Americans drowning in stuff

A new book by 3 anthropologists looks at all the things taking up space in Americans' homes. For some family members, all that stuff just creates stress.

By Teresa at MSN Real Estate Jul 2, 2012 12:32PM

Ralf Nau/Getty ImagesOne of the reasons people cite most often for moving is a desire for more storage space – not more living space, but more storage space.


Because, boy, do we have a lot of stuff.


Three researchers at UCLA's Center on Everyday Lives spent four years studying 32 middle-class Los Angeles families and determined that "stuff" is a key ingredient in modern life – and sometimes adds to life's stress.


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Their new book, "Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors," includes photos of all the paraphernalia that makes up modern family life, including refrigerators covered with magnets and memorabilia.

As Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker, in an article focusing on America's spoiled children:

"After a few short years," the text notes, many families amass more objects "than their houses can hold." The result is garages given over to old furniture and unused sports equipment, home offices given over to boxes of stuff that haven’t yet been stuck in the garage, and, in one particularly jam-packed house, a shower stall given over to storing dirty laundry.

The reasons for amassing all that clutter vary, from parents' desire to compensate for time away from their children to the pressure of consumer culture to the fact that people like to collect things.

"The American workplace is intense and demanding; when we come home, we want material rewards, like people all around the globe," anthropologist Elinor Ochs, one of the book's co-authors, told UCLA Magazine.


"What distinguishes us is the normative expectation of hyperconsumerism," she said. "American middle-class houses, especially in Los Angeles, are capacious; refrigerators are larger than elsewhere on the planet. Even so, we find food, toys and other purchases exceeding the confines of the home and overflowing into garages, piled up to the rafters with stockpiled extra 'stuff.'"


Adding another child to the family produces a 30% increase in the amount of stuff before the child reaches kindergarten, the authors report.

"Many of the kids’ rooms pictured are so crowded with clothes and toys, so many of which have been tossed on the floor, that there is no path to the bed," The New York Times writes, mentioning one child's room that contained 248 dolls.


The authors also counted objects on refrigerators, which averaged 55 and hit a maximum of 166 at one home, though they did not draw any conclusions from the refrigerator clutter. Perhaps the ability to banish all that clutter accounts for the popularity of stainless steel, which does not accommodate magnets.


Does all this stuff make its owners happy? It depends.


Fathers and older children generally were proud of their things, the authors reported. But mothers reported substantial stress.

"It's difficult to find time to sort, organize and manage these possessions," Anthony P. Graesch, another co-author, told UCLA Magazine. "Thus, our excess becomes a visible sign of unaccomplished work that constantly challenges our deeply ingrained notions of tidy homes and elicits substantial stress."


Confess. How much stuff do you have in your home? Does it make you happy or does it stress you out?

Jun 5, 2013 11:08AM
I like a small house with big rooms and not much in them.  I don't like clutter and I've helped people try to throw away their parents stuff and it is heartbreaking exercise and unfair for anyone to have to go through.  It's best to have what you use and what you will love totally, like a piece of art or a lovely garden, but why 300 dolls for a child?  What does that teach that child?  If you put all those dolls with the dolls of several other kids and ask them to sort out their own, would they know which 300 dolls bonged to him or her?  I remember A doll when I was little and I loved it, dressed it, gave her an imaginary life and on and on.  She was a treasure.  What meaning is there to the endless supply of stuff?  If someone went into these people's homes and took a truck load out, NO ONE  would notice. 
May 4, 2013 10:26AM
I love to does my does our son. As you can imagine, that adds up to a lot of stuff! I do like having these items, but it is hard to keep everything you need in a house along with everything you want. Plus, I like things to be very orderly, but the other members of my house don't mind their collectibles being scattered. That can cause issues.
Apr 9, 2013 8:35PM
Back when I had a good job, I used to buy a lot of stuff.  Designer handbags and shoes, nice clothes, nice furniture, beautiful antique china, you name it.  I had a beautiful horse I used to ride in horse shows, and I kept two cats and even the cats had nine big scratching post/trees between the two of them.  It was quite ridiculous.  If I wore a pair of shoes a couple of times and decided they either didn't fit or I didn't like them anymore, I would call my friends and ask if they wanted them.  If they didn't I would give them to a thrift store. For the holidays I would give my friends and family nice gifts.  Four-day Carribean cruises, maybe a diamond bracelet.  Nowadays, with good-paying jobs pretty much being a thing of the past for me (as well as for most Americans), things are different.  Most of what I used to have I have sold on either Ebay or Craigslist, and any gold jewelry I had is long gone, sold for scrap when the price of gold went up and I needed money to pay my house payment.  So I can say that most of the stuff is now gone, and I don't want it back.  I still have a beautiful Japanese Kutani vase, and an antique Kutani nemuri neko (cat) figurine, and I have left it at that, I don't have any desire to acquire any more.  One does not have to own beautiful things in order to appreciate them.  I didn't realize it at the time, but I was on the verge of becoming a hoarder of "things", and I now count it a blessing that times got hard and I had to sell all my "stuff".  Now, when I go into a house where a person has lots of clutter piled onto everything, it tends to make me almost have a panic attack, and I have to get out of there right away.
Jul 24, 2012 4:15AM
God is a god of calm and order.  Until I understood that I was a packrat. The visible rooms of my home all appeared in order.  But what was lurking in the closets and garage and out storage was something else. I had all the craft supplies, the "I'm sure I can do something with that" odd things, the I can fix it or I wilil refini****tuff.  Plastic bins, shelves, labels were what I enjoyed.  One day it just slapped me in the face. The good thing is that our church was requesting items for VBS and I donated all my fabric, construction paper, colored pencils, different types of threads, scissors, glue guns, yarn to them. A family came to Atlanta with almost nothing and I was able to provide them with a lot of the necessary items they needed for their home - from furniture to all kind of household goods. I have set stuff by the side of the road and in just a few minutes it has become someone else's junk.  Goodwill is my friend.  This process has taken a number of years.  I now only buy items for one particular project and only work on that project (crocheting in particular).  When I have completed a project a small swatch of fabric or a small amount of yarn is saved in a sleeve in a notebook with the recipient's name just in case a repair is needed.  Any left overs are donated.  It is not only a physical cleaning but a spiritual cleaning as well.
Jul 22, 2012 5:06AM
It started with a receipt from a doctor's office for our newborn girl.  Just a regular checkup and blood tests.  Not the test results - just the receipt saying what tests were done and hoe much it cost.  I was throwing it away and my wife got irate at me for throwing away "valuable papers".  

Years later, we'd moved into a large house that my mother used to live in.  10 rooms, 4 bedrooms, 2-car garage, full basement and a shed out back.  By then we had two kids.  When they were about 10 & 5, my wife said "maybe we should look at getting a storage space".  All the space we had for just 4 people and it wasn't enough.  That's when I knew something was wrong.

My girls are now 24 & 19.  Their mother left in 2006 and the cleanup began.  It took me 4 years to make most of the house presentable and I'm still working on parts of it - but it's nice to be able to have people over again after nearly 20 years of embarrassment.
Jul 12, 2012 5:47PM

We have A LOT of stuff... And our sons 33 and 36 do NOT want our stuff in today's world.  We and our parents appreciated the memories of our grandparents, parents things and pictures. Our son's have no interest in any of our stuff... I actually think it is sad.... we will be getting rid of it soon


Jul 7, 2012 10:55PM
I just finished reading The Hoarder in You by Dr. Robin Zasio  and it is a wonderful book that will help  those who read it understand themselves and deal with the "stuff" that fills most homes.   You don't need to be in an extreme hoarding situation to get value from the book.  Dr. Robin discusses packrat and cluttering behaviors, too.  And I think it also would be really helpful for those people who have family members or friends who have too much stuff and don't know how to help them.  She is very firm but not judgmental in her approach.  It was interesting and not difficult to read and I've already started using her ideas.  Good luck to us all!
Jul 7, 2012 9:26PM
There's a fine line between pack-rat and hoarder - and that line is crossed when you have to "make a path" through your own home.

Here's an admission of my clutter sins:

My family grew up poor, so we rarely threw away anything. We were never overwhelmed with clothes or toys because we could only afford to buy them twice a year. And then we made them hand-me-downs for the next kid. Our house was too small to have extra clutter, so all of our books were borrowed from the library, and if we couldn't keep something indoors, it went to a small shed outside. (Then we never used it again.) But what we bought, we kept. For a LONG time. Until it fell apart.

I have the keeping part down, but I don't have the "use it until it breaks" part down. Which is why I have 3 blenders, each with a different specification (juicing, blending, and chopping), and four containers of clothes I just don't wear (expensive dresses, thin clothes, fat clothes and seasonal clothes). But my real hoarding sin is my books. I have approximately 30 containers filled with 50-100 books each. I keep planning to have my own house, with my own library, and it's taking me a while to get there. I could give 90% of my junk (barring necessary furniture) away tomorrow, EXCEPT for my dream of a library. It doesn't help that all of the books that I've kept, I've read and liked, so I don't want to get rid of them because I'm a voracious re-reader.

I think almost every person I know has a dream like that. "When I have my own house, I will have a (insert special room here)." Whether it's a game room, a huge walk-in closet for shoes, a studio, a quilting room, a fully tricked out garage, or a library, there's one thing that a lot of us look forward to, and collect pieces for. There's that dream of 80's arcade games, giant chess sets, lighted recesses that display designer footwear, $1000 easels, 10,000 shades of paint and mullioned windows for natural light on all sides, welding equipment and gleaming tools, a wall of fabrics and spools of thread arranged by color, and books, thousands of books, lining floor to ceiling shelves.

I know that simplicity is great, and that clutter is stressful. Heck, tomorrow I have to go through my room and throw away 12 old pillows that I just don't know HOW to recycle but I feel wasteful for tossing. But I never want to give up my books, not just because I've spent so much money to buy them over the course of 15 years, but because they're part of my dream, my home, and every time I see them I feel an intense satisfaction.

There's a good side to accumulation. You just have to choose what you want to accumulate the most, and be prepared to give away everything else. I don't think you have to give up your dream room in your dream home. That serves a purpose. Just keep the rest of the clutter under control.

Jul 7, 2012 8:54PM
About twice a year I clear out old, unused crap and cart it off to Goodwill. 
Jul 7, 2012 8:36PM

Do you have your most valuable things insured? Take pictures of each room with all the stuff in it & then look at the photos...then you'll realize why you can't find anything, you get easily overwhelmed; you get distracted, stressed, anxious, annoyed.  Parents-if your bedroom isn't perfectly neat, you can't ask your kids to clean up their rooms! GoodWill and others are way too full of stuff-call up local churches and shools to see if they can use kids toys, games, clothes, etc. Women's and men's shelters can use all kinds of things-call and find out what they need.

Remember: stuff does not give you kisses and hugs, doesn't say "I love you". I'd rather have a loving man next to me in bed, than all those 6 layers of decorator pillows!

Jul 7, 2012 8:31PM
Between my daughter's stored stuff and my own (mostly useless) stuff, I barely have living space! It stresses me out, because I feel (like the article said) it's a constant reminder of work that has to be done. It makes me tired just looking at it....
Jul 7, 2012 8:30PM
There was a book written years ago named, "Clutter's Last Stand."
If you have too much stuff, buy this book. It will help.

Jul 7, 2012 7:42PM
What I find amazing is they found 3 middle class families to study.
Jul 7, 2012 7:11PM
I have been purging....and the more I get rid of, the better I feel.  You don't own your stuff, your stuff owns you.
Jul 7, 2012 6:52PM

If it's not very useful, very beautiful, or very valuable. . . you can't afford to house it.  And if it's very valuable, but neither useful or very beautiful. . . sell it and bank it.


I lived in a antique teak farmhouse in Thailand in the 70's.  Cathedral high roof, 2" X 10" floor boards ran the length of great rooms. NO furniture, only mattresses that folded against the wall in the bedrooms and an exquisitely crafted teak cabinet on one wall and a larger cabinet on the far wall in the living room.   People gathered on that grand floor.  They ate on the floor in a circle.  Warm and intimate, like about a campfire, talking with each other.   It was like we  were sitting on the floor of a  chapel – in which the architecture is not covered by cheap skins of drywall or paint.  Think grand old barn with enormous, but all wood, members intricately fitted.   If you’ve seen such a place, our skimpy moldings or wood floor tiles look pretty cheap in comparison.

Couldn't our living spaces be as inspiring and peaceful as chapels? 


We think sitting on the floor primitive, etc.  It is hard to start middle aged or beyond. . . . but when I went back to visit that house when I was 30 and the occupants over 70. . . . they were stronger and more agile than I.


My description of waking my very first morning in that house:   “I jumped to a window and pulled the beveled stops grooved smooth from touch.  The shutters swung on wood peg hinges out onto a green glisten of forest, translucent like sunrise through stained glass.  The greenest fruit trees, untamed, pressed toward the sides of the house; a stream flowed behind, and sky-high bamboo swayed beyond all.  That humans could live in such a wildly beautiful place!  I looked back at the room that was too refined to be rustic, but too elemental to be elegant, sensing definitions had shifted overnight,”

There were NO decorations in that house, no pictures, nick knacks etc.  There were tools and baskets of the most exquisite artistry.  , , ,  Which is a movement now in interior decorating.  I read a NY Times article about using ones bicycle as wall decoration in ones apartment.   And if you're a guy who fishes, why not hang the mullet net above the sofa (dried first)???  It is a beautiful work of art.  

Modern architects are trying to get us to live in spaces like this.  Read  “The Not So Big House”  books by Susanka  or “The Very Small Japanese House – ideas for living well in small spaces”    “Pacific Modern” by Baarreneche 

There were no decorations/pictures in that house, only exquisitely crafted tools. The NY Times wrote about  ones bicycle decorating ones apartment.  Why don't fishermen hang their mullet net over the sofa (dried first)?  A finely crafted, beautiful object!

Jul 7, 2012 6:08PM

After 38 years of marriage and never wasting anything...we too are bursting at the seams.  I keep most everything of value that I think someone may need or could use.  Many times it's a blessing, but many times it's stuff kept and stored for nothing.  I am in the process of weeding it out because if anything would happen to the two of us, God help our kids!!!!

Jul 7, 2012 6:07PM
After growing up with a pack rat of a father, I can't deal with too much clutter. I'd much rather spend money on traveling or going out with friends than on meaningless junk anyway. 
Jul 7, 2012 5:17PM

Regarding clothing, unless it has EXTREME sentimental value (wedding dress for instance), if you haven't worn it in a year, get rid of it!  Don't say "oh but I might wear it".  You won't.

Jul 7, 2012 4:56PM
No surprise here. My mom, whom I love, has a shopping problem and when she tires of this or that she gifts it, often to me. I appreciate it because it's Mom's way of letting me know she cares. But I hate it because I have too much stuff of my own! A few years ago I had to move and found bags and boxes of stuff that I have held onto out of guilt. Guilt is only so strong and not strong enough to get me to move all of it. So I took it to Goodwill. And that was the solution to the problem. Now when Mom brings me stuff I'll never use I accept it with a smile and then put it in the Goodwill bag. When the bag is full I donate it. I also go through my house at least twice a year and clear out any useless clutter that has built up. I still have plenty of stuff and my own temptation to buy more, but I'm doing better at asking myself if I will actually use something before buying it.
Jul 7, 2012 4:55PM
This article is so right on, and I do not know what we will do about the problem of having too much stuff...everything works, just out dated...or the result of losing both pairs of parents, or goods our children did not take with them.  I am expecting our daughters respective families will be left with the possibilities...including antiques, coins, other one of a kind items...the many stages of computers beginning in 1965...and the list goes on, and on!  If only we had the good health and the motivation required!
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