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Posted: December 01, 2010

Rundles wrap-up: Overstuffed

Jeff Rundles

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Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, the world's second and third richest men, respectively, are trying to round up the world's billionaires to join their movement to give half their fortunes away.

The world's richest man, Mexican Carlos Slim Helu, says such acts of philanthropy "won't solve any problems."

Slim, as he is referred to, was suggesting that even if a few hundred billionaires give away half their fortunes to charities, universities and health-care initiatives, the money would be a relatively meager resource. I think he missed the point.

Sure, Buffett and Gates and other "good deed doers" seek to use their enormous resources to help solve problems. But I suspect they also realize that at some point a fortune is just like a bunch of knickknacks collecting dust in basement storage. Once you have more than enough stuff - in their case, money is stuff - the rest of it is just excess that eventually someone else will have to figure out how to dispense. Better to de-clutter yourself while you still have some say in its disposition.

Most of us aren't billionaires, but most of us have too much stuff, and the majority of it is useless in our lives. Disposition of it in a thoughtful way can be useful to someone else or to some cause, of course, but the act of disposition itself can be cathartic.

There's an old saying that men are just boys with more expensive toys. The key here isn't the expense, but the more. We have too much stuff. I am reminded of that clever advertisement for the old flea market about being the place where "the overstuffed sell stuff to the understuffed."

I used to collect things - cameras, typewriters - but after so many years I realized all I was collecting was dust. I quit collecting anything that I don't use regularly, and still each time I go through my closet or my dresser or a box in the basement I find stuff I haven't paid any attention to in some time, and I downsize.

It hit me more directly recently because both my wife and I lost parents. Going through all the leftover stuff got me thinking about my own stuff. Now when I look in the nooks and crannies of my life all I see is stuff my children will be left with to sell for a buck-and-a-half in a garage sale. I see some stranger casually tossing off my stuff as so much junk, offering my grandson 25 cents for something that 20 years later her grandson will sell again for 25 cents.

This isn't just a personal thing. Over the last 15 years the company I was working for moved office space four times, and in each move the amount of detritus generated as every worker packed up their own workspace and collectively packed up the shared "archives" was amazing. We got organized at the new place and began the process all over again collecting stuff we obviously didn't need that would be pitched at the next move.

Why do we only do this when we either move or die? I am taking a cue from Warren Buffett. I don't have several billion dollars, but I have a lot of stuff, and I am beginning to go through it and fully intend to give at least half of it away to people and organizations that might put it to some use. Any stuff with higher value that I haven't really paid attention to in years I am going to liquidate and donate.

This being December and the Christmas holiday, all I want for a gift is a bag of food I can give to the hungry or a coat I can hand to someone who needs a coat. I think businesses can go through their stuff and find unused desks and chairs and (for them) outdated equipment that can be donated to small business incubators or struggling nonprofits or schools where, rather than collecting dust or becoming landfill, it can collect appreciation.
Too much stuff is just that. I for one am becoming an understuffed.
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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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