thing I really missed when I had a (more than) full-time job was having time to
read for pleasure. Nowadays I have the time, and it’s amazing where my reading
picked up Eric Larrabee’s The
Self-Conscious Society: The State of American Culture at Mid-Century
estate sale. The book is a collection of essays published in 1960 when Mr.
Larrabee was managing editor of American
magazine. The last essay, “After Abundance, What?” mentions “The
Midas Plague,” a 1954 short story by Frederik Pohl. Thanks to the library’s
Interlibrary Loan program I was able to find the short story in a collection of
Pohl’s work titled Midas World.
story is about a world that has resolved all its energy issues and produces so
much stuff that people are required to consume. In this society less is truly
more. The wealthy are allowed to live in small homes and do not have to consume
as much as the lower classes. A young man who is caught committing the improbable
crime of stealing a painting is described as a “Pretty poor kid. Forty-two-room
house.” It took the police three hours to find the painting, which was hanging
on a wall. The kid’s punishment was to be lowered two grades, meaning he’d have
to live in a bigger house and consume more. In this society, consumption is
nearly everyone’s occupation. Actual productive work is a privilege. The main
character works one day a week; when he moves up a grade, he is allowed to work
two days a week. The hero of the story does come up with a solution to the
under-consumption problem, but I won’t spoil the story for you.
course, this is science fiction written in the heady days when, in post-War
America, anything seemed possible—even cars with massive tailfins.
stuff—getting it and getting rid of it—has been on my mind. As I mentioned, Dan
and I consolidated 4,000 square feet worth of stuff into 1,600 square feet.
Actually, we’re still in the process. As I began writing this, Dan presented me
with four more boxes of stuff to take to a thrift store. It’s amazing how all
the stuff we once thought we needed can quickly become a nuisance.
now would be a good time to take a break from this article and Google “Bargain
Hunting” by Truckstop Honeymoon. Listen to it. I need to listen to it every
once in a while, too.
go to estate sales. These days, though, I’m pretty much limited to looking at
books, which don’t take up too much room. Once I’m done with them I either sell
them through Amazon.com or Half Price Books. Some of the hoarder estate sales
I’ve been to have been amazing. And really, really depressing. At one sale in a
very nice part of town, the large house was so crowded that there was only a
path through the house. The basement was packed, and there were several storage
sheds in the back yard. Another large house in an older part of town was packed
so tightly that parts of the house were off limits because there was too much
load on the floors. The ad for the sale mentioned there were books, and there
were, indeed, thousands of them, but the owner suddenly decided he couldn’t
sell any of the books. I overheard him telling someone, “I started bringing
stuff into this house in 1968.” I wondered if he’d ever taken any stuff out of
the house. At another house, which has since been converted to a Bed and
Breakfast, the owners had taken out second mortgages to travel abroad and buy
stuff, including tons of tailored clothes. The mortgages exceeded the value of
the house, and the heirs were letting the house be foreclosed. Dan bought one
of the tailored shirts for 50¢. It had probably cost $200 originally, not
including the trip to London for measurements.
it with stuff? Why are we so willing to part with the money we spend our lives
earning for stuff? And by “we,” believe me, I include myself. I don’t fall into
the stuff trap very often, but it happens. I found two mid-century pilsner
glasses at a sale last spring. I paid $1 for the pair, and, yes, they’re
“worth” a lot more, but are they really? And how do you go about finding
someone to pay what they’re “worth?” I guess it’s best to admit that I, too,
can fall prey to what Your Money or Your
author Joe Dominguez called the “gazingus pin” that I suddenly realize
I simply must have. I will admit that I enjoy looking at books at estate sales,
and I like it when I pick up some that look interesting and find I’ve wound up
with one that I can sell on Amazon.com that will pay for the day’s shopping.
been training with one of Kansas City’s better estate sale people, and he tells
me people are in line when the sale opens, and it’s a mad rush when the doors
open—people grab stuff right and left, afraid they’ll miss out on a bargain.
consider estate sales, and I do love them enough to go to them myself. The
people having the sales are usually heirs who already have a lifetime supply of
their own stuff. Often they don’t want any more or they live elsewhere and
moving stuff is too much of a hassle, so (if they’re wise) they hire an estate
sale professional who will charge them to get rid of the stuff they don’t want.
Charges will vary from a fixed percentage of the net proceeds to a fixed price
plus a percentage of the proceeds. By the way, if you’re going to be in the
market for an estate sale professional, find out first how they charge and if
you can, find out how well they price the items. I’ve attended a lot of estate
sales, and some of them price items so high they just don’t move. So I don’t go
to their sales. I’ve been to a couple of sales families held after some of the
higher priced professionals failed to move their stuff, and I can tell you they
were not thrilled to be doing the sale they paid someone else to do. If you
don’t know the estate sale professionals in the area, ask people who go to
sales for their recommendations. Believe me, we’ll tell you the ones we like!
as do-it-yourself estate sales go, it can work. But the odds are you’ll have a
family member (or two) who is so emotional that haggling is seen as an affront
to their late whatevers. Or, even worse, you’ll have a family member (or more)
who is familiar with antiques and thinks shoppers will pay at least as much at
an estate sale as they would in an antique shop (or shoppe). (They won’t.) In
either case, the end result is the stuff doesn’t sell, and people get upset. If
you’re going to go this route, I’d highly recommend a family meeting to
emphasize the purpose of the sale is to get rid of stuff—not to honor grandma
or to make a fortune on her stuff. Marni Jameson, in her book Downsizing the Family Home: What to Save,
What to Let Go
advises the average estate sale grosses less than $6,000.
She also gives several options for getting rid of an estate.
back to my point about stuff. It costs us to buy stuff and it costs our heirs
to get rid of our stuff. If they don’t pay an estate sale professional, they do
it themselves, they give up their time and probably get into fights and think
nobody’s doing as much as they are, and life is so unfair, and they should get more than everyone else, and someone is going to cheat them out of their inheritance, etc. Yep. I’ve been
father died in 2005, two years after my mother died, we cleaned out their
house. We thought we would soon be selling it, but as it turned out we let my
brother live there another eight years, but that’s a story for another day. There
were four of us. Dan, who has four siblings, says three is the limit for
maintaining good relations. And that turned out to be true in our case.
decades my parents had told me who was to get what when they died. Their
biggest concern was that my younger sister get the dining room set she liked.
My parents treated me like their sole executor. After my father died it turned
out that the older of my two sisters, Fang, had been named co-executor. What
our parents intended, of course, was for her to be an alternate executor. Our
parents had used an attorney who was a friend to draft their will. He screwed
up, and I was stuck with the screw-up. Fang had no idea what our parents had
told me. She had no idea she was to be co-executor. She told me our father had
told her he was leaving more to her because she had children and the rest of us
did not. He didn’t. Looking back, I think she believed because she had given
our parents grandchildren she was entitled to a greater share. But she was
stuck with an equal share, and I was stuck with her as co-executor.
No sooner had our father died than
Fang, who lived 700 miles from our parents’ house, located someone she knew who
had ordered a horse trailer in Oklahoma. She offered to deliver the trailer if
she could use it to haul some stuff. And haul some stuff she did. She and her
husband made that trip with the trailer and at least another trip with a
pickup. At the time I thought if it makes her feel good to have that much of
her parents’ stuff that’s great. I didn’t need it. I wound up with my parents' 1989 Oldsmobile (which was no bargain) and, after insisting, some coins and a
very few other items, most of which I wound up hauling back to Oklahoma and
giving Little Sister (LS).
father had asked that after he died my brother, Little Darling (LD), be allowed
to live in the house six months. Fang insisted she be paid her share of the
value of the house immediately, which she was.
Fang somehow decided our parents
had made us co-executors because they feared I would cheat the others. This,
mind you, after she had a horse trailer and a couple of pickup loads of their
stuff safely spirited away. I decided that Fang should contact me only by email
in the future. To further compound what turned out to be a comedy of errors,
our parents’ attorney friend decided he liked golf better than practicing law,
and he did a walkabout. I don’t exactly know what all went on behind the
scenes, but Fang eventually decided our younger sister would be executor. This
turned out to be such a wise choice that, eight years later, we wound up in a
mad rush to correct probate so we could close on the house. Of course, Fang was
out of the picture, so she missed out on sharing the legal fees.
Anyway, back to stuff. If I had it
to do over, we would have hired a professional and had an estate sale. Fang was
afraid we’d be cheated. Notice a trend here? Fang’s always afraid she’s going
to be cheated. And somehow she is never the one who winds up on the short end
of the stick!
Had we had an estate sale, we could
have cleared the house and split the proceeds. There would have been no need
for a horse trailer. We could have put our parents’ car up for bid, and if I
wanted to buy it, I could have. And there would have been far fewer hard
feelings. I think.
When we sold our parents’ house in
2013, LS had told me there was some Tupperware and asked if I wanted some. I
said yes--especially if there was one of the salad bowls because mine had a
broken lid. When I got there, I saw two boxes. One was huge. The other was not.
I asked if those were my boxes. LS said, “No, just that one.” (The smaller
one.) I’d wound up with one salad bowl. Period. Fang and her husband had so
much stuff (again) they had trouble getting it in their SUV. But this time Fang
must have had some guilt pangs. She sent me another salad bowl.
Continuing a family tradition,
which I’ll discuss in another post, Fang always gets her trips paid for (this
one from the proceeds of the house sale she didn’t have to pay the legal fees for
to get the mess she insisted on causing undone.) Fang never comes out on the
short end of the stick.
But in the long run, Fang did me a
favor by taking all that stuff. Even if a lot of it wound up being sold in her
booth at an antiques mall. (Oh, I forgot to mention she had that, didn’t I?) As
I said, most of the stuff I wound up with I gave back to LS, and, when Dan
moved in last year the stuff I didn’t wind up with was not a problem.
A few years ago the guy who does my
lawn started to spray some fertilizer. I asked him what he was doing. He said,
“Fertilizing your lawn.” I said, “So you’re charging me to fertilize my lawn so
it can grow faster and you can charge me to cut it more often?” He put the
I see stuff the same way.
As I’ve mentioned before, we have a
new Smart TV. Buying the new TV was just the start. In order to pull in
stations, we bought a new antenna. In order to boost the WiFi, we got a WiFi
enhancer. Because Samsung’s computer wouldn’t pull in some of the things we
wanted, we got a Roku. I don’t miss my CRT TV, but you can see my point. Often
when we buy one thing, it leads to a seemingly never-ending cycle of spending.
Sometimes it’s best to really think about where a purchase will lead before
taking that first step. Denis Diderot wrote about this in 1769 short story
titled “Regrets for My Old Dressing Gown, or a Warning to Those Who Have More
Taste Than Fortune.”
And now, maybe you’re ready for
another listen to Truckstop Honeymoon’s “Bargain Hunting.”
Up next a look at the mortgage