How Much Is Happy? 

Decluttering my life and stopping buying things I don’t need

Reading Time: 7 minutes

It’s midnight and my husband is snoring next to me. I, on the other hand, am wide awake. It’s 19 hours since we touched down at Heathrow from our honeymoon and I’ve just woken up from six hours sleep. I tried my best to stay awake to beat the jet lag. I really did. I think it’s safe to say, I have failed miserably. I lie quietly with my eyes shut, quickly become bored, check Instagram with my phone on minimum brightness under my pillow (a trick used countless times before) and then, after ten minutes, the inevitable happens. I get up. After all, there’s something I’m desperate to do.

I slip downstairs to the kitchen and open the pantry. It takes me about forty minutes to remove everything past its sell by date, 2015 is the oldest culprit. Not too bad, all things considered, I think, with a wry smile. Where it’s a tin or bottle or something recyclable I empty the contents before washing the receptacle and placing it in the recycling. I’ve never done anything like this before. I fleetingly think I might be mad. I resolve it’s more likely that I’m turning into my father whom I’ve seen do this countless times. I don’t know what has come over me but I do know with complete certainty, as I embark on the fridge, that I am on a roll. By the time I open the freezer door, I don’t recognise myself.

The urge to declutter, to take inventory and refine, has gripped me since half way through my honeymoon.

I don’t stop there. Next are the bathroom cupboards. A quick appraisal tells me I have (amongst many, many things and in no particular order) thirteen body moisturisers (all bar one open), six deodorants, a chasm of lip glosses (including a Juicy Tube or two I estimate date back to 2002) and what seems like tripple figures’ worth of various make up samples. The samples and lip glosses go in the bin. As for the moisturiser and deodorants, I give them a shake and find the ones with the least in to use up first. The remainder of my cabinet is ruthlessly sorted. A full bin’s worth goes.

The urge to declutter, to take inventory and refine, has gripped me since half way through my honeymoon. Not because I was on some oddly tediously, boring, dull honeymoon. I really wasn’t, it was amazing (I am not protesting too much, I assure you) but rather because of the seemingly innocuous incident of losing my travel scarf. It was lost for the simple reason that I had too much with me and I didn’t notice I’d left the bag that it was in behind at the hotel. I called the hotel three times but no-one ever got back to me. I was careless and I paid the price. I berated myself for days, both silently and to my husband. If I had had less with me then I wouldn’t have lost it, I bemoaned. I had too much stuff. At no point did my husband disagree.

I also started racking up a mental checklist as I remembered the discoloured sports bra that at one point had been yellow, a T-shirt (nay two) with holes in, the clothes that I wore on my travels in 2005 and the slogan hoodie (the brand of which is very much aimed at the university’s students rather than its (ahem) slightly older alumni). Suddenly it became absolutely imperative that I rid myself of these things. For a fleeting moment I wanted to board a plane and start straight away. Patience never has been my strong point. In lieu of that I went to the hairdressers and had six inches cut off my hair. I had to start somewhere.

Back in the bathroom, I stop. I have mad hair, perspiration down my back. Thank goodness for the six deodorants I say to myself, applauding my foresight. It’s still dark outside. It’s not yet six o’clock in the morning.

I am surrounded by bags of rubbish, charity shop donations and an eBay pile. I’ve done well. However, revelling in the success of my efforts is short lived. Far stronger emotions take hold of me. Shame. And then confusion.

There is So. Much. Stuff. A lot of it not even used and still bearing its tag or plastic wrapper. It’s untouched. All these things I’ve worked hard to earn money to buy. I work out that I’ve had to work a whole Monday morning for one particular skirt. I pick it up three years after its original purchase. I remember I was desperate to have it. Why was I? It had done nothing since its arrival but take up space in my wardrobe and diminish my bank balance.  My mind starts to spiral. Theoretically I could reclaim whole days of my life. I could work a four day week if I just quit buying things I don’t need, don’t use and let’s face it, in some instances, I don’t even like.

Case in point, the skirt. It’s silver, floor length, and floral in a thick satin material with netting underneath. I’ve never worn it. Surely not? I say to myself in my most sarcastic, internal voice. What occasion did I ever think I would have to merit its wearing? Let’s overlook the fact it’s also two sizes too small.

Dressing for work, I need to go to an important meeting that merits a suit. I dress in my only 13(!) year old suit and realise that maybe a new suit would have been preferable to something so frivolous, or a pair of black court shoes which, as I scramble around looking for them, I realise I don’t even own.

The contents of my wardrobe, upon closer scrutiny, appear to be the inverse of the type of clothes I need. I calculate that 35% of my life (and 51% of the time I am awake) is spent either commuting or at work. I’m lucky if my wardrobe is 10% work clothes. A good half of it is party dresses. I doubt I go to a party once a month.

I baulk at all this accumulation of things I thought would make me happy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds’ worth.

I comfort myself with the fact that at least the skirt wasn’t full price when I bought it. It’s short lived. It wasn’t cheap and years later still unworn. This isn’t a one off and in all honesty it’s pretty bloody depressing.

It hits me. All I have done is simply acquire.

I baulk at all this accumulation of things I thought would make me happy. Hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds’ worth. All these things; the expensive moisturiser, the glittery, bow-adorned shoes and the countless dresses, to name only a few. I bought them all with the same things in mind:

That’s what I need to help complete my life.
That’s what I need to make my life better.
If I just had this one thing more it would make me happy.

Here’s a cold hard fact. No one on this earth could touch my legs and tell which one had been slathered in a £4 and which one in £24 body moisturiser.

There are so many things I bought because I think that the person I’d like to be wears them.

It’s clear I’m not that person.

I have a corporate job, a three hour round-trip commute including a 2.5 mile walk and a dog. Real me does not need yet another pair of glittery four inch heels. Real me could do with a pair of smart, water resistant trainers with a sturdy base.

In the two weeks that follow, I become exhausted. There is simply too much. The initial energy that I had has waned and despite re-reading Marie Kondo’s The Magic Art of Tidying Up, which urges me to complete the clean in one fell swoop, I can’t. Instead I am in limbo. There are things without homes. Clothes that I can neither bring myself to get rid of or to keep. All these things bought to make me happy are perversely having the reverse effect and I find myself dwelling on it. It weighs me down. I shut them into the spare room. Out of sight, out of mind.

It has taken me 35 years to register that consistently buying things I don’t need or really want will not bring me happiness.

A few days later, my wedding photographs arrive. I start think about my happiest memories: my wedding day, coastal hikes in Cornwall, caravan holidays in the Cotswolds as a child, a movie after a post-run lunch. My husband, family and friends. My dog.

None of them feature an expensive moisturiser or a silver skirt.

It has taken me 35 years to really register and act on the simple, fundamental truth that consistently buying things I don’t need or really want will not bring me happiness. This is an age of consumerism and I have fallen for it hook, line and sinker. I really have to give it to the marketers. They’ve done an exemplary job. There’s all this stuff I apparently need and I can shop for it anywhere, everywhere and at any time; at home, on my commute, at my desk, out and about, whether it’s three in the afternoon or three in the morning.

Over a decade ago I lived out a backpack for three months so I know I don’t need a lot; in the years that followed I have drifted to the point where I associate purchasing with happiness. This is not who I want to be.

I have a friend who talks about seasons of life and the stages of life being like the chapters of a book. The overwhelming feeling I have whilst surveying the Room of Doom which houses everything I can’t bear to deal with is that there is a part of me clinging to the person that I was half a lifetime ago. I am no longer that person and, more importantly, I don’t need to be. I finish decluttering with a fervency. In the end, my wardrobe, kitchen, bathroom, the Room of Doom, indeed the entire house, is streamlined. I resolve to allow myself to buy one item a month. This month I chose a suit. The decluttering has not only been of my home but of my mind and I hope more than anything that it will bring new experiences and opportunities in this new chapter. And it will. After all, I’ve made room.

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  • I love this feature Katie, it’s perfectly timed for me. I feel shocked – truly shocked when I look at the pile of bags (bag after bag after bag) of ‘stuff’ I’ve amassed over the years that I simply did not need or wore once, or never at all. It’s crazy ridiculous. I’m much smarter with my pennies now – purchases I make have a much more emotional aspect involved in the transaction (I really gotta feel the love for that dress if I’m going to part with my hard earned £££ for it and if there’s even one iota of doubt, I move on).

    We have a mountain of ‘stuff’ to declutter from our house but so little time to see to it, which is frustrating. We’re getting there though, and it’s good to know that stuff we don’t need might well come in extremely valuable to those who do so we always drop our unwanted items at various charity outlets.

    Last year I got rid of around 70% of my wardrobe but I still feel it’s over cluttered and want to have another go at it. I can probably get rid of around 30% of what’s left without noticing that anything is missing at all. I like to think it’s not so much a case of getting older and more sensible but smarter, wiser and more intelligent!

    I’m going to set myself a target to feel as streamlined as you do within 3 months time. Starting TODAY!

    • Thank you Annabel and thank you so much for featuring my post! I really enjoyed writing it but I was simultaneously horrified when I realised just how much I waste or simply don’t use.
      I too have an emotional connection with shopping and not only emotional. It it’s just something to do when I’m bored or at a loose end. I could do easily be spending my time being productive (like writing this post!).
      I’ve dropped bag after bag off at the charity shop and sold 14 items from eBay over the weekend. Every time I reopen a cupboard I find something new. 70% though – that’s amazing! I’ve found my having less I actually feel like I have more options. I honestly wish I had. T parted with my money and had put it in a bank account!
      Let me know how you get on in the next three months xx

  • A brilliantly written article about decluttering jam packed with common sense!

    In recent years I have been simply too busy to even go window shopping often and a bit like social media detox, you find that once you train yourself not to make unnecessary purchases that you wonder why you ever did.

    I used to ‘thrill’ shop for the dopemine effect. The rush of buying soon wears off though doesn’t it.. and you are so right.. unless you know you are actually going to wear or use the product you are just cluttering your home and life.

    The problem is that a lot of stuff we need to get rid of might be difficult to recycle or biodegrade. We hang on to old computers, items made partly with plastic etc because we worry about where they will end up. I saw a documentary recently about how much stuff is shipped from the West to poorer countries. There are old bits of technology scattered across beaches and locals are dying from the resulting toxicity.

    We all fall for consumerism at some point in our lives and this article is a timely wake up call to be more discerning and to streamline our existence sensibly.

    Thanks so much for writing this Katie, a hugely inspiring read!

  • Oh Katie, I so could have written this feature! I also cut off my hair while on honeymoon and came home to immediately start de-cluttering my house. Our house is a right mess and our answer to having too much stuff is always to buy more stuff to put it in. I’ve managed to do the kitchen but lost the will to live while trying to figure out what to do with all the DVD’s we never watch. Maybe I need to try Marie Kondo’s book to do it properly but you have re-ignited my enthusiasm! Might try to tackle the wardrobe tonight!

    • Thank you Diane! I never had a lot of common sense growing up but I’m really starting to feel it click into place.
      You’re so right about the “thrill” effect, it lasts for so little time. There’s no longevity. Now I actually have the thrill from fewer, beautiful curated items (clothing and home accessories). The waste has really started to hit home. Well no more!xx

      • Ah, my replies are completely out of sync, doh! Janette, I think you and I are cut from the same cloth, I couldn’t even wait two more weeks until I was home to cut my hair off!
        I have the same dvd issue – I think I have about 20 left whereas my husband easily has over 200 – all I want to do is box them and ship them out! Good luck with the wardrobe. Marie Kondo never fails to inspire me!

  • This really struck a chord with me! Particularly the part where you can’t stop once you start decluttering- it’s so compulsive. I have to move quite often for work, and have found that regularly packing and unpacking my belongings has definitely led to me shopping less, as I am confronted with those impulse purchases which I haven’t used since I bought them.
    However, I’m still a ‘sentimental hoarder’. Try as I might, I just can’t get rid of old school and university work, concert programmes, etc. I know I barely ever look at them and they’re all cluttering up cupboards, but somehow never muster the courage to ditch them!!

    • I’m the same, I have school reports from year 7 that I just can’t bear to part with! In the end I put them all into a nice wooden box so at least they are all in the same place. It’s nice to keep those memories though I think.

  • Such a great piece Katie, and it really felt close to home. I struggle with holding onto things for sentimental reasons, and also love to collect things (and shop!), I’m a minimalist’s nightmare! BUT, a couple of years ago when we had to empty my grandparent’s house, I couldn’t believe how much stuff there was. It was almost biblical, and I’ll be writing about it for ALL soon.

    That said, some of my favourite discoveries were old menus, programs and certificates etc. Old ballgowns, handmade handbags, weird holiday souvenirs (a toy alpaca made from alpaca, bought in South America in the 50s!! He’s called Anton now and lives in my spare room). All of it the detritus of a life, forgotten for decades and suddenly cherished again. My great-grandma’s old Kilner jars, her wooden pastry cutter, her crazed and chipped mixing bowls which I now use – I treasure them all so much.

    What’s a girl to do?! I love a good declutter, but boy-oh-boy is it hard!

    • There is nothing more lovely than giving something you know was cherished a new lease of life and I’m sure your grandparents would be thrilled! I have a bowl, cupboard, books, stamp album and a few other bits and pieces that were my grandparents’ and I derive so much pleasure from the fact they are still used. I love that they had Anton! Can’t wait to read your post – I imagine it’s bittersweet but I’m sure they would be so happy to be living on through these items x

  • Katie, whilst my wedding is 6 months away, I could have written the majority of this article myself.
    OH and I are due our baby in 10 weeks, and somewhere in all of this, I realised just how much ‘stuff’ I had accumulated, two large wardrobes, two chest of drawers, about 150 pairs of shoes and that was just the bedrooms. Everywhere I looked in my house, I could see piles of ‘stuff’ that I had bought.

    After a long and hard self-reflection, I realised that I truly was an advertiser’s dream; if a smiley beautiful instagram lady told me this top had made her happy, then I would buy it. Ultimately, what I was attempting to buy was my own happiness.

    It has taken a long time, with far too many bin bags and trips to the charity shop, to start creating some clarity in my house, which strangely is the aspect that is giving me joy.
    I try to remember when obsessing over social media, that these people smile and appear to have happy lives, not because of the items they promote or encourage us to buy, but due to the every day decisions and occurrences to be happy. That is what I now strive for.

    • Firstly, congratulations on your impending arrival and your wedding. You must be so excited!
      I think we suffer from the same plight of being an advertiser’s dream, and it’s so easy being able to buy on line. It takes a lot of restraint for me to reign myself in and not to succumb, especially when I’m bored! At least the charity shops are doing well out of us though, heehee!

  • My addiction to short shopping gratification meant that we had far too much stuff for our very small two bed terrace.. and although all of it was cheap stuff (I had an obsession with car boots and charity shops).. the feeling of claustrophobia and suffocation actually contributed to my anxiety. We ended up moving house a couple of times and having to pack up and move clothes, furniture and other non essential items that you actually don’t use felt like a huge ball and chain. We even had a storage unit at one point and if the key had gone missing and you’d told me I could never get any of it back.. I actually wouldn’t have missed any of it.
    Five years on and most of it has gone. Sold.. or given away to friends and charity shops. Clothes is ongoing purely because I knew I wanted to sell them (I had a lot of vintage dresses) but just couldn’t decide where.. and actually selling your clothes is more effort than just getting rid of them so finding the time to do it was trickier. But I now have an Instagram shop – @emmacaseshop and give 10% to our non-profit The IDo Community. It’s worked really well and I love knowing that the clothes are going to good homes.
    In terms of what I’m left with.. I feel now my life and what I want/need has completely changed. We’re much more conscious about what we’re buying and where.. especially from a packaging and ethical point of view so now try and go plastic free and second hand. Ive realised that I actually don’t need much. Same goes for our little boy. We’ve really tried to keep in check how many toys and ‘stuff’ he has.. and try and get grandparents to not buy buy buy all the time. I want him to remember amazing experiences that we have together as a family.. rather than what we bought him..

    • I can completely relate to the just wanting to lose the key – I had a room that I felt the same about, I just wanted the contents of the room to disappear rather than working through it. I think it boils down to wanting the decision taken out of our hands because of overwhelm.
      I really like your idea as to how you sell your clothes and donating a portion to charity.
      Little by little I’m trying to consume less and hope that all the small changes have a big effect. I’m finding it takes a lot of conscious thought as it’s so easy to fall into the buying trap.

    • Oh gosh, how I can relate to this! We have SO MUCH STUFF that we don’t need that has been acquired over years of buying FAR too many children’s clothes (and being given sack full of other hand me down children’s clothes by well meaning people) – gifts and toys no longer used or ever needed, books, furniture, you name it. I spent all day Sunday sorting at least 30 refuse sacks full of clothes and already things feel lighter (hubby took them all to the MIND charity yesterday), but it’s the non clothing items that take up so much space. There is so much paraphernalia to sort through and deem fit enough for charity or recycling or ethical disposal (sadly there is a lot of potential land fill though I will do as much as i can to avoid it becoming actual land fill). It’s stacked up high on our second floor. And it’s all got to go and be dealt with soon because I can’t seem to focus on anything else whilst it’s there.

      My tastes and preferences and shopping habits have also changed massively over the past 3 years but the biggest change has been in the past year. I’m no longer sucked in to all the marketing/sales/must buy now hype. I take time to consider my purchases more carefully before committing. I’m not spending anywhere NEAR as much as I used to on clothes. I would rather invest in classic, timeless pieces that are are stylish and wearable and not slave to fashion trends that come and go.

      Your comment about wanting your son to remember the experiences rather than the things is something that resonates with me 100% and I’ve read somewhere that the Millenial generation are also VERY much about experiences, not things. I really feel that there is a huge shift in the consumer zeitgeist (I just wanted to use a fancy word in my reply!) and that younger generations are wanting to be a part of this more ethical and considered change in purchasing habits. At least that’s from my view anyway. Long may it continue. I’m so hoping our children grow up to be adults who don’t desire so much ludicrous material possession but who live to fulfil more life experiences. Christmas shouldn’t be awkward because you ‘can’t think of anything to buy’. Just don’t buy it then! Put some money aside for a future trip out or pop it into a child’s savings account. Honestly, my children want for absolutely nothing and even my lovely eldest daughter, Eska, said last December ‘honestly mum, I can’t think of anything I’d like, you don’t need to get anything’. I have gone so OTT in the past past at Christmas that it’s been obscene and has made me actually feel depressed at the thought. Never again.

  • Fantastic article Katie. I quite often find myself looking around my house and getting both angry (with myself) and horribly anxious about how much STUFF there is. I always know when I’m not doing well with my anxiety because the idea of cupboards filled with stuff or our overflowing attic really gets to me- its a useful self care trigger if nothing else…

    Books are one of our big ones- I just can’t bring myself to throw them away, even those ones I know I won’t read again. Clothes are the same. Like you, I try very hard these days to only buy things I need or *really* want- the rest of our money I would rather spend on our home or on doing things, going on holiday, travel.

    I definitely feel another big de-clutter coming on… S x

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