On Stuff

This post was written on March 16th when we were in Seattle, but I’d forgotten to publish it.

We spent most of the day walking around downtown Seattle, and going into various nifty little stores. We went to 3 or 4 book stores, a toy store, a record shop, a comic book store, a military surplus store, and one or two others that I probably can’t even remember. It was fun, but I felt a little weird to be constantly seduced by shiny merchandise, only to be jerked out of that fuzzy feeling of desire by another voice in the back of my mind.

Labels found at a used book store.  My two favorite things together!

Labels found at a used book store. My two favorite things together!

That voice is reminding me that in a few weeks, I’ll be moving out of my apartment, and will only be keeping what I could carry with me, or fit in a small storage space. In theory, this shouldn’t be hard. After all, when I arrived in Silicon Valley 4 years ago, all my earthly possessions fit in my car. But that’s since mushroomed to over a dozen car loads’ worth of stuff, and now I have to think about getting rid of things.

As it turns out, getting rid of things is hard. Sure, there’s the psychological aspect to it, what with sentimentality and all. But it’s also difficult logistically. You can’t fit a dozen car loads’ worth of stuff in the apartment dumpster. It won’t fit. You also can’t just dump it on the side of the road; that’d be illegal. Of course, there are people who will come out with a van and carry all your shit away, but they usually just take your shit to the landfill, which is far from ecological. Personally, I’m a big fan of reuse/recycling. While I could give stuff away to Goodwill or Salvation Army, I’m thinking of trying to sell as much of my stuff as possible, seeing how I’m unemployed and all.

The problem with selling stuff is that you begin to think about the monetary value of your stuff. And then, start thinking, why did I pay $200 for that bookshelf when its current market value is $20? Did I really get $180 of value out of it? Anyway, I’ve been doing that kind of ROI assessment on a lot of my stuff, and now when I think about buying anything, I can’t help but wonder how much I’d be able to sell it for, and whether I’d extract comparable value out of it.

It’s an interesting exercise, and a sobering one too. Take, for example, the MacBook I just bought. I paid $1250 and another $250 for AppleCare, for a total of $1500 (I bought it from Oregon so no sales tax). Now, in a few years, I might be able to sell it for, oh, $700. Will I get $800 in value over the next 3 years? Probably. I can do contract work using it, and even if I charged a modest $40/hour, that’s only 20 hours of work over 3 years. I’m sure I’ll get more than my money’s worth. Or that $2000 rifle I bought? Unlike laptops, rifles don’t lose value very quickly (if at all), so I could turn around and sell it for $2000, or more, if I take good care of it. But how ’bout that $17 paper back book I contemplated getting today. I’ll read it maybe once, and I’ll be lucky if I could sell it for $8.50. Will I get $8.50 worth of value out of it? Well, $8.50 is cheaper than a movie ticket, and it would keep me entertained for several hours. On the other hand, why pay $17 when I can get it used for $8.50? Or that $45 game? How much value will I get out of that?

Of course, this line of thinking can easily be taken to extremes. I mean, why pay $30 for a nice meal when I could eat at McDonalds for $3. Do I really get $27 worth of value? How exactly do you attach monetary value to, say, a tasty meal, or not eating crap? Or to traveling? Or to hobbies, or acquiring experiences and skills that aren’t immediately marketable?

The answer is, quite often, you can’t. Even if you can’t buy happiness, it’s an undeniable truth that the things that might make life worth living often cost money. The important lesson here is to remember that correlation does not equal causation. Just because the things that make you a little happier often cost money, doesn’t mean spending money makes you happier. I think it’s important to pause before opening the wallet, and ask yourself “Is this really going to make my life better?”

For instance, that $750,000 dream home you just bought, and will spend the next 30 years paying for. Will it really make you happier? I sure hope so.

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