Our Addiction to Acquisition

The world seems to be much smaller than it used to be; the same is true of our living space.  I think we humans have a problem with buying and collecting too much.  Two questions baffle me, even after all these years of handling estates:

Why do we collect so much stuff?

What possesses us to continually buy things we don’t need, don’t use, and eventually become a monkey on our backs or a burden to loved ones?

In order to understand, we must go back into our long-ago and far-away to understand our ancient ancestors.  My very unscientific and unproven theory is that, as far back as caveman days, we were hardwired to hunt and gather.  Fast forward to the 21st century.  We don’t have to hunt any longer and it requires no effort or discipline to acquire things.  We’ve become extremely proficient at gathering too.

People have truly become anchored by spending and acquiring stuff.  For some, they become emotionally paralyzed in trying to let go of stuff.  Stuff weighs people down, as I see so often in my work.

Now we have so much stuff, many people are about out of money or in great debt.  When they sell some of what they acquired, they get upset when they can only regain a fraction of what they paid.  As we let go of some stuff (that on some level we equate with success), we go through a very real fear that we won’t be able to replace it one day.  What was once a comfort is now headed out the door.

To some people, acquiring things is a hobby.  For others, it is an obsession.  Yet our lifestyles are so different today; many are downsizing because they don’t want their possessions holding them back.

Here’s a history lesson on the acquisition of and attitude towards stuff:

We know the Depression Era folks rarely thew anything away.  This behavior is ingrained in them to never go without again, having survived such challenging times.  This generation has a tendency to go overboard on “stocking up,” a fear based response.  This is also a psychological decision which brings comfort, since everything is close if they need it.  As a sign of success, they are proud of their possessions, because during the Depression, they did without them.

This may explain why they keep leather straps, old shoelaces, myriad Cool Whip containers, mayonnaise jars, aluminum pie tins, pantyhose, pencil nibs, and enough rubber bands to stretch around the neighborhood.  They also collect canned foods because “you never know when you are going to need them.”

The older Boomers are so traditional and as loyal as their parents; they generally have a difficult time letting go of stuff.  They may feel a profound sadness in letting go of previous generations’ things, even as they realize the younger generation no longer wants these things.  They are in the middle of making tough decisions to keep or sell these items.

This generation is responsible for keeping storage companies in business.  But they don’t realize the items in storage lack the value of what they are paying for the storage costs.  They live with high hopes that their children will change their minds and keep these things, and even higher hopes that their grandchildren will want them.  If I was a betting woman, I would say, “NO, they will not change their minds.”

The younger boomers are still somewhat traditional, but generally do not feel the pressure to hold on to these things.  This generation can let go much easier.

Enter the young generations X and Y.  I can’t say much that would surprise you.  They have little sentimentality.  They seem to not have a desire for things of any kind, except what you can buy in IKEA.  This generation would never understand the concept of keeping furniture for decades, or covering every table surface with trinkets.  Theirs is a much simpler world.

They acquire virtually.

We acquire physically.

Do you see the huge division of thoughts, beliefs, and emotions causing problems in the market?  We have too much supply and not enough demand from the younger generations.

What do you think will become of our antiques and collectibles with the passage of time?

©2014 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising. http://www.TheEstateLady.com  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation. http://www.aselonline.com.

No part of The Estate Lady® blogs, whole or partial, may be used without Julie Hall’s written consent.  Email her at Julie@TheEstateLady.com.

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‘Til Death Do Us Part

Most of us enjoy hearing those words during a wedding ceremony, where the new couple is floating in bliss and envision being by each other’s side until death separates them.  From my perspective, however, I see people who have a very passionate relationship with their material possessions, sometimes more so than each other!  If I didn’t know better, I would say they behave as if they can take their possessions with them when they leave this earth, but we know that we can’t take stuff with us.

I have seen it all.  In all those years of estate work, I have tried to figure out why people have such a hard time “letting go.”  Often, the Depression Era generation is the one that has accumulated the most, in my experience.  Their parents did not have much and probably possessed more utilitarian items because of the era in which they lived.  When their parents passed away, they did not distribute or sell those items … they absorbed them.  The boomers have multiple generations of stuff to deal with when their Depression Era parents pass away.

Here are a few thoughts on why people hold on to so much:

  • You just never know when I’m going to need this.
  • There are so many things I could use this for.
  • If I hold onto it long enough, it will become valuable.
  • It is already old, so it must be valuable.
  • I did without as a child and I will not do without again.
  • It was a gift and I will honor the giver by keeping it.
  • The more I leave the kids, the more they will have.
  • I worked very hard for these things and I will pass them down.
  • They bring comfort and familiarity.
  • Sentimental reasons.
  • Too overwhelmed to let it go — emotional attachment.
  • I’ll let my kids deal with this after I’m gone.

As an appraiser of residential contents, this is the part where I try to put my clients at ease.  When in doubt, always have the contents of an estate appraised prior to distributing or selling contents.  Most times, the heirs are not surprised to learn that much of what mom and dad amassed doesn’t have much value.  Some children feel that items might be “junk” and some pieces do turn out to have significant value, pleasantly surprising them.  Family stories through the years can add to the anticipation that great-grandfather’s chair is more valuable because it is so old, but age is not the only factor of value.  There are many more characteristics of value we look at to determine it’s worth.

Another important issue that the older generation should realize is that many of their heirs already have houses that are full of accumulation from 25+ years of marriage.  Adding more stuff will only fuel marital strife.  I’ve seen divorces happen over keeping too much stuff.

Some kids keep items to sell, others for sentimental reasons. others because they feel guilt because “mother would kill me if I didn’t keep this.”  The younger generation appear to want nothing but cash assets.  Even if your children do take a few items, their children definitely don’t want them now, and most likely will feel the same in the future.  They are not interested in antiques or traditional possessions when they could take the cash and go to IKEA or Pottery Barn.  This is the trend.

Holding on to possessions because you don’t want to let them go will leave a massive burden on your children.  Gifting now and making plans for the distribution of your possessions while you are still here (and in control of those decisions) is the best plan of action.  Take it from one who knows!

©2013 The Estate Lady®

Julie Hall, The Estate Lady®, is the foremost national expert on personal property in estates, including liquidating, advising, and appraising. http://www.TheEstateLady.com  She is also the Director of American Society of Estate Liquidators®, the national educational and resource organization for estate liquidation. http://www.aselonline.com

A Spontaneous Invitation Changed My Outlook on Life

It was a spontaneous invitation from my mother to attend their senior holiday dance and party.  I was out of state visiting them and I obliged her request.  How much fun could it really be with everyone so advanced in years?

The club house was nothing fancy — reminiscent of a church basement or school gym, devoid of color, with few decorations.  In front of the small Bingo stage sat the collapsible sound system from the hired DJ, complete with a disco ball spinning crystal dots on the walls, and a lighted 3-foot Santa next to his unit.  The floor was exceptionally shiny, as if someone had spent hours buffing it to perfection for dancing.

The 40 seniors waited in line for cafeteria style dinner of roast beef, green beans, and a roll.  Dessert would be homemade cakes from the neighborhood ladies, served on styrofoam plates.

During our meal, the DJ came alive, obviously loving his job.  The beat from Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” was evident in my tapping feet, shoulder motions and bobbing head.  Was that ME actually having fun?  The fun was just beginning.

Mesmerized by the fantastic selection of 40’s and 50’s music and jazz beats, the seniors suddenly came alive.  Some with canes, others with oxygen, still others afflicted with heart disease — it didn’t matter to them — they got up and started dancing like they were young again.  Before my eyes, the music became their magic.  Transported from 2009 back to the 1940s, the hands of time literally spun backwards to return them to their prime in life.  This was their night and they proudly took ownership.

The most moving part of the evening was how they looked at each other.  Couples married for 50-60 years still gazed upon each other with love and affection.  I even caught a glimpse of an 80 year old man stroking his wife’s face while they danced, and I had to hold back the tears because I knew she was fighting an illness.  This, I thought, was true commitment. 

They had survived the Great Depression and a devastating world war.  They were fiercely loyal, still loved America, and always had a strong work ethic.

For one night, for a few hours, they didn’t care about their diseases, ailments, aches, and pains.  They only wanted to let their hair down and have a memorable time.  There I sat, in love with each of them for the way they treated each other with smiles galore, twirling about as if today were their last day on earth.

The thought crossed my mind, as it probably did theirs, that their time is indeed limited, for some more than others.  How could they dance and enjoy fellowship with such carefree smiles and attitudes?  Because they love life, and offered each other the best gift anyone could possibly receive … the gift of simple joy. 

I found myself deeply moved by what I saw that evening.  Ours has become a world of convenience, and often inconvenience.  A place where people are always asking, “What’s in it for me?”  A place where we don’t see as much care and concern for each other as was in our parents’ generation.  I felt like Ebenezer Scrooge visiting a strange time and place, who saw the light and understood the meaning in the few hours they allowed me to share with them.

Our seniors truly are our greatest asset and we have much to learn from them!

© 2009 Julie Hall

A Nickel, An Orange, and Newly-Soled Shoes

Ever since I was a little girl, I have listened to stories my father told about the Great Depression.  Admittedly, I only half listened because I had trouble believing the stories of trudging through 5 miles of snow to school every day.  Surely, he must be exaggerating.  Like any typical teenager, I dismissed him as a reminiscent parent who was living in the past.

Now my father is an old man and I am a middle aged woman.  His memory is fading, and I deeply regret that I did not listen more attentively as he told the stories of his life.  One, in particular, stands out.

During the Depression, “there wasn’t much of anything for anyone,” Dad always said.  Dad remembers Christmas as a particularly difficult time, since there was no money for gifts.  He recalls how he and his siblings would pester Grandpa for a Christmas tree.  Grandpa would go out late on Christmas eve in the freezing cold, when all the good trees were gone and prices were slashed.  A pathetically skinny tree, missing most of its needles, would come through the door with Grandpa.  The kids didn’t mind; the tree was beautiful to them.  It was decorated with whatever was in the house.

Christmas morning brought other surprises.  Each child was given one of their own stockings that contained a new nickel, an orange (which was very hard to find) and their old shoes that Grandpa had resoled from scrap leather he found.  Ponder the scene.  Simple, meager offerings to these children, who were overjoyed by them.

Each child cherished that orange, savoring its’ juices, and took a long time to eat it.  The children didn’t demand new shoes, but were very happy to have new soles to make them last “a little longer.”  And, the new, shiny nickel was rarely spent — it was too pretty to blow it on anything.  This was a time to be utilitarian and resourceful.

Today, we look at how far we have come and how much we have changed.  While we are fortunate to have so much and to not be in a Depression, we really have no idea where our economy will take us.  Anger, frustration, and fear prevail among us, just as it was back then.

What makes our parents’ generation different from ours?  They simply found a way, out of necessity, to make it work.  They put food on the table and kept the family together.  Their thoughts would never be on flat screen TVs, new cars, and Blackberries or Wii systems, even if they had them back then.  They simply did without.  And they survived to tell us about it.

So when you are opening your gifts this holiday season, imagine an old tattered stocking, filled with a nickel, an orange, and newly-soled shoes.  Simplicity is a beautiful thing!

© 2009 Julie Hall