Purging Your Stuff Is the New Conspicuous Consumption

(Bloomberg) -- On a recent Saturday afternoon in downtown Chicago, Tara Latta’s 36th-floor apartment with stunning river views is a complete mess.

I’m watching the 39-year-old trying to jam the contents of a storage unit into her new one bedroom, and it doesn’t appear to be going well. Latta’s kitchen table is teeming with CVS receipts, unused thank-you notes, catalogs, utility bills and to-do lists. U-Haul boxes are stacked halfway to the ceiling. The counters are overflowing with tea cups, mixing bowls and water bottles.

But all is not as it seems. Latta is in the midst of her second of three, five-hour sessions with tidying consultant Kristyn Ivey. One of the first steps Ivey demands of her clients is to bare all. That means all the stuff—even old underwear—gets laid out in full sight, and then she gets to work. At about $100 an hour, the former chemical engineer promises to clean up people’s homes—and much more.

“This is about confronting yourself and learning about the things that you keep around you,” says Ivey, who allowed me to tag along on her visit. “This is more than an organization strategy.”

Purging Your Stuff Is the New Conspicuous Consumption

Ivey is a disciple of Marie Kondo. For the uninitiated, Kondo, also known as KonMari, is the tidying guru and best-selling author who debuted a hit Netflix show a year ago that catapulted her from cult following into the mainstream. Kondo has said she became obsessed with order as a kid—reportedly organizing bookshelves during recess—and after one freak-out over what to throw away had a breakthrough: What she really should be doing is keeping things that make her happy.

That evolved into Kondo’s “spark joy” gospel that’s now being spread by nearly 400 certified consultants like Ivey, who had her own come-to-Kondo moment when she parted ways with $300 worth of clothes that still had the tags on. Then she left her job at consultant Booz Allen Hamilton and three years ago started For The Love of Tidy (tag line: Tidy your home, change your life).

In Latta, who is paying Ivey $1,350 for 15 hours of consult, Ivey has found a willing devotee. She’s fresh off a solo hiking trip in Sedona, Arizona, where she practiced her new ethos of buying less stuff and only purchased a couple things. For Christmas, she focused on experiences instead of physical gifts, including tickets on a replica of the Polar Express for two nieces. 

This purge is “kind of like when you go into therapy,” Latta says of her tidying sessions. “This has been giving me the tools to have a process to really face this stuff and really design a life that I enjoy.”

Latta is a recent convert to a growing tribe of Americans who are rejecting the post-WWII consumerism that served as the engine of the world’s biggest economy. Consumer spending makes up about 70% of the U.S. economy—one of the highest rates in the world—and it’s even more crucial now because manufacturing has slowed.

And it’s not just KonMari. There are signs everywhere of people living stripped down lives, and it’s accelerating into 2020. Reality TV is flooded with shows about tiny houses and saving money. More people are convinced they can live cheaply in their 20s and 30s, and then retire in their 40s—a movement that’s been dubbed financial independence retire early, or FIRE.

Instead of buying stuff, consumers are opting to rent, with entire ecosystems built to lease everything from wardrobes to camping gear to toys. 2019 proved to be the year when the re-sale market mainstreamed to the point that buying used goods became kosher for Christmas gifts.

Purging Your Stuff Is the New Conspicuous Consumption

Plaster all that with mounting anxiety about climate change and the environmental impact of consumption, including all the packaging and miles from e-commerce deliveries, and you have the ingredients for a seismic shift, not just a short-lived trend. One that would be more bad news for a struggling U.S. retail sector and a potential long-term threat to consumer spending, according to Michael Solomon, a marketing professor at Saint Joseph’s University.

Americans are “moving away from pride of ownership, which has been a bedrock of our capitalist society,” Solomon says. “It becomes more like: Use it and give it back, as opposed to own it forever.”

Big retail has taken notice. Macy’s Inc. is selling second-hand clothing at about 40 U.S. locations. Neiman Marcus bought a stake in an e-commerce company that sells pre-owned luxury handbags and other accessories. Meanwhile, malls are filling spaces once occupied by department stores and apparel chains with restaurants and trampoline gyms—another nod to the surging demand for experiences, not stuff.

To be sure, the average American was expected to increase Christmas spending by 4% this year with plans to shell out more than $1,000, according to the National Retail Federation’s annual survey. But other data shows increasing dissatisfaction. In the U.S., 61% of people say they recently received at least one unwanted gift, according to personal finance website Finder.com. Clothes and household wares top the list.

Intrigued by watching Ivey help Latta achieve her goal to “eliminate as much paper as possible” and create a clear, cozy environment, Bloomberg paid for her to come to my four-bedroom house—home to my three young kids and husband for a two-hour session. I was somewhat skeptical because I already considered myself a minimalist of sorts. We’re constantly donating to Goodwill, and I’ve never been shy about re-gifting.

Ivey arrives with a pair of indoor gray flats to slip on, a nice courtesy during a slushy winter day, and a small backpack with a label maker for tagging containers. We start at the kitchen table where we open the “The Tidy Home Joy Journal,” her own creation that she sells for $9.99 on Amazon and her website. In the “Visualizing Your Best Life” section, I write down that I want to spend more time with family and being outdoors. 

That leads us to hone in on holiday decor and my closet. I find a candle and two pairs of stretch pants that I hadn’t worn in at least a year to ditch. There’s also this heart-covered candy bowl—a hand-me-down from my mom—that’s added to the list. Throughout, Ivey emphasizes being positive. She discourages using words like “junk,” “crap” or “mess” because even the discarded should be honored. It sounds a little silly at first, but even a few weeks later I find myself treating my things with more care and thought. It seems like a good practice to pass down to my kids.

But this isn’t just about throwing stuff away. Ivey suggests rolling socks sushi style, instead of balling them, which can stretch out the elastic. She recommends cutting off store tags from all household goods and clothing to “make them yours.” This even includes peeling those super sticky labels off Sterilite storage bins (she’s equipped with a special little tool to do just that).

In the end, the biggest takeaway—or maybe breakthrough—from my certified KonMari tidying is the ceremonial release of an item. It should be treated with respect and thanked for its service in your life, Ivey says. After more reflection, I think about how my daughter likes decorating for holidays, even smaller ones like Valentine’s Day.

So that candy dish with the hearts is staying.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.