Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Does our stuff own us?

A few weeks ago there was a thought-provoking piece on ZeroHedge entitled Do We Own Our Stuff, Or Does Our Stuff Own Us? (reprinted from OfTwoMinds.com)

The essay asked, "The frenzied acquisition of more stuff is supposed to be an unalloyed good: good for "growth," good for the consumer who presumably benefits from more stuff and good for governments collecting taxes on the purchase of all the stuff. But the frenzy to acquire more stuff raises a question: do we own our stuff, or does our stuff own us? I think the answer is clear: our stuff owns us, not the other way around."

This post got me wondering whether we (the Lewis family) fall into that category of who owns who.

We certainly don't subscribe to the "frenzied" acquisition of anything. The "normal" stuff most people think about acquiring leave me cold. I am utterly indifferent to fashion, jewelry, shoes, or other traditionally feminine interests. Yet I could (if not fettered by a budget) spend umpteen dollars on books. Hey, we all have our weaknesses.

That said, we have certainly acquired a fair amount of stuff, some of it very expensive (most recently, the wood cookstove and the tractor). These are items we feel will enhance both our livelihood and our self-sufficiency.

So as to the question of whether our stuff owns us, at this point I'd have to say "yes." But let me qualify that statement.

We moved from Oregon to Idaho in 2003 in part to obtain more land at a cheaper price so we could expand our livestock-raising efforts (we only had four acres in Oregon). Livestock, as anyone knows, ties you down. We can no longer take trips as a family; one of us must always be home. I suppose we could hire a house sitter, but so far it's never been necessary.

So who owns who? After giving the matter some thought, I realized that our "stuff" is also our livelihood. Our computers (since I'm a writer), our livestock, our garden, this blog, the shop with all our tools... all these contribute toward how we make a living.

In this regard, most people are "owned" by whatever obligations they undertake to earn an income. Short of winning the lottery, most people are not free to just jaunt off into the sunset, leaving their jobs behind them.

The article's writer states, "Frankly, I wouldn't accept a new big-screen TV, vehicle, tablet computer, etc. etc. etc. at any price because I am tired of stuff owning me. I don't want any more entertainment or computational devices, musical instruments, vehicles, clothing, kitchen appliances, or anything else for that matter, except what can be consumed with some modest enjoyment and no ill effects."

I certainly agree with this sentiment. Possessions like those listed above leave me cold anyway. I'm a Luddite when it comes to electronics, and fight tooth and nail against even downloading new computer programs (my husband will chuckle when he reads this since he knows how true it is!).

But the author of this piece seems to think those who own anything are enslaved by them. My question is, if you owned nothing, what would you do? Take off and travel the world? On whose money? Except for those who are independently wealthy, the rest of us have to be grounded enough to work for a living.

The secret, I think, is to enjoy what you do. Yes we're "enslaved" by our livestock and garden and work-at-home lifestyle, but since we like owning livestock and like growing a garden and like working at home, we don't feel enslaved. Indeed we feel freer than many people, since we can grow and raise a significant portion of our food, and we don't have to commute.

Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman once said, “Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to the job that you need so you can pay for the clothes, car, and the house that you leave empty all day in order to afford to live in it.”

Kinda spot-on, isn't it? Unquestionably there's a higher correlation between material possessions and work hours which can become a vicious circle. You work hard and so have less time, so you buy time-saving devices which cost money, so you have to work harder to pay for those time-saving devices.

In the book Better Off by Eric Brende, the author and his new bride lived for 18 months among a conservative Mennonite community utterly devoid of modern technology. They cooked on woodstoves and traveled by horse-and-buggy and plowed by horse and harvested and threshed by hand, etc. The book was a fascinating analysis of which tools are truly useful, which are not, and the value of labor.

At one point Mr. Brende even questioned the need for horses, pointing out how much labor goes into feeding and housing the animals that powered the community. If the number of horses were reduced, he argued, then presumably the amount of work and expenses associated with them would lessen as well.

And if this argument can be made about horses, how much more can it be made for $50,000 automobiles, massive mortgages, designer wardrobes, and consumer electronics? How much labor must people undergo to pay for those things?

Mr. Brende did admit that without the constant atmosphere of industrious work in the low-tech community, there would then be the risk of idle hands, particularly among the youth. If too much leisure occurs, what kind of mischief would then happen?

Interestingly, after the Brendes left the Mennonite community and rejoined the modern world (they now have three children), they continue to live as low-tech a lifestyle as is possible in an urban environment. Recently I saw a YouTube interview with them, filmed several years ago. At first I found myself steeped in admiration at how well they've managed to stay true to their values -- Mr. Brende points out how we spend most of our time serving the needs of technology rather than having technology serve our needs -- but then I began to wonder. Unlike the Mennonite group they lived in when first married, where everyone lived a similar lifestyle, the Brende's children are growing up in a place where they find themselves at odds with their peers. As the kids get older, will they reject their parents' philosophy and embrace a high-tech lifestyle? I don't know.

It occurred to me, as I watched my children on their laptops, that maybe it's not good for children to be TOO low-tech in a high-tech world. Once they leave the nest, they have to get along in the world and will have to make competent, mature decisions about the amount of technology they will want in their lives. But since our girls have grown up without iPads and smart phones and other hand-held wonders, they've never become addicted to tiny screens. They've never walked into walls or ditches because they're not paying attention to their surroundings.

So maybe, just maybe, it's better to introduce a judicious amount of technology during adolescence (NOT childhood) as long as it doesn't get out of hand.

On the other hand, Mr. Brende points out something very important during the YouTube interview: his home is the center of his life. He doesn't spend his time serving technology; his wife and children join forces to achieve things without the technology. Their lifestyle is family-centered and focused on what's truly important.

In that respect, he certainly has the right idea.


  1. I don't know exactly that your family has stuff that owns you or if you are enabled to live the life you wish due to your possession of those things. They are less possessions and more tools.

    Now, if you had a home full of big screens and iPhones and video games, and had to work at a job you hated to maintain what you have and obtain more, then I'd say you were ruled by your possessions. The fact that you like what you do, and couldn't do it without those possessions, tells me you are using them, not the other way around.

  2. My question would be "What does your stuff DO?". Yes, we can be "owned" by stuff. My wife and I have a room that's just dedicated to STUFF. What kind of stuff?

    Well, there's all my brewing supplies. Five gallon carboys take up a lot of room, full or empty. There's over 200 yards of fabric that my wife uses to make clothing, plus the sewing machine, and bias-tape making machine. There's all the canning supplies. There's all my leatherworking goods. And there's some random stuff in there as well.

    Now, if having so much stuff that it requires it's own room means that "stuff" owns us, then we might fall into that category. However....

    I don't have to rely on someone to make the sulfite-free wines and ciders my wife can have. Between her sewing and my leatherworking, we can make our own clothing, and we do. Our canning supplies kept us fed out of our own garden for the winter months when we lived up North, and we will be living up North again in less than a year.

    So yes, we have a room full of STUFF. But it's stuff that allows us to do what we want to do without having to rely on anyone else. And that, in essence, makes us more free.

  3. I loved that book! Will have to watch the interview today.

    That quote about basically enslaving yourself to pay for the consumerist lifestyle is what changed my perspective on everything and gave me the courage to consider working from home and having our own little homestead. Many people consider us too tied down - like you mentioned, takih vacations together or even just running off for a couple of days is much harder. But we have nothing to run away from! This is freedom to us.

    As for technology, I grew up with it and I think it contributed to my difficulties focusing on hard things for extended periods of time. The internet, even more so than possessions, can take hold of your attention with its cat videos and huge volume of content and opinions on any topic. Of course, in today's world you can't get on without it, especially if you want to work from home. Just like with everything else, it's all a matter of moderation and being clear on the purpose it serves for you.

  4. Some important things to consider in this life....

    Can you build a one match fire? Can you build a no match fire?

    Could you get and preserve some food if there were no stores or restaurants?

    Could you survive life unplugged and screen-free?

    Do you have what it takes?

    Thanks for all you do, Patrice and Don. You're walking the walk.


    A.McSp.....owned by sheep happy to stay home.

  5. It is all very subjective and very complicated by personal biases. While I may feel that wasting precious hours at church on a Sunday is foolish certainly there are many who think it is a good thing. While I may enjoy traveling and therefore a car or even an RV may make perfect sense someone else may think it is a terrible waste of money then go spend time grooming their horses and driving them to the next show with other horse owners. I began work at age 13. Not full time of course but I loved work and I do love money. I am now 71 and I was unemployed exactly one week in my lifetime. Now thanks to savings and frugality I can afford to get in my RV and waste money and time visiting our natioal parks and indulging my interest in photography. Was I wrong to "work for the man" for 50 something years? I don't think so, the "man" paid me quite well and I loved the challenges of work. Am I wrong to own an RV or have the RV own me? I can only say that on my frequent trips like my trips to Alaska seeing wildlife and beautiful countryside views I enjoyed life. Last spring we took our two little grand daughters hiking in Zion and Grand Canyon. The 4 & 5 year olds were real troupers and hiked everywhere, steep and long trails. What memories they will have. Was it a waste of money? Did I own those memories or do those memories own me? It is all subjective. For the same money I could have raised a couple of beef for food, but have you noticed almost every gorocery store sells beef? "Sells" you say! Yes, because I worked for the man for all those years I have money and income and can afford to buy my food and thus spend my precious time doing other things then raising my food. Is one of those choices "good" and the other "bad"? It's all subjective...

    1. You have a great life and no doubt earned it. Just keep mind raising your own food is not just about saving dollars. It is also a self sufficiency skill that will enable you to put food on the table when there is none on the grocery store shelve to buy.

  6. Hey in our previous life I got to travel and see "the world" and I
    thoroughly enjoyed it.In the first 7 years that we were married
    we moved 6 times and 4 fogeign countries.And I have been across the alantic 12 times and right now yes I am very glad that I did it when I was younger. Now at almost 65 I am also tied down with livestock. How be it only chickens, but it is the arthisitries that
    hurts so much I am glad that I don't have to leave the house.
    So yes at that point in my life I was glad that I did it. O and by the
    way my husband was in the Navy. That is why I got to see the world.And I do not believe that you have to much stuff. You need to live the life style that you chose to live

  7. One way to measure this is to look at the one small suitcase
    a person carried when traveling back in the 50's and 60's. Now
    look at what a person checks into the airport with when flying today.
    They evidently packed all those bags because they needed
    the stuff that's in them.

  8. We recently moved across the country. We did what I thought was a good job, getting rid of stuff beforehand. We lived in our new home for a week before the moving truck arrived with our stuff and amazingly, there was nothing we missed, save our beds. Nothing. And then the movers started moving stuff in. More, more, more, boxes, and boxes. "Where would you like this Ma'am?" I literally said at one point, "No more! Don't bring in anything else!" It made me sick, the crap that was filling up our house. Crap that a month before was so precious that we couldn't part with it and needed to have it trucked half way across the country. This was a defining moment for me. Our needs are SO simple but our wants are HUGE, unsatisfying, and unfulfilling.

    1. I LOVE this story! Love it! Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing this. Awesome story.

      Just Me

    2. We did the same; we moved this year and had two garage sales before doing so, then I tried (in vain, it seems) to donate some bigger items but they ended up getting packed into trailers so the house we left behind would be pristine for the realtors to show. It is move in ready and I'm still trying to go through boxes.
      It's not just my stuff. Oh, we have GREAT stuff. Stuff we might need. Stuff that belonged to parents that are dead, but was collected over half a lifetime of military service during interesting post war visits to Germany and Japan. STUFF. Lots of it worth big money. If it all burned up, I would only replace what is NEEDED.
      When I was 50 and my husband 57 we built a big new house. Friends couldn't wait to give us STUFF, like we were poor newlyweds. We had STUFF all ready, STUFF we bought together. What I really wanted to do was decorate my home with momentos of our family, pictures the kids made, items from our overseas trips and those of our parents. It was kind of people but overwhelming to get MORE stuff. Of course, it came with expectations that the new STUFF would be prominently displayed in the new house.
      I feel the same about occasions that often have gifts: birthdays and Christmas. When asked, I TRUTHFULLY reply, "If you want to give me something, give me what I want…NOTHING material; spend a day with me."
      I am now still spending my TIME getting rid of STUFF. How much time would each of us have, if we didn't have to display, clean, dust, and when necessary dust STUFF. Yet, despite my honesty, loved ones must think I am a liar. I just received another package, and feel so ungrateful…more stuff I didn't want. I am our of shelves for books, so we have initiated one in/one out. I just sold two boxes of books we enjoyed, and now here arrives one I would never have purchased. Sigh.
      I feel like a terrible person, right now, exploding with the truth. Like a small child with too many toys, I can't enjoy my stuff, because there is too much of it, almost all of it I didn't purchase. We spent Friday organizing STUFF in the shop, much of which doesn't belong there. I cringe at the thought of how much it cost to move it here and how hard the work was because we did it ourselves. I'd rather work on our new place than sort stuff, both both must be done.
      Because of my lifetime spent moving, I seem to have a mental list of everything. When the list becomes too long I become agitated. I am also the person that is asked, "do you know where….", because of that mental list.
      I don't judge anyone for their STUFF, I don't care what they have or don't have. I feel sorry for people tied to jobs to pay for their stuff. I personally do not consider the living, even if it has four legs, STUFF. Just my opinion though.
      I do think about the implications of what we leave behind when we get too old to take care of our stuff. Livestock can be sold or eaten. Closets and boxes of things you can't part with, should be considered and given as gifts now if you think someone you love wants them; it may shock you to find out they don't want your stuff. It will be donated or tossed.
      I hope to be easy on my kids and have my stuff, tamed and ready for dispersal.

  9. We lost everything to fire a few years ago. We had just enough time to grab a few things - some pictures and journals, laptops and hard drives, a little clothing. Afterward, we joked that we had been decluttered. There was some truth in that but we also learned that it does take stuff to live and function - in fact, quite a bit. As we rebuild our lives, we are carefully choosing what to add back. The experience has been full of lessons about God's amazing provision in the midst of trial. My rule for buying things is will it be functional and/or beautiful.

    1. Wow. Ditto on this story. Thank you for sharing that.

      Just Me

  10. Another good book on this subject, which came out over twenty years ago, is Your Money or Your Life. An excellent book which can transform your entire relationship with "stuff" and achieving happiness.

  11. Brende's book was fantastic. I really enjoyed the perspective he brought to it.
    I was once told the "value" of something is in how much work you have to do to obtain it. It made me think (many times over since being told that) about how many hours I must work to earn something.
    I want this book.
    It costs $xxx
    I will have to work x number of hours to earn that book.
    Is its value worth x number of hours?

    Of course, in the world of books it is almost always worth it, but in terms of clothing, decor, etc...the answer is almost always 'no'.

    When reading Anonymous' (8:53 AM) comment I have to say I agree that it is subjective. To his point - he worked many years and the worth of his RV and travel is worth all that he put into it. That is what value is in his world. I don't think his RV owns him. He obviously owns it and uses it to his advantage at this stage of his life.

    And that's cool.

    1. "I will have to work x number of hours to earn that book.
      Is its value worth x number of hours? "

      We do that in our home as well. I also use it when the children are being careless with things. "Daddy had to work 3 hours to purchase this. If we had to buy a new one he would have to work 6 hours for it. " I think it helps them see the effort it takes to buy something.

      Ouida Gabriel

  12. Patrice -

    Another blog I follow posted this and it ties in with yours nicely I think. As a fellow minimalist I find Josh a great "thought provoker".


  13. I don't have fancy TVs, fancy phones, fancy clothes, fancy cars, fancy furniture or a fancy house.

    That means I can be footloose and fancy-free!

    Just Me

    Just Me

  14. At one time in my life I accumulated lots and lots of stuff that I thought I needed to make be happy - it didn't because all the money I spent could have been used for other things, like a more secure retirement, that would have made me much happier.

    Now, I only have stuff that brings me joy or happiness. For me, that's artwork on the wall instead of doodads on every flat surface or shelf. It means enough clothes so I can actually see each piece in the closet instead of forcing clothes on the hanging pole, it means having empty space in closets even tho we do not have a basement or attic. And for me, it means only having about a dozen non-fiction books that I use for reference - all other books I read, about 12 every 2 weeks, come from the library and are always there for me.

    This also means that when hubby and I die our kids, who live 1200 miles away, will have an easy time of disposing of our stuff - not like the 2 large dumpsters that my father-in-law's house required plus all the stuff that was sold, auctioned and given away.

    It's all subjective as has been previously said and for me this lifestyle works.

  15. I think I spent the first 40 years of my life accumulating STUFF. Now, as I get older, I'm spending the rest of my life unloading STUFF. I have this concern that I could die and leave a bunch of STUFF for my family to get rid of. It is kind of fun, though giving things away to others.