mnmlist: the true cost of stuff

by Leo Babauta

Often we think about cutting down on what we buy because we’d like to be frugal, and save money. And I’m all for that.

But there’s more to buying less. Way more.

The cost of purchasing an item just scratches the surface. When we buy something, we are taking it into our homes, our lives, and we are taking on the life of another object in this world.

The life of an object? But surely you’ve gone mad, Leo.

It’s entirely possible I have — I’m talking to myself in this post, after all. But hear me out, O hypothetical reader in my mind.

An object isn’t born in the store. It is born in the woods (if it is wood), in the mines (if it’s metal), in the depths of the world (in the case of petroleum-based products such as plastics, synthetic textiles and such), or perhaps all three places and more if it’s a combination of materials. It’s born when those natural resources are mined or harvested (at great cost and great cost to the environment), and then hauled to a factory somewhere, a factory that pollutes, inevitably. It’s shaped and shifted into its final form (often in various factories), then shipped to various distribution systems and finally to the retailer.

I say finally, but it’s far from final. The life of this object has just begun to enter our lives, even though we’ve already paid for the destruction of our Earth just to own it.

Now we must transport it home, further polluting and consuming and paying — paying for the cost of fuel and maintenance of our transportation, unless it’s human-powered, as well as the cost of time, precious seconds of our lives that we’ll never get back).

All of that spent, it now occupies valuable real estate in our homes (or offices), real estate that could go to living space, or real estate that we could give up if we had less stuff and a smaller home. This is real estate that’s really expensive, btw: we pay exorbitant prices to own or rent a home, and every square foot of that home costs us more precious time that we spend working to earn the money to pay for that real estate. And that’s just for rent or mortgage. Add in the cost of power or gas to heat or cool that home, the cost of maintaining the home, and the time we spend maintaining and cleaning and decluttering and organizing that home and the stuff in it.

And yet, we’ve still only scratched the surface. The item, if it’s electronic, requires power. All the time. The item needs to be maintained. Switched on and off, cleaned, oiled, and caution taken not to break it. These are more precious seconds, precious dollars. If it’s wood or metal or glass, it might need to be polished. It might break a bit and need repairing. We have to store its warranty somewhere, and not forget about that (more mental cycles spent). We might have special tools for it, cleaning products, accessories. All of those require space and care and money.

And yet, we’re not even halfway there. I’ll spare you the rest of the narrative and just make a list.

And this is only a partial list. Some costs of owning stuff:

I could go on, as you can probably tell. There is no way to calculate the true cost of stuff, as it’s way too complicated to put numbers on.

Just remember all of that, when you consider getting an item — even if it’s supposedly free. Nothing is free, when you consider all of the above. Are you ready to deal with the life of that item, and the life you’re going to give up to own it?