The Purpose of Stuff (and Why That’s Important)

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The Purpose of Stuff

When I turned 21 my mom knitted a white jersey with Mickey Mouse on the front of it. (This the late eighties okay, so don’t judge.)

I loved that jersey. It was fluffy and super warm, it had my favourite cartoon character on it and let’s not forget who made it for me.

I wore it incessantly until one fateful day when I selected the wrong wash cycle. When I pulled my favourite jersey out the machine it had stretched to twice its original size. I was devastated. I fell to the floor in a heap and cried the ugly cry.

Looking back now I’m amazed by how I overreacted, but such is our attachment to stuff I guess. It’s a good reminder though, not to get so hung up on our possessions that we lose sight of who we are without them.

As far as I can tell the objects we own serve one of four purposes. They’re either functional, hold sentimental value, are aesthetically pleasing or we’re hoping they’ll fulfill a desire or fantasy.

Sounds straightforward enough, right? But what happens is we have a tendency to hold onto the old stuff, while at the same time buying new things probably more than we should.

When we have too much stuff it’s easy to lose sight of what we own and more importantly, the function it fulfills in our lives. Oftentimes it no longer serves any purpose at all, yet still we’ll keep something. Either because we’ve forgotten we still have it or because it reminds us of someone.

By taking stock of our stuff we’re able to discern what we no longer use, need or even like anymore. Of course, this will require a lot of honesty, some soul-searching and quite possibly, a dollop of tough love thrown in for good measure.

The rewards are worth it though.


This is the most straightforward reason for owning something. You need a couch to sit on, a bed to sleep on and a kettle to boil water so you can make coffee in the morning. You also need clothes to wear and a bowl for your cereal.

Again, straightforward enough. However the problem comes in when we start convincing ourselves that we need something when we really don’t. An electric can opener is functional, but there’s no reason to own one unless you suffer from chronic arthritis.

A pineapple peeler is functional, but a sharp knife does the job just as well and it’s able to do other things too. Whereas a pineapple peeler is just a pineapple peeler.

It’s the marketer’s job to sell us a story that will ultimately convince us we need something. It’s our job not to fall for their story. You only have to watch this talk on the secrets of food marketing to see how wily these guys are.

They’re on their A-game and we need to be too if we’re to have any hope at all of decluttering our homes and keeping them that way. And make no mistake, the gloves are off over the Holidays. At this time of year we need to be especially vigilant if we want to make it to the new year with our budgets intact.



Unless you’re a monk or an extreme minimalist you’re going to have some items in your home that are there purely because they’re pleasing to the eye. Even Sporty and I have the odd thing in our home that’s there mostly because it looks pretty. Our Himalayan salt lamp also has healing properties (which was the main reason we bought it), but we like how it looks too.

Like their functional cousins, aesthetically pleasing possessions can just as easily turn into clutter if we’re not mindful of our living space. A couple of throw cushions on the couch are easy on the eye (and helpful for those lazy Sunday afternoons), but buying eight in varying shades of puce because of a photo you saw in Garden & Home is overkill.

Rather than buying something purely because it looks nice, see if you can find some cross-over between functionality and aesthetics, like Sporty and I did with our salt lamp.



Now we’re heading into the murky waters of hoarding. We hold onto things for different reasons. It could be a vase your aunt gave you as a wedding gift or a dinner service your grandmother left you in her will, for example. If you like and use them then keeping them makes perfect sense.

However, if the vase is hidden beneath a thick layer of dust in the attic or the dinner service hasn’t made it to the table since Thanksgiving Day seven years ago when Uncle Joe got tippled and broke one of the plates, it’s time to revaluate the situation.

Sometimes we refuse to get rid of something because it reminds us of our younger selves. In Bill Bryson’s hilarious book, A Walk in the Woods, he mentions hauling his old Boy Scouts tent out of the garage to see if it might hold up on an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. I remember being struck by the fact that he’d kept that tent in his garage for the better part of fifty years on the off chance that he’d someday use it again. (For the record, he ended up buying a new tent for the hike.)

I still have some photos of my family that I’m hanging onto in spite of never looking at them. I’ve given away a lot to my cousins and aunts, but for now the ones I still have remain tucked away in my cupboard. I also have Terrence the Tortoise, but that’s only because he works well as a Kindle prop. I’m not attached or anything.

It’s fine to keep things as mementos, so long as we remember that they’re not the only way for us to remember someone by. Rather, they’ve just one way. Our memories of the people we love, of times gone by, the places we’ve been, and so on, are what’s important. Luckily, they reside inside of us and don’t take up space in our homes.


Fulfilling a Desire (or Fantasy)

Sporty pointed out something interesting when we were at the mall on the weekend.

“I’ve noticed that people often get a glazed over look in their eyes when they walk into a shop,” she said.

“What do you mean exactly?” I asked.

“It’s as if everything else disappears and all they can see is whatever has caught their attention, and then they’ll just stand there holding it,” she explained.

I thought about this for a bit and then it dawned on me (because I’ve done this countless times myself). What these people are doing is playing out a scenario in their mind’s eye.

Let’s say it’s a woman holding up a dress. Perhaps she’s imagining how it will look with the two-tone sling backs she bought recently. If it’s a guy staring into the window of a Harley dealership, no doubt he’s picturing himself cruising along Chapman’s Peak Drive, possibly with someone blonde and leggy riding pillion.

I know I’ve ogled many at a touring bike with panniers attached and been instantly transported to Europe, peddling along a cycle path with the sun on my back and light breeze blowing.

If our lady is shopping for an outfit for a friend’s upcoming nuptials then buying the dress she’s just been staring at makes perfect sense. On the other hand, if I were to rush into the cycle shop, credit card at the ready, that would be plain silly. An impulse purchase of epic proportions.

Why? Because while I enjoy reading cycle touring stories (If you like reading and cycling, try one of my favorites – Steven Herrick’s Cycling to Bohemia), right now I have no desire to stuff my worldly belongings into four panniers and ride off into whatever inclement weather lies in wait around the corner and just out of shot of my sunny fantasy.

Remember, our imaginations are not only vivid, they’re also every bit the con artist those marketers are. If we let them they’ll convince us to buy a backpack and head off into bear territory just because we saw a movie with Robert Redford.

If anyone’s looking for me I’ll be at Cape Union Mart.

Ryan from The Tiny Life wrote The Purpose of Stuff and The Questions You Should Be Asking Yourself in response to this post. It’s a really good read.


*We’re keen to earn passive income to fund our coffee habit, but we’re definitely not going to be shifty about it. This means we’ll only ever link to something if we’ve personally used it, eaten it, read it, or whatever, and are 100% impressed. Also, it won’t cost you anything extra if you purchase something via our link. The vendor has to cough up our commission fee, not you. 😉

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