10/25/2011 06:12 pm ET Updated Dec 25, 2011

Do You Own Stuff, or Does Stuff Own You?

A laptop computer
An iPhone
A Nano
20 books
Knitting needles and yarn
A menorah
Three purses
A bed, one set of linens and pillows
Two scented candles
Some incense
Two lamps
One medium box of pictures and keepsakes

After 47 years of being on planet Earth, those are my worldly possessions. Am I a failure? An adventurer? A modern aesthete?

After a four-year stint in my lovely, 1925-era Hollywood apartment, I quit it and moved in with a friend as I prepare to move abroad. I am headed to the Middle East for a whole, new, radically different chapter in my life.

I yearn to live the simpler, quieter life of expat aestheticism. Getting rid of my stuff is the price of admission, the first test. So many emotions swept over me as I parted with thing after thing after book after pretty cocktail glasses I got in Soho once.

I had to ask each thing:

1) Does this have HIGH sentimental/heirloom value?
2) Can I easily replace this once I've moved?
3) Does this really work? Does it fit?
4) When is the last time I used or wore this?
5) Would someone else enjoy this as a long term lend while I'm away?
6) Would someone less fortunate than me appreciate and use this?
7) Do I love this so much I'm willing to pay to have this shipped 9,000 miles?

I invited my friends over for an estate sale of sorts. You like this artwork? Then you keep it and when and if I come back to the U.S., I may just ask for it back. For now, enjoy it. In this way, I got rid of the stuff that I care about so much that I need to know a dear friend is enjoying it and using it, day to day. I need to know that it will be there for me, should I want it again.

It is stunning what you are left with when you really examine all of your stuff for its sentimental, pragmatic or comfort value. Do I need three pictures of the mountain under which I grew up? No. How about the BEST picture of the mountain? One is fine. So -- why did I have three in the first place? If I loved my books so very much, why did they sit on shelves gathering dust rather than being read by others? If I really love my Doc Martins but haven't worn them for 10 years because they're out of fashion, just how do they earn the space they take up? Do I need every picture my daughter drew, from age two to a teenager? Or do I need three of the best ones?

We carry our stuff with us like living scrapbooks, bringing us memories and comfort in the face of a life that is fleeting.

Most of us say three words when we are gazing upon stuff that we are considering parting with: But what if... ? My grandparents lived through the Great Depression. I remember how my grammy would take the little packets of saltine crackers from the restaurant table (much to my utter mortification) "just in case." She had a scarcity mentality that stayed with her for life. And now, having come full circle, we are living through the Great Recession. And we too have a scarcity mentality. What if I need this again? What if it comes in handy? But I spent so much money on this! But someone gave this to me!

How did we wind up with so much stuff in the first place?

America long ago became a culture defined by consumerism. Billboards selling stuff line the highways and streets of our every city. Brochures of stuff we should buy turns up rubber-banded to our doorknobs or stuck to our windshields. Stuff we didn't know we needed. We are assaulted on all sides at all times to buy more. We've all drunk the Kool Aid; the current economy and the storage units that have sprung up like fungus attest to our belief that in some way, buying stuff leads to a happy life. We have become a nation of hoarders, addicted to the quick-fix and the disposable, leaving us with a profoundly dysfunctional relationship with our stuff.

In this time when Americans are occupying Wall Street, when the war in Iraq has ended but the economy seems to be in an endless downward spiral, you can take back your power. Defy the dominant paradigm: Buy only what you need, recycle what you don't and take better care of what you have.

Opting out of this collective culture of consumerism and stuff worship is a self-preservatory act of subversion. Circulate your stuff back into the flow; somebody needs to use your old crock pot now more than you need to save it "in case." There's a family out there who would love to have half the towels in your linen closet. Read the newspaper. Trust me.

Home is where the heart is, and I know my heart will be very much in my new home. Not in my Doc Martins, not in the dusty stuffed animal that my daughter gave me five years ago and has long since forgotten about. Not in my William Sonoma café dishes, my old, busted sewing machine or the vintage typewriter I got a great deal on at a garage sale once. My heart does not reside in things, nor do my hopes, my ego or my sense of well-being.

Some questions to ask before you buy new stuff:

  • Am I shopping bored or looking for an emotional pick-me-up?
  • Do I need this now or can I wait a week? A month? A year?
  • If I buy this now, will it hold its value? If I sell it later, how much return will I receive?
  • Do I already have something like this that I could spruce up or repair?
  • Where will I put this when I'm not using it?
  • How often will I use this?

Questions to ask your current stuff:

  • Do I use this?
  • Am I keeping this IN CASE I might need it in the future? Does that seem reasonable or rational?
  • Can somebody else enjoy or benefit from this right now?
  • Am I keeping this heirloom because I am supposed to? Do I really like or use it? Is there another relative who might enjoy it more?
  • Am I keeping this because it was a gift, even if never liked it?
  • Is this the last version of this I will ever need? Or does it need to be updated?
  • If I buy this, can I then donate that?
  • Does my stuff make me feel safe or sentimental or in some way more complete? Is that reasonable?
  • Does my stuff make me feel successful? Is this stuff truly a reflection of that?
  • Does my stuff make me feel burdened or guilty?
  • Can my stuff be replaced?

Here are some great things to do when re-evaluating your stuff:

  • Take turns with your stuff: Give the item to a good friend for a long-term loan.
  • Donate your stuff to a prop house -- see it in the movies!
  • Repurpose your stuff and gift it to someone who'd enjoy it.
  • Donate your stuff to a thrift store or charity. There are so many to choose from.
  • Throw your stuff out if it is broken or too old to be useful.
  • Fix your stuff; sew ripped seams, order missing parts, give it a paint job.