NBC 'Nightly News' contributor
updated 11/9/2010 10:23:25 AM ET 2010-11-09T15:23:25

Walking through my Bronx neighborhood one day recently, I came upon a sidewalk strewn with family photos of vacations past, trophies, needlepoint pillows and knick knacks. I asked the apartment maintenance man putting out the trash who it all belonged to. He said an old lady had  passed away and nobody wanted her things.

It affected me deeply.

So this is what happens to our stuff when we die—we get curbside real estate while waiting for the garbage man to come, or space on a truck bound for The Salvation Army store. Either that, or our belongings will go to adult children who end up fighting over great grandma’s furniture, and then feel guilty about giving any of it up.

These thoughts forced me to confront the flotsam and jetsam piling up in my own home.

I have been trying to de-clutter my apartment—deciding what should stay or go. I wanted space and light…room to think and time spent not maintaining my things. Did I need the old remote controls in the junk drawer? A mobile phone from 1999 (just in case?). The process wasn’t easy, but it was enlightening. It occurred to me that as I did better in life—made more money or moved into bigger homes—the more the closets filled or the cabinets overflowed. That’s no surprise to most people who have garages where the car can’t fit. But I discovered something else: The things I couldn’t bear to part with were acquired when I was broke. These simple items were purchases made on layaway, paid for with cash before I had a credit card, and carefully considered. Among the things I saved: a now-threadbare blue and white blanket bought at Target in 1994. I love that quilt. I visited it in the store several times before I could save enough to buy it. At the time, $62.00 was a fortune for me. I’ve also saved a collection of vintage clothes and purses salvaged from the 4th Avenue thrift shops near where I used to live in Tucson, Arizona.

I got rid of so much in my clutter clear-out and sadly realized a lot of what came easy in recent years held no emotional connection for me—and, in fact, it was rarely used. I felt wasteful and guilty… having spent more time at stores like Home Goods rather than at home.

Like a lot of people I know, I’m trying to change my ways when it comes to consumerism. I like to shop as much as the next gal, but have you noticed how hard it is to make decisions in some stores? The AMOUNT of choices is overwhelming. Sure I want long, lush, lashes but confronted by a wall of mascara—each promising to make you look magnificent—makes my head spin….same with toothpaste or chips or sport drinks or shampoos. You would think more options would be better. Not quite, says Dr. Peter Whybrow. He’s the Director of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and researches consumerism. “Infinite choice is not good for us because we just can’t make up our minds.” He adds that in certain cases, options inhibit our ability to take action. “It stresses us out and then we don’t make any choice at all.”

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Less stuff equals more time
In part one of our Back to Basics series tonight, I, along with correspondent Chris Jansing, explore the idea of letting go of material possessions in order to create more space for socializing instead of spending time maintaining stuff. Our expert, Dr. Peter Whybrow, says it’s a win/win situation. “We live in a society which has a lot of everything. Affluence is not just material affluence, it’s information, it’s all these things, they make for a continued assault on the human brain. One of the important ways of reducing stress is in fact to reconnect with people. Many of our modern day technologies keep us to ourselves, and so yes, indeed, social relationships reduce stress and change the way our brain works.”

Another component worth mentioning is, of course, the economy and how cutting clutter, curtailing shopping, and simplifying can help our bottom line. Not a bad side effect!

For those of you who grew up in the 1970s and had to share a bathroom with brothers and sisters, I think you’ll be surprised at how big homes have gotten since then. We’ll talk about that and will meet two very different people at two very different points in their lives—both trying to downsize:

Kelly Sutton is a 23-year-old computer expert realizing at a young age the power of portability. For him, the appeal of minimalism is the ability to pack up and go on the next adventure anywhere in the world. He rents a furnished apartment and eats out a lot. For Kelly, spending time with loved ones and collecting memories is a priority. He keeps his stuff streamlined by relying on technology and computers to keep digital files of books, music, and photos.  He  got his life down to fewer than 100 THINGS, but admits that will likely change should he settle down and start a family.

Nancy Gaskin, on the other hand, is struggling with the task of downsizing all of her elderly parent’s possessions. It took her a long time to realize she couldn’t—and didn’t want to—maintain everything they had owned. Nancy says finally being able to let go of it all has been a blessing.

In the coming days of our series, we’ll also explore how laid-off workers are re-inventing their lives with less. And if your closets are jam-packed with clothes you never wear, you’ll want to watch the interesting solutions some women have for cutting closet clutter.

We’d love to hear more of your stories about getting “Back to Basics,” so please feel free to submit your comments and suggestions on The Daily Nightly blog or below.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive.  Reprints

Video: Super-simplify me: Culture of less catches on

  1. Closed captioning of: Super-simplify me: Culture of less catches on

    >>> as we mentioned, we're kicking off a series of reports this week called "back to basics." perhaps the trend to simplify is born of just a nasty economy. but for those willing to do it, really do it, it is one way to cut back. our own chris jansing has our report.

    >> reporter: it's the early morning meeting of the new jersey northeast franchise of 1-800-got-junk, the world's largest junk removal service. more and more, these men in blue a rolling out for another day of helping people down size.

    >> there is definitely a growing business, and jobs that we've done for people that just simply want less stuff in their lives.

    >> reporter: after decades of bigger, better, more, now experts say the epidemic of accumulation is waning. for financial and also psychological reasons.

    >> the whole problem of an affluent society is that we are stressed. the simpler that things get, the better off you are.

    >> reporter: 23-year-old kelly sutton can count all the things he owns.

    >> my name is kelly sutton and i'm getting rid of everything i own.

    >> reporter: he started a minimalist movement called "the cult of less." everything you own fits in two boxes and this?

    >> yeah.

    >> reporter: mostly it's personal connections he's collecting these days.

    >> my apartment is more of just a place, so it encourages me to be more social and live more out in the world. a few jackets.

    >> reporter: he sold, donated and disposed his way to less than 100 possessions. with the average new home, now more than 2,400 square feet , 1,000 square feet bigger than in 1970 , many of us have accumulated enough stuff to fill whatever space we have. and even with all that space, 1 in 10 houses still rents an overflow storage. rather than store, nancy is letting go. crystal pitchers and silver spoons .

    >> i have more than i need or want.

    >> reporter: it's been a bittersweet process for her. helped by an estate sale expert who sees a lot of letting go these days.

    >> when the families are attached to some things, my best advice is hold on to the memories.

    >> reporter: making room for memories and living more with less. chris


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