Minimalism and the Sharing Economy

“F—ing sharing economy,” I thought to myself as I turned the ignition key to the Zipcar a fourth time without any luck. I was supposed to be on my way to a meeting with someone whose time is more valuable than mine. An early start to a very consequential day at work. But now I was late.

I’d been thinking all week about a blog post on the sharing economy and how it relates to minimalism: only owning what you need, sharing resources, using things and giving them back. But at the moment, I had more pressing concerns. After 5 minutes on hold with customer service, I switched to the Prius in the next parking space and was on my way. (This was my second call to Zipcar in two days, as I had a rental the day before with no washer fluid.)

Serious downside to renting or borrowing things: we may be tempted not to take care of them as we would our own. Tragedy of the commons. “Don’t be gentle, it’s a rental.” It’s the kind of thing that gives me a headache sometimes when I think of renting out Roxanne to the wrong people.

But done right, the sharing economy works. It defrays costs for the owner of the resource, reduces costs for the people sharing it and exacts less of a toll on the planet as a result. Zipcar and ride-sharing services like Lyft work because they get better utilization out of an asset — a car — that is usually idle more than 90 percent of the time.

Another example: I’m the rare homeowner I know who does not own any power tools. I am neither handy nor blessed with ample spare time. For me to bear the cost of a drill, or impose the externalities of manufacturing one, or figure out a place to store it, to use perhaps once a year makes no sense at all. I can borrow one, rent one or hire someone to make holes for me if I need to. If I had a woodworking business or was interested in tinkering with things at home, different story. But I don’t.

In fact, from an economic perspective, I’ve started to wonder whether homeownership makes any sense at all. I’ll leave it to brighter financial minds than my own to write about, but I know it’s not as simple as “throwing your money away on rent.” There are advantages in liquidity of assets and mobility. And I don’t know a single renter who has ever replaced an underground sewer line or reglazed a bathtub. (We’ve done both.)

As we plan to retire early and think about downsizing, I wonder if a rental should be part of that discussion instead of a purchase. (I don’t see us living in Airbnb all the time or full-timing in Roxanne either.)

But short-term lodging is a part of the sharing economy. XY and I recently took a three-day trip to Philadelphia and stayed in a neat little apartment in Old City. I was grateful to our host for giving us a comfortable place to stay, and for going somewhere else when we did. It was clearly his personal residence, and all of his belongings were there to prove it. We also have friends who use GuestToGuest as a way to travel for less and give their daughters some new cultural exposure.

Work takes me out of town on occasion, and that means staying in hotels. Which I love. And I have the TripAdvisor reviewer status to prove it. It might have something to do with travel starting very early in life, or both parents having experience in the hospitality sector. There’s a self-indulgent aspect, like usually a bigger bed than at home, unlimited access to ice cubes and the ability to blast the room air conditioning after returning from a run. But there’s also a minimalist aspect, with fewer of the trappings of a full-fledged house and only carrying the essential belongings for the trip.

I realize that short hotel stays are not the greatest thing for the environment. There’s the water and energy needed to wash the bedding, plus all the coffee packets and tiny shampoos. I try to do my part by reusing towels and bringing my own soap or taking home what I don’t finish using.

Much as I enjoy exploring different places and glimpsing different views, my fondness for temporary lodging is also rooted in something more fundamental. Something more Maslow-shelter-ish.

There is a great relief that comes from being somewhere temporarily for a reason, whether it’s business or pleasure, and having zero worries when it comes to the place where you’re staying. You get to focus more on the reason you’re there, and a lot less on the lodging than when you’re at your own place.

It’s not that I’m sloppy or take anyone’s efforts for granted. I am a tidy hotel guest who always leaves a tip for housekeeping. We do make our beds and change our towels regularly at home. But I also take great comfort in knowing that if something is wrong, there’s a team of people who are a lot more skilled than I am at fixing things, it’s their job to fix things, and these aren’t my things anyway. The slow bathtub drain or malfunctioning thermostat will get their due, and I don’t have to worry about them.

Worry is just a mental formation. Why should it happen at all?

Occupancy of our own homes and cars is temporary anyway. There’s someone else living in our prior house, and we’re the third family to own this one. I see my former red Prius in a neighbor’s driveway every other dog walk or so. The difference in the amount of time we possess these things is just a matter of degree. So what exactly is the mindset shift that happens between owning and renting (or borrowing), and why? Is the answer to cultivate this kind of fleeting sense of non-attachment toward one’s own stuff too? Surely what’s required isn’t a massive residential staff or owning so many properties that you lose track of them?

I wish I knew.

Back, then, to the flummoxing car experience where we started. Away from the frustration of the moment, I later realized that the rental economy might have saved me from even more hassle. Yes, a Zipcar gets more wear and tear than a vehicle with a single user. And yes, Zipcar’s maintenance standards might have led to my first failed attempt to drive across town. But on the other hand, what if it had been my own car that wouldn’t start? I wouldn’t have a spare at hand in the space right next to it, so I’d have to finagle a way to get to my meeting and get a jump start or tow a dead vehicle out of a parking garage. The Zipcar’s immobility was no longer my problem as soon as I switched cars.

I got to that meeting 10 minutes late and survived the rest of my day. When I returned my Prius for the day, its dead minivan neighbor was gone. I’m a little curious about where it went and what happened to it. But I’ve moved on.

Also published on Medium.

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