Owning fewer things makes me feel more free inside. I get joy from carting useless or underused stuff out of my house to the local Goodwill donation center. Having clean sight lines in the home is a pleasure, and I can see and better appreciate the things I choose to keep when there are fewer of them.
So, today’s lifestyle tip is really a work in progress: if you don’t need it, get rid of it.
Why minimize at all? The stuff we own can’t be hurting anyone. It’s paid for. The environmental impact of producing it and transporting it into our homes is over. And after all, we might use it someday. Right?
If something you own is lying in a drawer unused, it’s not benefiting you or anyone in your house. But it’s also not benefiting anyone. It’s not serving its intended purpose in the world or any purpose at all. If someone else could receive that item from you as a gift, or buy it from you at a garage sale, or from a worthy organization after you donate it, why not unlock the item’s potential?
Having heaps of unused belongings can actually cause you to buy more belongings too. This happens in a couple of different ways. First, when you have spaces of your home dedicated to things you don’t use, whether tossed haphazardly in a pile in an attic or meticulously organized on shelves in a closet, you’ve created a precedent. Other things will inevitably join the collection because you can always add a few bits to the pile or another box to the shelf. Second, a disorganized collection of unused stuff can make you forget about what’s in there. The refrigerator is a perfect example. Have you ever bought a jar of pickles or a tub of margarine because you thought you needed one, only to discover there’s already one buried in the fridge? This can happen easily in your house. If you’re not hanging onto just the essentials, only what you need most, you might not even remember all of the clothes in your collection. It’s easy to buy extra things when this happens.
When others talk about stuff
The late George Carlin was a pioneer in so many ways. He’s known for pushing the boundaries of obscenity in broadcasting (NSFW). But he was also a minimalist before there was a “minimalism” to talk about in popular culture. The clip above was from 30 years ago! The notion that we are often prisoners to our own belongings, the need to buy bigger houses and rent storage units to hold these belongings, the idea that we strip possessions to the barest essentials when traveling: prescient.
More recently, Trent Hamm at The Simple Dollar wrote a great post about how packing for a long weekend can teach you about what’s important in life. I do travel fairly often, so I think about why I seem to need so little with me on the road and so much when I’m at home. And with the advent of Roxanne, we’re creating a much larger travel footprint in one sense — 9,300 bright red pounds of equipment and all — but we’re also carrying along only what we need to live with while we’re away. I don’t see us as a full-timing RV family anytime soon, yet I admire the discipline of those who do it.
It’s true, there are certain things we’ve acquired as suburban homeowners that we didn’t have in our smaller place in DC. Patio furniture would be one example. But overall, I think it’s probably safe to say we’ve got less stuff in our home than when we moved in two years ago. So how did we do it?
First: things that break or fail
The key to eliminating extra possessions is to constantly ask, “Do I need this?” It’s easier to get to “no” if it’s something you’re already not using. Lindy and I actually started this process more than a decade ago without even knowing it. The microwave broke in our old house. It was a space hog on a tiny counter, and halfway through the process of researching the best replacement, we simply decided we could live without it. We haven’t owned a microwave since, and we don’t miss it a bit. A tea kettle, a toaster oven or a pot on the stove is all we need to reheat things.
We did something similar with the television, also years ago. We realized after the TV went on the blink that we were watching a whole lot of content on our iPads or Lindy’s laptop in a different room. We hadn’t paid for cable or satellite in years. So we never replaced the TV, and we’ve since missed out on tens of thousands of commercial messages telling us there’s something wrong with our home or our bodies, or encouraging us to buy things. No looking back there either. (Naturally, Roxanne came with both a microwave and a TV just to mess with our heads.)
About a year ago, I went to IKEA and bought two dressers. One was for Lindy, a nifty and odd-shaped model with a ton of different drawers and doors. The other was for me, tall, boxy and in a pine finish that wasn’t doing our bedroom decor any favors. Lindy would grumble about the way it looked, and I would think about the time I put into assembling and staining it. Finally, I took the challenge. I sold the dresser to a neighbor who had a matching one, and simply started keeping all of my clothes in the closet. I replaced an ugly dresser with no dresser at all.
You can also consider replacing a broken or failed item with something more modest. We had high hopes for the electric lawnmower, a possession demanded by our new yard when we moved into the house. The previous homeowner had spoken highly of his, and we didn’t have a place to store a gas mower outside. But the electric’s motor gave out after less than two years. One of our neighbors — not sure who — was happy to pick it up when we left it out at the curb. I replaced it with a reel mower. It was cheaper, has fewer parts that can fail, makes practically no noise and gives us some exercise when we’re mowing. I wouldn’t use it to mow an acre, but we don’t own an acre.
Second: duplicate items
Lindy and I were initially excited about something in our home that turned out to be completely unnecessary. When we moved in, the previous owners had placed an old beige refrigerator in the utility room. I’m assuming they replaced it with a new one in the kitchen and moved it downstairs. Beer fridge! We enjoyed having extra space for frozen Costco purchases, and the ability to grab a cold drink for guests on the patio without having to go back upstairs.
But that fridge didn’t actually get a lot of use. It had a six-pack or two of beer and a big bag of frozen broccoli in it most of the time. So we had an old, inefficient, energy-sucking appliance that wasn’t providing much convenience for the cost. Replacing it with something newer could save us $80 a year in electricity, but what about replacing it with nothing? I decided we’d try an experiment. I unplugged that refrigerator and moved its handful of cold items upstairs. If 30 days went by and we didn’t feel the urge to store something down there, the fridge would go. That’s exactly what happened. I found a neighbor on our local listserv who had a long-term house guest and needed more cold storage. We loaded Old Beige into her minivan and have been a one-fridge family ever since.
The duplicate items test worked really well a few weekends ago, when we swept through the kitchen and the collection of kitchen items we’d been storing in the basement. We found coffee mugs we hadn’t used since we moved in 2014! Our serving dishes were overstocked and in three different places, so we thinned the herd there too. Why so many chopsticks? No idea. We decided that if our place settings exceeded the number of chairs by a factor of two, we were probably doing something wrong. So we built a massive Goodwill pile, eliminated most of the need for overflow kitchen storage, and made ourselves feel good every time we open a drawer or cabinet.
Looking to the future
We’re hoping to instill in our daughter a healthy sense of what possessions are and are not. (She got into the act in the kitchen also, organizing her drawer of tools and supplies.) We’re also mindful of the estate we’ll leave her someday, hopefully many years from now. And even before then, as we look to downsize this house and do more traveling when we’re empty-nesters, we’ll have a head start.
I don’t think we’ll ever be one of those 100-thing families, nor do I think we’ll ever reach the true ideal of the right number of possessions. But we’ve got a lot more closets and drawers we can reduce in the meantime. You might call it chasing minimalism, or releasing our cows.
Next time, we’ll talk about clothing and kids’ stuff.
Also published on Medium.