Are you frugal or a hoarder?

Ask yourself: Will it be useful? If yes, keep it and be frugal. If 'Maybe, someday,' let it go.

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    Becky Barton, who admits having a problem with hoarding, stands in her living room in Zion, Ill., on July 27, 2010. If you keep items out of a fond hope that they might be useful someday, you might be a hoarder, too.

    Andrew A. Nelles / Chicago Tribune / MCT / Newscom / File
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The other night, I watched a couple episodes of the A&E documentary series Hoarders. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Hoarders is a documentary series that focuses on the struggles of people who suffer from compulsive hoarding.

One thing that struck me over and over again was that people were saying things along the lines of, “I can’t get rid of this stuff because I might have a use for it some day.” Of course, they were making this statement in a home that was so full of stuff that they had difficulty even walking through their home.

Frugal people live on an interesting spectrum between minimalism and hoarding. While on the one hand frugal people often move towards minimalism, with fewer possessions and the like, at the same time, two of the most powerful tools for saving money are reusing things and buying in bulk. Both of those tactics result in the pure accumulation of stuff.

Nearly everything we throw away has some sort of value to it. I could save old newspapers for campfire starters. I could save old magazines for children’s art projects and collages. I could save worn-out clothes for our rag bag. A broken piece of furniture could provide pieces of wood and cloth for other projects. Old electronics can often be refurbished and repurposed.

Given that a frugal person often focuses on the maximization of value, sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of keeping more stuff than we actually need. We do this all the time – you wouldn’t want to look at our garage, for example. I have a really bad penchant for saving cables and electronic components because I’m so sure that someday, this adapter will have a valuable use or someday, I’ll need this cable.

Add on top of that the value that can be found in bulk buying and you soon see the problem: frugality can easily lead to the accumulation of excess stuff.

Where’s the line between frugality and hoarding? My feeling is this: once you have a small reserve of any one item, it crosses the line into hoarding if you continue to accumulate more of that type of item at a faster rate than you’re using it.

So, for example, after I go camping, it might be a good idea to save a few newspapers for the next camping trip. However, once I reach that point, it crosses the line into hoarding to continue to accumulate. The only purpose I have for saving old papers is for campfire starters. Saving beyond that, just because the papers have the potential to be useful someday, is hoarding.

You can take a similar approach to anything. If I have plenty of shower soap in the closet, why am I buying more of it? If I have plenty of toothpaste, why am I acquiring more of it? Even if it’s free.

The real story to all of this is that every possession you have has a cost. To own all of these possessions, you have to live in a larger home than you otherwise would. You also have to deal with the cleaning and organizing of all of your possessions. If you’re saving hundreds of newspapers, you’re going to either have to have a lot of room or a lot of organization.

Lately, my wife and I have started to adopt a completely different approach than we used to have towards the accumulation of possessions. In short, if we can’t say that this item won’t have a use in the next two months, we won’t bring it into our home. Even if it’s free.

Why? Even free stuff has a cost, and it’s a cost that we don’t feel the need to pay.

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