When I moved home to Pennsylvania in 2016, after five years of teaching in China, I was looking forward to sorting through the stuff in my storage unit—until I discovered what was inside: 500 Pez dispensers, 200 books, years-old clothes, a vinyl record player and stacks of records. I couldn’t believe these had once been my most prized possessions, worthy enough to justify a $2,500 storage fee.
So, I decided to clean house—which I thought would be easy enough. After all, I’d lived without these things for five years.
While I was excited to declutter, I didn’t realize how much of my identity was tied to these items. In high school, my friends nicknamed me “Pezgirl” because of my huge dispenser collection. For years, they were all I received as birthday and Christmas presents. I felt similar connections to my books and records.
In fact, I’d used these large collections as a way to connect and make friends in high school and college. I wasn’t sure who I’d be without them. On top of that, they’d fueled my emotional spending: Whenever I was stressed or upset, I’d self-medicate with a new record, book or dispenser I could show off to my friends.
When a prospective Etsy buyer offered $250 for my entire Pez collection, I hesitated—but ultimately said yes. It was tough, but the more stuff I let go, the easier it became. Hey, if “Pezgirl” could offload her whole collection, surely the other stuff wouldn’t be so hard.
In the end, I made about $500 from buyers on Etsy, which I donated to a charity that restores Buddhist temples, a local animal shelter and to help Syrian refugees. I gave the rest to a Habitat for Humanity ReStore. Turning my baggage into a way to help others felt good.
But here’s the kicker: Getting rid of my collections didn’t hurt my friendships or social invitations. It just forced me to find new ways to connect with people through other common interests, like cooking and photography. To my surprise, this exercise helped me become closer to some people I’d known for years.
In the year since, I’ve made a conscious effort to be grateful for what I have. I’ve also learned that while things may make me happy in the short term, it’s fleeting. Now I spend my money on better quality food, so I can cook different recipes—which makes my husband’s belly pretty happy—family vacations and even saving up for a rainy day. Turns out, I’m onto something: Research pinpoints these examples as ways money really can make us happy.
I’m also more likely to talk about a bad day or stressful event with a friend, instead of buying something, which strengthens my relationships and protects my wallet. And finally, I’m spending even more time volunteering and donating to those in need. That’s given me a sense of purpose I always looked for, but never found, in Pez dispensers and vinyl records.