I always wanted a chauffeur. That used to be something high on my outrageous dreams list. I’ve always hated driving, I’m a terrible navigator, I’m definitely the kind of person who forgets where she parked, and I saw the whole thing as a chore.
That’s why going car-free has been so great for me.
Honestly I feel like I’m getting away with something by not driving. Most of what I do in my neighborhood, I do on foot, and it feels like I’m on vacation. A little outing most days of the week gets me out in the fresh air. Sometimes I take the bus, something we also do on vacation. It’s when I get a rideshare driver that I really feel like I’m living the dream and having a chauffeur - except that I didn’t have to become a millionaire before it happened.
Why do other people drive so much? I’m not totally sure, since driving was only a regular part of my life for a few years, but I think it’s almost entirely 1. work commute and 2. errands.
Oh, and driving kids around, for those who have them, but we can get to that later.
When I talk about not having a car, especially in Southern California, people get very fidgety. It’s one of those topics that falls under the category of “preachy” for some reason, like eating enough dietary fiber or voting in midterm elections. Ugh, stop pressuring me, I don’t want to spend my social time talking about this!
It’s like people have a conversational filter, and a huge number of topics gets caught in that filter, because we make automatic assumptions about WHY someone would do something.
The only reason someone like me would quit driving - well, I can’t understand it - but surely it absolutely must be something preachy. Saving the environment or something. Ugh. *eye roll*
On the contrary, I don’t drive because I’m spoiled!
Why any middle-class person would do their own errands is beyond me. I for one am way too busy! There is no way I’m going to give up any time on my evenings or weekends to drive around in circles, looking for parking, and wander from place to place doing a bunch of unpaid labor.
That’s what errands are. Unpaid productivity.
Let’s go through the errands point by point.
(If you have kids, hear me out, because my mom did all these things with three small children *by bus* all the time when we either had only one vehicle, or our car was broken down. Riding herd on small kids is even more reason to want to avoid doing your own errands!)
Again, I see errands as an annoying chore that disrupts my precious free time.
Groceries. There is a grocery store across the street from my apartment that is open from 5 AM to midnight, every day. We’re also a ten-minute walk from a Trader Joe’s and a ten-minute bus ride from two different Whole Foods locations. We almost always walk to pick up groceries, or grab a bag as part of another trip. I’ve also paid to have groceries delivered, and for $6-7 plus tip it’s definitely worth saving 1-2 hours of my time.
When would I have groceries delivered? When I’m prepping for a dinner party, once when I was wearing an ankle brace, and another time when I had the flu and my hubby was out of town. If I had little kids, I’m telling you, I wouldn’t do my own grocery shopping again until the littlest one went off to college.
Pharmacy. Every pharmacy I have seen encourages mail delivery. I switched to this because they obviously prefer it, and also because I’ve picked up a cold at least twice when I went to the pharmacy in person.
Dry cleaning. Um, we don’t use a dry cleaner… Maybe once every year or two. I learned how to use those dry cleaner kits you can put in the dryer at home. To me, this would not rate as a good enough reason to own and operate a car. I can walk to a dry cleaner five minutes from my apartment.
Doctor/dentist/veterinary appointments. To me, these aren’t errands, they are appointments. I usually ride the bus, but this is one category where we both tend to use rideshare. We’ve never had a problem bringing our dog or our parrot with us; in fact, often the driver asks to take a photo with my bird.
Beauty treatments. I get my hair done across the street. My hubby goes to a place across the street from our favorite cafe. I’m not interested in stuff like nail art, and I have no idea how many other types of beauty treatments there are, but I imagine most of them could be combined in one full-service location? Again, this wouldn’t be a good enough reason for me to make myself drive anywhere.
Random stuff. Shoe repair - I had to take my hubby’s dress shoes in when my parrot climbed into the closet and chewed on them. It was on the bus route to one of my clubs. I have no idea what type of random things other people are doing, but how many of them involve car-related things like oil changes?
“Shopping.” What do we mean when we say “shopping”? I mean groceries, because personally I hate shopping for clothes almost as much as I hate driving. My hubby and I don’t shop for entertainment. We usually tie in something like buying new shoes or pants along with a trip to the movie theater, and we go there by city bus. I do one major clothes shopping trip a year, usually on vacation, when I make my hubby help me pick out all my stuff.
Outings. I think a lot of people come up with “reasons” to do errands because they include outings, like getting ice cream, going through the drive-thru because they secretly love it and despise cooking, or stopping at the craft store or other favorite shop. Just admit that you are in the mood for an outing and go on the outing. You don’t need to tack a chore onto it because you don’t need to justify your desire to have fun.
Here is where I might add that we used to spend $700 a month owning a car. We got rid of it three years ago. My hubby’s bus fare is paid for by his employer, and he’s learned to prefer playing games and saving money to fighting freeway traffic for 40 minutes every night.
I realize that many people don’t live in a walkable neighborhood. Neither did I during the first five years of my marriage. We sat down and consciously strategized about how we could relocate to a walkable neighborhood. It meant downsizing and being willing to fit into a smaller house… and that in turn meant way less housekeeping and zero yard work!
Since we started living the way we do, we’ve been able to live off half our income. We never fight about money. We also never fight about chores because there’s almost nothing to do, and we’ve automated most of it. When other people are out fighting rush hour traffic to do their own errands, we’re lounging around our living room, talking about stuff like what we would do with our time during the rocket trip to Mars, or why the students at Hogwarts still walked to the candy store even though they had magic.
Well, obviously it’s because walking around town is fun! Stop driving around doing errands all the time and start feeling more leisure in your life.
We continue our tradition of buying nothing and going nowhere the day after Thanksgiving. It’s going well. Three of us are bundled up in blankets on the couch, and Noelie is sunning herself by the window. Time has no meaning for us today. We’re simply relaxing and doing whatever we want.
Apparently the alternative is to get up early, drive around town, and fight other people for bargains?
We went shopping together on this supposed Black Friday once when we were dating. As we idled in traffic at an intersection, we saw something remarkable: One man kneeling on another man’s chest, hands on his throat, while a few bystanders stood there. Our attention was drawn because two pickup trucks were pulled up to the curb, one at a slant, doors hanging open. A road rage incident.
Ahh, the holiday spirit in action!
We did not feel that adding another truck and more people would bring any clarity to this situation. Instead we drove on, making up new lyrics to It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.
“...and punching your neighbor and drinking some beeeeeerrrr...”
Since then, we’ve let go of not just shopping on Black Friday, but owning a vehicle and driving as well. Hanging out at home for Buy Nothing Day has spoiled us.
Bargains are not bargains. Usually a sale or a coupon is the retail price of something, artificially inflated and then “dropped” to make it look cheaper. Sometimes it’s a functionally obsolete item, shunted to the side to make room for the new version that’s about to fill the shelves. It’s never a bargain if it leads to months or years of credit card debt. We know this, right?
Whatever we buy, we add sales tax, and then we multiply by the interest rate that we are paying on credit. Then we subtract that from our post-tax paycheck. The quick version of this is to estimate that we have to earn two dollars for every dollar we spend. That is no bargain.
The pressure is off in my family. We agreed that instead of exchanging gifts, we would put that budget toward visiting each other. We also sponsor a family, bringing them gifts and groceries, keeping them in sheets and towels and that sort of thing. Our family holiday spirit revolves around games rather than piles of packages.
I just challenged my mom to online Scrabble. Do you think she’ll play me?
Shopping is hard for a minimalist. Not that we’re no good at buying things, just that it’s hard for others to shop for us. This is especially true if they’ve seen our apartment.
Nice, thank you for the lovely gift, now where in tarnation are we going to put it??
This is why, when we get a package, it usually consists of a parrot toy and a bag of dog treats. These are things that are guaranteed to get used, and they also have some fun value.
Part of why we’re staying home today is that our dog’s days are numbered. He supposedly had only a few weeks to live as of Thanksgiving 2018, yet somehow, magically, he is still here and having a pretty good day. We are in the existentially fraught situation where we literally have to compare a “bargain” to a snuggle day at home with him.
That’s technically true for everyone, but we forget.
And it’s not just true for our pets, either.
I think of all the times I’ve been out shopping with someone, and we come home tense and tired after fighting traffic, bad weather, long lines, and slow walkers. We’re seduced by an endless stream of marketing material into thinking that buying things will be jolly and spiritually fulfilling. Then we go out and try to do it and discover that the process is hollow and exhausting.
While we were in line, were we getting what we came for? Love and togetherness?
Does the shopping and the debt really translate into caring and affection?
Is this what happiness feels like? Joy and delight?
Honestly I don’t think all of us know the difference. We’re going for dopamine instead of oxytocin. Shopping expeditions are sometimes the only way that families and friends know how to relate to each other, the only way to have a good time.
This is part of where compulsive acquisition comes from. My hoarders may be out shopping with family multiple times a week. Part of the habit is justified by stocking up on gifts, gifts that may pile up for years without actually being given to the intended recipient. There’s always a special pile of gifts received and still in the original wrapping. Sometimes they have the year written on the tag so you can see how far back they go.
That’s where our bargains go, sometimes. They go into a hoarded pile on someone’s dining table or into their closet. All that shopping and wrapping, for what?
This is why it’s so hard for me to find an exchange of gifts very interesting. I can’t help but see all this stuff in the context of thrift stores, yard sales, and hoarding. What was the exciting gift of one holiday season will inevitably be shabby a few years later. The constant churning of consumer preference creates, as part of its nature, tackiness and unwearable colors and dated fashions that cause us to burst into laughter. They were all desirable one year and a complete joke not long after.
That could actually make a fun party idea! Everyone show up wearing a thrift store outfit from an earlier era and wrap up a white elephant gift from a different decade. Throw a potluck using all the dusty kitchen appliances from the back of the cabinet. Make a game out of identifying weird unitaskers, the single-use gadgets that fill so many drawers and closets. Then see if anyone will be willing to take it off your hands.
That sounds like work to me right now, though. I’m going to continue lounging around in my pajamas until noon and then see how much cranberry sauce I can fit in my lunch. This is Slack Friday, after all, and I’m not convinced I’m slacking hard enough.
When I read the term “hose-down house” in an article in an architecture magazine, I thought, “Is that a thing?” Because that’s exactly my goal for my own home, and what a great way to describe it. If there were a way to install a set of sprinklers in the ceiling and clean my place overnight like a car wash, I’d already have it done. Hose it down and hope the door latches behind me when I go out to do something more fun.
This is the opposite of what I find on home visits. My people want no part of automated cleaning. This is partly because they automatically resist new ideas; for instance, every time I say I like ebooks they will say they like paper books. It’s not a debate? Nobody is making you try new things? The main reason, though, is that it would take a lot of setup before their homes could be cleaned this way.
Take the dishwasher, for example. Not everyone has one, but they have been a common feature of houses and apartments for at least forty years now. They’re more energy efficient and sanitary than washing by hand. You can even buy a countertop or rollaway model for around the same price as a stand mixer. I’m in love with mine since I didn’t have access to one until I was past thirty.
My people see them as an obstacle, if they use them at all.
In a chronically disorganized house, it is never clear whether the dishwasher is clean, dirty, or empty. It’s nobody’s job on any given day. There are far, far too many dishes to fit in it and many or most of them are not dishwasher-safe, or at least nobody is too sure. Even though there is this marvelous dishwashing robot ready to please waiting in the kitchen all day, nobody wants to feed it.
Another example is the robot vacuum. I’ve been using mine for nearly a decade now, and I also have a robot mop. THE BEST. Yes, I’m privileged, and yes, these items also cost less than a smartphone. Amortized over several years, they’re less than a store-brand soda habit. I might also point out that my household doesn’t have a car, and that frees up a lot of folding money.
Since we have a parrot and a dog, our floors are a constant mess. Feathers, muddy paw prints, kibble crumbs, you name it. Every time we leave for an errand or go to the movies, we get ready to clean the floors. This means picking up the dog bowls and checking for dangling cables. One of us can do this while the other puts the critters in their crates and checks the bus schedule.
In a chronically disorganized home, this is not happening. My people aren’t even attracted to the idea. Why? What’s on their floors? Anything and everything!
Laundry and lots of it
Stacks of magazines
Stuff that fell over
Here we start to understand that the problem is not in acquiring the robot vacuum, which many people could suggest as a holiday gift. The problem is that the floor of every room is considered a viable storage area. It’s not a cleaning problem, it’s a tidying problem.
Putting things away that don’t even exist in a hose-down household like mine - that’s the problem.
There’s no laundry on my floor because we don’t own enough clothing between us to cover our floor. If we didn’t do laundry at least once a week, we’d have to wear it twice, and we’d constantly be covered in dog hair.
Flat surfaces are the main aspect of what, architecturally, would be considered a hose-down house. Kitchen counters, bathroom counters, the dining table, coffee table, end tables, and desks. While I have been known to use my robot mop on the kitchen counters, when we had a normal-size suburban ranch house, that would be overkill in the sub-900-square-foot places we’ve had since. When your kitchen counter is one foot square, all it takes is a swipe with a rag.
I guarantee that I could wipe down my kitchen counters, dining table, and bathroom counter in under one minute. Not only that, I could do them in a direct path and probably take only fifteen footsteps.
The reason is that we don’t pile things up on our tables or countertops. We don’t even own a coffee table because they are clutter magnets and I got tired of stubbing my toe.
What makes a hose-down house is the absence of clutter.
When there’s nothing in the way, it’s quick and easy to clean everything. When every room is filled with stuff, it’s complicated and exhausting.
The kitchen is full of double what it could reasonably store, so there’s no “away” for the dishes. The sink is always full and the counters are always covered. There are special wooden or pottery items that can’t go in the dishwasher. The chore known as “washing dishes” could take an hour or more because it only gets done every three days.
The floors are covered with laundry. The bathroom has eighty-seven bottles. Every other surface is covered with mail and other papers. For some reason, there are always shopping bags that someone went out and bought but nobody opened afterward.
Another problem is sheer size. My current place is 650 square feet, home to two adults and two messy pets. We haven’t had more than 900 square feet in five years. Prior to WWII, this was standard for middle-class families, and it still is in most parts of the world. Anyone living in a post-Brady Bunch-sized home simply has a lot more room to clean, or to clutter up.
I can wipe down all my flat surfaces in a minute, empty the dishwasher in four, clean my bathroom in ten, and run the dishwasher and vacuum while I go to the gym. That’s my hose-down house. Why would I want anything else?
Hey, I have an idea. Let’s start off the week with a highly loaded discussion of power dynamics!
When we talk about who makes the money and who does the chores, we tend to frame it in a really dumb way, which anyone who has multiple siblings should immediately understand. Why are chore wars always “husband vs. wife” or “mom vs. kids” when it should really just be “people who share common areas”?
I have two brothers, so in our household chores rotated week to week. My dad’s response to questions about trading chores was:
“I don’t care, just get it done.”
Right. Focus on the goal. Cleanest house with the least amount of effort. In my parents’ view, that meant training the kids to do as much as possible. A charitable interpretation of this is that they maximized our opportunities to learn adult skills.
It’s pretty common, in a traditional monogamous hetero marriage, for the wife to take on more of the housework and childcare. We’ve workshopped this, my husband and I, with groups of other couples. A wife will explain that she does more because she feels guilty that she is earning less money.
This is where the contrarian take comes in.
Power couples look at the division of labor strategically. What can be done so that both parties maximize their earning potential and overall career success? How can everyone in the household enjoy the highest possible quality of life?
This can happen in a million bajillion different ways, arranged over various timelines. Where it doesn’t happen is in relationships where one party is motivated by guilt and feelings of being a lesser contributor. What, one of you is the CEO so the other one has to be the janitor?
(Note: facilities maintenance is an honorable profession, and plenty of people have become millionaires through offering custodial services. Trash is cash).
When one person in a relationship is motivated by guilt and/or shame, the chore wars become about something entirely different than a smoothly running household. They become about earning approval, or avoiding conflict, or demonstrating, what? Fealty? Subservience?
What we’re talking about is not the sort of relationship in which one partner radiates joy and serenity through interior design and the culinary arts, while the other channels their self-expression into career ambition. That’s totally a thing, and if it works for both of you, more power to ya.
What we’re talking about is that other kind, where both parties are dissatisfied or bored or fighting about money or feeling unappreciated. None of those feelings tend to be part of someone’s wedding vows.
To have and to ignore, to annoy and exasperate, from this day forward.
We’re smarter than this. We didn’t marry our houses and we know better than to prioritize our stuff over our relationships. Besides, we have robots now.
The truth is that we tend to magnify the amount of work that “needs” to be done to run a household in four ways:
By having larger homes than we need,
Filled with more stuff than we need,
With no systems in place,
And having power struggles about it all.
My ex-husband and I used to play poker for chores, using a points system that we designed together. He did 95% of the cooking, because arguably he was a much better cook and he preferred it that way. Yes, he earned about 50% more than I did, and that was an issue when we discussed our budget and our savings goals, but it didn’t factor into how we divided labor at home. Rather, we had a plan that he would work while I got my degree, and then I would work at my newly increased rate of pay while he finished his. It was understood that it would be several years before we divided the housework “evenly.”
We never got to that point. I can claim, though, that we kept a pretty tidy home. Out of all the things we fought about, housework wasn’t on the list. Probably because we were minimalists and spent most of our marriage in small apartments. Possibly also because we both had multiple siblings!
Now I’m remarried, and the structure is different, partly because the man is different and partly because we rely on engineering principles rather than poker. What works on the manufacturing floor that would also work at home? We have successfully harnessed professional pride, his in Agile methodology and mine in my work with chronic disorganization and hoarding.
Keep work surfaces and common areas clear. Streamline processes and eliminate unnecessary steps. Don’t tie up capital in excess inventory. Cross-train and share best practices. Continuous improvement.
We have had a LOT of discussions about housework over our ten-year marriage. This has been almost entirely driven by me, because I’m the fussy one. I’ve framed it as a way to view a smoothly running household like an engineering management problem. Rather than make this, How do I convince you to wipe down counters my way?, I’ve tried to make it, What terminology would an engineer use to describe this work process?
Also, What kind of robot could do this particular task? Could you build me one?
This is how I learned that you can clean a greasy oven in ten minutes if you use a drill, and that the question, Can I get my husband to spend three hours kneeling in front of this thing instead of me? WAS THE WRONG QUESTION ENTIRELY.
All of the questions we have about dividing household labor fairly may, likewise, be structured in an unhelpful way. If the framework involves guilt, shame, blame, resentment, grudges, anger, or crying, there are probably other ways to look at the situation.
What if almost all of those feelings were directly related to household labor that didn’t even need to be done by a human? What if we engineered those chores out of existence?
There used to be household chores like churning butter, darning socks, and carrying coal scuttles that most 21st-century households no longer do. (Well, I still darn my own socks, but hey). It’s my thesis that a lot of our 20th-century chores can be canceled, too.
Stepping forward and focusing on a more interesting, challenging, and fulfilling career almost always results in significantly more income. A higher income can do a lot more for a family, like eliminating debt and buying a $200 robotic vacuum cleaner, than anyone can do just by focusing on folding laundry more often. Eyes on the prize.
Let’s find a way to restructure our division of labor so that everyone involved is excited, having fun, laughing, talking, and generally thinking about chores as little as possible. One day it’ll all be done by nanobots anyway.
I just moved, and this book was a big help to me. What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You, sometimes, is “either pay for a bigger apartment or get rid of some stuff!” Unlike most clutter books, this one focuses more on the inner work and less on the routine organizing aspects of space clearing. In this sense, it’s a better pick for those of us who sometimes struggle to let go.
Q: Why is my house so full of stuff?
A: I have no idea!
Kerri L. Richardson gradually downsized from a 2,000 square foot house to 500 square feet. I’ve done a similar process, and I can verify that this experience definitely clarifies what you do and don’t need! On the other hand, I’ve also found that when people discard a lot of stuff in a short period of time, they can feel so distraught that it becomes traumatic.
This is exactly why it’s so important to focus on the emotional aspects of why we care so much about our stuff.
What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You covers everything, from sorting through clothes and books and papers to setting boundaries with people. This is a very rich topic, because so often a person’s family members have made more choices about the stuff in the home than the owner has.
Richardson’s book is an excellent companion for the intense work of space clearing. If you’ve been feeling stuck or struggling with why you can’t seem to motivate yourself to get rid of clutter, maybe you should find out What Your Clutter is Trying to Tell You.
I define clutter as anything that gets in the way of living the life of your dreams.
What am I tolerating in my life?
Organizing your mental clutter begins the process of establishing realistic expectations.
Once my clutter is gone, I’ll be able to _______________.
How long would it take to wear everything you own at least once?
This is a bit of math that always confounds my people. I have them do an assignment called “How many shirts?” We count off how many they need, according to their own standards and preferences, and then we count what’s in the closet and compare the numbers. They always have at least triple what they thought they needed.
Then when it’s time to sort and cast off some of the excess, they freeze.
There’s another classic indicator of unwillingness to proceed, and that is the concept of taking inventory.
Count everything you have in this category.
What if you needed to file a claim with your renters insurance because the upstairs neighbors broke their waterbed?
If the thought of taking inventory is overwhelming, then the stuff is taking over. Your home is for you, not for a bunch of inanimate objects. YOU live there. The stuff just takes up space.
I’ve been very aware of this lately because we just moved into a much nicer, slightly larger apartment with about half the storage of our old place.
I’ve started the Wear Everything project.
The goal is to put together an outfit featuring each article of clothing in my wardrobe at least once. When I wear it, I can take notes. Do I like it as much as I did when I first got it? Do I still have at least three other garments that I can combine with it? Does it fit the same? Is it getting worn out?
As an under-buyer and someone who hates shopping in general, I tend to hang onto things until they are really getting past the point of acceptability. I had to reluctantly put something in the rag bag a couple of weeks ago because I realized the entire chest area was becoming threadbare, exposing undergarments that I did not intend to become outergarments.
That’s one thing for pajamas, and quite another for a professional wardrobe.
Unlike most people, I was carefully taught how to do mending, ironing, and stain removal. I can even darn socks. The trouble with this is that I lean toward a Depression-Era sensibility. I don’t need to be walking into a conference room looking like an extra from Oliver Twist.
In my closet, things tend to fall into two categories: Stuff I rarely wear, and Stuff I wear until it’s ready to fall apart. The Wear Everything project is meant to bring attention to both categories. Should I be wearing certain things more often, or is there a solid reason they aren’t in regular rotation? Are there things I rely on a little too much that have served their time?
For the past twenty years, I’ve followed a cost per wear formula. How much did I pay for something, and how often would I have to wear it for it to work out to $1 per wear? If I pay $50 for something, I should then wear it about once a week for a year, or twice a month for two years. The exceptions to this guideline are formal occasions, like evening clothes or, most especially, an interview outfit.
How much is appropriate to pay for a garment that helps you get a $10,000 annual raise?
This was a challenging lesson for me to learn. I remember waffling over an $80 discounted interview suit for weeks, going back to visit it three times before I shakily handed over my debit card. I got the offer ten minutes after the interview, and that suit had paid itself off by the end of my first day on the job.
BUT… think of how many thrift store outfits I could buy with $80! (not the point, knock it off, Scarcity Brain)
Scarcity is the single biggest issue behind the clothing issues that my people have. With a single exception, all of them have had absolute mounds of clothes. Three dressers in one bedroom is standard for my people. Most will have a range of at least three clothing sizes - I personally have retained six sizes at one time.
Why? Why do we keep things that don’t fit, that we don’t like to wear, that we may never have worn even once?
Example: a brand-new pair of men’s formal slacks, the inseam of which had never been sewn together, due to postponed alterations
We keep things because we like how they look (on the hanger, not on our bodies), because they were gifts, because of what they cost, because the act of sorting is overwhelming, because we strongly identify with the aspirational image that these clothes represent, because they remind us of a moment in time, because we can’t even see or find them in the depths of the wardrobe.
We should be keeping them because we wear them regularly, they fit great, they work well with other things that we also wear regularly, and we look good in them.
There can easily be a wide gap between these two standards!
Most of my people wear a small selection of clothes over and over again, pulling them out of a laundry hamper, when 80-90% of their total wardrobe languishes on hangers, in drawers, on top of the dryer, on the floor, scattered across a dresser, piled on the couch, in the back seat of a car, et cetera.
Get rid of everything that doesn’t get worn and a huge series of problems magically disappears!
What I’m finding as I methodically Wear Everything is that I don’t always LIKE everything. I wore a top the other day and felt like, This is so low-cut, why did I even buy it in the first place? (The answer: it probably didn’t fit the same way when I bought it four years ago).
As I do the laundry, I pull out the awkward space-fillers in my wardrobe, fold them, and put them in the donation bag. Inevitably they will suit someone else better than they suit me today.
Or not. Excess clothing is a global problem. What we really need to do is to slow our roll, to buy fewer things in the first place, cut back demand and manufacture less.
Bulging closets are one symptom among many. When we have too many clothes, we often also have too many books (yes there is such a thing), too much in our pantries, too many papers, too much in our bags weighing down our shoulders, and too many demands on our time and attention overall.
At this transition between one season and another, I’m Wearing Everything because some of it has to go, just like autumn leaves turn color, fall off, and turn into soil. It’s time for me to replace many garments that have served me for several years - ten years in a few cases! Considering what I will be wearing this fall, and the next few autumns as well, helps me to look forward, imagining fun times to come. I release what I no longer need, making space for the new.
Free isn’t free. It’s better to understand that going in. Anything you take, any object that you handle, has strings attached.
One of the great paradoxes of clutter is that it’s usually harder to get rid of “free” stuff than things that we bought at retail price. Why? No idea, I just know that it’s true.
We had a give-away party after our last move, and one of the items in the pile was our last set of plastic shelving from when we had a garage. We were 100% sure the shelves would go, and we were astonished when they didn’t. The other half-dozen sets had so much traction on Craigslist that we probably should have sold them for cash.
We don’t look at it that way, because we don’t necessarily want to advertise our home as a place full of valuable stuff. (It isn’t). Giving something away attracts gratitude, while selling something seems to activate scarcity mindset in everyone involved. Do I really want to spend my free time dickering over $20? Do I really want a lot of random strangers driving to my specific home address, wondering what else I have?
The thing about shelves in particular is that they have no intrinsic value. They are not beautiful to look at, and their only use consists in storing and/or displaying other items. Nobody just wishes for a house full of empty shelves, and then leaves them that way.
I had a good laugh the other day because one of the apartment units in our building is visible from the pool. What we could see from our perspective was a wall of built-in shelving with about a dozen paperback books on it. There was room for several hundred and they looked a little lonely, all on their own.
This is dangerous, an attractive nuisance. Nature abhors a vacuum and for this reason, empty shelves attract clutter like nothing else.
Once clutter is stored or displayed on a shelf, it never leaves. It merges with the shelving unit and becomes an unremovable part of the whole. It becomes impossible to imagine the object and the shelves separately.
The strangest thing about shelves is that they tend to be inexpensive and easy to find. Yet the people who need them the most never seem to have any. I have a theory about this.
When my eldest nephew was a little boy, we had a conversation about money and stuff. He came running in breathlessly asking to get into his piggy bank because a neighbor kid was willing to sell him a plastic truck for ten dollars. What the heck?? [insert static noise] I told him that sounded way too expensive and that he’d have to ask his dad. Then I gave him a homily about how we save money so we can get something really cool later.
“I like to buy lots of small stuff and then I don’t have to wait,” he replied.
Yeah, you and all my hoarding clients, I thought.
My people, caught in scarcity mindset, all share a knee-jerk reaction that goes NO I CAN’T AFFORD THAT. They are unable to process the idea that a $40 set of shelves costs the same amount as ten $4 items or forty $1 items, which I can clearly see scattered, stacked and piled all over their home.
I “can afford” infinite amounts of $1 and $5 items. Never in life, in no alternative universe, could I even hypothetically afford any item over $X.
That’s the line. That’s how it works. In the scarcity paradigm, there is a permanent cutoff of any price tag over a certain amount, forever and always, for all time, the end.
The other issue with something like a set of shelves is that it needs to go somewhere. Any set of free shelving is virtually guaranteed not to match either the existing furniture or the dimensions of the room. In a cluttered room with a lot of big furniture, it’s never obvious where such a thing could go.
Our utilitarian beige plastic shelving wouldn’t look good anywhere except for a garage, and none of our friends has a garage, because few of the homes in our region do. We live in small apartments or condos because that’s mostly what is available. Who wants to live in a small place dominated by an ugly set of shelves? We all operate under the assumption that our homes should be comfortable and reasonably attractive.
My people, on the other hand, plan everything around THEIR STUFF, what they already have and whatever else they might carry in.
How could I set up these shelves? I’d have to move all these bags and boxes first.
The free shelves that are easy to get are only free because there’s something wrong with them. Either they are rickety or unappealing, or the original owner tried them and found that they didn’t do the job. They’re designed for a purpose. Our shelves are designed to hold medium-sized moving boxes or storage tubs. They work great for that, but they’re too tall for most stuff, either in the garage or indoors. Other “free” shelves might be designed specifically for DVDs or paperback books or some other standard size unit.
A standard shelf will either attract more items that fit it, because it feels right, or it will fill with random clutter that has nowhere else to go. It’s either manifest destiny or lebensraum.
Ideally, a shelf empties and refills. Clean dishes, clean towels, fresh groceries, they’re all supposed to come and go. It’s hard to tolerate clutter on shelves that are constantly in use, because anything that isn’t being used is always in the way. That’s what clutter IS, of course. So what is it that we think we’re doing with any shelf if it’s filled with stuff we don’t use?
The goal is always to be intentional. With something like shelving, it should be clear what is being stored, why, where, and for how long. Then it’s simple enough to find a set of shelving of the right size and dimensions. Maybe sell off some existing clutter to pay for them, thereby solving two problems: too much stuff, and nowhere to put what’s left. Good luck finding any free shelves that will magically do that job.
It’s that time again. We’ve just moved, and there’s a big pile of random stuff in our dining room, staged and ready for our next give-away party. Invites have already gone out.
What is a give-away party?
It’s a social occasion where anyone who is invited can look through the pile and take stuff home.
Why do we do it?
There’s a built-in deadline for us to finish sorting stuff and moving in. Also, we can give away things that we can’t donate. Stuff we don’t need circulates back to the Stuff Place. We continue to live with the expectation that we keep only what we actively use, so that we can keep our expenses and home maintenance as low as possible.
In my work with hoarding and chronic disorganization, almost everyone struggles with letting go of stuff. One of the few things that will break up this pattern of emotional attachment is to feel that something is going To the Right Person. I’m “saving it” for “someone who might need it.”
The paradox behind this is that 1. We believe there is someone who truly needs this thing, although obviously we do not need it ourselves, AND YET 2. We are keeping it in the only way that absolutely guarantees it WILL NOT go to anyone who needs it.
It’s like if I had a ham-and-cheese sandwich and I put it in my fridge, even though I’m a vegan, because “it shouldn’t go to waste,” but I didn’t tell anyone I had it. Who did I think was going to come knocking, asking if I happened to have an extra ham-and-cheese sandwich sitting around?
What we are doing is hosting a housewarming, but instead of bringing us a bunch of potted plants or candles, our guests can just bring snacks. Actually it’s a reverse housewarming, in the sense that we expect people to take things home rather than add to our inventory.
It’s surprising how many things can’t be donated, like garage shelving or glass furniture. A lot of thrift stores won’t take furniture of any kind.
We’ve always given away a lot of stuff over Craigslist or Freecycle. It can be complicated because it’s a toss-up whether someone will actually show up to take what they claimed to want. I can’t count how much time I’ve spent hanging around, waiting for a call that never came, then having to re-post something and go back and forth for eight emails. I gave away our moving boxes after this move and it took nearly an hour for the guy to get through traffic and find our address.
What most people will do when they realize they no longer need something is to leave it in place for a long time, and then maybe carry it off to the garage or a junk room. When asked, people will claim they’re “going to have a garage sale” or they’re “going to sell it on eBay.” That day never comes. The next time it comes up, they double down, and all that happens is that they feel more intensely annoyed, defensive, or anxious. The stuff is still there, radiating complications.
We quit having garage sales when we realized it took two of us an entire summer Saturday to make $150. We made less than minimum wage. We would have been better off financially if one of us got a part-time job at Taco Bell and the other literally beat all the yard sale stuff into smithereens with a big mallet.
Check my math: ($150/2 people)/(12 hours)=($75)/(12)=$6.25/hour
(Also no free tacos)
A give-away party takes the financial aspect out of consideration.
What we’re doing is showing magnanimity. When we give away something like our first blender to an intern, we’re giving that person a chance to make blender drinks and still pay down their student loan. Rather than spend all the time and mental bandwidth trying to sell a used blender that cost $25 new, we can maximize our mental efforts doing something else. We set an example of generosity that will be paid down the line over time.
“We were broke at your age, and now it’s our turn. When you’re our age you can pick up the check.”
We accept that The Blender Cost $25. That money is gone now. We are not buying into the sunk cost fallacy. We paid $25, we got (by definition) $25 worth of use out of it, and now it goes back to the Stuff Place.
We value our time at $X/hour, and evening time at $2X/hour, and weekend time at $10X/hour. It would be absurd at the deepest level to value our free time at pennies on the hour.
It’s entirely possible that nobody who comes to our party will take anything out of the give-away pile. We’re certainly not forcing anyone! We simply want to set the example that stuff comes, stuff goes, and what is truly important is friendship.
Maybe we’ll be left with a big box of empty canning jars and a set of plastic shelving and some random housewares. That’s cool. At that point we will do what we have always done and set about advertising this stuff to the community. Please, take it off our hands.
The result of a minimalist lifestyle that involves regular give-away parties is that we have minimized our rent and maximized our savings. We might have given away “hundreds of dollars’ worth” of stuff, but in the process we have saved TENS OF THOUSANDS of dollars in rent. We’re maximizing our retirement portfolio, rather than maximizing a giant pile of junk in a garage full of black widow spiders and mice. Or, worse, a storage unit, doing nothing but eating money month after month and not even contributing to our home equity.
What we’ll remember about our give-away party is seeing our friends, eating snacks, laughing, talking, and playing games. If asked to make a list of all the stuff we gave away, we won’t be able to remember it all. That’s fine, because almost everything that exists can easily be found in the Stuff Place, and when we need anything, we can easily get it. There is plenty and there will always be plenty more.
It comes up a lot. People generally can’t believe that a married couple our age are voluntarily choosing to rent instead of own a home. One of our young ones came over on open house night, and blurted out, “You guys RENT??” Like it had completely violated his impression of us or something!
That’s generally how you know you’ve hit upon a truly contrarian position. Nobody understands it or why you’re doing it. Young or old, rich or poor, artist or business professional, nobody gets it.
You don’t... own... a car?
You... don’t... drink coffee?
You... actually like... the middle seat?
Personally, I do weirder things, like using chopsticks with my non-dominant hand, and nobody notices that stuff at all. Most of the time people are just thinking about themselves, that or their phone.
You can get away with A LOT in plain sight. People may give feedback in one form or another, but that doesn’t mean you have to pay attention or base your major strategic decisions on their opinion. Especially if you think the common denominator isn’t working for most people.
Default: tired, broke, cluttered
To sum up, our strategy is to rent a tiny apartment, use public transport, and max out our retirement contributions. Literally anyone in the world can live in a small space and not own a car. This is not elitist. It’s about the complications you are willing to tolerate.
What are the three basic home-owning strategies?
Ideally we would love #1. We live in Southern California right now, and we agree that it’s paradise. It’s a combination of a beautiful place with a great climate, ready access to fascinating work opportunities, and a culture that suits us. Unfortunately, buying an amazing house where we live costs about 4x as much as the same house somewhere else.
We understand #2, and we know precisely how to do it. We are both tool-oriented DIY types, part of our initial attraction to one another. One of our few continual quarrels revolves around who gets to assemble new furniture. The problem with this strategy is that all your free time, evenings, weekends, and holidays, goes to fixing up the house. It becomes your only hobby, that and accidentally breaking some drywall.
#3, geographic arbitrage, is something else we understand. Pack up and go somewhere else, like... Belize? Our biggest problems with this strategy are 1. Jobs, 2. Our pets, and 3. Choosing one place. Quite frankly we would only go in this direction at the point of retirement, and neither of us really believes in retirement as a thing.
Oops, another hot take! Let’s save that one for a different day.
The biggest problem with owning a house is that nobody wants to talk about the externalities.
The closing costs, the annual maintenance costs, the higher utility bills and other hidden costs, the extra chores of yard work and housework, the risk position, the house becoming a character in your story and demanding things, like extra furniture.
Risk position! There are NO GUARANTEES that you won’t need extensive wiring work, plumbing repairs, and a new roof, just as you find out you have a cracked foundation... and then you get hit with a major natural disaster shortly after finishing it all. When you own a house the buck stops with you.
People will try to talk you into home ownership in the same way they try to talk you into having children, or adopting a cat. They won’t talk about all that stuff like burst pipes, teething, or the cat barfing on your bedspread. “It’s different when they’re yours!” Yep, my point exactly.
The main reason that my husband and I haven’t bought a house is the way mortgages are structured. The loan is front-loaded, and almost everything you pay for the first five years is interest. You aren’t building equity. Due to our strategic position on career growth, we haven’t felt that we could guarantee we would stay in one city for five years. We decided that before we got married, and in point of fact, we were right.
If we had chosen the house over the career opportunities, we would have had to pass up several promotional choice points. We’d be making 50% less money, and, to be honest, I would probably be tired of the house and constantly being in Remodel Purgatory.
It’s my nature. If I lived in the fanciest house on the entire planet, there would be something I didn’t like about it, and I would want to either rearrange all the furniture or remodel something. I don’t have it in me to just fall in love with one specific building and want it to never change.
There are other home-ownership strategies out there, and probably room for more, because anything can be modified or disrupted. For instance, a lot of people live with their parents and save money, and someone could probably do something similar while house-sitting. Another common one is to live in a granny unit or put in a garage or basement apartment, get tenants for the main house, and use their rent to pay down the mortgage. Or get a job that includes housing, like working on a cruise ship or at a fire watch tower, and save as much money as possible.
One day, we might buy a house. We’d do it when we had fallen in love with that city, when we had a sense of knowing about that property, when we had nothing better to do with our copious spare time. When that will be, only time will tell. In the meantime, yeah, we rent. What’s it to you?
This summer has really done a number on our waistlines. We went on three trips out of town, adding up to over a month. Between that, moving, and my series of oral surgeries, there hasn’t really been a normal day for us in months. Like most people, that means we haven’t been eating normal meals, either. We’re in our new place, which has a mirrored door on the bedroom closet, and we’re thinking, Oh dear.
Note that I said “normal” meals, not “regular” meals. This isn’t about missing any mealtimes, oh no. It’s more about restaurant food, eating at the airport, and half a metric ton more French fries than we’d normally eat in a year.
This is what happened. We moved into our new apartment, literally were unpacking boxes until 11:00 PM the night before we went to the airport, and then left the country. When we came home, it was a lot like walking in the door of our new home for the first time.
We walked in, and we were both at our highest weight of 2019.
Not everyone cares about this, and if you personally don’t have to care for health or financial reasons, well bully for you. In both our cases, we’re at the point where we either need to replace our ENTIRE WARDROBES or we need to slow our roll.
Since we just moved and went on vacation, we’re not in any hurry to spend money on anything that isn’t a strict necessity.
I don’t enjoy the feeling of the waistband of my pants trying to do stage magic and saw me in half, so the sooner we can make some changes, the better.
The good news is that we’re benefitting from three things. One, we both know we want to have good news to report in four months for the New Year, so we’re intrinsically motivated. Two, we’ve collectively lost 100 pounds and we know what to do. Three, and probably most important, we are structurally supported by our new kitchen.
One of the main reasons we moved is because we were both sick and tired of the tiny kitchen in our old studio apartment. We could only be in the room one at a time. We had one square foot for meal prep. It was hard to reach anything and removing one item, like a bowl or a pan, required moving other stuff out of the way. As a consequence, we started relying on a lot of frozen food.
The new kitchen is woefully short on drawers, there is only one cabinet deep enough to hold a lot of bigger stuff like baking pans, and we still don’t have enough space for a pantry cupboard. The spice rack is on top of the fridge. BUT!
There is plenty of counter space, it has a full-size dishwasher, the sink is deeper and it has a sprayer, it’s better lit, and it looks much nicer all around. We basically went from 1980s kitchen to modern overnight.
For the first time in our marriage, my husband can find ingredients and utensils without having to ask me where they are. That is momentous.
He cooked a proper meal the second night. I had already unpacked the kitchen well enough that it was functional. In fact I had managed to heat up a can of soup for lunch while the movers were still hauling things in. We were both more interested in getting the kitchen in order than we were in anything else, at least once the bed and shower were operational.
When you enjoy cooking, it’s relaxing and fun. When you walk into an inviting kitchen space, the first thing you think is, What would I cook in here? I often cook at my parents’ house and sometimes I cook with friends, too. It’s a lot like how musicians display their instruments, and sometimes their friends ask to pick one up. It’s also a lot like Sewing Room Envy.
We were still in the unpacking process and we were already stacking carefully labeled leftovers in the freezer.
There is nothing like eating home cooking after a long absence. DANG this is good!
We had been consciously eating down our provisions for a couple of months before the move, planning to avoid leftovers and finish off containers without replacing them. Our fridge and freezer were almost completely empty the day of the move. This left us with a more or less clean slate in the new place.
Right now the fridge is full of a bunch of chard, a head of cauliflower, and the biggest cabbage that we’ve ever seen, almost the size of a watermelon! When I say “full,” I mean that the main compartment is mostly produce. This is fairly typical for us; we’ll eat the chard and the cauliflower over two meals. The cabbage might take three.
What happens when two good cooks share a kitchen is that they start working to outdo one another. A particularly fine meal inspires a follow-up. As bachelors, we both would occasionally eat cereal for dinner, and of course we could do that any time we like, but it seems really depressing now. Why settle when you have the time, space, and resources to make something better?
We were at the grocery store, stocking up, when I noticed a new kind of frozen pizza. I pointed it out. We both shook our heads, Nahhh. We also walked right past the mini corndogs.
Most people don’t have functional kitchens. There are a lot of reasons for this, but the main three are: at least twice as much stuff as necessary, power struggles, and lack of a system. People with far larger and better equipped kitchens than ours are not appreciating them at all! My suggestion would be to rate your mood and energy level against what meals are actually emerging from your kitchen, and then reevaluate all the stuff on your countertops.
It doesn’t take actually relocating to get yourself both a new kitchen and a new dinner!
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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