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In my last post I was planning to boost your Life Happiness Quotient (LHQ, © Mark Phillips, 2016) by sharing the winning numbers in next week’s Powerball drawing, along with the mysterious secret of how socks manage to escape the steel prison of your washing machine without being detected (hint: it involves lasers). But instead I settled for describing how we stored many of our worldly goods for a year, during which time we learned that we didn’t need most of them, and at the end of which we gave away/sold/trashed most of them. During that year we periodically visited our storage locker to search for some random kitchen utensil, or to just sit and chat with the power tools, and I was amazed to see what other people were storing, things like enormous 400 pound televisions and old vinyl couches awaiting the return of the 1970’s. These items were undoubtedly “treasures” that would not fit in the a) house, or b) garage, or c) attic, so they wound up here, in the d) storage unit.

I’ve always heard that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and if you have ever wondered, “Who is that man who sees treasure in trash?” I am delighted to tell you that he lives in Abilene and conducts business at our storage building. We saw him one day combing through the e) dumpster outside the storage unit, which is where the items that fail to land safely in any of the previously listed spots wind up. While I was not that surprised to see him digging for gold in the dumpster, I was stunned to see him sometime later inside the storage center’s tall fence. As we slowly drove past I realized that he had apparently been retrieving discarded items from the dumpster and bringing them back inside to store them in f) his own rented unit. Maybe he’ll resell them to someone else who will store them for a while before throwing them away so he can retrieve them again…. For all I know he owns g) a second-hand store across town and just sells, retrieves and resells the same few hundred items over and over and over and over.

I don’t know when “The American Dream” first became defined by possessions, but the first time I heard that term it referred to owning a house with a little white picket fence or something. These things are stand-ins (meager ones) for what we really want, and on some level we rarely contemplate, we believe that that the next new purchase will do what all the previous ones have failed to. Maybe the strangest part of the whole self-storage boom (it’s a massive growth industry) is that American homes today are 1,000 square feet larger than they were forty years ago, even though the average family is smaller. Despite having twice as much space per person today, Americans still can’t manage to store all their things in their super-sized houses. For reference, our 2700 square footer was right at the average for new house construction in the US today. Oh, and what about those two ‘small’ apartments we lived in for four years? Each included about 850 square feet, with a kitchen, a living area, two bedrooms, and a laundry closet. Just for reference, our “tiny” apartments included more space per person than the average home in the United Kingdom. “Remain calm, and keep your stuff in your own room.”

For most of my life it was just understood: you buy a house as soon as you can (and upgrade as soon as possible), because you will make huge amounts of money on the rising value of your home. Now that the second part is no longer true (and it probably never was in most locales), the first makes a lot less sense. Millennials have the lowest rate of home ownership of any generation in history, and while most of them say they would rather own than rent, the generation that shares Ubers and spare bedrooms and pictures of their meals seems poised to redefine the American dream to exclude property taxes and weeding the flower bed.

“99% of everything done in the world, good or bad, is done to pay a mortgage. Perhaps the world would be a better place if everyone rented.”              ( Thank You for Smoking, 2005)

The trap here is not owning a house (unless you over-borrowed, in which case it is): it’s buying a house because you think owning it will make you happy. And it’s not just true for houses, but for any purchase that you think will ‘deliver’ happiness. The data is crystal clear on this: purchases do not deliver what they promise. Why is the happiest day of vacation (believe it or not) the day before you leave? Why are the two happiest days of a boat owner’s life the day he buys the boat and the day he sells it (a truism that can be reliably traced to the early 1800s, but which originated with Noah)?

In my experience, the trash and treasure thing runs both ways. Many of the purchases we work so hard to own begin as treasure, and wind up as trash, or in the case of every treadmill ever sold, as a rack for drying clothes. A decade ago I attended a used computer auction. Underneath a folding table lurked a sad collection of obsolete Apple gear, including machines I had literally salivated over when they were new and painfully expensive. I quickly did the math and concluded that somebody had paid around $60,000 for all these systems, but that day the auctioneer would have gladly taken $10.00 just to have them carted away. From treasure to trash in a handful of years.

Several years ago photographer Peter Menzel traveled the globe, asking families to pose for a portrait surrounded by everything they own. In most countries the collections of goods fit neatly in front of the family’s home, but the US family’s spread required the garage, the driveway, and much of the cul-de-sac (odds are good they have more stuff lurking in the attic and a storage unit). You can probably guess what the Bhutanese family’s collection looked like.

“More isn’t always better, Linus. Sometimes it’s just more.” (Sabrina, 1995).

I have begun trying to assess any potential purchase by evaluating the actual cost of ownership, and I do this not just in terms of dollars, but in terms of time and effort, since I consider these more valuable. In some cases this means I will pass up a ‘great buy’ since I don’t want to commit to the item’s upkeep, storage, or maintenance. In many cases it means I choose to make do with what I already own. I try to look myself in the eye (this requires a mirror) and tell the truth: with this purchase, what am I really trying to buy?

“The things you own end up owning you.”        (Fight Club, 1999).

Buyer, beware.

You can view Peter Menzel’s amazing photos from his “Material World” project here: the US family, the Bhutanese family, and the rest.

Kentucky is home to a full size replica of of Noah’s Ark, and you can see why Noah couldn’t find a buyer for the original when he finished using it. Unlike the original, they sell tickets to board this one.

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