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Building Wealth by Owning Less

All my life I have lived among the American upper-middle class, but I never had the money to actually count myself in this group. But of course I tried. It was a classic case of keeping up with the Jones’, and unfortunately, the more I tried to keep up, the poorer I became. Don’t get me wrong; living among rich people isn’t so bad. It beats living the ghetto – but the more people around you have – the easier it is to think you need more. Which is exactly what happened to me.

Born one of the nation’s wealthiest regions, west of Boston, I attended an expensive private college with the help of loans and financial aid. When I arrived I found that many of my classmates not only didn’t have to worry about paying tuition, they were living like royalty on trust funds. With all that free money, it amazes me they bothered to study! And of course I wanted to live their life, too.

With the help of new credit cards pouring into my campus mailbox by the truckload, I started furnishing my dorm room, buying new clothes, and taking my girlfriend to expensive dinners and to hotels. I picked up bar tabs for my friends. I even dropped $4,000 on flying lessons. After all, it was 1999-2000, and even English majors were getting $75,000 dot.com jobs after graduation. Even if I racked up debt, I thought, I could pay it off after a few months of work.

Boy was I stupid. Today my college credit card debt is an enormous hindrance to my financial future, but one good thing may have come out of it. I have learned to love living with less.

Basically, I can list here what I own: My car, a computer, a camera, an iPod, two guitars, a sofabed, a desk, and my clothes. Really, that’s it. I rent my room and use everything else that my roommates own, and I’m thinking about ditching one guitar and the camera (the iPod was a gift, so I will keep it). And if I didn’t work in the boondocks, you can bet I’d lose the car.

A friend with a lot of stuff told me the other day that I live like a monk. Maybe it’s true, but there is probably a reason monks get rid of possessions along the road to enlightenment. With fewer things to care for and worry about losing there is more time (and more money) to enjoy life. Of course, unless you want to be homeless, nomadic, or a monk, we might not be able to get by with nothing. But here are a few pointers for unloading possessions without turning your life upside-down.

Possession Triage: Take a day to go through your belongings one by one and determine the last time you used each one. If it was less than 6 months – get rid of it! If you are hanging onto large items for sentimental reasons but don’t use them, consider selling them anyway. You will always have the memory, and chances are somebody else can use the item more than you can. Another rule: If you have to pay to store something, you don’t need it. Clean out that storage space and save your money. Remember that you can rent or borrow almost anything, anytime!

Organize: Get everything you do own into easily accessible places. If you can access it easily, what are the chances you will actually use it?

Sell, Donate, or Trash: You can purge anything you own in these three ways. Hold a yard sale for smaller items, or sell bigger ticket items on eBay or a community marketplace like Craigslist. Donate clothes to charities. Some will even take furniture in good condition. Toss anything else!!

Improvise: Use plastic storage containers instead of dressers. Hang wall shelving yourself instead of bookcases. Speaking of books, go to the library and rent videos instead of buying! Many items have multiple uses. A sofa can be your bed. An eating table can be your desk. A storage chest can be a coffee table. But then again, what do you have to store?

Take Care: Make the things you do own last and last by taking care of them. Remember, the less you buy, the higher quality things you can buy.

About David Weliver

David Weliver is the founding editor of Money Under 30. He's a cited authority on personal finance and the unique money issues we face during our first two decades as adults. He lives in Maine with his wife and two children.

Comments

  1. It sounds like you’re a minimalist. Not that you even hint at the word, but you’ve shaved your belongings down to what you need. You aren’t constantly paring down your possessions/commitments/habits, but I’m pretty sure that if you were to do the 100 things challenge, you would easily be able to say that you owned just 100 things. Good for you! You’re a great example to us all.

  2. David Weliver says:

    Ha ha, you’re right, Mneiae, I definitely have “minimalist tendencies”! I’ll have to try the 100 things challenge sometime.

    Also, something I didn’t mention in this post is that my parents were definitely “collectors” and have amassed sooo much stuff that I can’t imagine what they’ll do with it all when they decide to move from the home they’ve owned for 30+ years.

    Seeing how stuff accumulates definitely makes me want to own as little as possible, too.

  3. Great posting, and I only wish I had the same revelation at your age, instead of age 50.

    As you figured out, owning things, particularly depreciating consumer goods, is not wealth. OWNING MONEY is wealth.

    Borrowing money (debt) is even worse. And yet most people go heavily into debt to buy “things” (often trivial things) and spend the rest of their lives paying it off.

    What the credit card companies are doing on campus is scandalous. They expect that young people will run up a huge debt having a good time, and that perhaps their parents will bail them out – or they will spend a decade paying it off. It really is like selling crack to schoolchildren.

    As you are learning, financial education is not taught in schools these day – by design, not accident. And thus most of us get into trouble with credit cards and debt sometime in our lives.

    You are lucky to spot this early on, and perhaps the fact that one of your listed possessions is NOT a television is the reason why.

    I’ve owned a lot of “stuff” in 50 years, and none of it made me happy. The material is mortal error, only the spiritual endures.

    Once you get out of debt, try to stay out. Build up savings – own MONEY, not things. Yes, your “friends” will laugh at you and call you a “monk” and they will all have shiny new cars and the latest cell phones. But they will also all be dead broke.

    If I had done what you are doing now, I could have RETIRED at age 40. We all could. But few chose to do it. After all, that new car is only $199.99 a month (additional fees extra!). Right!

    Kudos to you for figuring it out at an early age!