Before Gary Collins left a bureaucratic government job to pursue a more independent existence off the grid, he had to work on downsizing and decluttering his life. The lessons he learned in ultimately achieving that aim apply to everyone — even those with no plans to leave civilization — who would like to lead a simpler life.
Gary shares those lessons in his book The Simple Life Guide to Decluttering Your Life, and with us today on the show. We begin with why it’s so easy to get caught up in the consumerism-driven “cult of clutter,” how the clutter it generates extends far past a person’s tangible stuff, and the cost it exacts from our lives in both financial and psychological terms. Gary then explains how to simplify and declutter every aspect of your life — the material, of course, but also the technological, informational, and even social. Along the way, this self-described “redneck hippie” offers no-nonsense advice that refreshingly departs from the kind of soft glow, artfully arranged, white background pictures of minimalism you might find on Instagram. Because Gary’s not on Instagram. That would be clutter.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- The cult of clutter
- What aspects of our lives are cluttered?
- What’s are the financial and psychological costs of this cult of clutter?
- What is it so hard for us to get rid of our stuff?
- Why health is one of the pillars of a good life, and how our health gets cluttered
- The difficulty of changing long-ingrained cultural habits
- What does it take to declutter your financial life?
- Why you’re more likely than not to lose money on your house
- What does a cluttered social life look like? How has social media made it worse?
- Fighting information overload
- Strategies for getting rid of your stuff
Resources/Articles/People Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Gary on going off-grid
- A Place for Everything and Everything In Its Place
- How to Declutter Every Aspect of Your Work Life
- Decluttering Your Digital Life
- The Cost of a Thing
- Chefs’ Secrets for Organizing Your Life
- Becoming a Digital Minimalist
- How the Self-Storage Boom Snuck Up on Us
- HeadOn commercial
- AoM’s personal finance archives
- 5 Books for the Personal Finance Education You Never Had
- Graduating From a Paycheck Mentality to a Net Worth Mentality
- Is There Any Reason to Keep Up With the News
- The Complete Guide for Breaking Your Smartphone Habit
- How to Organize Your Garage
- The Biggest Key to Organizing Your Garage
- In Praise of Maintenance
Connect With Gary
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Read the Transcript
If you appreciate the full text transcript, please consider donating to AoM. It will help cover the costs of transcription and allow other to enjoy it. Thank you!
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. Before Gary Collins left a bureaucratic government job, pursuing more independent existence off the grid, he had to work on downsizing and decluttering his life. The lessons he learned in ultimately achieving that aim apply to everyone, even those with no plans to leave civilization, who’d like to lead a simpler life. Gary shares those lessons in his book, “The Simple Life Guide to Decluttering Your Life,” and with us on the show today to share some of his insights as well. We begin with why it’s so easy to get caught up in the consumerism-driven cult of clutter, how the clutter it generates extends far past a person’s tangible stuff and the cost it exacts from our lives in both financial and psychological terms.
Gary then explains how to simplify and declutter every aspect of your life, the material stuff of course, but also the technological, informational and even social things that end up cluttering your life. Along the way, this self-described redneck hippie offers no-nonsense advice that refreshingly departs from the kind of soft-glow, artfully arranged, white background pictures of minimalism you might find on Instagram because Gary is not on Instagram. That would be clutter, according to Gary. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/simplelife.
Gary Collins, welcome back to the show.
Gary Collins: Thank for having me on, Brett. I appreciate it.
Brett McKay: So we had you on back in June of 2020 to talk about your book about going off the grid, living off the grid, buying a place, drilling a well, getting your own power with solar or whatever you wanna use, propane. That was episode number 622 for those of you who wanna check that out. You’ve got another book out, and it’s all about decluttering. And I think this ties in with the previous books you’ve written because I imagine you had to do a lot of decluttering and simplifying before you decided to move off grid. But I’m curious, sort of your evolution of this, did the desire to simplify your life and get rid of your stuff come first, and then you thought, “Well, I’ve already gotten rid a lot of my stuff, why don’t I just sell my house and move out to the wild,” or did you have the goal like “I wanna live off the grid, so I gotta sell my stuff to do that?”
Gary Collins: Well, I had the goal to live rural first, then the off-grid thing came later, but it was way before. ‘Cause I grew up in the middle of nowhere, so I was trying to return to that. And that probably happened, oh no, gosh, five years before I left the government. So it was way before. That’s 15, 16 years ago now, so the idea was already hatched. And once I started going through this life evolution, I realized I had too much crap, and I had fallen in… We’ll talk about the cutter and all that, but yeah, I realized that I needed to downsize and declutter everything before I made the next move in the plan, so it kinda… Yeah, I would guess that it came after the original plan, but it was one of those reality check. “You have a lot of crap. What are you doing? You need to get rid of all of this stuff.” [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Right. This book isn’t just for people who wanna move off-grid. This could be for anyone who just feels overwhelmed by all their stuff. So you mentioned the cult of clutter. Let’s talk about why we get all this stuff in the first place, and you say it’s because there’s this thing called the cult of clutter. What is that? How do you describe that?
Gary Collins: Yeah, or we backtrack ’cause it gets a little confusing. I have off-grid books, and then I have “The Simple Life” series, which is written more for the everyday American who’s not looking to necessarily go and live off-grid, so they’re kind of separated. And decluttering your life is in “The Simple Life” series ’cause it’s general. You don’t have to wanna live off the grid to follow what I preach in there. And the cult of clutter, I came up with that phrase as I was writing it and was like, I went, “What is going on?” ‘Cause I’d realize I’d always grew up poor. I didn’t have a whole lot of items. We talked about this before. My main items were my bike, my dog, my shotgun and later my truck, my baseball, my basketball. That was it. Those were my main items. And I think as time went on, I had accumulated a lot stuff, and it was because I’d left that kind of shelter of being poor, simple living, went to city living in the government, had more money than anyone in my family had ever had, and I think it just… The society of our consumerist society today was rubbed off on me and I kind of was buying in.
I hadn’t fully gotten into the cult of clutter, but I was in it, for sure. And for people to understand, it’s this mentality of, we all feel that we need a lot of objects and shiny objects, as I say, to make ourselves happy, and it’s, the proof is in the pudding. Our economy is based upon consumerism in the US. 70% of our economy is consumerism. What does that mean? We have to keep buying these items and these things to keep the economy going the way it’s kind of developed right now, and I argue with that. I think we could not do that and the economy would be just fine and it would just shift. It would shift to something else, which would be a production economy. So yeah, the cult of clutter is kind of falling into that, “I must consume. I must spend my time on the Internet, on the phone, shopping non-stop.” And that’s kind of where it came from.
Brett McKay: And besides consumer goods, what else do we clutter our lives with?
Gary Collins: Oh gosh, all kinds of things. Right now, obviously, the big one is information and technology. Those are two other ones that people are pretty immersed in, and hey, I’m no technophobe. I use technology to run my company, but I use very little technology compared to most people. But information right now is a big one, right? We’re just inundated with information all the time, and a lot of it is not good for us. It’s 24/7, the news cycle. When I was growing up, you had the 5 o’clock news, and you had the 10 o’clock news. And depending what station you were on, some were 30 minutes, some were an hour. That was it. That was all the news you were getting all day unless it was a major update, John Kennedy getting assassinated or something like that, or you would have a break and then they’d tell you something major happened on the network. Otherwise, that was it, or you got the newspaper.
Now, I mean, you can literally turn on the channel and get bombarded any time, anywhere, and now we have the Internet, I mean social media. I mean, 70% of fake news is distributed on social media. It’s non-stop, so the information side is continuous and the relation to that obviously is technology ’cause you use the technology to get drowned with that information. And on the technological side, I talk about this in the book about, “Do you need all these gadgets as an everyday person.” I run my business on a laptop Wi-Fi connection, and I have a smartphone. That’s about it, and anything beyond that is clutter to me. And everyone I know, I have friends who, they don’t run their own business. They’ve got a smart watch. They’ve got a laptop. They’ve got a iPad or a notebook. They’ve got a desktop. They’ve got just gadgets… A smartphone, and it just goes on and on, and I’m all, “Why do you need all that crap?” And not only that, but the technology, the way it clutters too, is you have to learn it, and then once you learn it, these tech companies aren’t stupid, you’re getting an update and a new version every nine to 12 months. So it’s a vicious cycle.
Brett McKay: And what are the costs do you think of the cult of clutter, like financial, physical, emotional?
Gary Collins: Well, we see it today. Financial, it’s huge, right? Most Americans are eyeballs up in debt, and that’s why they’re losing most of their sleep. They struggle. They live paycheck to paycheck, month to month. And yeah, so the financial is huge, and I have a book called “Financial Freedom,” which is about living debt-free and how to live debt-free and how to get there ’cause I think it’s important. Gosh, I forgot we probably should talk about the three-legged stool real quick of the simple life. The three-legged stool of the simple life is optimal health. Health is everything. That’s where I start with everything. If you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything, and if you’re unhealthy, you make really bad decisions. You have bad cognitive function. And then financial freedom by being debt-free, then finding your life purpose. So those all three are the core of what I teach. So yeah, the financial cost is huge ’cause it keeps you on the treadmill of consumerism. If you keep consuming, you gotta keep earning, and we don’t have an earning problem in this country, we have a spending problem.
If you make $15 an hour, you make what? Make sure I got my math right. It’s $31,200, if I remember right, a year working 40 hours. Most people don’t work 40 hours anymore on salary. We’re working 50, 60, 70 hours. So that puts you in the richest 1% in the world at $15 an hour. We have plenty of money in this country. That’s not the issue. We just spend all of it to include our glorious government, and then some. We just spend like drunken sailors at port call, all the time. [chuckle] And so that’s a huge part of it, but also the emotional. And the emotional ties to the financial ’cause if you’re worried about money all the time, well, you’re gonna be stressed out. If you’re stressed out all the time, your health is gonna go, the chronic stress, and so it has this whole cataclysmic kind of effect of doing that. So yeah, there’s a lot of cost to all of it, and we’re seeing it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and the emotional cost is just having a bunch of… It stresses you out, just having all that stuff and having to take care of it is just…
Gary Collins: Manage it.
Brett McKay: Manage it.
Gary Collins: Put it somewhere. How many garages do you know that are jam-packed right now? I used to walk through my neighborhood before I sold my house in a residential area in San Diego. I would count how many people could actually fit a car in their garage, one car. There was like two or three in the entire neighborhood, houses I found that they could actually get a car in their garage. [chuckle] It was jam full of crap.
Brett McKay: Right, that’s why I think storage facilities are like kind of… They’re a booming business.
Gary Collins: Oh, they’re booming right now. I have a friend who owns one, and they say it is non-stop. They get so many calls every single day. We’re not learning. We’re not learning our lesson. We’re just accumulating more crap, and then we’re moving it into storage units, and then you gotta pay for the storage unit. And then you forget about it. Put stuff in a storage unit for a year, I’m pretty sure you’re not gonna remember what’s in there.
Brett McKay: Have you read a book… It’s kind of I think the late ’90s, early 2000s called “Affluenza?” It’s a good one. It’s a little hippie, but it’s just about overconsumption and all the costs of overconsumption. And I remember reading that in high school and having a pretty big impact on me. It made me think about the way we live our lives, our economy, just how we buy stuff. It made me rethink that and be a little more thoughtful about it, so “Affluenza.” I’ll put that in the show notes.
Gary Collins: Yeah. Yeah, I have to go check that out. I call myself a redneck hippie, Brett. So don’t be… [chuckle] I have my inner hippie that I’m connected to.
Brett McKay: You gotta have an inner hippie.
Gary Collins: Absolutely, it’s a good balance.
Brett McKay: And another thing, too, is like we know, okay, people have this drive to buy stuff because our economy is set up that way. We have bombardment with advertisements, and it’s just the way we’re wired from the womb. You see, there’s that statistic that kids can recognize more brand logos than they can art. It’s something like that. Anyways, I think everyone, who reaches that moment like, “Man, I got too much stuff, I gotta get rid of it,” but it’s hard. Why do you think it’s so hard to get rid of our stuff?
Gary Collins: I would say one of them is you get this emotional attachment to it, and I talk about this. What happens is you attach memories to your things, and once you do that, it makes it very difficult to get rid of it. And I know that firsthand. I don’t know if we talked it about in last interview, but I always talk about my dining room table I had in my house in San Diego that I had eaten at a handful of times, but I spent six months driving myself crazy finding the perfect table that was way too big, never used it, hardly. But when I went to get rid of that, I had an emotional attachment to it for some reason, and I remembered shopping for it, setting it up, and how happy I was. I finally found the table that matched and worked and… ‘Cause I grew up poor. We ate off TV trays. We never had a dining room table, and so it was kind of a big deal. And we do that a lot. If a girlfriend, boyfriend buys you something, you put an emotional attachment to it. It makes it very difficult to get rid of ’cause instead of seeing an object, you’re seeing a memory.
So you have to disconnect. And I’ll give a good example that I did recently, was I shredded all of my government awards and documents and not in hate or just ’cause I was angry. It was because it was taking up space, and I got sick of moving that stuff around. I did. I go, “What do I need my pay stubs from 1998 for?” I had everything. I had kept all my records, which in the government, you had to ’cause they tended to lose a lot of things and you better have a backup. And all the documents and these award letters and people are, “Why would you get rid of that?” I go, “They don’t mean anything. What am I gonna do? Take them out and look at them. When I die, are people gonna be jumping over themselves to get Gary’s government award letters?” No, they’re just things. And so I shredded all of them and got rid of all… A whole bankers box full of documents, and it made me realize that I had emotional attachment to them, but they really didn’t mean anything. They had no effect on my life anymore, except for moving them around.
And I think that’s what happens. You have to get past that connection of… And I always make fun of this, the popular one. “Does it give you joy?” I always make fun, I go, “Well, my drill doesn’t give me joy. My hammer doesn’t give me joy, but I need them. They’re important.” You wanna discern things and categorize into usefulness. “Do they give me usefulness? Can I use these things to better my life?” that’s the key. And I’m not saying get rid of all your emotional pictures and all that. I’m not saying that, but don’t hoard them. That’s the problem, is we tend to hoard those things today. I don’t know how many thousands of pictures are on people’s phones today. It’s a lot. So now we’re clattering up our digital side as well.
Brett McKay: Well, building on that idea of emotion or memories being connected to stuff, I mean, that’s how companies sell us stuff, too, these days. They don’t really… They don’t pitch you the utility of it, it’s like…
Gary Collins: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: Wow, think of all the memories that you can get with this thing. They want you to be emotionally attached to the product and not look at its utility because a lot of times there’s really no difference in utility between X oatmeal and other oatmeal. It’s just the branding message. Yeah, it’s about emotions.
Gary Collins: Yeah. And you know who’s really good at it, and this is an advertisement and it will slowly kill you for sure is Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola is a master at branding and advertising. Camel was pretty good too, Camel cigarettes, but they always… If you watch their commercials, and I do it as a business owner, I look at them, and I see what they’re doing, and it’s always this emotional attachment. You have a Coke and everyone in there is having this happy, joyous moment, and they’re attaching that to drinking Coke. That’s a pretty heavy mental mind screw. That’s pretty deep, right there, but it’s mastery. And if you watch things in that way, you’ll see how big companies make you get an emotional attachment to their product. You don’t look at the usefulness. You just think it’s gonna make you happy, and guess what? It makes you buy it even though you don’t need it.
Brett McKay: No, yeah, but actually, I find the commercials where they try to manipulate your emotions, that it turns me off. I actually like the commercials where they just tell you… I just like the commercials that tell you what the product does. The one that I like a lot is that one… It’s like an annoying commercial that would appear at like 12 o’clock in the morning. It was some headache medicine you’d rub on your head, and it’s like a…
Gary Collins: I remember that one.
Brett McKay: It would just tell you what it is, “Rub it on your head, rub it on your head, rub it on your head.” And you’d see the pain go away. I’m like, “Yeah, I want that thing. Just rub it on your head and your headache goes away.” Well, let’s talk about decluttering different aspects of our life. This is how you organize the book and when you said, you start off everything that you do with your simple life stuff with health. You think it’s one of those… Part of that three-legged stool. What does a cluttered health life look like?
Gary Collins: Well, we’re seeing it. Unfortunately, we’re the most obese and overweight we’ve ever been in this country, and by a long shot. It’s now estimated that 70% of Americans are obese or overweight. That’s a shocking statistic. That’s not gonna work. We clutter our lives with health, and there’s a reason. I have a famous saying I say all the time, there’s no money in healthy people. And I used to work for the FDA, used to work for the US Department Health and Human Services. I saw it from the inside out. I was on the cusp when the opioid epidemic broke out. I was there. I was investigating those as that broke out, the doctor feel goods and all that. I was there. So I see how the health industry perpetuates us to stay on this wheel ’cause if we’re not on the wheel, there’s no money ’cause healthy people don’t bring in billions and billions of dollars.
They don’t. And so what we do is we clutter ourselves up with all these gizmos, gadgets, all this sweat-wicking clothing. I go, “I wear a cotton T-shirt, that I paid eight bucks for that goes through an evolution in life of five to 10 years before it turns into a rag and an oil rag at the end.” We don’t need all this stuff. The human body is already built for everything we need it to do. We don’t need all this fancy crap. What your body needs is good food and movement.
That’s what it needs. It is literally that simple. And so what we do is we buy all these 15 different bars and energy bar and a protein bar and this. And how many people… I’ve forgotten how many people I open up their refrigerator, and it’s pretty much all condiments and packaged food, and that’s it. [chuckle] It’s all this stuff. Everything’s packaged, and you just keep accumulating food too. I’ve seen that happen too. You go in and literally you open a shelf and it’s like just every food item known to man, and half of it’s never been touched. So we clutter ourselves up with all these food items. And when it comes to the human body, it’s very simple what we need, and this isn’t… Everyone, don’t worry. I’m not anti-vegan. I’m not anti-vegetarian. I’m not dogmatic about what I preach. I go, “If it’s working for you, don’t fix it,” ain’t that right?
But here’s the facts. The human body is geared to eat very simple things: Animals, nuts, seeds in very low numbers, also fruit, very low numbers ’cause fruit is not every day in most of the world and it was usually low glycemic, and literally vegetation. Grains were not consumed all that much. That’s more of a modern thing of agriculture from 10,000 years. Literally, that’s what we ate. That’s what our body is geared to consume. Once we start getting into these pseudo-products and these pseudo-fats and highly processed carbohydrates, well, guess what we got? We got what we have today. And also, we moved a lot. We moved every single day. There was no… We had down time, but there was… The human body is a working piece of machinery. That shelter doesn’t build itself. The firewood doesn’t go get itself. That food doesn’t just come to me in the grocery store. I had to go get all these things. I had to do these things daily.
And so I think that’s if you put it in that context, it becomes less cluttered, right? ‘Cause that’s… People, when I tell them that they go, “That sounds way too simple.” I go, “It is, but it isn’t easy.” Doing that is hard. And so look at that when you look at the human body and what you’re supposed to consume and how you’re supposed to move and those basic elements, you’ll see how quickly your life is cluttered up with food, exercise, gizmos, and just everything under the sun that you don’t need to be healthy. Prescriptions, you know, multiple prescriptions. Most of your health conditions today are caused by our poor diet and lack of exercise.
Brett McKay: Well, and going back to that idea of being cluttered, the food aisles in grocery stores are a lot more cluttered than there were 30 years ago, and you give these simple…
Gary Collins: Oh, yeah. At least 40,000 items in an average grocery.
Brett McKay: Right. And again this is because we’re a consumer-driven economy, companies gotta figure out, well, one thing that spurs humans to do something is novelty. And so instead of selling more Cheerios, just like regular Cheerios, what do you do? Well, you come up with 20 different types of Cheerios, and that’s what we have. Like you talk about in the book, when we were growing up, there was Cheerios and Honey Nut Cheerios. Now you go to the cereal aisle, and it’s like, I don’t know, five different types of cherries now.
Gary Collins: At least, and talk about Doritos. I think worldwide, I think, I can’t remember the math or what I had in there. I think there’s over 100 different flavors of Doritos now worldwide. It’s something ridiculous. And you just go… [chuckle] It fascinates me because as a rational person… Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been there too. I just go, “How did we get here? This makes absolutely no sense, to be happy and to be healthy, none.” We don’t need this crap, but that’s the cult of clutter. It’s in everything we do. It’s in our health even. It’s in our food. It’s in our health system, hospitals. To get healthy, they go, “Well, Gary, you’re gonna have to take the Statin drug. You’re gonna have to take this hypertension drug.” And then they go, “Oh, and as a last, maybe you should get some more exercise,” when they should be going, “Okay, Gary, you need to get more exercise first, and you need to start eating a little more fruits and vegetables and a good healthy protein source.” Instead it’s, “How can I get you on a product, which is a pharmaceutical drug.” I worked in it. It’s sad. I’m not against pharmaceutical drugs. I’m not against immunizations. I’m not that guy. But we consume these items as a fix-it to instead of actually fixing a problem, the root cause the problem, we’re just putting Band-Aids on everything.
Brett McKay: Right, and I think they do that. It’s like lifestyle change, it’s simple, but it’s often not easy to do ’cause you’re trying to go… You’re trying to change habits that you’ve had for years, and so, “Well, that’s tough.” They’ll recommend you do that, but in the meantime, like you said, “Here’s a Band-Aid you can put on.” But that’s just kind of kicking the can down the road a bit.
Gary Collins: Well, and usually the pharmaceutical drug you take to put the Band-Aid on has a whole host of side effects that you gotta take another prescription drug to counteract the side effects of the first prescription drug, and it turns into this kind of slippery slope. And on average, the average American is on three to five prescription drugs, especially after age 60. So we’re definitely a pharmaceutical lifestyle, and again, it’s chasing the shiny object. Instead of doing the thing that makes sense that you should be doing, we’re watching commercials. “Wait, that drug says… ” And this is an unnerving. It’s only New Zealand and America where pharmaceutical companies can advertise. It used to be only America. We’re the only countries that allow it, and there’s a good reason for it because the countries realize, it creates this desire, this false desire through slick marketing, for you watch that commercial of, “Hey, they look really happy. All I need is that pill. If I take that pill, I’m gonna be just like those people in the commercial.”
Brett McKay: So decluttering your health life is basically simplify your diet. You don’t need a bunch of processed food. Simplify your exercise. If it’s just walking, hiking, do that, and you don’t need a lot of stuff to do that stuff. Let’s talk about decluttering your financial life. So what does a cluttered financial life look like? I imagine that’s a lot of consumer debt.
Gary Collins: Well, it’s a lot of consumer debt, and I use the example in the book “Financial Freedom,” I run us from childhood to older adults in retirement. So I walk through the system of how we become perpetually in debt, and the system is built that way. And I go, “Financial institutions don’t have these buildings, these high-rise massive buildings on every corner because they’re into making sure we’re all financially free. Those buildings are built with our money, so obviously it’s in their best interest to keep us on the cycle of debt.” And think of it this way. Perpetual debt, it starts very early on, even earlier now. I remember when I first went to college, the first day as a freshman, there were credit card tables for credit card financial institutions and credit card companies all over campus, and they gave us $500 instant credit, just fill out the application. Boy, now you can get them as a teenager. You’re parents. I know people who give their 16-year-old a credit card. That’s insane.
How about you learn to earn your money and keep your money, don’t go into debt. And what happens is it slowly piles on itself, right? So you get that first credit card. “We’re dumb, we’re teenagers. Of course, we’re gonna charge stuff we don’t need.” [chuckle] They know that. And so then it starts… We’re told, “Now, you need to get a car.” I bought my first car, cash. It was 1500 bucks. I bought it at 15-and-a-half. I’d been working since I was 13, so I paid cash for it. But now we’re told, “Not only don’t buy a car that you need, buy the fanciest car and finance it,” right? ‘Cause again, the commercials make everyone look happy. So it’s getting out of that mindset of, “Oh, I can afford it if I can finance it.” And then you go to college. Now we’re increasing… Student loan debt is out of control. Matter of fact, it’s the next bubble coming. And then they go, “Well, go get a house.” Well, now your house, you don’t buy a house that fits what you need, you buy the biggest house you can possibly afford ’cause they tell you, “You can afford it.”
By the time you line all that debt up, by the time usually right around 25-26, you’re almost in so much debt that you can’t get out of it. You’re in the system now. The system has you. And not only have you accumulated all that debt that you may not be able to pay off, you can, but it’s gonna take some sacrifice, that you keep adding more and more debt. So now you’ve got the one car. Well, now you’re married, having kids, you gotta get the next car. Then the house isn’t big enough, so now you go upgrade house. You go further in debt. And I also proved in the “Financial Freedom” book that I did it math. It was all simple math: Addition, subtraction, multiplication, division. I proved, ’cause I was in real estate, and I still am, I still do it as a side business, that the average American will lose money in their house, and I got a bunch of pushback on that in the very beginning. And I go, “Go read the book.” I go, “Go do… The math’s done in it.”
And I learned it from selling a house that I made a profit on, and I went back and I said, “Man, I don’t think I made a profit on that house.” So I went back and did all the math, and I’d lost, I don’t know, 20 grand, $25,000 even though it showed I made like $35,000 because it’s shown… They tell you that so you think you’re making money, but even if you do really well… Like the market right now unless you bought 12 months ago and you’re gonna flip that house really quick and it’s hot, sure, you’ll make money. But most people live in a house six to seven years and then move on and get another one. You literally will… If you did that your whole life, you will burn over a million dollars doing that process. The financial side, it’s just… It’s part of the cult of clutter ’cause we keep buying these items that we can’t afford, then we finance, and then it keeps piling and piling and piling until, well, not only are you overwhelmed with the things you’ve bought, they have financially overwhelmed you as well. So…
Brett McKay: All right. And so I guess the simple thing with that is just keep your finances simple, pay cash when you can.
Gary Collins: Pay cash.
Brett McKay: And avoid debt. If you have debt, the way you declutter is to start paying that down.
Gary Collins: Pay it off.
Brett McKay: Yeah, paying it off.
Gary Collins: One by one.
Brett McKay: Right. And there’s different… Like everyone’s got the best way to pay down your debt. Your advice is like find out what works for you, keep it simple and just take action and do it
Gary Collins: Isn’t that the biggest problem? And I always tell people, we’re also a country of pontification and yelling. I’m all, “Stop. Stop yelling. Stop blaming everyone else. Just do it. Action. Action pays the bills. Action is life.” If you’re not doing something positively every day to better yourself, it’s gonna get ugly, and we’re kind of seeing that. We’re seeing a lot of people today who’ve lost their way. I’ve been there, and that’s what I mean. I’m not pointing fingers and saying, “I’m the Supreme Being, and I’m this life clairvoyant of perfection.” I am not. I struggle every day just like everyone else too, but one thing I don’t do is I don’t give up. I always… Every day I have something set to better myself, to better my life, and if you keep that attitude… The first couple of years are rough. [chuckle] We’ve all done it. You get stacked up in debt. You’ve lost your purpose. You don’t know what you’re doing in life. You’re kind of floundering, and you go, “It’s kind of hopeless.” So what happens is people give up, and they don’t do anything positively and you end up in this vicious whip cycle. And I think that’s what ends up getting us in the cult of clutter too, is we’re buying items to kind of fulfill us.
We think it’s gonna fulfill us. It makes us happy for a short period of time, and once that happiness runs out, we go get the next item. It’s just in our wiring. It’s a dopamine hit. It is truly a chemical hit, and again, the companies know this. They know if they influence us the right way, that will do it.
Brett McKay: So another area that you talk about our lives as being decluttered, and I think people don’t really think of this as this could be cluttered is your social life. So what does a cluttered social life look like, and how do you get a handle on that without being a misanthrope?
Gary Collins: Yeah, yeah, and I blame social media for that today. [chuckle] I still have the same friends that I grew up with as a young child, and some of us were babysat together. That’s how far back it goes. And I’ve always kept my social circle very small, and what I notice is it definitely decreases drama for sure, but with social media now you can literally communicate and it’s not all bad. Yeah, you can find people you never would have met otherwise, but what happens is you kinda get on this slippery slope of thinking, “Well, I’ve gotta have… Jeff has a thousand friends. I need 2000 friends. I need more than Jeff.” And it becomes overwhelming because a human can only really manage about 10 close relationships. After that, it starts to become unmanageable because it’s just too much of your time, trying to manage these relationships, real relationships, not surface. These are connections. These are people that you would give your shirt off your back to help them. You would do anything for them. You talk to them on a regular basis.
And I think with that, we get cluttered by surrounding ourselves with too many people. We get in too many cliques. We start accumulating, I wouldn’t say friendships, but associations, and again, we can’t manage them. And then not only that, but you start to bring in all this drama ’cause humans, I don’t know what it is, we love drama. We love it, and we love imparting it on other humans. So with that, I always tell people, “Keep your close social groups very small,” and it doesn’t mean you can’t have multiple. Like I have people I ride my bikes with. That’s a group, but they’re not super close. They’re people I ride bikes with. My super close friends are people I talk to on a regular basis. I can tell them my deep feelings. I can share things that I wouldn’t share with other people if that makes sense. Keep your groups small. There’s a point where you have enough friends, and I’m not saying you hide yourself or anything like that, but most people actively search out relationships that they don’t need.
Brett McKay: Well, another area too, I think, it’s kind of related. You mentioned social media is having a cluttered information life. And I think everyone understands, has felt that, that having so much information at their disposal is just making them miserable, what is it… So what have you done to declutter your information life?
Gary Collins: I get it in low doses, especially the news. The news can be brutal. And also just everything that I do as far as reading information, I try and make it educational, so it’s something I can learn from instead of just sitting there absorbing information that I do not need, getting caught into these information vortexes, YouTube. [chuckle] I’ll tell people the run two experiments. I don’t have a TikTok account. I don’t use YouTube. My channel’s kind of dead. It has been for years, but go to YouTube on an incognito browser and see what comes up. It is ugly. It makes me lose all faith in humans. I mean, it’s the most ridiculously stupid, mind-wasting crap known to man. And someone had a TikTok link that I didn’t realize it was a TikTok link. I don’t have a TikTok account, and so it kicked me to the home page and said, “Hey, you need to sign up and have an account.” And I’m all, “No, not really.” And I saw what was trending. Wow, wow. Stay away from that stuff. If it’s not something that will better your life and you can learn from it to improve yourself, you gotta be careful with it. Don’t go down those rabbit holes of useless videos and things like that.
I’m not saying I never do it, but you have to be really, really careful with that information ’cause it will derail you. It will get you completely off track before you know it, especially the news cycle. And my news cycle is, I put it on in the morning and it’s a business channel and I hear it in the background. I don’t sit down and actively watch it. I get enough information. I have podcasts too that I’ll listen to that aren’t just straight news, just to keep me up to date. That’s all I need, I just need to know what’s going on. I don’t need 24/7 of democrats evil, republicans are evil. I don’t need that crap. I don’t need it. It doesn’t help my life. It does not make my life better, so be very careful with the information you’re getting and just make sure it’s useful, it’s something that you can utilize, is the easiest way to put it. Like I watch TV. I have a TV. I watch Discovery, History, Nat Geo. Those are my main channels. And I like sports, but I watch very little sports now compared to what I used to as a young guy. I would watch the NCAA Tournament when I was in college, start to finish. I’d watched dang near every game. Every televised game that was on, I would sit myself in front of that TV, and I would watch it all day long. I’d take days off from work for it. I don’t do that anymore.
Brett McKay: All right, so just be thoughtful about the stuff you consume. Like just find stuff that actually provides you value in your life, and there’s some things we’ve written about this on the site, we’ll link to it, where you can do audits of your information consumption. You can set apps. This is where you can use technology to help you see where you’re spending most of your time at, and you can be like, “Well, do I really need to spend that much time there?” And actually to Apple’s credit, they’ve actually got things on their phone now where you can see how you’re spending your time and then…
Gary Collins: That you get your weekly, what is it? The weekly…
Brett McKay: Yeah. Screen time. Yeah. Yeah, and then you can go into the settings and say, “I only want 30 minutes of this app or whatever, this website.” So take advantage of that. So we’ve been talking about decluttering abstract things: Health, finances, social circles, information. Let’s talk about decluttering actual stuff, and we kinda hit on it a little bit, but it’s basically, just ask yourself, look at something, “Do I use this? Does this thing provide value?” It’s not, “Does it spark joy?” ‘Cause again, we’re trying to disconnect that emotional connection to our stuff, but just, “Is this useful?” Yes, then keep it. If not, get rid of it.
Gary Collins: Yeah. And also buying things. I look at it, there’s a couple of different ways, but the first thing you should ask yourself when you’re going to get a new item is, number one, “Do I need it?” Ask yourself, “Do I need this?” Then go down go, “Can I afford it?” Those are your first two questions. Then the third one is, “Can I live without it?” That’s when you’re going to purchase. It’s very similar to when you’re looking at things that you have. “Have I used it in last year? Does this thing have a purpose? Do I need this? Will I utilize this thing I have, or is it just sitting here collecting dust?” If not, get rid of it. And don’t sit there and think about it, and it’s, yes or no answers. I tell people there’s no, “Well, kinda.” There’s not that. It’s either yes or no ’cause otherwise, trust me, I’ve done that, I’ve gone, “Well, I haven’t used that recently, but… ” You get in… Once you go, “But,” you’re screwed.
It’s either yes, no, and you look at the item and you go, “Okay.” And one of the easiest ways, this is amazing to me, and I know other people have done this too. I have put items out on the curb or out on the corner, and they’re gone. I’ve had items gone in 15 minutes. [chuckle] I put free, if someone drives by and they load it in a truck, they clutter up their garage. And I’m amazed at how quickly you can get rid of stuff once you put your mind to it, and I talk about how I sold all the items in my house almost in 48 hours on Craigslist. I just buy or sell. I went, “I don’t need this crap,” threw it out in the garage, staged everything and sold it, just said, “No reasonable offer will be refused. Take it.” And I always tell people start in the garage ’cause that’s ground zero of junk collecting is the garage. I go, “Go in your garage and start there, and it’s gonna be overwhelming, guarantee it. I’ve been there, and you look at all the crap in there, and the first thing you do is like, “I may need that,” [chuckle] and the odds are, you won’t.”
The only kind of exclusion I make in that is tools ’cause I’m a tool guy. I got a lot of tools. Tools you don’t use every day, but I inherited tools from my grandfather that I still have. And I don’t use them all the time, but they will get used and tools are expensive and they’re hard replace and you can gift those. Those you can give away later in life. Those are kind of a tricky one, but I also get rid of tools. If I buy a tool, like I had a hardwood floor nail gun. I used it once. I didn’t need it again, so it sat in my shed for a couple of months. And eventually I went, “I’m not gonna use that again. [chuckle] I’m just not. If I do, I’ll go rent one. This was a big project. It was cheaper just to buy one. I’ll go rent one next time.” And I got rid of it. But yeah, I think if you start in your garage and you just take a good look around, collect a pile. And the golden rule I always use is, “Have you used it in a year?”
If you haven’t used it in a year, there’s a good chance you probably don’t need it. Clear it out, and then go room to room to room. Do it stage by stage, and once you do it once, you’re not done. So I do it every six months. I’ll go through drawers. I go through rooms, and I go look around. It doesn’t end. Hey, I accumulate crap too still. I’m a lot better at it. My decluttering sessions are fairly quick now, but if you can follow… Just keep a system, and it doesn’t have to be neurotic. Just clear everything out you don’t need the first run. Six months later, go back, and there will be items that you thought you needed and you go, “I don’t need that. I haven’t used it.” And it’s this process that never ends. I tell people, “Yeah, you have to keep doing it.” We’re item collectors. It’s goofy. I don’t know what it is about us humans, but we collect things and I would say subconsciously at times. We don’t even know we’re doing it.
Brett McKay: No, I like the idea of decluttering your garage first, ’cause in my experience, that’s where stuff you don’t really need anyways ends up. So it’s just like, “Well, you’ve already put it there, and it’s kind of on its way out. Just get rid of it.”
Gary Collins: It’s the bone yard.
Brett McKay: Yeah, it is.
Gary Collins: It’s the boneyard of useless stuff.
Brett McKay: Yeah. And then another thing too in sort of like avoiding clutter, so another heuristic that I’ve been using too before I buy something is like, “Okay, do I need it? Can I afford it?” But also it’s like, “Do I want the maintenance cost of this?” That’s something like… We had a podcast. We talked to this guy who’s like his whole thing is maintenance, change to a maintenance mindset. That really can change how you think about buying. Like you think, “I want this car.” You don’t think about, “I’m gonna have to buy tires for it. I’m gonna have to do this 20, 10 years now, five years. Do I wanna do that? Maybe not.” And you don’t get the thing. So I think that’s another thing. Think about, “Are you willing to pay the maintenance price for this thing as well.”
Gary Collins: Well, and that’s like technology, right? That’s how… Exactly. Technology is… Again, I’m not a Luddite, but all this technology, when you buy this useless stuff, like I said, you gotta waste time learning it, updating it, and then once you learn it, usually the new version’s out. That’s how I mean, it starts turning into this vicious cycle, and I have my issues with Apple, but what I like about Apple is I’ve used their technology for a very long time now. I like that I can get a long time out of my laptops. They’re solid built. They don’t drown me with updates, and they work. I told the story of… I’m none too fond of Microsoft and Bill Gates. I won’t get into that. But I took my PC out after my 15th million blue screen of death ’cause it was wasting my time. I just was so frustrated with it at this point and reloading Windows 18 times. I took it out my front yard and took a sledge hammer to it, and I use it as an example. Hey, people use Microsoft. Hey, whatever. It’s your choice, but for me, it was this kind of cleansing effect if I went, “This thing is eating all my time. I spend more time maintaining this piece of technology than I use it.” And it’s that kind of example.
I have a big truck. That is part of my lifestyle. I have to have that truck. It’s a tool, and I’ll tell you what, though. It’s a one-ton diesel. They’re a pain in the butt to maintain, and it’s expensive. But I suck it up because the benefit of having that truck is I can do everything I need to do. Trust me, there’s days when I don’t wanna deal with it. And oil change on that truck’s 140 bucks, 150 bucks. So trust me, I know, but the thing is, if you buy that truck and you don’t need it, I couldn’t imagine… I see this in the city all the time, like Southern California, these guys own my truck, and they’ve never gone off-road with it. It’s all jacked up. It’s a $80,000 truck. And I think of all the maintenance, and all they do is drive it on the 405. I’m like, “Ugh, man. Do you need that when a little car would do just fine?” So yeah, you have to think of those things, but again, it’s us chasing that shiny object. I’ve done it. We think we need that truck ’cause it’s cool. “It would be cool if I got that truck,” and you don’t see all the money that’s going to be wasted in not only purchasing, but maintaining that truck. So yeah, that’s a really good example.
Brett McKay: And so we’ve been talking about how to declutter, but we’re not just doing this just for decluttering’s sake. You make this case, once you do this, you can do the things… You can fill your life with things that really bring you joy and really bring you value, which can be hobbies, good friends, whatever that just really… Once you get all that stuff out of your life, you have more room for that stuff.
Gary Collins: Well, and I talked about that. One of the things that caught me off-guard is, once I did all this… And I did it fairly quickly. I went head first. And once it was done and I’d settled into my little place that I had rented and gotten rid of everything, I remember sitting at my little computer desk and I went, “What am I gonna do?” I had all this free time. I didn’t have all this debt. I cut my expenses down by two-thirds, and it was a little overwhelming, and it shocked me that I actually was overwhelmed with freedom. And looking back, I’m saddened by that, that freedom overwhelmed me. What? You know what I mean? How far down the hole had I gone to where living a life of freedom was overwhelming. That told me we were definitely on the wrong road. I went, “You should not feel this way of living a free life. You should be joyous. You should be happy.” And instead, I had a good decent chunk of overwhelming time trying to figure out, “What do I do? [chuckle] What do I do with this free time now? How do I turn this time into something positive?”
And I try and write about it and share everything in my podcast and everything I do of my journey, the good, bad, ugly, all my mistakes. I let her all fly. You get to see it all for the most part, and it’s because I’m on this journey. I’m trying to figure this stuff out myself. And yeah, once you declutter, you’re gonna have to realize you gotta fill that time. You better figure out something positive to stick in there, or you’re gonna be right back where you started, just in a different place.
Brett McKay: Well, Gary, where can people go to learn more about the book and the rest of your work?
Gary Collins: My website’s the main place to go. I sell all my books there. Everything I sell, my podcast, everything’s on there. It’s thesimplelifenow, N-O-W, dot com. Don’t go to thesimplelife. You’ll go to Paris Hilton, and I think Nicole Richie’s website. I think it’s defunct now, but go to thesimplelifenow.com. My podcast is another great place. Just renamed it, rebranded it, it’s now The Simple Life with Gary Collins, so very easy to find. Go there and you’ll find all the things I do and all my books and all my information and all that good stuff.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Gary Collins, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Gary Collins: Brett, I appreciate. Thanks for having me on again.
Brett McKay: My guest is Gary Collins. He’s the author of the book “The Simple Life Guide to Decluttering Your Life.” It’s available on his website, thesimplelifenow.com. Also check out our show notes of aom.is/simplelife where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS, and check out for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS, and you start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AOM podcast. And if you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us your review on Apple Podcast or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing the show with a friend or family member who you would think would get something out of it. As always thank you for the continued support. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, reminding you all listening to the AOM podcast, put what you’ve heard into action.