Most of Our Stuff is Worthless

a lifetime of stuff

Have you had to settle a parent's estate?  I have.  My last surviving parent lived in a typical middle-class suburban home filled with furniture, china, crystal, art, clothing, collectibles, and more.  There were even items inherited from my father's parents that had been stored for several decades.

My mother was a tidy housekeeper.  Her house didn't look cluttered.  But it was packed with stuff that was mostly unused on a daily, weekly, or even monthly basis.  Every room, every closet, every shelf, every drawer was full of a lifetime of stuff.  And something needed to be done with all of it.

What do you do with a lifetime of stuff?

Losing a parent is hard enough.  But deciding which belongings should be saved, which have some resale value, which can be donated, and what will have to be hauled to the landfill is gut wrenching.  And the cost of hiring a company to go through all of the stuff, separating trash from treasure, and arranging and displaying all of it in preparation for an estate sale might actually be more than the sale itself generates.

The lesson learned from the whole experience is that most of the stuff we value and are so proud of it worthless.

Many of us live in good-sized houses that we've filled with stuff over the years.  I once owned dishes I used only at the holidays.  Special tools and appliances I used once or twice and continued to store "just in case" I might need them again.  Clothes, shoes, accessories, décor items, and more bought because they once caught my eye.  Old tech.  Mementos from my parents and grandparents.  Hundreds of books read once.

I realized that if I didn't streamline what I owned, eventually someone, probably my children, would be burdened with the job of getting rid of it.

Did you know that even the stuff you worry about the most, the stuff you think is so good that you hardly use it for fear of breaking or staining it, has little or no resale value?  Baby boomers have flooded the market with their castoffs: china cabinets, entertainment centers, tea sets, crystal, collectible figurines, and more.  Millennials, the next generation of buyers, don't want them. 

Millennials are shackled by student loans, tend to rent for many years before buying a home (if they ever do), and move often.  They don't want to be moving a piano, a grandfather clock, or fragile special-occasion china from apartment to apartment.  They don't do formal in-home entertaining, and they don't like "brown furniture," meaning any furniture (regardless of quality) other than clean-lined modern styles.  According to many estate professionals, there's no market for brown (also known as "grandma") furniture.  Even if it's donated, most of it can't be resold.  Much of it will wind up in a landfill.

There are three things you might have in your house that have a decent resale value:

  • Guns
  • LPs (vinyl records), but only 50s and 60s rock 'n' roll, jazz, or R&B in excellent condition and with the original cover
  • Precious gems and metals (including solid silver flatware)

5 Steps to Reduce the Burden

1.  If you aren't using it, but it might be useful, donate it now.

There is absolutely no sense in letting something sit for years or decades gathering dust.  If it's dusty now, you don't need it.  But maybe it will get some use if you remove it from your home today.

2.  Resist the HGTV mentality.

Constant home makeovers are good business for furniture manufacturers and home stores, but really bad for our wallets and the environment.  And much modern furniture is made of particle board or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) that contain formaldehyde and other toxic substances.

Keep what you have if you are using it now, and take care of it.  Update some of that solid wood "brown furniture" by refinishing or painting it, replacing knobs and other hardware for a more modern look, if you want to.  Paint your kitchen cabinets instead of replacing them.

Resist trendiness and stick with the colors you like.  Create your own art, or decorate with those family heirlooms you claim mean so much to you.  Have old rugs cut down and rebound.  Embrace empty space.

3.  Buy fewer, but better quality, clothing and shoes.

The world is overflowing with used clothing.  

Clothing made today is meant to last no more than a season or two.  In fact, a lot of clothing isn't going to withstand more than a few washes.  And I'm sorry to say you aren't doing much good when you donate unwanted clothing to Goodwill.  Most of it will never make it to the racks in the store, and only a small portion will eventually be sold.

It's much better to buy a few high quality, classically-styled items that you will keep and wear for many years.

4.  Buy fewer books.

Used book sellers provide an important service, but a surprising number of books end up in landfills because many paper recycling facilities can't process the glue in their bindings.

However, you don't have to stop reading books.  If you haven't been to the library in a while, now is the time to go back.  It might also be time to invest in an e-reader (paid link).

5.  Be ruthless about sentimental items.

Keep just enough stuff to remind you of someone, but not so much that your own kids will be dealing with piles of stuff in another 30 years.  I kept some photographs, two pieces of furniture that I use every day, and one item of Christmas décor.

By keeping only one item, you have the opportunity to use or display it in a place of honor.  One useful or display-worthy item will actually have the chance to trigger memories of your loved one.  If a bunch of stuff is only going to sit in the back of a closet or in your attic or garage, you might as well dump it now.

This goes for photos too.  If you actually create a small scrapbook that will have pride of place on your coffee table, or if you choose a lovely portrait, frame it nicely, and hang it prominently, then you honor your loved one and have a chance to regularly see and remember her.  Simply keeping a pile of moldering photos in a box in the basement isn't preserving memories for anyone.  Might as well toss them.

I'll definitely think twice before keeping any of my own sentimental items for someone else to deal with after I die.

P.S.  Yes, it's ironic, but my book, Minimalism for the Holidays, is currently being offered at 51% off in the Kindle edition.  This fantastic sale ends tonight at midnight (Pacific time).

Photo by Julien-Pier Belanger on Unsplash


  1. Thanks for my new mantra: If it's dusty, donate it.

    1. Lol, Linda! Yep, if you don't want to dust it, do you really need/want to keep it?


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