In the 17th century, a German named Hennig Brand had the idea that storing his own urine would allow him to distill precious metals from it – most notably, gold. It turns out that from his urine experiments he discovered phosphorous, which for some time was more valuable than gold because of its use in matches, but let’s not forget the crux of this story – the man thought he could store pee and it would turn into gold.
My friends, Hennig Brand and I are not all that different.
No, I don’t store my urine in the basement in 5-gallon containers hoping to make a fortune -- yet -- but I HAVE for some reason stored other things in my basement and hoped they would remain valuable or increase in value. What are these things?
There are three words my wife is used to hearing from me:
“I love you.”
In the last month, another three-word refrain has joined its hallowed place in my vernacular:
“I hate stuff.”
I really do.
For years I have socked away various and sundry “stuff” items, carrying them around from house to house as I’ve moved, and somehow hoping that they, like Hennig Brand’s urine, would somehow become something valuable again. Alas, the Quesadilla Maker we moved from Jessica’s apartment did not suddenly become a wad of cash , and my scribbled notes on Managerial Economics from business school didn’t miraculously help me master cost accounting from their place in banker boxes in a spare bedroom over the last 5 years. Stuff in boxes, generally, just stays stuff in boxes, until you die or throw it out.
Now please allow me to elaborate on my hatred of stuff, by recounting the reasons for my hatred:
- Stuff takes up space. Space costs money; each square foot in my home is worth about $200, so I want to make sure I’m enjoying $200 worth of time in each one of those feet. So every “apple box” I move into my home costs me about $300 of space just by sitting there. I’m not even going to count how much the boxes in my house are costing me right now in space… the GDP of Albania comes to mind.
- Stuff costs money. The plot line is more predictable than a Saved By The Bell episode: If I buy something for $100 that I think will double my productivity/enjoyment and pay for itself in a matter of months, inevitably it will do nothing to my productivity/enjoyment and be worth $10 when I try to sell it on Craigslist two years later before I move again. So what did I get? Something I basically paid $90 to use once. Multiply that by 100, and suddenly you have $1000 worth of stuff you paid $10,000 to buy just two years ago. This is the financial equivalent of watching baby seals get clubbed to death in slow motion. I want to vomit, I want to look away, but every time I look up it’s STILL HAPPENING. The opportunity cost of buying Stuff grows with every passing day.
- Stuff is heavy and must be moved around. Imagine if I forced you to pay me to stay at your home, take up space, and pretty much do nothing. That would be a horrible decision, right? NOW imagine that I forced you to haul my bloated body in and out of your home – sometimes requiring a truck to move me since I refuse to bend my legs – and all I do in your house is sit there and occasionally allow you to sit on me or stand on me to reach something? That’s pretty much what Stuff does.
So, what am I going to do about it? Here are some resolutions I made during our last move:
- Digitize, Digitize, Digitize. I’m borrowing a scanner and I’m turning pictures into JPEGS, old college notes into PDFs and recycling paper stuff I don’t care about anymore. The exceptions would be sentimental stuff, like the letter I wrote in the 2nd grade to Christopher Columbus in the voice of Queen Isabella of Spain, where I tell her to search for Indians that say “hub hub.” Don’t ask me where I got that… but I do want to keep some sentimental items that lose their appeal in digitized format.
- Befriend Powell’s and Amazon. Books are heavy. Once I read a book, it’s quite rare that I’m going to read it again. I keep thinking I will – like “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” which is a heavy, 1200-page paperback tome with a large swastika on the front (not good airport reading material, my friends). I keep thinking I’ll re-read the important parts, but let’s be honest – I won’t. So I’m selling it to somebody who wants more information about how Adolf Hitler’s last name almost became Schicklgruber. True story... Anyway, the Amazon Kindle is looking better and better every day.
- Lose a box a week. I’ll settle for losing a pound a week too, but if I can just simplify my life enough that I’m getting rid of a box every week, next year at this time I guarantee I’ll have more space and probably more money. Something’s going to be sold, recycled or scrapped. Pixie's toys are looking nervous in the corner as I write this…
- Consider the move before I buy. Actually, I already do this – ever since Jessica’s move to Oregon, when I look at something I’m interested in I think, “So what would this be like moving in the 63rd box of the day?” Suddenly, money isn’t the only element of the equation. Usually I end up passing on the item and in turn keeping cash (see above, “Stuff costs money” bullet).
In the end, there isn’t anything wrong with buying or having things I use. But I resolve to ask myself before a purchase of a potentially Stuff-worthy item: “Am I trying to turn my urine into gold?” The salesperson may raise an eyebrow at my introspective question, but perhaps I’ll avoid buying that Crème Brulee maker that I’ll probably only use once.
Besides, we already have one of those.