The Big Guide to Scaling Down Your Stuff

Ready for a revolution? How scaling down on stuff can improve your family's quality of life.

By Robert Shapiro
The Big Guide to Scaling Down Your Stuff

Imagine a world where parents have less cleaning to do, fewer arguments with their children and each other, more money, and more time to spend relaxing and playing as a family. Now imagine the same world but think bigger — there is less trash, less pollution, less poverty, and, believe it or not, less greed. Sounds pretty fantastic, right? Maybe even idealistic? 

It’s not so far-fetched. This utopia could be our future, one within reach if we embrace a simple philosophy: Enough is enough. 

Roughly, “enough is enough” is knowing your personal definition of how much stuff (toys, gadgets, clothing, etc.) your family needs to survive and thrive and living within those means. It’s the flip side of our compulsive drive to add more and more to our piles, which tend to clutter our homes and our daily lives, and warp our children’s perception of the world in general. 

The trend toward enough is enough is everywhere these days, especially given our society’s environmental concerns. We see it in the explosion of blog sites dedicated to frugal living in a rough economy, in magazine articles about simplifying our daily routines, and in the popularity of books such as The Hoarder in You: How to Live a Happier, Healthier, Uncluttered Life by Dr. Robin Zasio, a clinical psychologist in Arizona, who also appears on the TV show Hoarders.

By knowing how much is enough, we declutter our minds, allowing us to be more present for our children. We save money, and we get a head start on becoming more environmentally responsible citizens of the planet.

Owning just enough is a revolutionary concept in this country. We are a consumer society, after all, with an amazing legacy of producing material goods the world wants. But the shift in thinking to enough is enough is not so radical. We don’t have to swear off shopping or get rid of everything we own. It isn’t about sacrifice or belt-tightening or abandoning the American Dream.

Instead, we can gain more control over our buying compulsion through the practice of something called “selective materialism.” At its simplest, selective materialism means questioning the marketing messages we receive and buying more strategically. It’s one of the underlying tenets of the enough is enough philosophy, and it’s liberating — to both the mind and the pocketbook. 

Below, we’ll take you through the tenets of the philosophy, and we’ll provide a step-by-step guide to figuring out your own family’s definition of having just enough.


The Philopsophy

Choose Quality Over Quantity

When you buy something — anything, from a table to a towel — you welcome it into your home. It becomes part of the environment in which you raise your children. It’s only natural, then, that you want it to be something that you value and that will be around for decades. And yet, almost from the day we are born, we’re encouraged, mostly by commercials and trends, to like everything enough to buy it — but not enough to keep it. “Out with the old, in with the new” is the message. 

Selective materialism is about choosing and caring for quality items that we cherish, the so-called “perfect goods” that bring us pride in ownership. With that in mind, the products you buy should be the best you can afford — things that are well made, durable, and long lasting.

“Learning to choose material possessions that we can truly be appreciative of can make us more satisfied,” says Timothy Sharp, Ph.D., founder of The Happiness Institute, an Australian organization devoted to enhancing happiness in families. “It teaches us to look at things through a lens of gratitude.”

Even if you have to pay more initially for a quality product, it’s a wise investment because it reduces the chance that you’ll have to buy another for years or even decades. Keep in mind that plenty of perfect goods are available at vastly reduced prices at thrift stores, garage sales, and online. 

Give Children the Ability to Be Happy

We all love to see our children’s faces light up when they receive a gift. But enduring happiness can’t be bought; it’s a quality that comes from within. “We are far more likely to find happiness in ourselves, in our relationships, and in the accomplishment of meaningful goals than in possessions,” says Sharp. 

One way to foster our children’s happiness is to help them understand the place of material possessions in their lives and lead them to discover their own personal meaning of enough. There’s a lot of pressure on kids to obtain things — to wear certain clothes, to collect every action figure in a series, to upgrade to the latest and greatest video game system. Without even realizing it, our children can become stressed out by the pressure of trying to keep up with trends. (Parents can, too!) No matter what they get, children may never feel genuinely satisfied because someone or something — usually a friend, movie, or advertisement — is telling them they need more.

Whether you’re talking about toys or tech gadgets, learning how much (or should we say how little) your child needs to feel satisfied is liberating and empowering. Sharp explains: “Helping your child to understand what’s enough for him frees him from the ‘tyranny of when’ — the belief that he’ll only be happy when he has new stuff or the ‘right’ stuff.” 


Own Less Stuff

We all have collections of stuff. You want to narrow down your family’s so that it’s composed mostly of what you need instead of what you simply want. (See “Where Do I Toss It?” below.) Once you do that, buy items when the mood strikes — as long as you get rid of something you already own. The objective is to maintain, more or less, the size of your collection. Allow it to evolve instead of grow.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the less stuff we own, the less we have to spend on repairs and replacements. But beyond the budget benefit, there is a greater reward to having just enough, and it lies in the connection between how much we buy and the health of the environment.

Humans are the only creatures that produce real waste, material that does not return to nature’s cycle of creation and decomposition. Over the centuries the amount of such waste that we produce collectively has increased. As painful as it may sound, Americans now top the list of offenders. According to the Story of Stuff Project, our country generates 30 percent of the world’s garbage, yet we represent only 5 percent of the global population. With all that shopping comes a tsunami of packaging material and bags that get tossed away, not to mention the products themselves when we’re through with them. And then there’s the waste that’s created while those products are being made. 

Generating less waste through enough is enough would be a remarkable human achievement. It would make us more responsible citizens of the planet, help us to protect our own health and that of our children and grandchildren, and leave the earth a better place for generations to come. 

Where Do I Toss It?
We all know where the bottles and cans go. Here’s how to recycle other stuff as you pare down to just enough.

Search to find out where to send or drop or scratched or broken discs. Some of the drop-off centers also offer services for recycling audio cassettes and VHS tapes. Click the “Programs” tab to find out how to set up a disc recycling program at your child’s school or your local library.


Type what you’re looking to recycle and your zip code into search, and this site will turn up a variety of recycling centers and services you never knew existed.


Your local Best Buy electronics store will take just about any piece of equipment you want to recycle, from portable TVs to GPS devices, no matter where you bought it.


Find a drop-off location for used computer equipment of any brand.


The E-Stewards network enforces strict recycling standards for all types of goods. Find an E-Stewards certified recycling center or program near you.


Illustration Credit: Serge Bloch

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