[This is part three of the changing the world in 5 easy steps series]

You buy furniture. You tell yourself, this is the last sofa I will ever need in my life. Buy the sofa, then for a couple years you’re satisfied that no matter what goes wrong, at least you’ve got your sofa issue handled. Then the right set of dishes. Then the perfect bed. The drapes. The rug. Then you’re trapped in your lovely nest, and the things you used to own, now they own you. ~Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Stop. Buying. Crap.

As a recovering collector this is something I struggle with on a regular basis. But struggling with it is a step in the right direction, because at least it’s trying. This series is about things anyone can do with a little effort, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the one that takes the most effort for me on a regular basis. Rather than run off a list of pros and cons for this I’m going to tell you a (rather long winded) story and maybe you’ll relate to it somehow.

Growing up my family was poor. Like, really poor. No food around the house and electricity getting turned off and car being repossessed poor. As a kid all that really translated into for me was embarrassment and not having the same cool stuff my friends had. When I got a little older and got a job, I really did that just so I could have my own income and not have to rely on anyone else to get the things I wanted. This continued for years, and when I couldn’t afford the things I wanted I figured out a way to make more money to buy them. Admittedly, buying “things” has been a huge motivator for me for a lot of my life. I bought the newest and best things, and old nostalgic things. Anyone who knew me when I lived in Gainesville or Chicago can attest to the sheer amount of stuff I had around.

I’d always been a fan of minimalism in design, but it wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and saw houses designed by Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames that I realized the whitespace I appreciated so much on paper and canvas could also work in buildings and physical spaces. Objects took on new meaning for me and I remember making a conscious realization that the feelings I got when looking at a great painting could also come from what I was surrounding myself with. Suddenly buying things became less important than buying the right things. I had no couch for over a year because I couldn’t afford the one I wanted, and I was no longer just going to buy something to fill that that space until something better came along.

The well thought out choice became key. And I think I did pretty well with that. Sure there were spur of the moment random purchases but for the most part if I was going to buy something I’d thought long and hard about it and could tell you a fairly valid justification as to why I wanted it around me. With this change of course I started realizing that in many cases I had previously bought three or four things that cost $20 each, when I could have bought one thing that was $50 and served the same purpose as all the others. About the same time I realized that many of the new things I had weren’t working as well as the older ones, and realized that the newest isn’t always the best. If something broke and had to be replaced then sure, but if something was working fine just because there was a newer shinier model wasn’t really a good enough reason to replace it.

I have the same stereo head and speakers that I bought when I first went to college. They still work great actually. I’ve thought plenty of times about getting rid of them and upgrading to a newer name brand set up that would be more… well.. more new. For one reason or another I never did, and I actually felt kind of good about that. I started reading a lot about how much people waste and how much more is being produced because of the churn rate. Especially in relation to the US vs the rest of the world. Why did we need so much stuff and why were we trashing things with so much life left in them? I thought about this a lot. I’ve known people who have eaten every meal and furnished their entire houses with things other people threw away. That’s a little extreme for me, but know it’s possible made me stop and think a lot about what I was buying and what I was getting rid of. There was a lot of crap out there, and a lot of money being spent on acquiring it. But why?

I should make it really clear that none of this was overnight, and most of these realizations took months or years to fully click for me. I generally always had a bag around that I was planning to take to goodwill because I’d bought something that turned out to be useless for me. And then in early 2007 I moved and had to physically touch every thing I owned. I was doing a lot of soul searching at the time, but touching those objects, one by one, I found myself asking why I had things more often then not. I think it’s safe to say that I got rid of at least 70% of the stuff I owned at that point, maybe up to 80% even. It was literally the most liberating feeling I’ve ever had in my life.

I felt free.

But the kind of freedom that only comes from not even know you weren’t free before then. I could only imagine how it would feel to get rid of the rest of it, however I knew that wasn’t in my cards. Since then I’ve gone back and forth with some lapses and some purges but I still have less stuff of my own then I did 5 years ago which is a good thing. I just moved again and ran across a lot I can do without so consolidating is definitely in my near future plans. Peter Walsh’s It’s All Too Much touches on some of these ideas. Last month I collected some of those things into a pile and posted them online saying “free if you come get them” and it felt amazing when people who really needed them showed up and were overjoyed at getting things I hadn’t used in years but still worked fantastically. I highly recommend that to anyone.

So how does this change the world you ask? Well in many ways. By getting rid of things you aren’t using, you make them available to other people who need them. (assuming you don’t just trash them of course, but sometimes even then.) By passing something on, that means fewer of those items need to be made in the future, which means less waste build up from production, and less waste piling up when they eventually do become useless. Plus buying your used something that still works fine is cheaper then buying a new one so people save money. If you find something you have that works and don’t need to upgrade it, you save money. People saving more money is good for everyone because then they have it to spend on the important stuff later.

Plus not buying tons of crap you never use, on a large enough scale, actually slows the production of said tons of crap because there’s less demand for it which leads to less clutter on a global level. Presto.

Previously: Part 2: Ride A Bike