Photo by Olga Yastremska/Getty
Do your possessions hold too much power over you? Learn to regain control – and benefit your wallet and the planet
by Melissa Norberg + BIO
Photo by Olga Yastremska/Getty
Material possessions can be powerfully alluring – whether it’s buying new stuff we don’t need or can’t afford, or holding on to things for way too long. At the extremes, these inclinations can become highly problematic. I research, develop and provide treatment for compulsive buying-shopping disorder, which is characterised by an insatiable desire to buy more things, and hoarding disorder, which involves a seemingly boundless desire to keep and accumulate possessions. Even if your own situation is not so extreme, you might be struggling to feel in control of your stuff and, if so, this Guide will help you.
Our relationship to our things has deep psychological roots
Just as with our human relationships, we all have a backstory to how we relate to material things. I grew up in poverty. I was embarrassed by it. I tried to hide that I was on the free school lunch programme by picking up my lunch ticket when other kids weren’t around. During high school, I desperately wanted to fit in, and I worked three jobs simultaneously to afford the cool clothes and other things people with more money had.
I continued to be cash-strapped while training to become an academic clinical psychologist and my desire for nice things did not waiver. I wanted to treat myself for diligently working toward my aspirations. I was already in debt from my education, I reasoned, so why not buy another outfit?
I am no longer living in poverty. But I am still drawn toward having things I do not need. After having a child, my attraction to stuff extended from wanting to buy new things to also wanting to hold on to items that have outlived their purpose. I once let a robe hang on a hook in our bathroom for an entire year after my son had outgrown it. I saw it as a portal to my son’s childhood and my ability to be a good mom.
Like me, you will have your own reasons for wanting to acquire and keep more stuff. The inclination to use possessions for their psychological functions, such as how they make us feel, starts during early childhood and continually gets reinforced throughout the lifespan. Children learn that a teddy bear or blanket provides them with comfort when they are separated from their parents. Teenagers learn what is cool from their peers and typically want what they have. If you have experienced peer rejection, conflict or belong to an unsupportive family, you might rely on objects more than yourself or other people. You might view objects as more remarkable than your own personal qualities, and they may seem more readily available than supportive friends or relatives.
Our relationships with possessions exist on a continuum. Some people lead extremely minimalist lifestyles, in which they rarely buy anything and are content with owning just a few things. Others shop almost every day and, despite experiencing tremendous financial stress, keep spending. Other people slowly accumulate possessions, finding it difficult to part with belongings they do not use – a room might become packed to the rafters; in the most extreme cases, the entire house might be nothing more than a storage facility.
The benefits of regaining control of your possessions
Even if your buying and storing tendencies do not meet the diagnostic criteria for a formal psychological disorder – a key criterion is whether these tendencies cause you significant distress and impairment – there may be room to change. Similar to me in my university days, you might be adding to your debt by buying things you really do not need. Or you might be tired of constantly organising and reorganising your house. Your closets may not be big enough. Things may be stacked on top of each other. You might not like how it looks or you might have trouble finding things and putting them away.
Another reason to change is to take better care of our environment. Our planet is hurting due to unsustainable consumption. Wealthy countries, in particular, are consuming much more than their fair share. The 20 countries with the biggest ecological footprints are consuming resources and generating waste as if five Earths existed. If your household were to reduce purchases by 10 per cent for an entire year, it’s estimated you could prevent the equivalent of 14,000 domestic garbage bags filled with CO2 emissions from being released (approximately 1,400 kg). You could further reduce landfill waste by passing on your unused, but useable, items to other people.
You might be thinking: ‘I really want to change but it’s just too difficult.’ The advice I provide in this Guide is based on 20 years of research devoted to helping people who experience symptoms of compulsive buying-shopping disorder and hoarding disorder to improve their self-control and overcome their attachment to possessions. Given that these disorders are just endpoints on a spectrum of two ubiquitous behaviours, this Guide can help anyone who wants to reduce the power that possessions have over them.
Make a concrete commitment to change your buying and storing habits
It’s easier to be self-controlled when you make a decision in advance as opposed to making it in the here and now, such as relying on willpower when you’re in a shop or browsing online. One way to ensure you don’t overconsume is by putting your goals in writing, almost like a binding contract. This will also stop you from forgetting or changing your goals along the way. Getting other people involved will further help you stick to your commitment.
So, write a contract that precisely articulates your goals, then sign it, hang it somewhere you will see it every day, and share it with others. For example, you could write something like this:
Starting 1 April 2022, I will reduce my spending by 10 per cent a month for 12 months. On average, I am currently spending x dollars a month. Thus, I will aim to spend no more than y dollars a month.
By looking at ways to reduce your total expenditure, you’ll probably discover things you don’t really need. Another example might be something like this:
During the month of July, I will donate all clothing that is more than one size away from fitting but is still in good condition. I will also donate all clothing that hasn’t been worn during the past year.
In both cases, by making your goals very specific, you leave no room for misunderstanding. Also, by specifying a start date you will prevent ‘tomorrow’ from never happening.
As you decide on the specific goals to put in your contract, to boost your motivation, spend time reflecting on the benefits of changing (eg, being a good role model; protecting the environment; having a less cluttered house) as well as the harms of not changing (eg, building up more debt). If you struggle to come up with reasons to change, ask others to help you out.
Identify what triggers and reinforces your buying and storing behaviour
People are motivated to buy and store possessions for many reasons, only one of which is a functional need for an object. We use possessions to bring us closer to other people, to help other people, to connect us to the past, to reward ourselves, to bring meaning to our lives, to express ourselves, and to experience beauty. We also use possessions to cope with stress, to avoid the uncomfortable feeling associated with imagining not having something when we need it, and to avoid missing out on a good deal and forgetting things we deem important to remember.
To figure out what maintains your behaviour, ask yourself why you buy and keep hold of things you do not use. What do you hope to achieve? What prompts these desires? How do you feel right after you have acquired an item or made the decision to keep something? If you find it hard to answer these questions, think specifically of the last time you went shopping or the last time you tried to donate a treasured possession.
Repeat this thought exercise for different circumstances and with different products – there are some examples below. Do certain people, places, events make it more or less likely that you’ll buy or keep things that you do not need (eg, when something is on sale; when a salesperson is helpful; when you feel bored; after an achievement)? By confronting your temptations and asking yourself these questions, you will reveal the triggers of your behaviours and the consequences that follow.
Triggers: Being in a shopping centre; being with friends in a shopping centre; seeing something that fits with my style and is on sale; wanting to look good for an upcoming special event; believing I’ve earned it because I’ve worked hard.
Behaviour: Buying clothes that I think I need, but really just want.
Consequences: Enjoyment while shopping; feeling happy when shopping with friends; feeling good when I get a bargain; enjoying wearing new clothes; enjoying adding another item to my closet and seeing all my beautiful things neatly arranged.
Triggers: Spring cleaning and seeing something I haven’t looked at in months maybe years, then worrying that I will forget the memory the object sparks; coming across an old item of clothing and believing it will come back in fashion and I’ll wear it again one day.
Behaviour: Saving items I don’t use.
Consequences: My worry about not having something I want to use for its functional or sentimental purposes disappears.
Once you’ve identified your triggers and understand more about your behaviour and its consequences, you’ll be able to develop a plan that is suited to your needs, which brings us to the next step.
Develop a plan to resist buying items you don’t need
Once you’ve identified the triggers for your shopping behaviour, you can look for replacement behaviours that help to achieve a similar outcome without buying anything. Grab a notepad and complete a grid like the one below, filling it with your own triggers and possible replacement behaviours. Notice that many of the consequences of buying behaviour are psychological and emotional and that it is therefore often important to find new ways to meet the same psychological needs.
Although it may seem intuitive to simply avoid shopping to reduce purchasing, it is not very practical. At most, you will only be able to reduce how often you shop. Therefore you also need to plan so that you can act with self-control whenever you encounter your triggers for unnecessary buying, such as when you’re out buying groceries.
One way to break habits is to establish shopping rules that require you to delay gratification. This could include rules such as only buying what’s on a shopping list, waiting 24 hours between making a shopping list and using it, and waiting a week to buy nonessential items. Such rules can help you to build tolerance for delayed gratification so that when time-limited opportunities present themselves (eg, 24-hour flash sales), you’ll feel more confident ignoring them. These rules will also help to ensure that you actually need all the items on a shopping list and give you the chance to forgo purchases based on fleeting desires.
Develop a plan to resist keeping possessions you do not use
The triggers for keeping hold of unneeded possessions are often the thoughts and feelings provoked by imagining the loss of the items. To successfully dispose of possessions that you do not need, you must therefore be willing and able to experience these difficult thoughts, feelings and emotions without acting on them.
When you have a troublesome thought (eg, ‘What if I need it again and don’t have it?’), remind yourself that thoughts are just thoughts and nothing more. If you imagine that you will be presented with a million dollars, does a million dollars suddenly fall from the sky? Unfortunately no, not even if you wish really, really hard. Likewise, envisioning that you might need a product doesn’t mean that you actually will. And even if you do end up needing it, after you’ve disposed of it, it doesn’t mean that it will be the end of the world. You will likely be able to use something else in your house for that purpose or borrow the item from a neighbour or friend.
When it comes to dealing with the unpleasant emotions (eg, anxiety, sadness, anticipated regret) and unpleasant feelings (eg, muscle tension, a churning stomach) provoked by discarding possessions you don’t need, it will help if you give yourself practice at feeling them without trying to make them go away, so that when they pop up, you will be less likely to listen to them. Rather than being frightened by them, you’ll know that you can handle them. Aim to schedule a prolonged period – such as an hour or two – during which you dispose of items even when experiencing distressing thoughts and feelings. For especially difficult items, you may find it helpful to write down what you fear will happen if you discard an item; then later, reflect on whether that fear came true and, if it did, reflect on how you dealt with it.
So far, none of the therapy clients I’ve worked with have ever died from discarding possessions. Instead, they have learnt that they can do things they never believed themselves capable of doing. Thus, I’m confident that you will be able to deal with whatever comes your way. What’s more, there are pleasures to be had in passing on items to others – whether to charity or by regifting to a friend or relative who might need the item more than you do.
Here are some examples of disposal and regifting activities you could try out for practice:
Similar to your shopping rules, yet another method to help you avoid the influence of in-the-moment difficult thoughts and feelings is to set yourself explicit disposal rules in advance and commit to them (such as ‘I will throw out anything I haven’t used in the past six months’). Here are some examples of how to apply that time-based rule, and some other rules you could try:
Use a one-minute rule when making purchasing or discarding decisions
When determining what to buy (aside from groceries or other essentials) and what to discard, only allow yourself up to one minute to decide. This will limit how much total time you spend shopping and decluttering – I’m sure you have better things to do. What’s more, whenever you find yourself taking longer than a minute to make a decision, it’s likely you are trying to find a justification for making an unnecessary purchase or keeping an unneeded item.
For example, say you have a growing stack of old magazines accumulating dust in your living room. You might think to yourself: ‘I know my rule is to get rid of any magazine that is more than a year old and that I haven’t read yet, but what about reading them on holidays in the future? I bet there is some useful information in them. Let me flip through them now.’ Once you go down this route, the chances are that you will find something you deem important, and you’ll end up wanting to keep the magazines. But is it a genuine need?
If you find that you try to talk yourself into breaking your rules, I encourage you to go back to the contract you made with yourself and reflect on the reasons behind it. You made it because you wanted something to improve. Reflect too on why you now want to break your rule. Why is it difficult for you to part with an item? Are you trying to avoid making the wrong decision and that makes you feel uncomfortable? If so, the best way to overcome that barrier is to say goodbye to the item and see if life turns out OK without it.
Track what you buy, store and discard
Recording every unnecessary item you buy can act as a deterrent for making future purchases. It’s a pain to write things down, so to avoid the trouble, you might be more inclined to just not buy something. When it comes to items that you discard or pass on, reflect on what you’ve been letting go of. Do you tend to discard similar kinds of possessions? Perhaps these are items that you should add to a no-buy list because your past behaviour suggests they are not useful to you. Are there items that you tried to donate or recycle, but couldn’t, and so you had to put them in the rubbish bin? These items may also be indicators of things to avoid buying in the future.
Tracking your progress also will also give you an opportunity to reflect on whether you are meeting your goals and, if not, give you an opportunity to revise your plans so that you can be more successful in the future. Figure out what isn’t working and then develop a strategy to overcome the barriers that get in the way of your goals.
Reward yourself for meeting your goals
If you’ve been abiding by your contract and plan, reflect on how much money you are saving and how that makes you feel. Reflect, too, on how many people you helped by regifting your possessions. Helping others and saving money are great personal rewards!
Reinforcement received after engaging in high-effort tasks tends to be more rewarding than reinforcement after low-effort tasks. So I recommend asking a supportive friend or relative to praise you immediately after you’ve resisted a purchase you really wanted to make or after you’ve discarded possessions to which you were emotionally attached. By repeatedly engaging in these effortful tasks, and by being rewarded for them, you will not only build up your tolerance for engaging in difficult behaviour, but you may even come to value delayed gratification more than immediate gratification when it comes to buying and letting go of unnecessary products. Thus, your personal cost-benefit analysis for difficult decisions may tip in favour of helping the planet, assisting others, saving money and having less clutter in your home.
Thinking more carefully about the stuff you buy for others
We not only buy possessions for ourselves that we do not need, we also gift other people possessions they do not need. In many cases, we do this to wow the recipients. You might envision a friend or relative unwrapping your gift and feeling surprised and impressed – you might want to convey your generosity or imagination, with little consideration paid to whether they will actually use the gift.
This aim to wow your recipient is often wrapped up in a desire to be seen as a great gift-giver – in other words, it can end up being more about you than them. This might lead you to buy what you want, or to signal your own tastes, rather than what other people want – possibly bringing you temporary satisfaction or pleasure, but at the expense of choosing a gift that might actually have had more long-term practical use for your recipient. Now they are potentially stuck with something they don’t want and will not use, and you’ve contributed to more needless consumption.
Despite these kinds of gifts being pushed to the back of closets, many of us persist with the habit. Of course, people rarely tell us when they don’t like their gifts – to do so might appear rude and ungrateful. Without feedback, it’s hard to learn from our mistakes. It’s as if we never made a mistake!
Luckily, research has identified a few strategies that can help you find a more appropriate, less wasteful gift. For close friends who share your interests and needs, you can ask them what they want and gift both of you with that same item, if you will also use it (eg, matching pyjamas). Research suggests that such gifts can be highly valued and help people to feel emotionally closer to each other.
Another strategy is to give sentimental items. This will require you to think of a gift that represents your relationship to a person. To ensure the sentimental gift will be used, think of products that are practical in nature, such as a band T-shirt from a concert you both attended.
If you are trying to be true to your environmentally conscious values, or if the person has asked that people refrain from giving them stuff, you can consider an experiential gift. Research shows that experiential gifts can foster stronger relationships than material gifts if the receiver experiences positive emotions when participating in the experience. Thus, you’ll want to put some thought into giving them an experience they will enjoy.
If you’d like to gift something to a person who has stated that they prefer others make a charity donation, then, by all means, donate to that charity if you agree with its values. If the person hasn’t asked for charity donations, you’ll want to check in with the person before making a donation.
All things considered, it’s worth reflecting on what your recipients really want and need. The best way to do that is to ask them. This might sound non-gifty, as it takes away the surprise, but research shows that giving people a gift they actually want will help them feel like they are being listened to and that their opinion matters.
In my article for The Conversation, ‘How to Know If Your Online Shopping Habit Is a Problem — and What to Do If It Is’, I discuss whether shopping can turn into a behavioural addiction.
In The Alarmist podcast episode ‘Panic Buying and Listener Emails’, I explained why COVID-19 led some people to panic buy and I provided tips on how to prevent it.
In another article for The Conversation, ‘My Possessions Spark Joy! Will the KonMari Decluttering Method Work for Me?’, I used research findings to explore why the KonMari method may or may not work for you.
If this Guide has encouraged you to seek help for compulsive buying or hoarding tendencies, but you’re not quite ready to see a therapist, or if a specialist is not available in your area, check out the self-help book Buried in Treasures: Help for Compulsive Acquiring, Saving, and Hoarding (2nd ed, 2013) by the clinical psychologist David Tolin and his co-authors Randy Frost and Gail Steketee.
If you want to help a loved one with their compulsive buying or hoarding tendencies without ruining your relationship, read the book Digging Out: Helping Your Loved One Manage Clutter, Hoarding, and Compulsive Acquiring (2007) by the psychologists Michael Tompkins and Tamara Hartl.
If you want to #RecycleEverything, but don’t know if and where to recycle a product, explore TerraCycle’s recycling programmes.