I got a real kick out of a recent article in the New York Times called “Let Me Count The Days“. In this amusing piece, author James Collins takes a look at his box of 5,000 staples and realizes he will never use them all up. His mortality is made real to him when he is forced to acknowledge that his office supplies will outlive him.
A few years ago, I wrote about my mother purchasing a value-pack of Q-Tips simply because she found the unit price irresistible (see A Cautionary Tale about Q-Tips). She knew that she didn’t need that many, and she tried to rationalize the purchase by offering some to my sister and to me. My mother passed away 18 months later, and her stash of Q-Tips did indeed outlast her.
I go through this same struggle every few months with my father. As he is a prodigious contributor to charitable organizations, he keeps receiving “free” address labels in the mail. However, he is on automatic bill pay for most of his obligations, so he seldom mails anything. I once asked him how many letters he mails in a typical month. Using that number and assuming he would live well into his 90’s, I computed how many address labels he would need. He had at least five times that. I shredded many of them and put the rest into a folder called, appropriately, “Address Labels”.
He never needs to go into that folder, because the labels keep coming. Every time I come over, I shred more labels. I know he’s not the only one who has trouble parting with unsolicited address labels, as I have done this for some of my clients as well.
Meanwhile, back to James Collins’s box of staples. It’s not his fault that he has a box of 5,000 — I recently bought some staples, and that’s the smallest box they sell, irrational as that may be. However, he subsequently discovered that he has two more boxes of staples, and computed that he has 13,850 staples left. That’s a lot of staples! I was working with a client recently who also had three boxes of staples. I suggested that she to donate two of the boxes to charity, which she did, along with other office supplies that she realized were more than she would ever use.
Office supply stores like Staples and Office Depot certainly don’t help because they sell things in bulk. Want a roll of Scotch tape? It comes in a package of six rolls. Want a certain pen? You’ve got to buy a box of 20. That underscores the importance of being very organized with your supplies — knowing exactly where you store them, and being sure to check there before buying anything — because it is very frustrating to buy something you need and then realize you already had five of them sitting in the closet or in the bottom of a drawer.
Before you buy something in bulk (office supplies or anything else), think about how quickly you use it up, and whether you are being penny-wise and pound foolish by buying more than you currently need. Especially for those of us who live in small spaces, it often makes sense to pay slightly more per unit price in exchange for not tying up our precious storage space.
In the meantime, go shred some address labels!