Buying less, renting smarter, Part 1

a flea market

My first shrink-slash-astrologer warned me early on that I’m a floaty type.

Which is to say, I enjoy wandering from thing to thing, but this can leave me very, very ungrounded. I think she even suggested carrying around a piece of hematite as a possible solution, and I dimly recall trying it for a bit: I found an old hunk lying around in one phase of The Great Purge of ’09, and dispatched it to Goodwill forthwith.

Anyway, I know that looking at things soothes me and I suspect that having one reason I tend to collect them is that having them around grounds me.

Looking through new-to-me stuff, almost any stuff, from garage sales to flea markets to high-end department stores, is weirdly relaxing and comforting. When I’m browsing the stacks or the back 40 at the Kane County Flea Market or the racks at Bloomie’s, a part of my brain that usually won’t shut up is finally able to, but I also feel deeply cared for. Whereas other wonderful-to-me activities that also shut off that part of my brain, walking on the beach or doing Nei Kung or hooping, for example, are more stimulating than soothing, and still other experiences, like looking at art, are generally stimulating without being soothing.

Since I like these things or like the way they make me feel, it’s really hard not to want to take some home with me. If I feel good in some object’s habitat, it follows that I will also feel good around it when it’s been removed to mine. And sometimes, I do. But often, I do not. This is where the clutter problem lives for many of us, I’m guessing, trying to replicate feelings. (The other part lies in wanting to hang onto them.)

When I am full-on monk, this problem will either go away or I’ll have mad ninja skillz for dealing with it. For now, though, I need to be around stuff sometimes, and I need to have some stuff all the time, in order for my life to work the way I want it to.

The trick, then, for me, is coming up with ways to comfort myself that do not involve the acquisition of stuff I don’t need, even cheap stuff. Because in addition to the cost of acquisition, there’s a cost to maintain the stuff and to get rid of it, even with second-hand stuff, if you’re going to do it responsibly.

The library is a terrific substitution for any browsing because the stuff you get there is the least “sticky”, there are penalties for not getting rid of it! But even renting “for free” from the library comes at a cost: how much time am I spending returning stuff, checking due dates on returning stuff, rounding up stuff to return, etc.? So these are the ways I’ve come up with to minimize library “waste”:

Book in advance. (No pun intended!) The Los Angeles Public Library has a searchable online database you can use to find an reserve books, which are then delivered at no cost to the branch of your choice. When I find a book I know I want to read that looks like it’s been out for a while, I jump on the site, plug in my member number (which I have saved as a keystroke shortcut in TextExpander), and have it sent to me.

Walk to the library. When you live in L.A., you spend most of your mobile time in a giant backpack called “a car.” The combination of picking up reserved books and walking to and from the library to do it has dramatically reduced the amount of books I haul, and is good exercise, head-clearing and better for the environment, as well. I’m really nervous because budget cutbacks have already reduced hours (and salaries, sadly) at my branch, which is older and smaller and likely to be an early candidate for closures. But I’ll cross that bridge when they blow it up. Or something.

Limit browsing time. I used to go earlier in the day (a luxury of the self- or unemployed!). Now I go towards the end of the day, an hour or less before closing time. Which is earlier and earlier with every budget cut.

Keep a dedicated holding area. I wish I could remember where I got this tip, because implementing it has dramatically reduced my late fees. I have one small shelf devoted to library books on loan; the only other place in my apartment they’re allowed to be is on my nightstand.

Manage due dates with a system. Before they moved to a fee model, I used LibraryElf to make sure I didn’t rack up ridiculous overdue rates. Now that I’m bringing in less and reading more, I burn through books quickly enough that it’s not an issue, but if you have problems getting stuff back on time, either a calendar reminder input into your own calendar as soon as you get home, or a LibraryElf subscription, might not be a bad idea.

That’s probably already about as anal as it gets when it comes to a library strategy (although I didn’t get into my Windex-ing the covers upon arrival at home, never know where that stuff has been). But if there are other things I’m missing or could benefit from, I’d love to hear them…


Image by IseFire via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Really interesting, the whole ‘floaty’ thing and your love of browsing.

    I am the opposite — for me, looking through new-to-me stuff (used or new stores, garage sales (especially!), art galleries, science and history museums, etc.) is unrelaxing and uncomforting. It feels cluttery and like a busy too-muchness in my head, just like having too much stuff in my house does.

    One thing we have in common — I love the public library and and use it constantly – almost always reserving online so I don’t have to browse when I get there!

    (An exception to browsing being icky: public gardens. Strolling through gardens and taking in the plants’ sensual qualities, water features, expanses of lawn, etc., IS deeply relaxing for me.)

    1. It’s been a while, but as I recall, public gardens don’t really do it for me. They make me antsy! I’m interested in checking out a labyrinth. No stuff there, but wondering if having an action to concentrate on would stave off antsiness.

  2. Hi Colleen,

    I hope it’s okay to let your blog readers know we’ll be exploring this issue with you–under the umbrella of decluttering–on the April 10th edition of The Career Clinic radio talk show. I’m really looking forward to it!

    So tune into at noon Central on April 10th for what I’m sure will be a fun talk. If you’ve ever heard Colleen speak you know that’s even more enjoyable than reading her blog. You can join the discussion by calling toll-free (888-598-8464)–or sending eMail to

    If you don’t get a chance to listen Saturday the program will be available as a podcast a couple of weeks later, also at

    Keep up the great work, Colleen!


    1. Absolutely, Maureen—thanks for jumping on this to remind people.

      Hey, everyone! Tune in and listen, if for no other reason that there will be some historical significance in my signing on from AN ACTUAL LANDLINE. Remember those? Really? You must be old!

  3. I too have a love/hate relationship with stuff. I browse online but rarely buy. That way I get to look but don’t get the clutter.

  4. Lately, I have found that simply carrying objects around inside the store is quite satisfying to me. A big part of the desire for said object is about touching it and holding it. In the past, that meant buying it, taking it home, touching it at home, then tiring of it and regretting the purchase.

    Now, when I visit a store that has stuff that calls me (rarely, but it does happen), I go right to the department that I like best (usually handbags, shoes, or organizing/storage bins). I select an item and schlepp it around the store. After 15-20 minutes of this, it is much less appealing. I have had my little physical relationship with the thing and can lovingly put it back on its shelf, pat it gently, and say goodbye.

    Occasionally, the items fits so well in my hands, feels so right there, that I take it home. In that case, it has passed some internal test, made it past the first date, so to speak. It goes home and sits on the counter with tags on for a few days. If that feels right, we sign a little prenup and usually live together quite nicely.

  5. I had a great epiphany a couple of years ago, when I walked out of the library with a stack of books and had EXACTLY the same feeling of excitement and satisfaction and anticipation and pleasure that came with walking out of a bookstore with a $200 stack of books. The same has proven true for buying clothes: new versus bought in a consignment shop: it feels just as good to me.

    My library system mirrors yours almost exactly: I use ActiveWords intstead of TextExpander, and a password program called Roboform to get in and out of the library website. I enter due dates into my Outlook calendar (it helps also that libraries now e-mail me due date reminders, although they’re spotty about this) instead of LibraryElf. I also have a few landing pads where books settle.

    Although these are small things, this system of automated tools, on-line access, reminders and collection buckets (to use GTD language) reflects a way of thinking about the physical stuff in my life that has made an enormous difference in my everyday level of comfort and happiness. I’ve paid $18 library fines before, and I’ve bought thousands of dollars of books that I haven’t read, and I’ve been forbidden to borrow books from the library because I haven’t returned the overdue books I have sitting, somewhere, under a pile of crap on a table somewhere. All of that was also part of a way of thinking about the physical stuff in myself that created a general level of misery and anxiety that was awful. It took me an embarrassing number of years to understand how interconnected this is, and why it’s so important to — for example — make sure my kitchen is clean before I go to bed each night and to trust the fact that doing so doesn’t mean that my life is somehow “about” washing dishes. There’s something here, which I think David Allen has put his finger on, about how all of the minute decisions we make about how we handle the details of our lives aggregate into big effects — some with happy outcomes, some with unhappy ones, that’s worth paying a lot of attention to. As you do.

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