The Real Cost of Things: Five Ways You’re Still Paying for Your Own Stuff

One of the reasons it’s easy to acquire a lot of possessions is that we usually only think of the cost of acquisition, not the cost of possession. We see any item at the store marked down to a bargain rate and think, “Why not? It’s only a few dollars.” Or worse, we’re given the option to take something home for free. Who can turn down free stuff?

You can.

Here’s why: Possessions, like people, have needs. They need to be cleaned, stored, maintained, moved and seen. These are the real costs behind the things you own.

1. Clean

A decorative knick-knack on the mantle seems like it’s just sitting there, but every time you go to clean your mantle you have to pick it up and dust it off. As a former house cleaner, I can’t tell you the time and effort difference between cleaning a bunch of decorative items and cleaning a bunch of open surfaces. It’s astonishing. A small house with a few simple decorations can be completely cleaned in two hours. A small house with a bunch of little decorative items everywhere will take more than a day.

2. Store

It may feel like hedging your bets to have a lot of pots and pans, but they all need to go somewhere. You need to make room in the kitchen, which means either cupboards are more crowded than they need to be, things get pushed to another room, or you convince yourself you need a bigger house with a bigger kitchen. But the frustrated feeling of not having enough storage space is not always the fault of the space: sometimes you’re trying to cram too much into it.

3. Maintain

Clocks need to have their batteries changed, and they need to be set forward or back twice a year. Devices need to be charged, and their software needs to be updated. A cast iron skillet needs to be seasoned, a guitar needs to be tuned. Washing machines and dishwashers need replacement parts. Even clothes need to have loose threads cut off occasionally. Everything requires maintenance to remain in good, working condition.

4. Move

After high school I moved seven times in ten years. When you move, every box counts. Every box has to be found or purchased, every box has to be packed and sealed, every box has to go from the house to the truck, every box has to come back out of the truck and into the house, every box has to be unpacked, every box has to be broken down and gotten rid of. That’s at least six annoying and time-consuming steps for every square foot of chattel. Sometimes I think people should be required to relocate every few years just to remind them of all the things they haven’t touched since the last time they moved. Even if you stay in the same house for decades, you’ll probably have to go through at least one or two major remodels or life changes that cause an entire room’s worth of possessions to be moved around.

5. See

This is the most devious cost of them all. We don’t often think about the cost of visual noise, but it exists. Have you ever had an item in your house that didn’t belong there, but took a while to be picked up? Perhaps a friend’s baking dish they left behind or a book you borrowed? Such things tend to sit in the same place for weeks or months, all the while being technically out of place. When they finally leave, there’s a sense of relief. The whole room seems larger, cleaner. It’s the same feeling you get when you take a bunch of icons off your computer desktop, or clear outdated post-it reminders off your desk. Things in our visual field take energy to look at, even if they do nothing else.


Because of these five costs, every item in your home is costing you something at all times. Most of the time this cost is worth it, because the continued value the item brings is greater than the cost. But this is why cheap or free items can be so dangerous. We don’t consider them as carefully, so we end up bringing something home that is a net negative for our lives. When you are thinking about adding something to your home, don’t ask if it’s worth the asking price. Ask if it’s worth the real cost of ownership.


Your Mission:

Next time you’re thinking of making a purchase or accepting a free item, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Where will I store this?
  2. What other things will this item displace?
  3. How hard is it to clean?
  4. Will it cost money to maintain (batteries, replacement parts, filters, etc)?
  5. Will is be a hassle to maintain (updates, long cleaning processes, trips to a specialist, etc)?
  6. Is this a duplicate of something I already own?
  7. Could I wait and get it later?
  8. Will seeing it all the time make me happy?

Good luck!