Why We Buy So Much Useless Stuff

why we buy useless stuff

Recently, my friend Jerri visited from Seattle and brought a friend along. We had coffee, went for a stroll around Portland, and her friend purchased a Portland mug from Starbucks. She jokingly said, well, I gotta have a mug to show I was in Portland. I overheard this and I thought to myself, oh man, another piece of junk to clutter up the house.

So we got into a discussion of why people buy these kitschy stuffs. They thought that it’s because we worked hard so we deserve to treat ourselves. I thought people just have too much disposable income. Generally, Americans make much more money than they need to survive and it’s our culture to buy stuff.

Too much income

Luckily, I have always been pretty good about not buying a lot of stuff. My family struggled financially for many years when I was growing up and the thrifty habit stuck with me. Even when I was making a six figure salary, I rarely bought souvenirs because I was too cheap. I’d rather spend money on traveling itself – flight tickets, room, and good food. I prefer some photos rather than stuff to remind me of those fun times.

On the other hand, Mrs. RB40 used to be quite a collector. When she was young she always wanted a t-shirt to show she had been to a destination. She loved those penny stamping machines and had a little collection. She also wanted something “neat” with the destination’s name on it.  At one point, she had bells, shells, tiles and playing cards. Part of it is probably because her family didn’t travel much so she wanted some evidence to preserve those precious memories. At home, she collected rocks, unicorns, Nancy Drew books, and black T-shirts.  Most items she doesn’t have anymore, but she still has the Nancy Drew books.  And tons of Snoopy figurines which she displays at her work because there isn’t any room at home.

For many Americans, our posessions became our autobiography. Instead of keeping a diary, we buy stuff. Every item in our possession becomes a reminder of a certain phase in our lives. We can afford it so we do it and it’s out of control.


We moved to a 1,000 sq ft condo 7 years ago and pared down considerably. We sold off a ton of stuff on Craigslist and garage sales. Our previous home was twice as big and all our old stuff wouldn’t fit in our condo. Now our small condo is packed so we try to avoid buying anymore stuff and it’s been working out pretty well.

We also can’t store things in our parking garage so that’s helpful. Stuff has overtaken cars in garages all across the nation. When the garage is full to the brim, we go out and rent storage spaces. I think that’s completely insane. Why would anyone rent space to store their old junk? Can’t you just sell them, throw them out, or give them away? I guess people get unnaturally attached to their stuff.

Oh yeah, I’m completely unsentimental so I don’t understand the attachment people have to their old things. Mrs. RB40, on the other hand, is very sentimental and rarely threw anything out. Our kid is still playing with Mrs. RB40’s classic Snoopy stuffed animal, which she received for her 8th birthday from her great-grandmother. I don’t have anything left from my childhood. I guess I’m more focused on today and tomorrow. My family also moved quite often and things just get thrown out or got lost.


Anyway, that’s one big reason why I like living in a smaller home. It costs less overall and you don’t have as much space to accumulate stuff. Mrs. RB40 doesn’t like throwing things out so she rarely buys anything now because there is no room for them.

Our condo is getting a bit cluttered, though. It’s amazing how much stuff a 3 year old has. Did you know that the US has 3% of the world’s children, but 40% of the world’s toys? That’s pretty lopsided. Unfortunately, our kid is part of the 3%. When we went camping, the only non food item we purchased was a squirt water cannon. I have been looking for one for a while and I haven’t seen them locally. He’s having a ton of fun with it at the pool, though, so I think it was well worth the 3 dollars.

I think we’ll have to avoid buying any more toys from now on. If we get something new, we’ll have to get rid of an old toy. The toys are really cluttering up the living room. Luckily, he has a little cousin in California so we’ll be offloading a bunch of toddler toys pretty soon. 🙂

Minimize frivolous purchases

So the point of the story is, we really shouldn’t buy a lot of junks. Let’s just  buy what we need and minimize unnecessary purchases. The secret to wealth is to buy assets and avoid liablilities. Assets will make you money in the long run. Liabilities will just depreciate and in some cases cost money to maintain. A lot of people just don’t realize that financial independence is a possibility so they don’t think twice about spending money.

What about you? Are you buying a lot of stuff that will be useless soon?

Courtesy of UCLA’s Center on Everyday Lives of Families

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Joe started Retire by 40 in 2010 to figure out how to retire early. After 16 years of investing and saving, he achieved financial independence and retired at 38.

Passive income is the key to early retirement. This year, Joe is investing in commercial real estate with CrowdStreet. They have many projects across the USA so check them out!

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34 thoughts on “Why We Buy So Much Useless Stuff”

  1. Objects serve as Real World Memory Prompts. No matter what it is, a coffee mug, a necklace, a statue, a book – Holding & seeing that object reminds us of our trips, vacations, exploring… the people we were with and what we did. I certainly don’t remember everything, but these tokens and keepsakes are not just a reminder of where we traveled, but who we are. Fridge magnets of every state and country visited, they become family reminders of our shared experiences along this journey of life ! Not to get too cluttered, but some collectables are passed on from generation to generation. Jewlery, Colorful Glass orbs & paintings, quilts, great gradma’s good china, pap pap’s Bible. Our history.
    In a shifting world with so many disposable plasic things, some things are kept special.
    What things are part of your family history ?

  2. GREAT article!

    My parents grew up during the Depression, and I definitely picked up the “don’t throw anything out” mentality. What I did NOT pick up from them is buying just what you need and nothing more. Hmmmm

    When I started working and having more disposable income, I bought multiples of items and for a variety of reasons. Mostly because having so much showed I was a success. At least that was my theory. (Look, I can afford this blouse in every color!). My husband had the same thinking. Ugh.

    THEN I bought into the whole movement of “organizing”. We didn’t have a lot of clutter around the house, but we did have a lot of furniture storage. Every corner had something in it, with all sorts of stuff organized ever so nicely within it. Ditto to my closets. And my garage. And our 2 storage sheds. And…..well, you get the picture.

    As our sons grew up and out of phases, we did purges but bought more stuff for the phase they were going in to. Now as they move out of the house and we repurpose rooms, we are determined to repurpose items or sell or give away those we no longer have a need for. Yes, it was hard at first, but as time went on and we started truly loving our “new” space, it got easier and easier.

    This sense of freedom has spilled over to everything else in our lives as well. We aren’t as quick to say YES when asked to do something for someone. We have learned to set boundaries not only in our personal space but everywhere else. We have less stress because we control our possessions instead of them controlling us.

  3. A point I didn’t see covered here or in the comments is the fact that very often other people thrust stuff upon you, and that it takes time and energy (and dollars if we look at time and energy costing us something) to get rid of that extra stuff! Every time I go to some sort of conference or work event, it seems I’m offered stuff (“swag”) to take home with me. I now politely decline the “free t-shirt” or whatever I’m offered most of the time.

    When it comes to life milestones like birthdays and such I feel in a pickle, though. It would be really crass to decline a gift from a friend or family member, but I usually don’t want cute knick knacks or gew gaws. Luckily some of my longer term friends have picked up on this and give me more consumable gifts like fancy soaps and such. But, UGH, I hate this other aspect of “consumer culture” that urges everyone to buy something for each other all the time!

    • One coworker who goes to a lot of conferences stocks up on the swag. Then he leaves it in an open cubicle and sends out an e-mail telling everyone to come & get it. I’ve picked up plenty of kitsch I didn’t need that way. 🙂

  4. I have a (very wealthy) friend who makes most of his money running a pawnshop and owning storage facilities. He says storage facilities are the best! People get a unit, fill it with crap, automatically charge storage costs to a credit card and it goes on forever because no one wants to deal with the contents. Eventually customer dies or cancels credit card and the crap is auctioned off.

    Much better to own than a pawn shop – fewer client interactions, limited opportunities for employees to steal from you, less police interest, etc. Biggest problem is ensuring customers don’t set up meth lab in their space.

    • Storage facilities sounds like a great investment. I’ll have to see how I can get into that game. It’s low maintenance and you shouldn’t have that much headache, except the meth lab problem…

  5. Well said Joe!! The secret to wealth is avoiding liabilities! Thanks for sharing your stories. Your posts are inspiring. Would you be interested in reading a free copy of my book? It’s called Outsmarting the System and explains strategies for reaching financial freedom faster by lowering taxes. I think it’s right up your alley and can benefit you and your readers. Let me know if you’re interested and I’ll put a free copy in the mail to you. I’d be honored if you’d consider posting a review of it. It’s a best seller on Amazon. Thanks! Keep up the good work!

  6. Souvenirs SO often turn into clutter that needs to be “dealt with”. Having travelled A LOT early on I stopped buying souvenirs unless it was artwork I could hang or something practical like a traditional dress or something consumable like chocolate 🙂

  7. I think that the U.S. consumerism culture is so hard to navigate safely. We have to be so conscious about our needs and our wants, while navigating our emotions, marketing, and keeping up with the Jones.

    I am a bit more sentimental than you, but I finally have gotten to the point where I measure every purchase with life energy. How much energy did I have to expend in order to earn the dollars to purchase the item? Only then do I decide if it’s worth purchasing.

    Finally, I have very actively embraced a minimalist lifestyle by default. As I pay off debt, etc. I just find buying a whole bunch of extra stuff mentally exhausting.

  8. I enjoyed the perspective on consumerism and the “Rich Dad, Poor Dad” comment.

    Stop spending money on liabilities, start purchasing assets (hint: they produce income).

  9. It’s human nature. What’s important, classified and top secret one day becomes obsolete, useless and worthless over time. Just like the most secretive documents from WWII were once so important, today have little meaning and are declassified. Just like the piece of junk you see when on a trip or out shopping is the most important and coveted thing in the world, over time it loses it’s value/allure. Such is the way of the human race.

  10. Joe-Brilliant and timely subject! Excellent replies from readers. An issue like too much stuff is more than just one “thing”.
    Target marketing consumers at a very young age. For boys, the latest electronics, toys, etc. For girls, expensive clothes, accessories, make-up, etc. Pack rats brought up in the depression with nothing. And people with too much money. Garages packed w/stuff, as expensive cars sit out in the driveways. Then you discover, it’s harder to get rid of than to acquire it! To the Starbucks mug buyers-you should see all the cool, funny, mugs from all over the world at the resale shop. A better buy!

  11. We are very much alike Joe. I am not sentimental at all and I don’t get why other people are so attached to ‘stuff’. One thing or two things from your mom or grandpa, okay I get it. But whole house of stuff?! If you have a house/apartment and you still need to rent a storage space, you have too much useless junk. We have a 2 car garage and both of our cars park inside the garage. Period. I also have a ‘one in, one out’ policy for most stuff. If I buy something new, I get rid of the old. We have a very decent sized house for the 2 of us but since my husband is in wheelchair and needs to be able to maneuver around, we make sure our house doesn’t clutter with too many furnitures and we are doing an excellent job.

    I am like you, I rarely buy souvenirs. Most of the time they are useless and just sit there to collect dust overtime. I just don’t buy stuff that I have no use of. Interestingly how you started this post with a Starbucks mug – I did buy a Starbucks mug at LAX when we are on our way back from Australia. (But that’s certainly not for the purpose of showing I transitted at L.A.) I actually use it at work right now since mine thermal cup was lost a few days before our vacation and I happen to really like the mug at LAX. I don’t really even take many pictures. Traveling to me is about experiencing things you normally don’t get to (but that’s another topic for another day).

    • We have a one in one out policy too, but we’re not strict about it. 🙂 We meant well, but we don’t throw thing out enough. The toys, yes, but everything else have been accumulating… We’ll need to do a better job and be strict about everything.

  12. I’ll admit that I’m definitely guilty of buying things I don’t need, but I’ve tried to cut back. I’ve barely purchased anything for myself this year (other than the essentials) and I’m pretty proud of that. I really want to grow some herbs on my porch, so I may need to splurge on some starter plans this weekend, though! It will save me money in the long run.

  13. Right after I graduated from college, I packed up everything I owned in my car for a move. The car broke down on the side of the road. And by the time I got to the next town and found a wrecker, someone broke into my car and stole everything I owned. The lesson I learned was that those were just things, not as important as the journey or loved ones. The only items I still have sentimentality to includes CDs and albums and I have more than 500 of them. I try to be as practical as possible. Plus, it helps that we have a small home. The rule is anything new in, means something has to go.

    • Sorry to hear about your car. That sucks. Wow, that’a big music collection. If it’s really important to you, then of course it’s worth it.

  14. My wife and I are closer to minimalists than we are to pack rats, but my mom is one of the biggest pack rats I’ve ever met. My dad is constantly trying to get rid of stuff but my mom sees utility and sentimental value in everything. I used to blame her for that, but then I began to understand…

    My grandfather. He grew up in the depression and stores absolutely every item he’s ever obtained, whether working or not. My theory is that my mom is 2nd-generation depression-era, so she’s heavily influenced by that mindset her dad had.

    Being so heavily marketed to is definitely a culprit these days (like when it comes to gadgets and gizmos) but I think that the mindset of fining one more good deal on a staple item is heavily influence by your upbringing.

    • That’s interesting about the depression era. I’m sure getting a good deal is also a factor. It’s hard to pass up a deal even if you don’t really need it that much. It’s a rush.

  15. I’m trying to better at buying less, as it’s an active aim I have to live a fairly minimalistic lifestyle, but I do sometimes get attached to things. Why?! I have no idea. I’m working on it… 🙂

  16. I think it’s some combo of too much money and failure to see long term consequences. On the money side, dropping $10 for another mug or knick knack won’t materially impact long term financial solvency (for most people).

    And one little coffee mug doesn’t take up much space, and it’s useful, right? Except if you did that once per week, you would have 52 coffee mugs. And really, is another coffee mug useful? Not for most people. We have probably 15 coffee mugs ranging from teacup to big gulp size, some ceramic, some portable. Having one more won’t really benefit us that much (see also: declining marginal utility from Econ 101).

    We just got back from our long vacation to Canada, and we didn’t buy a single souvenir. We have hundreds of photos that take up zero physical space though. And lots of memories. The kids did get a free lapel pin from the City of Montreal (received during a tour of City Hall), and they picked up a few pretty rocks. Nothing big though. They wanted to visit Toys R Us to get toys and we just said “can’t do it, there’s no room in the car to take it back”. And there’s no more room in our house without starting to clutter up the place!

    • 10 bucks here and there doesn’t seem like it will have long term consequences. That’s why consumers don’t hesitate. It all adds up over the years, though. Especially if you have to spend more money on upkeep ie. buying a bigger house to hold all your stuff.
      Our kid gets a lot of free stuff as well. 🙂

  17. Hello,
    I’m 21 yo from Brazil. Although I live by myself now, i always lived with my mom.
    I could not say we were poor, but we were not rich.
    Since I was a kid my mom educated me to save money.
    Every time i asked for a cheap toy she said: “You can buy a bike later, if u don’t buy that toy.” And she gave me 5 bucks. She let me decide if I would buy it or not.
    I was able to buy a bike myself at 10 and a laptop at 13 just by saving small bucks. Most parts were small gifts from family. Avoid useless buying have never been a struggle for me.
    Since finished a technical course in college and joined the workforce I realized that even here in developing country we can save money. Most people struggle their finances by bad spending.
    I saved my money in simple measures: I have a 1993 car (since tax here are based in vehicle value), spend my vacation with my distant friends instead go to a expensive resort, and make my own food, specially in sundays where most people go to expensive restaurant (seriously, being finnancially irresponsible isn’t american exclusivity), and eating healthy food (saving not going to doc).
    I enjoy your posts about ‘creating assets’: The ones you compare your rentability, where you make the most, if CD value more than Saving Acc, etc.
    Thank you for sharing useful info!

    In some weeks i’m going to work as a lab tech at a local Science and Technology Institute. I applied to their selection and was approved. I am very happy to have been diligent.
    My income will be much greater than now. Although my wage is not going to be that big, i’ll be able to invest more money than now, AND keep a good quality of life.

    Sorry for the long post, and about English mistakes.
    Best wishes for y’all!


    • Good luck with the new job! It’s great that you have a good spending habit now while you’re young. Keep working and saving and you’ll do great. Learn about investing too.
      Best wishes to you as well.

  18. Joe, you and I are the same when it comes to stuff. No sentiment, no collecting! I’d rather spend money on experiences.

    “…it’s our culture to buy stuff.” And that’s why the rented storage space business has boomed in the USA!

  19. I have never understood why people buy so much stuff. I know people that can’t park their nice cars in their garage because they refuse to part with stuff they do not use! People feel they have to have certain things and then they never use those things that they have to have. It is amazing how little we really need to be happy. This post reminds me of the George Carlin comedy bit about stuff. If you have never heard or seen it please look it up. Very funny and appropriate to this discussion.

  20. I have been guilty of buying things I don’t need in the past. I still buy a doll for Daughter Person when I travel to a new country, but that’s it. Otherwise, I just take pictures. After moving into our house, I finally got rid of a lot of the collections I had from childhood – con-swag T-shirts, my shot glass collection (my “list of places I’ve been”) and many, many books. I find it harder to get rid of things – either for sentimental reasons or because I have problems with just throwing things away. I would love everything to go to a new home, but need to realize that it can’t…

    • Moving is a chance to go through everything and clean out a bit. We really should do that more often. There are way too many unused items in our condo too.

  21. This is a topic that is very close to my heart. Its very true that most people buy way more than they need. This I believe is down to one main thing…

    Marketing. We are bombarded with things we supposedly need, wherever we go. Adverts are everywhere, persuading us to buy. They have more control than perhaps most realise.

    Look at the phone industry. Why does a phone have to get so complicated? They were more reliable at actually doing their job in the 90’s. Now they are crammed with all sorts of features we supposedly need. This is of course to get us to “upgrade” every couple of years.

    There is so much pressure on us to buy things, and it’s so ingrained that we NEED so many things. There is also the crowd mentality…

    I tried one of those steam mops a couple of years ago, and was very surprised. I was surprised at how useless it was. It took half an hour to clean half a floor – to a poor standard. 5 minutes with a mop was far better. But the adverts made it look great, and for a while everyone was buying them.

    People also get a sense of status from their possessions. They see people with this ultra high tech mop, and have to have it too. I on the other hand shake my head and think “sucker”!

    It’s good that you write this article as a reminder to everyone. Just because the TV tells you that you need something, doesn’t make it so.

    • Marketing is definitely a big part of it. That’s why we should all watch less TV. 🙂
      Smart phones are really great, though.


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