The Hidden Joy of Taking a Life Inventory

One of my apartment-mates lost his wallet, and now we both have records of every object we own.  Last month, he returned from a series of conferences related to his physics research in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and realized that he had misplaced his wallet. Both he and my roommate could have sworn he brought it back into the apartment upon his return, so an extensive search of our tenement ensued. In the process of rummaging through every article that he possessed, my disgruntled apartment-mate began to catalogue each of these items in turn. His reasons for doing this, he explained, were three-fold:

First and most obvious, was that it would ensure he had left no stone unturned in his search for the missing wallet.

Second was the gains in efficiency such an accounting would bring. By recording in detail each object in his possession, he would be able to check if something was missing in the future, what constituted his item as opposed to someone else’s, and even the historic level of consumable goods he needed to sustain his admittedly minimalist lifestyle. He joked to me that with this inventory in hand, someone could literally run his life for him. The minutiae of everyday life could be bought and sold with no questions asked.

And his final reason for keeping an inventory of all his worldly possessions was that once he started, it was impossible to stop. Knowing exactly what you owned, what you survived on, felt so good, he said, that it was difficult to just leave some things uncategorized. A certain catharsis was obtained from this form of control and order.

To me, this last point hit home. I consider myself to be a man of little desire for worldly things, and I was looking for a way to reduce my footprint even further. I decided to mimic my apartment-mate, who had started out on his categorization voyage at first in the hopes of recovering his lost wallet, and began to record everything that I owned.

I started with the contents of my backpack, and eventually took on a more orderly approach. Like an accountant devising a chart of accounts, I began to paint broad categories; furniture, clothing, accessories, household goods, foodstuffs, educational materials, toys/games, etc. With these categories in place, I went around my apartment, recording every object in its proper category and assigning a rough monetary value.

The results of my inventory are not shocking, neither to myself nor to a casual observer. However, they are informative about my lifestyle, and above all else, extremely comforting. Equipped with the knowledge of the roughly 170 line-items that make up my physical existence, I feel newly confident in my ability to either pare that number down, or shift its distribution in such a way that reflects a more wholesome, sustainable way of life.

For example, clothing makes up roughly 29% of the value of my assets. I have over 50 shirts, both button-up and t-shirt, currently in my closet. While their value isn’t that great (due to depreciation and the fact that I thrift many of them), it still constitutes a large number that is not really that necessary. Compare this to foodstuffs, which at the time was only valued at $164.25, or 4.4% of the value of my assets. This essential part of living was valued at less than one-twentieth of all the things I own. Granted, much of the value in food is consumed on a continual basis, but if I really wanted to live in “accordance with nature”, to paraphrase Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, I should cut my clothing to represent a share of monetary worth that is more in line with that of my food. Additionally, my phone takes up just under 11% of my assets’ value. While this strikes me as a good thing, I would like to someday be at the point where my phone represents greater than a quarter of the value of my worldly possessions. This is not to say I want a fancy, expensive phone. Rather, it is a desire to have in my possession a predominance of things that are used in my everyday life, instead of only for special occasions. 

To conclude, I look forward to updating my life’s inventory on a consistent basis, in order to create the changes in my life that I would like to see. For the sake of order, or for the unescapable transparency such an activity brings, I encourage you to take the plunge and do the same.

Many thanks go to my unnamed apartment-mate for the inspiration behind this article. My heart goes out to you for the loss of your wallet.