most get togethers are at one of our homes or another. We recently added a 12 X 64 foot covered patio to the back of the house for grilling, crawfish boiling and other outdoor activities. Both of my children, my son-in-law, my husband and myself are all crafters/artists. All areas of our homes are utilized. We all pursue a number of activities such as sailing, rock climbing, tennis, body building, hiking and tent camping. All storage is used. Yes, we have grass cutting and house maintenance but that’s the trade off for having the space and room and storage to do the things that we love.

    I’m not saying that downsizing is wrong, it’s just not right for everyone. You have to be honest with yourself about whether your stuff allows you to do things you love or if your stuff feels like fetters chaining you to a life that you don’t want.

  • Justine Andrew

    Dear Jennifer, Thank you kindly for your wonderful blog. I have taken much inspiration and look forward to engaging in the journaling exercise you have suggested. I think there is a lot to take away form sourcing your beliefs around these concepts. Living minimally largely encompasses a mind set and often a paradigm shift. I have been deeply effected by the trauma happening to the animals and creatures in the ocean…..so today, starts a new day, of cultivating ways of life that are sustainable as far as possible. Living with less is certainly a powerful place to start! This is all the more important as I role model to my children. So once again, I extend my thanks for your wise words, all the best and god bless

  • Victoria

    I have been intent in simplifying my life since 3 years ago when my husband and I decided to downsize our flat from 3,200 to half the size. I continue to discard, donate, “gift” unused, pre-loved items and have become more reflective when I make purchases. I I like having space around me but with less stuff. I like seeing space in cupboards, wardrobes, storage cabinets. There is a feeling of abundance living in a 1,500sq ft apartment with few appointed art work, few clothes that are all favourites, less gadgets in the kitchen and even less stationery supply. To a certain extent, we have been practicing shared economy with our kitchen supply, furniture and staff. There is more room to breathe seeing empty canvas on the walls, clear areas on the floor and spacious cupboard, refrigerator where you can see what you have. Indeed, Less is MORE.

  • BD

    You’re not the odd ball at all! You’ve created a space that allows you to do what you want. The author created a space that allows her to do what she wants. That’s what this is all about — create spaces that support the way you want to live, not create a life to support the space you live in.

  • kddomingue

    Hey there! The author wrote a lovely piece about her decision to have less and how it creates the lifestyle that she wants and that makes her comfortable. I could only wish my comment was written half as well, lol! I often reference what I call the “Goldilock’s Principal” when the discussion comes around to stuff and minimalism and maximulism. The Goldilock’s Principal states that everyone’s “just right” is going fall on a slightly different spot on the All oflthe Things/None of the Things scale of stuff. There is no “one size fits all”. Being honest with yourself about the lifestyle you want/need/can afford is the key to finding your “just right”….just like the author did!

  • Steve

    My question is this: Has your amount of consumption changed? I.e. You don’t own a car or have as much space, but are you allocating that money to more expensive meals out or more trips or other experiences? I’m curious, because I really believe that it doesn’t make a difference whether you own a car or spend $50 on a meal, you’re still consumeristic.

  • Abbie

    I LOVE this. Five years ago we unexpectedly moved from 2,000 sqf (plus garage and basement) to 1,100 sqf (plus a small garage). It was not easy and sometimes I wish for another bedroom (six of us in two bedrooms is pretty cozy), but mostly I am very content with where we are. I enjoy my small space to clean, my kids (necessarily) limited toys and no lawn to mow. We often find people who don’t understand why we aren’t buying a big house as soon as we can.

  • Esme Weatherwax

    It’s so true that we are ‘told’ what we ‘should’ want. Travel for instance. Everyone seems obsessed with it. I’d rather stay home (and tend my lovely garden!)

  • Lillian

    Hi Steve, I can’t answer for the author on their consumption habits, but I think the post is more about time spent on possessions, rather than money spent on possessions. They couldn’t live the life they wanted because they had to spend their time taking care of the extra stuff they were “supposed to” have and they thought they needed. I didn’t interpret it as anti-consumerism, but as living the life you want by consuming what you want, not what society says you should want. When they realized the life they thought they wanted didn’t mesh with their personalities, they changed it. Yes, downsizing, buying less house, and selling the car leads to less stuff and less up-keep, which, in-turn, leads to additional spendable income. I think the point is that you get to spend that money on what you want, not that you spend less for the sake of spending less. But, of course, if anti-consumerism aligns with your goals and the lifestyle you want, that is perfectly great too! Don’t get me wrong, I fully believe in a minimalist lifestyle, but everyone’s brand of minimalism looks a little different.