Value of Things and Stuff

I am imperfect so I apply lots of self evaluation and counseling. This is from today's session after weeks of contention between my husband and I over my obsession in getting rid of stuff (it’s not that my husband likes stuff and hoards them - he doesn’t - it’s just that I am overly obsessive in returning things we don’t need as quickly as possible before he has had a chance to determine if he really needs them).

What is the root cause of my frugality and displeasure with possessing stuff?

I realized that every time I question my personality and primary traits, I have to look past the surface symptoms and dig deeper to my roots, to my early days, to understand why I am the way I am.  

First of all, I've identified that being temporal is core to me. When I was 10, I saw many billboard signs announcing an apocalypse so I asked my dad, what’s the point of my studying hard if the world was gonna end? My concerned dad responded by bringing me to my pastor who explained that while we were alive, we were to be faithful and fruitful in our respective vocations - as a child, I was to obey my parents; as a student, I was to apply my mind and excel in my studies; and later on, as an adult, I was to give my best performance at work. I took heed of my pastor’s words: flow with the season and give my best shot in each season. I’ve also noticed that while our forefathers used to make 10, 20, 50-year plans, we no longer do so today. Given the rapid rate at which technology and natural circumstances are expanding, we can barely make a one-year plan without having to revisit and making changes to it. Thus given the fleeting nature of life, everything I do and invest in is temporary. Five years ago, I arrived in California with just two suitcases; now 5 years on, I still live out of those two suitcases, plus a lot more extra stuff. Because of my need to be temporal, owning more stuff than I really need unnerves me.

My husband and I had a long chat about our childhood by the fireside last night, during which time I realized that I have been living my whole life in a regimented, disciplined and goal-driven pattern, with no margin given to comfort or enjoyment. When it came to studies, my day was filled with time in school, after-school homework, copious amount of extra assessment books assigned by my dad, working on his garden patches, distributing flyers to advertise his private English and Math tuition classes, and preparing ingredients for his small food business. I was always doing something and never allowed to take a moment to breathe. If my dad ever found me sitting down and doing nothing, he would assign me a task.

My parents have four children. All six of us would sleep in one bedroom (my parents in their bed, us children on individual mattresses on the floor) so we could reduce our electricity usage (from not having to turn on an additional fan in another room). On top of the discomfort of having six people sleeping in one room and sharing one fan in hot and humid Malaysia where the typical temperature hovered between 26 and 29 degrees Celsius at night, my mom would turn off the fan after an hour of sleeping. The heat would compel me to wake up and turn on the fan. After a few minutes, she would then turn it off, and minutes later I would turn it on again. This goes on for several times throughout the night. It was always a tug of war between my mom’s frugality and my need for comfort. My cause was of course, a lost one. Comfort was never valued at home. Comfort is almost like evil my parents shun in favor of saving money.

Our upbringing bears deep implications. I learnt to value thrift over comfort. My husband on the other hand, values comfort over thrift. As an adult, everything I see and do is measured through the lens of money: how much does it cost and is it value for money? If it is value for money, then yay, go for it. If it isn’t, then I will be sweating buckets over it and giving my husband a hard time about spending those extra dollars.

When my husband needs something, he buys it, uses it once, realizes it doesn’t serve his purpose, and is reluctant to make the effort to return it. He’d store it, forget about it, and when it comes time to move, discard it. His purchase decision is driven by the need for something.

When I need something, I’d consider if I would use it repeatedly - if I do, I might buy it; if I don’t foresee myself using it repeatedly, I wouldn’t buy it because I’d need to store it (and storing means taking up space, which I dislike, because I value space) or discarding it (which I dislike, because it’s a waste of money). My purchase decision is driven by its long term implication.

Owning stuff also means having to justify the use for it, which may not be in line with your purpose at that point in time. For example, I need to clean my muddy yard so I buy a pressure washer. I use the pressure washer and am happy with the result. I put the washer away. It sits in storage for days, weeks, and months. After several months, I feel bad about under utilizing it so I take it out to wash things I have no need to wash. I am merely justifying the use of the washer because I’ve bought it. And in doing so, I am taking valuable time away from more pressing and important tasks.


At this point, it’s becoming clear to me that it isn’t just about spending money - it’s about not using it often enough to justify its use, and having to store it for lack of use, or discarding it eventually, which equates to a waste of money.

Now we’re really getting close to the root cause of my frugality and displeasure with possessing stuff: it is the way I value space and money; I want more space and more bang for my buck.

Because life is temporal and fleeting, there is no need for many possessions. Because I am a practical person, there is no need to own things to keep in storage only to discard them later.

Moving forward, here’s a process I propose my husband and I to consider when evaluating the need to buy something:

  1. Need: Why do I need it?

  2. Use: Am I going to use it once or repeatedly? If frequently, buy. If infrequently, borrow or rent.

  3. Store: Does the frequency of use justify the storage space? If frequent, buy and store for repeated use. If infrequent, don’t buy.

  4. Discard: Even if it’s for seasonal use, say a snowboard during winter time, buy and store for repeated use, and if no longer in use, give it away - at least it has served its purpose for you.

This is my attempt to share openly about the thoughts in my mind and struggles I encounter. In sharing, I accept that I will be judged and criticized by those whose opinions differ from mine. In any event, I’ll be happy to hear your comments, if you have any, below.