I started my minimalist lifestyle about six years ago and have been really aware of it for the last three. To some degree I have always been a minimalist due to my personality, but it’s been only in the last few years that I’ve really consciously made an effort to live minimally and committed to it as a lifestyle. I consider myself a natural minimalist, someone who eased into minimalism due to circumstance rather than someone who read about it and decided to change their lifestyle. I had never heard of minimalist until about three years ago when I read an article about it and realized I was already living the lifestyle.
Six years ago I moved from a large house to an apartment. My personal space was cut down by about 75%. If you think about your living space now, regardless of how large or small your home is, trying to reduce it by 75% is a duanting task. I thought I would struggle with this transition, I had no idea how it would turn out. Today I enjoy living a minimalist lifestyle and wouldn’t want to go back to my previous life of consumption. To be clear, I don’t live in a hut in the woods trying to grow my own food, I’m not Amish, I have a seemingly normal lifestyle that isn’t noticeably different from anyone else. Here is what I learned and some tips for anyone interested in trying:
- Items and needs compound with each other- The more you have the more you need. Every time you buy something, there are several other accessory purchases that go along with it. For example, consider a normal single family home that has an eating area in the kitchen and a formal dining room. If your home cost $100/sf (low estimate in US) and that room is 250 sf that means you spent $25,000 to have the room. You also had to buy a table and chairs and any other furniture. You’ll pay for utilities, taxes and insurance on that room every year. Once every several years you’ll need to renovate with new flooring, paint, lighting, etc as well as replace/repair the furniture. That one extra room that gets used on Thanksgiving and Christmas will cost tens of thousands of dollars.
- Constantly ask yourself if items will improve your life- In the dining room example you may spend a few thousand dollars per year to eat 3–4 meals. Do you really want to spend and extra $1000 to have your in laws come over for dinner? This applies to small things as well, especially with food. Will I be any happier by eating the larger size, or will I still get all of the enjoyment of the meal while cutting the calories in half with the small one? Every time I buy something I ask myself if it is really going to impact my life in a positive way. If it’s not, or if the impact is minimal then I don’t buy it.
- Cheap doesn’t mean it’s a good value- If something was $100 and it’s on sale for $80 and you buy it, you didn’t save $20, you spent $80, the original price of $100 is irrelevant. We buy a lot of things that we barely use because they are low dollar, small stakes items. I hate when people preach about how they gave up coffee and saved $5 per day and over 50 years they’ll invest that money and become a millionaire. Most people will just spend the $5 on something else they don’t need and their sacrifice of coffee will he worthless. If you like your coffee and it puts you in a good mood for a few hours, it will be the best purchase you make all day. The small purchases to avoid are the ones that you don’t really care about, things that you wouldn’t notice if you didn’t have them. There was an outlet store that I used to go to frequently, they always had heavily discounted clothes that I would buy even though I didn’t love them. I quit going becuase it tempted to make impulse decisions that I didn’t need to. Buying cheap items that I never wore would add up quickly, I eliminated those shopping trips and didn’t notice anything missing from my wardrobe. The most valuable clothing item I’ve ever bought was a pair of Johnston and Murphy dress shoes that cost about $250. Obviously there are more expensive shoes in the world but at the time this was the most I’d ever spent on a clothing item. They were comfortable and I’ve been wearing them 3–5 times per week for the last 4 years and continue to for years. These shoes will likely cost me about $0.25 per use when I replace them. I’ve bought other shoes for $80 that I wear once a week for a year and then throw them away, costing about 6x as much per use. Minimalism isn’t just about money, it’s about having less stuff. Now I pick my favorite 2 pairs of shoes and wear them daily, I don’t need 10 pairs and this way I use far less space in my closet.
- Expensive doesn’t mean it’s a higher quality- I have certain things that were cheap and still made well and lasted for years. I have a TV that cost $250 a few years ago. I’ll likely continue to use it for 10+ years and only spent $20 per year. I could have bought one for 5x the price but it wouldn’t have done anything extra. My TV isn’t fancy but it does what I need it to and will work for a long time. If I had spent $1000 on a nicer one it wouldn’t have made me happier or lasted any longer.
- Live by Pareto’s law- Pareto’s law is the 80/20 rule which states that you will get 80% of your output from 20% of your inputs. This was originally a strategy in business for evaluating customers, it applies to your personal life though. You’ll get 80% of your needs covered by 20% of your expenses (items). Even if you live in a mansion with 50 rooms you’ll spend all your time in the kitchen, family room and bedroom. This fits closely with the law of diminishing returns, which states that with each addition repetition, the marginal return of your invest decreases. In business this means that if I have one store location and I open a second, I doubled my production. If I have 100 stores and open number 101, I only added 1%. Each additional store will be relatively less valuable than the previous one. In your personal life, you may need one car. One car will get you everywhere you need to go and satisfy most or all of your needs. Buying a second will do very little for you. Buying a 5th car will accomplish almost nothing. You can only use one at a time and even though you have 5 cars, you’ll likely drive your favorite one everyday. In my kitchen I bought a cookware set with 20+ pieces, this was a mistake because I use the pan every day and the others just waste space in the cabinet.
- Learn about Sunk Costs- It’s a lot easier to avoid buying items than to throw them away. Once you bring an item into your home, you feel an attachememt and value just by having it. When you try to get rid of it you’ll think of a “what if” scenario where you’ll need the item in the future. If you never bring the item home, you won’t have to go through the torture of throwing it away. It’s a lot easier to pass on items at the store when you have to spend money on them than it is to get rid of it after you purchase it. The tricky part is items that are free. We are obsessed with free things. Grocery stores could sell pieces of candy for $0.10 and most people wouldn’t buy it, they could lower the price to $0.01 and they sell about the same number. But it were free, nearly every person who walks in the door will take some. Even though the difference between $0.01 and $0.10 is 9x the difference between $0.01 and $0.00, the fact that it is free will make people want it. It doesn’t matter what you spent on something, whether it was free or $1000, once you have it, the only thing that matters is how valuable it is to you. If I buy $1000 pair of shoes and hate them, I should eat the $1000 and replace them. It doesn’t matter what I spent, if the item isn’t valuable to me I should discard it.
- Disregard money completely- This only works if you have some disposable income. Depending on your financial situation, you can set a limit on what items you’ll buy with no regard for price. I used to obsess over money and try to save pennies constantly. What I do is if the item is under an certain dollar amount, I ignore the price and decide if I’d rather have it or not. I started with $5 and have raised that number over the years. So if I’m at the airport and a soda is $3, I just decide if I ant one or not and ignore the price. The $3 doesn’t matter, I just choose whether I’d like to have a soda. This works both ways. Often I decide not to buy whatever the item is even though it may be cheap.
- Replacement Cost x Chance I will use item in 12 months (%)= Value – I use this calculation whenever I decide to get rid of something. For example if I have an item that cost $100 to buy and there is only a 10% chance I will use it in the next year, the estimated value of that item is only $10. So rather than throwing away a $100 item, I’m throwing away a $10 item. This comes into play for things that are seldom used such as season items or special ocassion pieces. I had an old snowboard that I rarely used. I kept it thinking that I could loan/give it to a friend someday. A used snowboard is only worth $80 and there was only about 5% chance anyone would want it within a year. So the value of that snowboard was about $4. I sold it on eBay and got $75 for it. Even if I had just thrown it away, it would have been worth $4 to get it out of my closet.
Regardless of what any book, blog, Quora answer or anything else tells you, there are no rules to minimalism. It’s not a religion or a cult. It’s a personality trait, just like anything else. If you aren’t by a minimalist and you try the lifestyle and hate it then stop. If you love an item an you use it regularly, keep it. Minimalism isn’t about reducing expenses ( although that is a common side effect), it’s about allocating your resources to things you care about and provide value. I used to watch a lot of TV, then I cancelled cable a few months ago. I still have access to things like Netflix but overall my supply and consumption of TV has dropped dramatically. I thought I’d miss it but soon realized that most of the live TV I watched was just news babble that wasted time. Now I spend more time doing other things that are important to me. Last season I watched 10–15 hours per week of NFL and college football. I could get a graduate degree in less than 15 hours per week.
If you are scared to give things up, try to give up one item that is easy to live without. If it goes well, try another. Try living without things and you’ll be surprise by how little you cared about them.
Be a little selfish. You probably spend a lot of time worried about other people’s needs and very little on your own. Take an account of how much time and money you spend on things for other people. If your like most people, you probably spend far more resources on other people than yourself. During college I had multiple jobs at all times. I spent my days in class or at internships, then worked in a restuarant on nights and weekends. I worked over 300 days per year, often with several weeks going by without a single day off. The only time I took time off was on holidays to visit distant relatives that I only saw once a year. I spent 80% of my vacation days devoted to making small talk at family reunions. I’m not saying you should ignore your family but for me, I was spending all my free time one something my parents guilted me into. Eventually I made the decision that I wasn’t gonna fly across the country and that a phone call would have to do.
For those of you who are worried about your appearance and think you need to be well dressed and groomed everyday, I won’t argue with you but I will offer you this story. In my twenties I worked in asset management at a real estate investment trust. It fit the stereotype for a high end financial environment. The office was in one of the nicest buildings in town, people made a lot of money, my boss drove a Bentley, the men all had Rolex’s, the women carried around designer bags. I was young and just starting so I didn’t have any of the fancy items. I had 5 identical dress shirts that were the same brand in either white or blue. I wore one of a couple pairs of gray or black pants everyday. My whole wardrobe including a nice pair of shoes was under $1,000 and I appeared to wear virtually the same outfit everyday. Nobody noticed and definitely nobody cared. The CEO made $10 million+ per year and wore the exact same sport coat and white shirt every single day. I realized people are focused on themselves. I’m a strong advocate for a professional appearance and believe looking nice can give you an advantage but the reality is that nobody really cares what kind of designer label your wearing. Very few people will notice if you buy your clothes at Wal Mart.
If I could have to take one thing from this answer it would be to assess the value of things and to allocate your resources accordingly. Whatever it is you care about, spend your time and money on that. Giving up some material items will free up space in your life for what’s important. Even with just a few thousand dollars of disposable income per year, you can pursue nearly any hobby or interest. I like to paint, for $50–100 per month I can go to the art store and buy enough supplies to make several pieces. A year ago I told myself I would buy every book I wanted on Amazon Kindle, I read everyday and it cost about $250. What did I give up to buy these things? A couple trips to the mall and a couple nice dinners.
If minimalism interests you there are loads of resources where you can learn strategies and hear stories of peoples experiences. On of my favorites is a documentary called Minimalism: a Documentary About the Important Things. It tells the story of two friends who were drawn to the minimalist lifestyle and the experiences that they’ve had with it. Another on of my favorite books on the topic is The Minimalist Lifestyle.
Minimalism does not need to take over you life either. I encourage you to try out small aspects of it. Find something that isn’t necessary and doesn’t make you happy. This could be something as small as skipping a weekly shopping trip or something as large as canceling your cable. Try living without it and see what happens. I try this with various things all the time and usually I don’t even notice what’s missing. The key is go three weeks, or 21 repetitions, without it. This is the approximate time it takes to break or create a new habit. At first it may be difficult, breaking a habit is never easy. Use a commitment device increase your chances of success. Commitment devices are things that you use to control your own behavior. For example if I’m going to give up alcohol, I can tell my friends what I’m doing so that they hold me accountable. I can also remove all the alcohol in my home so that I won’t be tempted. Being successful will be dependent on whether you are able to create an environment where the task is easy. In this example it is really difficult to give up alcohol if your friend invite you out or if you keep a case of beer in the fridge. Eliminate the temptation to make the experience easier. After a few weeks take not of how your life has changed and whether the effects are positive or negative. You may decide the benefits don’t outweigh cost and decide to go back to your former behavior. You may decide that drinking is fun and a part of your social life and want to continue in moderation. You may decide that giving up coffee is incredibly painful for you and there are few if any benefits to giving it up. Minimalism is about making your life easier and joyful, not sacrificing your favorite things for no reason. Only remove things that cause more stress than they are worth.
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