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In the process of downsizing from 2700 square feet to 850 we faced some difficult adjustments, like learning how to prepare meals in a kitchen with less counter space than the average minivan. We also had to come to grips with what I will scientifically term the t-shirt problem. The second largest growth industry in the US today is t-shirt design and production (the fastest growing industry consists of new social media sites that let you share photos and posts like you did with the six previous sites, but “hey this one is new,” so it’s better). If you own clothing, I am willing to bet that you own some t-shirts and I will double my bet (still $0.00) to wager that you own more than you realize.

When we downsized, we had to own our t-shirt habit. Hello, my name is Mark, and I’m a shirt-a-holic (“Hello Mark”). This is not entirely our fault, as we live in a university community, which is t-shirt Nirvana. Going on a class trip? Here’s a commemorative t-shirt. New to campus? Here are six t-shirts to get you started. Basketball team scores a 3-pointer? Cheerleaders fling school t-shirts at fans already wearing last week’s outdated school t-shirts. New t-shirts coming out? Here’s a t-shirt advertising the impending launch. The average college student accumulates, in a single year, enough t-shirts to clothe a small village in the developing world, which leads to accounts of students visiting one of these villages and seeing people there wearing t-shirts from our campus (seriously). One of my colleagues told me that our university is not actually an institution of higher learning, but a front for a multi-national t-shirt conglomerate, and we all do our jobs just to insure continued sales. I don’t think he was kidding.

I’m going to say something here and I want you to consider it, because on its face it seems sensible and reasonable to me: it is inherently illogical to store clothing you never wear. I have never met a single person who disagrees with this. I tried to debate this question with several of the people in Starbucks, but I had to stop because the manager came over and reminded me of what happened last time, but here’s the thing: people are really lousy at living out this simple principle. For us it meant owning enough t-shirts to wear a different one, every day, for two weeks, and since we only wear t-shirts a couple of times each week we could theoretically go months without any duplication, but here’s the secret of this insidious addiction: you only wear a few favorites anyway, and the rest just take up space because you can’t bear to part with them.

So we downsized and I remember gazing longingly at a shirt that felt to me like an old friend, and that I had worn one time in the three years I owned it. I think I ultimately kept that one. My wife is better at this than me. Her policy is that for any new t-shirt that enters the inventory, one must be banished, so when a cheerleader throws a t-shirt at her, she stops to consider whether she likes it more than the ones she has, and if not she throws it back. I have a dress shirt right now that I periodically look at, trying to decide whether to keep it. I love the way it looks, but the fit is just weird. I deeply want it to fit differently and I passionately want to like the way it fits, and I have consulted with my doctor about having my shoulders lowered, but for now I store it and wish it was something it is not. This makes no sense.

And now for the advanced course: it is even more illogical to buy clothes you will never wear. Again, it’s tough to argue this, but the data says this is amazingly common: one 2014 study found that a typical woman’s closet contains $550 worth of clothing she has never worn. Other research says a typical woman wears a new item only a handful of times before it migrates to the back of the closet (also known as long-term storage, or “the pit of despair”); this has been worsened by all those new social media sites I mentioned, since nobody wants to be seen in the same outfit twice (except for this guy, who totally gets it). This problem is not exclusive to women, so stop smirking guys.

Kit Yarrow is a consumer psychologist who studies this, so I sat down for coffee with Kit to learn why we behave this way. Technically I was drinking coffee alone, reading an article she wrote two months ago, but it’s virtually the same thing, and I know the experience was as good for Kit as it was for me. Kit says we do this for several reasons, most of which have to do with us being less bright and more gullible than we want to admit:

  1. The item is good, but something about it is not exactly right for us, YET IT’S ON SALE!!!!! so we convince ourselves it will work. Kit says convincing ourselves this way is the most common buying mistake. Shoes that hurt at the store will probably always hurt, no matter how amazing they look. Note to self: if your shoulders are the wrong size for the shirt, it is never going to work, except perhaps as a do-rag.
  2. We purchase for fantasy, not reality. We envision that awesome back-packing trip in Nepal and buy the $200 hiking underwear (no idea), or we anticipate how svelte our “New Year, New Rear” fitness plan will make us look and we splurge on the pants that are a bit snug now….Fantasy world + real dollars = full closet.
  3. We love the item too much. If you have ever thought, “I don’t want to wear that because it’s my favorite and I don’t want to wear it out,” you are an idiot. Sorry, I don’t know if you are an idiot, but I am because I have a black shirt in my closet that I love and I rarely wear because I know black fades when it’s washed, and if I don’t wear it, it will last longer in my closet where I am not wearing it. This kind of behavior makes my rational mind want to take my irrational mind out back and kick it’s cerebellum.
  4. Shopping while drunk. Pretty self-explanatory.

That fantasy part–the one where you envision future you happily wearing that shirt you want? That is anti-happy stuff. You spend money you don’t have on things you won’t use to prepare for events that won’t happen, and then every time you see the shirt you feel worse for having bought it. For a surprising number of people, staring at the closet trying to choose an outfit actually leaves them feeling frustrated and less happy every single day.

My favorite shirt ever cost me $6.00 at Old Navy. It was navy (go figure), it was canvas, it was soft and washed well, and it was utterly unremarkable. I wore the dog out of that shirt, finally tossing it after years of use, first as a nice shirt, then as a faded top layer over a t-shirt, and finally as a ripped and stained yard work shirt. I think part of the reason I loved it so much is that I didn’t expect much from it: it was just a cheap shirt, with no unrealistic fantasy for it to live up to.

Stores are calling to you, and post-Christmas AMAZING SALE VALUES are looming ahead, so stage an intervention with your irrational brain and tell it who’s boss.  Six months (or maybe six days) after the event you will rarely regret a shirt you chose not to purchase.

Next time:  The best Christmas gift I ever received

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