0 Comments | May 20, 2015

America’s Clutter Problem

Americans haven’t always had a clutter problem.  There was a time when goods were few and not easily obtained.  Imagine a frontier town where the only place to get “stuff” was the local general store. For decades, couples kept their entire wardrobe in a shared armoire; no one thought they needed more.  All you have to do is look around Colorado at homes built in the 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, and it’s clear people had less stuff, based on the size of closets and kitchens.  Our obsession with stuff has become epidemic to the point where Time Magazine did a feature piece in their March 23, 2015 issue called, “The Joy of Less: Americans have more possessions than any society in history.  Can we finally take control of them?” Below are some fascinating highlights from the article.


So how did we evolve into wretched excess?  It was the advent of the Industrial Revolution, and mass produced goods available by catalog starting at the turn of the 20th century, that began the shift.  Then there was the invention of plastics.  General Motors created the concept of planned obsolescence:  the idea that if they came out with a new model every year, this could trigger people to upgrade. The idea was born that you could aspire to a different social class by acquiring. Do you really need the newest iPhone/iPad/TV?  It’s part of the culture, but isn’t it also a sign of status?  Our current phase of overconsumption began around 30 years ago when—get this—close to half of our annual expenditures are for non-necessities, as the cost of consumer goods has gone down. And 99% of what we buy is TRASH IN 6 MONTHS.  Consumption and acquisition are considered a normal part of the American psyche/lifestyle. And our economy depends on it.  Why do we have so much stuff?  Because we can.

Some interesting tidbits:

  • Children in the U.S. are just 3.1% of the world’s kids, but U.S. families buy over 40% of toys globally.  (Remember how few toys we had growing up, compared to today’s playrooms?)

Toyroom before



  • The rise of bulk warehouse stores like Costco & Sam’s Club means buying in bulk and packing a second fridge/freezer.
  • One-click shopping on sites like Amazon with express delivery makes consumption far too easy, feeding into the heady buzz of instant gratification shopping.
  • Most household moves outside the U.S. weight 2,500-7,500 pounds.  Ours average 8,000 pounds.
  • Self-storage is now a $24 billion business.  There are over 48,000 self storage facilities in the U.S., and only 10,000 internationally. And 2/3’s of U.S. storage users own a garage, 1/2 have an attic, and 1/3 have a basement!!!
  • The rise of “fast fashion”—cheap, on-trend clothes from the likes of Gap, H&M and Forever 21—has led to an household average of 248 garments and 29 pairs of shoes.  Each household purchases an average 64 pieces of clothing and 7 pairs of shoes annually, at a total cost of $1,141/year or $16/item.  (I’m worse.  Many of us are.  It’s my only vice, and I’m all about bargains!)
  • In one UCLA study, 75% of the participants couldn’t park in their garage.
  • Constantly changing technologies, from analog to digital, means buying new gear and old, obsolete gear going to landfills—CD’s, DVD’s, books, shelving units, etc.


Purging only gets harder as we get old.  For seniors, hanging onto stuff can be: proof of their very existence, the story of their lives, denial of life coming to an end.  And according to one study, stuff isn’t making us happier; homes with too much stuff can lead to higher levels of anxiety (which is why I have a business!).  More stuff that’s supposed to make us happier and our lives easier leads to messier spaces, which raises levels of cortisol, a stress hormone. But perhaps a shift is happening:  The notion that our lives should be simpler and more peaceful is starting to take hold.  And businesses like junk hauling and professional organizing are thriving.  1-800-GOT-JUNK hit $1 billion in revenue last year.  If you haven’t heard about it, a best seller called “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by 30 year old Japanese Marie Kondo has been on the New York Times list since February—her central message is, keep the things that spark joy and get rid of the rest.  Not far from my mantra, “Do you need it, use it, or love it?” So maybe “more is less” is the next movement.

I just got back from Costa Rica with my boyfriend, Jeff.  We had an amazing week.  I brought back a keychain and an ankle bracelet—that’s it.  Because at the end of the day, I know that it’s the memories of these experiences, and not belongings, that elicit true feelings of happiness.  (My two tiny trinkets can serve as reminders without cluttering up my space.)

BONUS: watch this eye opening video, “The Story of Stuff”, on YouTube to learn how the production, consumption and trashing of goods impacts the planet and the people on it.