Americans love to watch hoarders. Style Channel's Clean House, the grande dame of hoarding shows, is now in its ninth season, while upstarts Hoarders and Hoarding: Buried Alive are each finishing up their third. With no lack of viewers -- or participants -- it seems likely that TV's parade of packrats will continue for the foreseeable future.
There are many reasons for the growing popularity of these shows, but a large part of the draw is that they act as a distorted mirror for the viewing audience. Compulsive hoarding is not all that common -- U.C. San Diego's psychiatry department estimates that only about 1.2 million Americans suffer from the disorder -- but most families deal with some degree of clutter and mess.
As the experts on these shows often note, there are several health problems associated with clutter and mess, and severe hoarders often struggle to deal with rats, roaches and other vermin. But even apart from these miseries, clutter can be irritating and expensive, as my wife and I discovered.
We battled with clutter for years, but the grand showdown came with a move from a big house in rural Virginia to a tiny apartment in New York. To prepare for the relocation, we drastically scaled down our lives by giving away, selling or throwing out roughly 80% of our possessions. And, once we moved to New York, the weeding began anew, as we decided that we were able to make do with even less stuff. Now, almost four years later, we've picked up a few more things, but have generally managed to keep our lives small and compact. In the process, we've discovered many of the benefits to living light -- instead of large:
Less Cleaning: The first, and most obvious, benefit is that we now spend a lot less time cleaning.
Books, tchotchkes, furniture, and carpets tend to collect a lot of dirt, and sweeping, vacuuming, dusting and polishing them takes a lot of time. By eliminating so much of our stuff, we also eliminated the time that we had to spend taking care of it. Since we don't have a lot of time to spare, cutting down on cleaning has really made our lives a lot easier.
Less Hunting for Stuff: We've also managed to cut down on the amount of time that we have to spend looking for things. After all, fewer possessions translates into fewer places where our things can hide, and thus into less time spent looking for my keys and wallet.
Smaller Utility Bills: Our scads of possessions weren't just expensive when we bought them: To keep them, we had to rent a big house, with lots of space. That house, in turn, had to be heated in the winter, cooled in the summer, and lit almost all the time. Now that we are in a smaller apartment, our electric bill is about a quarter of what it was in Virginia, even at inflated New York utility prices.
More Revenue: In addition to saving money on utilities and time on cleaning, you can also make a lot of cash when you get rid of your stuff. Our first major purge generated more than $2,000, which paid for most of our moving expenses. When we first got to the city, we rented a storage space for some of our things, but later slimming made it possible for us to give that up as well, saving us a further $75 per month.
It isn't easy to bid goodbye to favorite possessions, but we found that most of our clutter wasn't even all that sentimentally valuable. In fact, we had been keeping much of it around more out of habit than anything else. Now that so many of our old college notes, birthday cards, souvenir T-shirts, elementary school certificates of participation, and other assorted detritus have left our lives, we feel slimmer, less weighed-down and ready to face the future. And, in the end, that's infinitely more helpful than dozens of tubs filled with mementos.