In 1999, After graduating college, I moved to Austin. I packed everything I needed into a little four-door red Saturn. My first apartment was 700 square feet, roughly the size of a 3-car garage. Of course, this meant my apartment was pretty empty, so off I went to fill it up with stuff.

A few years later, I moved out of my apartment and put everything I owned into a 10 foot long moving truck. The new house was 2,100 square feet. It had a dining room (I never had one of those). There were three bedrooms (yet only one of me). And a kitchen, living room, 2-car garage, patio and backyard.

I had 3 times as much space and so much more to buy. I turned one room into an office, one room into the guest space, I bought dining room furniture and the list goes on. After a few years, we decided to move out. We wanted to get ready to build a family. That means we need more space.

We rented a 24 foot long moving truck and hired professionals to move everything. Our new house, at 3,400 square feet, was almost double the size of our first one. This was a two story and we actually didn’t use the second floor for years. After 13 years in the house, stuff is everywhere.

At the time, all this made sense. This was the path you took. When you looked around, everyone was moving up and getting more. The first time I stopped to think about it was in 2014. I heard about a job opportunity in Australia and started to consider it. What would a move to another country look like?

I knew Australia was an amazing place. While it would be tough to be on the other side of the world, it would be a great learning experience for the whole family. It would be one heck of an adventure. But what about all our stuff?

I walked through the house and took inventory of everything we owned. I made a mental list of each item I would NEED to bring. At the end, that list was shocking. Outside of the bare necessities, it was blank. There was nothing that was an absolute need. Going through the exercise made me realize how little all our stuff actually means.

Here’s the problem. American culture works against you every day. Advertisers bombard us with over 5,000 messages a day, trying to get us to buy more stuff. And it works. Some reports show we buy twice as many things today as we did 50 years ago. Another study shows that 9 out of 10 teenage girls rank shopping as their favorite activity. We have to stop this cycle.

The world wants you to buy more stuff

This all starts with wants vs. needs. A need is something you must have. Food, water, air, clothes, education are all examples of needs. A want is something you would like to have. It isn’t necessary, but something in you says it would be nice. In some cases, you fool yourself into thinking a want is a need!

There are two ways to be rich: One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little.
—Jackie French Koller

I made a promise to myself when I was 16 that my first new car would be Nissan 300Z. When I was 22 I made good on that promise. I bought a brand new silver 350Z (they stopped making the 300’s). I made myself believe this was a need. Don’t get me wrong, I had a lot of fun with that car, but looking back I was wrong.

My need was transportation. My want was a brand new 350Z. I had choices. Instead of spending $30,000 dollars on a sports car, I could have spent $15,000 on a reliable, used car.

This is all easier said than done. I get it. It’s also hard to learn from other’s mistakes. It seems like we all need to go through these lessons. My hope is that I can shorten the time it takes to learn yours.

One of the things to consider before buying something is to think about the real cost. Say you want a brand new $300 phone. How much does it cost you? Let me guess, you said $300? Sorry, wrong answer.

First, you need to account for sales tax.

$300 x 0.08% = $24

So now, the cost is $324. But now you have to consider how much money you had to earn, to get $324. Good old Uncle Sam, takes money out of every paycheck you get. It’s called income tax.

$324 x 0.15% = $49

To get $324 in your bank account to buy that phone, you need to earn $373 ($300+24+49).

Before you hand over your cash, I want you to think about one more thing. What if you didn’t spend the money? What if you invested it instead? How much would it be worth down the road?

Here is a little trick. Add a zero to the end of the number and this tells you how much it would be worth in 30 years. That $373 is actually worth $3,730 to you down the road.

Over time you will learn what brings you happiness. I can promise you more stuff is not the answer. When you find things that add value to your life. Buy them. But, think of everything you buy as an investment. How will that one thing return value to you every day or every year?

You are making an investment every time you choose NOT to buy something. The investment is in yourself. By saving and investing that money, you shorten the time it takes to reach real freedom (more on this later).

People say that we don’t own possessions, but rather that they own us. I can tell you that this is true. When you own more, you need more. You also have more stress thinking about all you have to lose. It is a terrible cycle that is hard to stop. My hope for you is that you see this earlier than I did and never get on the hamster wheel.

This post is part of a series of letters to my kids. My goal is to reflect on and capture as many life lessons as possible. Here is the current list I am working from.

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