Being a minimalist (when everyone around me is not)
Right now, I have a box beside my desk, filled with stuff I want to give to a charity. I haven’t donated it yet because I’m still agonizing — should I give it away?
Of course, I should. I don’t even remember what’s in the box. I clearly don’t need or use the stuff. I described my plight to a friend, who seemed confused. “You just … give stuff away?” she asked.
Yeah, I said; all the time. I have a small house, but there seems to be no end of stuff I find. Clothes I don’t wear anymore; little gadgets or stuff that someone gave me, but I don’t use. She was astounded.
I think part of what slowed my trend toward minimalism is that I’m surrounded by people who are decidedly not minimalists. We live in a culture where our value is hinged on what we own, and what we buy. We’re always racing for that nicer house, a new car, the newest phone that can do whatever.
But that’s not what life is really about. The other day my husband and I took a walk and explored a new place, and it was a ton of fun. More memorable than any recent purchase I’ve made.
I have a lot of reasons for wanting to be a minimalist. Part of it is environmentalism, and not wanting to use a lot of resources. But another part is that I don’t want to have a lot of clutter and debt. I want everything I own to have value, and a purpose.
In The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo recommends not trying to force other people to change, but instead, focusing on improving your own life (in her specific example, decluttering). Others will see the change in you, and be inspired to follow.
Does this work? Not often.
People do what’s easy, and whatever makes them happy. If they’re stressed or bored, they shop. I used to do it, and sometimes still find myself idly looking at a clothing app when I’ve read everything new on my favorite sites. When I realize what I’m doing, I close it.
I was recently trying to think my way out of a problem. The problem is this: I need a car to get to work. The distance is too long to bike or walk, even if there were bike paths or sidewalks, and the route is too convoluted to take a bus (it would take 1.5–2 hours, and the route doesn’t time up with my work schedule at all).
So what I could do is:
- Get a new job closer to home. (I’ve been trying and it hasn’t happened yet.)
- Move. (Possible, but would be expensive, and I’d have to move again in a few years.)
I recently explored another city close by, and was astounded. There’s a beautiful apartment complex right next to a place I could work. If I lived and worked there, I could walk to work, no problem.
Had I known about it a few years ago, I could’ve set up everything and not needed a car. I could spend days off relaxing, not getting oil changes. Instead of spending my weekends doing yard work, I could be writing and maximizing my income.
But when I was graduating from school and starting out my life, no one said, “You know what would be really great? If you found a job you love and lived close by. You’d save so much stress from not needing to do car maintenance and cleaning gutters.”
No, the default was, “If you’re successful, you have a house and a car.”
I know I’m only thinking about these things because I don’t have a lot of money. I’m a millennial, and the economy wasn’t the best when I graduated. People in my parents’ generation could buy a brand new house in the 1980s for a nickel (okay, maybe it just seems that way), and their money paid enough for them to have a new car every few years and have a bunch of kids and surround their lives with stuff.
The default was, “If you’re successful, you have a house and a car.”
The ideas still persist, but the incomes aren’t there to justify it anymore. Millennials face these two competing ideas: 1) that they should own a lot of stuff, and 2) they’re never going to get out of debt.
I think a lot of people don’t question that. I try to save money. I get anxious when I go to someone’s house and there are a ton of brown boxes of stuff they’ve ordered online. A lot of it isn’t even opened yet. I order stuff online, but seeing a stack of stuff just triggers this “no no NO” reaction in me.
Like, do you really need all that stuff? How are you paying for it?
When I tell people I don’t want to go to restaurants for awhile, because I’m trying to save money — but that I’d love to take a sandwich and have lunch with them, say, in a local park, or that I’d like to have them over my house for dinner — people get confused and then never invite me to a restaurant again.
I was recently invited to a wedding, and several people asked what type of dress I was going to buy. I replied that I was going to wear a beautiful dress I have, and people looked really confused.
I try to make do with what I have before I go out and buy something new. Everyone else seems to have this idea that buying stuff is great. “I don’t need it, but it was only five bucks, so why not?” If I buy something, it has to be because I need it.
Part of my concept of minimalism has been made possible by technology. I don’t need an alarm clock, calendar, notebook, wristwatch, and desk phone, because it’s all been replaced by a cell phone that can fit in my pocket. I don’t live the way people did in the 1980s, because life is completely different now.
Every product is reviewed online. I can do research and buy a quality product that will last. Appliances? I pick ones that are guaranteed to basically last a decade or more. Instead of buying clothes that fall apart after being washed twice, I can buy quality secondhand brands that will last years.
And I’ll keep all that stuff, even if newer and shinier stuff comes out, if it’s all still good.
But when most people look at me, they always don’t see a “minimalist.” People just see someone who needs to buy more dresses, more gadgets and more stuff. I think I lead a very ordinary life, except that I’m careful about what I purchase and what I keep.
I used to get really happy when I bought a new item of clothing and received compliments on it. I would buy things just because I knew people would notice. But then I had a closet full of stuff I rarely wore.
I think I lead a very ordinary life, except that I’m careful about what I purchase and what I keep.
I used to get excited about going to conferences and getting swag. You know — pens, tote bags, lanyards, all that. But I have pens, and I have closets of tote bags. I have small tote bags, large tote bags, insulated bags for groceries. And who needs more than one lanyard?
I’m starting to think all of my efforts at being a minimalist are paying off. Recently, my husband invited family over for lunch. At 10:00 a.m. I panicked, thinking I could never get the house ready in time. But I looked around and realized everything was tidy. All we had to do was wash dishes, wipe down surfaces, and vacuum, and the house was presentable to guests.
Housework takes less time, and I’ve started to do more yard work (while still having some time to write). I try to take a lot of pride in my house and its upkeep, with the thought in the back of my mind that I’m going to sell it one day and change things up.
I’m going to box up the stuff by my desk and make an appointment for a local charity to pick it up. And I’m going to go through the closets and get rid of even more stuff I don’t need.
As in all things, it all comes down to balance. Yes, other people are probably going to buy more stuff than me. But I have goals, and minimalism can help me get there.