We sold our car over a year ago. We still don’t have one. We’re an upper-middle-class, middle-aged married couple. Supposedly a car (or two or three) demonstrates our social status. Conspicuous consumption is supposed to advertise our relative wealth. Since we prefer actual wealth to the perception of it, we don’t particularly care. What do we have to prove? No matter what car you drive, you still have to look for parking just like everyone else and get stuck in traffic just like everyone else. Or, if you go car-free, you can skip both. Avoiding the conspicuous consumption trap of automobile ownership is a subversive, fun way to broadcast conspicuous leisure!
As a quick note, we had a VW Jetta TDI that was recalled due to the emissions scandal. We took the buyback offer. Due to our low mileage, we got a big check that meant we had essentially been driving it for free for two years. It was a great little car. We don’t really miss it, though; for the last year we owned it, we’d have to take it through the car wash every time we drove. I work at home and my husband walked to work, so we really only ever took it to the movies every couple of weeks. We were car-free in most ways, except for the payments and the insurance and all the other expenses.
Cars are EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE as a proposition. Between the payments, the insurance, gas, oil changes, parking, bridge tolls, and maintenance, it was running us $700 a month. Cars are also socially expensive. Take a look around at all the single-occupant vehicles and ask, is this really the most efficient way to run things? Take a look around at all the pavement, the parking lots and roads and viaducts, and ask, is this really the best use of our space?
Let’s go back to that $700. We could certainly have qualified for a loan for a more expensive vehicle, or leased one at a higher bracket still. But why? Unless you’re absolutely in love with the physical experience of driving, it’s a little silly. I in fact loathe driving and find it to be THE least pleasant adult activity. I’d literally rather scrub a toilet, do taxes, or take a load of trash to the dump. Driving sucks! Neither of us are particularly impressed with the aesthetics of automotive design, either, and if we were, we could just go to the car show every week, or put up some car posters or something.
So we bought a practical compact car. Great. Fine. It was still $700 a month.
IRA contributions for one person under age 50 are currently, as of 2018, $5500 a year. That works out to $458.33 per month. Two people, since we’re a married couple? That’s $11,000 a year, or $916.66 per month. ($12,000 if one of you is over 50 and $13,000 if you both are). By not owning a car, we were able to redirect that money to fully fund one of our IRAs and half of the other.
Oh, hey, I just remembered. A lot of couples have two cars! Crazy, right? One for each of you! Why not have a house for each of you, too?? Two refrigerators and two ovens! And YOU get a car and YOU get a car...
Add up all of the expenses for both of your vehicles over year and compare that total to the $11,000 to $13,000 that would go into your IRAs each year. If you already fully fund your IRAs as well as making car payments, awesome! Good for you! Celebrate by skimming through some vacation packages and comparing those prices instead.
I want to tell you that five grand can buy a really excellent three-week vacation for two.
Not owning a car. Isn’t that extreme? It depends on how you define ‘extreme.’ I’d say it’s extreme to carry credit card debt and pay 16% interest on it. I’d say it’s extreme to “buy” a $30,000 car that depreciates the moment you drive it out of the dealership, and then make payments on it for five years or more. I’d say it’s extreme to age one year every year and not have solid plans for how you’re going to support Future You in your old age.
It’s truly not a big deal. My husband rides the bus to work, and he has a little folding bicycle that he uses between stops, because the bike rack is often full by the time he gets on the bus. His work pays for his monthly bus pass. He’s able to use that pass every day, even if we’re going to the movie theater or something. I work at home, and I walk to my gym, so I only generate transportation expenses when I go into the city once or twice a week.
Instead of driving on Southern California freeways, we can sit back and relax. Play games, read the news, read books, take catnaps, chat with other passengers, generate all sorts of wacky stories, and even get in a few steps on the pedometer.
But how do we do our errands???
We’re within walking distance of the post office, a UPS store, a hair salon, two pharmacies, two dry cleaners, a pet food store, the public library, several boutique gyms, a couple of restaurants, and the veterinarian. For everything else, there’s online delivery, which again is cheaper than car ownership just for the sake of a couple dozen errands per year.
There’s a grocery store a quarter-mile from our apartment. When we lived in a house, the nearest grocery store was about a third of a mile. The house before that had a store directly behind our back yard. They’re everywhere! We’ve also ordered grocery delivery and found that it was pretty reliable. Without that $700 monthly carrying cost of a vehicle, there’s a lot more latitude for tipping delivery drivers.
We sometimes use a ride-share service, like when we go to the airport, or when we’ve left the movie theater and it’s forty minutes until the next bus. The occasional $15 fare for two people is nowhere near as expensive as car ownership. Like paying for deliveries, ride-sharing is a way for us to contribute to the economy. I like the idea of jobs with no dress code, where drivers can choose their own schedules and play the music of their choice.
We’ve rented a car once since we sold our car. We also rented a moving van, but we would have done that anyway because our mattress wouldn’t fit in a car. We always planned that we would rent a car about once a month for running errands, but in practice it hasn’t happened. We just haven’t needed it.
When we first returned our Jetta to the VW dealership, my hubby was a little nervous. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 29, so I didn’t really care, but this was the first time he hadn’t had his own car since he was 16. He used to talk quite a bit about buying a motorcycle, or getting a new car, and I would remind him that we could take a Lyft to the dealership that very night if he so pleased. No call for anxiety. We wanted to test out being car-free for a year, using that time to move more quickly toward our goal of financial independence. That year is now up.
Now that we’ve done it, we’re most likely never going back. I won’t say “never” because innovation is happening quickly, and who knows what game-changers might hit the market in the next decade or two? For me, a car-free life is about the same as it ever was. For my formerly freeway-commuting husband, it’s a whole new world. He now sees car ownership as an unnecessary, extravagant expense. Car-free and carefree!
I wish there were a better euphemism to use for translating the Swedish word döstädning than the phrase “death cleaning.” Okay, that may be the most metal thing of all time, but it may cast an unfairly gloomy pall over what is really a very charming and sweet book. Maybe let’s call it... life sifting. Then let’s move on and talk about how this is just the best book, one that deserves worldwide success.
The author, artist Margareta Magnusson, claims to be “somewhere between eighty and one hundred.” She put together The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning while sorting her own belongings. She did the same process after the deaths of her mother, her husband, and her mother-in-law, among others, and she points out that this work usually falls to the women in the family. She says: “I have death cleaned so many times for others, I’ll be damned if someone else has to death clean after me.” One of the reasons for doing this work ourselves, Magnusson says, is to prevent fights between family members. For instance, rather than have her five kids quarrel over an heirloom bracelet, she sold it! In my work, it is more common than not for my adult clients to have siblings, aunts, uncles, and sometimes parents or kids who have not been on speaking terms in years over some piece of jewelry or furniture. If death cleaning can prevent these stupid materialistic arguments and keep families together, that is reason enough to do it.
The other reason is that as far as I can tell, the majority of bereavements result in grief clutter that is still hanging around, years or decades later. Almost every storage unit I’ve encountered in my practice includes boxes of the ordinary domestic wares of a relative who has passed on. Often, the boxes are stacked up in the adult child’s home. There has never yet been a time when anyone has been “ready” to process and clear this type of grief clutter. I know of one home with three generations’ worth. Clearly our culture is in need of some new mourning rituals and traditions. Swedish death cleaning, why not?
My beloved mother-in-law did this process after her fifth lymphoma diagnosis. She spent the last months of her life systematically sorting through all her things. She had a lifetime’s worth of wacky costumes, hats, costume jewelry, and stuffed animals, including all sorts of prizes and joke gifts from her different clubs. She invited her friends to visit, one by one, and had them choose things that spoke to them. She sorted through every shelf and closet. When she was done, she taught her husband how to cook all of his favorite recipes. I believe this methodical clearing work helped my mother-in-law to make her peace, while also pacing those inevitable goodbye visits that might otherwise have been overwhelming. She wasn’t Swedish, but that process is reflected in this book, which even closes with some bonus recipes.
The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning is a light-hearted, breezy take on a situation that could really use it, viz. mortality. The author’s illustrations add just the right note of whimsy. Read it, share it, bring it to book club, and give out copies to everyone in your family. Then let’s all push up our sleeves and get started.
A moment of truth is a realization, an epiphany, a moment of clarity. In business and marketing, it’s the moment the customer decides to make a purchase. I like to think there’s more to life than deciding to buy things, but maybe that’s just me. In some situations, all we need is one moment of truth. With others, it takes several. Sometimes, maybe no amount of information is enough to get us to change what we’re doing.
Example: When I’m giving myself a paper cut, and all I can seem to do is to watch it happen in slow motion rather than drop the paper
What are some common moments of truth?
Realizing these leftovers are past the point of no return
Looking at the clock and realizing you’re going to be late
Not being able to button those pants
The thing about clutter is that it’s not a single object. Generally, any one thing has its reasons for being there. There’s a long list of reasons to keep every single thing, or explanations for how it got to be where it is. It’s hard to single out particular items from a cluttered space and eject them. How do you know what to pick? This is why clutter tends to lead to multiple moments of truth.
One of the reasons that it’s so common to clean up a space and then clutter it up again is that each of these steps needs more examination and introspection. If all we do is Step 4 and Step 8, we’re not pausing to consider why the space got this way.
Sorting clutter is a “bottom up” process. That means we’re starting with what’s already there and trying to impose order on it. The “top down” way to do it is to start with the function and appearance of the space, what needs to be there, and then remove everything that doesn’t work. Most American homes could shed half the stuff from every room. My people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators, can usually get rid of 80% or more.
Sleep in the bedroom, cook in the kitchen, eat at the table, sit on the couch, work at the desk, go places on time, find everything on demand.
Or, if you’re one of mine: share your bed with laundry, books, papers, and food packaging; cook nowhere and never; pile the table with food, dishes, and shopping bags; bury the couch under a pile of laundry; which desk?; be late everywhere; search for stuff endlessly.
The longer I do this work, the harder it is for me to understand why so many people prioritize inanimate objects over and above their quality of life. They’ll shed genuine, bitter tears over a cracked figurine or a keepsake with water damage. But they don’t even seem to notice how cramped they are in their own homes, how their stuff interferes with their daily routine.
There are other realizations that can happen, moments of truth that allow for a new perspective:
This is a story about desire, willpower, and self-control, although I’m pretty sure none of those words appear anywhere in the book. Cait Flanders has written a brave yet quietly modest account of her personal battle with addictive urges. While The Year of Less is an outstanding work about minimalism and financial independence, these are almost tangential to the struggle for self-mastery. Flanders makes a strong case that if she can do it, anyone can.
The Year of Less shows what happens when someone develops a bias toward action and plunges into something. Flanders sets a challenge that she won’t shop for a year, except for a few predetermined categories such as food. This is a process goal, rather than an outcome goal. Part of the magic of process goals is that it’s really hard to predict what will come of them, what will happen when we actually stick to the plan. Almost always, it far exceeds the original expectations. That certainly happens here. There’s something of a surprise ending.
There’s also a surprise middle. Flanders is partway through her experiment when she is poleaxed by some major family drama. She shares her anguish, and how it sends her into an emotional tailspin. It’s very impressive that she managed to stay on track with her project, and it’s also helpful to see how she did it, being honest and accepting support from some trusted friends. There’s also the deep hook of that public commitment to write about her progress on her blog, a commitment that eventually led to the publication of the book.
The insights that come from a long-term project of this nature tend to be of a different quality than the occasional sudden epiphany. Flanders realizes that she’s never thought of herself as a spendthrift because she’s not a fashion victim. Yet she’s able to cut expenses and earn enough from selling off her extra, unneeded purchases to fund a replacement bed. She winds up getting rid of about 80% of her stuff and saving $17,000 on a fairly modest income. Where was it all going in the years before? Living a default, everyday lifestyle probably never would have provided the answers.
An inside-out version of this book could be imagined, a version in which Flanders emphasizes the results of her Year of Less, with a few footnotes about the emotional component. There are dozens of books of this type already, training manuals for the DIY crowd. This book is special because it’s so personal. It’s about learning to face difficult circumstances and dwell in difficult feelings. With this, a handbook for emotional resilience, you could do anything.
The thing about little stuff is that it adds up. There are three occasions when this becomes clear:
The really insidious small stuff is the stuff we keep stored inside drawers, cabinets, cupboards, and containers. We don’t think about it because it’s hidden from view. It’s not until we have to take it all out, one by one, that we start to realize how much we really have. Then we wrap it up to keep it from breaking during the move, and the boxes somehow start filling up awfully quickly.
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been able to relocate without having to stop and find more moving boxes.
Nobody? That’s what I thought.
Avoiding the accumulation of a bunch of small stuff takes a policy decision. Every single thing we bring through the door has to earn its keep. If it’s food, we’re going to eat it in the near future. If it’s a decoration, we have to believe that it’s worth packing and hauling and dusting for the next several years. If it’s a beauty product, we have to believe we’re going to use it up before it gets clumpy or congealed or whatever.
A bottle of sunblock lasts about one summer. A jar of nail polish has a lifespan. So does a tube of lotion or a bottle of perfume. Stuff doesn’t last forever. What would be the point of buying twelve of something when eleven of them are going to expire before we use them up?
We can think of small consumables in the same way we might think of packets of french fries. Sure, fries are good, but there’s no point buying thirty orders of them. They get gross, right? Buy one and eat it while it’s hot and fresh. Then buy another one for a different meal. Almost all of our personal possessions can be regarded just like french fries. That’s true whether it’s shirts or bottles of vitamins or cases of paper towels.
The other thing about little stuff is that it adds up and starts to demand storage and furniture of its own.
A case of paper towels has to have somewhere to go. Wherever we put it, nothing else can go there. We can’t go popping wormholes into alternate universes just because something was on sale at the warehouse store.
Start accumulating fabric, and suddenly you need an extra bedroom. That extra bedroom might displace so many other things that the garage is full. A full garage then creates the desire for a storage unit. The costs involved in having a storage unit and a bigger house then displace the funds that could have been used for a vacation. Or new furniture. Or a debt-free lifestyle. Or a comfortable retirement.
Collectibles ask for their own shelves or cabinets. Books obviously ask for shelves and more shelves and more shelves. “You can never have too many books” but can you really read more than one at a time? Every book you think you’re going to re-read one day is another new book that will be displaced. Each item we keep blocks another item from coming into our lives, or at least, from having a dedicated space to sit.
I work with people who are chronically disorganized, with compulsive accumulators, with hoarders, with squalor. My people really struggle with this concept that only one item can fit in one spot at a time. The disorganized people can’t quite wrap their heads around it. The accumulators are at the store anyway, distracting themselves from their overflowing homes by spending all their free time in well-lit, well-organized shops. The hoarders don’t care, there’s no way in this lifetime that they’re letting go of anything once they’ve imprinted on it. How dare you challenge MY STUFF! Anyone who lives in squalor is simply so adjusted to the feeling of being buried in stuff and things and objects and trash and junk that they barely notice one way or the other. They don’t even smell it anymore, so how would they start to see it?
Most of us haven’t crossed those lines. I estimate that about one in five people live in a chronically disorganized state. Probably half of us have so much stuff that it’s hard to keep track of it all. More like two-thirds of us who have a garage can’t use it for anything because it’s full of stuff. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could use our garages for something like an air hockey table or a kayak? Why do we create these annoying, embarrassing, unusable spaces in our own homes? Why are we willing to pay so much to keep them that way?
Take a look around. Are your kitchen counters open and available to make cookies? Is your desk clear and ready to write in a journal or make an art project? Is your dining table welcoming and inviting for friends and a seven-layer dip? Is your bedroom a relaxing oasis of serenity, or rather a haystack of impatient laundry?
There are two ways to go about solving the problem of too much little stuff. One way is to corral it in bigger stuff: armoires or bookcases or other attractive storage furniture. Sometimes selling some of it off can raise the funds to buy upgrades of this nature. The other way of solving the problem of too much little stuff is to get rid of it. Clearing all the flat surfaces in your home is an interior design upgrade that you can actually do without spending any money! If you want your place to look more selfie-ready, it’s easier and cheaper to do it by bagging up a bunch of small items. Which is it going to be, the little stuff, or your home?
‘Belief’ is a word that can be used in two ways. We say we believe in something when we’re convinced it exists. We also say we believe in something when we support it philosophically. “I believe in fairies.” “I don’t believe in spanking.” This distinction in linguistic usage is important because it helps to give us some perspective on our own thought process. One believes in the factual existence of fairies, while recognizing that other people dispute it. One don’t believe in spanking, while recognizing that there is in fact a thing called “spanking” that happens in the material plane. I think most people don’t really “believe” in money in either sense.
Money is weird these days. Most of it exists digitally. I can look at a screen and see how much I have in my bank account. I can look at another app on the same screen and see my credit card balance, and how many reward miles it has generated this month. I can look at yet another app and see how much I supposedly have in the stock market today. Not so much of a penny of any of that passed through my hands in a physical sense.
You know what I do with real pennies? I find them on the sidewalk and put them in my purse. I also tend to find a lot more nickels, dimes, and quarters than I did ten or twenty years ago. I even found two one-dollar coins last year! I put the found coins in my purse, and then I put them in the piggy bank when I say “um” at Toastmasters meetings. (It’s like a swear jar for vocal tics). The only other things I can really do with coins are to ride the bus or pay parking meters. It’s fair to say that I don’t really “believe” in coins anymore. At least, I don’t in the way I did as a little kid, when I could still buy nickel candy or 3-cent gum.
What do I mean, then, when I say that I believe in money?
More importantly, what do I mean when I say that I think most people don’t believe in money?
I believe that money is a form of energy exchange. It’s an anthropological concept that, once introduced into a culture, never goes away. Americans vote on stuff and we stand in line and we understand the concept of exchanging labor for money for goods and services. I’ve used cash and personal checks and debit cards and credit cards and gift certificates and reward points and punch cards, all to the same effect. How could I not believe in money when I use it every day?
Ah, and that’s the point. Work with hoarding and squalor as long as I have, and you’ll see that not only do people tend not to believe in money, they act like they’re actually allergic to it.
This is where the paradoxical, sometimes ruinous decisions of scarcity mindset come from. Why would a broke person pay money she can’t afford for a storage unit full of stuff she doesn’t use that has no resale value? Why would a senior citizen on a fixed income run up a huge electric bill every month for three chest freezers full of discount loaves from the day-old-bread bakery? How do these financial policies make any sense?
It makes perfect sense if you believe in stuff, but not money. It makes perfect sense if you believe in day-old bread, but not money.
When you’re poor, it feels like every time you get a dollar in your hands, somebody shows up and puts a claim on it. You can barely get your rent together. You sometimes have to put something back when your groceries are rung up. Everything you own is either broken, wobbly, or cobbled together in some way. The minute you come into a windfall like your tax return, either your car coughs up a vital part, or you have a big co-pay, or... or something. Always something! It would take thousands of dollars to ever get caught up. Wish in one hand, spit in the other, which one fills up first?
Everything you own might be the only one you’ll ever have. It might also be the nicest one you’ll ever have.
They might come after you for cash, but you’re pretty sure they won’t come after you for your actual shirt or your work boots or your other small personal items.
I’ve been there. I had a roommate who stole my laundry quarters and a roommate who stole my winter coat. A friend had roommates who stole and sold his bed. I’ve known people who had bags of groceries stolen out of their car. That’s nothing compared to all the money I’ve seen vanish in fines and fees and finance charges. It disappears on you.
The rules of money are totally different for poor people, middle-class people, and wealthy people. There are externally imposed rules, and there are also internally generated rules. In other words, the policies of the business world tell you one thing, and the guidelines you use to make decisions tell you another thing. It’s deeply frustrating, until you figure out how they work and how to avoid being victimized by them.
As a poor person, I had to pay a huge deposit to get my power turned on, because someone who lived at that address before me moved out without paying off their bill. Unfair! Unfair but legal. Now my credit score is so high that I never have to pay deposits on anything.
I can get the same loans for a lower percentage rate. I have a special credit card that earns me triple points to use for free plane tickets and hotel rooms. In fact, I get all kinds of goodies and free stuff. The more you have, the more you get. The more money I have, the more I believe in it.
I believe in money.
I believe that it is always possible for me to earn more money at a higher rate.
I believe that I can make things that people will want to buy for money. I believe that I can offer services that will be so valuable to other people that they will pay for them with money. The better I get at providing goods and services to people, the more they will pay, and the happier they’ll be to do it.
I believe that I can accumulate money, and that that money can produce money babies, also known as investment income.
I believe that if someone steals my stuff or my money, it will be okay, because I believe in insurance and I believe in the anti-fraud, anti-theft policies of my banks and credit card issuers. I also believe that it doesn’t matter if anyone cheats me, because my earning power is worth more than my cash on hand.
I believe I can make more money by following the law, paying my taxes, and being honest because integrity also makes solid business sense. My reputation is my most valuable asset.
I believe that stuff depreciates and money appreciates. In other words, anything I buy will be worth less the moment I pay for it. Stuff wears out, breaks, and becomes obsolete. Money is just a flow of energy. The stuff I can buy next year will be better than what I might buy today.
I’m a minimalist because I know I can always use money to buy groceries and physical objects. I don’t need to have a huge pantry or piles of clothes or stacks of books, because I can buy any of those things 24 hours a day. I can even have them delivered! Because I believe in money, I don’t waste it buying anything I don’t need. That’s why I have money and not very much stuff - I didn’t SPEND the money ON the stuff in the first place.
There is no end to scarcity mindset. The point of scarcity mindset is the deeply uneasy feeling that there will never be enough, and if there were ever enough, something bad would happen to it. Abundance mindset builds on itself. The more you trust that there is plenty and there will always be plenty more, plenty more keeps on showing up. The more I believe in money, the more thought and consideration I put into earning it and investing it. The more money I have, the easier it is for me to share it. The more I give gifts and charity, the more it reinforces that feeling of wealth and abundance. Once I started believing in money, somehow, that cup started to fill and then to overflow.
I used to have a bookcase that covered an entire wall of my bedroom. It was made out of wooden crates, boards, and concrete blocks. In earthquake country, it wouldn’t do at all. Most of that bookcase contained books I hadn’t read; I just accumulated them. I bought sacks of books at library book sales. I bought books for a nickel at Goodwill. I brought them home and put them on my rickety shelves, feeling somehow safer and more satisfied to have them there. I would tell people that I felt like something was going to happen, and I was saving these books in case of some unspecified calamity. I never realized that these books wouldn’t save me.
Stuff won’t save you in general.
My people are chronically disorganized. They are almost always compulsive accumulators, bringing stuff home, feeling the impulse first and conjuring a justification afterward. Not all of my people feel a serious emotional attachment to particular objects; there’s just something they get out of the selection process and they prefer the aesthetics of jumble. Getting rid of stuff, any stuff, is a problem because the thought of loss makes them profoundly anxious.
What if I need it? WHAT IF? WHAT IF I NEED IT?
One of the greatest delights for a hoarder is to prove other people wrong about the uselessness of their hoard. If they can, even one time, pull out the perfect object and solve even the most minor problem with it, then the entire collection is vital and necessary. Justification!
There are so many arguments against this, arguments that will fall on deaf ears. The goal and purpose is to be surrounded by stuff. Interacting with stuff fills the hours that would just be stressful if instead one were interacting with people. Churn it, shuffle it, sort it, stroke it, stare at it, tell stories about it, collect it, get more of it. Never let it go.
The thing about my looming sense of approaching catastrophe was that having a bunch of used books couldn’t possibly help. I had this image of myself contentedly reading my way through an apocalypse. Yeah, but... How was this going to help? I couldn’t eat books. I couldn’t use books for transportation. I couldn’t trade books for tools, food, a water filter, or anything else I might need. If there really were some kind of apocalypse, presumably I could loot books on demand. Maybe reading books on disaster preparedness might help, but only if I knew the information cold. Knowledge might help me, but thrift store novels would not.
In most crises, what really helps is money. My people are so deep in scarcity mindset that they tend to believe stuff is more valuable than money. Nobody can take your stuff from you (nor would they want to!) but money seems to go out faster than it comes in. Money goes to your landlord, the auto mechanic, the heat bill, the emergency vet clinic, anywhere other than into an emergency fund. This is part of why broke people sometimes spend money on silly stuff.
The saddest thing is when anxiety plus compulsive accumulation turns into a dangerous firetrap of a home. It’s so common for people to be trapped in their hoarded homes that emergency responders have names for it. People get seriously injured when trying to climb through mountains of stuff to get someone onto a stretcher and into an ambulance. The guilt and shame that this image inspires will tend to cause someone to dig further in, rather than to decide to clear a wider path. The stuff they feel is so integral to their lives, so much a part of their identity, sometimes simply kills them. Crushed, suffocated, burned. Logically, the stuff has to go. Emotionally, the stuff has to stay.
My people tend to be the most deeply attached to clothes, books, holiday decorations, and fabric and craft supplies. Explain to me how a single one of these items could help someone in an emergency? Oh, sure, maybe a raincoat or some thermal underwear. More than fifty shirts, though? A tub of yarn?
Food hoarding is another common problem, a cultural issue that affects even mainstream homes. Food is so cheap and plentiful that most Americans can afford to stack up cases of it. Unfortunately, the cheapest food is also the most useless in a crisis. Cases of soda, chips and snacks, pastry, cookies, candy, breakfast cereal, crackers... We often feel a sense of security from being surrounded by food, not realizing that what would really get us through a crisis would be hot, hearty meals. Dinners. Not snacks. Entire pantries and freezers might be filled with only a few hundred calories of foods like cans of green beans or jars of salsa. We can harness the inner drive to have a burgeoning, full pantry by planning and rotating our food stores more practically.
There are a few material objects that might, in fact, actually save someone. My people almost never own these things, or if they do, they won’t be able to find them. They may never have taken the time to learn to use them or make sure they are still usable, because shopping and churning are always the main goals. Buy it, pet it, stack it. The useful things we can never find are first aid kits, fire extinguishers, and go bags. Whenever I talk about go bags, someone always asks, Tell me what to buy. This isn’t a good enough response. Buying something is never the safest response. It’s information that will save you. It’s running scenarios and teaching yourself how to troubleshoot in an emergency. It’s having a plan and understanding how to adjust it when Plan A fails.
Sometimes, what saves you is no more complicated than a clear path through a room.
This is how it went:
December. Decide we want to move to a place with lower rent. Coincidentally get notice TWO HOURS LATER that our rent will increase $200 a month. Shrug.
January. Negotiate lower rent with property manager. Spontaneously decide to look at a “junior one bedroom” unit and realize we like it better. Apply for a unit and get it. Give notice.
Two months after we decided we wanted to move, we were sleeping in our new, cheaper apartment.
Two weeks elapsed between when we started packing our old place to when we finished unpacking in our new place.
I packed four boxes a day for the three days before the move. We could have done more, but in a 680-square-foot apartment, there isn’t very much room for a staging area to stack boxes.
My husband has alternate Fridays off, and we spent a couple of hours packing on the Friday before the move. Then we took off to run some errands and see a movie.
Moving Day was a Saturday. We had breakfast around 8 AM. Then we spent an hour filling out paperwork in the rental office before we could pick up our keys. A friend came over to help us move at 10 AM. He left around 1 PM. We were done packing, hauling, and cleaning at 11 PM, including two meal breaks.
Because we moved from one unit to another within the same apartment complex, there was no way for us to use a moving van. Both units are down a walkway from the parking lot. We had to use a dolly and a rolling skidder, or simply hand-carry everything. The move would have gone much faster if all we’d had to do was to load and unload a van.
By mid-afternoon, the place was already livable. We had set up and made the bed, hung the shower curtain, loaded the fridge and freezer, unpacked the medicine cabinet and all the bathroom cabinets and drawers, put away most of our clothes, set up the couch and the pet crates, and unpacked the kitchen drawers. From that point it was possible to go to bed; wake up, shower, and dress; and make breakfast. We carried on hauling boxes.
On Sunday, we finished unpacking our clothes. I set up the entire kitchen while my husband set up his work station. We unpacked all but a small stack of boxes. We cooked dinner for the first time in our new home.
Monday and Tuesday were ordinary workdays. We unpacked the remaining 20% and found spots for everything.
On Wednesday, I waited around for the internet installer and caught up on laundry.
On Thursday, we left town for the weekend.
On Sunday afternoon, we made a to-do list. We gave away some furniture and the now-empty moving boxes.
We kept the rental car an extra day, since Monday was a holiday, and dropped off a load at Goodwill. We also picked up a few things at IKEA and the Container Store.
Now all that’s left is to hang pictures! We’ve found that it’s best to save the final decorating touches for at least a few days, while we get used to the space and the light levels. Sometimes we change our minds about where furniture will be, and it makes more sense to get that settled before pounding nail holes in the walls.
Because we didn’t have very much stuff to move, we were able to take our time. We had photos and measurements from our first viewing of a similar unit, and we’d spent time at our weekly status meeting drawing out diagrams and figuring out what went where. Many of the early loads got unpacked directly into their place, partly because we needed to reuse the empty moving cartons. I had a small “box of holding” that I used to do each kitchen and bathroom drawer separately, while carrying a small backpack with stuff from the fridge and freezer. I would walk over, unpack the box into its new drawer, unload the backpack, and do something like hang up the shower curtain or put sheets on the bed. This meant about a ten-minute turnaround. With this method, we eliminated the middle stage of a dozen box towers, all labeled ‘MISC.’ It was like magic!
Just as we’ve done every time we’ve moved, we’ve gone through two stages. We got rid of a bunch of stuff that we knew wouldn’t fit before we even started packing. We had a pretty solid estimate of how many boxes we’d need, and we bought sixteen small book boxes and ten large boxes. It would have helped to have another half-dozen small boxes, but we were fine without them. After the move, we had another round of culling to do. Even on the first day, we knew that our next move will involve even less stuff than this one did.
The point of minimalism is to focus on what is most important to you in life. Experiences, not things, and it should also be emphasized that the experience of daily life is most important of all. We prefer to live in a streamlined space where we have room to relax, room to cook, room to live. The better we get at this, the more we can enjoy fringe benefits, such as an efficient, straightforward minimalist move.
Note: I continued my twenty-five-year streak of getting my full cleaning deposit back. This amount was roughly equivalent to what I spent buying myself a nice new wicker easy chair for the front porch.
We’re moved into our new “junior one bedroom” apartment. That’s real-estate-ese for “studio apartment that costs more.” There are a lot of legal restrictions in real estate that encourage truth in advertising, but in reality, you have to check it out for yourself. Beware the “peek view,” for instance. Lean over and see it for yourself before you pay a significant markup. We’re much too frugal to ever take a hotel room with a view, and daily living at home can cost even more. Anyway. Suffice to say that our studio isn’t a “studio” because it comes with a room divider. It’s missing a lot else, almost all of which is kitchen storage.
What I’m going to do is to break down the numbers behind the decision to let go of what can be very emotional attachments to very aspirational kitchen items.
Aspirational items are things we buy because they symbolize a better life. Often, they never get used; they just sit there, trophies toward an image of ourselves that we don’t like enough to live it out every day. Aspirational kitchens are so full of stuff that very little cooking goes on in them. They’re like showrooms.
A stand mixer is the big one for a lot of people. By “big,” I mean physically big, because these things are almost always too tall for the available cabinets. They live on the countertop. This is part of why they’re aspirational. They’re designed to be seen and admired. The stand mixer symbolizes a capital investment in that kitchen. I BAKE. These things are expensive for most people, and the decision to let one go would be emotionally impossible for many.
I never bought one.
I could have a stand mixer if I wanted, sure. I could buy one today. I just refuse to give up that much countertop space. The other reason is that if I baked often enough to justify the kitchen real estate it would require, my husband and I would both probably gain 15-30 pounds the first year. When we choose where to live, we can base the decision on a kitchen without needing to accommodate the huge, expensive, weight-gain-inducing stand mixer of the aspirational kitchen.
Moving right along!
What are some other large, aspirational kitchen appliances?
Instant Pot: $80-$150.
Espresso maker: $35-$700 (!?!)
Bread machine: $60-$100.
Pasta maker: $25-$160
Food processor: $30-$200
Note that we decided we would keep our Vitamix even if we went full nomad and lived out of hotels. We use it every day. I’d get rid of a bunch of shoes before I’d get rid of my fancy-dancy blender, because it argues for itself through constant use.
There are tons of other kitchen appliances, of course. They’re popular gifts. I’ve given several of them myself. Ice cream makers, deep fryers, grills, waffle irons. The more of them there are in a kitchen, the harder they are to store. (Kitchens are designed around contemporary trends, and those trends change every decade). The harder appliances are to store, the harder they are to remove and use. The harder they are to use, the less they get used, adding to the feeling of FoMO and the sense that no, I can never let go of anything, because I haven’t gotten my money’s worth out of it.
IT’S WORTH SOMETHING!
This is the funny thing. I just gave away some kitchen appliances I had owned for years, over twenty years in one case. When I looked up what it would cost to replace these things, many of them cost less now and have more features. This happened with a hand-me-down microwave oven that my brother passed on to me during my first marriage. It was almost the size of a dishwasher, it had a dial, and it cooked really slowly. It’s hard to say no to “free.” We did, though, after a year or so. We gave away the free microwave, and I’m sure the next owner also gave it away, because you couldn’t sell that thing. Maybe in 1987 you could have. Now, in 2018, if that thing is still around, you’d probably have to pay someone to take it.
We downsized and accepted a kitchen downgrade because we crunched the numbers. We’re saving over $400 a month on rent. If we’d stayed in the unit where we lived last year, we would have had to pay an additional $200 a month. That’s a LOT of money just to hang onto a few appliances, even if we used them all day, every day. Which we didn’t.
We let go of a blender, a crock pot, a rice cooker, a bread machine, and a bunch of canning jars. For our purposes, it’s irrelevant what they originally cost, because what matters is their replacement cost. (If we don’t miss them and we never replace them, then the replacement cost remains zero). We’ll pretend we’d just buy them all over again.
Replacement kitchen appliances: $30 + $30 + $30 + $100 + $25 = $215
Time to amortize through lower rent: Two weeks
In reality, we’ll never replace that old blender because we already did, with a nice Vitamix. I was only keeping the old, cheap blender because I had a spice grinder attachment. We’ll never buy another crock pot or another rice cooker because we’d just upgrade and get an Instant Pot. We probably won’t buy another bread machine because my husband enjoys making bread. (It was something I used because kneading bread aggravates some problems in my wrist). These were things we had because we had them. Our ability to recognize the difference between the lifestyle we actually live, and the aspirational lifestyle we wish we lived, helps us to save the money that could one day bridge that difference.
Would I know what to do with a huge, expensive house in an expensive neighborhood? Sure I would! I’m quite sure I’d be just as good at shopping and buying and choosing high-end, high-price items as anyone else. I just couldn’t bring myself to go into debt to do it. The decision to make temporary changes for a better strategic position is an easy decision, when it’s obvious what the tradeoffs are. I’m not “giving up” my nice kitchen appliances for a kitchen downgrade. I’m TRADING what are really some fairly trivial items in order to save thousands of dollars on rent for a certain specific period of time.
Most important of all, I’m always going to value my ability to cook in my kitchen and make use of my space. There are no items, no matter how aspirational or expensive, that are valuable enough to clutter up my work area or my countertops.
Most people are never going to voluntarily move to a smaller house or apartment just to save money. Streamlining the existing kitchen so that it can actually be used can feel like a major lifestyle upgrade. Eat through the majority of the pantry stores, get rid of most of the dishes or plastic storage containers, or reevaluate the appliances and other kitchen accessories. Create clear counter space and focus more on the meals than the hardware. The point of a kitchen is to cook in it, not to have a kitchenwares museum.
We moved this weekend. This takes up a lot of mental bandwidth, which is okay, because the thought and strategy that we put in has made it easier each time. Most people move frantically, procrastinating until the last possible minute, and then keep a bunch of unsorted boxes labeled MISC until the end of time. This is an expensive, time-consuming, distracting, maximalist way to do things. We do it in two phases.
In the first stage, we’re looking at all of our stuff and asking it to justify its existence. Why does this object need to be in our home? Is it worth the space? It’s our policy to live with a short commute, and that usually means a smaller living space. More square footage is the compensation that builders offer in exchange for spending your free time on the freeway.
Here are the assessment questions:
That first question is revolutionary, because at some point we realized that we could offload the cost of ownership of almost everything we possess. We need A bed, but we don’t necessarily need THIS bed, or our OWN bed. What would happen if we got rid of everything? We’d live in a hotel and stop owning furniture or housewares. No big deal really. In fact, we kinda talked about it on our honeymoon. The only real reason that we don’t do it is that hotels discriminate against parrots. Can’t imagine why! *wink*
Second question: Do we use it every day? This is somewhat subversive, because we often keep things that we think we SHOULD use every day, like a yoga mat. Asking the question reminds us that sometimes it’s better to rearrange our stuff and our schedule to accommodate the neglected item, the lifestyle upgrade.
Third question: Would we inevitably have to buy it again? For instance, we originally bought backpacking gear for our Iceland trip, even though we already owned quite a lot of car-camping equipment. The trip fully amortized the cost of the backpacking gear, but we continue to use it several years later. We could technically buy a new $250 backpacking tent and spend maybe a thousand dollars on new backpacks, sleeping bags, and gear every time we went on a trip. If getting rid of it all means we can afford a smaller apartment, and we save more than $100 a month on rent, then it costs us to keep it. Another way to frame this is, would it be cheaper or easier to, say, give away our bed/couch/whatever and order a new one to be delivered to the new place? Usually no but sometimes - YES!
Fourth question: Have we used this since the last time we moved? If the answer is no, then we’re virtually required to get rid of it. If the answer is no, we also have to ask, how about the move before that? When WAS the last time we used this thing? With each pass, fewer things get through the filter.
Fifth question: Will it fit in the new place? I had a lot of resentment and sadness about giving up my ten-top dining table, and the first time we moved it, you couldn’t open the front door all the way because the darn thing filled our entire dining room. Then we lived in that house for six months and had to move again. I hadn’t had a single dinner party and we hadn’t needed the table at all. I found acceptance and remembered that I can always buy another one for $400 at IKEA. Or we can rent a picnic area or take people to a restaurant.
Sixth question: How much would it cost to replace? We won’t live in a studio apartment forever. Well, maybe we will if Godzilla arises from the sea and steps on our building on the way to raze Los Angeles. One day, we’ll have a larger home and we’ll put more stuff in it. Probably. Getting rid of something now is just... for now. For this year. Every single thing that we have ever owned has cost less than what we’d pay in additional rent to keep it all. We’re saving over $8000 in rent this year due to our move, and that covers a lot of objects.
Seventh question: Is it going to survive the move? This question is why we avoid keeping sentimental objects. It’s simply too crushing and heartbreaking to watch something get smashed or ruined. Professional movers broke the teapot my grandmother made and they gouged a four-inch scar into the surface of my dining table. They’ve crumpled my original artwork, scattered my manuscripts and notecards, and generally caused me to swear off of professional movers entirely. I’d rather live out of a suitcase than pay people to wreck my favorite stuff. Which means if something is my favorite, I can’t keep it. Does that make sense? I have to preemptively detach my emotions from inanimate objects because they die on me.
Eighth question: Has it outlived its natural lifespan? A pair of socks is only good for so many wears. A spatula can only cook so many meals. Stuff is consumable. Moving is when we hold things up and assess them. Broken! Threadbare! Dangerous! Stained! Energy inefficient! Separated from its accessories! Past Me called and she wants her jeans back.
That’s the first stage of space clearing. We’ve basically gotten rid of everything that’s irrelevant to the way we live today.
Stage Two: Does it fit?
Stage Two is pretty straightforward. We have drawer dividers that don’t fit in the new drawers and shelf organizers that don’t fit in the new shelves. We have furniture that won’t fit due to door and window placement, ceiling height, or smaller rooms. We have power strips and lamps we don’t need anymore. We have art or decorations or throw pillows or other housewares that now clash with the paint and countertops. As we put things away, we set aside a staging area for stuff that doesn’t work. Sometimes it gets repurposed, like a plastic storage container that goes into a different room with a different category of contents. Usually, we find that we’re fully ensconced in the new place and there are a couple of bags’ worth of “organizers” we don’t need. We’re not emotionally attached to this type of object, so when we realize it won’t work in our newest home, we shrug and donate it.
As minimalists, we tend to see our stuff as a potential obstacle as much as anything else. Throughout the year, we’re culling and setting aside and pulling out various things. The cracked coffee mug, the shirt with the stretched neckline, the uncomfortable pants. Our baseline stuff has argued for itself. What may sound like a complicated process really isn’t, because 80% of our stuff is obviously necessary to a comfortable, efficient life. The two-stage moving process merely serves to slough off the excess. We stay light and unencumbered, focusing on the life we want to have, rather than the stuff we want to have.
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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.