We’re bombarded daily with ads trying to convince us that we need their products. Whether using our own money or credit, it’s all too easy to buy products when we’re out or online. And, all the stuff we buy is getting in the way of us physically and psychologically.
Minimalism is a pendulum swing in the complete opposite direction of our culture of consumerism. And it isn’t that new. In the arts, including music and literature, it’s been a form of expression using limited elements. But, it’s a genre probably most known in architecture, and it was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe who coined the phrase, “Less is more.”
It’s unclear when minimalism as a lifestyle emerged, but it seems more common in recent years. For many, minimalism is a journey to simplify life by owning fewer belongings and also decreasing the stress from too many commitments in our careers and social lives.
The things that make us busy
In an age where so much is at our fingertips, work and social life have blended into one. Although not feasible, technology has made it possible for us to work, socialize and be consumers 24/7. To top it off, in our hours away from work, we're still spending time in front of the television in addition to tablets and smartphones. The New York Daily News reported that as adults, we're spending five hours a day in front of TV screens. Similarly, Scientific American reported that we spend nine hours in front of other screens outside of normal working hours.
So, when we say “We're busy” to why we can't spend more time with family and friends or learn something new, this is where minimalism helps us refocus on what's important in life. The overriding goal is to get rid of extraneous things or parts of our lives that weigh us down, take up space and take away our freedom to do the things we’d rather spend our time on or with.
Minimalism means something different for everyone. For some, it’s living with as few possessions as possible. For others, it’s a kind of “life diet” where they ask themselves what’s needed versus what’s wanted.
The things we own
It's ironic that today people are more transient—moving on average 11 times during a lifetime—that we own more possessions, too. We own so much that we're willing to pay to store it. Since the recession in 2008, the self-storage industry has grown to a $37.5 billion industry in 2017. More storage units are being built with a tally of $350 million by September of last year.
Part of the reason for our personal possession surplus is the affordability of goods. Goods are cheap. Disposable incomes are higher nationwide—$14.6 billion in October 2017. Couple that with how easy it is to get a credit card, and we’ve got many more opportunities to spend when we don’t need to—and really can’t afford to. Credit Karma reports that people have five cards on average.
But, consumerism goes beyond new purchases. Some of us fall into bargain mode. We fall into sales traps that make us think we're saving money because something is marked down. Or, we shop the bargains at yard sales for a steal. The point is, you're still collecting things and spending money no matter how little.
All of this is to say that as a society, we have a problem with stuff. We live in a culture of excess where more is more. Everything is getting bigger—our cars, our homes, even our waistlines. In 2016, the average American home was 2,422 square feet, according to the Census Bureau. That’s nearly double from homes built 40 years before. That’s a lot of space for storing things.
For some of us, there comes a point of realization that our possessions own us—that the storage unit isn't worth it anymore, or the space they occupy in the house is spilling over into our personal space. It's one thing to have everything out of sight, but at some point, what's out of mind will be a problem, if not yours.
For Jenni Johnson of Oldtown, Idaho, clearing away the possessions after two family members passed away opened her eyes to how much we save thinking that others will appreciate it. In addition, planning for the sale of her home also made her realize that she needed to pare down possessions.
“Besides the decluttering angle, I also had other motivations. I was responsible for cleaning out my husband's grandmother's house and my mother's. Besides the tremendous amount of work involved, you gain a perspective on how little interest others have in your stuff,” she said.
Johnson decided to follow her mother's example, who distributed many of her things while she was still alive, and has gone beyond it to trim things down. She knew that everyone already had what they wanted after that, and it made clearing out her mother's possessions easier.
“One thing I definitely learned is that I don't want to leave my kids with a lot of stuff to go through when I'm gone,” Johnson said.
Physically decluttering: getting started
If you follow any minimalist sites, most will tell you to take inventory of your physical possessions. Depending on your situation, make a plan. Do you have multiple rooms to go through? Get your family involved in helping, no matter their age. When my parents put their home for sale, they asked us kids to help clean it out and take what we wanted. It was a great way to get together and be productive. I left knowing I had done my part in making their move easier.
As you go through your things, ask yourself how much you use it or enjoy it. If the answer is “not much,” donate it knowing that someone else might. If something is broken, are you going to fix and use it? If not, you know what to do.
When you have a house full of things with memories tied to many of them, you need a plan. The best-selling author, Marie Kondo of “The Life-changing Manga of Tidying Up,” has influenced a large following of people looking for the benefits of decluttering through her KonMari Method. She suggests making categories of your items, such as clothing, kitchen items and mementos. Take time going through your things. Make it part of your day or weekend, spending what time you can sorting through what to keep or not.
Kondo's minimalistic perspective applies to everything from folding your clothes to organizing your computer files more efficiently. The end goal is first to make everything in life easily found, but it also to have a psychological benefit. After you purge, you should be left with things you truly enjoy and are valuable to you. The act of purging also has a connection with a feeling of control, followed by optimism.
Molly LeClaire of Colville, Washington, is one of many who works at taking control of her possessions. “I naturally have a hard time getting rid of things, which is why my husband and I have always had a full storage unit,” she said. “Minimalism for me means decluttering, de-stressing and holding on to what is meaningful, useful and brings you joy!”
Freeing up mental space: decluttering the mind, body and spirit
The practice of paring down possessions applies to all parts of our lives. A good place to start could be with the relationships in your life. Are you worried about friends growing apart or that the kids are growing up too fast? That's a sign that you want to spend time with them. Look at your schedule and see what you can do without. Do the kids need all those after-school activities? Are you over-committed with work that you're sacrificing your personal life? Make time for the relationships that are important to you. Spend quality time with the people you want. It will improve your relationships with those people and create long-lasting memories.
Apply the same concept to other parts of your life, such as your career or finances. If you're not happy with how your job is going, what can change it? Are you saying yes to too many projects with little benefit to you? Maybe it's time to have a talk with your boss about your workload. Or, think about a job change in the future. You could make time to learn a new skill—there are hundreds of free courses and how-to videos online to help. We all have to work, but work should benefit us in more ways than a paycheck.
This brings us to finances. Most of us owe somebody something, but life's expenses don't have to cause the amount of stress they tend to do. Some bills are givens: utilities, mortgage or rent, insurance, food and gas. Americans, however, have had a history of credit debt. Concrete numbers vary, but the average debt hovers between $5,700 and $8,400. Tackling credit debt requires a commitment to pay beyond the minimum requirement so that the balances are paid off sooner. One method involves making larger payments on the debt with the highest interest rate. When that debt is paid, you apply the same amount to the next payment in addition to the one you were already making. Or, try to consolidate payments with a personal loan to save on interest.
When purchasing food, buying healthy is often more inexpensive than with prepared foods. Shop the perimeter of a supermarket and you'll avoid packaged foods which cost more. Make more home-cooked meals, and, if possible, consider making your own condiments, too.
Becoming debt-free will take time but is possible. Every time you are about to buy something, always ask yourself if you need it or want it. This goes for those of us with children as well.
Go forth and reduce
Minimalism is a way to become more mindful of our surroundings and how we live. It's supposed to help us focus on what we value versus blindly working with little enjoyment. A little-known, stricter version of minimalism has its followers avoid purchasing new items and purchasing what we need from local businesses. The practice (or promise) is called The Compact and was started by a group of friends in the Bay Area in the early 2000s. Other than food or medical supplies, the purpose (and argument) is that anything you need is likely found used. This means shopping at thrift stores, yard sales and listings like Craigslist or eBay. Followers might look at things like gift-giving and either try to make gifts or purchase handmade ones. And, similarly to minimalism, buy only what you need not only as a way to be mindful but also to reduce trash in landfills.
While minimalism may seem like a strict, self-imposed lifestyle decision, in some ways it is a return to the past, when we used to make things we needed, traded or purchased from local businesses. We've become a culture of convenience and immediate gratification where most items are disposable, valuable only for a brief time. Take inventory of what you have and try to donate or sell it. Then, be more mindful of future purchases. The next time you’re out shopping, think about how much you really need that case of mini cans of soda on sale at Costco.