Clutter-Creator #2: Stuff I’m Convinced Has Value

In my last two posts, I said that dealing effectively with a cluttered workspace is all about changing the way you think about your stuff, and I dealt with Clutter-Creator #1: “Stuff for Someday.” For me, the #1 reason I hang on to junk is that “I might need it someday.”

But a close second is “I’m Convinced This Is Valuable.” It’s all too easy for me to let stuff clutter up my workspace because I feel like it’s too good to let go of. That value can be in money, but it can also be a less tangible kind of value, such as time.

I Paid a Lot for That!

It can be hard to let go of something we paid a lot for, even if it turns out to be completely useless.

Earlier this summer I helped some folks remove a fallen tree from their yard, and I brought home a couple red oak logs that I hoped to split up into legs for some stools I’m planning on building. They sat in my yard for a week or two, and then one hot weekend, I worked up quite a sweat splitting them into quarters with a sledge and wedges.

Much to my dismay, the wood was already riddled with bug holes. The tree had been down for too long, and the bugs had gotten to it first.

I considered keeping it anyway, but in my better judgment, I knew the strength of the wood was already compromised. I was also not confident in my ability to completely eradicate the bugs. But I had spent all that time bringing the wood home and splitting it up! I hated to drag it over to the trash pile. In the end, though, that’s what I did.

I don’t regret it. There is no use, they say, in throwing good money after bad. And there is no use in hanging on to useless things just because I have already spent a lot of time and effort on them.

While I’m tempted to keep things just because I spent time on them, there are other things I keep because I spent good money on them. This is can be one of the hardest mental blocks for people like me to get over.

But just because I once paid good money (or time) for it does not mean that I should continue to pay for the item’s existence. The book that inspired this blog series, Making Space, Clutter Free by Tracy McCubbin, points out that an item’s true cost is often much more than its original sticker price.

Keeping something always costs me space. If an object is occupying space that it should not be, then that’s a real cost that I should not continue to pay.

Keeping something often costs me time. Every time I have to move it out of the way (if it’s sitting on my benchtop or in the walkway) or dig around to find it (if it’s under/behind other things), then I am paying with my time to keep it—probably more than it’s worth.

It Was a Really Good Deal!

I am not nearly as much of a bargain hunter as some other guys I know (J.D.E., you know who you are!), but I am still prone to bringing home stuff I don’t really need just because it was a bargain price—or free!

For me, dealing with the “It was a good deal” clutter-creator has to happen before I make the purchase. It was a genuinely liberating day when I realized that, just because something is a great deal, that doesn’t mean it has to be a great deal for me. I can walk away and let it be a great deal for someone else!

There is absolutely nothing wrong with passing up an awesome tool at a bargain price thinking, “Some guy is going to be thrilled to find that—and that guy doesn’t have to be ME.”

You are not the only bargain-hunter in town. Teach yourself to feel great that, because you walked away, you helped somebody else get that great deal.

I Don’t Want It to Go to Waste

Part of growing up in the rural Midwest is learning not to waste things. Don’t let the water run if you’re not using it. Cut up old clothes for rags. Eat the leftovers in the fridge. It’s a good habit, I think. But it can also get out of hand, and if not counter-balanced by other good habits, it can lead to an enormous amount of clutter.

We all probably know “hoarders” who save absolutely everything–ketchup packets, plastic flatware, yogurt cups, scrap paper. The root of the problem is usually fear of scarcity. We hoard stuff because, at some point in our lives, we experienced extreme scarcity (or the threat of it), and we quickly developed the habit of hoarding in response.

That’s me, too. When I first started working wood, I was a graduate student making a solid four-figure salary, so I economized in every way possible. Back then, I remember reading a magazine article that included the phrase, “Use a piece of scrap to….” My heart sank. I had NO scraps–I had planned my initial projects so carefully that every single bit of wood had been used. I began to salvage whatever wood scraps I could find.

But now that habit has caught up with me. I still save wood scraps, old hardware, and worn-out tools as a matter of habit. I am trying to consciously let much of this stuff go by reminding myself that scrap is no longer scarce. Every project generates more. I can now afford to buy a little extra wood here and there. Being able to work in an uncluttered shop feels better than compulsively piling up scraps.

I started this process of re-thinking my approach to scraps before I read McCubbin’s book, but the book helped me see my compulsive scrap-saving in a whole new light. I do not want things to go to waste, but when I hoard things instead of putting them to use, I am wasting them. Stuff sitting on the bottom of a pile of clutter is already being wasted!

I can’t tell you how many times I have de-cluttered a damp corner of my workspace, only to find a few old wood scraps covered in fungus or rotted right through. Why didn’t I just discard them to begin with? Because I didn’t want to waste them. As it turned out, the day I left them there they had already gone to waste–but I didn’t know it.

I have realized that clutter is already a waste. That frees me from bringing the clutter back in. Piling scraps in my workspace is even more wasteful than tossing them in the burn pile, because I am wasting both them and my available space.

That’s Really Valuable!

I used to want to hold on to things, especially antiques, that I thought might be valuable. But helping an elderly neighbor, Mrs. W., move furniture out of her old house helped cure me of that. Before we went over to the house, she showed me an upscale furniture catalog, and pointed to a nice, fashionable settee on one of the pages.

“Look at that,” she said to me, pointing a gnarled finger at the page. “How much does that cost?” (She was fond of asking rhetorical questions.)

It was about a thousand dollars, as I recall. I read the price out loud.

“I have one just like it in my old house, made from solid maple” she informed me, “and my daughter just wants to get rid of it! People don’t know what things are worth.”

Mrs. W. wasn’t there when we found the old settee she had told me about. There it was in a corner, the cushions stained and torn, and the whole thing covered in dust. It was, as she had told me, built from maple, but one leg was damaged. It was not the valuable antique Mrs. W. imagined that she remembered. Even if repaired, it would not be worth a quarter of the price of that new settee she had seen in the furniture catalog.

My experience helped me see that, when we are convinced that an object has monetary value, we often stop seeing the object as it is. In our minds, we cast over it an artificial veneer of memory modified by imagination and wishful thinking, all sprinkled with dollar signs. (Mrs. W. had the added disadvantage of being nearly blind, so she could not see that settee as it was at all.) If we were to bring it out in the light, and snap some pictures of the object, we might be surprised that it doesn’t look at all like we had imagined it did.

If I think that an object does have monetary value, it’s easy to check. I look up similar objects on eBay. But—and this is really important—I don’t look at list prices! I look at “sold” prices. Because an object is not necessarily worth its asking price; it’s only worth what someone actually pays for it. If an object is large and difficult to ship, then I can always look at local listings like Craig’s List and Facebook Marketplace, which don’t give you “sold” prices. But you can see which listings disappear quickly (because the items sell) and which ones just sit there. Look up your item there once, and take note of asking prices. Then wait two weeks, and look again. The listings that are gone will tell you what an item like that is actually worth. The listings that are still there are being offered by people afflicted with wishful-thinking syndrome.

It’s Not as Valuable as You Think

If I suspect I’m hanging on to clutter just because I have convinced myself that it’s valuable, I need to ask myself two important questions:

1. How often do I really need this kind of thing? NOT “Do I think I might need it ‘someday’?” (which I covered in my last post), but how often in the past year have I reached for something like this? Once? Twice? Or can’t I remember the last time I used this?

If I have not used it in the past, that’s a pretty good indication that I’m not likely to use it in the future. So maybe those narrow offcuts of OSB don’t need to be taking up space in my lumber rack after all. I do remember the last time I used OSB, and it wasn’t recently. I don’t use the stuff regularly, and I don’t need it just taking up valuable space.

2. If I didn’t have it, how hard would it be to acquire it again?

This one has really makes me pause. If I need hinges for a box I’m making, I go down to the hardware store and buy them. Or I order them online if I want extra-nice ones. If I need to do some rough construction, I will buy a box of framing nails when I buy my lumber. I don’t need to keep a half-dozen rusty framing nails in the bottom of a big box—or, if I do keep them, I can at least throw out the box!

On the other hand, I often find myself looking for a 2X4, whether for blocking or for screwing together some quick-and-dirty frame for some project. It’s a pain to have to run all the way down to the home center to buy one or two 2X4s, so I like to keep a few on hand at all times. I have never regretted that.

But I don’t need to keep a dozen short 2X4 offcuts, since I really never find myself thinking, “If only I had a twelve sections of 2X4 that were shorter than a foot!” If I need one or two, I can cut them off the end of a longer piece of scrap.

I have to keep reminding myself that the purchase price is not the total cost of an item. I need to assess whether keeping an item is also worth its cost in space and time. (And if you have stuff in a storage unit, you might want to calculate how much keeping all that stuff has been costing you in additional dollars.)

Next time I’ll talk about one of my most uncomfortable clutter-creators, the Stuff I’m Avoiding.

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9 Responses to Clutter-Creator #2: Stuff I’m Convinced Has Value

  1. Bethany Joy says:

    An excellent example of how to confront the “sunk cost fallacy.” When trying to release things I’ve already spent time, energy, or money on, it sometimes help to ask myself, “What did I learn from this? How has it already been valuable to me, even if I didn’t finish what I imagined doing with it?”

    • That’s a really good way to look at it, Bethany. We define “value” far too narrowly at times. And as someone who gets paid to educate, I too seldom think of it in this way. But you’re right: learning lessons is valuable–even if I didn’t want or plan to pay for the lesson in this particular way!

  2. Jeremy says:

    Excellent points here, really good to reexamine the reasons we hold on to stuff critically, often it’s easier mentally to hold on to something “in the moment” only all those moments eventually add up leading to a mentally time consuming purge

  3. Gav says:

    Yesterday I spent some time cleaning up the detritus which accumulates from back to back jobs. There is a relatively narrow area between my side fence and the shed which is good for storage until you can’t use it so I faced all the stuff you mentioned above. There was a slab of Marri I had been given leaning against the shed on a couple of blocks, it was big 2600mm x 800mm x 50mm, a two person lift. It was also in the way and I had to be rational so I lowered it to the ground and broke it up there with my 9″ circular. It was given to me by a neighbour whose shed it had been leaning against . He had been given it from a friend whose woodworking business changed and had cleared out excess stock. I now have four decent usable chunks which store easily once I cut out all the rubbish rotten and split timber and my mother in law has five bags of firewood. I can also use the space more efficiently. Effectively if this had been done by the first owner all the energy involved moving this impressive but ultimately flawed monolith would have been saved. Once done I am now even more convinced it should have been done sooner.

  4. Dennis says:

    This series is fabulous! I just turned 50 and found that I have spent most of my life acquiring things; many of which I have only used once or not at all. I bought an HVLP sprayer many years ago because it was on sale. I loved the idea of spraying lacquer on all my projects, but I don’t have anywhere to spray without inhaling all the chemicals. I have been holding onto it because someday…. And because it’s worth a couple hundred bucks…. After it sitting in my shop for more than five years unused, it is time to say goodbye. Thanks for your blog.

  5. Paul Bouchard says:

    “…the purchase price is not the total cost of an item“ – this resonates with me.

    My workspace is currently part of my living space. I’ve made cabinets and shelves for my tools and supplies but after a point, I decided it was far cheaper to give away or cheaply sell non-essential stuff than to buy wood and spend time building storage.

    • It resonated with me, too, Paul! (It’s a paraphrase from the Making Space book on which the series is based.) In its original context, the author was talking specifically about how much money some people pour into renting storage units–money they continue to spend in order to “keep” the stuff they feel bad about getting rid of. In my case, I don’t rent storage space–but my clutter has proved costly in other ways, nevertheless. I’ll mention one way in my next post.

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