Stop Pretending the Future Exists

There is no such thing as later. It’s just an idea, flagrant hypothesis, and deceitful invitation. It’s an excuse and the sultry allure of fantasy. The future does not exist. 

Only the laters that pose more dire consequences may be worth planning against. If you don’t save for retirement or have insurance, you might find yourself hopelessly indebted, bankrupt, achingly poor, or homeless. These are non-existent laters worth considering to some degree, based on your comfort level with risk and current circumstances. These are extremes, so we’ll put them aside for the moment.

The laters I’m referring to are all the others. The ones where we say, “I’ll have more time later,” or “I’ll need that later.” We keep possessions to support these predictions. I often hear an attempt from clients to hold onto items with a seemingly a logical explanation, “I don’t want to give that away because, even though I haven’t used it in [insert number] years, I haven’t only because [insert excuse]. When things slow down later, I’ll use it. Plus, I don’t want to have to buy it again.” 

I’m frugal. I don’t want you to buy anything again either. But I know you’ve turned your home into a storage unit. It either causes you stress, required you to pay for a larger home space than needed, makes wayfinding more time consuming or wasted money when buying items you have, but couldn’t find. Your goal is laudable, just not realistic.

We don’t just keep for later, we buy for later. As I discuss in Take Stock of What Your Stocking, we make assumptions about our future self being just like our past self with our purchasing habits. We think we save money and gain convenience with larger quantity purchases. Occasionally we do, but mostly not. Think about the items, like a 500-count bag of cotton balls, that you bought to save a buck. Often, these cotton balls get tossed aside as your needs and habits change (see We Change But Our Stuff Doesn’t ). That’s the smallest of examples. I have a friend who bought a Honda Accord in her early 20’s. She lived in the city, drove infrequently, and was single. Her thinking was that she was going to getting married and have kids and she would “grow into” the car. She did get married, bought a house and had a kid- over a decade later. Now she and her husband are talking about purchasing a different car to suit their current life. She made a big purchase for a later that may not have occurred. And the fact that occurred so much later than expected is essentially the same. 

If any of the above reflects your thinking and lifestyle, there’s a financial trade-off worth considering. We focus financial savings on buying more than what we need, for a better price, often at times we don’t need the items. But we ignore all the wasteful spending we engage in for a later, and ignore the cost of keeping. This financial equation requires a deeper look. 

Aside from financial burdens, emotional and mental weights can be heavy too: The unrealized adolescent dreams, hoping s/he will come back to you, or aspirations built upon unlikely scenarios. We get caught up in our histories and use our futures as a crutch. Past events did, in fact, occur, but our memories are not as important as we believe them to be. They are rarely accurate and rarely relevant. The past doesn’t exist anymore, except in the consequences we now live in. 

Keeping physical reminders, as a way of shoehorning the past into the present, may do more harm than good. For example, heirlooms as decorative items and old trophies can be sweet nods to the past if incorporated sparingly. They aren’t intrinsically meaningful; we infuse them with meaning. Sometimes we keep these memory carriers because we believe that they persist a version of a past that we want to hold onto for dear life. Or that we believe other family members will want these items … later. Either way, the emotional attachment to objects plays into our common proclivity toward keeping items for a nonexistent future.

The allure of later also manifests as simple procrastination. While this is less of an overall mindset problem, it certainly reflects momentary laziness or distraction. We may say, “I’ll go through that box later,” or “I’ll get myself organized later.” Later may happen, but not at a time convenient for you. Often, the careful work you wanted to conduct to review your stuff (and possibly sell, repurpose, etc.) will give way to a time crunch or more distractions. An attempt to meticulously downsize may compound an unexpected stressful situation. Consider how this plays into all the stuff you store at your parents’ home, whether it’s stuff you’re saving for your future self that will have a larger home or children, or you simply don’t see the rush after a decade of inaction (for more, check out When You Leave the Nest But Your Stuff Doesn’t). But that’s at best. At worst, and most extreme, you may pass this work to your mourning children or other relatives. If we rely too much on what we predict the future to be, we risk unneeded stress for ourselves and those close to us. Procrastination seems like a day-to-day issue, but it’s not.

Cleary, I’m making a point about living in the present moment. It’s a tough concept, one that sages, spiritual leaders and mindfulness practitioners keep edging us toward, and that we resist. Fully embodying a mindset of presence can seem out of reach. That’s okay. Start by reaching for the stuff you’ve been holding onto for a nonexistent future (or to tether you to the past) as a physical discarding of this old idea. When your home space reflects this new reality, you will in turn become more present, save money and time, and let go of later.