27 January 2013

If Your Home Burned Down...


I am not suggesting to actually set anything on fire, but to try a little metaphorical exercise I first heard about in the book l'Art de la Simplicité. If you are at home right now, take a look around you. If your home burned down, and you had to purchase everything again, would you purchase all the items you see around you right now?

For the purpose of this exercise, let's put the money factor aside and assume the insurance from the fire allowed you to cover the expenses for everything you own. Let's also assume you can find the same object or an equivalent easily.

Now, imagine your home just burned down, and, except for what you were wearing and carrying that day, you don't have anything left. Furniture, decorations, kitchen appliances and dishes, electronics, clothes, books, everything is gone.

You move into a new place, and, of course, you need to buy new things to be able to go on with your everyday life. That's where the exercise gets interesting: what would you buy? If you had a clean slate, a start from zero, what would seem obvious, necessary for you to buy again? What would you decide not to purchase? What would you even forget was in your possession before the fire?

Next time you are cleaning/organizing/decluttering, ask yourself that question: if my home burned down, would I have remembered this object? Would I have bought it again?

Introducing the Endowment Effect

I think this is a very good exercise of simplification, because our sneaky brains make us overestimate the value of what we already own, versus what we don't own. This is called the endowment effect. To explain this quickly and clearly, this bias of the brain makes us give more value and importance to our own objects than they actually have.

Like George Carlin said, "Have you noticed that their stuff is shit and your shit is stuff!" In concrete terms, experiments show that we are giving a higher price to an object if we own it rather than if we don't.

I find this interesting because I think this endowment effect prevents us from getting rid of some of the stuff we don't need. Because we overstimate their value, we can't part from them. Which is perfectly fine if you're not looking to declutter your home. But since I am in the process to edit my life and possessions, I decided to give a bit of thought to this endowment effect.

Why imagine your home burning down along with your possessions? Because it helps imagining that you don't own these objects anymore. It helps seeing them again with their true value, intead of being affected by this ownership bias.

Ever since I moved to Paris, in my 25m2 appartment, I pick a space every month to edit. A box, a drawer, a closet shelf... And every month, I go through its content, imagine I lost all of it in a fire, and decide which ones I would buy again. And I set free all the objects which answer would be "no, I wouldn't buy it again".

What about you? If your home burned down, what would you buy again? What possessions would you upgrade? What would you just forget about?


  1. Honestly don't think you're doing so bad, try living with hoarders who insist that they need a cardboard box with bottle caps.

    I would rebuy the bulk of my wardrobe since I have no problem clearing out things (fashion and otherwise) when I don't need/want them anymore. My home is unfortunately filled with junk without me adding to it.

    1. Haha the problem of decluttering with a significant other's possessions in the equation is another problem entirely! I totally understand the problem, having lived with my partner for almost two years before I moved to Paris for work.
      In the end I think any tiny effort is better than nothing at all, so if you keep your wardrobe clear that's a great thing!

  2. If my house burned down I would replace my Macbook, our couch (seriously, I love our couch) and comfy chair, and my basic cosmetics/skin care/beauty products. I'd also replace the TV, because we love to watch movies, and the dog stuff seeing as we only bought her things that she actually needs anyway. That includes the little squeaky frog, who is the love of her life.

    When rebuilding my wardrobe I would focus more on quality than I have done up until now. I would forget about some shoes and accessories (and that is AFTER I have culled most of them), I wouldn't re-buy any of my books other than in digital format, and I would re-buy only a handful of movies. Oh, and I would replace both of my cameras.

    This is a fun exercise, because there really is a lot of stuff I wouldn't bother to replace. It is almost a little bit frightening!

    1. It is frightening! When I moved to Paris I only took a suitcase of stuff from our appartment in Lyon, and honestly, apart from my boyfriend, I don't miss anything I have left there. It is question inducing.

      Also, I think it's a bit of a fantasy to be able to restart fresh. Purge clean of all purchase mistakes or awkward gifts you never could do anything about, and just go buy what you really like...

  3. I would just be sad by all that I can't replace - old photographs, books that were gifts, clothing with sentimental value or just clothing I really love that I know can't be replicated.

    I think I would have to replace my bed immediately because sleeping well is terribly important to me, and I think I would need new jeans immediately because I don't know how to get dressed without them. In fact, I would want most of my clothes back because it took time to collect the pieces I consider staples! I was going to say books, and then realised that most books can be replaced because the titles I have are mostly still being published.

    1. It is true that "irreplaceable" objects like photos, sentimental objects or unique pieces of art raise another type of question. I guess these would be what one keeps after culling the unnecessary...

      But in the end, are there so many of these? Like you say, most books can be purchased again, it probably goes for most other possessions too.