When Personal Possessions Become a Family Albatross

The inimitable comedian George Carlin had it right: "A house," he said, "is just a pile of stuff with a cover on it. ... That's what your house is, a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get...more stuff!" And Motley Fool Answers cohost Robert Brokamp learned just how much worse it has become in the years since Carlin first performed that routine, thanks to Alana Semuels' article in The Atlantic last month, "We Are All Accumulating Mountains of Things: How online shopping and cheap prices are turning Americans into hoarders." Among the things mentioned in that article is an astonishing statistic that takes Carlin's point a step further: In the past 20 years, the number of self-storage facilities in this country has doubled to 52,000. So, yes, a house may be just a place to keep your stuff, but even our ever-growing houses aren't big enough to get the job done.

In this segment, fellow Fool Lacey Poliakoff brings a personal perspective to the stuff story as she relates the long and not-so-strange saga of her mom's storage unit, its lifetime's worth of contents, and the weekend during which they culled it down to the few things they really wanted to keep.

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A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on Sept. 11, 2018.

Alison Southwick: Well, I'm really excited to welcome our guest in the studio today and it's Lacey [Poliakoff].

Lacey Poliakoff: Hi, everyone!

Southwick: The people who are listening don't know who you are and that's OK. You've been at The Fool for...

Poliakoff: Thirteen years.

Southwick: Thirteen years! A good long run. And the reason why I wanted you to come in, today, is that you have a really remarkable personal story of being able to help a loved one throw out a lot of stuff.

Poliakoff: I do.

Southwick: And you were kind enough to come in here and tell us your story and share what worked for you because it really was a success story. I remember talking to you beforehand. I just happened to be sitting there and you happened to come by, and you were like, "Well, I've got to get on the road and get to New Jersey," or wherever it was you had to go. "I've got to help a family member clear out a storage unit." I could tell that you were nervous about it.

Poliakoff: Right.

Southwick: But ready. So can you talk a little bit about what led you to needing to go to New Jersey, or Pennsylvania, or somewhere and clear out a whole storage unit?

Poliakoff: New York. Close enough.

Southwick: New York. Got you.

Poliakoff: My family has had a storage unit for 15 years, and when my mother moved out of a large house into a condo, everything went in, and eventually the goal was the kids would get some stuff out of it, and my mom would go through and downsize.

Nothing happened. We talked about it for 15 years. We paid for it for 15 years.

Southwick: You and your husband paid for the storage unit for 15 years.

Poliakoff: Yes. So it was time to go. We have a son entering school and it was time to get rid of that expense. No one really knew what was inside the storage unit. That's the amazing part of it.

Robert Brokamp: It was a big mystery.

Poliakoff: A huge mystery. It was about downsizing. My sister and I were off at school. Everything got thrown in boxes. Like pencils and erasers are in boxes. So we had no idea what we were getting into, and I prepared for this event knowing it was going to be tremendous for my mom.

Southwick: Emotionally challenging.

Poliakoff: Emotionally. It's overwhelming for her to think of things she's been gathering for a lifetime that are important to her, and my childhood, and growing up. It's everything for her wrapped in a unit that she can go visit. She knows it's there, and so when that disappears I knew it was going to be a big problem.

Southwick: So how did you prepare? You actually hired a small army of people to help you with this.

Poliakoff: I did. I did some research and spoke to a lot of people. We broke down items into garbage, special items [things that you care about, like, and want to have memories of], and then things that we're going to keep. Photo albums. I wanted all the photo albums. I took them with me. Essentially, we needed everything to go and we had a weekend to do it out of a huge storage unit.

I hired a photographer for items that she loved or had a memory of that nobody wanted, which is hard. I hired a company that specialized in throwing things out and then I also had a smaller unit that I had taken over for two months where we had someone coming in to take donations. We had a truck coming in for donations. We had two trucks, we had movers, a photographer, and I was going to have an emotional therapist, there, but in talking it over with my mother, I knew she was prepared to handle it. And on the day of, she was ready to go.

Southwick: That's awesome! Did she sit there and people would present stuff to her and she would say, "Toss. Take a picture. Donate."

Poliakoff: Exactly. And that was, I think, empowering her in knowing she was making all the decisions. That was it. There were many items that were from my childhood that she was happy to see me getting to look at and make a call on but, of course, we took many photos of items because that was hard for her to let go.

Southwick: But I think you mentioned before the show that they were like trophies and things, like, "I want this. This has always meant a lot to me."

Poliakoff: Old CDs that may be valuable to someone. There were a ton of magazines. Seventeen magazines.

Southwick: But it was your stuff.

Poliakoff: My stuff. So I would think I reserved the right to make the decision. She was great. She did. She made the call. We worked with excellent movers. I think you can find movers that specialize in this type of thing. They opened every box. They let her look into them. We very quickly, after a few hours, had a rapport where she trusted the movers. So if they opened a box and yelled, "Magazines," we would immediately say, "Garbage pile!" And that was huge.

And I would say the other way that we prepared was just talking about it, and how the day was going to go. And we didn't have a lot of people, there, besides, obviously all that help. We didn't have everyone from my family represented. We sent some quick text messages for items, but other than that, we kept it very minimal and made sure that she felt empowered.

Brokamp: How did you find the company that would come and take the donations?

Poliakoff: That was a local company that I researched. That I knew about. It's a boutique kind of donation place. You can research that. Goodwill. I'm sure some of the big companies will come to your house. I do know, personally, that I do donations and they come to my house. But this was really mostly clothing items and not so much furniture. A lot of the furniture we ended up getting rid of. It was old.

Brokamp: Were they picky at all? Did they say, "We don't want that," and you had to throw that away, or were they pretty good about taking whatever you were willing to donate?

Poliakoff: No, they didn't take everything, and everything they didn't take we had an agreement. It went.

Southwick: When we had Matt Paxton, the hoarding expert, at The Fool like a year ago, he talked a lot about baby boomers and empty nesters and how they have so much emotional attachment to all of their stuff. A lot of people here at The Fool I know are going through the same thing that you went through. Or at least they need to.

Poliakoff: Or they know it's coming up.

Southwick: A lot of them know it's coming, and so it's been really great to have you here to talk about this, because I think a lot of us are going to go through this in the future.

Poliakoff: I think so, too. I clean my house on a regular basis. I probably err on the other side of the spectrum and get rid of things all the time because of this experience. But it was really positive, I will say. Once you decide that something has to be done, overwhelmingly the relief my mother, and my whole family, and everyone feels is tremendous. There are moments that even I think, "Gosh, I threw something out that I really needed in one of those boxes that we didn't really sort through, but there were too many." And if you haven't needed it for 15 years, you probably don't need it.

Southwick: You're probably going to be OK.

Brokamp: I recently read a study where there's a connection between having too much stuff and being stressed by measuring the cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Like people who have a lot of stuff are more stressed.

Poliakoff: That's unbelievable. It doesn't surprise me. You have less things to monitor and take care of.

Southwick: Lacey, thank you so much for coming and sharing your story!

Poliakoff: Sure! It was so great to be here! Thank you! And good luck to anyone else who has these challenges! It's tough!

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