I’ll never forget the day my dad stared off into space in our back yard and told me “Son, I wish I didn’t own so much stuff.”
I was around 16 years old, I’d guess. My dad proceeded to list all the areas of his life where he owned “stuff.” Lawn and garden equipment, a large old stone house, a garage full of tools, and other items made the list. I remember him saying “the more stuff I own, the more time I have to spend maintaining those things. And the more money I have to spend repairing and replacing those things.”
His statement seemed rather odd to me at the time, because in my mind my dad “had it made.” A large house, a nice yard, woods surrounding his property, a riding mower, nice cars… these were things I was hoping to acquire someday.
But as I considered what he’d told me, and over the next few years it made more and more sense. My dad was always working on something. There was always a project to tackle, a chore to finish, or something to fix. I could see how much my dad resented the fact that he rarely had any “down time.”
My Chance To Be Different
Fast forward a few years. When my wife and I were first married we lived in a small house, which was perfect for us. We had a normal mortgage payment (around $750/month). We both had good jobs when we were first married (she’s a stay at home mom now, which means she’s been promoted), so we had some extra money to burn. We began to buy and acquire random things, like a new TV, a dining room set that was WAY too fancy for our house, a weight bench, and a treadmill. I even brought home a dump-worthy desk that I spent 6 months refinishing, which meant that our garage was absolutely useless during that time.
Anyway, it had taken us very little time to feel like we’d filled up our entire house with junk. We began to think “you know, we could use some more space…”
Then there was the yard. We lived at the end of a cul-de-sac, and we had a small front yard and larger back yard. Our back yard was flat, grassy, and had a small creek running behind it in the woods. I could push-mow it all in around 45 minutes, and we enjoyed playing badminton and grilling back there.
When we “upgraded” to a larger house the next year (because 2,000 square feet > 1,250 square feet, right?) I thought we had it made. We were in a much quieter neighborhood, which was nice, and all the houses were larger and nicer. The back yard was HUGE compared to our previous home, although only a portion of it had grass growing in it. We had plenty of space (4 BR) to keep our stuff in, though I had some renovations to do before it would be comfortable.
I’d say it took me around 6 months to begin thinking about what my dad had told me just a few short years before. My new back yard was awesome when the grass was cut, but I began to dread the hour-long dust storm I had to endure in order to make it look that way. The front yard needed constant improvement and maintenance if I didn’t want our home to be the ugliest one on the block. Everyone around us was retired and had all kinds of time to work in their front yards!
Worst of all, we were constantly playing musical chairs with our “stuff.” We filled up the garage with tools and shelving and treadmills in no time flat. We had entire rooms dedicated to renovation projects. We had two living rooms that we had to buy furniture for, even though we never used one of them.
It was a lesson that was being etched into my mind in a whole new way. Our stuff, our yard, our home had become life sucking instead of enjoyment giving. We felt like our time was scarce, but it was our own doing. We were always discussing our new home improvement projects and recently-acquired things with our friends, only to see our finances remain stagnant.
It was not the “more” that we had envisioned.
We Are Still Learning
You can read elsewhere about the next steps that we took in order to plot a new direction for ourselves. I had begun to realize that owning more stuff was in direct opposition to financial independence, and it was time to do something about it.
But this isn’t a call towards absolute minimalism, exactly. It’s more of a search for contentment. How much is enough? At what point do we say “yeah, I can afford that. But I don’t need it.” It’s a question that my wife and I constantly ask ourselves, and it’s definitely making a difference, especially when people offer to give us things. We are finding out that we are often happier when we don’t accept a “gift” from someone than when we do, even though it can be awkward to refuse it up front. Because the “stuff” we accumulate (whether we pay money for it or not) almost always has a long-term cost. As my pastor likes to say “Sometimes we can’t afford free.”
I think this must be a hard lesson to really learn, though. Just last week my parents were moving out of that nice old house, and MY. GOODNESS. at the junk we had to help them move. Trailer load after trailer load we moved 20 miles to their new home, which is a rental, and when they build their new house in a few years we’ll help them move it all again.
We don’t want to live that way. More stuff is not the answer.