THE BRAZEN CAREERIST- Stuff: Less really is more, especially bed bugs

When I was a kid, there was money everywhere. (My great grandpa was a lawyer for the Chicago mob in the 1920s, and my dad’s generation is still living off that money.) When I went to college, my parents cut off my money, and I remember crying– crying that I’d never be able to shop at Lord & Taylor. But it didn’t take long for me to see that people don’t wear Lord & Taylor skirts to class. In fact, most people don’t wear Lord & Taylor skirts anywhere because some of those skirts could feed a family for a month.

1. Test the meaning of money with scary stuff
One of the first things I did after college was sell three strings of pearls to get to Los Angeles. The only time I missed those pearls was when my mom asked where they were.
When I was making a lot of money, I had great work clothes and a BMW (hey, I lived in LA), but that was about it, in terms of splurging. I kept an inexpensive apartment, and people would say I was nuts to live there when I had so much money. They told me I was uncomfortable with success, but I stayed there. In hindsight, I realize it felt safe to live somewhere I could afford if my company went bankrupt. Which it did.

2. Put a bunch of stuff in storage
When I moved from Los Angeles to New York City, my husband and I rented a 500 square-foot apartment. We told ourselves we’d only be there for a year, so we put all our books in storage, most of our furniture, out-of-season clothes, and everything we wouldn’t be using in the next three months. The only way I could put the stuff in storage was to tell myself I could go back and forth every week getting stuff I missed. We ended up staying there six years. We took almost nothing out of storage.

3. Understand aspirational clutter
When we had a baby, we threw stuff out, and we learned a lot about how what you keep in your small apartment is a statement about your values– like the six books we bought a year and didn’t read. The treadmill is another loaded object because if you throw it out you’re admitting that you’re never going to use it. Keeping it, even unused, maintains your dream. We instituted a rule that if you brought something in, you had to take something out. Maybe others had this rule, because there is always really good stuff left on New York doorsteps.

4. Know that you could dump everything
And then we got bed bugs. In fact, our whole building had bed bugs, and maybe the whole city. We had two kids under four years old, and I started staying up all night keeping the bugs off them. The bugs and their eggs could be in anything made of fabric or wood. Here’s how long the bugs can live without food: eighteen months. The bed bug expert said that most people won’t give up their stuff, so they take the bedbugs with them when they move. To ensure no bugs followed our move, we took with us only things that could be boiled in hot in water or thrown in a hot dryer. We ended up taking less than half of the size of a small U-Haul truck.

5. Throwing stuff out is not wasteful
In Madison, Wisconsin, we started with just about nothing. Sort of like college kids. You think that throwing everything out is so costly and such a waste of money. But in fact it taught us how little we needed most of the stuff we had, and that made us buy much less going forward.
Penelope Trunk has started several companies and worked for many more.