The Debt of Stuff

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“Your fly is open. Again.”

It was time.

The zipper on my favorite pants had broken and quick re-zips no longer worked.

I loved these pants. Lightweight. Quick dry. Dressy yet comfortable. The basis for my personal uniform.

Best of all?

Purchased second-hand for $5.


One of the reasons I wear a personal uniform is that it makes clothes shopping simple. I just go buy a replacement for what I wear out.

It took me 10 minutes at Goodwill to find 3 pair of olive-colored pants, try them all on, and buy a pair.

$4 and I no longer had to check my fly every 5 minutes.


Even though I have not owned a pair of shorts in months and have survived even in 100+ degree weather, I also bought a pair of shorts.

Even though I have not owned a pair of outdoor zip-off hiking style pants for over a year, I also bought a pair of those.

These extra purchases added up to all of $6. And I probably will wear them.

But did I need them?


The Debt of Stuff

If you research the words stuff and debt together you’ll get plenty of articles about how buying too much stuff can put you in debt. Or how you can sell your stuff to help get out of debt.

I suggest stuff has debt - apart from the financial debt from buying it.

Technical Debt

As a web developer I often see companies incur “technical debt”:

Let’s assume we’re developing a software product. When we make short-term compromises to its code or design quality, we’re making the product more difficult for someone else to continue to develop, test, and maintain in the

Making things more difficult for someone in the future is technical debt.

Like technical debt, each item you buy will require future action by someone. Someone will have to:

  • Clean it
  • Repair it
  • Move it
  • Store it
  • Donate it
  • Sell it
  • Throw it away

This is the debt of stuff.

Debt Comes Due

My extra shorts and pants are but a small example.

My parents recently sold their summer cottage in Michigan. MsBoyink’s parents recently moved her grandparent into an assisted care facility.

These big life-changing events caused them (and other family members) to:

  • Take time off work
  • Adapt travel plans
  • Carry boxes from the attic
  • Sort stuff into piles
  • Bag up trash and put it by the curb
  • Arrange items on tables and price it
  • Coordinate, advertise and staff garage sales
  • Box up unsold items for donation
  • Load up keepsakes to move
  • Help the grandparent deal emotionally with loss of some stuff
  • Deal with other family members expectations of inheriting stuff
  • Drive rented moving trucks across town and across the country
  • Buy plane tickets home

See what they were really doing?

They were paying off their “debt of stuff”.

And the bill isn’t yet fully paid.

Each item that made the cut and didn’t get purged, donated or sold will still require a future action by someone.

Avoid Debt

If you are considering ditching the suburbs your “debt of stuff” will come due sooner than it would have otherwise.

Your stuff may well be the biggest obstacle to getting out.

Dealing with the debt of the stuff you already own is hard. We’ll talk about that more later.

It’s easier to avoid incurring the debt of stuff.

Before each purchase of a new thing ask yourself:

  • Am I replacing something broken or worn out?
  • Could I borrow this from a neighbor?
  • Could I rent this?
  • Do I need this, or do I want this?
  • Will I need this thing once we are out of the house?
  • Did my parents need one of these?
  • Did my grandparents need one of these?
  • Will I be able to sell this again?
  • Will it be worth the time and effort to sell?
  • Will I feel guilty if I buy this and don’t use it?
  • Will I feel guilty if I buy this then have to give it away?

Are Suburbia-Ditchers Debt-Free?

I wish I could say yes.

We still have stuff.  So we still have debt.

Some of that stuff that had to move when my parents sold the cottage? That was our stuff. Just a few crates, but still.

My son paid part of our debt by taking those crates to his place. But they can’t stay there. We have to get our stuff and move it to some storage that MsBoyink’s parents are paying for.

You can bet we’ll be looking into those crates during that move and making sure the stuff inside is worth hanging on to.

Because we’re tired of debt.

What Debt Do You Have?

What debt of stuff has been the toughest for you to pay off?

20 Comments The Debt of Stuff

  1. Picture of Danielle Danielle August 17, 2016

    This is timely. We are paying off our debt to stuff right now as we transition to full-time RV living.  More and more stuff is going out the door and I realize that, even though we’ve tried to keep stuff to a minimum, there is still way more than we need.

    Saturday, we got our new camper, a 5th wheel with way more storage than our TT. I’m excited and yet I realize we can fill it up with “camping stuff” and still have “living stuff” at home we think we want to keep. Something has to give. Maybe even my beloved KitchenAid mixer.

  2. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink August 17, 2016

    Not the mixer! ;)

    MsBoyink has often longed for one of those but realistically we have no good place to carry it.

    Good luck on the purge!

  3. Picture of Eric Eric August 18, 2016

    Love your pic of Miranda and Harrison behind bars!

    Those two are “stuff” whom you and yours will treasure always.

    Illustrates your point - too many of us have “stuff debt” - reminds us of what really counts in this life.

  4. Picture of Melanie Knott Melanie Knott August 18, 2016

    The “debt of stuff” has been allowed to create a divide between my family and myself.

    I have never felt like I was being attacked by my mother more so than during a discussion about a KitchenAid Mixer.

    And many of the clients I work with have the same problem of allowing their stuff to dictate what they do with it instead of the other way around.

    Thank you for this. The spirit of this post rings true 24/7.

  5. Picture of Don Don August 18, 2016

    Great article! We’ve spent decades acquiring stuff, and are now having to pay off the “debt of stuff.” And like weight loss, I have feeling it’s not going to just happen over night. :-(

  6. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink August 18, 2016

    @eric - that’s actually MsBoyink on the right, but your sentiment still applies..;)

    @melonie - I remember a table I thought we had been given. After we decided we didn’t need it we donated it. Then we learned it was a loan, not a give..;)

    @don - I’m typing this from my truck. The backseat is crammed full with the crates that we had left at my parents house 6 years ago. Photos, documents, scrapbooks, etc are mainly what we kept - but no, it’s not an overnight process.

  7. Picture of Susanne Susanne August 18, 2016

    Great post! When thinking about “debt of stuff,” I automatically think of this old laptop I’m currently hauling around. It doesn’t even turn on. I can’t just chuck it in the trash but I just haven’t found the best place to recycle it. There are so many components that are toxic to the environment - I want to be careful.

    Have you seen the documentary “The True Cost”? It’s totally in line with what you are saying here.

  8. Picture of Brent Browning Brent Browning August 18, 2016

    Thanks for the timely article Michael. My wife and I are in the midst of moving from house to our 5th wheel, in the next 2 weeks, and have arranged to get rid of most of our stuff. We have cleaned out a space in my Mother-in-laws basement, and have packed 3 pickup loads of stuff there.  I just read this to my wife and she defends her stuff. We will see after a long time away, will be letting go of more stuff as we go. Oh and yes gave most our stuff to our children, and they will have to pay the debt on that stuff.

  9. Picture of Anna Anna August 18, 2016

    I SO know this ‘debt’, as I’m in the process of going through ‘everything’, trying to get ready for auction on the 24th of September.
    See, I’ve decided it’s time for my ‘debt’ to reward me for taking care of all this ‘fabulous’ stuff for so long!!
    5th wheel is out front getting loaded & ready to go!!
    I Do have a few things that’re definitely making me ‘stumble’, but, I’m determined!!
    See you all soon!!

  10. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink August 19, 2016

    @brent - I’m voting to take the crates we had at my parents right over to the dumpster…but no go. They must be gone through. But stuff that was impossible to part with 5 years ago is definitely easier to part with now. Good luck on your transition!

    @anna - good job!

  11. Picture of Lisa Lisa August 19, 2016

    My daughter and I are moving tomorrow from a townhouse to a small apartment and have purged so much stuff over the last year (it does take time!).  The sentimental stuff has been the hardest part but my daughter has it down pat at only 12 years old!  We are working towards minimalism and her goal is to live in a tiny house.  We were talking about your family last night with friends and told her an RV may be the way to go!  You never know

  12. Picture of Boyink Boyink August 19, 2016

    Thanks Amy - appreciate the mention!

  13. Picture of Norm Norm August 19, 2016

    Timely post! The DW and I are helping a newly solo young mom & kids launch their new RV life soon.  The debt of stuff has become very clear.  But, they’re doing it!  Thanks for the encouraging words for all of us.

  14. Picture of Don Don August 19, 2016

    @melanie: Reminds me of the many times we’ve heard “We don’t want this any more, so we’re giving it to you. But whatever you do, don’t throw it out or give it away!” :-)

  15. Picture of Boyink Boyink August 19, 2016

    Thanks for the comment Norm.

  16. Picture of Charity Savage Charity Savage August 21, 2016

    My grandparents just passed a year ago, and my Grandfather was a “stuff” aficionado!! My grandmother tried to pare down after his death, but died 6 months later herself, leaving my mom to fend off 6 sibling while dealing with cleaning the rest!  Unfortunatly, some of it made it to our house, and I’m once again dealing with clutter.  You might like a poem my grandmother wrote, (she was a collector of stones):
    Death is
    Very truly,
    Everything will lose its importance to us-
    Stones & TVs, computers and DVDs, cars,
    Tools & clothing, books, pictures, tables, and food

    New perspectives will surround our existence.
    Old habits & needs will be forgotten totally.
    Why leave the burden of “stuff” for grieving family       to deal with, when we can save them much of that?
    —Bonnie Colton, 4/2/14

  17. Picture of Michael Boyink Michael Boyink August 21, 2016

    Thanks Charity - I get it.

    Our floors are covered with piles of photos, stories written in elementary school, and old greeting cards.

    It looks like we’re going to be able to consolodate from 4 crates to 1 - but no further.

    On the one hand it is just stuff - stuff we forgot we had.

    But once it’s in your hands it can feel like the very stuff of your life, like if it ceased to exist so would you.

    So - with apologies to our future selves who will be having to move this crate once again, for some reason, we can’t get rid of all quite yet.

  18. Picture of Laurie Laurie August 21, 2016

    I am not a nomad, so I I will have to say for my life, I like having things of sentimental value around . The piano from the 1800’s that my dad bought for my aunt and uncle, the marble topped chest that was my grandmother’s, the many framed family photos, my parents’ books. I like the artwork from a trip to England, or a toy my niece played with when she was small.

    I don’t have to have the latest electronics, fancy furniture, or designer clothes, but I like having things around to connect me to my family history and my past. They have an oral history that goes with them than can be passed on to future generations.

  19. Picture of Don Don August 22, 2016

    One thing I’ve found that helps me deal with sentimental stuff is Evernote. Take a picture, (optionally) write some notes about it, and save it. Then I can access those memories any time i want, without having to actually have the “stuff” around.

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