I’m an under-buyer. This means that I hate shopping and spending money so much that I’ll wait too long to replace things, even when they wear out. I won’t buy things, even when I need them. That’s what’s so great about minimalism. It’s like a makeover. Before: Tightwad. After: Minimalist! Before: Shabby. After: Frugal! I’m forever going around with a bag that has straps nearly sheared off, underwear with popped elastic, and an upside-down shampoo bottle draining that precious last teaspoon into the cap. Once I was considering whether to darn a pair of socks for the fourth time, when I realized that I had completely worn out the heel. It’s silly. What I’ve found is that minimalism can help to resolve conflicts around extreme frugality, hoarding, and desire for peace of mind.
The premise of minimalism is that we only have possessions that improve our lives. For instance, I don’t need a wedding ring, but I love that it’s a symbol of my marriage. I’ve never taken it off. It’s also really useful as a social signal, representing tons of conversations about romantic availability that I never need to have. I don’t wear any other rings because I’m generally not into jewelry. Less to buy, less debt to pay off, less to store, less to clean, less to insure, less to worry about.
I trust myself not to waste money. This is true even though I occasionally suffer through fits of buyer’s remorse. What I have to learn to do is to trust that I’m only going to buy things that add value to my life. I have to trust my own judgment that I’m going to extract full value from my purchases.
I’ve had a rough guideline for twenty years: $1 per wear. A dollar per wear means that if I spend $50 on a pair of jeans, and I wear them fifty times, then they’ve fully amortized. That’s basically once a week for a year, which is plausible for jeans. Now, if I spend $50 on a sequined top, wear it once and realize it’s itchy and I have to keep yanking it into place, and then wear it once more and ruin it in the wash, I’ve paid $25 per wear. I probably loved the experience of wearing the comfy, flattering jeans and hated the experience of wearing the expensive, annoying, high-maintenance sequined top. For clothes, I’m going for the experience of how they feel on my body, not the photographic record. Why would I pay 25 times more for the discomfort of wearing the sequins, compared to the reliability of the jeans?
On the other hand, I once spent $80 on a new suit to wear to a job interview, and I got the job. I think I wore that outfit as a suit maybe four times. I might have worn the skirt by itself another half a dozen times before I changed sizes. That suit came nowhere near a dollar per wear, but it paid itself off the first day of that new job.
As an under-buyer, I resisted buying that $80 suit. I actually left the store without it and went back to look at it again. Three separate times. If I paid myself by the hour during my free time, which is a fantastic minimalism tool, then I would have wasted far more than $80 of my time fretting and fussing over it.
The sandals that I bought this summer barely lasted three months. I got two pair at $30 each, and one pair is destroyed. I found a chunk of the sole on the floor and realized that they don’t even qualify as shoes anymore. The second pair are probably only a few miles of walking away from that fate. I’m mad at myself, because I really wanted to splurge on a new pair of Birkenstocks and I cheaped out at the last minute. My first pair of Birks survived being re-soled twice. When I finally let them go, they were ten years old. I paid significantly more per mile walked on the cheap sandals I bought online than I would have for what I already knew was a quality shoe. My average miles walked have increased this year from three miles a day to seven. Maybe it’s wrong to expect more than two hundred miles of use out of a pair of discount summer sandals. My shoes are my car, and I have to recondition myself to expect to go through them more quickly than I did in the past.
The point of minimalism is to place our priority on what matters most. Priority is singular. After working on our purpose in life and valuing our loved ones, there is only so much attention and mental focus left for material possessions. What we buy, what we use, what we keep, should add value to daily life. If it isn’t obvious why we have it and what we do with it, it’s up for review. Why take up time, space, or money with stuff we don’t need? The flip side of this philosophy is that there are things that we do legitimately need, want, and use. Because these things argue for themselves, because these things justify their existence in our lives, it’s fine to spend on quality.
We splurged when we bought our bed as newlyweds, because we knew we’d spend a third of our lives on that mattress. The cost per year and cost per day is not extravagant. That purchase was a gesture of hope and commitment. That mattress is over eight years old now, and when we replace it, it’s going to feel in some ways like a renewal of our marriage vows. You and me and the box springs, my dear, and another thousand iterations of changing the fitted sheet together.
I’m starting to realize that it’s a little weird, the way my spending habits reflect my strange notions of frugality. I will happily pick up the check for lunch with a friend but flinch when it’s time to replace my socks. I’m trying to rejigger my preferences. I don’t need to underbuy the basics because we already save so much of our income and because there are so many categories of things we don’t buy at all. It’s okay to have new socks and underwear and a work bag that doesn’t have parts falling off! The objects we use the most often are the objects that are, by definition, the most valuable to us. A splurge on an item of daily use will have a far lower impact on the bank balance than a similar splurge on a luxury item. There is no reason why we can’t surround ourselves with functional routine objects. Everything that we use on a daily basis can be replaced or maintained in good working order, allowing us to live in domestic contentment, in comfort, and even in style.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.