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

by Katy on March 31, 2013 · 22 comments

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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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

NMPatricia March 31, 2013 at 10:37 am

Your blog is SO worth reading. I love these tidbits that make me think – about life in general and about how I am living my life. Thanks.


Jessica April 1, 2013 at 2:56 am



Alison Wiley April 1, 2013 at 5:07 am

I agree. And I too feel like Goldilocks, on my good days, at least . . . in the zone of just right.


Joanna March 31, 2013 at 10:38 am

I read that book a couple months ago and I was personally overwhelmed by some of the photos of stuff in these families’ houses. I do identify and strive to live as a minimalist, and being in or seeing very crowded, chaotic spaces makes me feel overwhelmed and on edge (see also: Reasons why Joanna doesn’t go into Wal-Mart). I remember in particular a picture of one family’s home office that was piled with papers, boxes, and old electronics. NO way I could ever work in that space.

What makes you/us/non-consumers different from a typical American consumer is the intentionality of our purchases. When you put this much thought into what, where, and why you buy, you can’t help but see most purchases as unnecessary. We don’t wander the mall looking for “deals” or whatever looks pretty. We have a mission, a plan, or a purpose for every purchase.


Vivian March 31, 2013 at 11:30 am

I’m currently working on the process to prune down my clothing and shoes. I have a really hard time with this as I have prided myself in buying neutral, classic clothing. Some of it is the best of quality I can afford. In defence the majority of it from places like the Sally Ann. But I have realized that having 2 pairs of black shoes that neither fit well were not good buys. This is just one example. It’s going to be difficult. With 4 definite seasons is it legitimate to have a light coat for fall and spring but what about the 2 wool coats I have. The nice long one for formal affairs but the short one great for driving the car. As you can see a person can find legitimate reasons for all their items but do they really need them?
Does it lessen the crime if the long wool coat is 10 plus years old and the short one I got for $15 from Value Villago about 3 years ago. But I did not tell you about the down coat and the vintage coat that was given to me. When does a person just look in the mirror and say enough is enough? That day of reckoning is soon.


Ellie March 31, 2013 at 5:53 pm

I do think there is a difference between HAVING multiple things that serve different purposes (e.g., different weight coats for different seasons and weather conditions) and constantly REPLACING perfectly good things “just because” (fashion, boredom, like to shop, whatever).

I’m far from a minimalist, but I try to make sure that everything I own serves a purpose (with “aesthetics” counted as a purpose), buy or acquire second hand as much as possible, maintain and repair my stuff, and don’t replace it unless its beyond repair.

The upshot of this is that I don’t think I really HAVE less stuff than most people I know…but I do think that I SHOP a whole heck of a lot less and SPEND a whole heck of a lot less money than many people, simply because I’m not constantly replacing my (perfectly good) stuff.


TmH March 31, 2013 at 11:47 am

This is one thing that me and my hubby struggle with. (2 years married) It is whether we want to replace the ‘newlywed’ plastic orange school chairs we got (given to us so that we would have actual chairs in our house) with real wooden dining room chairs. The chairs are perfectly good and work fine, the only problem is that they are orange. So do we go out and buy a new set of chairs only to have to stash these orange ones away or get rid of them for somebody else to stash away? We have a lot of items like that. Things that we got to just ‘get by’ until we got better quality. But these things that ‘get us by’ still work great. We have been getting better about only getting rid of it after it breaks. It is still a work in progress though.


Elaine in Ark April 1, 2013 at 8:12 am

You can do what John & Sherry of Young House Love do – sell the old whatever. That way, you don’t keep old stuff around, cluttering up the place, and you make a few dollars.

Having grown up chairs is a good, sensible thing. Don’t keep the old ones if you don’t have the space for them, or another use for them.


Deniseathome March 31, 2013 at 12:00 pm

It helps me to reduce my possessions if I know they are going to needy people. Luckily I am a parent of 3 young adults and I live in a working class neighborhood. I can usually find someone who needs what my life can no longer hold. I know how hard it is. I closely childcare after 26 years and I had emotional attachment to much of the stuff. I kept some things for my grand kids, had several yard sales and after 3 months gave the rest to thrift stores without going through the stuff again. It was totally worth it. Now if I could just part with some of my kitchen stuff.


cathy March 31, 2013 at 12:38 pm

This is very thought-provoking. I’ve been on a continual effort to pare down and purge for quite some time. I think it takes MORE time to do that when you’re not overrun by clutter. Initially I started trying to get rid of at least one thing per day. Some days I don’t find anything, other days I’ll have a whole box of things. But there are four of us and I don’t always get the final say. The advantage to a blog like this is that it often sparks me to think about our possessions differently which enables me to move more things into the “out” pile.

I’ve found two methods that are helping now. First, I don’t just send my kids to clean out their things. It’s much faster if I hold up each item (or piece of paper) and let them decide on the spot. I’m continually impressed with all they are willing to part with. The second thing–that works better for me, personally–is to give items the “William Morris Test,” which is to ask if the stuff is truly useful or beautiful. Beyond that, I still have to be willing to ask (and answer) the question: Even if it’s useful or beautiful, does it still serve a purpose in our home? I’m amazed at how much doesn’t pass the test. All the reevaluation helps me be much more deliberate in my purchases, too.


Krystal March 31, 2013 at 1:24 pm


I picked up this book from the library a week or so ago, and I cannot wait to dive in.

“Although I often write about minimalism, I am not a minimalist.” Bingo. I consider my quest for “less” somewhat of a grey area too. I really don’t want to cut back on my love of finding good wine, roasting a good meat on occasion, or nail polish collection 🙂 Like being a non-consumer, zero-waster, or a minimalist–it’s a mindset, it’s an approach. What it’s not is a trap. We’re not perfect, and we probably shouldn’t be.


A. Marie March 31, 2013 at 1:58 pm

I may be a little older than a lot of you (I’m pushing 60 harder than I like to think about), and I can testify that age helps with this process. There comes a point when you are physically unable to wear some of the clothes and shoes you’ve been stashing away (I’ve just done a major shoe purge) and have less natural interest in accumulating stuff generally. This sounds depressing, but it isn’t: It’s liberating.


Bauunny March 31, 2013 at 2:34 pm

I call it “de-nesting” and it is wonderfully liberating. I so enjoy getting things out of my house these days. I have pretty much stopped thrifting as a result (but still love a good consignment store bargain). I am now willing to pay more for something I love rather than have more stuff than I can use. Interesting turn of events….who new?


JaneUlness March 31, 2013 at 2:12 pm

I lost 48 pounds. I am slowly getting rid of all the tops that are too big. Every week I try to bring at least one new thing to the store to be sold. I am trying very hard not to bring anything back!LOL. With the addition of the baby and her stuff, it is harder to decluttering the house. I am not a minamilist., but I think you should have thimgs that make you happy around you. too much clutter does not make me happy, it at least has to be compartmentalized. The problem with some people is that decluttering is Ok. Mot is not Om to throw away sterling silver or family heirlooms. Tou have to know the difference between what I call slick and things of value. my mother was an antique dealer too. Moshe would clean out houses and run estate sales and make her commission on things the families would have thrown out. Metal spice boxes?!!!! Talcum cans? Canning jars?,. I hate to see thimgs that could fetch a good price going to the landfill.


JaneUlness March 31, 2013 at 5:50 pm

It’s the thrill of the hunt!
I’m looking for a special jar opener from the 1920s and , a lid for the depression glass cracker jar my mom got for a wedding present,


Shannon March 31, 2013 at 4:22 pm

My son brought home a Time For Kids article from school which focused on the kids’ toys— it was from this book. So glad for any opportunity to have a dialogue with the kids. It’s hard enough for us grow ups to deal with the stuff, you know?


Mary Letters March 31, 2013 at 5:31 pm

We are in the market for a house and as we puruse online house listings, my teenage daughter commented that seeing all these houses staged for sale with minimal furnishings reminded her of how much happier she is with less clutter. Moving is a great time to pare down the stuff.


tna March 31, 2013 at 6:19 pm

That was enjoyable. Thanks for the post.
I am a minimalist, but having worked in the
clothing industry for years and having had
a mother that sewed beautifully I find I am
still entertained by clothing. I just went
and counted and I have about 25 pieces of clothing.
Not a lot by modern standards but definitely
more than I need. They were all bought from
second hand stores except two pairs of slacks
I bought on sale and wear all the time. Sometimes
it bothers me that I still can’t break out of
this pastime of occasionally cruising thrift stores
for an item that pleases me. And sometimes I just
tell myself, omg, can’t you just shut up!


cathy March 31, 2013 at 6:45 pm

If you only have 25 articles of clothing, that’s WAY less than the average American. And if you occasionally find something in the thrift store that pleases you, I’d say that sometimes it’s nice to get something for no other reason than that makes you smile.
I don’t feel like I have a lot of clothing (I share a small closet where I have about 24″ of rod space, an equal amount on two shelves, and two drawers in a shared dresser) but it’s definitely more than 25 pieces. I know everything I own, never “lose” clothes in my closet, and wear most of it. Maybe I have more because we live in a 4-season climate. No matter the reason, I’d still like to pare it down more.
Again, I think one of the most valuable things about this blog, and others like it, is to inspire us to think about what we really want/need to live, and how to do so without squandering resources.


Lisa April 1, 2013 at 6:33 am

“We owe something to extravagance, for thrift and adventure seldom go hand in hand.”
— Jennie Jerome Churchill, American-born British society figure

Thought we could laugh about this quote – because thrifting is an adventure! right?


Katy April 1, 2013 at 7:18 am

Damn straight it is!



Steph April 1, 2013 at 8:26 am

I’ve seen pictures from that book and it made me feel kinda sad. Sad at the waste, sad at the skewed priorities. I’m not sure if I’m a minimalist but I don’t have very much “stuff”. We live in a very expensive city so my flat is small (3 people in 500 sq ft). 2 cupboards, no loft or basement and no garage. I had to sell off some furniture and plenty other things. I see people getting into terrible financial problems trying to buy a bigger property and just feel relieved we are content with less.


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