How to Fix Your Broken Relationship with Stuff

by Tammy Strobel on November 8, 2010

Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Melissa Gorzelanczyk. Melissa writes about simplicity and finding beauty in everyday life at Peace & Projects.

“Instead of trying to improve our relationship with our stuff, we settle for simply cohabiting the same space.” -Laura Crawford, The Path Less Pedaled

Question for you: Who decided it made sense to store unused stuff in plastic bins?

Somehow many years ago, I caught the plastic bin epidemic that swept our nation. I had a basement full of stuff – photo frames, books, fabric remnants, 4-H plaques, candles, random kitsch. To wrangle my cluttered landscape, I made a simple plan. First, build several rows of wood shelves. Second, fill plastic bins with excess stuff. Third, place bins on shelves. Applause! I did what any sick bin-aholic would do and bought close to 30 plastic bins for my mission.

Bin-aholic goes to rehab

It wasn’t until I started reading about minimalism that my forgotten stuff began to haunt me. The problem was that my relationship with stuff was broken. Until I fixed it, no amount of plastic bins would solve the chaotic clutter that always took over my basement storage room.

I knew it was time to take action. Bin by bin, I started to revisit my intentions for all that stuff. I decided to break up with the unwanted and unneeded things in my life. It was officially over. I was done with stuff.

And that’s the key.

If you want to have a healthy love affair with your stuff, you need to change the way you keep it, treat it and spend money on it.

Here are some ways to fix your relationship with stuff and create a calmer environment at home.

Try life on the minimalist side

One way to do this is by focusing on a specific area of stuff, like many did by joining Project 333. This minimalist fashion project encouraged others to wear only 33 items for 3 months. Impossible, you say? Not so fast. I was able to put some of my newly emptied plastic bins to work by loading most of my wardrobe into storage. Give yourself permission to let minimalism be a learning process. Find out what feels right for you. After all, becoming minimalist isn’t a contest, but a collaboration of inspired people.

You can be bold without throwing away all your clothes. Drastically minimize a category of your stuff for 3 months. Move the rest of your things into a holding area. How does it feel? What do you miss? Will you take the rest of your stuff back … or break up with it?

Love the item now or never

If an overstuffed closet makes you cringe, can you admit that this is not a healthy relationship? Sometimes we hold onto stuff for reasons we don’t fully understand. For me, the emotions surfaced while whittling my wardrobe for Project 333. It was surprising to realize I was emotionally attached to items I rarely wore.

To help get past emotional attachments that don’t make sense, take items out, one by one, and ask yourself these questions:

  • Why do I keep this?
  • Is this beautiful?
  • Is this useful to me right now?

If you struggle with the answers, kick the item to the curb, literally. Acknowledge your emotions, but stay strong. Detach and see how you feel in a week.

Get rid of extra baggage

Our culture has become obsessed with disposable. Even items that aren’t disposable – like hair dryers and tank tops – are kept around in bulk “just in case.”  This is a wasteful mindset that will end up costing you money, not saving it. Get rid of the duplicates – donate them to those in need. If your hair dryer breaks, use the time you would have spent digging through bins of stuff to buy a new, quality dryer you’ll totally love.

Ignite your passion to shop local

Put your money to work in your community. Support local artists, woodworkers, knitters and purse makers. Don’t make the cheap, made in China items your first pick. If there is something you want or need, plan ahead and make it a pleasure instead of pointless consumerism.

It’s really like putting your relationship with stuff in reverse. Shift gears and go in a new direction. By experimenting with minimalism, appreciating quality workmanship and focusing on community, you can invite stuff to have a place in your life.  You can start defining who you are by the things you do, and not the stuff that clutters the path.

How about you? Do you feel like your relationship with stuff is broken? Tell me more in the comments below.

* * *

Editor’s note: Check out Melissa’s blog Peace & Projects. While you’re at it, follow her on Twitter. She rocks!

Also, if you’re a blogger consider signing up for this course: “How to Write Like an A-List Blogger”! The first week is free and the course contains information on:

  • The little known power of Story
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Photo by stephenvance
1 Peter Ahrens November 8, 2010

It is amazing how much that sounds like my parents. They have a shed full of old things – my dad has old toys from when he was young and even his first tooth! Unlike you, though, their shed is not neatened into plastic bins.

I am not surprised to find that I moved into the opposite direction from them and try to be as minimal as possible. It is a pain when there are photography supplies, such as large papers and boards, and you have no choice but to store them.

2 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Ew, a tooth?? Definitely time for them to get rid of stuff! I would agree that maybe their ways have influenced you to “rebel” against stuff.

And that’s a good thing. Thanks for stopping by!

3 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Good morning!
Tammy, I just wanted to say thank you for having me on Rowdy Kittens. You’re inspiring, awesome and beautiful.
Have a peaceful week,
Melissa Gorzelanczyk

4 Anna November 8, 2010

As a maker and someone who is trying to make a living by making quality items that I hope people will like, I appreciate the part about supporting local businesses/artists and craftspeople and buying quality items. Whenever I do need something that I can’t make myself, I try to buy items that are well made, by people who have been paid and treated fairly. It makes such a difference and, though it might cost more, that helps me to be more mindful about my purchases.

5 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Anna – Definitely, good for you. I’ve found that the extra money spent on quality things makes me appreciate the item much more. Plus cheaply made things usually break or wear out faster – so they really aren’t saving money anyways.
Thanks for stopping by.
Melissa

6 Clara November 8, 2010

I’ve been trying to fix my relationship with stuff for awhile. It’s slowly getting better. :) I even convinced my hubby not to buy me a birthday gift (although, he did buy me some beautiful flowers and a yummy cake!) because I really don’t need anything. The hardest part is stuff with memories attached — in going through piles of stuff I would call “memorabilia” I really thought about each thing, why I was keeping it, and if I chose to keep it rather than give it away or toss it, I found a way to use the thing (or display it, whichever was most appropriate). Wonderful post. Always reassuring to know that this is not an easy process for anyone!

7 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Clara – My relationship with stuff is an ongoing process, too. This is one of the first years I don’t really have much in mind for Christmas gifts. I’d rather have my family use the money to come visit me sometime during the year than receive a gift.
I know how hard it is to let go of memorabilia, too. I feel like I used to save EVERYTHING. Now I don’t think twice about passing it on.
Good luck with the process and be kind to yourself.
Melissa

8 Freedom | Rethinking the Dream November 8, 2010

My parents are classic bin-aholics. In fact, they just built a shed to house all their bins full of stuff. I’m trying to make a break from this consume and store mindset that I was raised in.

We’re working on purging 10 years worth of junk that has accumlated in our house since we moved in. I started with the closet, and it actually looks quite bare now. Bare in a good way though. I no longer feel claustrophobic when I enter it. It feels peaceful and serene, and I can quickly and easily find a shirt and pants to wear for the day.

I fairly certain my parents think I’ve gone off the deep end. I know where I’m headed though. I’m headed towards more freedom by having less stuff to keep and store.

9 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

So true! Clutter definitely affects my mood, too. I used to decorate my home like many homes in America – covering every spare wall with knick knacks and putting decorative items over my cupboard. One day I decided to take it all down. I felt instantly calmer!

Good for you for bucking the consume and store mindset.

10 Rachel November 8, 2010

Great post. I too have suffered from big plastic bins syndrome. I finally figured out that the magic storage solution is not found at Ikea – it’s found by getting rid of stuff.

11 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Right on, Rachel! The best storage solution is no solution. I like it.

xoxo
Melissa

12 Courtney Carver November 8, 2010

Melissa, This is great. There are so many ways we can approach and change our relationship with stuff. Thanks so much for mentioning Project 333!

13 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Of course! I’m totally loving it – thanks for inspiration.
Melissa

14 annie November 8, 2010

I saw the title of the post and thought it sounded anti-minimalist. Like–you have a broken relationship, how to fix it with stuff. As if stuff could fix anything. But I just read it wrong. Ha!
I’m so ready to downsize my closet!

15 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Annie – It is a really liberating move to downsize the closet. No more baskets of shoes on the floors, no more crammed shelves or racks. Once you get through the process, you’ll love the result.
Much peace,
Melissa

16 Katy November 8, 2010

Great post and super helpful as I am in the middle of my break up with my stuff. I gave away my second hair dryer the other week. I had two industrial strength hair dryers, exactly the same model, because I wanted to be able to leave one at work for when I worked out over lunch. I used this system maybe five times. Then the dryer sat unused for almost two years. My little sister was happy to upgrade to my second hair dryer and her old one went to the Salvation Army. Lesson learned; I am not buying back up items…other than underwear.

17 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Haha, yes, backup underwear is always good.

I’ve tried to do the double up routine for my travel bag, too. Then I realized it’s actually more work to keep track of two sets of personal care items than one. Go figure.

Thanks for stopping by!
Melissa

18 Katie November 8, 2010

Melissa, this is a great post and has got me ready to move. I say ready, because I’ve been slowing preparing for my break up — writing about stuff, coming to an awareness of how much I have, why I have it and soon, I will be breaking up with much of it. I’ve even gathered boxes (not plastic) but cardboard, and this weekend, adios stuff. I almost feel sorry for it because it has absolutely no idea.

19 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Poor unassuming stuff! Love this comment. And go, Katie, go! It’s a hard job, but so worth it.
Melissa

20 Lisa Fine - lisasfoods November 8, 2010

I love the idea of thinking of moving away from stuff as a break up. I often get overwhelmed looking at my boxes of teaching supplies – a field that I am not currently in, and don’t think I’ll go back to, but continue to hold on to this stuff for emotional reasons. The idea of going through it and giving or recyling stuff away bit by bit sounds like the best technique for me too.

Thanks for this great guest post.

21 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Lisa – Thanks for your kind words. With all the emotions attached to stuff, it really can feel like a break up. The good kind, when you realize you’re much better off without it!

22 Stacy November 8, 2010

This is a great post! I have been working on this type of decluttering since the summer. It never fails to amaze me how I can get emotionally attached to certain items. Especially items that are stored in some plastic bin that I look at only a couple of times a year.

It is really freeing to let go of that stuff!

23 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Absolutely freeing! The process can feel so grueling, but in the end I always feel so much better.

24 Jeremy November 8, 2010

I will warn one and all, for those yet to go through it, that finding yourself with a house full of things that your children have used and outgrown provides whole new levels of emotional attachment to try to overcome (if one does not want to be overwhelmed with yet more stuff!). It can be really tricky with old toys of theirs that are too worn out to give away, that might not even be that meaningful to them as teenagers and beyond, but that have an aura of poignancy and past-memory about them. One trick I have used in the process of trying to shed some of this stuff–which is far more surely weighing me down than bringing any true meaning into my life–is to take pictures of things before I get rid of them, whether giving away or just throwing out. I have an iPhoto folder set up for these items, and I may not ever feel the need to look at them again, but somehow the taking of the photo helps me separate from it.

25 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Jeremy – Thanks for the great tip! As a parent I know how hard it can be to put that adorable, daily artwork in the recycling. I’ve tried to save some of the really important pieces – but it’s impossible to save it all.
Glad you stopped by.
Melissa

26 Kori Golightly November 8, 2010

This is exactly what I needed to read today. After my initial love affair with minimalism, I’ve been having trouble maintaining momentum. This post has inspired me to get back to work on streamlining my life.

Thanks!

27 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Kori – This reminds me again that minimalism isn’t a contest, but a collaboration of inspired people. I think it’s easy to get caught up in what qualifies as minimal or how minimal you are or aren’t. I love sharing how minimalism has made my life better. Glad you’ve found some new momentum.
Be well!
Melissa

28 Diane November 8, 2010

Great post! I really love the recommendation to buy something made by a local artisan. If you are going to acquire an object and spend money on it (not just to buy it, but to maintain it, store it, etc.) it makes sense to have it be purchased directly from the maker and to be a high quality item that will last.

Sometimes going cold turkey with those old bins of things may be the best strategy. When my mother called me (nearly 30 years ago now) and told me to come pick up the bins I’d stored at her house when I left for college, or she would throw them all away, I was perfectly happy to ask her to please just dispose of them. She was taken aback and began to worry that I would miss something in the bins, but finally believed me.

I haven’t missed anything from them. The only thing I know for sure was in them were my high school yearbooks. But if I’d made the mistake of opening them, I’m sure I would have had some sentimental attachment to a lot of my childhood gear, so it was best not to even look.

29 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Diane – I love the bit about stuff from childhood. I often think of that as my kids are saving this project or that in a bin … wondering if they will ever want to take it with them someday. I know the answer is no! That’s how I felt, too, when Mom cleaned out the basement. I already had so much stuff, why would I want more?

Great tip – just don’t even look at the stuff. You won’t know what you’re “missing.”

30 Karen November 8, 2010

Ain’t that true! Most ppl have boxes and boxes of stuff in their garage or crawl-space or attic they don’t look at for years because they don’t need that stuff, but then if they rummage thru it they’ll find it too difficult to get rid of it because of sentimentality or “I might need it someday”. But it can’t be that sentimental if its crammed in a box and out of sight for years on end.

31 kelly November 8, 2010

Just this past weekend I was at my parents — Mom asked me to come into the hallway to peer at my old ancient art work and a few dusty sad teddy bears and one “nekkid” plastic baby doll with a really bad haircut. She asked me if I wanted them…..I said No. But I did chase the dog around the house with that “nekkid” plastic baby doll — the dog seemed rather terrified.

32 Melissa Gorzelanczyk November 8, 2010

Hi Kelly – Funny story, I can picture the dog running away. Stuff scares, haven’t you heard?
Thanks for sharing.
Melissa

33 Patrick November 8, 2010

Hi Melissa,

I must also admit that you put me on the wrong foot woth your blog title. Nevertheless, I very much like your post and the way you approach stuff.

Personally, I am new to minimalism and still discovering the way it suits me best. I do have a syrong emotional band with some stuff I own, but I also know that I can part easily woth most thing. I did that quite literally 2 years ago when my relationship broke and I was on the street without much. I recovered since then and have enough stuff piled up again, but I crave to get back to the point of almost nothing. I was happier then without all the clutter.

Personally, when I feel emotionally attached to an item, I put it away in the storage room in the basement of my appartment. When after a few months it is still there, I know I can let it go. Every item I carry back up is meant to stay. These are few though.

I wish you all the best in your minimalist life. Keep up the positive vibe.

34 Sheila November 8, 2010

My partner & I have been breaking up with our stuff for over a year now. It’s hard work, but we’ve emptied most of our blue bins and are feeling more and more calm as we make progress.

I want to also give my thanks for your mention of buying locally made goods, especially as we head into our notorious shopping season.

This post had a lot of great tips. I’m glad to have found you here…..thanks to you and Tammy for sharing!!

35 Diane M November 8, 2010

I love the idea of putting the ‘harder to part with’ things into a holding area and see if they are even missed! I’m going to try that for sure.
I just spent the last 7 hours today at my neighbor’s house helping him go through his recently deceased wife’s sewing and craft supplies for his first garage sale. Next is the doll collection. Oh my…so much junk. She had the same baby crib mobile that I had for my first child 33 years ago! I find it so rewarding to help others shed and in the meantime it helps me realize the absurd behavior of holding on to so stuff in storage containers and elsewhere. My neighbor couldn’t have possible know all that she even possessed.

I did the container purchase years ago and it’s so great to empty them one by one and rid myself of owning less. You’ve inspired me to empty the top of my kitchen cabinets NOW!

Great post!

36 Debbie November 8, 2010

I laughed out loud when i read your comment on plastic storage bins. I have only recently become hooked on minimalist blogs as I find so much comfort from them as I ‘shed my old self’ who used to be proud to be sentimental. Just before I started my minimalist journey I bought something like 8 big plastic storage bins to store my annoying stuff! Now those very bins that are all cracked and breaking are being used to take all my stuff away to charity groups. Goodbye to my old stuff and also to those plastic tubs as I am also purging my life of as much ‘plastic’ as I can.

Thanks for an awesome post and thanks for suggesting the ‘How to write like an A-List blogger” bootcamp. I have literally just started my own blog at http://www.insymphonywithnature.com and also signed up for the bootcamp to make my blog something that really touches people!

Thanks again!!

37 sunny November 8, 2010

Thank you for this post! I am a recovering binaholic :) (saw myself so clearly in this post…and I am the daughter of another binaholic. She still has 30+ bins in the basement of my brother’s house where she herself lives in a 350 s.f. studio apartment.)

My stuff is in a storage locker and in two closets in my apartment. I don’t know how to break up with my yearbooks and other “memory” items. Yet I think of Peter Walsh – because when he works with people who say something is a treasure – he’ll remind them that they haven’t treated the items like treasures (if they’re all dusty and tossed in a box somewhere).

I don’t know what push I need to just be rid of the things in my life holding me down and back from who knows what?!

38 J November 9, 2010

I am in the process of clearing my (inherited) house of my grandparents belongings…they lived here for nearly 50 years. My grandmother was 91 at the time of her death and my grandfather was 100 so they were no longer able to use much of what they had accumulated over the years. They were both products of the Depression and so saved a great deal. In their defense, they were both very creative, intelligent and gifted at finding/creating new uses for items most of us would have discarded. However, the house (over 3500 sq ft) was full–as were the three sheds on the property–not like a hoarding case– but all the closets, drawers and such had stuff in them. My grandfather alone had enough nails and screws in his workshop to literally have built another house–only many of them had begun to rust. It has been overwhelming.
I have decided that I cannot do the same to my child at the time of my death so I am ditching as much as I can of my own stuff. I am having a hard time with my books. I love to reread them…sometimes even just bits of them. Kindle doesn’t appeal to me because I prefer to hold a book in hand and I don’t like reading from the screen.

I, too, have used photographs to allow me to discard some sentimental items that I have kept for years.

39 Tegan November 10, 2010

What a great post, i am in the process of ‘breaking up with my stuff’, i have already shed all my old dvds, cd’s, computer games and clothes and im looking for inspiration on how to keep the momentum going, im so glad i found this blog and post.

Few tips from me on ‘letting go’ :

Usually if im having a hard time letting go of an item i always ask myself

‘wouldnt it feel better to know that somebody less fortunate than myself is getting good use out of this item?’ , this usually always results in me letting go of the item and sending it to a charity shop.

Another useful tool ive found is to bag the items up and store them in my garage for 2 weeks (i will put a note in my diary to check in 2 weeks time) , if i havent looked in that bag for those 2 weeks (or even remembered the bag was there) then it will go straight to the charity shop without me opening it again.

Thanks

Tegan

40 CissyBlue November 14, 2010

I’m puzzled why it becomes so grueling to part with things. Even the things that are no longer useful. This is a lovely post that really makes you re-examine yourself. Thanks, Cissy

41 Bernie Mack November 20, 2010

I totally agree with this! I have just started the journey and I cannot believe how my stress level has dropped by getting rid of excess stuff and clutter. Its a state of mind!

42 Andrea DeBell - britetalk December 17, 2010

Hi! This was hilarious. I always thought that I was very organized with my plastic bins everywhere. Now I see that I put away things in bins for safekeeping and future use (which very rarely happen). I’m pretty minimalist with my stuff and I love purging but the bin issue touched a nerve. I definitely need to revise my bin theory.
Thanks for the reminder. Loving blessings!

43 Edith February 27, 2011

This article is great. I’ve been fighting with consumerism all my life. Right now, what works for me is the ecological view. I’ve never wanted to be a burden for this planet, so before buying I think how long the thing will last, if I really need it, if a forest or natural place was destroyed to get the materials, if it will be sitting around for hundreds of years in a dump site after I discard it… Then, not buying becomes a matter of being good to earth and not just a matter of depriving myself from something I want… Thinking this way gives a greater meaning to the action of not buying and helps me feel good and not jealous when I see others having what I can but won’t. My husband reminds me of this when we go shopping so we also avoid fights and tantrums in the mall. My bank account benefits.

44 A high tech blog March 2, 2011

In fact, in my life i have experienced to trash unused things and to leave only necessary things in my appartement and i feel better.
Someone said that the things we possess are possessing you.
Thanks for this post.

PS : Sorry for my English

45 Eva March 22, 2011

I’m starting to see our place, and the relatively small size of it, as a blessing. I’m now happy my husband ignored me when I said there was too little storage. Thanks for the inspiration.

46 Mel August 28, 2011

Great post! I have a hard time letting go of my own things, mostly shirts and little things from fundraising events, I’m 21 and have a shirt from an event when I was 9!! My sons stuff is a completely different story (He’s 3), half the time it’s out of here before he’s even done using it because someone else can use it.
I think that’s my biggest issue, I hate throwing things out so if someone can use the item and I don’t absolutely need it then it’s out of here, but my stuff, no one can really use/want, so it stays here.

Your post and comments from others have inspired me to finally work on getting these shirts and things out of here! and I’m excited to do it!

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