Don't let past stuff get the better of your present's wallet

The idea that families "outgrow" their apartment is a common one, but often it's not your space that's too small, it's that your accumulated collection of stuff is too big. Don't let a walk down memory lane become a financial mistake.

Nick Ut/AP
In this May 2012 file photo, construction workers work on a new house in Santa Clarita, Calif. While it's good news that the US housing market is recovering, our personal finance expert wants everyone to make sure they're buying a bigger home for the right reasons.

A few months ago, my parents handed me a small tub of items that they’d found in their home. They had spent some time renovating the upstairs of their home to make it more comfortable for guests and, in the process, they cleaned out a bunch of old things that had been there since I still lived there.

They got rid of a few old bookshelves, cleaned out a closet or two, and tossed most of the items, but some of them were saved in a small tub and handed to me.

Going through that tub has been an interesting experience. My high school yearbooks were in there, as was a trophy from the regional spelling bee I won in eighth grade. There were a couple small boxes full of trading cards from my pre-teen and early teen years that my parents thought might be valuable. There were some belongings from my uncle that I was very close to during my childhood (and who passed away when I was in my early twenties).

My parents really did a very good job of compressing the remaining belongings of my life down to a small box. I’m glad to have all of the things that were in there.

The reality, though, is that when I left home at the end of my teen years, my possessions that I took with me only filled up a large bag and a large tub. That included all of the clothes I wore and my other miscellaneous possesions.

Everything I owned during the entire first eighteen years of my life was easily compressed down to two small tubs and a bag. The amazing part is that I didn’t really miss anything, either.

The lesson here? You don’t need the stuff from your past.

You don’t have time for it, for one. Your interests have moved on. You end up chucking it into desk drawers or closets and forgetting about it. If you’re not careful, your space fills up and you become convinced that it’s time to move to a bigger house.

You don’t need to keep housing all of the stuff that belonged to the person you were five or ten years ago, because you’re not that same person any more.

You don’t need a bigger house. So often, I hear stories from people that “outgrew” the apartment they were living in due to the accumulation of stuff. In other words, one of their biggest motivators for spending the enormous amount of money it takes to buy a house is simply to hold more stuff, much of which they’re not actively using.

That’s a big financial mistake.

Instead, take all that stuff in your closet, put it in a number of sensibly organized boxes, and label each one with a date that’s exactly one year from now. In one year, when that date arrives, get rid of the stuff left in those boxes. Have a yard sale, take it to Goodwill, give it to friends. If you haven’t touched it in a year, you don’t need it around. It’s something that your past self wanted that your present self doesn’t really have any use for.

What about the memories? Take your old photographs and scan them. If you don’t want to do it yourself, use a photo service. Scan in old documents as well. That way, they’ll exist forever instead of slowly degrading over time. Sure, keep a few mementos around, but don’t devote a lot of space to them. Memories exist in your heart and mind, not in objects.

Don’t let the stuff from your past overwhelm your present.

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