Stuff vs things: Musings about minimalism, self-sufficiency, and accumulating things

March 27 2013 | Guest post by Theresa
By: Maegan TintariCC BY 2.0

In the last few weeks, I have been thinking about stuff. Or more specifically, thinking about minimalism, the absence of stuff.

It's been a topic of conversation on a lot of the podcasts I listen to. There are always articles and blog posts about people who decide to pare down their possessions to 100 items or less (and even tips on how to do so), who pledge to buy no new clothes for a year, or who just generally strive towards minimalism. I read things like this and I think, "great, having useless stuff is really stupid," but to be honest I don't really live up to the minimalist lifestyle in many senses at all.

I have lived that lifestyle before — minimalism is easy to do when you're broke. When I first moved to Australia, I brought with me only the things I could fit in the airlines' baggage allowance. I couldn't work, and my partner Andy was studying so his paid work was limited. We couldn't afford to accumulate very many possessions. Even when we were both studying on scholarships, our budget was small and we were saving to buy a house, plus living in rented units limits the amount of space for accumulation, anyways.

Now that we have two full-time incomes, and plenty of empty space to fill, minimalism is harder to achieve.

In 2008, I owned only five pairs of shoes (and I will admit, I let myself feel a bit smug about that). Now, in 2013, I own five pairs of Melissa shoes alone, plus three other pairs of dress shoes, a pair of boots, an old pair of runners for digging in the garden, a pair of runners for running, some closed-toed shoes, and pair of sandals. On an average working day, I have five pairs of shoes in my office. Gone are my smug days of shoe-minimalism. Did I need to buy two new pairs of sparkly Melissa flats last year? Not at all. But they are pretty, and I love them, and I wear them all the time.

Pretty things aside, I do feel like there is a difficult balance to achieve between minimalism and self-sufficiency. Andy and I both prefer to err on the side of self-sufficiency. I'm happy to acknowledge that we have a lot of kitchen gadgets. Far more than we strictly need. But they help us to rely less on pre-packaged supermarket products with questionable production practices and ingredients lists.

They aren't necessary for self-sufficiency, but they make it convenient. (Example: If we didn't have a bread maker, we wouldn't make our own bread; if we didn't have a soy milk maker, we would buy soy milk.) But other kitchen gadgets fall into increasingly gray area: if we didn't have an ice cream maker, we probably wouldn't buy vegan ice cream, at least not very often. Life without ice cream isn't inconceivable, but it isn't really that desirable.

Outside of the kitchen, we have lots of things that increase convenience without being terribly necessary. For example: Before we bought our compost turner — basically a giant corkscrew that you dig into the bin and pull out — we turned our compost bin with a shovel. But that was a pain, so we didn't properly turn our compost very often. So, was that little piece of green, twisty metal worth $20?

I guess the point of this is to say that I really admire people who can commit to a minimalist lifestyle, but I don't find it necessary to beat myself up about not doing so. I really like the sentiment in this article, about getting rid of the stuff from our lives and having only things:

Most of us live amidst stuff. We do have a few things too — well-used, well-enjoyed, and well-respected items that have an established place in our lives. But most of it is stuff.

Our house is filled mainly with things. We don't buy appliances that we won't use. We buy second-hand whenever we can, repair and refurbish as much as possible, and try to DIY an awful lot. Some of my things are pretty, and not necessary, and don't contribute to self-sufficiency, and some I even buy new, but they are things nonetheless. The size of our collection of things definitely precludes us from any claims to minimalism, but I think I'm starting to realise that I'm okay with that.

  1. I totally understand.

    My personality veers radically from "let's get rid of everything! I hate stuff! I want nothing on any horizontal surface" on the one hand, to "i love houses that are full of colour and art and books and crafts and vintage clothes!". And i do. I love BOTH of those things. They don't co-exist all that well.

    I like to think that my semi annual crazed clean-out mean that the stuff that survives actually matters. And, the older i get the more i understand the difference between 'stuff' and 'things.' A house full of truly loved things is better than a minimalist house furnished with just 'minimalist stuff.'

  2. You know, I was thinking about this topic recently. I went to visit my parents with my sister, and we were discussing the sheer quantity of things we had left in our old bedrooms. My sister still had a She-Ra birthday card from when she was 5 or 6 that she knew exactly where it was stored. I had knickknacks everywhere and ended up actually taking some home because well, they're meaningful. I dream of a day when my home is big enough to get all my knickknacks back and well displayed.

    Minimalist attitude is cool, but well, I think I'll appreciate having my old pokemon cards more.

  3. I like the distinction between "stuff" and "things". I think I'm going to start using those terms in that way more. When I'm considering buying something, I mainly try to think of it in terms of "Does this serve me or does it put me in a box?" "Serving me" can mean: does it add beauty or functionality to my life (both are important)?. "Putting me in a box" can mean: is it so expensive that it means I'm a slave to keeping it up (eg the stupid gas-guzzling truck I hate but still have) or am I buying it because other people think I should have it (eg new curtains because mine look "college" but I don't necessarily care).

  4. I find the stuff other people give me the most challenging. I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings by getting rid of things they have given us but we have a tiny house, we have to think about everything we bring in, is there space for it, is it useful?
    We have a lot of friends that are artists and we always appreciate art, it is the other stuff people want to give us. I have cats and an Aunt has given me gifts because they are cat shaped or have pictures of cats on them, not my taste and what the heck do I do with it?
    My husband has a kitchen gadget addiction I am always trying to reign in as well. I don't like appliances that only perform one task, e.g. a rice cooker, we have pots that I can cook rice in, and veggies, and soup, we just don't have the space for items that are a one hit wonder. I know there are people out there that are thinking "I love my rice cooker," I am sure you do and you probably have space for it.
    When the holidays roll around we try to remind our families that we have a very small house and there isn't very much we need in terms of house hold goods, Foodie things are always welcome and they get used up.

    • Oh do I hear that :-/ I have a grandmother who makes quilts. *Really, really, really ugly* quilts. We own several. I have no idea what to do with them, but you can hardly get rid of a quilt your grandmother made you. I really do appreciate the love and sentiment that went into them…but they're really quite shockingly ugly (one of them features a fabric that looks similar to this, but worse: http://favoritefabrics.homestead.com/files/vp_hhpnl_zoom.jpg) , and they don't go with anything, and even if we DID put them out, our dogs would just mess them up. It's really sad πŸ™ But maybe some great grand-niece will be really into the perfectly preserved family heirloom in 100 years.

      • That picture made me laugh, that is an ugly quilt. It is about on par with the glass topped serving tray I was given with white fluffy kittens featured or the Cat glass paperweight in pink with etched flowers on it.

      • Oh dear! If you don't want to display them, I bet they're a perfect candidate for storing in vacuum bags! (You could always say it was to protect them from dogs and dustmites)

      • Maybe the quilts could be donated to some sort of women's shelter, or maybe even a nursing home? Perhaps have someone who can sew (unless you're able to) and take maybe just a small section from the quilts (so they can still be quilts that are useable) and make a few throw pillow(s) out of them, so you can sort of still have the quilt your grandmother made!?

      • I second the idea to donate them to a women's shelter or nursing home (maybe take a picture of you using them beforehand so your grandma doesn't think you just don't want them). Maybe keep one or two in your car for emergencies? All car owners should keep emergency blankets/quilts/warm clothing in their cars. I don't know if it gets cold where you live, but if it does then perhaps just keep one as your 'it's so cold I don't care how ugly a quilt is' quilt πŸ˜‰ So keep two or three and donate the rest.

  5. I've reached the conclusion that there are two kinds of minimalism: the minimalism of being poor ("I can't afford stuff") and the minimalism of being rich ("It's okay to get rid of it because I can buy another next time I need it"). Then in between are the rest of us, who keep things, among other reasons, because we might actually need them again.

    Of course there's keeping things for sentimental reasons, because they aren't replaceable. But an awful lot of the "clutter" is books I've read, clothes I might wear again some day, or cooking gear for dishes I might not make that often but which I would really like to be able to make again. And in each case, I could get rid of it and not miss it too much. But next time I want to re-read that science fiction novel/wear a purple dress/make crepes, I'd have to go out and spend money and other resources to do so, and that's not particularly sustainable.

    I guess the takeaway is that I think a lot about replacability when getting rid of stuff. Kitchen items that are a few dollars at a thrift store are fine to ditch, but an out-of-print novel? A handmade shirt? Much more unique, and much more resource-intensive to replace.

  6. The comments on this article surprise me – only one of them mentions "houses full of color, art & decor". I appreciate a more self-sustaining approach, for sure, and when I go do dust my things I wish there was less to dust. But my 'things' have nothing to do with making my life easier or more convenient. I'm a collector, who's marrying a collector – DVDs, Action Figures, Plush, Games, Dolls, Art, Books – lots of things that aren't at all designed to really 'help' you in any way.

    I guess this article just surprised me because it only compared useful necessary things (e.g. shoes) to useful unnecessary things (e.g extra shoes) and didn't exactly address what I was expecting it to address: removing extras from your live that don't bring you true happiness and escaping the "must have the full set" syndrom.

    • I really like this point! I firmly believe in the "or" in William Morris's statement, "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." There are many things that can enrich your life that might not have a tangible, practical value, and determining those which make your life happier versus those that are a drag on your emotional resources is a great thing to do!

    • Hi Vanessa,

      I agree with you, but didn't really make the point well I suppose – I'm not a collector, but I do have things that are just pretty, make me happy, and have no function whatsoever. I wanted to talk about my lime green ceramic elephant, which is totally a thing for me (but for some people would totally be stuff!), but I couldn't really work it in smoothly!

      And I suppose the point I was trying to make for myself is that self-sufficiency and minimalism are kind of at odds with each other – at least the kind of self-sufficiency that I can achieve as a busy person. So that was why I focused so much on things-with-functions. I second Ariel's request for a follow-up post πŸ™‚

  7. Insert Rick Grimes joke here.
    My mother was a purger. She loves the catharsis of getting rid of stuff. Unfortunately, many items of stuff were things to me. I still search the whole house for items that are long-gone and I end up mourning the item. Whenever I start to get rid of something, I have this terrible, all-consuming fear that I'm going to need or want it later. I've learned to let go of some stuff, but I sometimes have a hard time not seeing them as things. Moving a few times in recent years has made it easier–I now tend to look at objects in terms of "Would I want to box this up, carry it up some stairs, then unbox it and find a new home for it?"
    And looking at items by usefulness? Oh my Lord, can I BS to myself about the usefulness of an object! Why, Brain? Why?

    • What if you take that "stuff" and put it in a box for 3 months (or whatever time limit you decide to set, some people wait a whole year). If you don't miss it, then you know it wasn't a "thing", but if you are looking for it a few weeks later, then you know it isn't worth getting rid of. Maybe it will help with the guilt. I know I've held onto way too much "stuff" because I was too nervous that they might be "things" later. And you know what? Only about 1% was a "thing", the rest was just "stuff" collecting dust.

      • Nooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!! I disagree (obviously, lol). I have the memory of a goldfish (it's actually a problem sometimes), and I could easily GET BY without many things. When we moved, we forgot a few boxes in my parents' house, and I honestly never thought about them, or looked for them. But when we found those boxes again, I was able to put all my lovely Things out, and now they make me smile whenever I see them!

        I guess I think your method still emphasizes the utility of an item (will I be wanting to use this item in the next few months?) vs. just plain old LIKING an item, even if it does nothing but sit on a windowsill and make you happy. πŸ™‚

        • Very true, but I was just suggesting that as a way to get over the guilt of letting things go. As in "I haven't missed this item, because [I don't use it/don't go looking for it/whatever other reason] so I can get rid of it now and not feel guilty". If you like something, party on! And I have a box of stuff in the garage that I keep just because I like it. But the things I hold onto because maybe one day I can use it, it's easier to let go if I know I haven't even thought about using it for months (for me, it's cookware/plates/bakeware that is consuming my life)

          • For me this works great for clothes, because sometimes that shirt I just loved or " could wear again once I'm thinner) was actually totally worn out or not really special, but that only became crystal clear after letting it sit in a box for a couple months. Somehow for me it breaks the attachment a little.

        • Sometimes we need to learn to move on and let go of things. Even if they are nice they still become clutter. In this instance, instead of clutter sitting on your counter it's pilled in boxes. The boxes are still cluttering some area of your space/life. Let go of things and use your memory to think about the things you loved. You don't need to rehash and physically stare at old things to connect with them again.

    • I am blessed and cursed with a very good memory (it sounds like you are too) so I remember everything I've ever thrown away and there are so many things on the list that I regret, deeply. Sometimes I wish I could just forget these things, because not only does it cause me grief, but it also makes me reticent to jettison other things.

      As I get older, I'm pretty sure I'm getting better at judging which things I'll regret, and over the last year I've been trying to work on realising that regretting throwing something away doesn't always mean that throwing something away was the wrong choice.

  8. I have things, lots of things. Lots of books & CDs & DVDs, lots of clothes & shoes & jewelry & make-up. I have knickknacks all over my dresser, a doll & stuffed animal collection, a pile of pillows & a pile of magazines in the living room… Everything has a place & I keep it tidy, but my OCD friend would call it cluttered. I'm okay with that. I like what we have. I'll get rid of anything we don't like or use, with a few gift exceptions… But we really like all our things/stuff. It seems like people who aren't minimalists these days though are judged & have to defend & justify themselves. I even did it in this comment. People should be able to surround themselves with what they like without feeling like they have to defend & justify the number of shoes in their closet, etc.

  9. I try to purge out "stuff" fairly regularly (like books I read but have no desire to add my my personal library), but am a big fan of "things". Many of my things are in storage right now while we're house hunting, so obviously that collection of little green antique bottles would fail the "if you don't use it within six months, get rid of it" test….but I don't want to get rid of things that WILL have a place SOMEday when we have a house.
    I remember reading "The Gospel According to Larry" a few times in high school, where the main character owns one hundred items or less….and thinking, "Nope, not gonna happen." Maybe if "book collection" were one item instead of dozens.

    • That was my theory as well. I spent years collecting comic series and books and similar things. My book collection is nowhere near what I want it to be. Whittle down my belongings to 100 items? Never going to happen. I could write a book on what the ceramic rose I own means to me, or the glass wall vase. Sure, they aren't specifically useful, but damnit, they're mine and I'm keeping them.

  10. For me, less stuff means less tied down- so I guess if you are settled and are willing to stay in a place for a while, it's no problem. For a moving abroad – moving back – moving states college student, the less stuff the better. Helping my sister move across two states and helping her pack was madness- and I did this twice. The same stuff was still in the same boxes the second time, a year later- not even touched. That convinced me that unless I touch it every day or see it, it's of little to no use for me.

    Then again I may seem very very non-sentimental, but it calms me to know that I won't have to spend hours packing and unpacking. I could probably rush an hour to pack my entire apartment and get out if I had to. (Not that I am doing such sketchy business that I need to, lol) But if you are settled, I think the items in your house/apartment/place are comforting and anchoring. It likely depends where you are in life.

    • As someone who has moved every year for the past 5 years and every semester during college, I have a hard time finding the balance between wanting pretty things to hang on the walls and do I really want to pack that in a few months. It is a lot easier to gather and collect when you are in a place for more than a few months.

      I find the idea of selling all your stuff and traveling super appealing but not only worry about missing my things but wonder about not feeling at 'home' where you are without the things you've always had.

  11. I'm the state of purging/organizing, and have been for a while….and probably will be for a while. I agree that things and stuff both weigh me down, and a lot of it includes things on a to do list! I feel like the to do things hold me back most, by the fact they are a priority over the things I'd rather be doing with my time! I do know that I don't acquire things like I used to, but I feel that has come with wisdom/age. Also, I've tried to change the way I live, and use things to the old adage of "use up, wear out, make do, or do without"….which can cause problems with trying to get rid of things. I also just don't feel like I need that much, or want that much anymore. What I want is to travel, and experience things, which some of those wants are more expensive. I'd rather have great close friendships, and spend time with people I care about! It sounds like we're all a work in progress.

  12. Yay! I love the designation between "stuff" and "things" and I've definitely felt that the stories promoting strict minimalism sort of miss that point. As a person with some very involved hobbies that require tools (painting in various mediums and medieval reenactment – I have an entire second wardrobe, seriously) I have quite a lot of belongings. However also as a person who has moved approximately every 18 months or so since college and only now secured a more permanent residence, I usually threw a lot of "stuff" away every time I moved simply because I didn't use it enough to move it. There's a fine line in the sand there…

  13. Minimalism only made sense when my priorities shifted. When I decided I wanted to eat better that started to affect the rest of my habits. My perspective on food had broadened: food can be a thing of beauty, can be shared, can be practiced upon, and can be good for you. However, my boyfriend complained about the price of organic, locally grown, non-processed, or unusual ingredients. So I stopped shopping as much for clothes and gadgets and saved for food. Nothing was purged from the pantry, but we stopped replacing it.

    Eventually I started to make the connection that truly good food was worth paying more for. It made sense economically, health-wise, time management, and emotionally. I felt rich! I was tracking my expenses! Helping small businesses out! That philosophy started to pervade other areas of my consumer habits as well. I'd wander a store for an hour pushing a cart of things I picked up only to put them back the more I reflected on it. I'd ask myself if it was something I could interact with or share.

    Perhaps it's not even minimalism so much as becoming discriminating. You can have a lot of things and stuff, but only collect and retain the things that are meaningful/useful to you.

    edit: Another caveat that just occurred to me as I was rereading comments: Material items strike me as too vulnerable. I lost about 3/4 of my artwork due to flooding last year. That work covered years of my life and it was as dear to me as family photos. Since then I decided things can be destroyed and lost, and so I try not to place TOO much importance on them. That's a personal decision and it may be another reason why some folks choose minimalism and others don't.

  14. I really liked the concept in this article! especially after going through a recent move, I seem to have ended up with more 'stuff' somehow and am enjoying going through and clearing out items that have hung on forever without a purpose (function or happiness making). I find my struggle really surrounds the concept of space and one collection out valuing another collection. I NEVER get rid of costume stuff, too much of my life is spent in costumes! But I go through craft phases and eventually have to get rid of some of it as much as i love creating because really, clay sculptures just didnt work out. I find it helps me if i donate items, then at least my 'stuff' could become someone elses 'thing'

  15. A lot of my stuff sits in one place and never bothers me. But some of my stuff is a real hassle–stuff I need to clean, arrange, manage, or look through to find what I need. I'm trying to purge that really annoying stuff, not the innocent stuff.

  16. It helps to let go of sentimental "stuff" when you know it's going to a good home. A friend of mine has a yearly swap where each of us brings about a dozen items that we are personally tired of owning, even though there's not a thing wrong with them. It's nice to see somebody else get ecstatic about getting something I no longer use.

    • My extended circle does too, though about 3 times a year and each can bring as much as they want. It's really satisfying to see things go to where they ought to be. It has also been a way to get rid of the oddball stuff that would confuse a thrift store but that other costumers/crafters/techies know just what do with.

  17. Fantastic article! I was getting all hyped about Tiny Houses recently and then I thought – me? My husband? Practically no things? I don't think so. We don't need a McMansion, but we do enjoy our things, especially for our hobbies and sometimes just because. I really enjoyed everyone's comments too – about how if something makes you happy (because it's beautiful, etc.), it's OKAY! And also the point about keeping stuff because you might need it again and you're basically being smart about it. You just have to be realistic about whether you'll really use it. (Also important: keeping it in a way that you will actually choose to use it next time!)

    Anyway, I guess the real trick is recognizing truly unnecessary stuff and purging. It requires a lot of energy to keep it (cleaning, organizing, etc.) so we should be getting something out of it (short- or longterm). Even those handy dandy electronic gadgets are always asking to be charged, updated, etc.

  18. I think the important part is to think about it, to at least consider it, as you have. I love my (somewhat) minimalist life. I have stuff I surely don't need, but everything I have is only about 10-20% of what I used to own. Moving to another country helped, and space is limited because I rent a room in a shared flat. (I'm really not sure I ever want to buy a place because of all the hassle associated with it.) I've got a base color for my wardrobe (navy) and it always looks on me and coordinates well with the accessories I like. I also like how my diet is becoming more minimalist (Paleo / Primal) because inventing recipes with limited ingredients is fun. I've even revised my toiletry list, including going no soap (save hand washing) and no toothpaste (I even tried no shampoo but it's a real hassle with the hard water in London). The more I decide to live without, the better I feel πŸ™‚

  19. Eeep, I am so glad those Melissa shoes don't come in my size. That link would have sorely challenged my buy nothing new stance for the year. I read a great post recently by Joshua Becker from Becoming Minimalist about how each person who strives to achieve a minimalist lifestyle has to find their own style of minimalism – something that suits their needs. My family is struggling with the idea of aesthetics and minimalism. We like lovely things that are decorative without being useful but are yet to work out where they lie in our desire to live clutter free. I am hoping we'll find our own niche in the minimalism world, because we sure don't fit anyone else's ideals. We're in the process of setting goals for decluttering which will help us to really work out what we want to achieve and why. I think it's a good starting point.

  20. I really like the philosophy of "have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful" (mentioned earlier in this thread; quote by William Morris). I have some beautiful & useless things, a few useful & un-beautiful things, and quite a few that fall into the intersection of the sets β€” my favourite category! πŸ™‚

    I'm not a minimalist, but I do try to be a conscious consumer, only bringing things into my life if I know I can find a place for them, and believe they will in some way add to my life. I've had my share of experiences where I made a purchase that wound up becoming clutter β€” the $10 dress my friend convinced me to buy at the thrift store, even though I knew that the neckline was lower than I'd actually ever wear outside the house (not to mention that I'd need a strapless bra to go under it…), the earrings that I bought because they were on sale, but later decided were way too big and loud for my personal style… I don't like spending money on things I won't use, and I don't like having them in my space.

    At this point, my husband and I are trying to use the 6-month rule for weeding possessions. We put things in the "six month box", and if we don't get them out in six months, we donate them to the thrift shop. We don't put things in that box if we actually really want to keep them (e.g. sentimental tchotchkes), but it helps us pare down the things we don't actually believe to be beautiful, if we aren't sure of their utility.

  21. I love the idea of minimalism but can't seem to actually follow through with it. Partly because I feel like I have things that don't fit the category of donation and I worry about the waste I'll create by just throwing them away. Like pillows. I've slept on them for years so now they're flat and awful. I feel bad throwing them away, but they're not donation material. I could repurpose their stuffing, but into what? More pillows?! Which doesn't solve the conundrum at all. Anyone else have this issue? Does anyone have a solution?

    • Could you (or someone you know) knit, crochet, or sew some toys, stuff them with the pillow fluff, and then donate them to a women's shelter or children's hospital (or some other kid-related thing…) ?

  22. I think there's a middle ground between minimalism and self-sufficiency. Store a relatively small number of multipurpose items in bulk.

    You can make bread and cook just about anything in a pressure cooker. For ice cream, use a blender. For soy milk, you can use both a pressure cooker and a blender. There's not much food or drink that can't be prepared within those two tools.

    Other ultra-multipurpose "things" include coconut oil, smartphones, Leatherman multitools, bandanas, paper clips, aluminum foil, parachute cord, honey, baking soda, butter, and of course duct tape.

    With some good planning, I'd imagine you could accomplish pretty much anything with under 100 different things. They may not be the best tools for every job, but they get it done without the burden of maintaining numerous tools and appliances.

    • A small RV is another extremely useful multipurpose tool. It can function quite well as a car, cargo van, shelter, kitchen, bedroom, tent, laboratory, taxi, and workspace.

  23. When I was younger, my parents split up and I was moved back and forth until I settled with my father. Then we moved here there and everywhere. I was desperate to hold onto something, anything, to just have something that felt like a home. So I hoarded. For nearly a decade. I had an entire loft filled with stuff when I broke up with my first partner. That had doubled by the time I moved with my now fiancΓ©. Things had gotten pretty awful in my personal life and I had to pack up quickly. He understood I came with a LOT of baggage, and as I have finally, for the first time since I was a child, felt settled, I've started to go through those boxes of things that I couldn't bare the thought of parting with.

    And most of it is crap.

    Seriously, the vast majority of it, I have zero emotional attachment to any more, I don't even remember owning most of it! So our local charity store is getting a LOT of contributions of late πŸ˜› I've always been a clean-freak, but I've gone from being a clutter-lover to a devout minimalist, I think a lot of it comes from whatever place you are in at the time.

    That said, I can't, no matter how hard I try, shake off my obsession with collecting notebooks. But it's a COLLECTION, not HOARDING…right???? πŸ˜‰

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