Too Much Stuff: For many Millennials, overconsumption in America inspires a simpler approach

By Emilee Robinson and Brittany Wolfe

It was a place where video games and flat screen TV’s weren’t an option. Where Facetime wasn’t a smartphone technology, but talking with another person face to face.

In a village in Uganda, new-world distractions don’t exist, and for a 20-year-old education major at the University of Memphis, the difference in lifestyles was life-changing.

Kaelyn Knight travelled to Uganda last summer for mission work, and a lesson she brought home was that when it comes to materialistic things, living with less means living with more.

“I just kind of watched how people in Uganda interacted with each other and what they did,” Knight said. “They really didn’t have anything, but that didn’t decrease the value of their life. They still were people that were just worthy.”

Kaelyn came home to her four-bedroom apartment in Memphis with this mentality engrained. The obligation to own “stuff” was so evidently lacking in Uganda, but it was flowing out of her closet and into the rest of her small living space. It was then that Kaelyn decided it was time to minimize.

In America, where the average home contains 300,000 different items, an emerging movement called minimalism encourages people to de-clutter as a way to simplify lives, combat stress and anxiety, and avoid debt. In larger urban areas, minimalist gurus like bestselling authors Joshua Fields Millburn, Ryan Nicodemus, and Marie Kondo are attracting legions of followers, while here in Memphis, the movement is just taking hold.

Clutter and overconsumption might seem like surface level problems, but according to specialists, it is exactly these things that overcrowd our minds and potentially lead to mental health issues. When it comes to finances, authors Nicodemus and Milburn learned after years of working in the corporate world that the age old saying “money can’t buy happiness” actually rings true.

More than 68 pounds of clothing per person are tossed in the trash annually in the U.S., according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. In his book on American consumerism titled “Affluenza,”, John de Graaf said that American spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion a year) than on higher education. 

In the documentary “Minimalism: A Documentary About Important Things”, Nicodemus said a culture obsessed with consumption, Americans often don’t realize that their “stuff” isn’t filling the void, so they keep spending. American personal finance website Nerdwallet reports that the average American household is $132,529 in debt.

“Millennials in particular are finding themselves in debt because they are forced into a consumption-obsessed society without first having enough education or experience in the financial world,” said Holly Clark, vice president wealth advisor Regions Bank. “Credit card debt and other finance companies do perhaps feed on less educated consumers in order to make money and encourage high interest rates that in effect wind up hurting the consumer.”

The reasons why Americans buy and keep so many possessions can be emotionally complicated.

Member of the Memphis chapter of The National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO) and founder of Out of the Chaos Creative Organizers Jewell Gatewood encounters clients who collect clutter because they feel emotionally connected to it. For instance, she remembers one person who saved an antique 1908 sewing machine for a great-grandchild who was only 6 years old.

“How could you possibly know if your 6-year-old great-grandson would want a 1908 sewing machine when he grew older? This potential client had an emotional attachment to it and was already transferring the attachment to her great-grandson. Many families get stuck in this cycle and, often, that’s where clutter starts.”

Marie Kondo is the author of the best-selling book titled “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” that helped kick off the minimalism movement in this generation.

“When we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future,” Kondo said.

Jasmin Bradley, a licensed clinical psychologist in Memphis, Tennessee, who specializes in mindfulness, agrees.

“The past and future are incredibly complicated,” said Bradley. “The past is all of our memories that are so convoluted, and the future is all of these ridiculous fears.”

Physical clutter brings mental suffocation and prevents clarity, taking up important space in our lives that ultimately leads to anxiety and stress.

“I think when we have so much stuff, we’re disconnected from the essentials like relationships and love and connection and gratitude,” Bradley said. “We need mental and physical space in order to function in a way that will be beneficial to all of us.”

Meditation and mindfulness, or the capacity to be aware and to notice what is actually happening in the moment, help people accept the past and shape the future, experts say. Mindfulness is also known as the act of judgment free, moment to moment awareness of your body, mind, and surroundings, explains Mark Muesse, meditation expert, Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College, and creator of

Muesse has spent time in India where meditation and mindfulness are prevalent. Back home, he practices mindfulness every day through simple acts like intentionally parking his car far away from his office and walking to work, or pausing from his daily office activities to meditate every time the tower bell chimes outside his window on the Rhodes campus.

 “Meditation is not a magic practice that will completely rid your life of stress and anxiety,” Muesse said. “It is however, a tool that helps you learn to accept them as a natural part of life.”

Muesse, who is still using an old flip-phone with no internet access, says that we give in to the big consumer purchases because we feel inadequate without them, but a few days after the ex
itement of something new sits in, the rush doesn’t last.

“These things don’t make us secure,” Muesse said. “They make us unsatisfied.”




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