The Pain of Decumulation

YardSale-300x221Decumulation is a real word and, as expected, it means the opposite of accumulation. I’ve found, in the economic world, it involves the movement of investments from growth to income. The parallel in my non-economic world is the movement of possessions…from more to less. Here, decumulation involves the reduction of what we have amassed to something that approaches what we truly need. Like all diets, decumulation is a difficult, even painful, process. Right now, my mother is struggling with decumulation. Moving from her townhome into a much smaller apartment in a retirement community; she no longer needs or has room for 90% of her possessions, yet it truly grieves her to part with them.

Many share her pain. Every day I hear the other residents speak wistfully about what they left behind. They miss their things. I feel for them. I understand the emotional attachment we have to objects, the significance we give them, the memories they evoke. I get it. I do. And, I believe that our elderly citizens should get special consideration at this difficult time. But, over the last few years witnessing and helping other people move, I’ve become acutely aware of how much stuff we Americans have (myself included); stuff that is beyond significance and emotional attachment; stuff that has nothing to do with family heirlooms and prized art collections; stuff that is unnecessary, often redundant. I’ve also become equally aware of how hard it is to change.

Our cluttered lives are no surprise. Consumerism is a cultural mandate. We are inundated with advertising to buy new things; we are socially pressured to have the latest gadgets; we are encouraged to spend money as our patriotic duty to support the American economy. Shopping is the great American pastime. Superbowl commercials have become as popular as the game itself. Retail therapy can cure the blues. George Carlin famously said “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.” Many of us agree. His rant is funny because it is true. If you travel to a third world country and see how little others have, our excessiveness feels wrong. Just viewing the photos from Peter Menzel’s Material World: A Global Family Portrait gives pause.

Awareness alone won’t cure our excessive consumption. We all have our weak spots. Although yogis practice aparigraha (freedom from hoarding or collecting), I know a yoga teacher with maybe 100 Christmas nutcrackers. Buddhists practice detachment, but I know one whose 1000+ vinyl record albums over-crowd his little house. And, I know I have way more shoes and clothes than anyone really needs. Even when we try to do the right thing and minimize, it is difficult. For a while, whenever I bought a new pair of shoes, I chose an old pair to donate. But, often, while that pair was sitting in my garage on the to-be-donated pile, I decided to wear them one more time…or two, and some found their way back into my closet. Sneaky shoes!

One way to force yourself to “clean house” is to move and either pack or unpack all your belongings yourself. Only by touching everything you own, can you truly grasp the extent of your worldly goods, both your valuables and un-valuables. Hopefully, very possibly, it will help with the painful part, the process of making choices and letting go. For me, moving is not a likely option and, like most of us, I am stuck with the continuous battle. My plan, instead, is to 1) make the to-be-donated pile a final stop; 2) NOT buy anything that I don’t really, really, need even if it is on sale; and 3) remind myself that cleaning my closet is like cleaning my karma.

One thought on “The Pain of Decumulation

  1. Kelley Greeson March 22, 2014 / 5:10 am

    I loved this post! My favorite line was “sneaky shoes!”. But I also love the content. Our family is also going through a similar decumulation exercise. We call it “simplifying,” but it’s all the same thing. If you haven’t seen it already, there’s a blog called Mr. Money Mustache that challenges you to question social norms around “owning stuff” in pursuit of more a more emotionally fulfilled lifestyle (here is his latest entry: http://www.mrmoneymustache.com/2014/03/19/make-it-big/).

    Good luck helping your Mom adjust…

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