The Psychology of a Pack Rat: Why do We Hang onto “Stuff??”

In “Why Tiny?” I discuss benefits of smaller homes.  Reaping these benefits will require streamlining your possessions.

What is minimalist living and why should I care?  

Minimalism is alleviating yourself from things you don’t use or need to create a simplified environment.  It is living lightly, without a preoccupation with material things.

Minimalism means different things for different people: it’s not determined by an absolute number of possessions but rather your relationship to them.  Minimalist living isn’t sparse or boring; on the contrary, it allows your uniqueness to shine because you only have things that you love and that reflect the best of you.

If your belongings are ones that are truly essential, highly functional, and personally meaningful, then you are a minimalist.

Intentionally adopting a minimalist lifestyle allows you to enjoy what is most important.  

Benefits include:

  • Easy to organize & keep up with belongings
  • No decision paralysis: everything you own has a purpose
  • Saving money
  • Helping others by donating belongings no longer needed

The psychology of a pack rat: Why do we hang on to things?

In order to streamline your life, it is helpful to understand why we are attached to material objects, even those that don’t serve us.  Our preoccupation with such things reflects not our essential needs, but our emotions and insecurities.

What emotions anchor our resistance to part with nonessential things?


1) Fear of needing it at some point.  A common barrier to de-cluttering is the thought, “I might need it so I’ll just keep it.”  This reasoning encourages us to latch onto stuff out of uncertainty and fear, when in all likelihood we’ll never need the stuff.  The truth is, once you get rid of the unnecessary things you will only regret having kept them around for so long!

A variation of this is struggling to get rid of items that have definite utility value but that you have too much of or no desire to actually use (I used to hoard little bottles of hotel shampoo and conditioner even though I prefer other products and have plenty of them already).

Another example: I have a nice cookbook of “101 ways to make chicken”.  I rarely eat chicken-based meals but who knows, tomorrow I might want to try one of those recipes!

The Remedy.  Ask yourself — if there ever came a time when you really needed the item, how easy would it be to buy it again?  Is it something you use only a few times a year that you could borrow or just do without?  Do you have another item that could serve a similar function?

Solution: Copy a few recipes into a Word document and use recipe sites online.  Donate the book.  Get rid of excess shampoo (I donated most of it to a shelter) or use it as soap because I have less of that.

Note: There are some items that we use infrequently but have good reason to hang on to.  I have bulky snow pants that I use solely when shoveling snow — which is only a few times each winter — but none of my other clothes will suffice for the job.  If I had multiple snow pants or no longer needed to shovel snow as much, then those pants would be sent out the door.

2) Avoiding a sunk cost.  Have you ever held on to a broken item long after you should’ve just thrown it out?  It seems silly but it happens.  Why?  Because we can’t bear the mental anguish of a sunk cost; i.e., an investment that we felt did not get a fair return.  So we justify keeping the item by telling ourselves we’ll eventually fix it.

Example: One of my favorite shirts suffered a huge rip. I kept it, intending to sew something out of it. The shirt was too nice to throw out!

The Remedy.  Ask yourself seriously if you will fix or repurpose the item (then do it now).  While it’s awesome if you are able to restore the item and use it again, many times we overestimate our attachments and need to accept that the object is a lost cause.

Solution: When I moved 8 months later and hadn’t touched the shirt since it ripped, into the garbage it went.

3) Regret that the item has not served us fully.  “I should get more use out of it” — Many times we fail to let go of something because we feel we haven’t gotten our money’s worth or we regret that something in fine condition should ‘go to waste’.

In this case, your options are a) make an effort to use the item, b) find a new function for the item (repurposing), c) get rid of it  d) stuff the item deeper into your closet  >> haha NO.

My examples: Expensive shirt that I wore once; Starbucks coffee I got as a gift (I don’t drink coffee).

The Remedy.  If you haven’t used the item in a year or more, are you likely to ever need it?  No matter how expensive or perfect the thing is, it’s not doing any good taking up space in your house if you are not using it.

Solution: Take shirt to consignment store (make some $$); use coffee in a dessert recipe and give the rest to roommates

3) Longing for the past.  For instance, refusing to get rid of:

— Items from a certain time in your life that are unlikely to be needed again (e.g., kids’ toys; maternity clothes)
— Items that don’t serve you and merely remind you of a person, place, or event (e.g., a deceased family member’s belongings; pointless travel souvenirs; old sports uniform)

My example: Cocktail dresses from my sorority years.  I like them and they bring back fond memories, but I don’t need that attire now.

The Remedy.  Ask yourself if the object illustrates who you are today — not who you were in the past.  Again, utility is key: if you aren’t using it and it’s not improving your present life, it is clutter taking up your physical space and mental energy.  Try to limit items that are purely sentimental — in having less, your appreciation will grow.

Solution: Kept 2 of my favorite dresses for special date nights.  Donated the rest.

4) Desiring for the future.  Examples:

— Keeping clothes that are too small in hopes they will inspire you to achieve a certain body ideal
— Keeping baby items because you might have kids or grandkids one day
— Having lots of glamorous shoes or jewelry, hoping for more occasions to show it off even though you rarely attend formal events.

My example: Storing books I wasn’t very interested in.  But I should save them until I have more time to read and a house to display them in, right?

The Remedy: Ask yourself if the object serves who you are today — not who you want to be or might be in the future.  Don’t let a fuzzy forecast determine your present well-being.

Solution: Sell books at a used book store.  Use the library more instead of buying books.  

5) Worrying over disappointing yourself or others

In order to gain control over your possessions you must realize that your relationship with certain objects does not necessarily reflect your relationship to people who might be connected to those objects.  If you are keeping excessive stuff based on your beliefs about others’ expectations, it’s not a service to anybody.

My example: For years I carted around yarn slippers my great-grandmother made for me when I was younger.  Even though I didn’t wear them anymore, I felt guilty at the thought of throwing them out.

Solution: Realize that keeping the slippers is not a reflection of honor on my great-grandmother and that I was not a bad or ungrateful person for getting rid of them.

6) Indecision over how and when to get rid of stuff

Even if we get past the previous roadblocks and are committed to disowning something, there is a big difference between wanting to be free of stuff and actually getting rid of it.  This is because society conditions us to concentrate on losses, gains, and the monetary value of our material assets.  This mindset makes it difficult to accept getting rid of stuff even if it’s stuff we don’t want!

My example: “These clothes are too good to just give away…should I try to sell them?  Maybe dig up some more stuff and organize a garage sale?”  

The Remedy: While it is smart to capitalize on your de-cluttering process, is your space, time, and sanity worth the extra effort listing items for sale or organizing a garage sale?  Of course, if you have items that are worth a good deal then the reward-to-effort ratio is better and it makes sense to sell those items at a premium.  But for your average spring cleaning of clothes and household items, you must accept that you’re not going to get back what you paid so you might as well free yourself from the burden as soon as possible.

Solution: I came to terms with the fact that although having a garage sale or consigning my clothes would be more profitable, it had not happened yet and was unlikely to ever happen. So off to Salvation Army without a second thought.  

Notice anything interesting about those 6 psychological barriers to relinquishing our attachments to possessions?  They are all rooted in negative emotional states — fear, avoidance, regret, longing, desire, worry/guilt, indecision.  If you can identify and minimize the objects in your life that are thriving on such states, you will experience greater day-to-day happiness as well as overall clarity when it comes to what is truly important in your life.