Angela Horn: The Less You Own, The More You Have

So it’s a weekday morning early in April of 2007 and I’m staring into my mother’s cupboard, a spectacularly cluttered cupboard. Having just moved the folks into an old age home the week before, it’s now my responsibility to clean up the house that they have called home for almost 40 years. I have no idea where to begin.

Scanning mom’s cupboard, my eyes land on this pile of towel sets, still in their original packaging. The sight of that makes me a little sad but mostly I’m smiling because I had this image in my mind of dad, scooting up to mom’s cupboard in his wheelchair. His mission: to pick from that pile of forbidden fruit and not get caught. You see mom were saving those towels for a special occasion. So there was no way she was going to let dad wipe his hands on one of them after he’d spent the morning, tinkering in the garage. Looking at them now, all I can see is a pile of missed opportunities, special occasions that in the end never came.

Fast forward to July of 2008 and my partner and I are on the verge of selling almost everything that we owned. At the time I didn’t even consider that our decision to downsize might have had anything to do with the way that my parents lived their lives. But looking back now I can see that the two are inextricably linked, because whether they had meant to or not, my parents left behind a very clear message: the less you own, the more you have.

Ask most people what they want out of life and it’s usually the same three things: more money, more time, and less stress. But yet as much as everyone aspires to this life of Riley, most people don’t believe it’s possible. So what if I was to tell you that the secret to having it all lies in that message my parents left for me, because as simple as it is, that message is also powerful beyond measure.

Today I’m going to ask you to do just two things. Don’t panic. One of them is not selling everything that you own. I guarantee, though, that if you do these two things, not half-heartedly but as if your life depended upon it, you’ll have more money, more time and be less stressed than you ever imagined possible.

I’ll tell you what those two things are in a little bit. But first, I want to talk about the upsides of downsizing. At the point where we decided to sell everything that we owned, my partner and I were living the good life: on the bank’s time. We were in debt to the tune of 120,000 Rand and I’m talking actual debt, not car payments or home loans. We had no real investments and no savings either. Our financial advisor’s pursed lips said it all. We were up shit creek without a paddle.

I’m happy to say that we’ve since paid back everything that we owed. We now have a sizable investment in growing NASDAQ. We live comfortably well within our means. You see, living a debt-free or close to debt-free life is more than possible and it brings with it a whole lot of extra cash — cash that can be put to far better use, doing those things that you love but just never seem to be able to afford: traveling, weekends away, whatever blows your hair back.

And by reducing your monthly overheads you also make way for new career possibilities. You can consider going freelance, taking a sabbatical, heck, you could even change direction completely. But as fantastic as they are, there is more to what I’m proposing than just the financial benefits. You see, stuff, it turns out, is a very demanding mistress, and as soon as we go over the boot, our weekends and, in fact, our whole lives went from being jammed packed with chores to wide open, the less you own, the simpler your life, the more time you have — time that can be put to far better use doing those things that you enjoy but just never seem to get around to: reading, playing sports, taking those all-important afternoon naps.

Now more money and more time are both great, but I also promised that you’d be less stressed. In a study titled Life in the 21st Century, researchers at UCLA observed 32 middle-class families and what they found is that all of their stress hormone spiked during the time that they spent dealing with their belongings. Stuff makes life unnecessarily complicated. Bigger house just means more to clean, more to maintain, more to fix when things go wrong.

The less you own, the less there is for you to worry about. And this lack of stress comes not just from having fewer things to take care of, it’s also a direct result of having lower those mentally overheads. Because if you no longer have to worry about how you’re going to pay the bills at the end of the month, suddenly life is decidedly rosier.

My partner and I were never big shoppers but we spent without thinking and we lived beyond our means, which as you can imagine made month end a pretty stressful time in our house. I’m happy to say that we no longer live paycheck to paycheck and I can’t begin to describe how liberating that, that feels. There is a saying: Nothing tastes as good as thin feels and for us there is no single object or thing that could ever, ever come close to giving us or measuring up to that sense of freedom that we have, that peace of mind that we’ve experienced since downsizing.

So I have outlined the benefits and I’m sure you’ll agree that’s pretty awesome. Now let’s look at those two things that you need to do.

Sayonara to the clutter

The first thing you have to do is say sayonara to the clutter. Remember I promised you wouldn’t have to get rid of everything and I meant it. This process is simply about eliminating the clutter. You know that stuff that you no longer use or even look at, time to bid it farewell. Dump it. Donate it. Do whatever you want with it but ultimately it’s got to go.

In his book The Success Principles, Jack Canfield talks about cleaning up your messes and incompletes. His theory, and I happen to know it works because I’ve tasted it, is that by clearing away the extraneous you automatically make way for more of the good stuff to flow into your life. Now he’s referring to your to-do-list as well but for the purposes of today’s talk, I’m going to focus purely on those things you have lying around the house, in that junk drawer in the kitchen, guys that means your man drawer as well, in the garage, the spare bedroom and pretty much anywhere else that you’ve managed to store stuff you no longer use, yet feel compelled to hold on to.

I’ve got a challenge for you today. Get rid of just one thing a day for next 30 days. That’s it. One thing a day for 30 days. I promise at the end of those 30 days, you’re going to be feeling so light and free and easy that you’ll just want to keep going. So do that. Keep going and don’t stop until you’ve gotten rid of absolutely everything you no longer use.

These days my partner and I employ the three-month rule. If we haven’t used something in three months, it’s gone. Now get that for newbies that may be a little bit extreme. So to begin with, you could try the six-month rule, or to push the one-year rule. But if you’re angling for anything more than that, maybe the first thing you need to do is place a call to Hoarders Anonymous.

Stop buying just for buying sake

Now for the second part of the bargain. Stop buying just for buying sake. Because no matter what those marketing moguls would have you believe, you won’t find happiness in a brand new car or the latest iPhone. Now maybe some of you are thinking hickeys, I’d be happy with a new car. Sure you probably would but once that initial excitement of cruising down Chapman’s Peak drive in your new BMW or jeep or whatever your favorite car might be, once that excitement wears off, and it will, you still have to make the monthly payments.

Retail therapy is a costly exercise with negligible results. You’re happy in the moment, sure but that’s only because the thrill is in the chase. Ultimately that void you’re trying to fill will not be filled with stuff. Ironically everywhere we turn now, adverts telling us how stuff will make us happy but it simply isn’t true. Happiness is a state of being, it’s not a state of having. Think about it.

It’s always the experiences that you remember: that weekend away with your best friends, your honeymoon, the time you took the kids to Disneyland when they were so little. That’s the good stuff. Now I’m not saying you need to look like the Amish. All I’m telling you is to think carefully before you hand over your cash. Ask yourself: do I really need this or I just wanted because I wanted. In other words, are you behaving like a five-year-old with a wallet and the driver’s license? If you are, and you’ll know, you might not want to admit it but deep down you will know, the best thing you can do in that situation is to put your money back in your pocket and get the heck out of the mall.

Choose instead to spend your money on experiences that are going to feed your soul, instead of stuff that’s just going to clutter up your life. What am I basing this on? Well, in a study titled Affective Forecasting, professors at Harvard University concluded that people have the tendency to overestimate how long something will keep them happy. Their finding showed that the time it takes for that dream come true car to turn into just another noose around your neck is always a lot shorter than you might imagine. Six months later to indulge.

Positive psychology expert Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar says this is because once we’ve reached a goal that we’ve been striving towards, we experience a spike in our happiness levels. But before long things go back to the way they were. Only now we’re also disappointed because we really believed that car would make us happy.

The cool thing is that our brains don’t adapt nearly as successfully to experiences. So while physical things may weigh out the welcome, experiences can provide increasing benefits over time. A memorable trip gets better the more we talk about it. And in fact, even those less than stellar adventures provide stories that grow in value as the years pass.

My mom was one of the sweetest, kindest and funniest people I have ever had the good fortune of knowing. And I’m blessed to have many wonderful memories of her. But occasionally my mind still goes back to that pile of towel sets in her cupboard. And when it does I invariably find myself adrift in a sea of what ifs. Turn it that be your legacy. Downsize your stuff. You will automatically supersize your quality of life.

Thank you.