The Container Theory of Life

by Anne Heerdt


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We have all seen this among our friends, neighbors, maybe even ourselves. The two or three car garage with no vehicles inside. The extra storage in the back or a basement stuffed full. Closets so full the clothes wrinkle hanging up or are piled other places. The drawers that never quite shut once they are open. The purses that are so packed they cause back strain. It is the American way to push for bigger, better and ultimate expansion. Most of our ancestors came here because home was too crowded and too short on resources, and America offered the ideal of unlimited expansion, opportunity and prosperity. This fantasy can cost us, but the good news is that by recognizing limits and employing the Container Theory we can be healthier financially.

The basic definition of the Container Theory is that material stuff has limits. Money has limits to how far it can go. Objects have limits to how much space they take up. Time has limits. Food has limits. The earth has limits. That one idea can stretch out and affect everything, but to start small and effective, we can simply focus on the stuff in your home, your car, or your backpack. There is a limit. Now add to that basic idea that everything has its place and you have the foundation of the Container Theory. Everything has a place, and it is not unlimited. It sounds simple, but in practice, it can be both difficult and very rewarding to implement.

I learned the Container Theory the hard way, like everything really worthwhile. I was living with my family of four, about to be five, in an apartment under 1,000 feet square. To those in places like New York or California, this seems okay, but my family is from the Midwest. There are garages and storage units and cheaper housing. I had to make some really hard decisions. There was no money for a storage unit. I wouldn't have paid it anyway, so what we owned had to fit. No excuses.

When I started to think seriously about the limits to our apartment, I realized that we were able to cook while camping, so we could certainly cook with what fit in our kitchen. A microwave and coffee maker did not fit on the small counter, so we didn't have them. A cupboard for mugs was only so big, so each new mug meant we had to get rid of an old one. Not only did this keep our kitchen functional and clean, but also it stopped me from shopping. My children had to limit their toys to the storage space we had. Clothes were recycled out whenever we got new ones. The items that were too valuable or expensive to replace, such as the essential camping gear, was stored in strange places like the second bathroom. Each decision was underscored by the Container Theory. This is the size of our box. What will fit? Surprisingly, when I started to do this in more areas, we saved money too. It saved money when I didn't buy things we had no room for. It saved money to find what we already owned. It saved money to get creative and warm coffee on the stove instead of buying a coffee maker.

It would be easy to focus on the difficulties. I don't want anyone to think that your friends and family will be so impressed with how your light bulbs fit into one plastic bin that they celebrate with you. It won't likely happen, but it is worth it. Really. How is it worth it? In a philosophical way, it is dealing with limits, and limits deal with reality. Not dealing with reality creates pain in many ways. Have you ever spent money you didn't have or try to squeeze back into those jeans you have outgrown? In a practical sense, your home feels so good when things fit where they belong and you can find them. That is what having a home and a limit does. Your space and stuff is functional. Pretty awesome. If you still don't believe me, try this. Open one drawer, cupboard, or purse that is overflowing and difficult to close. Clean it out of everything you don't need or does not belong. Then shut the drawer, close the door or pick up the purse. Imagine if your whole house felt like that. Things are not overstuffed and misplaced. That is the real reward.


Anne Heerdt is the mom of 3 and a certified teacher in Colorado. She has been annoyingly frugal for many years.

Take the Next Step

  • As the author instructed, open one drawer, cupboard, or purse that is overflowing and difficult to close. Clean it out of everything you don't need or does not belong. Then shut the drawer, close the door or pick up the purse. Now, imagine if your whole house felt like that.

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