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On Frugality and The Cost of Owning Stuff

By 6 July 2009No Comments

It occurs to me that frugality is, ultimately, a security system. In that it seeks to protect something (our money) from something else that wants to take it away (the Need To Own Stuff). And, like most security systems, it’s designed almost exclusively to keep things out and ignores them once they’re inside.

Typically, when a normal person is faced with the decision to buy something, they ask themselves the same basic questions. Do I really need this? Is it worth the expense? Do I currently own anything that I can use instead? If not, is there an alternative that won’t cost as much money? and, finally, Can I afford it? (Note that I say “normal person” because I myself don’t spend money like normal people. When faced with a decision to buy something, I typically ask myself one question: Do I have enough money to pay for it at this very moment?)

The human brain is a funny thing. We can spend hours, days, even weeks deliberating a purchase. Then, as soon as the purchase is done and the item is out of the box and in our hands, our brain no longer really treats it as a new item. Rather, it is something that we have always had and always will have, and that’s that. However many hundreds, thousands of dollars we spent on the item is virtually erased from our memory. All that’s left is this thing that we now hold that is our thing. And the longer we go on, the more things we buy and accumulate and just accept that they are our things and the money spent on them is gone forever. That’s that.

Except it really isn’t. As I’ve been selling my stuff in preparation for my move to New York, I’ve found myself analyzing and deliberating over everything I own, asking myself a series of questions not unlike the pre-purchase questions, except in a different tense.

Do I really need to keep this? Is it worth the money I’m missing out on by not selling it? Is there a cheaper thing out there that can do the same job? and, finally, Can I afford not to sell it?

These are the questions we never really ask ourselves of our things because they are our things and will forever be our things and the possibility of getting money for them is unheard of. Nobody ever sells their stuff unless they’re hurting for cash. Why would anyone ever wanna do that?

Case in point: I own a high-end scanner that I bought for about $550 last year and about $150 in accessories on top of that. If I sold it today, I could get $400 for it. Easy. Maybe even $450 or $500 if I tried. And yet, despite the fact that I haven’t used the scanner in months, the thought of selling it never crossed my mind. And even now, as I contemplate getting rid of it, my Need To Own Stuff kicks in and tries to defend keeping it. You might need it later! it says. If you sell it, you’ll be losing $300! And yet by not selling it I lose $700 because I’m not even using the damn thing. And it’s all because I look at the scanner and I don’t see the potential for a quick four hundred bucks. I see my thing. And I’d be a fool to sell it.

Even if I’d be a bigger fool to keep it.

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