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Americans’ Compulsion for Clutter

Anthropologists took a deep dive into Middle America’s clutter a few years ago, and here’s what they found:

A wall of shelves holding hundreds and hundreds of Beanie Babies and dolls. Giant packs of multiple paper towels, cleaning fluids, Gatorade, and Dixie cups piled high in the garage or laundry room. Frozen prepared foods jam-packed into twin refrigerators in the kitchen and garage – enough to feed a family for weeks.

I write frequently about the financial challenges facing the middle class today and their perception that the American Dream is slowly and inexorably eroding. This feeling is very real.

But surely hyper-consumerism has something to do with our financial stress. U.S. households have more possessions than in any other country, UCLA anthropologists said in this video:

Money spent unnecessarily to stock our own personal Big Box store in the garage leaves much less for long-term goals like savings, retirement, and college tuition – the same expenses middle class families struggle to afford.  “We buy stuff we don’t need with money we don’t have,” summed up one commenter on the video’s YouTube page.

The United States has long been a prosperous and material culture. But anthropologist Anthony Graesch argues that the magnitude of consumption has grown by leaps and bounds. This trend has probably been encouraged by the proliferation of inexpensive imports from countries with lower wages. Over a lifetime, these small expenses add up to boatloads of money.

“The sheer diversity and availability and fairly inexpensive array of objects that are out there – this has significantly changed over the years,” Graesch said. Toys are a prime example. “We’re perhaps spending more on kids’ material culture than ever before.”

Minimalism goes in and out of vogue, but there are few minimalists among us – this takes work, self-control, and a willingness to part ways with sentimentality. For the rest of us, there’s a personal finance lesson in this video.

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6 Responses to Americans’ Compulsion for Clutter

  1. Ken Pidcock says:

    See, and here I thought the middle class was in trouble because we drink too many lattes.

  2. Outstanding article.

    Thank you for addressing the issue of clutter in the home and the financial implications.

  3. Clyde R. says:

    Four problems I see as the core of the problem for me, and probably many others:

    1. Purchasing too much stuff in the first place.

    2. Failing to use (or eat) the stuff you buy.

    3. Not taking the time to find a proper place for stuff and not putting the stuff back in that place after use.

    4. Not disposing of enough stuff – throwing it away, giving it away or getting rid of stuff by recycling. The process of getting rid of stuff by selling often doesn’t work because it’s too much trouble for many people, even with some financial return.

  4. Mike Mas. says:

    I did watch all 18 minutes of the video, and I think it needed elaboration, which perhaps the book provided. It failed to explain the difference between wants (Beanie Babies) and needs (paper towels, Gatorade)

    Background: personal finance has been my passion, my avocation, and my hobby since 1993. It worked out well as I was able to retire a decade ago, at 52, never having made more than a middle class salary.

    One of the tactics that allowed me to accomplish that goal was to absolutely, positively stockpile non-perishables and long shelf life grocery store items like canned goods.

    Want to double your money?

    Go buy lots of whatever you normally use that is 50% off at the grocery store this week! Go every day if you can…maxx out!

    That way you have enough until it comes on sale again. Check your circulars and ads, there’s always something you use at half off somewhere this week.

    INVEST YOUR SAVINGS!

    Clutter or stockpiling?

  5. Paul Brustowicz says:

    Thank you Mike Mas for confirming my wife’s shopping philosophy. STOCK UP WHEN THERE IS A SALE.

    We call our storage closet the ELEVATOR since it is the back side of the staircase. Besides the vacuum and table pads, the shelves are full of tuna (7 oz. cans), canned tomatoes (@89 cents), sardines, tomato sauce, paper plates, napkins. Tissues, TP and paper towels are in another closet. I have started to inventory the freezer so I know what meat is available for dinner. (Great sale on prime steak at Costco last month.)

    Despite our stockpile, the big daily question is always “What should we have for dinner?”
    I cannot convince my wife to adopt a city-living/European philosophy of shopping for the day/week not the millennium.
    Although, I must admit to the convenience of opening the elevator or the freezer to get my dinner ingredients.

    • Mike Mas. says:

      Hi, Paul! We have a basement freezer and an oversized closet with shelves we use as a pantry that we refer to as “the store.” Just the other day my wife said, “next time you go to the store we need coffee, peanut butter, and spaghetti sauce,” meaning we needed these items in the kitchen. It’s always profoundly satisfying to just go pluck these things off a shelf! We joke that the store is never crowded and there are no checkout lines.

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