Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Self Storage Units Overflow Our Borders

Because I've been reflecting recently on the circumstances that led to writing my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff , I decided to revisit an issue that plagued our household for several years but ultimately provided a great incentive to unload excess stuff: renting a storage unit (or, for awhile, more than one, I'm embarrassed to say).

Renting storage space is generally one of the most useless expenses anyone can add to the household budget. I'm hard-pressed to come up with a legitimate reason for it, except for those rare instances when the rental facility is truly a temporary or seasonal solution to a storage problem. Temporary does not mean forever; that would be permanent. So, if you have stored something for longer than a year (a very generous length of time), it is probably no longer a temporary arrangement. If you haven't accessed what you have in storage during that year, unless you were off having a fine old time touring the continent (or facing the challenge of serving our country abroad), it's pretty safe to conclude that you don't need what you've stored. That means it's time to unload the burdens of the storage unit and all of its unnecessary contents.

Please don't think you're excused from taking action because rental storage has allowed you to keep your home nice and neat (really?) and "absolutely everyone" is storing their stuff in rental units. Well, you are correct about the popularity of self storage. Take a look at the following information and see if you agree that your personal storage situation reflects a general pattern of excess consumption of useless stuff.

Last year I obtained some statistics from the Self Storage Association that showed that their industry has grown about 9 percent every year for the past 20 years. In 2005, more than 2,800 new self-storage facilities were constructed across the land.

I went back to the Self Storage Association website today where I learned that they are celebrating their 32nd anniversary. They were founded in 1975, after a long period of growth and prosperity in our country that encouraged accumulation of consumer goods. The Association now serves owners and operators of . . .

". . . some 20,000 facilities in the United States. SSA is affiliated with 22 U.S. state and regional associations and 13 international self storage associations that represent another 15,000 facilities worldwide . . . . International members that utilize the services of the SSA come from 19 nations, including Canada, twelve European nations, Australia and Japan."

Yes, the self storage phenomenon and the excess stuff accumulation problem are international in scope. In addition to the state links, the site provides a link to the affiliated Federation of European Self Storage, founded in 2004:

"Its current membership includes the national associations of Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, The Netherlands, Czech Republic and the United Kingdom. It is hoped that associations from Austria, Ireland and Norway will join in the foreseeable future."

There is a link to Self Storage of Australasia:

"The Self Storage Association of Australasia represents over 800 facilities across Australia and New Zealand, representing approximately 90% of the storage space in the region . . . . [self storage] is one of the fastest growing industries in Australasia, with around 20% growth in the last three years."

And the Canadian Self Storage Association link indicates that there are 2800 facilities served.

If it's true that "as America goes, so goes the world," our stuff-accumulating habits already seem to have had quite an influence on the majority of industrialized societies. We've encouraged tremendous growth, not only in the consumption of goods, but in a business devoted to building nothing but empty rooms to hold all of the things that we can’t cram into our homes.

I have no doubt that there are occasions when the hard-working members of the Self Storage Association provide a valuable service, but the fact that a phenomenon that most often simply reflects acquisitiveness is spearheaded by the example of our country doesn't exactly fill me with patriotic pride.

I'd much prefer to have our country demonstrating to the rest of the world that it's not necessary for our citizens to own so much stuff that we can't even live with all of it. It would be more appealing to me if we presented ourselves as a society capable of providing basic needs to all of our citizens, not a society that calmly accepts the grotesque extremes of wealth and poverty that currently coexist throughout the nation.

Readers, we know we don't need most of the things we have stored, and there are so many others who do. Let's open up those storage units and let go of all that stuff! Otherwise, maybe we should just start identifying most instances self storage as exactly what they are: "selfish storage." Ouch.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Subscribers: Recently, I was as surprised as you were to receive several old posts from "The Thoughtful Consumer's" archives. Once again, we have proof that technology is not perfect. I accidentally triggered the re-sending of some old posts in the past, but I plead "not guilty" this time. Also, my last post about my interview on BlogHer.com did not go out to all subscribers. Feedburner, my distributor, notified me that the problem has been corrected, but I apologize if any of you were inconvenienced. If you are a new subscriber and hadn't seen the older posts, I hope you enjoyed them. If you missed the post about the interview, please take a look at it. Thanks.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Interview on BlogHer Website

I was pleased when Nina Smith, the "Business, Career & Personal Finance" blogger at the BlogHer website, invited The Thoughtful Consumer to be interviewed as part of an on-going series about personal finance called "Ten Money Questions for . . ." My interview was posted today. Here's the link:

http://blogher.org/node/21300

BlogHer is an interesting site that I discovered just a few months ago. It offers a wide-ranging choice of topics and intelligent posting, at least on the few blogs that I've read. In addition to Nina Smith's blog, I recommend the blogs by Kim Pearson (Law, Media & Journalism) and Catherine Morgan (Health & Wellness).

You're welcome to comment on my interview here or on Nina's blog.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Thank You, Readers

Before this month of June slips away, I'd happily like to acknowledge that it marks the one-year anniversary of the publication of my book, Sorting It Out: One Disorganized Woman Solves the Problem of Too Much Stuff. Thank you, readers, for your support over the past year. I've enjoyed hearing from many of you and I hope you've found that this blog offers you further inspiration to continue your efforts to unclutter and simplify your lives.

I wrote Sorting It Out because I realized that I finally needed to confront my attachment to my stuff and pare down my possessions. Writing helped clarify the process I was going through and, as I've often joked, it was cheaper than therapy. It also allowed me an opportunity to offer solutions to my readers from a uniquely sympathetic point of view. I've had to face the boxes of ancient tax receipts, the crowded clothes closet, the sentimental family heirlooms, and I've learned how to let go of most (no, not all) of the unnecessary things. When I say that I know it can be difficult, but it's worth the effort, I speak from personal experience -- ongoing personal experience, because the influx of stuff doesn't stop once you've "caught up." It's a constant challenge, but it can become a manageable one.

"The Thoughtful Consumer" blog often tackles larger issues than the uncluttering specifics covered in my book, but I think it's important for all of us to remember the big picture. Our society is so stuff-oriented that it's easy to forget that our overcrowded homes and the problems they present us don't exist in a vacuum. And because we're constantly bombarded by advertising that says we need more, we should have more, we'd be much happier if only we would get more, it can be a challenge to support a position that is the exact opposite of that prevailing "wisdom."

Understanding that our individual choices have ramifications that affect other inhabitants of our planet and the planet itself can help keep us motivated to make the changes we need to make, not only for our own peace of mind, but because we want to do something positive for the world. Those choices are not always the same for everyone, but awareness is the first step that can take all of us down a more sensible, sustainable path.

Thanks, book and blog readers, for walking the path with me.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Small House, Big Benefits?

Most of us who are fortunate to have enough to be considered at least "middle class" are aware of the fact that we can live with less than we own. In fact, many of us did just that prior to reaching our current level of comfort. Usually we got where we are by working hard, working long hours, sometimes working two jobs (or our parents or grandparents did so on our behalf).

But we believed that we needed "more" and we were willing to do whatever was necessary to achieve "more." A bigger place to live was often at the top of the list. We wanted more space so that we could . . . what? Fill it up with more stuff? That's the way it's worked out for many of us, and it hasn't been a particularly satisfying experience. Often, it's backfired big time and now we're trapped by our possessions, figuratively and sometimes even literally, in homes that function as emotional and financial prisons rather than the havens they are meant to be.

What if we decided instead that we wanted more free time and more cash in the bank? Would we be willing to give up more house? Obviously, not everyone can scrunch down comfortably into a minuscule living space, but for some intrepid avant garde members of the small house revolution, a tiny living space is their ticket to freedom.

The Small House Society is not kidding when they say "small." Jay Shafer, one of the co-founders, is featured in AmericanProfile.com, chatting about how happy he is in his one hundred square foot home in Sebastopol, California. One hundred square feet is the equivalent of a ten-by-ten bedroom in a typical bungalow. That's definitely not a whole lot of space. Jay is a designer, writer and professor specializing in sustainable housing and urban architecture. He runs Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, the source of general information, building plans and books about his "compact" houses.

John Edmunds lives in a six hundred square foot house in Cloudcroft, New Mexico, a result of quitting his corporate job and deciding to live a more economical life. His website, DreamSmall, shares interesting stories and comments from contented owners of small living spaces.

An NPR "All Things Considered" story by Cheryl Corley features not only Greg Johnson, President of the Small House Society, but also Mississippian Julie Martin. Ms. Martin's home was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the housing situation throughout the entire gulf area is still abysmal. But Ms. Martin worked with Schafer to develop and license a Gulf Coast Model small house especially designed to withstand hurricanes. She calls it an "anti-FEMA trailer." It's a unique and practical solution to an incredibly difficult situation. (Check out this related article by Craig Le Moult for Columbia News Service not only for its small house information but also for a great photograph of the tiny houses built in San Francisco after the disastrous 1906 earthquake.)

The NY Times has an article by Bethany Lyttle which also touts the merits of a small house as a second home. The use of pre-fabricated or even completely pre-built models makes "choosing a house start to resemble buying a car." Well, let's hope it's not as traumatic as that can be!

The Small House Society website makes clear that small is relative: "The Small House Society is a voice for the Small House Movement. That movement includes movie stars who have proudly downsized into 3000 square feet, families of five happy in an arts and crafts bungalow, multifamily housing in a variety of forms, and more extreme examples, such as people on houseboats and in trailers with just a few hundred square feet around them. Size is relative, and mainly we promote discussion about the ecological, economic and psychological toll that excessive housing takes on our lives, and what some of us are doing to live better. It's not a movement about people claiming to be 'tinier than thou' but rather people making their own choices toward simpler and smaller living however they feel best fits their life."

So, even if you are quite certain that there's no way you would choose to live in truly diminutive housing, it's an interesting exercise to try to figure out just how small your home could be and still contain everything of importance to you. Is it possible that a relatively pint-sized house could pay off in enormous benefits to you and your family? Would you feel confined or liberated? One thing is certain: you'd have absolutely no room to accumulate excess stuff, but you'd definitely accumulate plenty of interesting memories.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Shopper's Compassion Fatigue

"Compassion fatigue" is a term applied most often to caregivers who have what most of us would call burnout. (Clinically, compassion fatigue is considered a secondary traumatic distress disorder as opposed to the type of stress that the term "burnout" usually implies.) Doctors, emergency workers, police, firemen, clergy, and relatives who are caregivers for seriously ill family members can all be affected by the relentless needs of the people they are trying to help. Who wouldn't run out of steam when serving in such a demanding role? But it turns out that the public as a whole can be affected by it, too.

An NPR.org report by Jeffrey A. Dvorkin about the excellent "All Things Considered" coverage after Hurricane Katrina found that while many listeners appreciated the fine work of the journalists, other listeners said, essentially, enough already with the devastation. Those listeners had hit the wall and simply couldn't muster another iota of compassion, even though there's no doubt that they were intellectually aware of the continuing reality of the horrible situation. It wasn't just Katrina that had worn them, and all of us, down; it was 9-11, the tsunamis, Iraq, Darfur, and so many other crises, including local issues.

I wonder if we're at risk of a sort of shopper's compassion fatigue, too. How many of us are trying to balance of the demands of just getting through the day with our desire to make thoughtful purchases? A simple grocery list can become a veritable minefield of potential decision-making challenges. Organic? Toxic chemicals? Fair trade? Health considerations affected by fat grams or carbs or allergic ingredients? Manufacturing processes? Recyclable packaging? Child labor? Vegetarian or not? Vegan? Employee benefits by the manufacturing company or the store where we're shopping? And at what price do our choices become unaffordable? Enough already with the thoughtfulness! At some point all you want to do is be able to make dinner.

So, let's take this moment to remember that it's okay to give ourselves a break. No one can possibly sort through, let alone assimilate, so much consumer information and then always make flawless buying choices. It's overwhelming.

Instead, let's take a more reasonable approach that will help you (and me) stay calm. First, let's remember that eliminating the unnecessary stuff in your home is a big mood booster. Not having to deal with a cluttered environment gives you breathing room, literally in your home and figuratively in your head. An uncluttered mind is better able to make informed choices.

When making those informed choices, the only rule is, "Do the best you can." If it's too much to tackle every issue that you know is "important" to you and your family's health and the survival of the planet (talk about pressure!), pick just one. And maybe pick just a small portion of that one issue that you'll work on. Maybe you'll decide to buy organic peanut butter. Period. Good for you!

Every tiny step in the right direction helps move us all forward. Let's just be careful to avoid that big wall up ahead.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob