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Why We Keep Stuff: "It Was Expensive"

A new series on organizing your life, from Ask the Experts’ Elizabeth Tawney Gross

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????Why do we keep stuff? This post is the first in a series examining the reasons we keep stuff. In my 10 years as a professional organizer, I have heard a lot of justifications for keeping things. Many of them prevent a person from living the organized life they want now.

Clients often tell me they have to keep something because, “I paid good money for that,” or “It was expensive.” Many times it’s an item that is no longer needed or used. Sometimes they don’t even like the item anymore.

Frequently, I find that keeping it may be a way to avoid admitting spending too much on the item in the first place. I see this all the time with clothing. Even though something doesn’t fit or flatter, it was expensive, so it has to stay.

Many people believe the value of an item is its price tag. The true worth of an item is its usefulness, not its cost. An item’s usefulness doesn’t have be utilitarian to be useful.

The paintings on my walls have no function except to provide enjoyment. My scrub brush provides very little enjoyment, but it is useful. The original cost of my scrub brush and paintings are immaterial to their value in my home today.

When people want to keep things because of their original price their rational is, “I paid a lot for that so I have to keep it to get my money’s worth.” In business, the term “sunk cost” is used. A sunk cost describes a cost that has already been incurred and can’t be recovered. A business doesn’t allow the unrecoverable price paid for an item influence a future decision.

Let’s use theater tickets as an example. I bought tickets to a play and realized by the end of the first act that the play stinks. The sunk cost is the price of the tickets. At this point I can’t recoup that money spent. The logical decision would be to leave after the first act.

However, many people will sit through an awful performance just because the tickets were expensive. This allows a past expense, that can’t be undone, to motivate a current decision.

Keeping something only because at one time it was expensive keeps you living in the past, not the present. BTW, your interpretation of expensive has no relationship to anyone else’s, and has, most likely, changed over time. When we were first married, $8 for shrimp was very expensive on our limited budget. As our income has grown, I will gladly pay $8 for shrimp.

Take the “I paid good money for that” argument too far and you will end up buried in clutter. I pay for a newspaper every day. Using the “I paid good money” logic, I will have to keep every newspaper forever just because I purchased it. The newspaper, and most items in our homes, represent a sunk cost and keeping them just because you paid for them does nothing to enhance your life.

How do you avoid using these excuses for holding onto things? Using your current definition of expensive, ask yourself if you would buy the same item today. Is it still useful or beautiful? Has it outlasted the purpose you originally purchased it for? The money spent is gone, sunk. Keeping the item has a price today in space and time. Letting go of the item will free up time and space for the life you want to live now.

Copyright© 2014 Elizabeth Tawney Gross, Organizing For Everyday, LLC

About Elizabeth Tawney Gross

Ask the Experts panelist Elizabeth Tawney Gross is the owner of Organizing for Everyday and a certified professional organizer in chronic disorganization. Send her a question at Elizabeth@org4everyday.com. Find out more about her at org4everyday.com.

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To ask Elizabeth a question, type in the comments field below. Or ask a question by emailing sage@abqjournal.com.

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