In a retail business, inventory is a double-edged sword—a necessary evil. A retail operation needs enough stock on hand to avoid empty shelves, which will alienate customers and reduce sales. But, they must be careful not to have so much inventory that is starts to burden the business. Excess inventory requires warehousing and storage. It depreciates, creates opportunity for theft, and can become obsolete. It takes up floorspace that can be used for revenue generation. Like the wind, inventory is only beneficial when it moves—and creates cash flow. The turnover of inventory, rather than inventory itself, is the lifeblood of retail.
Why, then, is the personal inventory of our lives treated so differently?
We view “Life inventory” altogether differently. We’ll let items sit in drawers or closets for decades without ever using or gaining value from them. Why is this? Why do you need 23 bath towels when three would do just fine? Perhaps this is due to attachment we have with the items we own. While this is to be expected for things like photo albums or a childhood stuffed animal (like my Kermit doll, at the top), we mysteriously maintain this attachment for odd things like DVDs we never watch, books we’ll never read, a video game we never play, electronics that have long-since been useful, or exercise equipment that has never felt a bead of sweat. These things have no embedded emotional attachment apart from the fact that they’re “ours,” we paid a lot for them at one time, and we don’t want to get rid of them.
Look around your home? Every item you own is a SKU of inventory in your own business of life. Some of our life inventory gives us value every day (a cell phone, a favorite pair of jeans, the windows of your home, a bicycle) or has such low carrying costs and market value that removing the inventory would yield no real benefit (digital media, a high school yearbook, or old love letters). For this sort of inventory, keeping it on hand makes sense. Unfortunately, we gain almost no value from almost all of what we own—yet we continue to own it, anyway.
The Case of the Invisible Net Worth
A few months back I decided to take stock of a couple rooms in our house. We are certainly not hoarders; I pride myself in having several completely empty kitchen drawers (how many others can make such a claim?). However, one night while walking around with the baby, a bulb began to burn brightly in my mind…”where the heck did all this come from,” I said to myself. After living perfectly fine for a year in a Manhattan apartment that was one-tenth the size of our home (and with only one-fiftieth of our possessions), I posited to myself, “why all the rest?”
One drawer or closet after another was relatively filled with “stuff.” A dozen flower vases, hundreds of pens, a half-dozen seldom-worn suits, knick knacks, paddywhacks, you get the idea. I took out a notepad and started writing it all down. By my wife’s urging, I’m not listing it here (house pornography), but the living room and kitchen alone were 230 separate items. I even assigned a conservative resale market value to each item, over $3,000 in total. I found $3k in “stuff” in just two rooms with a cursory inventory survey. Why, Eric? Why do you have all of this? If I extrapolated this experiment over our entire home, I expect I’d arrive at EASILY over $100k in inventory. Three full bedroom sets and mattresses, plus a nursery?! This was eye-opening.
I set out on a mission. Liquidate. I knew this wasn’t going to be an overnight thing, I’m not these guys, so I started with easy things: books, video games, and DVDs. One-by-one, items were added to my online Amazon inventory. Soon, I expanded. When we cleared our NYC apartment in August, we Craigslisted what furniture we could. Like a consumerist onion, as we peeled back layers of inventory, a seemingly never-ending pile of “more” appeared.
So, I got going…
I got efficient. Rather than paying for USPS mailers, I went on Amazon and bought a box of Bubble Mailers. These things work for most small items, and they’re under 30 cents a pop. And because I was dealing in high-volume, I would try to only go to the post office once I had two or more orders. And, luckily, a post office is about 100 feet from my job.
I got creative. Rather than trashing a broken laptop, I sold the battery and the power cord. Or, rather than leaving all that old DirecTV equipment sit in a closet (we cut the cord this year), I sold all the remotes, cords, and gear that they left behind. Finders keepers. I started looking at stuff differently. Everything either needed a real purpose, or it’s going into the online storefront.
I got smart. Knowing I’ve been using my work laptop exclusively, I sold my hardly-used Chromebook. (If I leave the company, I can always buy another in about 48 hours—for probably less than what I sold this one for). And why, oh why, did we still have two Garmins when all we ever use are our iPhones for GPS? An easy $50.
I got surprised. Who’da thunk that Turtles in Time for Super Nintendo would sell for $56.94? The same price as the system itself? Or that an old workout DVD would sell for $18, when you can stream every workout imaginable on YouTube? It’s still amazing to me what some things will sell for.
I got money. Life-changing money. $1,580.61 in net sales (sale price less fees) since mid-August. From a total of 49 items. That’s just under $100 and 3 items per week. I continue to make a goal of listing $100 a week worth of stuff. The sale itself is more erratic, but I can control the pace of how much I list.
I got space. Any square foot used for storage is one less square foot that can be used for something else. A common question I get for some low-value things I sell (like DVDs) is, “Eric, why sell something if you are barely going to break even?” Easy answer: “Why not?” So much of what we have has ZERO value to us. In fact, because it is taking up space in our home and minds, and occupying space that could be used for something useful (an opportunity cost), it actually has NEGATIVE value. If you can get $1, or even $0, in order to remove something with NEGATIVE value, why wouldn’t you?
I got enlightened. No matter how much I sell, I never miss a single thing. Never once have I said, “Oh, dang, I wish I hadn’t sold ______.” Never. In the
rare impossible event that I regret selling something, I can easily buy it back for the same or (since junk depreciates) lower price. In a way, I’m just letting my inventory depreciate on somebody else’s balance sheet.
I get aggressive. I list things even if they’re not suitable for selling. I sold a case of golf balls a while back, knowing full well that all 20 balls were scattered throughout the home (babies love golf balls). When it sold, it was a mad rush to find all 20, but who cares? Same thing for a stereo that’s currently up for sale. The thing works fine, but the remote is long gone. If/when it sells, I’ll just buy a remote immediately and send it along to the buyer.
I get happy. It feels so good to get e-mails now. I have this rather massive (to me, at least) online inventory of stuff. Every couple of days, an e-mail pops in. Would you believe that as I’m typing this right now, I got an e-mail that I just sold my “Bart vs. The Juggernauts” Gameboy game? Unbelievable. That’s the power of positive thinking, for ya. When an e-mail comes in, my typical reaction is, “Oh, I forgot I even had that on there.” That night, I’ll put the item in my backpack and the following day I’ll drop it off at the post office. It’s seamless. I lose nothing, I gain space, and I gain money.
I get excited. Perhaps the most exciting part of all of this is that I’ve barely started. Even though we live rather sparsely (compared to most Americans, that is), this is still like trying to empty Fresh Kills with a handshovel. Everywhere I turn I see more opportunity…big opportunity. A set of tires, a couple bedroom sets, a brand new king size mattress, a couch and loveseat, dozens upon dozens more DVDs and books. Where the eff did all these DVDs come from?! A lifetime of excess purchases. It doesn’t need to be done overnight; I like moving at a nice methodical pace. Therefore, I’ll just keep listing $100 per week in stuff, keep the inventory updated (so I’m always the lowest price), and let Amazon’s billion consumers peck away at it.
$100 per week might be a high estimation long term. Eventually, I figure, the low-hanging fruit will be sold. But, if I can sell just $20/week into perpetuity, by the time our first-born is a college Sophomore, I’ll have over $50k (at 8% interest)–enough for a few years of in-state tuition. Is it possible that my daughter’s college education fund is just sitting around in closets and drawers? Yah, it probably is. That’s the power of time and compound interest.
Selling your obsolete life inventory is, quite possibly, my favorite side hustle. The benefits are immense and immediate: more space, less clutter, more freedom (assuming you ever move residences and need to box up all that crap), zero loss, and a little tax-free money in your pocket. Once you start selling, you’ll realize that you own more than you think, and certainly more than you need. The liquidation is self-reinforcing, too. You’ll find you get invigorated to list more and more—like a little perpetual yard sale.
Don’t wait, start today!
Thanks for reading!