July 04, 2016

Independence, Debt, and Clutter

The four big forms of everyday suspense in America are clutter, a busy schedule, debt, and excess body fat. More often than you would think, they go together. This makes sense when you consider the effect of a person’s time and energy — when you don’t have the time and energy to solve one problem, you won’t have it for the next problem either. The positive side of this is that when you break free from suspense in one form, you are probably well on your way to solving it in its other forms too.

Today, Independence Day, has me thinking about the link between money and clutter. I’ve been spending the day going through my house, taking away some of my excess possessions.

I can’t claim to be clutter-free. I arguably have too many shoes with 17 pairs not counting sandals, but that is five pairs less than I had as the day started. I picked out the most worn and least suitable shoes to throw away. I looked at my coffee mugs too. I could only make a convincing argument for having five. Letting go is hard; I kept six. I gave three away and discarded one. It was the same story in forty other places around my house. I am finding it easier to let go of the excess than I did four months ago in March of Trash, or two months before that in my new-year sweep.

Why now? What changed? Money is the answer — I am within a month of reaching a financial milestone that I associate with financial independence. Next month I will be out of debt and have an emergency fund large enough to cover my living expenses in the event of any of life’s most predictable setbacks. I haven’t reached that goal yet, but I’m close enough to it to look at my stuff in a different light. I can look at a stack of reams of copy paper, more paper than I’ve used in the last ten years, and say, “In the extremely unlikely event that I need this much paper, I can easily go out and buy it — and therefore, I don’t need to have it here now.” (Before anyone asks, I’ve already promised the extra copy paper to my editor.)

When you feel like you’re financially struggling, the most improbable scenarios involving stuff seem important. If there is a one percent chance of saving five dollars five years from now, you want to do that — so you hold on to the stuff that makes a financial promise on that level, like a spare tire pump that you’ll use only if the regular pump breaks. (Yes, that’s a recent real-life example from my front porch.) You might also have a half-baked story about making a few bucks someday and random stuff to go along with that. With improbable stuff gathering dust in every corner, it is easy to see the connection between financial pressure and clutter. As soon as you have a hint of financial breathing room the most far-fetched scenarios vanish of their own accord. Then it seems there is no longer a place for so many unlikely things.

It all comes back to suspense. In my case, the question, “How will I ever pay for this house?” has nearly faded away to nothing, and the suspense of the question along with it. The larger question now is, “How can I make better use of the house?” That’s a more empowering question, one that doesn’t carry any suspense with it. Of course, one of the first answers I think of is to create more space by taking stuff away.

It is not just the clutter problem that has improved along with my financial situation. As I’ve spent less time working in the less profitable fringe areas of my business, the reduced time pressure has made my daily life easier. I spend more time on the essentials of life such as cooking and exercise, and my physical condition has improved accordingly. I still have excess body fat in my opinion, but now it is little enough that the medical people say not to worry about it. Along the same lines, I may still work too many hours, but I get to bed on time. And these are the changes that happened while I am still in debt. From the examples I have seen and heard, I’ll gain a little more freedom after I no longer have debt payments demanding a share of my attention every month. Then I can expect faster progress on everything else.

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