Note: This is a revision of a post I wrote in August 2012.
I once had an interesting discussion on an online forum. One of my friends asked, “How do you get started living minimalistically?” I was able to quickly throw out some tips on decluttering, but the answer to the question is much more complicated. If it were just about stuff, we would all run to Goodwill a few times and be done with it.
So, I examined my journey toward minimalism, and I’ve researched the paths of other minimalists. What I’ve realized is that, in order to live a more minimalistic life, you need to consider four things: the reason you have so much stuff, the way you want your life to look, starting (and finishing!) a decluttering process, and preventing the clutter from returning. Let’s take a look at each of these.
First, Let’s Define “Minimalism”
I was introduced to the concept of “minimalism” when I met a couple who were living on a 30 foot boat. They owned two outfits, one pair of shoes, and he used a rubber band in place of a wallet. We were intrigued by this lifestyle and are living quite similarly, but this is not the only face of minimalism.
Let’s take a look at how some of the more popular minimalist blogs define minimalism. Leo Babauta, one of the earliest and most influential writers on minimalism at Zen Habits and Mnmlist defines it this way:
It’s simply getting rid of things you do not use or need, leaving an uncluttered, simple environment and an uncluttered, simple life. It’s living without an obsession with material things or an obsession with doing everything and doing too much. It’s using simple tools, having a simple wardrobe, carrying little and living lightly.
According to The Minimalists, “Minimalism is a tool used to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.” On his blog, Becoming Minimalist, Josh Becker defines minimalism as removing clutter, decorating in a minimalist style, using money for things that are more valuable than physical possessions, and living a counter-cultural life that is attractive to others.
My favorite “definition,” however, is the concept of lagom. According to Francine Jay, on her blog Miss Minimalist, lagom is a Swedish word that roughly means “just enough.” She states, “The lovely thing about lagom is that it’s a desirable state of appropriateness, or enoughness—and has nothing to do with scarcity or deprivation. It’s both the opposite of having too much and too little, and instead a celebration of moderation.”
That is the kind of mindset and lifestyle that we’re talking about, when we say that we want to live minimalistically.
What Does Minimalism Look Like?
Minimalism has many faces. For us, it means owning only enough possessions to live comfortably on an uncluttered 35 foot sailboat. For Lois, who blogs at Living Simply Free, it means living in a 300 square foot apartment. However, this apartment is anything but empty. According to Lois, ” I restore furniture and do many crafts so I have supplies here, but I keep the bare minimum needed to do what I need.”
For John, from the blog Practical Civilization, it means living simply, owning less, and having his own guitar-teaching business. Kathy Gottberg, from SMART Living 365 and her husband are also self-employed and enjoy having lots of time to spend together in their California home. She refers to minimalism as “right-sizing” her life.
For Nancy, at Just a Backpack and a Rollie, it means working toward becoming a “roving retiree” with her husband, traveling and living out of two small bags. For Eliza and Joel, who blog at The Fearse Family, it means consuming mindfully, buying used whenever possible, and being conscious of their impact on the environment. Eliza states, “We take things a little slower and take a moment to consider the things that happen to us and the choices we make. It doesn’t always make our life happier, but it does always make us feel better about the things we choose in our life. We don’t let life zip by.”
Cathryn, from Concrete Moomin, lives in an apartment in central London, where it is not necessary for her to own a car. She states that minimalism involves, “trying to stay aware and be mindful of what I own or what I’m thinking of buying and sometimes using a ‘one in one out’ policy on things like clothes or books.” For Patrick, who blogs at Bumfuzzle, it means living nomadically with his family–first on a sailboat and now in a vintage motor home. Patrick explains, “We are accidental perpetual travelers. We live simply, travel far, eschew normalcy, all while trying to maintain our boat or bus as a comfortable home for our family.”
Joy, from Joyfully Green, states that, “I wouldn’t consider myself a traditional minimalist. I live in a house that’s bigger than we need, and it’s not sparsely decorated. I think I’m more of a non-consumerist. ” Her family shops at second-hand stores for clothing and books. And they live about an hour outside of New York City, so they certainly have plenty to choose from. Her family shops (mostly) at consignment stores for kids’ clothing, and for books, they head to Strand Books in New York–“the best store for used books on the whole planet!”
How Did I Get So Much Stuff?
All clutter comes from somewhere. For me, it was a combination of family heirlooms, “must have’s” that I thought I needed in order to be a successful adult, collections, and great deals that I couldn’t pass up.
Lois’s clutter began when she first moved out on her own and strove to make her house look “like something out of a magazine” to show that she was “successful.” John never collected very many items, but he found that, like me, he ended up buying clothes he didn’t wear. He also inherited a number of knick-knacks.
Like Lois, Kathy felt the urge to overspend as her income was growing. She explains, “We got a bigger, nicer house, nicer cars, nicer stuff…but we weren’t really any happier than when we were just trying to figure it out with little or no money.” Nancy, too, grew up with the belief that stuff meant success. She states, ” It was a visual mark that you had made it so we all kept upgrading. Often without eliminating.”
Eliza and Joel kept a number of collections and had a hard time turning down good deals. She states, “He was a childhood collector (a trait he still holds in adulthood) and has kept all of his trading cards and figurines and old toys. Now he collects media – lots of vinyl, DVDs, VHS, CDs etc. I love the vintage aesthetic – particularly the 1960 and the 1970s. Because a lot of the time I found stuff either cheaply or that was rare I just kept filling the house with more and more.”
Cathryn’s home became cluttered when she and her husband moved in together. She states, “Both me and my husband had lived alone for a while before we met so when we got our first place together we had at least 2 of most things, including furniture.” Joy’s weakness was books. She explains, “My husband and I–and both of our children now–are big readers, so books are our collective weakness! An old bookshop has a lure like a siren’s call!”
So what about you? Take a long, hard look at the source of your clutter. This is really the first step toward decluttering.
How Would Your Dream Life Look?
Decluttering, or even minimalism for that matter, is not an end in itself. If you are aiming to make minimalism your only passion and decluttering your only hobby, you probably won’t be happy. That is why it’s important to consider your intentions, as you move toward this type of lifestyle.
For us, our passion has always been sailing. We wanted to have the time and the money to pursue this passion, and that required some restructuring of our finances and our priorities. We wanted to live aboard full time, and that led us to seriously reduce our material possessions.
Lois’s drive is to live in a way that sustains the environment. In order to limit her consumption of the earth’s resources, she has made upcycling and second hand shopping a staple of her life. She states: “Rather than purchasing what I need new I first look to find it used, and am not ashamed to dumpster dive for what I need. I have very little in the way of clothes, shoes, or even kitchen utensils.” Living in a small apartment has helped Lois to achieve these goals. She explains, “My little apartment has allowed me to experiment with how little I can get by with without feeling deprived. As a result I have no microwave, no fridge (I do have a small freezer to store food I grow), and no stove.”
John states that, ” I suppose my main goal in decluttering was to reject what the mainstream was telling me: ‘Buy this widget to be cooler, look better, be in the know.’ I called BS on this and enjoyed the money and peace of mind I saved in the process.” And he adds, “The overarching goal is to surround myself with awesome people and memories. I want to collect experiences with people, not things.”
Kathy’s goal is to keep her life “right-sized,” to stay completely debt-free, and to continue to invest in real estate so that she and her husband can work, or not work, at will as they get older. With a goal of traveling when desired and following her passions and interests, Kathy plans to live purposefully no matter where in the world that might lead. She states, “We chose adventure and experience over stuff and we have been working on paring down to the basics so we can sell our rent our house and hit the road sometime soon, staying where we like for as long as it suits us.”
Eliza and Joel’s goal is to create a calm, stress-free home. She explains, “We want to be able to focus our energy on people we love and exciting experiences, but we also love being at home and want home to be a place that reflects us and is soothing to be in.” Cathryn’s goal is to simplify her home, so that less time will be spent looking for things. She states, “My goal in decluttering was to reach a point where we only own things that we need, that are beautiful or are very sentimental in some way.”
Patrick’s family began with the goal of spending a year sailing the Caribbean. They later decided to sail for four years, and then ended up traveling in a motor home. As for their future plans? According to Patrick, “Tomorrow we’re driving to Deception Pass State Park. Beyond that, who knows? One thing we’re sure of for our future is that we’ll never own a big home filled with lots of stuff. We like our simple life and being able to pick up and go at the drop of a hat.“
For Joy, it’s all about living a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. She avoids new products that were “probably made in China under bad working conditions.” She states, “Manufacturing, packaging, and shipping new products collectively take an awful toll on the environment, and I really want to minimize how much we contribute to that whole mess.”
Minimalism will not look the same for everyone. Your dream might be radically different from someone else’s. Without a vision, you will just purge for the sake of purging, and run the risk of living a life of doing-without. Both of these activities are surefire ways to experience burn-out.
All Right, So How do We Get Started?
For Lois, it began when she removed knick-knacks that well-meaning friends had given her. And then she got rid of her television. According to Lois, “Once that was gone I was on a roll and couldn’t stop decluttering. That space was going to reflect who I was and no one else..”
John got started decluttering during a move. As he was packing, he saw how wasteful he had been living. He states, ” I had a weird obsession with only hanging onto stuff I knew I would use on a weekly basis. It gave me peace of mind knowing that I wasn’t hoarding anything or taking my fair share of raw materials from society.”
Kathy began decluttering when she sold her house. She explains, “Because we were still in sales (real estate) and saw that the market was going to (and then did) crash we decided to be very conservative and scale back on everything. We sold our big fancy house before things got too bad and came out okay (we were never over-leveraged) and bought a smaller, energy efficient house completely free and clear.”
Nancy and her husband began by selling her husband’s collections on e-bay. From there, they progressed to emptying out closets and selling the items on Craig’s List or donating them.
Eliza and Joel decided to buy nothing new for a year. She was surprised at how much this transformed their lives. She explains, “Decluttering was just a bi-product of the whole transformation from consumers to “non” consumers – if there is such a thing!”
Cathryn has moved a number of times, and this helped her and her husband to make progress decluttering. She states, “With each house move we gradually filtered through everything and for a while we didn’t even own any furniture and just rented furnished places to make moving house a bit simpler.”
Patrick’s family decided to live nomadically 11 years ago, so they sold most of their belongings in preparation. Patrick says, “From that point on we were hung-ho to sell everything we owned. We didn’t make it, however. We still ended up with a bedroom full of stuff in my in-laws basement—mostly big ticket furniture items that we couldn’t figure out how to sell (this was before Craigslist was really a thing).” These items were purged after they returned from sailing.
It was a sad situation that led Joy to embrace minimalism. After her parents passed away, she and her sister had to go through their possessions. She was surprised at how many possessions they had accumulated, after living in their house for so long. Joy explains, “I didn’t have children at the time, but I already knew that I didn’t want my future children to have to go through all of my stuff for weeks, weeding out and throwing out.” She began decluttering after that, making sure that the stuff is “moving out, not in!”
There are lots of “how-to” articles for the task itself, so I don’t feel the need to re-invent the wheel. All I can add is that, if you’ve got a passion you’re working toward, you will have success with any method.
Some Links on Decluttering
How Do I Keep the Clutter FromComing Back?
This is the challenge.
We would declutter, then it all would mysteriously come back. Here are some tips for keeping your house clutter-free:
–Make sure friends and family understand, in the gentlest terms possible, what you are trying to do. Christmas used to be a great clutter-fest, until I started writing about minimalism.
–Look back at your reasons for gaining clutter. Address those specifically. For example, if you take in a lot of retail therapy, find some other way to release stress.
–Lois recommends having a place for children and grandchildren to display their artwork. If it is full, something must come down before something else can go up.
–John uses a “one item in, one item out” policy. If he buys something new, something else must be thrown out.
–Kathy imagines whether an object will fit into her right-sized home and 99% of the time it won’t. Decision made.
–Nancy reminds herself of her goals, when she wants to make a purchase. She explains, “I see something that I think is cute or fun for the house (sometimes even useful) but then I think, ‘Ya, but you will be hauling this to the Goodwill in less than a year.'”
–Eliza and Joel set goals, such as removing 1000 items from their house within a year, or getting rid of 2 items for every item they buy.
–Cathryn avoids shopping at stores where she knows she’ll be tempted to make a purchase.
–Patrick avoids recreational shopping, and only shops when something wears out.
–Joy puts catalogs into the recycling bin as soon as they arrive. Instead of having a basket of magazines to read, she keeps a basket of books.
Now all that’s left is for you to get started!
Note: The photographs in this post were taken by Joy. If you would like to learn to take pictures like that, you still have time to enroll in her photography course! Here are the details.