Monday, August 13, 2007

Proliferation & Costo-tization

Its time once again for a slightly off topic post on the factors driving our wants and "needs" for a larger house.........

When I first moved to Sacramento in the fall of 1995 my dad was able to fit all my worldly possession in the back of his truck. Fresh out of college, my possessions included a beanbag, a bike, a microwave, and of course some clothes and CDs.

When I returned to Sacramento in the fall of 2006 with my husband and two kids in tow, we had enough stuff to fill an enormous 24 foot Budget Truck, two cars, and a really old old fishing boat.

The amount of stuff I accumulated over those 11 years is staggering if you think about it (not to mention the hubby and kids). It got me thinking about why us Americans accumulate so much stuff. When we tour older houses I can't help but notice how little storage space there is. The closets are tiny by today's standards (especially at the house we just sold). I don't think any other generation, or for that matter culture, can match our ability to purchase and store "needed" items.

First and foremost.....from birth we are bombarded with messages to consume. Whether we like it or not, we respond to these messages, telling us we will be more popular, sexy, envied etc. if we buy product "X".

Second....what I will call the Costco-tization of merchandise. Costco appeals to our sense of value. We see and purchase items that we never knew we "needed" when we go there. Many of these items elegantly carry out a single purpose in life. Take for instance, the Margarita maker. It very elegantly makes Margaritas, but how come you can't just use a blender, or make your Margaritas on ice? What is most unfortunate about this specialization in gadgetry is the fact that we rarely use these gadgets. And of course, the more gadgets we purchase, the less we use our general multi-purpose gadgets. Its a slippery slope of proliferation. While I chose to pick on Costco, Sam's Club, BJ's etc., and even normal retail stores like Bed Bath Beyond, all feed this addiction of ours.

Third....what to get for the people who have everything? We give and get gifts. Over the years this stuff really adds up. This gift giving feeds off item number two above. We start buying our friends and family very specialized items, like creme brulee torches, since they don't "need" anything else.

Fourth.....we don't fix things anymore. The media, and the company's whose products they promote, have conditioned us to purchase new electronic gadgetry every couple years. If they break, we never fix them. Instead, they have made the economics of purchasing a new, bigger and better ones more favorable. Many of us now throw away perfectly good cell phones, PDAs etc., just because we want one with more features.

And finally......I think this goes back to the anti-socialization issue a bit. We no longer have communal property. Things like ladders, which you only use very rarely, used to be owned by a community. This community property was then replaced by our ability to borrow from neighbors (which we all used to know really well). Now we don't have community, and we don't know or trust our neighbors, so we end up purchasing instead. These items then fill our garages and kitchens, and require us to purchase a large house to fit them all. Luckily some sites, like Craigslist, and Freecycle have allowed us to purchase and then unload these items a little more easily.

My personal goal, as of late, is to not purchase things unless I will use them at least every 3 months. While this doesn't sound like much, its surprising how many items in a house/garage don't meet that criteria.

How much stuff do we really truly need? (notice no quotations this time)


buying time said...

P.S. While I don't have a creme brulee set, or a Margherita maker, I do have plenty of other gadgetry, not to mention all the tool and electronic gadgetry hubby "needs" to have to do the job right.

mbc said...

In between leaving Sac and moving to Portland, we went on an extended RV trip and carried everything we needed for a year in the motorhome. Back in Sac, we had all of our "stuff" in a 10x30 storage unit and I remember telling my wife that I really didn't seem to miss any of it.

When we moved to Portland we bought an older house that is about 1400 SF, including the finished part of the basement. It's plenty big enough for me, my wife, and our daughter, and the smaller house allowed us to sell a bunch of extra junk. Up here in Oregon they're having the annual "Street of Dreams" and it kills me to read about these 6000 SF palaces. Who the heck really needs a place that big, or even half that size? It's just a larger storage container for more un-needed junk. "Street of Nightmares" is more like it.

Of course, they say our economy is 2/3 comsumer spending, so the whole system depends on a lot of consumption of "stuff." We'll have to completely re-think everything if we want to go in a different direction. Considering how overworked everyone these days is, just so they can buy bigger houses, cars, and other things, I think a whole new economic system would be a good thing.

Sippn said...

BT - now a margherita maker could be useful! But that other stuff - gone.

I don't like the way Walmart and Home Depot have items built to their own specs - one penny at a time.

MBC - so get over yourself - 1000 sf should be plenty - you're living large compared to the rest of the world. Got a Prius? big deal, get a bike.

Anonymous said...

As a "hubby" and a DIY'er, I will admit to having a lot of stuff that perhaps doesn't get used regularly. I too get frustrated at the space that gets consumed by items, tools and technology. There are a number of factors that lead to this accumulation.
1. Mechanical technology - I find that you need more tools for mechanical devices these days. I remember carrying a Swiss Army knife, pliers, and electrical tape in my VW and being able to repair just about any malfunction on the road (engine smoking problems were my specialty!). No longer. However, I have a problem with paying a mechanic to do simple repairs just because it requires a special tool.
2. Handy Man - If you want to perform work around the house it is going to take tools. I have more than paid for the tools purchased through the savings of not hiring a contractor to perform the work. The difference here is whether you want to do it fast or spend forever on it. I own multiple power saws in addition to hand saws. I could probably do everything with hand saws (that's how they did it back in the day, right?), but would my wife put up with a house or room torn up for months rather than a week because I choose to not use power. (Of course I admit to the Tim Taylor grunt every time I hit the switch on the table saw and hear it hum). And while I look at renting the tool first I find that you can buy it for the same or just a little more and have it for "next time". So let's bring this back and look at the root... the question isn't whether we really needed the tool (of course we did) but rather did we really "need" the new sink or counters or faucet or floors or wainscotting or crown-molding or tub or [insert item here] that necessitated the tool (and we ALL know who makes those decisions). At a personal level, probably not. However, every upgrade improved the homes value to the perception of the buyers when we went to sell the house, so actually, yes, from an investment perspective. But only because it didn't cost $10k to redo the bathroom.
However, I recognize how easy it is to "justify" a purchase. While Buying Time is looking at a use cycle of three months to determine need I have used a different approach. I try not to buy anything (especially at Costco) unless I have waited two to three months from the time I thought of it. I didn't have it before and apparently it didn't stop me from living. Therefore I spend this waiting time to determine how I did without the "needed" item before. And you know... I find by the time the two months are up I have forgotten all about needing that item. (of course I can't apply that to tools, that would be just silly!)

buying time said...

Sippn - Play nice.

And yes...the Margherita maker would certainly survive the 3 month rule if I had one =)

mbc said...


I don't have a Prius (though there are plenty up here), but I do have a bike, which I use for most of my trips around town.

Yes, compared to a majority of the world, we are all fabulously wealthy. I agree that 1000 SF should be enough. All the more reason to wonder why the average new home is more than twice that size.

Anonymous said...

Who said anything about a Prius?

1400sf is a small house but agree that any average size family shouldn't require more than a 1000 sf house.

ideas2words said...

I recently thought about this very issue and concluded almost everything in my home could get stolen and I might not even notice (woodworking tools not withstanding). I remember this moment of clarity well because I had just been blinded by a spark from a 30 amp circuit I was installing in my workshop (grunt, grunt). Some damn fool shut off the wrong breaker so I literally almost died feeding my machine tool addiction. Anonymous, when you need 30 amps for a machine you "need," then you might want to check yourself in so the same fate doesn't befall you. (Aside: does anything other than fate ever "befall" someone?)
Back to my moment of clarity: when I think about what I do with my time and the things needed for that activity, compared to what I should be doing and the things they require, it becomes very obvious that I have spent a lot of money on things I needed for activities I didn't need to be doing. That's just a much clumsier way of saying what Anonymous just said, but that wasn't the epiphany I had. What I realized at that moment was just how litttle is required for the activities most important to us: reading with the kids, talking with your beloved, meeting your neighbors, investigating (heaven forbid) a candidate's real track record on the issues, keeping in touch with friends and relatives, ... Books can be borrowed from the library (or friends, now that you have time for them); conversations require only a phone, some time, and a few common interests; writing letters doesn't even require pen and paper any more if you have a cell phone. Playing with your kids can mean expensive toys and video games, but it could just as well be a bag of marbles, a stick, a few rocks and a lot of good hiding places. Oh, one more thing: cardboard boxes, with or without bubble wrap. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that the problem may have more to do with our values than with keeping up with the Jones'. And now that I've written it, I realize that was probably what Buying Time was hinting at. Stuff should be a means to an end, but to an end we truly desire, not just the ends we are told to desire. And, the stuff should never be the ends themsleves, which I am sad to say, is all too common.
For my part, that rude awakening (and a divorce) has led me to move into a 500 sqft studio. If there's no space for it, then I'll just have to do without. Now, where in the heck am I going to keep my 8" jointer?

mbc said...

Here's an article from the Sacramento Business Journal about the builders "downsizing" their product to spur more sales. The downsized floorplans are still well over 2,000 SF.

David said...

A coworker of mine just moved into their new custom house that has probably 4000sf and a four car garage . Could someone please tell me what anyone with one kid and one dog and no plans for more needs with a house that big?
I was over at his house and him and another friend were all wrapped up in a conversation about whether you needed 4 or 6 satellite receivers because you "had" to be able to have 4 or 5 different programs on in different rooms at the same time. "Need" and "want" have been completely confused in this country .
I have also noticed that more and more people think you are weird or "nuts" if you do things for yourself. "You work on your own car" they may exclaim or are completely amazed that you fixed a simple piece of equipment.
I fear for the future of this country!

serenity said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
serenity said...

AB: I would say, the issue here is more along the lines of "Want" rather than "need". We would love to move up to a bigger size home because of family size and all the responsibility that comes along with having your own mom live with you, plus kids, etc...

In all honesty, I probably need about 1000 sqft of livable space but the "addiction" or "want" of an open space without clutter is so appealing... it is hard to turn the "want" side of my brain off.

Sippn said...

1000 feet would be enough, but I'd prefer 4000 too. And I don't ride a bike or own a Prius.

Anonymous said...

Ideas2words - Sell it to me! Seriously, I would like to get into more hobby type work... I get a lot of satisfaction out of building or fixing things that are tangible (not something I can get out of my work). But space and money (tools) are an issue. So I went looking for someplace I could do this. Woodcrafters has all the equipment but they don't rent shop time, it is only for classes and I don't have the time for scheduled classes and who needs another table leg made in class when they don't provide the class for the table top? I had a thought that I can't be alone and there must be some way to create a hobby club that owns a space and equipment. However, most people I talk to about it either don't understand the desire or believe that it couldn't work (for legal or cost or any other reason). I might still figure this one out because then I could continue my constructive activites without having to incorporate the space in my own home. Oh, and can we say community again, a group of like interest individuals having a place to engage and share.

David - I have received the same sort of comments. However, I have started wondering if it is everyone becoming less apt and inclined or if it is more that I have left the working class I grew up in where people do for themselves and each other (often out of necessity) and entered a class where people have always "paid to have it done".

mr big said...

This a lonely country lacking social interaction anymore. People go buy stuff cause it gives them instant gratification and fulfills their loneliness for a little bit.People use to interact with their neighbors but all people do nowadays is go shopping for stuff they don't need.My ex-grilfriend would buy stuff she didn't need and waste tons of money.

All of my stuff will fit in the back of my truck and the 14' trailer in my garage for the trip back to cali in october.If I do not use it I give it away.I hate to have alot of stuff laying around.I have prepared a donation for the vets on thursday.Olds clothes I never wear and othe stuff. We are troubled nation right now.

buying time said...

I think you hit it. I knew there was a strong link between anti-socializaton and consumerism....I just hadn't figured out exactly what it was.

To some degree we have replaced our need for social interaction and relationships with consumption. Our sense of self-worth is now tied to what we have as opposed to our place in the community.

There is a lot to explore on this topic, but unfortunately ...but I have to pack for another business trip....sigh

Cmyst said...

I was just thinking about this problem over the weekend. The Sig Other is a pack rat. He gets very upset with me when I touch, or even look funny at, his "stuff". OTOH, I like to put things up and away if I'm not using them, or donate them to charity, or give them away, etc.

So, I was trying to get my "stuff" out of the den and into the appropriate place for boxed items: the garage. Which already has one space of the 2 car area kind of half-full. And it occurred to me that we have been here 18 months and I don't even know what's in some of those boxes! And when we moved, we actually got rid of a lot, too. And we're not big consumers of cheap junk -- probably the one thing, other than an absurdly childish love of computer gaming, that holds us together is that we both are absolute fashion disasters who only buy clothes when the ones we have begin to wear out.
I was thinking the same thing: 8 years ago I was starting over after a divorce with little more than my clothes, and now I'm drowning in "stuff".
I see this during my workday, too. Very few people have open, clean, uncluttered homes. Which it becomes increasingly important to have as you get older, in order to avoid falls and infections and allergies.
People seem to have a deep need to fill every open space with more and more crap! I have actually been in homes in which there were "paths" through boxes and stacks of things.

mr big said...

"To some degree we have replaced our need for social interaction and relationships with consumption. Our sense of self-worth is now tied to what we have as opposed to our place in the community".

That about sums it all up.You wonder why people want a fancy car and house because they believe people will like them if they have stuff. One thing I have observed is that in poorer communities people are closer together and talk to each other. Just night my neighbor rolled out of the garage as I sat in my truck about to leave and did not even recognize me.The most anti-social people I have ever seen. They are so important that they think they are better than everyone else.This is not the america I grew up in.

David said...

The truth of our situation, at this point in time, is that our economic system is based on the false premise that the world is infinite. Simply put, the economic theories that rule our economy are based on the need for constant growth. We hear that the economy is not doing well because it has only grown 2% this year for example. But tell me this, how can anything grow forever?

The world is a finite place, it has only so much land, so many tons of metals, so many barrels of oil. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either 1) lying to you or 2) crazy.

The only way to get around this problem is by expanding our frontier. Until about 100 years ago we continued to colonize new places, we moved west. That is until we finally colonized the entire habitable part of the planet. Were now to find new space to grow? Moon or Mars perhaps? Then what?
As I see it we have two options. We either figure out how to live within our means and stay put on this planet or we leave. Leaving doesn't seem to be an option right now.

Gwynster said...

"I have actually been in homes in which there were "paths" through boxes and stacks of things."

This sounds like just about every friend I have that's involved with historical reenactment.

I've been reducing my footprint for 3 yrs now so I could get to a point where we could move comfortably with 3 days notice.

ideas2words said...

Anonymous, community shops like you envision do exist, but they are unfortunately rare. Here's a link to the one in D.C. if you want to model your new shop after something:

Cmyst said...

Much of our stuff is SCA, you got me there, Gwyn.
An awful lot of brewing equipment, which we do hope to use again soon. Several bows, some not yet constructed. Boxes of ceder dowels for arrows, along with bags of feathers, and assorted tools. Books, books, books. Two calligraphy sets. Garb, garb, garb. A pavillion tent, wooden tables, chairs, tapestries, rugs. A brazier. An entirely separate
SCA "kosher" kitchen set up for camping.
The nice thing about SCA "stuff" is that it does kind of bring you together with other people. That's the only reason you have it.
Well, other than the brewing set up, but hey -- that brings us together with other people, too, lol!

I must agree with Mr big that the poorer people are the more they tend to socialize and help one another out, in my observation. My daughter and her boyfriend have an extensive network of friends that live in their downtown neighborhood, and in older working class areas neighbors often come by when I'm seeing clients.

And I'm also with David: it has bugged me for years that we have to have continuous growth. I view this as more a negative than a positive, because the world IS a finite place .

Dave said...

Average Buyer said:
"Fresh out of college, my possessions included a beanbag, a bike, a microwave, and of course some clothes and CDs."

Hmmm - that's funny. I lived with you in college and I distinctly remember some Pippi Longstocking socks, a LOT of concert t-shirts and very well-used cappuccino machine. :-)

You may be interested in:
which has a GREAT blog about "getting and staying organized. A place for everything, and everything in its place is our gospel."
They make constant fun of "unitasker" appliances and how they are a complete waste of space. Did you know that you can buy a "pie slice ejector", a "french fry cutter" or an "asparagus pot"? On that last item, Unclutter says "Apparently, preparing asparagus has become so difficult and confusing that the need for a specific pot is crucial in getting it prepared just right."

buying time said...

Too funny Dave....I was wondering if that was you!!! Don't forget my casette tapes of our radio show!

I'm kinda mixed on the lower income issue. Perhaps it is my from transition growing up in a low income family to becoming part of the professional working class which is the problem. I am used to people helping each other out...but it isn't something my "peers" are accustomed to. Although, no class is immune from the accumulation of stuff.

Anonymous said...

The most successful means I ahve experienced of decluttering is to make an agreement with a friend and do a de-clutter. Each of you goes to the others garage and does a clean up. It is much more objective that way. BUT the number one ground rule is... YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO BRING YOUR FRIENDS STUFF HOME.