The Relationship Between Gratitude, Abundance, and Acquisition

06 March 2013 · 34 comments

My last post on combatting clutter brought a lot of interesting comments and several great suggestions. For instance:

  • Liz wrote: “We keep a large plastic tote in our living room and we drop items that are to be donated inside. Once the tote is full, we take the contents to Goodwill.” Great idea!
  • DH (who has been reading my blogs for years) suggested coping with clutter is a mental exercise: “[Becoming] highly organized and clutter-free or whatever…will never fully shield us from that underlying level of anxiety you speak of, JD. That’s just a myth that sells books and blogs. The key to dealing with the underlying anxiety is to transform the material of the mind first.” Commenters Moom and Lucille agreed.
  • Andrew shared a William Morris quote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
  • Dennis hit upon something I’ve learned over the past few years: “Invest in quality items. The few possessions I do own are of very high quality and will ultimately last many years with proper care.” KSR agreed.
  • And Mrs. Money Mustache provided a tip that I’ve been trying to put into place here at my new home: “Everything must have its place. If every object in your house has a place where it lives, then clutter is virtually gone.” Yes, indeed, this is true.

Perhaps the most insightful comment, however, came by email. After nearly a year together, Kim knows me pretty well. She noted — not for the first time — that my problem isn’t clutter. It’s acquisition. She wrote:

What I’ve witnessed is what I would call an aquisition problem. I’ve been very proud and impressed with your ability to let go of “stuff”, but you still bring home little things constantly, and I would say more often than pretty much any one I’ve ever been around.

You know what? She’s right. What’s more, this is merely one symptom of a deeper problem in my life. As my therapist noted in December, I operate from a scarcity mindset. Many of my decisions are predicated on the premise that I won’t have enough: not enough food, not enough stuff, not enough love. As a result, I’ve tended toward hoarding (ever since I was a boy). And of course, this leads to a compulsion to acquire stuff.

For the most part, I’ve managed to shake this scarcity mindset with regards to relationships. I’ve shifted to an abundance mindset instead. Maybe it’s time to make the same shift in other aspects of my life. Hell, forget “maybe”. It is time that I made this shift.

Early this morning, I had a long chat with my friend Jodi Ettenberg, who’s near the end of a sojourn in Vietnam. Among other things, we talked about attitude and gratitude. We took turns sharing how lucky we feel, how grateful we are for the lives we lead. She may not have a lot of money, but she’s been able to travel the world for the past five years, eating and exploring and interacting with people. I, on the other hand, have a lovely home, a fantastic girlfriend, and work I love. We’re grateful for our lives of abundance.

As I ran errands this afternoon, I thought about the relationship between gratitude and abundance. For a long time, I hated the world “abundance”. I associated it with the myth of the law of attraction. But over the past few weeks, I’ve come to realize that there really is such a thing as an abundance mindset, and it’s very much tied to the ability to be grateful for what you have. As I pondered gratitude and abundance, I had an epiphany.

If an attitude of gratitude can change the way I view relationships with people, then maybe it can shift how I view my relationship with stuff. The next time I feel compelled to buy something — a candle snuffer, a drink muddler, a floor lamp — I need to take a moment to be grateful for the things I already have. I suspect that by doing so, I just might be able to put an end to my problem with clutter acquiring things.

It worked today, anyhow. One of the errands on my list was a trip to Costco. I need batteries, and I want lots of other stuff. But while waiting at the DMV, I took a few moments to think about all of the good things I have, and to ask if I really needed to go to Costco. The answer, unsurprisingly, was no. I stopped by the grocery store on the way home to pick up a few necessities, but today at least I was able to keep from bringing more stuff into my home.

1 Morgan March 6, 2013 at 15:04

I’m in a phase of austerity – I’ve been focusing on weight loss for the past few months, and when I focus my will power on one aspect of life, another suffers, and I’ve been awfully spendy as a result (but I’m down 20 pounds!). Now that I’ve had to shift my thinking from feeling like I deserve to buy whatever I want to only spending on what I actually need, it’s amazing how much simpler my life has become – in a good way. I find myself totally okay with spending a weekend at home reading and puttering around the house instead of running errands for things I don’t *really* need and going out to eat when I have so much food at home. I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything when I automatically delete daily deal emails. I’m grateful for the things that already exist in my life. And when I do have to purchase something, I’m forced to be satisfied with the most cost effective option rather than spending whatever it takes to get exactly what I want. My concern, however, is that there is only so much will power to go around, and I have yet to find a way to balance, for example, my health goals with my financial goals – it seems like I can focus on one or the other, but not both simultaneously.

2 Eileen March 6, 2013 at 15:24

Interesting follow-up! (But it makes me wonder what things you acquire so often as to generate Kim’s response!)

An observation of my own. Dump Costco. It seems like a bad place for someone with your challenge/goals to frequent. Perhaps it’s saved money over time, but it sounds like you probably spent more than necessary as well. I always think those discount places are good when you are having a huge party, or a sports banquet, or manning a concession stand, of feeding a classroom, but can’t imagine there aren’t other places that a single guy could find what he needs!

3 jdroth March 6, 2013 at 15:32

I acquire a lot less than I used to, but I still have a tendency to bring home books and magazines and gadgets and books, etc. Yesterday, for instance, I bought a spice rack. Last week, I bought a bird bath. These are the sorts of things Kim means. Some of them are good and useful, but many just become clutter.

4 Tyler Karaszewski March 6, 2013 at 16:52

Heh, I think I don’t have a fundamentally different mindset than you, but I just desire different things. Instead of buying one or two little things almost every day, I buy essentially nothing but food for months at a time, then I do something like spend $30,000 on a car. The total number of things entering my house is very low. The total outlay for it is probably just as much.

It’s all easy to keep organized, though.

5 bethh March 6, 2013 at 16:09

I’ve learned it’s better for me to cough up a little more for batteries at a store I’ll already be visiting than set aside a special trip for a “bargain” at Costco (or Target, my trigger store) which just leads me to temptation.

I moved into my house in January and felt dismayed by all the little shopping trips I was making – I decided to make Feb a month in which I bought as little as possible for my new digs, which helped break what was becoming a habit. Even though no-spend months are a bit extreme, perhaps doing no off-list spending would be something you could try. Or, as you said, work on appreciating what you do have!

6 Do or Debt March 6, 2013 at 16:51

An attitude of gratitude is so important! It keeps me going through the hard times, because it could always be worse, and is for so many people. I don’t have an affinity for material items at all and am a minimalist. But when I do get that urge, I ask myself, ‘Do I need this?” and “Could this money be better spent?”. Almost always the answers sway me. Appreciating what you already have, keeps you from wanting/needing more.

7 Jacq March 6, 2013 at 17:28

David at Raptitude had a great post on this awhile back:
http://www.raptitude.com/2011/01/i-dont-want-stuff-any-more-only-things/
But here’s a book that might be more helpful to you:
http://www.amazon.com/ADD-Friendly-Ways-Organize-Your-Life/dp/1583913580/ref=la_B001K8G76C_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362619606&sr=1-1

I used to be very acquisitive and yes, it can be a scarcity issue IMO (not necessarily however, because some people just tend to be collectors but not usually of *all things*, usually just a certain category – like books…) In my research on decluttering and hoarding, it also comes down to a problem with the ability to make a decision – that’s where guidelines are good. My guess is that you’re a Myers Briggs E/INFP – so you see possibilities in things that others like Tyler K. just wouldn’t – they would see it as noise.

There’s also an element of hating to “waste” that comes into play when you become a little more on the frugal side. To give something away that you bought and never or rarely used forces you to admit that you literally wasted your money.

I just don’t buy crap anymore because I traumatized myself by doing a rough calculation of how much everything that was bought and just given away or thrown out cost. I’m glad I didn’t sell that crap because I would have just been fooling myself that I hadn’t wasted my money as much as I had. Plus I’m just too lazy to buy stuff that I know I’m going to have to do work to get rid of later.

8 LeRainDrop March 6, 2013 at 22:19

“To give something away that you bought and never or rarely used forces you to admit that you literally wasted your money.” Very good insight. I think that’s why I’ve designated closet space for things I *allegedly* plan to sell on eBay — I feel like I should at least get some money back!

9 Tyler Karaszewski March 7, 2013 at 07:14

The danger here is that requiring yourself to sell things is a good way to keep from ever actually getting rid of stuff. I’ll take perfectly good stuff straight to the dump just to have it gone, unless it’s particularly valuable. But say an Ikea desk, even in good shape? Dump. It’s not worth enough to delay my cleaning project while I try to sell it.

10 Paul March 7, 2013 at 08:44

Have you considered donating such items to charity? You might even get a tax benefit.

11 Kristen Wallway March 7, 2013 at 12:23

For nicer/bigger items, I also can’t be bothered to sell them. But I’ll put it outside my house and post it for free on Craigslist. Things disappear in a hurry when posted for free there!

12 Ms. Must-stash March 8, 2013 at 06:13

Oh that makes me sad from an environmental perspective. Please, please, do not throw things in the dump – just give it away.

– Easiest Option: Put a sign on it and put it out on the curb.
– Super Easy Option: Schedule a pick-up from a non-profit that will come to your house (like Vietnam Vets). Fill out the online form, pick a date, leave your stuff outside on the designated date, and they will come to you. So easy!
– Very Easy Option: Take it to Goodwill or similar.
– Still Pretty Darn Easy Option: Freecycle / Craigslist (list it for free) / post it on your local neighborhood email list / post it on Facebook

But please do not throw out perfectly good objects that could benefit someone else.

13 Tyler Karaszewski March 8, 2013 at 08:47

It’s ok, we’ll kill the oceans and drown billions living in coastal areas long before a big pile of discarded Ikea furniture becomes a serious problem. Plus the dump is a fantastic habitat for seagulls. There is effectively zero difference in environmental impact from an old desk sitting in my garage for the next 3 years, or sitting on a hill (a man-made hill of refuse) for the next three years.

I don’t really have a curb, I have a steep driveway that goes down to a country road. Basically everything is easier for you than it is for me, so I don’t really want to hear about how “easy” everything is and get a guilt trip for not doing things your way. When I need to get rid of something, I just want to get rid of it, not schedule a time to be rid of it later, maybe, if the charity doesn’t decide they can’t resell it or the flakey people on craigslist actually show up. I will never finish my projects if I have to wait around for craigslist to take care of stuff for me.

14 KB March 7, 2013 at 05:12

I totally have a problem with stuff! My weaknesses are clearance shelves of the local drugstore where I can buy discount chocolate, paper clips the kids might need for school, books, shampoo, whatever because it’s on sale!
I let my Costco membership go for the last 10 years because I was spending too much money there.
The thing is most of my clutter is paper on things I might want to do in the future as opposed to stuff because I usually buy things that can be used up. However I do have about 6 different types of face sunscreen because they were all half price and I thought I could try the different types! I have used 2 so far!
I am definitely not a born organized type of person!
I really hope to combat this need to buy things on sale!

15 Jody March 7, 2013 at 05:37

wow. i felt like Kim could have been sending that email to me. what’s scary is that i never recognized it as a problem until you two just articulated it. I have three kids who run me out of groceries every two days. i feel like i am constantly at the store. i do pretty good in regards to how much i am spending, but i see now my clutter problem is how much i am buying and bringing into my house. yes that bag of clothes that will fit my daughter, (probably) in two years was free, but it takes up half my closet. i hate it there, but think of the money i am saving.

it’s not the money, it’s the physical presence of stuff and how it represents to me the money I spent or the money I saved. i am attaching a greater monetary value to something that previously had none, or very little. epiphany. thanks for sharing so honestly.

16 babysteps March 7, 2013 at 07:53

My mother (and aunt, and another aunt, oh and my dad’s sister…) was a hoarder. I have my moments but am pretty under control after years of practice–was only really bad senior year in college – even then you could see at least some of the installed floor covering in my room ;)

One method that helps me: when I bring something non-consumable into the house, a roughly equal size/function item has to leave.

4 pairs new underwear? Out go 4 old pairs.

New book? out with an old book – or a picture, or something similar.

It’s not perfect but it keeps a lid on stuff build-up (and is helpful to avoid the purchase in the first place – what am I willing to give up in exchange for this nice new shiny object?).

One other thought – if you have more stuff than space, you will have to declutter before ‘a place for everything & everything in its place’ will work. No whining, you have enough space & too much stuff (not too little space and the right amount of stuff). Humans didn’t even have permanent homes for most of our time on the planet.

17 PB March 7, 2013 at 06:32

I agree with you very much in this post, but let me say a word in defense of candle snuffers. If you snuff a candle instead of blowing it out, you do not scatter wax everywhere. This saves not only table linens and wood finished, but the time involved in repairing table linens and wood finishes. Of course, you can always develop asbestos fingertips and pinch out candles, but then there is the time and expense of dealing with blisters. So if you have a candle-consuming lifestyle, there is nothing wrong with a candle snuffer.

18 Tyler Karaszewski March 7, 2013 at 07:22

I was thinking about this candle snuffer that J.D. wants, and how I don’t normally want little things like that, and realized there’s a cascading effect in play. Why would I want a candle snuffer? I don’t even want candles. If I don’t have candles, then I don’t need candle accessories. Similarly, if I had a TV, I’d probably get a playstation. But I’m not going to buy a TV just to attach a playstation to it. The whole thing becomes a case of, “the more you have, the more you need.”

19 PB March 7, 2013 at 07:42

In other words, you don’t have a candle-consuming lifestyle! :-) We all choose things that are appropriate for our own lives.

20 Carla March 7, 2013 at 12:43

I agree. I love candles and can’t imagine lighting candles (which I do almost daily) without owning a snuffer. In my defense, I only have one which I’ve owned for about 7 years now.

21 chacha1 March 7, 2013 at 13:22

I’ve discovered a sort of targeted “huff” works perfectly to blow out a candle flame without splattering wax. Start to whistle, then exhale suddenly instead. Miracle. :-)

22 Olga King March 7, 2013 at 06:44

I always say psychology lies beneath every action. I live clutter-free and on minimum because I am always afraid things will be taken away from me, disappear, I’ll have to move and rid of them, loose a job, and in general, nothing good is going to happen to me – why bother? I am so used to not want anything, any present or purchase either gives me guilt, little pleasure and soon means nothing. I have no personal attachments to practically anything I owe (I do owe fair share, I live with a family, and I am not poor by any means). I spend freely on travel (cheap, but freely). A good therapist is a great thing if he only didn’t cost so much! So I go randomly:)

23 Bella March 7, 2013 at 08:31

I don’t know how to make this not sound snarky, but I really mean it as it.
I used to have a real problem with what you’ve articulated, a few years ago I found a blog that I really resonated with, that helped me see past the aquisition, to create scarcity and abundance at the same time (not buying because I dont’ have the money to ‘waste’ and then having that money in my bank account as a result). Here is a great example
http://www.getrichslowly.org/blog/2006/05/02/how-to-buy-nothing/
There’s been a change of management – and the new stuff is kinda all over the map but the early years are complete GOLD!

24 jdroth March 7, 2013 at 08:35

:)

Hugs, Bella. So what you’re saying is I should go back and re-read some of my old stuff? Not a bad idea!

25 Somsiah March 7, 2013 at 09:52

I’m glad to have passed the stage of small acquisitions, and hopefully it won’t come back. It was then to fill up empty space, perhaps more so of emotional one than physical. Because it was not just candle holders but also expensive jewelries to commemorate one event and another. Then I learned to put things into perspective, and learned to count, many from reading your GRS articles, JD. Hehh, too many really, so will not give an example. Now I’m at another crossroad. It is about my addiction to seeing places, being on the move. Not as full time nomad like Jodi Ettenberg, who writes beautiful travel journal, by the way – but certainly I can say, I’m semi-nomadic. There is this cabin fever syndrome affliction should I stayed home too long. I’m now giving my penchant for travel some thought if it had meant to fill another emotional void. I like William Morris quote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” Now am thinking, must apply the same philosophy to travel.

26 Carla March 7, 2013 at 12:38

In find that gratitude actually helps when it comes to acquiring some of my needs even some desires. I was told by a friend that I have a “poverty mindset” and he was absolutely correct. I was (and sometimes still) fall into the trap of fearing that I don’t or won’t have enough and limit my life in so many ways because of it.

Its not about what I’m spending or not, its more about living in fear and placing myself in a cage that limits my life.

27 Barb March 7, 2013 at 15:26

I find the attitude of gratitude feeds my clutter – I’m grateful for my stuff and can’t just trash it or even give it away unless I know its going to get good use. I have no problem giving things away when I know they are benefiting someone else. But I don’t want to donate things just to have someone trash them. It’s weird and not all that logical, but it really is the root of why I keep so much stuff. I do wish I could get over this.

28 Rita March 7, 2013 at 22:47

Thom Hartmann wrote several books on ADD and ADHD that have helped me with my propensity to shop around, especially yard sales, junk shops, etc. His basic premise is that those of us who claim these labels are actually hunters and gatherers. We are always scanning for something we “need” and I find it interesting that food is one thing I collect. I now feel that it is fine to “hoard” food and other necessities, as long I have a place to put it and will use it before it ruins. I have a knack for finding good deals and cool stuff cheap, which I can resell and make a profit, if I need to. If I get compulsive about it, then I have to rein myself in a bit. Collections become clutter when they are not organized and kept neat and clean.

29 Elizabeth March 8, 2013 at 04:43

I had to go back and read the review of law of attraction. Well said!

I enjoyed this post too. I find when I feel the urge to buy — often it’s clothes — I can curb my spending by taking stock of what I already have and donating what I don’t use. One spring I wanted to buy new clothes, so I took and inventory and wrote down every article of spring/summer clothing I had. It humbled me.

30 Sandra March 8, 2013 at 06:43

I, too, acquire from a mindset of scarcity that is more felt than actual. Part of it is not getting over the stinginess and controlling aspect of my parents versus my peers’ parents. As a kid, I always felt deprived and controlled.
As a senior citizen, trying to downsize and declutter as I prepare to move imminently to a smaller place, I still get a psychic thrill from buying something. I have limited myself to things I “need” but my definition is still too broad.Too much stuff, however well organized, makes it more difficult to shop in my closet first before ordering. I stay out of stores so I won’t buy doodads, but I still buy too much online. Right now I have gone overboard on moving supplies and new clothes as I have gained 10 pounds that I am unable to get myself to lose.
“Need” is emotional and hard to get over in the short term without discipline or therapy.

31 William @ Bite the Bullet March 8, 2013 at 06:52

JD, have you ever heard of Dan Ariely? He’s a professor at Duke University and he writes a lot about how we as human beings tend to interact with money and those things around money. (You can get his books from the library’ he’s been around a while.)

One of the things he highlights is the way the human mind jumps from anticipation to adaptation. Anticipation is what makes us want stuff (acquisition). The anticipation of the pleasure from acquisition tends to be bigger than the pleasure from the acquisition itself.

Because once we have “that thing we craved” it doesn’t take us long to adapt to it, get used to it and not derive the pleasure we anticipated we’d get from it.

You see this phenomenon everywhere. People buy new clothes they stop wearing, new cars they want to trade it… even stocks abnd other investments.

I found this understanding really helped me identify and curb the acquisition urge…

32 Suba March 8, 2013 at 10:31

I have been struggling with this too. Especially as we are preparing to move to Portland end of the month, I feel so overwhelmed with all the stuff we have accumulated in the last 6 yrs. Some things I can’t even remember why I thought I would need it. I never thought about acquisition but I think Kim is spot on. We have the same problem. We have gotten a lot better letting go of stuff, but we keep buying more. One thing that has helped us with curbing the acquisition problem (we never gave it a name though) is if we want X, we have to make that money by selling something that we already own. This gives us (1) space to keep the X (2) money to buy the X (3) a chance to prioritize what we want and most importantly (4) a real sense of how little resale value a lot of our items have.

33 Donna Freedman March 9, 2013 at 11:44

First, permit me a grammar geek moment: It should be the relationship AMONG gratitude, abundance and acquisition.
That said: My sweetheart’s mother has a rule that if she brings something home, two things must go. She still has a fair amount of stuff, mind you — it’s just that she doesn’t want to (a) drown in clutter or (b) leave an unmanageable amount of Stuff for her son to deal with when she dies. (She’s in her late 80s and quite healthy but also very pragmatic about this.)
I donated quite a bit of stuff when I moved from Seattle to Anchorage last October but I’m still amazed by how much is left, particularly as regards to merging households. It’s hard to fend off Stuff Creep, but it isn’t impossible. I just need to be vigilant, i.e., to ask myself “Do I really want this?” every time a shiny new bauble catches my eye.

34 Marge March 27, 2013 at 05:13

After watching The Secret and reading the book series, I have been seriously working on my “attitude of graditude”. I can now see really how much I have…not just stuff but the intangibles as well. It is very enlightening for me.

On another note: where I live we have a swap shop at the local dump where you can take your “stuff” and/or pick up more “stuff” free of charge. I live in a rural area where the income level is fairly low and this is a help for all of the community.

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