How I Let Go of 60% of My Belongings, and Learned to Accept 100% of Myself

February 9, 2015
hay-blue-sky

Last week, I had a pre-screening phone interview with a producer from CBC Radio, regarding a documentary about people who have gotten rid of a large portion of their belongings. She asked me questions about what spurred my decision to pare down, how I tackled my stuff and what was going through my head at the time. I think I had an answer for everything, until she asked, “Why do you think you were holding onto all that stuff? What was the emotional attachment you had to it?” I had to be honest. “You know, I haven’t really thought about that.” Of course, it’s all I’ve been thinking about, since…

Two months ago, when I wrote my five month shopping ban update, I was still only focused on how this journey was forcing me to face and change my shopping habits. Triggers would pop up, I’d take note of what might have caused them, then I’d remind myself of the ban and that would be the end of it. I came to the general conclusion that I’d always used consumption as a way to make myself feel better – and that’s still a fair statement. However, I hadn’t given much thought as to why I purchased the specific things I did, what value I gave them and why I held onto 60% more stuff than I needed for all those years. Until now.

What I Used to Spend Money On

I wish I had kept my old credit card statements; the ones that I refused to look at, and only tore back the corners of their envelopes to see how much the minimum payments were, without making eye contact with the full balance. Those things kept me up so many nights, but now I’d give anything to look at all my statements from 2008-2011, because I don’t remember most of what I put on my two credit cards. There was a lot of alcohol. Alcohol, cab rides and late night fast food; that, I remember (surprisingly enough). But I don’t remember the other stuff. My purchase history was shredded and disposed of long ago.

What I do remember of that time period is that I was unhappy. I don’t know if I’m putting on my Captain Obvious hat, in saying that, but it’s true. I went through a tough breakup that dragged on for months, drank all the time, gained a ton of weight and was miserable. All my fun nights out on the dance floor made me think I was happy, but booze has a funny way of convincing you that you’re awesome. I wasn’t awesome. I was sad and lonely. So, I drank a lot, ate even more and didn’t workout (other than on the dance floor). And I spent lots of money – money that I didn’t actually have.

In the span of about six months, I moved into my own place and bought almost everything brand new. I’m talking clothes, furniture, home decor, a laptop, a TV and even a car. Everything in my apartment matched (and looked like an IKEA catalogue), everything had a place and everything had been put on my two credit cards. It was the most organized hot mess you could imagine, and it was all mine. When friends came over, they’d compliment me on how nice my place was, and say they wished they’d had matching furniture or even half of my library of books. Yes! I’d think. Someone actually wants something I have.

What I Was Really Shopping For

I’ve read a few different books on why we shop. In them, the general consensus seems to be that women are gatherers who spend great lengths of time trying to find the perfect things to bring back to their homes, and men are hunters who walk into stores on a mission to “make the kill” so they can get in and out fast. This notion is based on ancient history, when we collectively survived as hunter-gatherersObviously, the gender stereotypes don’t apply to everyone. We could, instead, just say “many people are gatherers” and “many people are hunters”. But I still think it goes beyond that…

In the personal finance blogosphere, there’s a lot of talk about defining your wants from your needs. When we shop, we seemingly need each purchase to fulfill one or the other – preferably more needs than wants. But what if there was a third option to consider, before we bought anything? I’m talking about the value we place on these objects. For example, you might try on a new shirt and think you want someone special to like how you look in it. It’s not just about needing a new shirt. You’re making an emotional attachment (what you hope will happen) and placing a value (your special someone thinking you look good and potentially giving you a compliment) on that shirt, before you even buy it.

My issue, throughout those few unhappy years, was that I attached a value to everything, and spent money trying to make people (including myself) think I had a good life. I didn’t just buy furniture because I needed it. I bought brand new, matching furniture, because that felt like success to me, which is how I wanted to be perceived. I also bought a lot of things that represented the person I wanted to be. I filled my shelves with certain books I thought “Smart Cait” should read, or wanted people to think I’d read, and outfits that would portray a certain level of success. (Note: I didn’t read or wear any of them.)

I don’t like remembering that version of myself. I was so unhappy, and the only way I could think to fix it was to piece together what I envisioned a successful life looked like. But the matching furniture and decor, the new electronics and new car… it was all a facade. And it’s taken all this time for me to realize that I wasn’t just spending money to make myself feel better – I was trying to hide the truth. I wanted people to think I was doing ok for myself. More than that, I wanted them to think I was happier/smarter/more successful than the person I believed I was.

How I Let Go of 60% of My Belongings

There are a lot of articles online written by/for people who have a difficult time decluttering and getting rid of any of their belongings. I have to say, I was not one of them. In July, I went through every single closet, drawer and corner of my condo, and got rid of 43% of my stuff. Since then, I’ve continually made the effort to bag up/donate things I know I don’t need/won’t use, and have gotten rid of a total of 60% of my belongings. I can’t tell you how to declutter. There was no method to my madness. But I can tell you how I was able to let go of so many things, and it goes back to that question the producer asked me…

“Why do you think you were holding onto all that stuff? What was the emotional attachment you had to it?”

I was holding onto 60% more stuff than I needed for all those years because of the emotional attachment I had to it. And the emotional attachment was based on the value I’d given each item. There were the books I thought I should read, the clothes I thought I should wear and the projects I thought I should tackle – if I was going to be the person I once thought I wanted to be, or wanted people to believe I was, that is. But I know who I am now, and I like it. So, while I was decluttering, I was able to objectively look at those items and say, “You don’t want to read/wear/do that. It’s ok that you bought it and won’t use it. Let it go.”

Now, I don’t know if there was ever a key defining moment that helped me figure out how to accept who I am, or accept that it’s ok if I don’t end up becoming this person I thought I should be. My guess is it’s a combination of the clarity that comes with sobriety, and continually doing things that will better myself, without any expectation of what type of person it’ll make me. Whatever the cause, it feels good. We live in a society where we’re told our appearances/possessions will fix our problems/enhance our self-worth. For years, part of my self-worth was definitely dependent on the image of my life and the approval of others, and I’m so grateful I’ve detached myself from that – and removed all the “stuff” that went along with it.

I’m now seven months into this yearlong shopping ban, and have five months to go. I’ve already learned how to successfully define if something I want to buy is a want or a need. When this is over, though, I’m going to take it one step further and try to pay attention to what value I’m giving it, before I make any purchases. I don’t want to bring anything else into my home, simply because I think it’ll help me in some way; there has to be a plan to use it. And I refuse to buy anything because of how it’ll make me or my life look. I’m doing just fine living with only 40% of my original belongings, and can’t imagine any “thing” could make life better than this. <– Now, if only I could share how good this feels with everyone I meet.

Have you ever bought something because you thought it would make you/your life look better? Tell me I’m not the only one…

  • strandedrocks February 9, 2015 at 4:25 am

    Cait, I am with you on buying the things I think I should wear. Shoes are what make me feel inadequate as a woman. I love how high heels, sandals, and in general dainty female shoes look like. Unfortunately I don’t enjoy wearing them. Not only because they are uncomfortable but because they limit my movements. I want to be able to run and not worry about breaking my ankles or looking like a baby giraffe walking for the first time. I associate a certain kind of feminine power to heels. At work I have a brand new pair of wedges that I never wear but I am hesitant to throw out. I feel as though they represent the woman I should be while the flats I wear everyday represent the woman I am. How do I bridge that gap? Food for thought I guess.

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 8:40 pm

      That’s definitely food for thought! I wonder if you wore them, and paid attention to how you felt in them, if you’d be able to decide if they were worth keeping or not. When I did my massive purge in the summer, I hesitated over two pairs of black heels, because I felt like they were something I should own… but I hate wearing heels! I hate how I feel, how I walk, how I look. Flats, gimme. Heels, I’m not interested. So, I tossed them and have zero plans to buy any ever again. I’d try them on for a while, and see if that changes how you feel about them.

    • Sadie March 23, 2015 at 8:02 am

      I’m with you on that one! I feel like “only heels are professional; only heels are dressy,” has been drummed into me. But I HATE heels. I have plantar fasciitis and one day of wearing them gives me a week of foot pain.

      I finally decided this. I’m a professional. I’m thorough and good at my job. If I’m ever in a situation in which someone decides I’m not a professional based on my footwear, and doesn’t work with me, I have probably just dodged a bullet, because anyone who nitpicks at that level is going to find fault with anything and everything else. Most people are not going to do that.

      And fashion– and society– evolve. It was once terribly unprofessional for women to wear trousers. It was once terribly unprofessional to have a woman in your workplace at all. By comparison, changing perceptions about the height of a shoe should be a cinch.

  • Brandy February 9, 2015 at 4:34 am

    This blog post describes my 20’s exactly. I couldn’t possibly relate more! Thank you for writing this post and being vulnerable so that your readers can not only relate but learn from your experience. I’m still not even half as resolved as you are but reading about your successful outcome, your feelings of being complete without the crutch of personal belongings gives me inspiration. Thank you!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 8:41 pm

      Thank you for reading, Brandy! I hesitated about posting this, because parts of it do feel extremely vulnerable… but that’s human, right? Even if we don’t all have the same story, we share many similar experiences in this life. So, I’m happy to share mine. :)

  • Rob February 9, 2015 at 5:51 am

    Hi Cait!

    The way I see it is that owning things, saving, spending, investing are all a part of one’s lifestyle and only work properly if they help in making each one of us feel happy about ourselves, satisfying that inner voice that is constantly talking in our minds, not caring to impress anyone else (whether it be parents, siblings, bosses, friends, nor even lovers). If we are happy with our lives then we live them to the fullest, but – in a responsible manner. Whether we de-clutter and/or save and/or invest to the maximum ‘nth degree” or not does not matter all that much so long we are living our lives properly, giving ourselves “permission” to be happy in whatever way that takes us. All things in moderation and balance, I say. And after we get all that going for us we then have to reach out to others, to make them happy too, to keep searching for that elusive soul mate who, when s/he is finally found, will together fully compliment each other’s lives. That’s really to me how life works.

    So, to answer your question, yes I’ve bought stuff that I felt would make me and/or my life feel better. We all have. It’s all a part of living – whether for the “right” reason or not. The trick is to know whether it was done responsibly, within one’s means, and if not then knowing to correct one’s habits and learn from it going forward.

    Deep thoughts today, eh? :-)

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 8:55 pm

      Deep thoughts, indeed! I like to bring them out sometimes. :)

      You hit it on the head, when you said we shouldn’t try to impress anyone else. I catered my life to seek approval from some people for many years. As it turns out, of course, that doesn’t make anyone happy – not even those people you’re trying to impress. Best to be yourself and take care of you, then worry about the rest.

  • C. February 9, 2015 at 5:54 am

    I have definitely been guilty of some aspirational book-buying — luckily, a pretty limited amount, I think mostly because I was so consistently broke through my freelancin’ New York rent-payin’ early 20s that I broke the book-buying habit and turned to the library. Come to think of it, maybe my super-broke years were valuable to me, in the sense that I think over the years I’ve wasted relatively little money on stuff; the money that drained out the door later was mostly experiential (rent on a nicer place, theater tickets, dinners out, travel). Bears more thought. Thanks for this beautiful post!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 9:59 pm

      I still think many of the experiences I paid for (dinners, drinks, trips) were purchased to impress people… or just to make them think I could afford to live a certain life, and prove I was a fun person. But then I did waste a lot of money on “stuff” too. We live and learn, right? :)

      • Carolyn February 11, 2015 at 11:03 am

        I really enjoyed this post.I too, cannot even tell you how many times I spent money on beautiful furniture, clothing, and taking “friends” out to dinner.I think in my case, I wanted people to like me.I went through my twenties in my forties as far as drinking too much, dancing all night, working my behind off for “things” and being miserable.I thought I was only good enough if everyone around me(especially men) loved me.Now at 53, I don’t give a damn, and it feels great! I moved to the mountains, and am currently downsizing to a 16 x 24 foot cabin with my Hubby ,four cats and a dog. I am getting rid of everything that doesn’t serve me. I am getting rid of who I had hoped to be, in order to make room for who I really am(tweet that,LOL).

  • Ms. Mintly @ MintlyBlog February 9, 2015 at 6:26 am

    Actually, my biggest problem seems to be stuff from my childhood and stuff my mom has made for me. (She used to do needlepoint, then she moved on to quilting, now knitting. I have tons of things she’s made that don’t really fit with my “aesthetic” but were made with love!) The stuff from my childhood has been sitting in boxes and I keep thinking, “Some day I’ll want to read through this stuff again…” but I never seem to get to that point.

    One strategy I found that helped in my last big purge was to take pictures of things that I thought were cool or might be interesting to my daughter down the road… pictures that can be put into a photobook or just kept on a hard drive – easy to access, and they don’t take up nearly as much room as all the items themselves!

    Knowing that I’m “holding on to them” at least in a way makes it a lot easier to haul that stuff to the recycling center, consignment store, or the trash can!

    (To clarify, I’m not getting rid of the things my mom made.) :)

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:05 pm

      Yep, I’ve read a few sites that suggest taking pictures of things! I think that’s a great idea. What kinds of stuff did you take pictures of?

      • Lauren February 16, 2015 at 1:41 pm

        This made me think of something my boyfriend’s sister is doing – rather than keep all the artwork her two kids make (they are 4 & 7), she takes pictures of everything and is making photobooks for each daughter with photos of all their childhood artwork, etc. I thought that was really clever.

  • Liz February 9, 2015 at 6:33 am

    Hi Cait,
    Really enjoying your blog and find I go to it when I have had a rough day. I struggle with things, neatness, order and self discipline. One thing I have learnt though it that letting go of stuff really makes me feel good. From a yarn hoarder (and all the books and mags to match) I have cut down the stash to two boxes and about 95% of the books etc have gone. I loved not having the feeling that I should use it all…Every time I take something to the charity shop I swear I feel lighter….
    We all have our own journeys and it is up to me to sort myself out, but it is great to be able to read about yours.
    I’m very impressed young lady!!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:10 pm

      Thank you for the kind words, and for sharing your experiences, Liz! I think that’s one of the nicest comments I’ve read, actually: that you come here when you’ve had a rough day. I hope I can continue to give you a reason to come back. And I know exactly what you mean about feeling lighter after you drop something off… it removes just as much mental clutter, as it does physical clutter!

  • Bridget February 9, 2015 at 6:48 am

    Interesting perspective, though after the way you explain it, it doesn’t seem all that surprising.

    I never bought a lot until now. Even when I owed $10,000 on a line of credit, $6,000 of it was my braces =\ When I graduated from my bachelors degree, my loans were less than the total tuition I had paid for 4 years, so there’s no confusion about where the money went. I was never much of a shopaholic (IMO).That’s not to say I never bought things I didn’t need or couldn’t really afford, because I did, but at the end of the day even my mistakes didn’t really rock the boat.

    To date I still don’t have furniture that matches, and I often think “Oh we need to buy…” but then I’m too busy and forget about it. Clothes I can buy online and I’m finally starting accumulate them. I’ve always gone for expensive things (as you know) and now I frequently find myself talking my way through a purchase and then marvelling at the end (“I just spent $300 and NOTHING HAPPENED!”)

    But we’re all buying in to our own narrative. I’m not sure what mine is trying to say except maybe “I can get this because I don’t have to worry about this (prices, money) anymore.” which will probably take a few years to exhaust itself.

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:15 pm

      “We’re all buying into our own narrative.” That quote is going to stick with me, friend! And it was cool to read your thought process develop in this comment. It might exhaust itself one day, yes. Or maybe other life events will force it to change. Either way, as long as your spending reflects the person you are, not who you want to be, then you should feel comfortable buying whatever is in your budget.

  • Alli February 9, 2015 at 7:02 am

    Truly inspirational. I don’t have the same reasons I want to get rid of a lot of extra “stuff” but it helps to hear that someone else was able to let go of things even though they were the ones that bought the items in the first place. I have a hard time letting go of things I bought because at a point there was a reason I purchased it, but I’m hoping to be able to let go of some of those things to create a simpler life. Thanks for sharing!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:17 pm

      I had some of those things too, Alli. I also had old books, DVDs, etc. that I once loved, and convinced myself I should keep, but finally realized there was no reason to hold onto them. One question you could ask yourself, when hesitating over certain items, is if they are going to help you live the simpler life you’re after. The answer might surprise you, and make some decisions a lot easier. It’s tough to “throw away money”, but the mental clutter can be more stressful than the physical loss of an item itself.

  • Meg February 9, 2015 at 7:04 am

    There are definitely things I have bought for the life I thought they’d help with. A lot of CDs and DVDs in my early 20s (and booze) for example. And things have definitely been bought for me with similar motives (like dresses from my mom – it’s not that I don’t wear dresses but I think we had a shared aspirational fantasy at that point and they weren’t dresses I wore.)

    It’s taken a lot of time but I don’t think I buy the aspirational life things that much any more and a lot of that is to do with the money/life changes I’ve made. But it does require a regular check-in with myself, especially when faced with shiny things.

    Interestingly, I have just finished my first read through of Zen Habit’s new book and he talks about the ‘mind movie’ – the rolling film that our brain likes to cling too because stability and comfort are key but it’s very unrealistic and trips us up when we try to make changes/habits and I think that mind movie has a lot of connection to the aspirational life purchasing.

    (also, this article from Apartment Therapy just popped up in my rss feed and I think it slots in nicely with this post!)

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 7:17 am

      What a great post, Meg! And how crazy it was also posted today! Thank you for sharing that, so I can share it with others. I’m curious, which of Leo’s books did you read that in? I know he offers a couple for free… am guessing it’s not one of them? haha

      Have a fantastic week :)

      • Meg February 9, 2015 at 7:28 am

        I think it is definitely something that people are thinking about a lot at the moment. I don’t know whether it’s selection bias but I feel like I am seeing more posts about simplifying etc. recently outside of just noticing them because it is something I am interested in!

        Heh! It’s from the new one; Zen Habits: Mastering the art of change. I kickstarted it, so got the ebook this weekend and devoured it in the bath. Now going back through it slowly and starting the whole habit process (in my case, habit no.1 to tackle is getting up with my alarm, so hard when it is cold and dark. urgh!)

        • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:19 pm

          I love when that happens! When you’re excited about something new, and notice that the entire world seems to be putting it right in front of you, whether through blogs, the news, books, people, etc. I think it means you’re on the right path. :)

  • Sara February 9, 2015 at 7:18 am

    I don’t have a good reason for why this is, but I’ve never really bought to achieve a fantasy lifestyle. I can tell you that it isn’t a behavior I grew up observing (my affluent parents intentionally chose to raise us very middle class) so maybe that’s part of it.

    But I also think that a part of why we hold on to so much is because so few people in this part of the world have any concept of how much “stuff” we need to live. Stuff comes cheap in North America and we do not need to be well off to accumulate a lot of it.

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:25 pm

      Yep, I fully agree. There’s so much more to discuss on that point – especially about how cheap prices, sales, etc. are created and marketed to make us want to accumulate more. One book I read was specifically about how to market to women… it was fascinating. Anyway, beyond just accumulating though, why do you think people actually hold onto all their stuff? Why are many uncomfortable with the idea of parting with “things”?

  • Cari @ Coffee With Cari February 9, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Cait, you are not the only one; In fact, most people I know, including myself have done or do this. I spent a lot of my 20’s and until the age of 37 doing this. I purchased clothing that I wasn’t really crazy about, designer handbags and the most expensive hair/makeup products. It really didn’t prove anything to anyone and it certainly didn’t make me happy.

    I’ve been on a journey like yours of sorts and it is very liberating to just be me and be OK with not wanting all of the stuff everyone else has.

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:31 pm

      That’s exciting, Cari! And you’re right – it’s so liberating. I still sometimes worry what people think, but not enough that it would affect my financial decisions. The real good life is in our control. :)

  • Becky February 9, 2015 at 9:44 am

    Great post! Since you started your shopping ban it feels like every post is speaking directly to me. I’ve purchased so many things over the years that I never actually wanted *or* needed and as I declutter, it’s a bit disheartening to realize how much time and money I’ve spent on things that didn’t improve my life at all. Books are a big one for me, too. I’ve been holding onto a lot of “smart people” books that I’ve never read and probably never will read – I think this post has given me the push I needed to clear them out. Thanks! :)

    I’m so impressed by all you’ve accomplished in the last seven months and look forward to seeing what’s ahead!

    Becky

    PS. I (sometimes) make body lotions and butters…I can send you the recipes I’ve developed if you’d like to give it a try. I also make a lot of my own cleaning supplies, didn’t use shampoo for 3 years (started again when I moved to a place with super hard water), and avoid processed foods, so I may be able to help you avoid some of the mistakes I made when I started out!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:38 pm

      Thanks for the kind words, Becky! It feels good to know that people can relate to what I’m experiencing as a result of the shopping ban. I’m sure there will be more lessons to learn in the next 5 months. And yes, I’d love to chat about making products, sometime! I’m not quite there yet, as I still have a bunch of stuff to use up, but let’s definitely connect in a couple months!

  • Sara Hamil February 9, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Books. Books have been such a vice. I buy so many titles for professional development purposes and yet I only ever use a couple of them. It’s bad.

    I’m also really bad for getting emotionally attached to stuff. I’ve been trying to get a lot more ruthless during my purges. It’s a slow but steady process!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:39 pm

      That’s how you win the race, I’m told. :)

  • Kayla @ Shoeaholicnomore February 9, 2015 at 1:43 pm

    I think everyone does this at one point or another. I still do sometimes, but I’m getting better at it. I do need to go back through my shoes and closet and purge some more since I still have things I haven’t worn since my last purge last January…

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:40 pm

      Ooo, sounds like it’s time for another purge!?

  • Isabelle February 9, 2015 at 4:35 pm

    You’re not the only one! I’ve bought books and carried them around so that people would see them and imagine I was someone I wasn’t… Even though I would not have admitted it at the time, deep down I knew what I was doing and was very ashamed of it. How desperate I was to have to pretend to be someone I wasn’t… I really wanted to look a certain part, even though that’s not who I was at all, but we all fantasize I guess… Eventually, I accepted who I was and stopped doing that. Thank God, that was a very long time ago!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:44 pm

      Thank you so much for being open to sharing this, Isabelle! And yes, thank goodness we are both past that part of our lives. Onward and upward. :)

  • Tonya@Budget and the Beach February 9, 2015 at 5:43 pm

    Love this!!! I’m sure if I looked at my cc statements from 4 years ago and later, I would see a pattern of spending money because it’s who I thought I was…a successful person. But it’s such a ridiculous illusion. It’s got nothing to do with actual success. Sucuess, in my opinion, is a happy person…and that doesn’t have to mean owning a lot or saying no to dinners out. I know so many people who can’t say no to buying certain things because it’s what the rest of the “crowd” is doing.

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:49 pm

      Me too! And who always buy the newest piece of technology, upgrade their phones every few months, etc. Life is sooo much better when you’re not attached to the notion that you have to follow the crowd, or need to have the best “stuff”. I can certainly say that I’m happier than I’ve been in years, which, as you said, is a greater definition of success. :)

  • Kelly @ Trial and Eater February 9, 2015 at 6:17 pm

    I am going through some de-cluttering and striving to live a more minimalist lifestyle. Whenever I used to read articles about getting rid of things you don’t use, or selling things from your closets, I naively thought I really didn’t have that much extra “stuff.” Going through this process has made me realize I did buy a lot more things just to accumulate, have more options for clothes even if I didn’t wear them, etc. It feels so freeing to get rid of things I never used and to be in that different mindset!

    • Cait Flanders February 9, 2015 at 10:53 pm

      That’s fantastic, Kelly! I know I felt guilty about tossing a few things I’d never used, but just repeatedly told myself that it was too late – time to let go and move on. It’s so freeing, as you said. Keep it up!

  • Kristen February 10, 2015 at 4:58 am

    First, congratulations on this huge achievement. I really respect it. I know I will never get rid of 60% of my stuff (I could get rid of 60+% of my hubby’s stuff!). I admit I love my stuff. (To note, most of the stuff that would be the hardest to let go of are things I have inherited – like the desk my great grandfather had made for himself – or been given as gifts – the beautiful coach bag a dear friend gifted me – or the art pieces I picked up on trips). I am working to let go of the extra things I don’t need/want and to really think about every purchase, do I really need this? But I am guilty of buying things looking for the happiness high.

    If you want to look at this “habit” from a behaviourist point of view, here are my thoughts. Behaviours continue because they are reinforced. Shopping behaviour could be being reinforced different ways. Here are a couple of examples:

    1) There are times you find the perfect item you need and it gives you the “happy” feeling (let’s say you need new work pants, you split the butt out of yours, and you find this amazing pair that makes you look awesome on the clearance rack, so you are thrilled). You continue to engage in shopping behaviours because sometimes the behaviour is reinforced – “the happy feeling” happens. Behaviours that are the hardest to changes are ones that are reinforced on a variable (random) schedule. So the mug, the sweater, the picture frame, the candle etc. etc. don’t give you the same “buzz” but over the course of a month or year you get it often enough to maintain it.

    2) The little behaviours you engage in during shopping (walking in and out of the stores, pulling out your credit card, maybe even the compliments people give you after) become paired with the “happy buzz” (not very behavioural term, but it is to make my point), so you engage in those behaviours to get the reinforcement.

    I think what you have done is identified what was reinforcing the behaviour for you and taken that reinforcement away. When we remove reinforcement from behaviours they decrease. It is amazing how something that sounds so simple can be so hard!

    For shopping, it is complicated by the fact that even with a strict shopping ban or limits, you are going to eventually need to replace somethings. You work hard for your money, so it is unlikely you are going to spend it on things you hate/don’t fit/aren’t comfortable/you don’t like. That would just be stupid. Eventually you will buy something that you need and makes you happy and you will reinforce that set of behaviours. But I think if people are mindful of the behaviour and reinforcer they can prevent it from become a problem.

    Happy not-shopping!

    • Cait Flanders February 10, 2015 at 7:59 pm

      Those are some great points, Kristen. Gives me and anyone who reads your comment a lot to think about. Thank you for taking the time to share your expertise/thoughts with us. :)

  • Melanie February 10, 2015 at 9:58 am

    Great post. I’ve also more recently stopped caring what others think and realized ‘things’ won’t make me happy. I felt most of the time when making a purchase on something for the house or clothing, it was also to look a certain way. I cared too much what people thought. After going through a divorce, I’ve learned to let go of a lot of material items. It was my decision to take very little with me and I’m much happier now. I can also say it’s not due to the stuff in my life but the people that surround me.

    • Cait Flanders February 10, 2015 at 3:42 pm

      Ain’t that the truth re: the people in your life being a large part of what makes you happy. Money and stuff don’t make you laugh or feel loved, but people sure do. :)

  • Chris@Rags to Reasonable February 10, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    Beautiful Cait.

    I just came off a year of living out of a suitcase, and when I got back to my stuff (all packed up in storage) I was left wondering… why do I need all of this stuff. I hadn’t used it for a year, and I really hadn’t missed anything.

    I did a big purge then, but somehow still feel like I have too much. *sigh*. Oh well.

    Really enjoyed the piece though, to me this is what personal finance is all about. It’s not just about wealth accumulation. It’s about deciding what kind of life you want…

    And so often that means less… not more.

    • Cait Flanders February 10, 2015 at 3:46 pm

      That’s how I felt after travelling so much, and moving so many times (5x in 2013). I realized I was perfectly happy with the contents of my suitcase, and wondered why I kept moving all these boxes from place to place to place. It still took a while for me to finally get rid of most of it, but better late than never, right? :)

  • Ellen February 10, 2015 at 1:59 pm

    I’m not sure if you’ve posted about this before–but I had a general question.

    I’m curious as to what your opinions is on whether it’s better to save money a considerably amount of money each month to build up an emergency fund, or pay down considerable debt and save very little each month.

    Your response is appreciated!! :)

    • Cait Flanders February 10, 2015 at 3:40 pm

      I would say it’s personal for everyone, but you should always save something. I barely saved, in the two years I was paying down my debt. I don’t regret it, per se, but I always felt like I was living on the edge of being totally screwed financially. If I had saved up even a couple thousand dollars, I would’ve been much less stressed throughout those couple years.

  • Melissa February 19, 2015 at 7:08 am

    I have read this article several times. I can really relate to this. I have started decluttering and its made me very aware of my spending – and most of the things are not needs. Although I am not yet halfway thru the decluttering getting started has made me feel better. I try not to get to down on myself for my bad spending habits or my credit card. I am trying to work that out now. But I do find it hard to be honest with myself about why I have spent my money the way that I have. Its a work in progress.

  • Tawcan February 19, 2015 at 10:25 am

    I used to buy DVD’s when I was in my early 20s. Looking back that was one of the dumbest things I’ve done. Should have saved that money instead.

    Declutter is an excellent idea!

  • Mr. SSC February 19, 2015 at 11:33 am

    I can definitely relate to this. My dad was a BIG hoarder/gatherer so by comparison, I wasn’t that bad. But, like Bridget commented, “We all buy into our own narrative.”
    I also spent a lot out at bars, restaurants, etc… and the things I did buy were little things here and there so it didn’t feel like it was a lot until the bill showed every month.
    I would usually hit Target on Sundays and stroll around looking for anything to buy. I’d find dvd’s, then get a t-shirt or hat, some beer or wine to enjoy while watching the new dvd’s, or whatever struck me as “I need this!”. Who knows….
    It was hard to break the buying for buying’s sake cycle, especially with online shopping being so easy to get that buying buzz.
    I finally quit that cycle and then got my credit cards paid off, student loans paid off, and like you purged loads of things. It felt really good.
    Great post!

  • Adam @ AdamChudy.com February 19, 2015 at 7:45 pm

    Not planning on getting rid of my furniture, but my closet could certainly use some real decluttering. Definitely need to clear that thing.

  • Ragnar February 20, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Plus you’re also helping the environment by consuming less. ^^ When I traveled to Thailand, I hadn’t planned to move, so pretty much everything I now live with can fit into a typical, large travelling backpack, and I don’t miss much. I actually splurged and bought a blender a few months back, and I’m not sure I’ve justified the purchase (other than making lovely blended soups every now and then I don’t use it as much as I imagined.)

  • middle class February 23, 2015 at 2:08 pm

    I was really inspired by this post. When my husband and I moved about two years ago, we agreed to keep decor/clutter to a minimum. Despite this agreement, it seems like our cabinets and closets are filling up. We’ve only started making progress on getting rid of STUFF we brought with us on the move. Cardboard boxes of stuff we haven’t used in 2 years. It’s tough and made doubly hard by the fact that my spouse is not 100% on board. Of course I’m happy that he even agreed to the de-cluttered/minimalist look in the first place!

    As for no-shopping ban, I have been seriously contemplating one but I find it difficult to not at least replace clothes or shoes that are getting worn out. I have a fairly minimalist wardrobe already and even though I take care of my clothing, it seems like I need to replace items every so often.

    Oh, my kids keep growing and I’m not sure I can stop buying them shoes & clothes for one year in case of growth spurts.

    Excuses, excuses…hopefully someday I will take the leap.

  • Harmony February 24, 2015 at 1:34 pm

    I’m still struggling with pack-rat tendencies and the voice in my head that keeps asking, “what if you need this in the future?” But we have a lot of debt to tackle, so we have to take advantage of every available resource.

    Thanks for the continued inspiration :)

  • Daniel @ SaveWithDan.ca February 25, 2015 at 7:54 am

    Hi, Cait! I am very proud of you hitting the publish button on this article. I am speechless. I love your work, I admire what you are doing, and I am getting more and more interested in the emotional relationship we have with things and money, in part because of you. Thank you.
    This post is beautiful. I’ve read it twice already, and I know it’s not easy to share this kind of story. I am so happy that you could let the old Cait behind, and that you are taking time to think about it and let the new, actual, stronger (in a lot of ways, not only money-wise stronger) and wiser Cait be around and share these things with us.
    Seriously, thank you for publishing it.

  • lana March 10, 2015 at 8:10 pm

    We are living in our fourth home as a family and each move has allowed us to divest ourselves of items not being used. Our last move was from the east coast to the west and I gave away through freecycle and to neighbors almost half of our stuff. It was delightful! We helped so many families! After we moved we used freecycle to get rid of our packing boxes (a corporate move) and papers. People were so excited to get them! I consider it a win-win. I am in a continual state of gathering items to donate. My home has a lighter feeling and is easier to clean with less items.

    • Amelia August 17, 2015 at 6:26 pm

      I love how you’ve termed the process ‘gathering items to donate’. A lot of the time gathering is used in the sense of buying and keeping things. And then when we declutter, those things are cast aside from the gathered group. But I love how you’ve flipped this around, gathering the items to donate, makes me think of the imagery that they’ll be happier to leave as a group.

  • Conn March 11, 2015 at 10:32 am

    After taking 11 long years to pay off $40,000 in debt, all I can it’s worth the effort to be debt free! I’ve been debt free for 10 years & loving it. I no longer have a credit card, my debit card has a Visa logo that I can use to make online purchases. Anyway, great work! Thanks for encouraging others on the same journey.

  • Rachel April 21, 2015 at 1:10 pm

    Cait, thank you so much for your post. I was reading this literally as I was on my way to buy clothes that I didn’t need but felt I should buy because they were on sale. I stopped in my tracks and turned around! I recently graduated from college with $25,000 in debt from student loans. I’ve reduced it by about $5000 but some dental bills have also been added on in the last few months and I am wondering how much you budget toward savings and paying off debt out of your monthly income? I’ve heard 20% for savings and 30% for debt but I’m not sure! I need a realistic goal.

  • Vesi July 13, 2015 at 10:32 am

    Hi Cait!

    I just recently discovered your blog and can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. How truly inspiring that someone your age has come to understand what most do not. Namely, that our happiness comes from within and not from the stuff we own. When we’re hurting and empty inside, we try and fill that void with whatever it takes. Alcohol is a very good example as is the $5-7 specialty coffee as is a closet full of clothes that still have the price tags on them.

    In my opinion, the biggest turning point is when we realize we are not the person we think we are or think we wanted to be (or like you said, wanted people to believe we are). This is very liberating and allows us to shed that which no longer serves us, be it people, jobs or our things.

    As much as I am aware of this, I still struggle with it, so thank you for your inspiring words. You have embarked on a wonderful life-altering journey much sooner than the average person and for this you should be very proud of yourself. I know, I know, pride is about ego, but it’s still important that we acknowledge our great accomplishments if only to cement that we’re on the right track.

    Blessings.

  • Sarah July 29, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    My mom showed me your feature on Yahoo and I’ve been trying to find your blog ever since. So stinkin’ happy I’ve found it. Your bligs resonate and I’m excited to do some goal setting of my own!!
    You rock 💕

  • Terri September 12, 2015 at 4:58 am

    I got rid of a bunch of my stuff when I decided to move cross country with me, my stuff, and my pets in my car (5 cats and a dog.) It was a small car, a Mazda2, and while I had the car top carrier, it really didn’t leave a lot of room for stuff. It’s interesting – when deciding whether to keep something or not, I would ask myself if it would infringe on the space that my animal carriers would need in the car. The animals were, of course, more important than anything else I could move. Everything else was replaceable. And I’m so glad I was forced to get rid of so much stuff. Since I’ve arrived in my new location, I have tried to be very mindful of not just buying stuff to fill spaces.

    I just heard your podcast interview with Brooke McAlary the other day, and had to check out your blog. I’ve already downloaded your free budget tool and am going to start tracking my expenses. I’ve just subscribed, and look forward to reading many more posts of yours and joining the community that you have started on here as well. Thank you so much for all you’ve done, both for yourself, and for others.

  • Cat November 9, 2015 at 10:28 am

    Hi Cait, I am trying, but am not successful. I tend to keep buying this I know I don’t need, but when I see a good deal, I just can’t pass it up. Once it’s done, I feel awful and am at the point that I can’t return something as it’s final sale. I don’t know where to start…I think my life at work and home is clutter-filled. I tried selling stuff but I guess at some point I have to realize it’s not worth sometimes what I think it’s worth, or what I paid for it. I desperately need some guidance. I know what I have to do, I am just having trouble getting there.

  • NDQ January 24, 2016 at 2:25 pm

    I have been working on cutting back on possessions and shopping. I made great progress in 2015, and anticipate making a bigger dent during 2016.

    There is a local charity I donate to, and each week I fill my trunk of items to drop off on Monday. I get a receipt for tax purposes and they will seriously accept anything, even damaged clothing. Apparently, the group sells damaged clothing to a wholesaler.

    This is a huge win-win since I don’t have to do any work to try to sell items. The thought of holding a garage sale or selling through Craigslist is daunting, as it takes too much time and effort.

    As much work as it takes to get items out of the house, I am working even harder to not bring new things into the house to begin with. Christmas hasn’t helped at all…I am going to have to make some changes before Christmas 2016.

    NDQ