You have probably seen a bumper sticker, T-shirt, or coffee mug that exclaims, “He who dies with the most toys wins!” Many people in the U.S. and other first-world nations seem to have bought in to that philosophy to at least some extent.
What does the person who dies with the most toys actually win?
Do you sometimes look at everything you own and wonder how you ever accumulated so much stuff?
If you’re like most of us, you know that someday you’re going to need to downsize. Does the thought of going through all of your possessions and deciding what you will part with excite you about as much as having a root canal?
It seems to me that we spend the first three decades of our adult lives building and accumulating. We save for our first house, and then at various points we move up to bigger, nicer houses. We strive towards nicer cars, more amenities, and a higher standard of living. Then as we approach or reach retirement (and our kids move out, if we’re parents), we suddenly realize that maybe we now own too much.
The amount of possessions we own throughout our lives could probably be plotted as a giant bell curve which reaches its peak sometime between 50 and 60.
In my case, nowhere is this more evident than with my music collection.
Lately, I’ve been pulling CDs from my collection and listing them for sale on Amazon. Some of them have no resale value at all, with dozens or even hundreds of a given title already available on Amazon for as low as a penny. But some of them are worth a few bucks and a few are worth a lot of money. (I’ve sold one for $50.) I’m selling an average of one a day, and it’s nice to see Amazon transfer a few hundred dollars into my bank account every month.
But I’m not thinning my collection to raise money.
Even reclaiming shelf space, which I definitely need to do, isn’t my primary reason.
I’m taking my first baby steps on the long journey of downsizing. I know that someday, probably in about ten years, Jeff and I are going to want to move to a smaller house. We love our current house, but it’s a lot to clean and take care of. A smaller house will reduce our living expenses, as well.
I realize that, compared to most people, my music collection is a bit extreme. I’m a huge fan of jazz and Brazilian music, along with healthy doses of a cappella groups, classic 70s rock, and R&B. Over the years, I have amassed over 4600 CDs, over 1300 vinyl records, about 300 cassettes and some 250 music videos.
Of course, it’s all about who you compare yourself to. Brazilian singer Ed Motta has a record collection numbering over 30,000.
To put my collection into perspective, it adds up to approximately 6000 hours of music. If I wanted to listen to all the music I own in one year, it would take over 16 hours a day, which means I would have to be playing music constantly during every waking hour. That would surely drive my husband crazy … or to divorce court. So, this doesn’t seem like a viable option.
Or, to look at it another way, if I listened to one CD, record, cassette, or video every day, it would take me about 17 and a half years to make it through my entire collection.
Somewhere along the way, something got out of hand.
I got swept up in a collector mentality. If I discovered a new artist, I couldn’t rest until I had sought out everything that artist had released. And of course, many of the accompanying musicians on those recordings had their own albums, so I would set out to discover and acquire them.
The search for obscure, out-of-print recordings was half the fun – or in some cases, almost all of it. Sometimes that record or CD for which I had been searching for months or even years turned out to be rather unremarkable.
Sometimes the pursuit of something brings more pleasure than actually possessing it.
Perhaps at one time I thought that there would be some prize at the end of my journey for having the most awesome music collection. Sadly, there is not. He who dies with the most records and CDs doesn’t actually win anything.
The collector mentality is pervasive across American culture. Whether it is baseball cards, sports memorabilia, autographs, artwork, movies, books, magazines, figurines, Christmas decorations, antiques, plates, coins, stamps, guns, or anything else, many of us have something we collect.
There’s no question that you can derive a lot of enjoyment from these items as you experience them, and there’s pleasure in discovery and pursuit. When we finish reading a book, watching a video, or listening to music, we file it away on the shelf in case we want to enjoy it again in the future. Usually, it just sits there for years.
One justification I held for amassing such a large music collection was that after I was retired, I would have more time to listen to my CDs and watch my music videos. If some day I found myself alone and homebound, at least I would have a kick-ass music collection to fill my days with music and fond memories.
But I now realize that, as much as I love my music, a retirement filled with nothing but listening to my music would be miserable. I also need human interaction, mental stimulation, physical activity, and pursuit of some sort of passion beyond just my music collection.
The first round of thinning out my collection was easy. For several years, I wrote CD reviews – first for my own web site (long defunct) and then for AllAboutJazz.com. I received dozens of CDs to review – eventually more than I could handle. Most of these have never been played since I listened to them to review them, and many were discs that I would never have chosen on my own, so they were easy choices.
For the next round, if I looked at a CD and couldn’t think of any of the songs on it or remember anything about it, then surely I would never miss it.
So far, the first two rounds have resulted in only a few hundred CDs pulled off my shelves to be sold, donated, or simply discarded, depending on their value. What next?
My next criterion will be this: If my house burned down, would I replace this disc? Would I even remember that I had it? If not, it gets disposed of.
Although I am just starting on my journey of paring down my possessions, I am already experiencing mixed feelings. On the one hand, reducing clutter and lightening your load can be liberating. I’ve read about many people who felt better after jettisoning possessions they no longer wanted or needed.
On the other hand, part of me feels like I’m tearing down a structure that I spent years (and a lot of money) building. In some ways, my music collection is a document or soundtrack of my life.
There’s a lot of gray area surrounding sentimental value and attachment simply for the sake of owning.
Some people seem to be able to part with things easily. I realize that maintaining too much attachment to things is materialistic and not very Buddha-like. I recognize that this is a “first world problem” of the highest order. I appreciate that I have been blessed throughout my life to have the discretionary income to be able to purchase a large amount of music.
Ultimately, I think back to a week I spent in my home town in Ohio after my mother died. My sister and I had one week to go through everything in my parents’ house and dispose of a lifetime of possessions. Some mundane items were easy to disposition. Some things they hoarded out of a scarcity mentality, having grown up during the Depression and World War II. But many things, even if they held little resale value, were documents of my parents’ life. I remember feeling that if I threw some things away; it seemed like I was trivializing or dishonoring part of my parents’ lives.
When my time comes, I don’t want to leave a houseful of possessions for whoever comes after me to clean up. I want to clean up after myself. I will never miss many of the things that I have accumulated after they are gone.
But some things do have value as a part of my life. The challenge is to determine the difference.
I have few regrets and I spend very little time wishing I had done things differently. But one piece of advice I would give to my younger self (or to any younger person reading this article) is to be more mindful and judicious about accumulating possessions. If I could go back and change something about my life, I would try to keep that bell curve of the amount of possessions I own a bit flatter.
I spent a lot of money over the years on music and other things that represented little of lasting value; things I probably would have never missed had I not purchased them. I could have used that money to increase my retirement savings, or perhaps to enjoy more travel experiences. I have learned that experiences and memories contribute a lot more to a rewarding, memorable life than mere things.
© 2015 Dave Hughes. All rights reserved.
Attribution is not available for the photos used in this article.