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.
Less: A Visual Guide to Minimalism is for those of us who are still bound to our stuff and not sure what to do with all the clutter. Rachel Aust’s stylish book reminds us of the point of minimalism, which is that everything really can be simple and streamlined. It really is possible to relax in a personal environment that is “done,” where nothing is missing and nothing is demanding attention. This is the next level beyond all of those organizing books. See it, imagine it, believe it. Photos of interiors like those in Less make it look possible.
Flow charts appear throughout the book, demonstrating how to make decisions about what to keep and what to eliminate. A couple of these made me grin, as I realized how they would look to my chronically disorganized clients. “Am I keeping this for sentimental reasons?” Um, not sure? Is it sentimental if it only brings up bad memories, but I still feel obligated to keep it? There’s a list of “25 Things You Can Trash Without Even Thinking.” It includes “old notebooks,” “unused craft supplies,” and “unfinished projects.” Wow! I mean, technically she is correct, and life will go on without these things, but my people are only going to be able to bring themselves to let go of these categories of their possessions under great strain. It’s a telling example of how we create our own problems and make our own lives more difficult.
My motivation for getting rid of my own old notebooks was that if they only existed in a single paper copy, then they were vulnerable to ruin or loss. I also couldn’t search them, and it was nearly impossible to track down information I needed. Now they’re digitized and backed up, and that makes them safe and useful. I “trashed” the old notebooks while keeping the important part, which was their informational content.
Aust does include some excellent thinking exercises on how to make decisions and emotional adjustments around letting things go. For instance, if this were stolen, would you actually replace it? Are you keeping it for its actual value in your life, or only its monetary value?
Stuff isn’t “worth” what we think it is. We fall for the “endowment effect,” meaning that we believe things are valuable because they belong to us, and it’s hard for us to realize that nobody on earth would pay the price we would demand for our old junk. How is it worth anything if it just sits there, literally gathering dust?
Minimalism isn’t practical for everyone, and Aust acknowledges that. She also points out that we can’t go minimizing other people’s possessions. From my work in this field, I can tell you that the person most likely to bring me in is usually the real hoarder in the home! This person is frustrated that other people are storing their stuff in areas they want to use for their own personal items. With all your stuff in the way, I can only bogart 90% of the common areas! We certainly both agree that minimalism starts with oneself and one’s own belongings.
There’s a 30-day minimalism challenge in Less that I really like. Most of my people would need to spend more than a day on some of these, but it’s still a great starting point. I’m particularly impressed that the challenge includes finance, information management, and meal planning. There’s even a social media cull, and therein we discover the time we need to carry out the rest of the challenge!
One of the major strengths of the book is the section on capsule wardrobes. Most Americans have a crazy amount of clothes, and this will be the area to see the fastest results. If you can’t figure out where to start, start here.
As for the interiors, Aust reminds us that we don’t need to keep things just because it’s “expected” if they aren’t useful to us. I’m living proof; I hate coffee tables, so we have an ottoman instead. My dresser has a footprint of only about two square feet, so it stays in the closet. “The Only 45 Items You Need in Your Home” may be a bit on the luxe side, because I don’t have a bedside table, a bath mat, or a washing machine, and I got rid of the iron and ironing board the last time we moved. I generally don’t keep any of the suggested pantry items on hand, either. The “20 Essential Cooking Tools” were right on target, though. There are very few kitchen items I use on a weekly basis that fall outside that grid.
Different styles of decor are included, indicating that not everyone has to go for the hard-edge version that appeals to me. What should be apparent is that stacks and piles of clutter never add anything positive to a room; we can add charm and warmth with color, music, and friends rather than STUFF.
As a tiny-house, debt-free person, I can state for the record that Rachel Aust’s approach works. Personally, I’m more minimalist than the book in several ways, but extremely maximalist in others. There’s still room for a parrot, a unicycle, and a set of hula hoops in a 612-square-foot studio apartment. I like the connections that Less makes between a structured, simple interior, an organized calendar and to-do list, minimal cleaning, financial freedom, and peace of mind. I’m going to set about having Less right away.
One of the many paradoxes of clutter is that it can be harder to let go of stuff we got for free than stuff we bought retail. Why is this? Free stuff can range from free samples to gifts to items picked up at the curb to website giveaways. It edges up to yard sale bargains, thrift store finds, and anything from the sales rack. A lot of us get swirly eyes when we see a FREE sign, and some of us would want to take the sign as well!
Every single thing we own has several types of costs. One, it takes up physical space. I’m hyper-aware of this because my husband and I share a 612-square-foot studio apartment with a dog and a mid-size parrot. If we bring home so much as an extra can of soup, it’s a storage issue. People tend not to think of how much their rent or mortgage costs per square foot, which can be a huge financial pitfall, because rent is usually our largest budget item by far. When we downsized from a one-bedroom to the studio, the amount we cut in rent was almost equivalent to what we were spending on a car. A new car!
How much is free stuff really worth, if by avoiding it you could have cut your rent by 20% or more?
Another underrated way that stuff costs money is when its owner pays for a storage unit. It is truly appalling how much my people spend on storage, when in every case, they genuinely can’t afford it. When I find out they’re putting it on a credit card every month, I want to cry. Someone I know has spent a full TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS maintaining a storage unit over the years. I know what’s in there because I helped pack. It’s just generic housewares, like an old couch and kitchen stuff, all of which could have been replaced for under a thousand dollars.
In fact, most people could probably replace a full set of household items by asking their friends and acquaintances. I’ve seen it happen at least a dozen times. Someone has to start over, and within a week they’ve got beds, a couch, a dining table, pots and pans, everything you could want. Granted, it might not all match, but then the original stuff probably didn’t, either! Think of the fun of watching all that FREE STUFF being carried in the door.
See how this works, though. Rather than put your stuff in storage indefinitely, spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to not use it and not look at it, you can give it away to someone who needs it. Then, when you’re ready to set up housekeeping again, you simply put out the call, and the loose free stuff of the world starts flowing in your direction again. Or, if that doesn’t feel magical enough, you can put what you would have spent on storage in the bank, and use the proceeds to buy new and improved versions.
The reason a lot of stuff is “free” is because it’s dated or obsolete. I’m thinking of a lot of stuff I’ve given away over the years, as we downsize our way to financial independence. The big red sectional couch that went to a mover, because it literally wouldn’t fit in our new living room. (It cost half what we paid for our current couch). The entire kitchen’s worth of pots, pans, dishes, and utensils we gave to a halfway house when we first got married. A carload of small appliances. Older phone models. After we upgrade, we tend not to care about the previous version, because we’ve extracted full value from it through daily use.
Say you buy something for $100 and use it for ten years. It then cost $10 per year. This type of value calculation can be done quickly on anything. If I buy a dress shirt for $50 and wear it 50 times, then it cost a dollar a wear. That’s about once a week for a year, or twice a month for two years. My wardrobe is small enough that that’s a good estimate. It’s why I’m willing to spend $50 on a single garment, because it’s cheaper that way than buying five $10 tops that fall apart in the wash, or even three $20 tops I don’t like as much and won’t wear as many times.
There are other reasons why free stuff isn’t free.
I’ve known people who have brought home a ‘free’ couch, mattress, or chair and found that their home was instantly infested with bedbugs or fleas. I’ve also known people who had a hard time getting rid of headlice or scabies. Hey, it happens. This type of thing is miserable, expensive, and incredibly frustrating and time-consuming to defeat.
Since we downsized into a tiny home, we don’t spend much time shopping or procuring things. We already know there’s nowhere to put it. If anything, we should be getting rid of two things for every one thing that comes in the door, because our space is a little crowded and chaotic with almost everything we own visible at all times. What we do spend time on happens to be ‘free stuff.’ Conversation, making art, hanging out with our friends and our pets, walking around the neighborhood, watching the sun set. Try to spend less time bargain hunting and more time simply being.
One of the consistently humorous moments in my work with chronically disorganized people is when they find stuff in their homes, and they can’t figure out how it got there. Whose is it? How long has it been here? Where did it come from?
Sometimes they don’t even know what it is!
We’ve been in situations where there is an entire box full of random items to redistribute. Whose are they? Former roommates? Friends from gaming night? Gremlins? The best we can do is to put that box by the front door and try to remember to ask people to check inside the next time they come over.
This issue of infiltration by random items comes from a lack of situational awareness. It’s cute and charming and funny, but it can also be... a little dangerous?
Not noticing your surroundings can lead to all sorts of problems, from spilling coffee to tripping and falling downstairs. I had a client who couldn’t find an actual dead rat for several days! It’s worse than that. The rat was in plain view. In the living room. And the pet dogs didn’t notice it, either. I’m like, your dogs are fired. But then, my personal dog is a rat terrier, so maybe it’s unfair to compare other dogs to him in that regard.
The simplest way to grow into greater situational awareness is with a focusing exercise that I call Perimeter Check.
Simply put, Perimeter Check means walking through each room and looking around. Many people learn to do this at work, using a checklist and doing routine tasks like closing out the till, taking out the trash, or setting the security system. There are few things more common than my people using a skill at a high level on the job, and then failing to use that same skill once they get home. That’s because there is no built-in accountability, no negative consequence for not doing it. We try to see Perimeter Check as a quick, easy thing we do for ourselves and our friends and family.
Perimeter Check can be done in mere seconds. Every time you get up, whether it’s on a bus seat, leaving work for the day, or at the movies, just glance around and make sure you have all your stuff. My hubby and I are both notorious for having to go back for stuff. I made up a little rhyme to try to make this something funny, rather than annoying:
Wallet, phone, glasses, keys / I don’t like mac and cheese
In a hotel room, Perimeter Check can be done in about a minute. I’ve been conditioning my hubby to perform it with me as a redundantly duplicate act of redundancy. We both open and shut every drawer, look in the closet, and check the shower and the bathroom counter. Before we started doing this, we had something of a track record of losing things in hotels, including the earrings I wore to our wedding. It would be nice to live in a perfect world where these left behind items are returned to Lost and Found, but in practice that has virtually never happened. It’s our responsibility to look after our own belongings, and with a sixty-second Perimeter Check, we do.
Around the house, Perimeter Check depends entirely on how many rooms there are and how much stuff is in each room.
We live in a studio apartment (technically a “junior one-bedroom” but it does not have a bedroom door, or a wall, or... a dishwasher or a washer or dryer or air conditioning or... ). Optimally, a Perimeter Check should only take us a couple of minutes. Due to the nature of living in two rooms, almost every single thing we own is in open view at all times. Even the closet doesn’t have its own door, so you can stand in the bathroom and see all our clothes, luggage, sheets, towels, shoes, laundry soap, etc. Obviously we can’t have a huge amount of personal items in a 600-square-foot apartment, but there is that issue of dozens of things in multiple colors and shapes and sizes. It’s like a “find the hidden object” puzzle. Without systems in place, it could be challenging.
What are the systems?
Everything has to justify its existence in our home
One in, one or two out
A place for everything and everything in its place
Never put something big in front of or on top of something small
Clear surfaces except when in use
Paper-free whenever possible
Basically what this means is that the kitchen counter, bathroom counter, floor, couch, and desktops need to be kept clear. If something is sitting on one of these clear, flat surfaces, that means it’s an intentional signal to do something. (Mail it, replace it, repair it, bring it with you).
Perimeter Check happens as a routine a few times a day. My hubby does it every morning when he leaves for work: Feed dog, walk dog, put dog in crate, grab backpack, grab bike, lock door. After that process, the only objects left on view in those areas should be things that belong there, like the dog leash. I do almost the identical routine when I leave, and then we both reverse it when we get home. This gives us ample opportunity to notice when the dog food bag is getting low or when he needs his prescription filled at the vet. The vitally important area around the front door is constantly being checked and cleared. At bedtime, it takes just a few seconds to check the locks, turn out lights, and gauge the levels of the laundry basket, toothpaste tube, dental floss, etc. There are a thousand tiny cogs in the machinery of daily life, and it can be a lot, but doing the routine Perimeter Check is a way of keeping everything running smoothly without a lot of extra mental energy.
Our home is for us, not our stuff. A house should serve the people and animals who live there. We should be able to sit on the couch, eat at the table, cook in the kitchen, sleep on the bed, and get ready in the bathroom. If there are any mysterious objects floating around, how did they get there and why didn’t we notice them? A stray tennis ball wound up in our yard one day, and believe me, our dog noticed within hours, if not minutes. A Perimeter Check is a way of fully inhabiting our home and, even more, our mental space.
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.
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism is a beautiful and thought-provoking book. Fumio Sasaki writes from his 215-square-foot Tokyo apartment, where he has a bed, a desk, and a wooden box. I, on the other hand, write from my 680-square-foot apartment, which I share with my husband, a parrot, a dog, and a moving van full of furniture and housewares. My place seems like a veritable carnival of excess in comparison. Sasaki presents a vision of minimalism that is redolent of potential. What does one do in such a spare interior?
Sasaki isn’t alone. The book begins with five photo case studies of other Japanese minimalists. It has before-and-after photos. Stop right there. Can we do this? Can we just have a look at series of photos like this? So peaceful, so idiosyncratic. What does one do in a minimalist room? Play Carcassonne with friends or make an illustrated journal, among other things. The fifth person is a full nomad, and his photo spread shows a simple array of possessions that fit in a backpack. I think I have more items than this in my kitchen drawer.
Goodbye, Things has an approachable, casual style. Sasaki writes about his previous maximalist lifestyle (including photos, of course) and how it was ultimately unfulfilling. He explains how materialistic he used to be, caught up in envy and fixated on money, and how minimalism changed him as a person.
There’s a list of “The things I threw away.” Aren’t these always the most fun to read? I’ve made similar lists of stuff I don’t have, some of which I did own at one point and many of which I never have. (I’ve never worn Crocs or owned a Beanie Baby, for instance). The author makes wry comments about the aspirations he had when he bought various items and how much money he had frittered away. He’s kind of a hoot.
Goodbye, Things explores minimalism as a movement. It carries on with a discussion on the roots of materialism and consumer culture. About a quarter of the book is a practical how-to guide to getting rid of stuff. The book closes with ways the author has changed as a result of his minimalist practice.
My household has changed as a result of this book. Sasaki mentions that he has one towel he uses for everything. Just like Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy! My husband and I started using hand towels after our showers instead of full-size bath sheets. Works perfectly well, no more musky towels, and at least one load less of laundry every week. We still have the bath sheets in case anyone comes to visit, because sometimes minimalism can just be our little secret.
I found Goodbye, Things compulsively readable - in fact, I finished it in one sitting on a plane. Its clean prose speaks to true art on the part of the translator. This is a really lovely book, perhaps one worth keeping, even in a 210-square-foot room with just two pieces of furniture.
“...saying goodbye to your things is more than an exercise in tidying up. I think it’s an exercise in thinking about true happiness.”
“I believed that my bookshelves were a showcase of who I was”
Just for laughs, I pulled out my phone and looked up property values next door to our new apartment. My husband and I decided early in our marriage that we wouldn't bother with home ownership. This has gotten easier in our local housing market, because you can buy an entire neighborhood in some places for what it costs to get a little shack here. When I say 'shack' I'm not even exaggerating. We got our apartment because one of the three available rental houses in our city literally did not come with a heater, much less air conditioning. There are "houses" here with bedrooms that can't physically accommodate a king-size mattress. Originally built as vacation bungalows, they now cost more than what would qualify as a mansion in other markets. Now that I've set the scene, do you want to know what the houses near us cost? Do you? Do you really?
One point eight million dollars for a two-bedroom. Just over 2000 square feet. The estimated mortgage is $6700 a month. This is the single-family home closest to our apartment.
The two next door to it cost four million and eight million, respectively. It's like a Monopoly board over here! Of course, that's because we literally have a boardwalk, because we live on the coast. These million- and multi-million-dollar homes look directly on the Southern California beach, with yellow sand close enough to have in your carpet and your sheets at all times.
Why should I care how much some rich person's house cost? I know that lifestyle is out of my reach. I also know it's totally irrelevant to my interests. Anyone who comes to our place to socialize is presumably more interested in our conversation and our charming pets than our comparative wealth or networking abilities. Visiting the Denham Ranch isn't going to get you any introductions to famous people or a chance to get your screenplay read. Check that. Of course I'll totally read your screenplay. I just don't know anyone useful to whom I can give it next.
I care about how much the houses near us cost, because we're benefiting from the same neighborhood, the same geography, the same climate, the same restaurants, the same delivery options, the same customer service, the same public infrastructure, and all the other amenities that they have. We're just doing it at a far lower cost.
Oh, but equity! you say. You're throwing your money away on rent! This is exactly what your realtor wants you to say. Excuse me, Realtor. You have to capitalize it to show that it's a real profession, in the exact precise way that a doctor, a lawyer, a professor, a surgeon, or an astronaut never do. For legitimacy. I don't doubt for a moment that a Realtor can tell me all sorts of things about the housing market, and help me to find a house that's perfect for me. One that will develop just as many wiring problems and plumbing problems and roofing problems and extermination problems and mold problems and slipped foundations and cracked walls and loose windows as every other house. Now that I'm to be a homeowner, all of these expenses can be my responsibility - the American Dream!
I'm just as comfortable allowing my landlord to cash in on that particular Dream. Reason being, the stock market out-performs real estate as an investment.* If making money is what I want to do, there are tons of ways to earn a higher return than there are in speculating on a primary residence. If I want to own something that gives me pride of ownership, I can own my own business, and the bar to entry is much, much lower than the down payment that would be necessary where I live.
The cheapest property for sale where I live is a mobile home that costs over $400,000. Nearly half a mil for a trailer!
Why not just live somewhere less expensive? Somewhere where I don't want to live and don't know anyone? Somewhere that lacks the career opportunities we have here? My husband is an aerospace engineer, so surely we'd be better off in a cheaper housing market nowhere near space industry firms? High rent is the price of the ticket. Sure, we'll move somewhere cheaper, when he decides to retire. Somewhere where a fixed income will stretch farther. In the meantime, it makes sense to chase down the highest income possible, putting away more cash at the same savings rate, possibly earning a higher payment if social security survives another twenty years.
We live in a stupidly expensive area. Price per square foot is, I think, around that of my parents' and both of my brothers' homes put together. It has its advantages, though. We were able to ditch our car (and accompanying payments) because transit is so good here and because everything we need is within walking distance. A bunch of stuff is weirdly cheaper. Our internet is half what we were paying in our last place, and our dog's expensive monthly shot is also half-price. Our entire monthly utility cost is under $100 a month. My husband gets his bus pass reimbursed at work, so his transportation cost is zero. Due to his schedule, we get a three-day weekend on alternate weeks. Since our place is right on the beach, we're essentially on beach vacation all the time. We refer to our tiny apartment as "the room" because it feels better to think of it as a big hotel suite than as a micro-apartment. A 680-square-foot room can be either big or small depending on how you look at it. We're starting to understand why retirees who downsize are so relaxed - they don't really have to do any housework.
Walk out the front door. Turn left and go down the hallway. Open the outer door. Now you're on the staircase landing. From here, you can watch the sun set as the sailboats and rental canoes come in to harbor. Often you can hear the sea lions from out on the rocks. Walk down the stairs and along the path for a few yards. Go down the stairs. Look, you're on the marina! Walk south another couple hundred yards and check that out. Sandy beach sand. People come here on vacation, and it's basically your yard. This is what we can access with our monthly rent, and all we had to give for a down payment was a month's rent, rather than, say, $200,000.
Figuring out whether a house is a good investment for you is a mathematical exercise. It has actual numerical, objective answers. There are handy calculators* out there where you can put in various factors and learn whether this little building you're looking at really qualifies as a sound investment. It wouldn't for us, even if we knew we could stay for more than five years, although I haven't lived in one home for more than five years since 1990. We understand the stock market. Honestly, we can outdo the housing market as an investment just by striving for raises and bonuses at work. Other people may get a warm and fuzzy feeling from "owning" a house, which is the shorthand we use for "the bank owns this house and I pay them for the privilege of pretending it's mine." We'd rather collect on the experiences of living in a particular place than in a particular building, especially when considering the cost per square foot.
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.