Could you live with just 98 things?

A few years ago, I was given a copy of a book called "Flanagan's Smart Home." Designer Barbara Flanagan had created an ode to "the 98 essentials for starting out, starting over, scaling back." The premise of her book was that a person could outfit a home completely with just 98 objects.

Not 100. Not a round number. She came up with 98, from a laptop to a measuring cup to a feather duster. Then she just couldn't think of two more.

I found the specificity of "98" quite charming. As with all lists, there's much to argue with. I have lived quite well these last few years without a salad spinner, ironing board or official sugar bowl or creamer (four items that make Flanagan's list). The idea of using linen napkins instead of paper towels with little ones is just silly. And, of course, this list is for adults only. There are no toys, high chairs, cribs and other child necessities that quickly inflate one's possession list. But there is something appealing about having an absolute and total inventory of all the things to put in a house. Indeed, there's a whole school of thought referred to as minimalism (see Nina Yau's Castles in the Air blog for an explanation) in which people often aim to own 100 things or less. Nina's list, last time I talked with her, was down to 34 things.

So what is the point of all this paring? Quite simply, when you own as few things as possible, you are able to travel light. When you don't spend your money on stuff, you tend to spend it on experiences instead. In general, experiences make people happier than things. We anticipate our fun beforehand, relish it as we're living it, and then savor the memory afterwards. Experiences are also variable -- lunch with friends is never the same -- and variability forestalls adaptation. The extra chair you never use is the same tomorrow as it was yesterday. You get used to it. That $400 could have been better spent on other things.

To be sure, the dividing line is fuzzy. My porch furniture is probably my best purchase ever. A tent is an object, but it enables camping. I'm glad to have one in my inventory (which is, to be honest, far above the 98-object limit). I'm enjoying getting reacquainted with a Yamaha keyboard these days, and my kids are not about to give up the TV. And since the TV enables me to have some occasional quiet time while my other family members are watching it, I kind of consider it an experience, too. But it's an interesting thought experiment. If you could only take 100 things into a new life, what would they be? If you kept yourself to 100 possessions, what would you spend your money on instead?

Image courtesy of Flickr user craigemorsels.

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