Stuff, Happiness and Life at Home in The Twenty-First Century

by Katy on November 6, 2017 · 27 comments

The following is a reprint of a previously published post. Enjoy!

I’m currently reading Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors, which is a fascinating anthropological study of middle-class families in the Los Angeles area. This single book could easily inspire a dozen distinct and varied blog posts from me, but today I focus on this one quote:

“Most Possessions per Family in Global History.”

“For more than 40,000 years, intellectually modern humans have peopled the planet, but never before has any society accumulated so many personal possessions. U.S. households spend on average tens of thousands of dollars every year on new purchases. A substantial portions of these expenditures goes towards replacement goos such as trendy apparel and the latest media electronics, not to mention the newest model of cars. Many of these objects replace perfectly good antecedents that homeowners may only reluctantly part with, The result is typically clutter amassing in “back stage” storage areas such as garages, closets, and attics, eventually extending to “front stage” living spaces.”

Yesterday my mother and I took my two teenage sons to two different Goodwill thrift shops. There was nothing we really needed, and each of the four of us made a single purchase, which I thought was very telling.

  • My mother bought four drinking glasses to replace missing/broken glasses in her rental cottages. ($3.96)

  • I bought a large framed vintage Maxfield Parrish print that I will display in my spare bedroom. ($14.99)

  • My younger son bought a pair of Nike Free Runs that normally cost $90. ($4.99)

  • My older son bought an Italian merino wool turtleneck sweater. ($6.99)

None of these purchases were technically necessary, however each was deliberate. My older son is very particular about his clothing, my younger son is obsessed with shoes and I always keep an eye out for underpriced home decor.

Are we typical American consumers?

Yes. No. Absolutely not. Most likely. More than we care to admit. Kind of yes. Kind of no.

Our thrift store purchases did give us that endorphin rush that comes with finding that perfect thing to add to our house full of stuff. But they will not push our home into the realm of cluttery chaos.

Although I often write about minimalism, I am not a minimalist. I like to think that I inhabit the grey area of just right along with Miss Goldilocks. (Of course, what one day can seem just right can teeter over to too much the next.)

Which is why it’s called a grey area.

I’ll keep reading the book, and hopefully find inspiration for that sweet spot between a cluttered home and one that echoes.


Katy Wolk-Stanley

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.”

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{ 27 comments… read them below or add one }

Jen from California November 6, 2017 at 9:59 am

I just requested that book from the library. Totally up my alley so thanks for the idea. My family is in that grey area, too…..I find humans and their habitats very interesting, so look forward to seeing the book.


Sandra November 6, 2017 at 10:17 am

We are teetering, I fear, into too many extras. It is time to get serious about everything: clothes, shoes, decorative items, furniture, kitchen items, and my biggest bug bear, dishes. I love collecting pretty or interesting dishes and I have several sets and partial sets. I rotate them on a daily basis so that many of them are in regular use.


KJD509 November 6, 2017 at 10:36 am

On possessions, I sometimes worry I’m channeling my grandmother, whose Depression-era habits meant we found cabinets and closets built on top of each other in her home of 74 years after she died. Better save that; it might come in handy one day. And that . . . and that . . . and that . . .

Especially hard for me are things my kids made or used. If I save that adorable artwork by child #1, don’t I need to save one from each of the other kids? Maybe more than one?

This summer a mouse (or 100, hard to tell) got into our under-the-house storage area. It’s amazing how quickly I’m willing to let go of items covered in mouse poop. Maybe this should be my new mantra: If that item were “moused,” would I try to save it or just toss it?


April November 6, 2017 at 11:43 am

That is my issue also–items relating to my kids. I would love to hear Katy’s thoughts on how she determined what to save through the years with her boys.


Rb November 6, 2017 at 1:02 pm

I save almost everything my kids bring in during the year. I have a tote for each kid. At the end of the school year i go thru each tote and collect a small sample of “best of’s” to keep. The rest is recycled. Each small collection is stored in a labled gallon ziploc bag.

Even with three kids this doesnt amount to much after i sort stuff in june.

Also as kids get older they produce much less paper and art work. My middle schoolers do almost everything digitally now.


Debbie November 6, 2017 at 3:14 pm

I do the same with my kids’ artwork. As I add to their collection box after culling through a year’s worth, I pull out old pieces that no longer have as much meaning to me (or them) and recycle them. It’s amazing how in a year’s time, something that was a “must keep” is no longer as meaningful and has quickly been forgotten.


Bee November 6, 2017 at 12:18 pm

There are a series of 3 short YouTube videos based upon this study called “A Clutter Life’s: Middle Class Abundance.” It was produced by University of California Television. They are enlightening and frightening.

I was brought up to think about my purchases. My parents bought what they needed and used things up. If they no longer had a need for something, they passed it on to someone who did. I try to be mindful in the same what. However, I still have “stuff.”

Technology is changing so quickly. Things become outdated or can no longer be used. I just packed up a box of video cassettes. My VCR no longer works, and we haven’t watch any of them f or years. I’m not sure what to do with them.. They are almost as hard to get rid of as an analog TV.


kathleen November 6, 2017 at 5:02 pm

Thanks, Bee. I was just wondering what to watch tonight. It’s on now.


Linda M November 6, 2017 at 3:13 pm

The Swedes have a word for just the right amount…the Goldilock’s Effect…it is lagom….just the right amount. A goal I strive for…and so often miss. Onward and upward.


Lindsey November 6, 2017 at 4:20 pm

I follow Grandma’s Bloomers Rule. When she died, at 99, she left a huge labelled box for each of us. I mean huge, like a dishwasher sized box. All the boxes contained things she’d purchased but never used, with the idea that she was saving them for the future. (At 99, really Grandma?) My box was full of soft cotton bloomers, knee length and pale peach in color with elastic at the knees and waist, that she’d bought in the 1940s, when she was in her 30s. There were several dozen , tags still on them. Now, when I am tempted to keep things, you know just in case, I remind myself that I don’t want to leave bloomers behind that someone else will have to deal with (and can subject me to posthumous ridicule).

The irony is that I live in Alaska and have actually worn those damn things under long skirts during the winter. Can’t wear them under pants because they are very wide in the legs so they bunch up. (Luckily, my husband says.)


kathleen November 6, 2017 at 4:51 pm

Lindsey, I’m picturing them individually framed and hung in a group of three…over the sofa, maybe. Quite the conversations starter. 🙂


Su Mama November 6, 2017 at 5:17 pm

Hmmm . . I imagine vintage bloomers might fetch a pretty penny on eBay!


Lindsey November 6, 2017 at 6:08 pm

I never thought of eBay! I still have some left in original packaging so will look into listing them!

I did use a few pairs as packaging for gifts for my siblings. Sewed the legs shut and put a drawstring at the waist and put the gifts in them. Now we use them to give gifts back and forth. When my soon to be husband saw not one but two pairs of gift stuffed bloomers under the tree (one from brother, other from sister), I think he briefly reconsidered spending the future linked to my family. (It didn’t help that siblings’ spouses told him that they intended to form a support group for people who married into our family.)


Cindy in the South I November 7, 2017 at 1:23 pm

Lindsey..that is too funny about the support group…lol


KJD509 November 6, 2017 at 5:31 pm

That is an awesome rule.


Diane C November 7, 2017 at 3:22 am

Oh, wow! I stumbled upon those three videos on YouTube a week or so ago and they totally creeped me out! It still makes me sick to my stomach. When did greed and gluttony become completely okay? Why can so few people figure out what “enough” means? I did not see it mentioned in the videos; I wonder if the book explores the connection of stuff to obesity? Seems the two are closely linked. Same inpulses.


momsav November 7, 2017 at 4:04 am

Katy, Just in the past few weeks, whenever I come here to your site, I get redirected to an ad from amazon. The only way to get out of it to see your posts is to start over. Sometimes, i’ll Get this three times in a row. (Win a 1,000.00 gift card, NOW!) It’s a total pain!


Katy November 7, 2017 at 10:08 am

Crap, I need to look into that. Is it on your phone or laptop/desktop?


Sherri November 7, 2017 at 7:01 am

Read that book a few years ago. The amount of toys!! Like other commentators, my weakness is saving my children’s school work and college books and notebooks!


ouvickie November 7, 2017 at 7:56 am

That book sounds interesting. I’ll have to see if I can find it at our Library.
We are probably considered typical consumers, since hubby is not on board the frugal spending/not spending train.
When I need/want something I will peruse the thrift stores and/or pawn shops. I hate clutter, but we have too much “inherited” crap and otherwise. I’m definitely not a minimalist, but I am working towards less crap.


Bethany M November 7, 2017 at 8:31 am

I’m looking for something to dress up my son’s room/guest room too. I saw a really neat airplane canvas on Varagesale, but I was too late and someone else snatched it up. They had it super cheap. Today, though, I got an email about a free canvas offer. I went on Yelp and searched around the air force base reviews and found a great photo. I emailed the owner of the photo and fingers crossed I’ll get permission to print it off. He’ll be excited about this. Every time we pass by the air force base he sees the planes from the interstate, and goes nuts!


Sandra November 7, 2017 at 8:43 am

What a great idea! You are blessing your son as well as the photographer who took the picture. We are all flattered when someone admires our creative efforts.


Bethany M November 7, 2017 at 11:14 pm

He emailed back. Wants $50 for it. But at least I tried.


Diane C November 8, 2017 at 12:45 pm

Bummer! Did you tell him is was for your kid who’s nuts about airplanes?


karen November 7, 2017 at 8:47 pm

My parents were minimalist so growing up this way helped me to not go crazy with possessions. I will say I had more stuff than they had (trust me anyone would have had more stuff than them).

But when my children left home I really worked on reducing my possessions. I am pretty happy with my amount of stuff now but slowly and deliberately I am reducing them more. I like I can take my time and not be rushed and this way I can give away and recycle the items.

I always have the goal that we will be moving to a smaller place in a couple of years and purging now slowly will make my life so much easier when this happens.


Bethany M November 7, 2017 at 11:16 pm

Yes, more stuff will be junked if we die before parting with our stuff. When our kids need to get the house on the market, they won’t be able to dilly dally with our trinkets.


Isabel November 7, 2017 at 11:19 pm

Watched those 3 videos and found them truly horrible! Think I must be a natural minimalist ! I am always organising and downsizing! Had the name in my family for it so that if anyone was tidying getting rid of things called it ‘doing an isabel!’ Am an Australian and have never had in all my years that quantity of things …. Praises be!


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