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Americans Overwhelmed by Household Goods Race Changing Their Definition of Happiness

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By Sue Stock and Andrea Weigl

RISMEDIA, March 15, 2011—(MCT)—Maybe it’s the economy, or maybe it’s the need to feel neat and cleansed. Maybe it’s TV shows such as “Hoarders,” where the accumulation of household goods gets trashy and downright embarrassing.

Whatever the reason, Americans are reevaluating their relationship with their stuff.

There’s too much of it. It clutters our lives. And many of us are saying we’ve had enough.

Tammy Borman lives in Zebulon, N.C., with her husband, Duane, and three children. About a year ago, the family had a house fire. Working with the insurance company, Borman was required to list the entire contents of her home on paper. “It kind of made you look back and say, ‘You know, this is incredible,’” she said. “We have a thick book of just page after page of stuff, and when you have three kids, stuff tends to pile up quick.”

The family didn’t lose everything in the fire and was eventually able to move back into the home, but the Bormans’ attitude had changed. They have had two yard sales and are preparing for a third. “We’re trying to look at each purchase and ask, ‘Do we need it?’” Tammy said.

Families such as the Bormans are moving toward decluttering for various reasons. They’re feeling the continued pinch of the economy. They’re prioritizing long-term financial goals above instant gratification. And even while consumers begin to loosen their purse strings just a little, they’re just sick of having so much stuff cluttering their already-busy lives.

Decluttering isn’t new, of course. This yearning to simplify life rears its head at least once every decade—often in reaction to periods of excess. Americans in the past few decades have become defined by big homes, luxury cars and the other things they own.

“We have gone so big for so long. It gets to a point where you start to evaluate if the things you are adding to your life are bringing meaning,” said Mary Carlomagno, a professional organizer and author of Live More, Want Less: 52 Ways to Find Order in Your Life.

One small sign that consumers are shifting away from accumulation: Last year was Carlomagno’s best year in business. Other, larger indicators include that conspicuous consumption is declining:

-The average size of new homes fell to 2,377 square feet last year, down from a peak of 2,520 square feet in 2007, according to census data. That is projected to fall to 2,150 square feet by 2015, according to a recent survey of home building professionals.

-We’re saving more; more than 5% of income last quarter from less than 2% in the fall of 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis.

-We’re paying off our debts. Consumer debt has fallen by $922 billion, or 7.4%, since its peak in the fall of 2008, according to a Federal Reserve report released in November.

-We’re spending less. Consumer spending decreased 2.8% in 2009, the most current figures available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was the first time since the bureau started tracking in 1984 that there had been a drop from the previous year.

-And there are now more than 4,900 Freecycle groups across the country; these online forums allow people to give away used clothes, housewares and electronics to avoid sending them to the landfill.

One of those Freecycle members is Tonya Willett, a mother of three boys who uses Freecycle to regularly purge and organize her 850-square foot Raleigh home. When she first found it three years ago, she said, “I thought, ‘What a neat idea. Who doesn’t have stuff that they end up throwing away because they don’t have someone to give it to?’”

Willett recently decided to better organize a spare bedroom where the boys play video games. The top of the bunk beds—a set she originally got using Freecycle—was becoming a repository for everybody’s stuff. So Willett used Freecycle to get rid of the bunk beds and find a twin-size bed frame for that room instead.

People such as Willett are changing their definition of happiness, said David Wann, author of Simple Prosperity: Finding Real Wealth in a Sustainable Lifestyle. He said, “Happiness is really about health, enjoyment of activities and connection with people.”

Purging your belongings often requires an emotional detachment, said Janice Russell, professional organizer and owner of Minding Your Matters Organizing in Cary, N.C. With older items, people often have to be taught to let go, she said. “We have this feeling like if we give the item up, we give up the memory,” Russell said. “We’re keeping the stuff because we want to keep the memories.” Getting over that feeling can be hard, but rewarding.

Eric and Kimberly Elliott were recently forced to start getting rid of some items. The Durham, N.C. couple are having a second baby and they needed to make room.

They sold a bed set on Craigslist, gathered up their three-year-old’s outgrown clothing and started getting rid of toys, books and other items that are no longer used.

Deciding to limit the items coming into their home also required a couple of difficult conversations with both of their own parents. Because she is the only grandchild in both families, their daughter Katelyn gets lots of gifts. “For example, my daughter asked for some Dr. Seuss books because she had one or two already, and 30 showed up over the next few months,” Kimberly Elliott said. “They know they go overboard. They even forget what they’ve bought. But I think we realized we have to be the filter.”

So this year, the Elliotts told their relatives that Katelyn was getting to redo her own bedroom for her birthday, in preparation for becoming a big sister. “We told them we don’t really need a lot of toys and things. What we would like to have for her fourth birthday are gift cards so she can enjoy decorating her room,” Kimberly Elliott said. “It was well-received.”

Consumers tend to go back and forth between consumerism and purging, said Chris Farrell, author of The New Frugality: How to Consume Less, Save More, and Live Better. During every recession, Farrell said, Americans vow to be more frugal but once the economy improves they save less and borrow more.

But this time, Farrell believes there has been a more permanent change. “People got really scared,” he said. Their jobs are insecure. Their homes are underwater. They are struggling to pay off debt.

Michelle Bryant is trying to teach her two children about money, having too much stuff and the value of family experiences all at once. Her family lives in Clemmons, about 120 miles west of Raleigh, and has been trying to eliminate unused items from their home since the fall. All the money made from selling items will go into a fund for a Disney World vacation. A stay-at-home mother who quit her job three years ago to spend more time with her children, Bryant said she just began to feel like there was too much stuff in their home.

The trip to Disney World seems like a worthwhile goal and gives her children a goal to work toward and an appreciation of what things cost. Already, the family has saved $800 of the $3,000 they estimate the trip will cost.

“When there’s too much clutter, I don’t feel like I can get anything done,” Bryant said. “Not only is it physical clutter, it’s also spiritual clutter. I don’t want to spend my whole life cleaning. I’m thinking by fall, we’ll be able to go to Disney World.”

The best way to enjoy the reward: strictly limit the budget for buying souvenirs.

(c) 2011, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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