The Cost of Being a Hoarder

Everyone has way too much stuff.  I do.  You do (don’t lie!).  I don’t know how everyone got in this position, but I imagine it was one piece of crap at a time.  Or sometimes one bag or box of crap at a time.

We keep stuff that is useful, or at least we think it is useful.  Or we think one day it might be useful.  Or one day our stuff might be useful to someone.


Why do we keep all this stuff?

The late social commentator and comedian George Carlin had an answer:

Have you ever noticed that their stuff is $hit and your $hit is stuff?

It’s hard to argue with that!  We know when other people’s stuff is junk.

Mr. Carlin also had some additional insights into the role of our houses:

A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.

We all seem to be automatons stuck in permanent stuff acquisition mode.  We are machines caught in an infinite loop with no error checking to determine whether we actually need any more stuff.  We keep blindly bringing home shiny baubles to pack into our houses.

Another social commentator, Tyler Durden, from the somewhat fictional movie “Fight Club” said:

Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy $hit we don’t need.

And then once we have the stuff, does it make us any happier?  Initially, yes.  Then eventually we get newer stuff to replace the slightly older stuff.  The sad, old stuff gets tossed aside like a forgotten childhood toy.  Forgotten, but still there.  Cluttering up our wonderful homes.

Our addiction to stuff has generated a plethora of docudramas that profile hoarders with really serious addictions to stuff acquisition.  Shows like Hoarders, Confessions: Animal Hoarding, and Hoarding: Buried Alive appeal to our voyeuristic desire to see other people who have way more stuff than us.  We see people with houses dangerously packed floor to ceiling with junk and it makes us feel a tiny bit better about having mere clutter and a few piles of stuff we don’t need.

Is this what your house looks like?
Is this what your house looks like?

Some people establish strong emotional attachments to stuff.  Items of a personal nature might be regarded as valuable because of what the item represents, the circumstances surrounding acquisition of an item, or the relationship with the person giving the item.  The problem arises when the emotions attached to an item are conflated with the item itself.  You can keep the emotions, feelings, and memories attached to objects without keeping the objects themselves.  Sometimes stuff becomes junk because we can’t part with it when it no longer serves any purpose in our lives.

We get stuff and keep stuff because we think it useful or novel or “it might be worth something to someone someday”.  Maybe.  However, there is a cost to having stuff that is often overlooked.  The purchase price is only a part of the total cost of stuff.


Cost of Stuff

The total cost of stuff is pretty amazing when you break it down:

  • cost to acquire
  • cost to maintain
  • cost to operate
  • cost to insure
  • cost to store
  • cost to dispose

The cost to acquire an item goes beyond the purchase price.  It takes time to browse or research an item before buying.  Driving to and from the store takes time and money.

After you bring the item home and carefully extract it from its excessive packaging, you may incur more expenses to maintain or operate the item.  Electronics require electricity that can cost tens or hundreds of dollars per year (and rival the purchase price after a few years).  That cute little $4 light up ceramic cottage sculpture is ever so picturesque with it’s glowing little 10 watt incandescent bulb inside.  Each year you will pay $10 for the electricity to make it shine.  Eventually the light bulb will need replacing.  Probably not before you put the now ugly ceramic cottage sculpture away in the place where all knick knacks go to die (your closet? your attic?).

Outside toys like jet skis, snowmobiles, and ATV’s require routine maintenance to continue operating properly.  These outside toys might have property tax bills due annually.

If you have large collections of things that may be valuable, you must have additional insurance coverage on your home insurance policy to cover your collections.  Coverage on collectibles like coins, gold/silver, and guns is often limited to a few thousand dollars.  Additional insurance coverage could cost you tens or hundreds of dollars each year.

When you have stuff, it takes up space.  Space costs money, even if you have paid off your mortgage.  We have an 1,800 square foot house and still spend $5,500 per year (not including the mortgage) to maintain the house.  That works out to $3 per square foot every year.  If we had one bedroom full of junk, that equates to about $400 per year we pay just to store junk.

As confusing as it may seem, people actually pay good money to rent additional places to store their junk.  I guess that is what you do when your house is full of junk?  Looking around at the local places that rent junk storage units, $12 per sq. ft. per year is the going rate for a small 10 ft x 10 ft sepulcher for your junk (face it, that junk isn’t coming back from the dead – it’s a one way trip to the storage unit for your beloved junk).  $1200 per year?!  That’s a lot to store junk of dubious real value.  But these storage unit places keep popping up, which means there is a decent demand for their services.

Eventually your junk piles up and you are forced to dispose of it if you want to have any chance of living in your house.  You might be facing steep costs to get rid of your junk.  Local landfills charge tipping fees when you are bring truckloads of junk.  You may pay $50 or more to have your municipal trash service pick up special loads of junk (some do this for free).  A burgeoning industry of junk removal professionals like 1-800-GOT-JUNK has appeared in the last decade or two in order to help you with large scale junk removal.

In addition to the cost to acquire, maintain, operate, insure, store, and dispose of stuff, there is the emotional toll of stuff.  It just sits there.  Staring at us.  Collecting dust.  Stubbing our toes.  Confounding our efforts to find a particular piece of stuff because, well, there is stuff everywhere (but not the stuff we seek).

Stuff worries us.  Will the junk piles fall on me?  Will the kids get trapped under an avalanche of things, knick knacks, and gotta have bargains?

In extreme cases, (like those in the TV show Hoarders) people are so ashamed of their junk piles that they can’t use their homes to entertain guests.  The stuff starts to creep and crawl into the yard and onto the front porch and back deck.  The neighbors don’t know what to think.

House Full of Junk?  Now What?

The first step to getting rid of junk is to stop buying more crap.  Just don’t buy it.  Let it sit on the shelf or stay in your online shopping cart.  Think about it for a few days.  If you still need it, buy it.  When your new absolutely necessary purchase comes in your house, find something else to get rid of.  You have to have room for your new stuff, so get rid of some old stuff.  We try to do this with kitchenware since space is limited.  Holding ourselves to the “one comes in, one goes out” rule also prevents us from spontaneous purchases of highly awesome products of dubious actual value that we would rarely use (fondue pots and Star Wars themed corn cob holders come to mind).

Instead of buying, consider borrowing.  You’ll save some money and not have more clutter.  This strategy works best for items you use once or twice per year.  Don’t forget to return the favor.

If you bought something but you don’t need it after all, return it.  Almost all stores accept merchandise returns, and many will take back items without a receipt even months after the purchase.

A few years ago I organized my shed and I kept finding hardware items I purchased but never got around to using.  I gathered up a bag full of these items and returned them to Home Depot, and they took back all of them but one.  I received around $40 total for these items in the form of a gift card.  I made some money, but more importantly, I have less junk cluttering my shed.

Once you halt the influx of new crap, let the mass exodus of old crap begin.  Professional organizers suggest focusing on one room at a time. Here is a suggestion for sorting categories:

  • definitely keep
  • maybe keep (revisit this at the end of the day)
  • sell
  • donate/give away
  • trash

For the “maybe keep” items, you might want to use the “6 month box” trick.  If you don’t know whether you actually want to keep something, but aren’t committed to getting rid of it immediately, stick the item in a cardboard box.  Fill up the box with these questionable keeps, tape it up, and write the date 6 months from now.  If you don’t need anything in the box after 6 months, sell it, toss it, donate it, or give it away.

Sell unwanted items that are actually worth something.  Craigslist, Ebay and Amazon have worked well for me in the past. It takes time to photograph and post items for sale, so I would suggest limiting your “things to sell” pile to items that might sell for $10-15 or more. Or collect a big pile of similar items and take a shot at selling all of them as a lot (those dozens of old Beanie Babies gotta go!).

Easy things to list and sell for decent prices include video games and systems, DVD’s or Blu-Rays, relatively new computers, tablets, and phones.  Collectibles can be tricky, so make sure they are worth something before spending a lot of time listing items at Ebay or Amazon.

Craigslist is great for big, bulky items.  Furniture, large electronics, hardware, tools, and sporting equipment go quickly on Craigslist.  Used items that the buyer may want to inspect before purchasing also sell well on Craigslist.  In the past year I sold a hiking backpack for $60, golf clubs for $50, and a TV mount for $40.  The hiking pack and golf clubs were sitting in my closet for 10 years, and sold for about half their brand new cost, even though they were used.  I bought the TV mount brand new online for $15 after a rebate.  It didn’t have the features I wanted, so I put it on Craigslist and sold it for almost 3 times what I paid for it within one day!  I netted around $135 from stuff that would have continued collecting dust at my house, and have more free space to better organize the important things I decide to keep.  

Some possessions don’t have a high resale value but can cost a lot if purchased new.  Think about family and friends that might be interested in your lightly used but loved possessions.  Clothes, children’s items, games, toys, books, and kitchenware fall into this category.  Helpful hint: do your family and friends a favor and don’t force them to take your unwanted junk.  Be mindful of subtle hints from family and friends that they might not want your tie dye t-shirts from your wanderlust hippie days.

If your stuff really does suck and you can’t persuade any family or friends to take anything, consider donating these unwanted items to a local non-profit or thrift shop.  Clothes, household goods, sporting goods, and books fall into this category.  Get creative and find a cause you support that accepts used items.  Vietnam Veterans, animal shelters, and local churches and libraries often take used items and then resell them in bulk to support their programs.

Unfortunately, some of your stuff is junk.  The kind of junk you don’t want to give to your friends or donate to a thrift shop.  The kind of junk no one wants.  You have to toss it out.  Get this crap out of your house.  It is taking up physical and mental space, and you can find a better use for that space.

Large trashbags are effective for loose junk.  For large, bulky items, check with your garbage collection service or city to see whether they offer free pick up of things like mattresses, furniture, broken appliances and electronics.

I have also had great success putting things on the curb with a “FREE” sign taped to them, and a listing on Craigslist with my address and a note that says “I’ll remove this advertisement once the item is gone.  If you see this posting, the item is still available.  First come, first served.”  Over the years I have used the “free on Craiglist” method to get rid of furniture, outdated working and non-working electronics, and old appliances.

Some things don’t serve any purpose or have any economic value but might have emotional value to you.  But it is also cluttering up your house.  Keep some things, get rid of others.  Take a picture of the things that mean something to you, and then let them embark on their voyage to the landfill.  Free those possessions and free yourself!


Focus on the Goal

Going through all your accumulated junk from years past isn’t always fun.  Keep focused on the goal.  Don’t try to get your whole house organized and de-cluttered in a day.  Pick a room, focus on removing unwanted stuff.  Enjoy the memories.  When you are done, enjoy a more usable, clean space.  Your home is a significant expense and it doesn’t make any sense to make it unpleasant with unwanted stuff.


Have you de-cluttered or gotten rid of a bunch of junk lately?  Did you make anything from selling stuff on ebay or  

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  1. Before my wife and I moved from Birmingham to a smaller Alabama town, we went through our tiny one bedroom apartment and dragged out everything we could find to get rid of — books, clothes, knick knacks, furniture, everything — primarily because we couldn’t afford to transport most of it to our new home.

    We’d always prided ourselves on living relatively minimally, but it was shocking how much stuff we still had — enough that we were able to drag three car loads to the thrift store while we were planning our move. We ended up with yet another trip to the thrift store on moving day, plus a few heavy walks to the dumpster. And that’s not counting the books, DVDs, and music CDs (in 2013! Who knew we were still clinging on to these?) that we sold to the local secondhand store.

    In our new place, we’ve put the “one comes in, one goes out” rule to good use, and we’d made a habit of giving the house a monthly audit to make sure we aren’t keeping useless items around.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Adam. I forgot about that “cost” of stuff – hauling it from one home to another as you move! We moved a lot during college and had way too much stuff back then.

      That’s smart to pare down your stuff to what you want to keep before moving. And to do a monthly audit is awesome! In our house, we wait till there is an accumulation of stuff then we start sorting, tossing, and craigslisting.

  2. When I graduated college, I got depressed because I couldn’t find a job and started buying things because they made me feel better. But this high was temporary and lasted a shorter amount of time as time went on. I finally faced my depression, but not until I was in credit card debt of $10K. I’ve since gotten out of debt and whenever I buy a new article of clothing, I make sure I get rid of an old piece. I have plenty of shirts that I don’t wear taking up needless space.

    1. Clothes can be tricky. You like your old stuff since it is comfortable and worn in. But eventually it goes out of style or gets worn in too much. It can be hard to part with a favorite shirt or pair of pants. But the “one in, one out” works pretty well.

  3. This is exactly why Andy and I live in a small space. 960 when we moved in. 1260 post-renovation. It’s an old place (1948) with very limited storage. Because of that, we are constantly editing our “stuff.” So far, it’s a good system!

    (BTW, great blog, Justin!)

    1. Thanks, Jenna! Glad you stopped by my blog. I bet with 1260 sf you have to be very conscious of keeping too much stuff. Especially with the new baby. Those little guys lead to tons of junk accumulation if you aren’t careful!

  4. My mother-in-law was a hoarder. When she died last year, it took 9 months to go through her stuff. We couldn’t hire the work out, because she tended to file things in other things. We found a $25,000 life insurance policy and about $15000 in cash hidden in the house.

  5. I have been hardcore de-cluttering. I’ve been to goodwill to donate at least three times in the past year. The only thing I really have trouble with is the sentimental stuff. For example, I must have at least ten to twenty t-shirts and hoodies from sports teams, clubs, etc. I don’t want to toss them, but I RARELY wear them and they take up so much space!

    1. You could rep your teams and clubs and wear the t-shirts (and now that it’s cold) hoodies more. Or use the “one in, one out” rule and next time you pick up a shirt from the store, take a hoodie or t-shirt out of the closet and put it in a bag marked “goodwill”. Good for you for de-cluttering!

  6. It’s crazy how expensive it can get! We have moved twice in the last 10 months and both times I found a mountain of stuff to get rid of. I just have to make sure to do it while my wife isn’t looking 🙂

      1. I don’t. It’s funny that we get all worked up about getting rid of stuff, but once we do we realize that our life isn’t worse because it’s gone.

  7. My parents are hoarders. Going to their house is always crazy because my mom always has new things. Well, she doesn’t buy them new. She loves going to garage sales. But she so many things she holds on for no reason. We moved in to our new house and I still have boxes I have to go through and declutter. Sigh….We also have a storage shed full of stuff. Not ours though. My in-laws had a storage unit, and asked if they could store their stuff until the spring when they have a garage sale.

  8. Very good advice! Especially taking photos of sentimental things.

    I have about two boxes full of memories that I can’t bare to let go, even though I hardly ever look at it. But I did take photos of some handed down antique furniture that we had to get rid of when we emigrated – I don’t miss the furniture, and I certainly don’t miss having to find space and lug them around with us!!

    We seem to move every 2 years or so (serial renters), and every time we manage to throw away about 2 bags worth of junk, and donate a car boot load of stuff. I really need to learn the “no buying new stuff” rule.

    1. Thanks, Linda. You’ve definitely succeeded at “parting with stuff you don’t need”! We struggle with that more than the “not buying new stuff”. I think if we ever move again we’ll be paring things down like crazy.

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