A recent Tumblr post reminded me of one of the reasons that people who aren’t packrats don’t understand packrat behavior. Packrat behavior is sometimes clinically defined in terms of controlling anxiety. The biggest anxiety in question, and the one we mention least often, is economic anxiety. And the thing about economic anxiety that is most misunderstood is that it is not irrational.
Tumblr user Ignescent explained it really well:
This really locked into my brain when I was reading one of the declutter your space things and it suggested getting rid of duplicate highlighters and pens. /Pens/. It suggested that you needed one or two working pens, so if you had extra you should get rid of them. That was when I realized minimalist living was /innately/ tied to having spare money, because the idea was, of course you just went out and bought the single replacement thing whenever the first thing broke. You obv. Had the time and money to only ever hold what you needed that moment, because you could always buy more later.
There were several years of my life when every single dime of every paycheck was already allocated before I got it. This wasn’t because I was bad at money management or because I was living above my means (at least not the way that people who like to throw that phrase around use it) or because I was lazy, it was because I made very little money, period. I was attending college part time and working three jobs (three jobs). My mom was working full time (when for health reasons she shouldn’t have been working at all), lived in another state, and was trying to support my younger sister. My parents had been divorced for years at that point and one of my dad’s least awful behaviors was that he absolutely refused to even fill out financial aid forms for any of his five children, let alone send any support that wasn’t ordered by a court.
In that situation, any unexpected expense—no matter how small—meant skipping at least one meal during that pay period. I’m not exaggerating. At least half of my meals at the time were things like cheap boxed macaroni and cheese. Not the “expensive” kind with a picture of orange sauce-slathered pasta on the box. I’m talking the plain white box with black block printing that sold for 20-cents a box (and about four or five times a year would go on sale for 10 boxes for a dollar, so you’d buy five bucks worth when it did because that meant you had a cushion in case of an unexpected expense later).
And a good portion of my childhood was spent with our family living like that. I talk about the bullying in school, but that wasn’t the only horror that school sometimes visited upon me. You don’t want to know the terror and humiliation that comes over a kid from a struggling family if you are informed that this next assignment requires your parent to buy something unexpected. Or that there is a $10 fee required for this class activity that is part of your grade.
So, yes, when Michael and I were loading the last of the Christmas decorations out of the storage space at our old apartment this weekend and I discovered yet another old monitor that we had wrapped up and stashed when we replaced it years ago, I felt a bit of embarrassment, because that meant we had a total of six old monitors to get rid of, instead of the two that we had thought just a week ago.
But another part of me knew why it was there. Because things break. You have the money now to buy that new monitor you’ve been pining after for months, and you’ve double-checked, triple-checked, and quadruple-checked your bank accounts and all of your bills for the next few months before spending the money (because you always do that before spending money), and it’s nice and pretty and so much better than this old thing you probably should have replaced a year ago.
But you do not, repeat, do not dispose of the old monitor. You don’t donate it to charity. You sure as heck don’t throw it away! You put it away, because if some disaster happens and your shiny new monitor gets fried when lightning strikes your building (it happened to my ex- years ago, one lightning storm and half of her electronics were fried) or whatever, you can pull that old monitor out of the basement and keep working for however long it takes to save up to buy a replacement.
Yes, sometimes when we replace an appliance or a computer part or accessory, we will pass it on to a friend we know needs it. But the reason we are able to do that? Is because we know that we still have the older one that we replaced four years ago in storage, so if something goes wrong for us, we have that back up.
It doesn’t matter that for years I’ve been lucky enough to have relatively stable employment and the wherewithal to cover my bills without worrying about skipping meals if a tiny unexpected expense comes up. It doesn’t matter because I know I’ve had to live that way before, and I know that it could happen again. It isn’t about an irrational fear or lack of planning.
It is planning.
There are checklists in the back of my mind all time: do we have enough food in the cupboard to make meals for the next couple of weeks? Do I know which bills I have to pay in the next two months and the approximate total to cover them? Is the gas tank on the car full? Did I pay up the Orca card so my bus pass will work for the next two weeks? If the microwave or stove break do I have an alternate/backup means to cook until we can get something replaced or repaired? And yes, if my pen runs dry when my rent is due, do I have backups so I don’t have to make time to go buy a replacement before I can write the rent check and hand it in on time?
Those aren’t silly, or paranoid, or stupid fears. My living spaces haven’t been cluttered my whole life because I have a sloppy mind.
I understand that there are hidden costs to the packrat behavior. I know that storing all these extra things is using up space that could be used for something else. Packing items super tight into every available nook and cranny means you have to spend more time later looking for something. It can mean that you aren’t aware of a physical problem with part of the house because you can’t see that back wall over there and don’t know that some water damage happened because the neighbor tried to fix a sink themselves rather than call a professional, and they cleaned up their side, but not before some seeped through to your wall.
And I right now I am hyper aware of how much extra time, effort, and money it takes to move (or sort through and dispose of) all that extra stuff that I’ve been storing all this time.
Knowing this makes it a little easier for a time to tamp down that chorus in the back of my head that speaks in the voices of my grandparents and great-grandparents about not getting rid of things that we might need some day.
The truth is that the chorus isn’t wrong. We might need that some day.
I say this because I don’t want my recent self-deprecating comments about my packrat tendencies to be taken as justification to upbraid anyone for being a packrat. It’s one thing for me to decry my own issues, but it’s important to remember that the “ideal” uncluttered minimalist lifestyle is a product of economic privilege that not everyone has. Scolding someone for not being able to achieve it is just as wrong-headed as blaming young people for not owning a house on the occasional purchase of avocado toast.