The True Cost of Ownership

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Minimalism has taken many forms these days. It’s even become a pop-culture trend. I suspect it is partly related to the economic downturn, a newish need to make more from less. For me, minimalism can be broken down into several parts. Maybe some of this will resonate with you. Some write off minimalism as hippy-foo-foo bullshit. Well, let me appeal to minimalism with reason.

By deciding to bring some new thing into your life, you have to calculate whether the gain will offset the cost. This mental process sounds like a pain in the ass, but most of you already do this when making a purchase. That’s how you decide whether the new pair of pants or coffee table or samurai sword is worth the advertised price.

The problem is that, usually, the only cost in this mental exercise that is weighed against the reward is a monetary one. The cost of owning a physical item does not end at the checkout. It echoes forward in time for the entire duration that it’s in your possession.

Here are some examples of forgotten costs accrued when making a purchase:

  • Time/effort required to get to the store
  • Time/effort required to transport the item to its final location
  • Assembly/Activation/Setup
  • Space cost (assuming it’s not digital, it will take up space)
  • Maintenance/Cleaning
  • Relocation/Removal/Disposal (The item is your responsibility until it’s not)

For instance, say you buy or rent a living space. You go a little bigger than you really need because you get a good price on it. Now you have unfurnished space. So you buy a coffee table and a lamp and a chair and call it a reading area or whatever. That’s nice, reading is really good for you, but say you only read at night before bed. In fact, the only time you go into your reading area is to give it a brief cleaning. Years later, you decide to move. Whether you go bigger or smaller, those items must be moved or sold or donated.

From the top down, the costs of owning that extra space is equal to the expense of the additional square footage (including increased rent/mortgage/insurance/property taxes), the added utility cost of heating/cooling the area, the amount spent on the furniture, the time to purchase the furniture, the time spent cleaning the area and its furnishings, and finally the time or money spent on ensuring that the furniture be moved, sold, or donated.

I was once the type of person who bought things because they were a good deal. This led me to buy things I wouldn’t otherwise buy, things with only a single use, and things bought on impulse. I’m pretty sure I’ve even bought DVDs of films I could watch on Netflix just so that I could have them on my shelf. A lot of media shelves are just trophy cases. I once ventured onto eBay and, in a moment of carnal male weakness, bought multiple sets of throwing knives.

There is a psychological cost to ownership as well (beyond the guilt of buying weaponry on eBay). You may experience buyer’s remorse. Items you own must be protected from theft, insured against destruction, perhaps kept away from pets or children. They must accurately represent your personality to friends and guests. If you stop liking an item in your living space, it must be removed and maybe replaced.

My relationship with possessions has slowly evolved and each time I travel I’m reminded of how little I actually need. That is why, the last time I was “home,” I made an active effort to rid myself of all my possessions. Not everything, of course, but I wanted to be able to fit my life into a couple backpacks. Beyond the psychology and wasted resources, fewer things, for me, equated increased mobility.

So a great eBay and Craigslist adventure began, and I sold off everything I could, slowly but surely, over a period of four months. What couldn’t be sold was gifted. And what couldn’t be gifted was donated. I was planning another escape, though in the beginning I didn’t quite know it. I can say first hand that the process was liberating. With each thing that left my possession, I felt lighter, freer, even cleaner. I realized I had been acting as the manager of all of these things. On some subconscious level, they were on my mind, a part of me in some way. And then they weren’t.

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Photo credit: Martin Gommel

About Collin

Collin runs this place and writes everything you find here. He likes to interact with people - so if you talk to him he'll probably talk back.

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8 Responses to “The True Cost of Ownership”

  1. icewater February 15, 2013 at 1:06 pm # Reply

    A sometimes-significant forgotten cost of ownership is the research that goes into making a purchase.

    I’ve recently started making it a point to select high-quality, highly durable goods when buying something. It takes some time to winnow out the good stuff, and you want to be sure you’re getting the right item since presumably it will be around for awhile.

    This can entail dozens of hours of research, even if the actual effort of purchasing is nil (e.g. online).

    • Collin February 15, 2013 at 1:16 pm # Reply

      This is definitely true. Now that I have fewer items in my life, my research-cost has gone way up. I research the hell out of every purchase. Luckily, I don’t have to do this very often. I suppose over time and many iterations, the few items in your life would all become so high quality that you might only be buying a physical product a couple times per year.

      • AY July 30, 2013 at 10:35 pm # Reply

        I agree. After a while you have to keep carrying the stuff from place to place. i was convinced to buy a bunch of things a while back and then when I took off on travel I was now stuck with what to do with all the stuff. Ugh.

  2. noelabelle February 15, 2013 at 2:49 pm # Reply

    This is a great post. I’ll be sharing with my husband. We’re on our own journey to moderating the “stuff” in our life. Hearing your success story is encouraging.

  3. Rachel February 15, 2013 at 5:03 pm # Reply

    Stress factor is another huge thing for me. Think of buying the car over taking the bus. There’s not just the cost (including the unexpected costs like maintenance and licence plates and new tires), there’s also the immense amount of stress and time you have to put into supporting that car. You can’t just hop in and drive to work. You have to wash it, perhaps shovel it out of the driveway, drive, sit in traffic (which is stressful), find parking, worry about how much the next fix will cost, worry about that knocking noise in the front corner, spend time taking it for oil changes when your schedule is already packed, etc. So how much does it REALLY save? When you take the bus, you spend a fraction of the money, you hop on the bus, you don’t have to worry about the stress of driving, and you have the entire time to do something else productive rather than sit and stress about the traffic. You get on the bus and someone drives you and you get off and that’s IT. Why would I EVER want a car? It’s not only more money, it’s far more stress. People seem to think I’m crazy for wanting to take the bus over driving but it’s an immense amount of time, cost, and stress in the end.

    • Anna February 17, 2013 at 5:57 am # Reply

      The stress is a HUGE factor in my life. I felt constantly anxious because of my belongings, which makes no sense to the majority of the population but when I realized that and went minimalist my mind was so relieved and now I have can say I live a calmer and happier life.

  4. Karen February 18, 2013 at 10:47 pm # Reply

    I am so able to relate to this thought process. I want to simplify my life…perhaps not to the same same extreme as others, but more than most are willing. It is a difficult process when you have strong connections to other people.. you must be on the same page and that is unusual. I keep hoping….
    I am tired of noise, bills, insurance, plastic, garbage, junk mail, trendy jewelry, trendy clothes, house space never used, and not being able to get outside and away from it all often enough. One must make a living, but for what are we working? It all seems pretty futile most of the time. Truly, “There must be more to life than this”, as it has been said.

  5. steve rose February 19, 2013 at 7:56 am # Reply

    Thank you, Collin. Well done. When I was your age I did a similiar retreat..not traveling far and wide but to a Native American community and I came away with a more minimalist resolution….I will only posses/collect memories and friends in this lifetime. Funny how well mom falls in both classes.

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