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?
Cozy Minimalist Home is the book I wish my clutter clients would all read. I’m always trying to get them to consider how they use their space rather than how they feel about each and every single object they own. This lavishly illustrated book shows us how it’s done. Myquillyn Smith explores how to design cute, comfortable, stylish rooms that focus on function rather than tons of decorative items. She suggests that it’s better to focus on the room as a whole, rather than specific objects. The results are charming and convincing.
We really can have “more style with less stuff.” Smith suggests that we start by creating one sane space for the household to hang out and relax, even in the midst of large remodeling projects. No matter what else is going on in the other rooms, there needs to be somewhere for regular daily life to go on.
Moving and redecorating are serious undertakings, rife with pitfalls. Smith finds a lot of comedy here. “This is real life. There would be no buying all new furniture like they do on TV.” She deals with the realization that she’s been dragging a lot of decor through multiple moves, only to find that it isn’t doing her home any favors. The money she had spent on small things could have been saved up for larger pieces she would have liked better.
Smith is relatable and really funny. She voices so many contradictions and frustrations: wanting to streamline and wanting to shop; feeling attracted and repelled by the same style; aiming for domestic harmony and hospitality while wanting the home done her way. She doubts her own design choices, and even her decision to buy a house that she doesn’t absolutely love.
How to deal? Smith becomes Chief Home Curator. Like most of us, she has to solve problems of her own creation, sorting through a mountain of stuff that she herself chose and brought home. She learns to “quiet the room” and scrap previous design attempts before finally working out something that she and her family can love. Generally, what they like has greater design impact while using and displaying far fewer things.
One of the best and most endearing features of Cozy Minimalist Home is the appendix with Before and After photos of Smith’s rooms. She shares what was going on behind the scenes as photos were staged for the book. This focus on process is so helpful for readers who don’t know where to start in their own homes, making the endeavor feel more possible.
Cozy Minimalist Home is a very practical book. It teaches the fundamentals of design, starting with what order to paint, buy furniture, choose window treatments, and hang pictures. For absolute beginners, there are useful discussions on how to discover your own style, create pinboards, and plan rooms. This is a beautiful and useful book that can build confidence and a sense of possibility in even the most nervous novice.
Just because we know perfection isn’t the goal doesn’t mean we don’t long for—and need—function and beauty.
My dirty little secret was that my stuff was draining me.
If I was so good at finding great deals, why didn’t I trust that I could find them a year or two later and not lug all that cute stuff with me from house to house?
Doesn’t an empty kitchen counter seem like the most extravagant luxury?
It all started when I set out to clean the oven at our rental house. I had a joke from one of my clients: “Oven’s dirty, time to move!” I was starting to learn about “ask, don’t task” and realizing that it can be very useful to have an engineer around. I thought out how to reframe my problem of DIRTY OVEN.
That’s what I did. I outlined the problem. I reminded him that when he helped me move out of my apartment after two years of dating, it had taken me three hours to clean the oven. I estimated how much it would probably cost to hire a cleaning service, many of which will not clean ovens just as they won’t wash windows. I believed there had to be a better way. Take off the oven door, maybe?
“Hold on,” he said.
He went out to the garage, a promising sign.
He came back out with... the cordless drill. He attached a scouring pad to it, an abrasive tool that was designed for shop use. He got some cleanser out from under the sink.
He pulled out the oven racks.
He pulled up the wooden step stool that I use to reach high kitchen shelves and he sat on it. He turned on the drill and started scouring the black volcanic mess that was our oven.
Fourteen minutes later, that oven was showroom clean.
“That should do it,” he said, and he took the drill back out to the garage.
I was still standing there with my jaw hanging open when he came back.
(Then I found a silicon oven liner for $20 and we’ve never looked back).
We’ve spent a considerable amount of time since then (2010), talking about how engineering could solve so many scutwork problems, if only someone were to bring them to the attention of an engineer. In the years since, we’ve seen various solutions hit the market, and I own some of them.
Drill attachments specifically for tough housework jobs
Power scrubbers with extension poles for jobs like scrubbing bathtubs
Window-cleaning robots in two types, suction and magnetic
A robot vacuum that picks up pet hair (but not feathers, hint hint)
A robot mop
Robot lawnmower? A joke that I made in 2010, it’s now a reality
I’m still holding out for a toilet-cleaning robot ($500, nowhere to store it) and a laundry-folding robot, once they become efficient enough to be worth the effort.
We have a joke about “starting the robots” when we leave our apartment. We spend about five minutes crating our pets, picking up the dog dishes, and checking for charger cables on the floor. Then we turn on the countertop dishwasher and the Roomba. We also used to have a washer and dryer. We would go to the movies, laughing about how robots were doing our housework and speculating on what we could delegate next.
There’s another thing that we do, something that feels like a total impossibility for most households. That is to live in a deliberately small space and own few material objects.
Sing HEY! for minimalism!
It doesn’t take us long to clean because there isn’t much to clean. You can almost reach every surface of our kitchen or bathroom by standing in one spot. We can’t keep a lot of stuff out on countertops because we don’t have much counter space. We can either preserve one square foot of countertop for cooking meals, or we could put one thing on it.
Which one thing is more valuable than the ability to prepare meals? A stand mixer? A cookie jar? A pile of junk mail?
I’ve found in my work with clutter clients that the more they wish for old-fashioned home cookin’, the more stuff they have in their kitchens, and the less they actually cook. Any professional chef would tell you that you can do it all with one good knife, a cutting board, a large bowl, a spatula, and a pan.
My people keep more than that stacked up in their sink, much less the entire room.
What crushes me about all of this is that almost all my people have a functional dishwasher. I grew up without one. In point of fact, my husband had to teach me how to load a dishwasher because I made it into my thirties without really knowing how they work. It takes four minutes to unload a clean dishwasher. Unload it once a day and spend 10 seconds put dirty dishes directly into it after each meal. It’s like a miracle! Yet you’re all out there weeping bitter tears about how much work it is. Are you kidding me with this???
The truth is that it’s entirely possible to cook nutritious, balanced meals in a microwave in under ten minutes and then spend about 90 seconds cleaning up afterward. I cannot cognitively fathom why there is so much angst over kitchen work. But then microwaves and dishwashers feel like the Star Trek future to me, and garbage disposals do, too.
So much of this is about how we internalize what we perceive as social expectations, and how we react emotionally to those expectations.
Breaking down these tasks as engineering problems is a way to distance them from the emotional landscape. Would I feel resentful and burdened about this if a robot was doing it? If it never even became a problem? The first time I shook off some blackened spilled pie filling from our $20 oven liner, I also shook off some mid-20th-century expectations. I’m ready for my 21st-century kitchen and wondering what else I can pawn off on household robots.
I met an interesting character the other day. We struck up a conversation while waiting at a stoplight. By the time we had crossed the street and walked through the park, we had managed to interview each other and exchange some interesting ideas.
Living on the pier is a crossroads of humanity. There’s a constant flow of families, dog walkers, transients, drunks and drug users, tourists, musicians, joggers, skateboarders, cyclists, young couples, barefoot surfers in wetsuits, students on field trips, retirees, and also a few neighbors. It’s busy here. It’s also not unusual to bump into someone who is at leisure at 2:00 on a weekday afternoon.
Wealthy people look different. It’s basically impossible to fake that posture, haircut, skincare regimen, wardrobe, and aura of prosperity, just like it would be pretty challenging to fake the hard-worn look of someone who has spent years sleeping rough.
I’ve learned this through having lived in many different neighborhoods over the years. I don’t particularly prefer to live among the wealthy. They spend a lot of time talking about things that bore me senseless, like where they bought stuff, what their yapper dog is up to these days, and how “good help is so hard to find.”
They also can’t usually relate to why my husband and I live in a studio apartment and don’t have a car.
That’s what made this conversation so interesting. We discovered we were both strangers in a strange land.
It basically went like this:
“What a gorgeous place”
“Another day in paradise”
“I’m new in town”
“Were you here for the butterfly migration?”
Blah blah blah
“I live on a sailboat”
“Oh, are you a nomad?”
“I don’t know what I am, what’s that?”
“There are a lot of people who are financially independent, who travel around the world, it’s a thing”
“Are you one of them?”
That’s when we started comparing strategies and a few numbers. “What’s your efficiency?” he asked. By that I understood that he meant what we call “the nut” or monthly overhead.
“You should live on a sailboat,” he said. It costs him $1600 a month to stay at the marina (right next to our apartment complex) and apparently it comes with access to a gym and a steam room and stuff.
He went over what it took to manage such a feat, how he learned to sail various types of boats, starting with the very smallest size and working his way up in complexity.
I asked how old he was when he learned to sail, and he said he started about ten years ago, which both did and didn’t answer my question. I gather that he was at least in his thirties when he suddenly decided, Hey, I should learn to sail. That somehow turned into, Hey, I should live on a boat, sail from Canada to San Diego, and figure out where I want to settle down. Or not.
I have my own opinions about all this, of course. I’m not a strong swimmer and I can only really manage myself in a canoe or a kayak. I have read quite a lot of nautical adventures, though, and that’s why I asked a few more questions.
“What do you do in the winter? What about when it storms?”
“I haven’t done this over the winter yet,” he admitted. Ugh.
I told him I wanted to go to sea as a child, that my fantasy was to become a “cabin boy” and that I was very disappointed to learn that wasn’t a job anymore. At least, I was disappointed when I was nine. As a middle-aged woman, going through a tropical storm in a sailboat of any size sounds pretty darn dreadful.
There are other factors, too. I don’t know this man’s story, or why he’s suddenly free to sail down the length of North America alone. Was he married before? Does he have kids? Is he retired? Is he actually F.I. or is he burning through cash reserves while he bounces back from divorce, getting fired, or losing a lawsuit? Who knows?
Me, I live with a man, a dog, and a parrot. Noelle would probably love being on a sailboat and smooching kids at the marina, shaking out her nice red tail feathers. Our frail, ill, elderly dog would not enjoy himself at all. Could my husband and I deal with sharing a tiny ship cabin, a tiny ship stove, a tiny ship heater, and of course the tiny ship’s head, with the shower spraying on the toilet? Eh, maybe, maybe not.
We actually are the type of married couple who could probably do well while living on a sailboat. We’re already minimalists. We’re good at what we call Pack-Fu, or the art of fitting objects carefully into a tight space. We’ve spent weeks backpacking and sharing a tent together. We’re both handy with tools and we have the kind of discipline that is needed to stay on top of leaks and mildew. We do, of course, also love money and the saving thereof. Paying an “efficiency” of $1600 a month sounds pretty great!
It sounds great until we factor in the part about buying a small, used seafaring vessel. “It’s like an RV,” I say to this sailor/retiree I’ve just met, and he agrees. In my mind, that means it’s high maintenance, hungry for repairs, expensive to fuel, and hard to park. You’re stuck with it, like it or not, and it can be hard to find a buyer when you realize it isn’t your dream of an easy, relaxing retirement after all.
What a great fantasy, though! If you don’t like your neighbors, you can simply sail away. Sail away from thoughts of trouble, sail south when storm clouds gather at the horizon. Sail away toward... toward what, exactly?
We saved 48% of our income last year.
What that means, specifically, is that 48% of our net base salary went into our retirement accounts. Net = after taxes and any other non-retirement withholdings. Base salary = the amount in the employment contract.
This does not include money that went toward paying down debt. For example, I finally managed to pay off my student loan.
How is this possible?
I’m going to write a somewhat abstract post because I don’t want to just baldly state our actual income. Some people do that, but *shrug* I’m not going to. The point is to focus on STRATEGY for those who will find it helpful.
Posting actual numbers, Money Diary style, tends to draw doubters and naysayers. That’s not my audience. Big hair, don’t care.
How is it possible to save half your income?
Two ways: offense and defense.
My husband taught me this. I’m an extremely hardcore full austerity frugalite. I play D. I can casually do a Buy Nothing Month and barely notice, because I’ll just spend the time reading library books and journaling. I’ll cheerfully serve up lentil soup, darn my socks for a third time, and dilute my laundry detergent to 80%. The trouble with this scrimping method is that you can only get your expenses down to zero dollars and zero cents. There’s a finite limit to how much you can save by playing defense.
I married a strategic thinker. He plays O. There is an infinite amount of money that someone can earn. There is no top level to how much you can escalate your income. In his mind, it’s a lot easier to find a way to EARN ten thousand dollars than it is to SAVE ten thousand dollars. That’s why he quit his job as a logger to go back to school and become an aerospace engineer.
We’ve learned to respect each other’s mutual styles and use them to work together. He appreciates my sincere desire to cooperate toward financial independence and stay on plan. I appreciate his ludicrous ability to read textbooks for fun, design things that go to space, and accrue patents. We take turns suggesting lifestyle pivots and talking each other through the pitch.
That’s how we’ve wound up in this bizarre, outlier situation of banking half our income.
Step One: Cooperate and tell the truth about your life. We have a breakfast meeting every single week where we talk about our finances, among other things. We’re able to do this without blame and recrimination because we share the goals of early retirement and excellent vacations. We’re allies. Wealthy celebrities go bankrupt and get expensively divorced all the time because they don’t know how to work as a team, and this is why cooperation comes first.
Step Two: Focus on career direction and earning potential. We’ve relocated for jobs four times in our ten-year marriage. We don’t have a mortgage but we both work at our dream job. The goals here should be, how do we do the most fascinating possible thing all day while mentoring younger people and also making it rain money?
Step Three: Lifestyle design. The tricky part.
The most valuable parts of anyone’s lifestyle are usually outside the cash dimension. Love and friendship. Self-expression. Connection to the natural world. Developing a personal philosophy. Sleep quality, cooking skills, having a home filled with laughter and conversation. Put a price on any of that.
We build our feeling of home and being entertained around the intangibles, and that’s what makes it relatively easy for us to chop expenses.
Okay, seriously though, how do we save half our income?
We live in a studio apartment close enough for my husband to take the bus to work. I work at home.
We got rid of our car two years ago because all they do is eat money 90% of the time.
We cook at home, only going out to eat maybe once a week because we’re really too busy. We’ve only had pizza delivery ONCE in our entire thirteen-year relationship, and it wasn’t very good either.
We don’t drink alcohol or indulge in any other recreational substances such as pay cable.
We don’t “shop” as an activity, and that’s no sacrifice, because we both hate wandering around in stores. Also, we live in a 612-square-foot studio, so where would we put anything?
Our default weekday is to work all day, go to kickboxing class together, bike home, shower, eat dinner, hang out with our pets for a while, and go to bed.
Base salary. See above. We’ve prioritized earnings over our own lifestyle throughout our marriage. That has meant moving away from family and friends over and over again. It has also meant getting rid of at least 80% of our possessions and living in a quarter of the space we had as newlyweds, because we’re nomads now.
Overtime earnings. Many jobs don’t have this as an option, and not everyone is in a position to take advantage of it. My family’s perspective is that working overtime helps take the pressure off of all the colleagues with young families or other caretaking responsibilities. Take one for the team, ka-CHING.
Bonuses. My husband has this terrible habit of winning awards at work. Unfortunately he might also wind up making money off his patents at some point, too. It’s dreadful.
Non-cash perquisites. One feature of frequent business travel is that it racks up a lot of points and miles. Another is that a lot of passthrough expenses go through our credit cards, building up yet more points and miles. We typically don’t have to “pay” for plane tickets, hotel rooms, or rental cars anymore.
Side hustle money. Everything we make on the side goes toward things like electronics upgrades, vacation, or vet bills. It used to go toward debt payments. There’s something highly motivating about thinking, “I’m going to earn myself a brand new Mac” or “this will buy our dog another year” as opposed to abstract numerals with a dollar sign in front.
The treats: Part of why our lifestyle works for us is that we’re both motivated by the same major goals, one of which is financial independence and the other of which is travel. We splurge on vacation, as well as a few other things: Our phones, robotics textbooks, spoiling our pets, hanging out at Starbucks, and going to our boutique gym. Since we save half our income, we feel entitled to indulge ourselves in the ways that matter to us, as opposed to things that don’t, such as owning two vehicles, eating snacks and drive-thru food, watching cable TV, or living in an average-size house.
We moved into a studio apartment so we could get a year ahead on our retirement savings, instead of a year behind. (Scrambling to pay 2015’s IRA contribution in spring of 2016, whereas now we’re already saving for 2020 in 2019). It worked! Saving crazy amounts of money has been fun for us and it’s helped us to build a stronger marriage. The stress of debt is so, so much harder than the stress of sharing a tiny living space and basically living like college students.
The thing about goals is that they’re usually much too modest and too ordinary to generate much passion in the goal-setter. For the purposes of this discussion, that would be you. Maybe you’ve been getting stuck on the same goals for so many years because they bore you. Maybe it’s because you secretly resent being held to humdrum societal expectations. Maybe you don’t like the way magazines always use the imperative command: LOSE WEIGHT while trying this brownie recipe! GET ORGANIZED while buying a few sacks full of these objects in our advertisements! I’m tired of it, too. That’s why I’m so proud to share that there are sneaky and cost-free ways to beat the system. Here are some cheats for common goals.
Goal: DRINK MORE WATER. I struggled with this for almost twenty years. It was closely linked to my cola addiction. Advertisers will try to sell you all sorts of special bottles and jugs and jars and hydration systems and custom artisanal additives. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: STRENUOUS EXERCISE. If you haven’t been working out, and you start, one of the first things you’ll notice is that your thirst begins to take over your life, and for once Idris Elba isn’t involved. In marathon training, I found that I could drink 80 fluid ounces on one training run. In martial arts classes, I can empty a 20-oz bottle in two gulps. The concern shifts from “I should probably get around to this one day” to “maybe I shouldn’t shove people away from the drinking fountain?”
Goal: GET ORGANIZED. This is my wheelhouse, because I work with chronically disorganized people, and I know from experience that it can take three months just to have one square foot of space consistently clear. Our culture makes time scarce and material objects plentiful. As of the mid-twentieth century, it’s possible to live in clutter and disorganization the likes of which humanity has never known. What’s the cheat?
Cheat: DOWNSIZE YOUR LIVING SPACE. My husband and I rented a typical suburban house when we first got married. Three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a two-car garage, living room, family room, laundry room, dining room, and the biggest kitchen I’d ever had. We now live in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. Our dining table is stored flat under our bed. Getting an offer for the Epic Dream Job meant we had just eleven days to downsize all our stuff and relocate to a new city. The differential between a higher income on one hand, and lower rent plus no vehicle expenses on the other hand, means we could handily replace every object we downsized with plenty to spare. This is somewhat of a simplified version of a ten-year process, but this style of downsizing is not rare or radical by any means.
Goal: TOO BUSY AND TOO TIRED. Does this apply to everyone, or what? Being too tired to think straight is probably the biggest killer of goals and resolutions aside from the humble donut. This situation should not be tolerated. Even if you never make another goal or have any other aspirations in your life, finding a way to regain your energy level and get some peace of mind should matter to you. It’s the best reason to do anything. But how is it possible to get everything done without cutting back on sleep? What’s the cheat?
Cheat: GET RID OF YOUR CAR. Believe it or not, getting rid of our car two years ago was one of the most surprising and most effective ways to introduce leisure into our schedule. It takes longer to get places, and this has led to three things. One, we make fewer trips because it’s a bigger deal, so we consolidate or delegate errands. Two, we each have a BMW (Bike Metro Walk) which automatically adds more exercise, more time to listen to podcasts and audio books, and more time to sit and chill. On the bus (or rideshare, occasionally) you can text your friends, play games, read a novel, watch a TV episode, browse recipes, stare out the window, or set an alert and just nap out. Driving means that every minute, you’re either battling traffic, looking for parking, or wondering how you’ll ever find time to clean out your car. Wouldn’t you rather have that time for aimless entertainment instead? Oh, and the third thing is that because we moved and got rid of our car, we are now able to save 40% of our income, which has solved not just our leisure constraints but our financial issues as well!
What we’re talking about is how radical change can quickly and easily resolve challenges when making tiny tweaks to the standard-issue lifestyle cannot. Standard behavior includes standard problems. In our culture, those are stress, chronic sleep deprivation, clutter, money worries, sedentary behavior, and excess adipose tissue, commonly referred to as body fat.
Radical change does not have to be shocking or difficult. For instance, going to bed an hour earlier might be revolutionary for a lot of people, and it costs nothing and requires no extra equipment. All it takes is a willingness to say, I am tired of annoying myself, I am tired of facing the same issues year after year, and now I’m making the executive decision to put a stop to it. Being tired all the time is boring. Being broke all the time is boring. I don’t want the quest to remind myself to “drink more water” be my main purpose besides commuting and working at my job.
The real cheat for common goals is to wipe them off the board. Substitute some uncommon goals and see what happens.
Downsizing is like dieting. You can only cut your calories so much, and you can only get rid of every single thing you own. It stops at zero, or close to it. The other thing that dieting and downsizing have in common is that they shouldn’t be done in perpetuity. The goal is a temporary, radical refocus. Transformation can happen quickly, or it can turn into a process that grinds on for years - or forever. I’m down with downsizing, in the sense that it can be revolutionary in its positive effects. I also say, “Down with downsizing!” We should be done with it. Once we make the decision to streamline our possessions, it’s best to do it quickly and get it over with.
Focus on what you want for your personal living space. Focus on the emotions and the experience of living in it, not on the stuff. One person will want a lively social space, and another will want a tranquil hideaway. One person will want a formal and elegant showpiece, while another will want a warm and kooky reflection of idiosyncrasy. It’s awfully hard to pull off all of these looks in one room.
What I want in my space is something comforting, welcoming, functional, and geared toward maximum mental bandwidth. This is easiest with bare surfaces and a comfy couch. We don’t need much in the way of decorations or knickknacks. There’s something about a dog chasing his tail and a parrot tossing things on the floor that does a pretty good job of conveying a relaxed atmosphere.
We live in a shoebox. Not a literal shoebox, of course! Many people, both men and women, have so many pairs of shoes that parts of their homes could fairly be described as a shoebox. What else is the purpose of such a space? In our culture, most people’s rooms are chock-full of stuff. Kitchen stuff! Garage stuff! Clothes stuff! Bulk stuff! Paper stuff! Stuff and stuff! This is the natural result of shopping and buying anything that seems like a good idea. Flip it around and start with the empty room. What do you intend to do in this room? How about this one? Add only the furniture and items that directly serve that purpose. Then stop. This is how two people and two messy pets can manage to live comfortably in a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a single closet.
In a very full, extremely maximalist, cluttered standard American home, assume that all of it is completely unnecessary. Set your heart on eliminating all of it. All of it. The pieces that really need to stay will argue for themselves. You could downsize to the point that you would be done, and with the right mindset, you could be done in a long weekend.
I’ve written before about how a friend of mine just took the few things he needed for his new apartment, and then advertised on Craigslist for people to come and carry away everything that was left over in his old place. He was done in half a day.
There’s actually a huge amount of stuff in my apartment. If I took a complete inventory, it would number in the thousands. Clothes and towels and tools and textbooks and kitchen gadgets and cleansers and clothespins and rubber bands and paper sacks and pens. If I took everything that belongs to the dog and the bird, it would fill the trunk of a car. What makes it work is that almost every object we own fits in a cabinet or a drawer. We don’t “stock up” on stuff anymore. Most people’s clutter and extra stuff consists of mountains of clothes, drifts of unnecessary paper, stockpiles of food, and stacks of entertainment media. Buy groceries for just a week at a time, go paperless, digitize everything, and keep just enough clothes for two or three weeks. Suddenly truckloads of stuff seem to vanish.
It’s literally truckloads, if you don’t already know this. When I used to do home visits, we’d get rid of six truckloads on the first day. It used to astonish me the way that this happened over and over again. Then I realized that that’s just how much extra stuff can fit in a typical suburban house. That’s how much can accumulate in roughly ten years, ten years when nobody is doing regular clutter purges or letting anything go.
Living with tons of extra, unnecessary stuff is like trying to participate in three conversations at once. It’s like watching a movie with the radio on in the background. It’s like eating two dinners in one sitting. You can, but why would you want to? Living in a space that’s always full, a space with no clear surfaces or free shelf space, is a constant energy drain. Every time you want to make toast or set down a shopping bag, there’s something in the way. It’s like driving around town with a Christmas tree in the back seat, limbs and needles poking into the front seat. You get used to it and forget that these objects are just temporary interlopers. They can go out as easily as they came in. They’re here to be used, used up, and passed on.
Embracing minimalism is a one-time decision. You just sit up, realize that life could be easier, and look around. Almost everything you see is sitting there, mutely declaring its irrelevance to the simple, straightforward life you wish you had. Why do I even HAVE this? You start to realize how nice it would be to have all the money you ever spent on stuff you wound up ignoring, not using it because you never even really wanted it. It’s just there.
If I had it all to do over again, I’d start with my plans for my money and my time. I’d spend more time talking to friends, reading, sleeping, doing yoga, trying new recipes, and maybe learning a new language or musical instrument. That’s time I’d reclaim from shopping or sorting and “organizing” my stuff. I’d spend less time crying about my bills and my finances, because the stuff I never bought would have given me a respectable buffer of cash. If I had it to do all over again, I would say, “Down with downsizing!” I’d never have needed to do it because I never would have had too much. All we ever really need is love and peace of mind, and those are two things we would never want to downsize.
‘Refinance’ means different things depending on whom you talk to. There are two very different philosophies of home ownership and debt structuring. One leads in a surprising direction toward financial independence, and the other down the primrose path to, well, the primrose path never leads anywhere good. If you think you might ever refinance your home loan, take a moment to consider these two different strategies.
As a disclaimer, I’ve never refinanced a mortgage because I don’t own a house, never have, and possibly never will. That’s because I’m highly skeptical of conventional wisdom around these matters. Home ownership only makes sense if you know you’re going to own the house for at least five years, and that hasn’t been a viable option for me during my entire adult life. Not due to financial means, no, but rather to sound career strategy. My husband and I have done far better financially by being willing and able to change cities for job opportunities than we would have through appreciating real estate. This is why my opinion is interesting, because I don’t really have a dog in the fight. I look at real estate as a bystander.
I first learned the term ‘refi’ at age eighteen, working my first legit office job in a mortgage bank. The way it was explained to me, people would refinance to get a better interest rate, and that would mean they could save thousands of dollars in interest over the life of the loan. Whoa, good idea, I thought. My parents had only bought a house three years earlier, and I didn’t know much about that sort of thing. I assumed that refinancing meant you either made the same monthly payment and paid your mortgage off a little early, or that you paid a little less each month.
It never occurred to me that people would refinance their home loan as a way of dealing with their credit card debt, that they’d actually be willing to sign papers that made their house more expensive or extended their loan. Who would do that?? That didn’t even make sense. I didn’t have credit cards at that time, and wouldn’t for several years. My parents had only taken out a credit card to build credit history so they could qualify for a home loan. I had no idea that people - any people at all - were using consumer debt to finance lifestyle upgrades they couldn’t afford.
It turns out that’s the standard way to do it. Use your home equity as a cash machine. Roll your credit card debt into this new loan every so often. Maybe even take out a HELOC (home equity line of credit) so you can borrow against your security, your most important asset, the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought.
I’ve seen this happen several times. Someone starts out with an enviably low home loan and then refinances a couple-few times over the years. Suddenly the mortgage is double, triple, even quadruple where it was when it started.
There’s another way to do it. It’s almost completely opposite the standard approach. That is to refinance for a lower interest rate, maybe even with HIGHER monthly payments, to shorten the length of the loan and pay it off as fast as possible. Race to the finish line.
In the first, most common scenario, people are expanding their baseline lifestyles and expectations along with the supposed market value of their house. They progressively owe more and more while being less and less able to stomach even temporary cuts to what they have begun to see as necessities. On the hedonic treadmill, forever and always.
In the second scenario, the rare few are looking ahead to what Future Self would like. They’re pacing themselves, occasionally making short-term sacrifices for long-term stability and comfort. They progressively owe LESS AND LESS. They place more value in the feeling of being free, of one day owing nothing to anyone. They can look ahead to a specific year when they’ll own their home free and clear. They know when they’ll reach the crossover point, when the income from their investments equals their current expenses.
The “refinance to cover our debt” model has the Old Version of someone making higher mortgage payments to pay off the spending of the Young Version. Old Me has to work and work to pay extra because Young Me wanted to have more fun than I could afford.
The “maybe retire early” model has Young Me working hard to make things cheaper for Old Me. In this version, Old Me doesn’t have to worry quite as much about being crushed by medical expenses just as I’m too old and ill to keep working. It’s also possible that a hale and hearty Old Me can use the extra money as a windfall for travel, a home remodel, or whatever.
One major difference between the two is that the debt-rollercoaster version is default. It’s what happens with a lack of planning and foresight, and it’s also what happens when a couple has trouble negotiating with one another about money. The retire-early model absolutely requires both partners to come to terms with each other, to make agreements and keep them. You can only be that careful with large quantities of money over a decades-long time span if you have open channels of communication. In other words, it’s not for amateurs.
This is part of why my husband and I are living in a studio apartment, why we own neither a house nor a car. We both agree that it’s worthwhile to downsize temporarily. We both have very specific financial goals on a specific timeline. We figured that we could handle living in a confined space for a year or two, and that later in life it would make a good story. Shared adversity can make your relationship stronger. It’s something to laugh about later.
If we do ever buy a house, there are only a few circumstances in which I would think it was a good idea. 1. A ten-year or fifteen-year mortgage. 2. Buying a house with a granny unit, renting out the house, and living in the granny unit while our tenants pay off our mortgage. 3. Buying the house with cash and not carrying a mortgage at all. There are lots of ways to become home owners, and the standard-issue perpetual debt model is not the only way.
Churning is a favorite activity of my people, the chronically disorganized and the compulsive accumulators. What it means is that someone is constantly sorting, handling, relocating, or “organizing” their possessions. Often this is done under the guise of downsizing, minimalism, or frugality. Churning might involve donating a lot of bags of stuff to the thrift store, and then going inside and buying more. It can look like someone is making serious efforts to streamline their home. What’s really going on is a cover story, a reason to spend even more time interacting with physical objects than usual.
The root of hoarding is the deep-seated belief that stuff is “worth something.” Some of it is there because there’s a story behind it; it represents a memory or a relationship. Some of it is there because the owner really likes it, likes to look at it or play with it. Some of it is there out of scarcity thinking, the belief that “I can’t afford” to wait and buy something later, that “they don’t make them like this anymore,” or fear of not having enough. Some of it is there because it represents the owner’s self-image, something flattering like ‘artist’ or ‘intellectual’ or ‘thrifty homemaker’ or ‘chef.’ Underneath all of this is a fundamental preference for interacting with inanimate objects rather than human beings.
Churning isn’t obvious or overt. Someone doesn’t tend to say, I’m going to spend the day touching and playing with my craft supplies or my clothes. We say it’s time to get organized, or we think we’re doing the “full KonMari.” In fact, my people tend to adore the KonMari method because it means more time folding tea towels or rolling socks, and that’s more time in Stuff Land. My stuff, my stuff, all my great stuff!
From the minimalist perspective, you only really need to Get Organized once, when you move in to a new place. Everything you own is there for an obvious reason, and it’s obvious where to put it. There’s plenty of room because when you don’t shop for recreation, you don’t need much. Kitchen utensils and dishes go in the kitchen. Towels go on the shelf, for those of us who don’t have a linen closet. Clothes go in the closet. After you’ve figured out how to align your furniture, well, you’re done.
Then you eventually move to a new place. It’s time to pack. You look around at your stuff, realize there are things you haven’t used since the last time you moved, and you get rid of some more. Maybe 10% per move? Then you pack everything up and move it into the new place. As you unpack, maybe a few things don’t fit, like a picture that doesn’t match the new color scheme or an appliance that won’t fit in a cabinet. You shrug and dedicate a few moving boxes to charity. Out it goes, and now you’re living in a new home with even less stuff than you had before. The less you own, the less time you spend interacting with your things.
What do you do instead of churning your stuff? Talk to your friends, spend time in nature, play with your pets or your friends’ pets, get to know your neighbors, go to community events, volunteer, take up new hobbies, work out, make art, get promoted at work, lie on your bed listening to music, or whatever you want to do.
As an example, the kitchen in my studio apartment is stupidly small. I have one square foot of counter space for cooking and only half the cabinet space I’ve ever had before. We don’t even have a cupboard for food; we keep flour and other pantry staples in the refrigerator. There’s one lonely can of soup in the half-cabinet above the microwave, where we keep our cooking oil and salt. I still have a set of baking pans from our newlywed house. They have to fit in the cabinet above the refrigerator, though! Neatly stacked up there are all the cake pans, muffin tins, loaf pans, sifter, and even the electric mixer. I used to always use that space for holiday stuff like my cake stand, gravy boat, and platters that only came out for Thanksgiving. In the past, I had to ask myself why I would keep anything that only gets used three or four days a year. Today, well, keeping anything like that isn’t even an option.
Churning tends to happen when there is more stuff than storage space. People are often churning their stuff to try to make room. Take the average bookcase. Who do you know who is an avid reader, who also regularly unloads books to have an empty shelf? Nobody? I do know readers who will take a carload to the used bookstore now and then, but it tends to bring their shelf capacity from, say, 150% to 100%. It’s only when they start getting double-parked (or should I say, double-BOOKED) on the shelves, or stacked up on the nightstand and the floor, that urgent action feels required.
Personally, I like to have a free shelf available for library books.
Here are some questions to ask if you realize you’ve been spending your one precious life churning your stuff over and over:
What does ‘done’ look like?
What do I want for this room, for this space?
When will this be done?
What do I spend more time doing, making crafts or shopping for craft supplies?
Do I have a free shelf?
Do I have a free workspace with at least one square foot available at all times?
Can I use all my counters, tabletops, and chairs?
What would I do with my time if I won the chance to live rent-free for life in a five-star hotel, never had to cook or clean again, but everything I brought had to fit in two suitcases?
I’m about to churn my stuff again. We’re heading into autumn, and I always go through every shelf and cabinet before the New Year. Our lease will also be up in a few months, and as usual, they’re going to try to raise our rent. A move is probably in our near-term future. I’d like to bring as few things with us as possible. As it turns out, we need and use very little. If we spend most of our time either working or being together with our pets, friends, and family, why would we think we need so much stuff? Let what we have serve us, rather than the reverse. Let it stand at the ready, with no demands on our free time to clean it, organize it, move it, or especially not churn it.
Technically everything is in my living room. I found myself explaining this to a new friend the other day. She was trying to visualize what it’s like to live in a studio apartment. Our front door is our bedroom door as well as our kitchen door. We don’t have a back door; we’re built into a hill. While we do have a bathroom door, when you’re in there you’re also in our closet. Almost all our belongings are on view at all times. It really tends to bring home the message of minimalism! Living in a studio is a great demonstration of the value of evaluating our stuff by room, not by individual object.
Our stuff should argue for itself. It should be obvious why we have what we have. Everything we own should serve a purpose, and its existence in our personal space should be self-explanatory.
If this seems simple and easy to understand, let’s extend it. Each room in the home should also explain itself. We should be able to use every part of our personal space in the way that is most helpful.
I wake up in the morning, having spent the night in my bed, with my head on my pillow and my body under the covers. I walk into the bathroom, where I shower with soap and dry off with a towel. I go to the closet and put on clothes. I go into the kitchen (area), get a bowl and a spoon, and make myself some oatmeal for breakfast. These are easy, obvious parts of my day. My morning is supported by my environment and by my possessions. Boring, right?
Let me just say that none of those steps are obvious, simple, or easy for chronically disorganized people.
My people might:
Not always sleep in their bed, even though they have one
Sleep on a bed that is partly covered with non-bed stuff
Sleep on a bed without sheets, a pillow, or blankets
Have closets with no clothes hanging up, and clothes all over the floor
Shower irregularly and be out of soap and clean towels
Not have a shower curtain
Have broken plumbing that hasn’t worked for months
Not have any clean dishes in the kitchen
Be out of their favorite breakfast food
Have no morning routine to speak of
What makes life hard for my people is that they can get very caught up with individual possessions, and they have trouble categorizing. The house might be full of stuff, yet they might be missing a lot of the “obvious” necessities that keep a household running.
Basically my people can be relied on to have lots and lots of books, clothes, decorative items, and packaged food. Most of the time they have true hoards of craft supplies and holiday decorations. They’ll have lots of stuff they never use, because it’s there, like sheets that don’t fit any mattresses in the house, or washcloths, or booze bottles when they don’t even drink alcohol.
Look a little closer, and they don’t have stuff like a kitchen sponge, can opener, working lightbulbs, an extension cord or a hammer or a first aid kit or a fire extinguisher. There might not be curtains on the windows. They may have bought stuff they needed, then left it in the package, and in fact it may still be in the original shopping bag months later.
This is why I talk about evaluating by the room, rather than by the thing. Individual objects are not useful if they’re still in the package or the bag, if they’re not stored near where they get used, if they’re buried under piles of other stuff. Individual objects are not useful, of course, if they’re not actually useful things. I’ve known two bachelors who constantly had a wet towel on the floor because they’d never gotten around to installing a shower curtain. “Wet floor” isn’t exactly something you can hold in your hands and ask if it sparks joy, am I right?
This is what our rooms should be doing for us.
A bedroom should facilitate restful sleep. The bed should be warm and comfortable. If the room is too bright, an eye mask should be ready to use. It should be as quiet as possible, and if not, a fan or white noise can help.
A closet or dresser should store clothes so they’re ready to wear. It should be easy to put together a matching outfit that fits. There should be enough room to easily take items out and put them away again later. Anything that won’t fit in the available storage space should probably be bagged up and eliminated.
A bathroom should facilitate personal hygiene and grooming. All the plumbing and lighting should work.
A kitchen should facilitate meal preparation. Anything on the counters or the floor that gets in the way of meal prep should be questioned.
A dining table should facilitate eating meals or doing other projects. Anything that makes a table unusable should be questioned. A table is not a permanent storage option for piles of things.
A couch is for sitting. Why would anything be kept on a couch or chair that prevents someone from sitting there or stretching out and taking a nap?
That’s the basic idea. Whatever living areas we have, we should be able to use them. A bed is for sleeping, a kitchen is for cooking, a table is for using, a chair is for sitting. Whenever we have any kind of stack or pile of stuff, it’s detracting from our ability to use our space. We’re paying rent for it, but our stuff is not. If it isn’t earning its keep, get rid of it. What’s the point of storing so many cans and packages of food that you can’t cook any of it? What’s the point of owning so many clothes that you can’t fit them in your closet and you can’t find anything to wear? What’s the point of having tables and counters so covered with things that they can’t be used?
Many of us have an unfulfilled dream of something we’ll do “someday.” So much of the time, it turns out that the reason we aren’t already doing it is that we don’t think we have the space. This is why I do my headstand against the door every night, because I don’t have any blank wall space that’s wide enough. How much would we all be doing or making if we had clear tables, clear desks, clear floor space? How many parties and gatherings would we have if we felt like we had enough room to host? Let’s think first of what we would ideally do on our best days, and then arrange our living space to allow these dreams to come true.
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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