mnmlist: the true cost of stuff

Often we think about cutting down on what we buy because we’d like to be frugal, and save money. And I’m all for that.

But there’s more to buying less. Way more.

The cost of purchasing an item just scratches the surface. When we buy something, we are taking it into our homes, our lives, and we are taking on the life of another object in this world.

The life of an object? But surely you’ve gone mad, Leo.

It’s entirely possible I have — I’m talking to myself in this post, after all. But hear me out, O hypothetical reader in my mind.

An object isn’t born in the store. It is born in the woods (if it is wood), in the mines (if it’s metal), in the depths of the world (in the case of petroleum-based products such as plastics, synthetic textiles and such), or perhaps all three places and more if it’s a combination of materials. It’s born when those natural resources are mined or harvested (at great cost and great cost to the environment), and then hauled to a factory somewhere, a factory that pollutes, inevitably. It’s shaped and shifted into its final form (often in various factories), then shipped to various distribution systems and finally to the retailer.

I say finally, but it’s far from final. The life of this object has just begun to enter our lives, even though we’ve already paid for the destruction of our Earth just to own it.

Now we must transport it home, further polluting and consuming and paying — paying for the cost of fuel and maintenance of our transportation, unless it’s human-powered, as well as the cost of time, precious seconds of our lives that we’ll never get back).

All of that spent, it now occupies valuable real estate in our homes (or offices), real estate that could go to living space, or real estate that we could give up if we had less stuff and a smaller home. This is real estate that’s really expensive, btw: we pay exorbitant prices to own or rent a home, and every square foot of that home costs us more precious time that we spend working to earn the money to pay for that real estate. And that’s just for rent or mortgage. Add in the cost of power or gas to heat or cool that home, the cost of maintaining the home, and the time we spend maintaining and cleaning and decluttering and organizing that home and the stuff in it.

And yet, we’ve still only scratched the surface. The item, if it’s electronic, requires power. All the time. The item needs to be maintained. Switched on and off, cleaned, oiled, and caution taken not to break it. These are more precious seconds, precious dollars. If it’s wood or metal or glass, it might need to be polished. It might break a bit and need repairing. We have to store its warranty somewhere, and not forget about that (more mental cycles spent). We might have special tools for it, cleaning products, accessories. All of those require space and care and money.

And yet, we’re not even halfway there. I’ll spare you the rest of the narrative and just make a list.

And this is only a partial list. Some costs of owning stuff:

  • It clutters our space, causing distractions and stress.
  • We must constantly move it to get to other stuff, to clean, to organize, to paint walls or decorate or remodel.
  • We must take it with us if we move, and often if we travel. That’s a ton of trouble and costs.
  • Often we pay for extra storage, outside in our yards or in storage facilities.
  • If it breaks, we will often take it to be repaired.
  • If we have kids or pets, we have to worry about it getting broken, or scold them for not being careful with it.
  • If we get used to it, and it breaks, we’ll replace it because we think we need it.
  • If it gets old and crotchety, we have the headache of putting up with a less-than-functioning tool.
  • If we have too much stuff, it weighs us down, emotionally.
  • We get attached to our stuff, creating an emotional battle when we consider giving it up (whether we actually give it up or not).
  • If we have too much stuff, we live in a cramped space, and don’t have room for our other stuff.
  • Too much stuff causes more messes and is harder to clean.
  • We might trip over stuff and hurt ourselves.
  • If we don’t trip over it, we must worry about that each time we pass by the item.
  • If we went into debt buying the stuff, we must deal with all the pain and worry of that debt, added to other debt.
  • Even if we don’t go into debt, there’s the added burden of dealing with the financial transaction in our checking registers or financial software, or reconciling it with the bank statement. If we even bother, because sometimes it’s just too much.
  • It gives us a false sense of security.
  • It reduces the time we have to spend doing things, instead of worrying about, cleaning, maintaining, using, and working to pay for stuff.
  • It reduces the quality of the time we do have.
  • At some point, we must worry about (and spend time and money on) getting rid of the item. This means time and money spent on Ebay, Craiglist, a yardsale, giving it to a charity or friend or relative (and the driving required to do that), taking out a classified ad, dealing with buyers, and so on. A real headache.
  • If you die and leave your stuff, your relatives will have to deal with all of it. A real headache indeed.
  • If, goodness forbid, a natural disaster happens, or your home gets burgled, you’ll have to deal with the emotional loss of stuff.

I could go on, as you can probably tell. There is no way to calculate the true cost of stuff, as it’s way too complicated to put numbers on.

Just remember all of that, when you consider getting an item — even if it’s supposedly free. Nothing is free, when you consider all of the above. Are you ready to deal with the life of that item, and the life you’re going to give up to own it?