The hidden costs of owning stuff

“Money, of course, is still needed to survive, but time is what you need to live.”
— Ed Buryn, Vagabond

There are two things that inspired this post. The first is the seemingly never ending task of clearing out all the things that I own (I’m moving countries). The second is the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts which I’ve just started reading.

So I’m moving out of my home in London, and actually moving out of the country for a while, so I’ve had to go through everything I own in my home and rented storage, and decide whether to keep or get rid of them. I had to be ruthless as there isn’t much storage space to use while I’m away (maybe a couple of medium sized boxes).

It’s just incredible how much and how quickly I gained so much junk! I was happy to either sell, or bin about 80% of what I owned. Most of them were in boxes and have not been touched in years. The ones that were in plain sight were not important anyway. And for what I need in the following year of traveling, there isn’t much that I can label as “necessary”.

It takes a lot of time to get through everything and decide what to do with them. And compared to most of the people I know, I’d say I’m already a minimalist. It took weeks. It would have been easier to chuck them all away, but I decided some of them should be given away to charity or sold, most probably out of a sense of guilt.

Anyway, this therapeutic exercise of shedding material fat made me realise two things.

Realisation one: possessions come with invisible costs

Certain things have obvious and well known maintenance costs. Your home needs repairs, vehicles break down, and the soles under your shoes wear off with each footstep.

But those are not the only costs of buying something. There are less obvious ones too.

There is the time cost of going to a shop, time cost of choosing one amongst the various options, of researching the best option, of taking it home, of finding somewhere to put it.

Then when you are not using it, you need to find somewhere to store it, and if you can’t fine somewhere, you may need to rent storage to store it. Or buy a bigger house.

And then when you don’t need it anymore, or it becomes obsolete or unusable, or like me, find yourself in a position of having to free yourself of it, you then need to decide what to do with it. You’ll need to either spend time trying to sell it, or find someone to give it to. Then you need to pack it up, and then spend time taking it to the post office or meet up to hand it over.

Apart from consumables, I can’t think of anything else that doesn’t come with the hidden costs above.

Realisation two: possessions put you in debt

I’m not talking loans or credit cards. That’s the obvious kind of debt, and the most poisonous kind.

The kinds of “possession debt” I’m referring to are results of your purchases, whether directly or indirectly. You don’t, and can’t, pay for them at the time of purchase. They are payments that you have to make later.

Some are one-offs, like when you pay with time and money to get rid of your stuff, as mentioned above. Others are ongoing maintenance subscriptions that you pay to keep the stuff — the storage space or upkeep to keep something in working order.

But my real concern is the debt we owe ourselves.

We all owe it to ourselves to live a life of learning, travel and discovery. To do this requires a continuous chunk of free time that is available to ourself without interruption. Even if you’re not keen on traveling far from your doorstep, regular access to free time is important for our personal growth, even if it’s just to read some books, or just to passively observe what’s in front of us, or to get out of our routine and interact with new people and gain new experiences.

But the more we possess, the more time and money we borrow from our ability to access that personal time.

Firstly, we have to spend time working so that we can afford stuff. Then we have to spend that money to buy the stuff. Then we have to carry on working to maintain the stuff. All of that time working in the service of possessions puts you further and further in debt to yourself and your personal growth.

By the time you retire from “work” that you do to support your purchases and possessions, you can then look forward to start paying off your personal debt (in additional to carrying on paying for maintenance of all that stuff you’ve accumulated).

If you retire at 65, then you have, on average, about 18.7* years to pay that debt off. 18.7 years to “find yourself” and to truly explore who you are, travel the world, learn from other fellow human beings, and discover new skills and interest.

Maybe 18.7 years is enough for you. But the cost of paying off your personal debt rises the older you are when you start your repayment. Physically, you are less able than when you were younger. Mentally you would have beliefs and biases, that have been shaped by your long years of working and buying stuff, and they would be harder to change. And it would be more expensive for you to travel as you would already have a higher minimum level of comfort you will be able to put up with, compared to when you’re younger.

Ok, if all that sounds a bit vague, how about some numbers?

Example possession costs, in numbers

Just for fun, lets put some numbers down as a mental experiment.

Lets say, after spending on your basic needs, you spend on the following items: a second car, a second mobile phone, a pair of sunglasses, a watch, a camera, an iPad and a pair of shoes. Below is a table showing hypothetical maintenance costs for each of those items over 5 years.

Key: Research time: time required to research before you buy. Validation time: time spent checking (with friends, review sites, etc) that you’ll be making the right purchase. Purchase time: time spent to make the purchase. Purchase price: example cost of the item. Storage space cost: what it’ll cost to store the item over 5 years. Maintenance price: what it’ll cost to keep the item in working order over 5 years. Maintenance time: your time spent maintaining the item. End of life time: time you’ll need to spend getting rid of it. Times are in days, and money costs are in £. And these are just numbers I’m familiar with — each of us will have higher or lower costs.

Example hidden costs of purchases over 5 years.

So, with the very rough hypothetical example above, the total (real + hidden) cost of purchasing those items in the table above come to around £30,000 and 30 days in time. If those items are replaced every 5 years, then you’ll be bearing that cost every 5 years.

So if you work from age 25, until age 65, and buy the items above, and change them every 5 years, then the total cost of those items come to £240,000 plus 240 days.

What if you didn’t buy those items?

Then you’ll have 240 extra days (8 months) to yourself, and £240k to spend. Or have however many days you don’t need to work to not pay for £240,000 by the time you’re 65.

But lets not wait till 65. By age 45 you would have saved 120 days and £120,000.

£120,000 can buy you a very decent 120 day holiday. Or pay for you to travel continuously for 5 years in most parts of the world.

Not a bad way to discover, learn and grow.

So what?

My advice to myself, and to anyone else who care to listen is this:

If you can get out of the cycle of buying and owning things, get out earlier. Stop working just so you can buy stuff. Nobody cares about what you own.

The ones that do care about your possessions only care about them so that they can compare what they have to what you have, thereby measuring their own self-worth by the amount of stuff they own compared to your stuff. Don’t be a yardstick for losers.

The earlier you get out and start paying off your debt to yourself, the less expensive your debt will be and the quicker you will start investing in personal growth.

“… as you cultivate your future with rich fields of time, you are also sowing the seeds of personal growth that will gradually bloom as you travel into the world.” — Rolf Potts, in Vagabonding. An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel.

*Based on the average global life expectancy regardless of gender for Japan, which is highest at 83.7 years. It’s 81.2 years for the U.K., 79.3 years for United States, 75 years for Malaysia, and 74.5 years for Saudi Arabia.

The only goal is freedom.