Do you have too much stuff?

Look around your house. How much stuff have you got that you don’t need? How much time and energy are you wasting looking after it and providing storage space for it? How much time are you wasting looking at and wondering if you’ll ever wear it again, find the manual or find the other bit that makes it work? How much of it could you sell? How much of it could you give away to your local charity shop? How much of it should you throw away? How much cleaner — and clearer — will your life be without all this unnecessary stuff?

Few people need a new car every two years. Most people have more pairs of shoes than they really need. Millions have electrical equipment they never use. Standard of living and quality of life aren’t the same thing but we confuse the two.

There have been more shopping malls than high schools in the USA for many years. Three quarters of people who go shopping are not looking for something in particular. They are simply out ‘shopping’.

We all need to get into the habit of asking ourselves why we buy the things we buy. This isn’t a judgemental question. But it’s a question well worth asking. How many jumpers do you really need? Why do so many people insist on having an entirely new outfit if they are planning to attend someone else’s wedding? The complaint ‘I don’t have a thing to wear’ has become a joke.

I know a handyman who earns his living painting, bricklaying and doing bits of carpentry. He’s a real jack-of-all-trades and he’s very good at what he does. But it’s difficult to get him to come and do anything because he only works two or three days a week. The rest of the time he messes around on his boat or in his garden.

A few months ago I asked him why he didn’t work harder.

He explained that he didn’t see any point in earning more money than he needed to satisfy his fairly simple needs. He told me that he has paid off his mortgage, that although old and rather battered, his car is his own and that he has all the furniture he wants. He has, he told me, managed to put aside a few hundred pounds in the building society for emergencies.

I asked him if his wife was happy with this philosophical approach to employment. He said that she was very happy and that they spent much of the week gardening together, walking along the cliffs or, on sunny days, bobbing around in their little boat. He also told me that he and his wife don’t have holidays away from home because for them home is a pretty constant holiday but that they do spend a day every month travelling to demonstrations against hunting, vivisection and other examples of cruelty to animals.

He also told me that because his earnings are low he pays hardly any income tax.

I found his attitude enormously refreshing. This local handyman is leading the life of a true revolutionary. I suspect that Henry David Thoreau, the philosopher of Walden Pond, would have been proud of him.

Before you dismiss the handyman’s lifestyle as impractical ask yourself how much of your life you spend earning money to buy things you don’t really need and are only buying to impress people you don’t really care about.

Here’s a simple little exercise you can try.

Make a list of everything other than food that you’ve bought in the last year. By the side of each item on your list make a note of the price you paid.

Then divide your after tax annual income by the number of hours you work to find out how much you earn an hour. Don’t forget to deduct any essential business expenses from your income before you do this calculation.

Now you can easily use this figure to find out how long you had to work to buy each of the items on your first list.

I have learned that knowing how much I earn per hour is extremely useful.

Get into the habit of thinking of the things you buy in terms of hours rather than pounds. If you buy a television set that costs £1,000 and you earn £10 an hour then the television set has cost you 100 hours.

If you buy a book for £10 and your income is £10 an hour then the book has cost you one hour.

Every time you spend money ask yourself how long you have had to work to pay for it.

How much of your life are you giving in order to buy a car with a three speed rear window wiper instead of one with a one speed rear window wiper? (That was the sole difference between two models of a car I once considered buying. The extra price was £500.)

This can be a frightening exercise for you’ll quickly realise that you’ve given a great deal of your life in order to buy junk that you don’t really need.

Add up the cost of all the unnecessary stuff you bought last year and work out how much of your life you wasted earning money to buy stuff that hasn’t improved or changed your life.

The whole point of modern advertising is to persuade people to buy things they don’t need; to turn shallow wants into desperate ‘must haves’.

It is skilful advertising which encourages otherwise sane people to spend a fortune on double glazing which will never pay for itself and to spend thousands of pounds ripping out a perfectly serviceable kitchen and replacing it with another slightly different kitchen.

And, of course, the more money you have to earn to buy all this stuff that you don’t really need the more income tax you will have had to pay.

If you are happy with the things the Government buys with your money then you won’t mind giving them great chunks of it. But are you really happy with what they do with it?

I’m not suggesting that the handyman’s life style is right for everyone.

But you might like to think about all this a little.

We live in a society which encourages the accumulation of goods: a smart, shiny motor car; a beautiful home; a wardrobe full of expensive, beautifully designed clothes — these are what we are encouraged to work towards.

If you are not careful the stuff you think you own could end up owning you. Our world has been taken over by a lot of materialistic, acquisitive nonsense. We buy coffee table books that no one ever reads, fancy toilet roll holders, lotions to make fat thighs thin, creams to make small breasts melon-sized and to make melon-sized breasts positively breath-taking and all sorts of other nonsenses. We buy things for the sake of buying. We buy presents that are neither beautiful nor useful.

Do not allow material possessions, belongings of any kind, to take over your life. Next time you are buying something other than an everyday item ask yourself if you are making the purchase because you want it or need it or because you have been persuaded to buy it by someone else — or, worse still, by Society. And then remember how many hours you have to work to earn that item.

And regularly take time to go through all your possessions and sort out those which you want to keep and those that you neither want nor need to keep. ‘Spring-cleaning’ your possessions has several advantages. It will enable you to see exactly what you have (you may be surprised to discover things you had forgotten you owned) and it will also enable you to convert unwanted items into cash. You will have more space available and you will be able to find and use the belongings which are left more easily and more effectively. Clear out the stuff you own at regular intervals and throw away everything which doesn’t add value to your life. If you haven’t used something or worn something for six or twelve months sell it or give it to a charity shop.

And always remember William Morris’s advice: ‘Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.’

Taken from the book 101 Things I Have Learned by Vernon Coleman