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Too Much Stuff? 6 Tips to a Happier, Sustainable Life


Malcolm Forbes is credited with the phrase, “He who has the most toys wins the game.” According to a People magazine article written at the time of his death, his hobbies included the acquisition of wealth and “flaunting what it could buy.”

His memorial service featured displays of his vast collection of art, including antique model boats, toy soldiers, and manuscripts. Forbes owned eight homes around the world including a private island, 2,200 paintings, a 151-foot yacht, and a Boeing 727. He also owned more Russian Imperial Faberge eggs than the Russian government. Since his death, Mr. Forbes’ philosophy has been attacked by both preachers and pundits, some of whom cited the Bible’s question: “What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?”

The Impact of Accumulating Stuff

Ironically, studies suggest that the pursuit of material possession makes us happier than its actual acquisition. Dr. Marsha L. Richins, a professor of marketing at the University of Missouri, says that materialistic consumers derive more pleasure from desiring products than from actually owning them. In his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” psychologist Daniel Gilbert says that satisfaction and joy from owning an object quickly wanes, an effect psychologists call habituation and economists call “declining marginal utility.”

Materialism – Socially Destructive and Self-Destructive

A series of studies published in the journal Motivation and Emotion in July 2013 indicates that as people acquire more, their sense of well-being diminishes. As they acquire less, it rises. Another study published in the December 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research states that materialism fosters social isolation, and vice versa. The relationship creates a vicious cycle – the more lonely you feel, the more likely you are to seek possessions, even as a greater amount of possessions crowds out your relationships.

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Accumulation of things for their own sake has at least three negative effects:

  1. The Measure of Success. As a society, we tend to measure people by what they have, rather than what they do. Respect is often accorded to wealth, regardless of the means used to acquire that wealth. Newspapers and magazines are saturated with photographs of young men and women with expensive cars and mansions, yet in many cases these same people have run-ins with the law and exhibit questionable social judgment.
  2. The Futile Pursuit of Happiness. The myth that possessions bring personal happiness has been perpetuated for centuries despite evidence that the opposite is likely more true. A 2011 study in The British Psychological Society suggests that while it may not be possible to buy happiness, you can buy relief from a low mood. Unfortunately, the boost is fleeting and often results in unhappiness, depression, and self-blame when the bill comes due. Like other addictions, acquiring objects can leave consumers feeling trapped in a difficult pattern that’s sometimes impossible to break. Excessive shopping or the unwillingness to discard things was formally recognized as a mental disorder – hoarding disorder – by the American Psychiatric Association in 2013.
  3. The Loss of Personal Freedom. Chuck Palahniuk, the author of “Fight Club,” expressed the outcome of excessive possessions best: “The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” Janis Joplin expressed a similar sentiment in her rendition of “Me and Bobby McGee” in 1971 when she sang, “Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.”

Societal Effect

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Americans have saved less than 3% of their household incomes since 2000, a rate well below other industrialized countries such as Canada, France, and Germany. This lack of savings is not attributable to insufficient disposable income since the annual median income for the past four years has exceeded $53,000. The deficit of savings is likely due instead to individuals’ inability or an unwillingness to save, and electing to consume and acquire unnecessary and extravagant objects.

This predilection for nonessential acquisition leaves many Americans unprepared for retirement, forced or voluntary, so that a person aged 55 to 64 has only a median net worth of less than $75,000, no retirement assets, and only $5,000 in other financial assets to cover emergencies. As a consequence, the majority of Americans may be significantly dependent upon Social Security payments and Medicare, or the charity of family and friends. If later generations continue the same spending habits, a cycle of increased taxation to support higher costs of public assistance is likely, squeezing out funds for societal investments in education, infrastructure, and research.

Economic Effect

America’s unique economic model of regulated free enterprise has produced inventions, innovations, and discoveries that have improved the lives of people around the world. Our need for excess is encouraged by a massive advertising industry which bombards us with images of luxury goods, characterizes us as consumers rather than people, and encourages the association between purchasing and status, objects and security. As early as 1901, the link between advertising and psychological manipulation was recognized in a statement appearing in Publicity: “The mere mention of psychological terms, habit, self, conception, discrimination, association, memory, imagination and perception, reason, emotion, instinct, and will, should create a flood of new thought that should appeal to every advanced consumer of advertising space.”

Advertisers have learned their lessons well as evidenced by the change in grocery store inventory over the past 30 years. A typical supermarket in the United States in 1974 stocked 9,000 articles; in 1990, it carried more than 30,000, and a superstore can carry over 100,000 different items. Virtually every product has 5, 10, or even more alternatives, indistinguishable except for packaging, size, and price.

While some have questioned the logic of retaining an economic model focused on perpetual growth, it is difficult to imagine another economic system capable of producing wealth for so many. Our challenge in the future is to eliminate the most egregious consequences of our free enterprise system while expanding its benefits.

Ecological Effect

According to the EPA, since 1960, the solid trash disposal per person per day in the United States has exploded from 2.68 pounds to 4.43 pounds, generating more than 250 million tons per year. Incredibly, on average, people in the United States throw away their body weight in rubbish every month. By the end of this century, excluding changes in our habits, waste amounts are projected to triple, overwhelming recycling and disposal efforts.

Evidence of our waste abounds across the world: Plastic clogs oceans and rivers, garbage incinerators fill the skies with ash and other pollutants, and municipalities are forced to transport refuse to foreign sites past overused landfills. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch was discovered in 1997 and has been estimated to occupy up to seven million square miles of ocean – twice the area of the continental United States.

According to the Center of Ecoliteracy, if everyone lived like the average American, we would need at least five Earths. Natural resources are under increasing pressure as populations in China and India reach middle class status and emulate the consumption patterns of Americans. Fraser Thompson, senior fellow at the McKinsey Global Institute, suggests solutions that could ameliorate the potential disaster – new technologies, substitute materials, and greater investment in supply – but they require sustained worldwide investments of about $3 trillion per year, or about double the present investment.

Solid Trash Disposal

Reaching Balance

Considering the current situation, what can individuals do to get off the treadmill of accumulation without harming the economic engine? The solution is simple and easy to follow.

1. Distinguish Status From Possessions

Status and respect come as a result of who you are and what you do, not what you own. Someone always has a bigger house, a faster car, and more toys. While greed is a powerful emotion, it can be controlled with knowledge and effort. Happiness and the number of possessions you own are not correlative.

2. Invest, Don’t Ingest, Your Disposable Income

Too much of a good thing can have deleterious effects. For example, overeating (even healthy foods) causes weight gain that affects your appearance and your health. Similarly, possessions carry the burden of ownership, with more storage space and more maintenance required. If you save and invest your income to provide a comfortable living standard, the psychological benefits of knowing you have a financial reserve outweigh the momentary pleasures of acquisition.

3. Buy Experiences, Not Objects

As early as 2005, scientists were recommending that wealthy people buy less and spend more on experiences – vacations, classes, meals – that require fewer resources. Short-term feelings rarely last and you are more likely to second-guess what you could have purchased instead of being satisfied with what you bought.

According to Cornell Professor Thomas Gilovich, coauthor of a study comparing material and experience purchasing, “Your experiences are inherently less comparative, they’re less subject to and less undermined by invidious social comparisons.” Gilovich uses the example of consumers buying new flat-panel TVs which they enjoy until they discover neighbors who have purchased bigger sets with clearer pictures for less money. On the other hand, experiences create happy memories that can be recalled again and again without a diminution of pleasure.

4. Buy and Hold

Buying good things and holding onto them for a long time is generally less expensive than constantly purchasing lesser quality for lower prices. We often replace things because we are tired of them, not because they have lost utility. Consider the clothing in your closet that is no longer worn, not because it is no longer useable or doesn’t fit, but because we think it is out of style.

5. Distinguish Between Features and Benefits

Manufacturers and advertisers are constantly promoting new capabilities for their products and services, many of which are minor additions or improvements. A “feature” is a quantifiable characteristic of a product or service – a “benefit” is whether it is useful to you. Consider cable television companies that advertise over 200 channels in a premium package – that is a feature. It is only a benefit if you watch all 200 channels.

6. Enjoy or Destroy

When you buy or replace an object, consider disposing of the old object by giving it away, selling it, or recycling it. Keeping old, unused items requires excessive space and protection costs, and, according to an article in WebMD, can drain and frustrate you while making it difficult to get things done. Too much clutter can be a mental hazard, as well as a fire hazard.

Consider Disposing Old Things

Final Word

Americans have a tendency to be over-prepared for every contingency, no matter how remote. Reducing the stuff in your life, cutting down on purchases, and increasing your savings gives you peace of mind and can help preserve our way of life for future generations.

How much stuff do you own? How much of it do you use regularly, occasionally, or not at all?

Michael R. Lewis is a retired corporate executive and entrepreneur. During his 40+ year career, Lewis created and sold ten different companies ranging from oil exploration to healthcare software. He has also been a Registered Investment Adviser with the SEC, a Principal of one of the larger management consulting firms in the country, and a Senior Vice President of the largest not-for-profit health insurer in the United States. Mike's articles on personal investments, business management, and the economy are available on several online publications. He's a father and grandfather, who also writes non-fiction and biographical pieces about growing up in the plains of West Texas - including The Storm.