It is finally Moving Week for the Mustache family, and we’re right in the thick of it. The new house, while still sporting plain plywood countertops and missing some frilly extras like doors and trim, is finished enough to sustain life so we decided to make the jump as early as possible.
But the rush to empty and clean the old place while simultaneously compressing our lifestyle by 1000 square feet has been a very revealing exercise. Despite our best efforts to live a sensible, frugal, and minimalist life over these past eight years, we have somehow still ended up with an absolute shitload of unnecessary crap. Boxes of it. Storage rooms, closets, and nooks full of it. Even now as we try to ruthlessly triage the stuff between sell, donate, recycle and trash bins, the torrent seems unlimited. How did we end up in this odd position?
A deeper archaeology of the debris has revealed some useful details. There’s a pair of underused Men’s hockey skates. I haven’t skated since I left Canada in 1999, so these particular bits of life baggage have tagged along for 15 years and 5 US addresses while never seeing a patch of ice. Why do I still have these? Two pairs of rollerblades (his and hers) have a similar history. We’re already up to one medium-sized box.
Then there are the sentimental items like photo albums, mementos from high school romances, cute candle holders that never seem to work in your current house, a once-fancy Yamaha player for the antique digital media known as “CDs”, several hundred discs written in this format, a translucent skull with a strobe light mounted inside (?), and a wooden devil pitchfork that I made hastily for a 1997 Halloween costume that somehow never gets lost*. Plus a well-stitched horse head that my older sister made in home economics class sometime in her early teens.
And all that is before we get to the real source of Stuff: kid-related objects. I have fiercely avoided buying battery-powered plastic toys throughout my son’s lifetime, but somehow these things have still entered our life by the dozen thanks to the generosity of others. An enormous honking driving “Turbo Rig” that got a few laughs around his third birthday. Various other vehicles, humanoid figures, and swords. A pair of detailed pirate ships that he bought with his own money before realizing that his building kits (most notably Trio and Lego) provide longer-lasting entertainment.
My family is living in the happiest and most fortunate of situations, and I actually love the cleansing and organizing effort of moving to a new house. So the above should not be read as a complaint. More of a self-mocking and a reminder that we can do better in curating the things we bring into our lives. After all, most of my own junk turned out to be from my earlier adulthood, when a high income teamed up with a large living space to produce a very low threshold for acquiring new things. In the most recent three years, a stricter approach has delivered much better results.
Minimalism – Isn’t That Just for New York City Millenials?
Even a casual embrace of Minimalism will bring great improvements to your life, so in reality, every smart person should be dipping their toes in its refreshing waters. There are mental benefits: a clearer mind so you can focus better on the experiences and people that mean the most to you. And financial ones too: with less stuff you can live larger in a smaller space, which frees up hundreds of thousands of dollars over your lifetime. These dollars feed back into your freedom, allowing you to live wherever and however you like.
Even a vague and fuzzy adoption of minimalist principles can make a huge difference. Without it, I’d be in a cubicle under fluorescent lights on this fine Monday morning in June, furiously typing brackets and function calls into a compiler, still 26 years from the finish line. Instead, I’m currently sitting under a shade tree, 9 years into retirement and casually typing these thoughts into a thin silver laptop which will promptly be folded closed whenever my family wakes up so I can make them breakfast.
So if you haven’t done so already, you might want to change the way you think about new stuff. The tricks that work for me are as follows:
A Lifelong Burden
When presented with a spiffy new object, most of us think only of the present pleasure it may offer. The Sharper Image Digital Bluetooth Wine Bottle Opener will get you drunk while fostering a futuristic vibe at your parties. I try to look past that first thrill and imagine the rest of the life of that gadget – taking up space, restricting future moves to new homes, causing your worry and pain when it eventually breaks, then finally sitting in a landfill for 100,000 years as it burdens the next 3,000 generations of humans. This scenario should be mentally reviewed for all non-recyclable plastic items and bits of electronics.
This applies equally well to gifts: when you give objects of questionable long-term use, you are really handing out lifelong burdens. Similarly, you can safely declare all weddings birthdays, and religious holidays Free from Manufactured Gifts, if you’re the planner.
Some Objects Actually Simplify Life
Adding a handy Yang to the above bit of bummer Yin, you can acknowledge that we are not perfect and you might as well make the most of the society you are born into. So you can let yourself slip and participate in our group silliness in a thoughtful way. For example, I happen to like certain gadgets like digital cameras, sound recorders, music players, and GPS navigators. I also make good use of a phone and a computer. But nowadays the smartphone has integrated all of these things into a very smooth and humanist single object. Owning this one simple thing lets me forget about many complicated things, so I do it gladly.
Similarly, one good resharpenable knife will replace a lifetime procession of cheap ones, a reasonable bike will replace a lifetime of car upgrades (and purchases of ever-larger pants and belts), and a set of core tools and skills will eliminate a lifetime of having to find others to maintain the stuff you do choose to keep around. Sometimes more is less, in a good way.
Never, Ever go “Shopping”
My greatest ally in buying less stuff, has been not even knowing what I am missing. Since 2000, I have done virtually all shopping online. No shopping malls, no clothing stores, and construction materials only when I couldn’t find an Internet or e-mail based way to get the same stuff. We’ve also been without broadcast TV or radio service, and had no magazine or newspaper subscriptions. This is still no magic shield: Amazon still makes buying stuff far too much fun, and library books, The Economist, Nature, Wired, thoughtful comments and emails from MMM readers, and other geeky online information fountains still provide way more information (both useful and useless) than my limited brain can properly absorb. But making our best attempt at a low information diet can at least allow us to choose which information and products we consume, rather than having them pumped into us.
Preventing Works Better than Purging
Combining the two points above into a single action, I find that the best cure to a cluttered life is to avoid letting the clutter in in the first place. It’s easier to prevent than it is to cure.
So instead of running a “budget”, where you allow yourself a certain amount of waste allowance or “fun money” in various categories every month, I enjoy starting with the idea that Zero is the ultimate budget. Then you carefully evaluate each potential expense and happily admit it only if it truly meets your goals.
As a beginner in a debt emergency, this filter will be very tight because very little is worth more than your sanity and freedom. On the other hand, here in my old age with greater wealth, spending on things like luxury food and more expensive experiences is very open, but the acquisition of new objects is still heavily scrutinized because that “lifelong burden” effect never goes away no matter how rich you get.
Occasionally I slip, and the pain is noticeable. For example, last year I bought a used “Roku HD” video streaming player, and it didn’t work with my projector**. This device has taunted me from my office shelf ever since, as I have tried to sell it and give it away without success. The lost $45 is negligible, but the mental burden is palpable. I should have known better than to buy the thing in the first place, because I already had a perfectly functional way to watch movies by plugging in the laptop.
Still, life goes on and is grander than ever. We are shedding material burden and moving up in the world as we transfer our lives to the new house. I just wanted to share the experience with younger readers so they can learn from our mistakes. A lighter storage closet leads to a lighter heart.
This piece in UCLA magazine studies our clutter culture and shares some juicy pictures of houses thankfully much worse than mine.
How Big is your Circle of Control, an article I angrily typed out last fall, looks more closely at the benefits of mental minimalism, which is surprisingly similar to careful curation of your physical crap.
* And as you can see if you look carefully at the picture at the top of this article, that damned pitchfork made its way to the new house, when a friend found it while helping me move and brought it along for his lawbreaking rooftop couch ride up the hill.
** because of the bullshit invention called “HDCP” copy protection that the movie studios snuck into our consumer products, which ironically makes it much easier to play pirated movies than legally purchased ones unless you happen to have the newest viewing equipment.