The stuff mountain in our living room
There is a mountain of stuff in our living room. Three full black plastic bags. A tree of shoes. Two backpacks filled with electronics. Boxes of things. Boxes that are just boxes. Wrapping paper for gifts not given. Clothes. A guitar. It’s all a giant, shapeless blob of possessions, all of them on their way out of our hands and into the hands of family and strangers.
We’ve come to that place in our lives where it’s time to reevaluate our relationship with things. We are becoming minimalists.
There is a good documentary on Netxflix that maps that path of Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, set out on their own path to minimalism. They talk of frustration with their pursuit of an outside vision of what the American dream should look like. Corporate success with a corresponding six-figure income. A car that announces to the world your status level. The biggest home your income can borrow against (maybe even a little bigger than that). A never-ending cycle of new clothes befitting your (ahem) station in life. Expression through possession with the goal to paint the brightest, most-promising, most successful image of yourself to the world.
The fallacy of the appearance of luxury as testament to personal greatness is the message being constantly presented to us of what this ideal life should look like. Through advertising, marketing, media, and other peer pressure, this goal of the perfect life is unattainable at modest, normal income levels. Even higher-than-average earners will likely need debt to service this lifestyle of consumption. Especially because we are encouraged to display comfort and largess from the very beginning of our working lives; told the the best way to reach this pinnacle of consumerism is the four-year college degree, which most people have to borrow money to earn.
This is an ideal scenario for money lenders (banks, investors, anyone who makes money by trading off others). Meaning, a bank is willing to lend you money to feed a consumerist lifestyle, so you can present a not-yet-earned image of prosperity to the rest of the world, and live a comfort you could not yet afford to provide yourself, by trading on two things. They lend you based on how likely you are to honor the debt, and how much extra money you will have available in the coming years. If you’re a decent person and a decent earner, you have it made in America. If, of course, you want to live your life on a borrow-and-spend cycle that makes banks rich, lets you feel good about yourself today, but sells your potential to put the money you earn to work to create the life you really want.
Okay, I’m starting to sound a bit like a crank, so let me dial it back a bit.
Here’s where some of this energy I have on the subject is coming from. I am in debt. Most of that debt is due to some short-term decision I made in the past. A short-term decision to do or buy something that, at the time, made me happy. I am fortunate in that I can afford to service my debt, but I see the income I earn leaving my hands every month to service these old decisions debts and I scream inside. I am at a place in my life where I want to focus on the things that make me truly happy, but because I need to continue to service these debts, I am unable to take some risks. I need to continue to earn at the level I am to feed the debt. I am over-committed, trying to build two lines of business at the same time while pursuing my passion for things that bring me true joy; cycling and for writing.
I need the lessons of minimalism to get control back over the direction of my life from here. Starting with how I handle my finances.
First cull: money
I am committed, damned and determined, to break up with the money lenders, the eliminate them from my life. To do it, I am paying off debt at a rapid pace. I am also not borrowing new money from anywhere. No more credit card spending. No changing my car on a loan. No school debt. No moving house or borrowing against this one. Coupled with the discipline of a fixed budget for our monthly expenses, every spare penny goes to the debt. It will take time, maybe two years, but eventually that debt will be gone. And when it’s gone, and I can live on a more modest income, the way will be clear for me to re-shape how I spend my life’s energy. I will be able to take some risks.
We’re five months in to sorting our finances. There are tough, doubtful, tempting moments for sure, but the momentum of making progress is addictive. Every time I clear a balance and close an account, the joy of it resonate through my entire being. It feels like power. It feels like control. And that feeling is becoming more enticing to me than the short-term hits of pleasure I would get at being able to buy stuff with a card.
And once I got firmly on a path to declutter my finances and get clear of the cycle of consumerism, and out of the cycle of borrow-to-make-myself-happy-with-stuff cycle, I stared to question everything I owned. Even though I am modest person and didn’t think I was that much of a consumerist, I still owned more *stuff* than I needed to be happy.
The biggest example of this was my collection of work bags. I plan to write a full post about this (and I’ll link it here when it’s done), but the short version is that I owned five laptop/courier bags. Each had been purchased because one of the others was imperfect in some way. By pulling together all my bags and building a profile of all the things I actually needed in a work bag, I was able to get rid of them all five and replace them with one, high-quality backpack, a singularly perfect work bag.
We are in the middle of repeating this process (pull everything we own out, evaluate what is essential and what brings us joy, and letting go of the rest) in all areas of our home. We’ve hit our clothes closet, the bedroom, the hallway closets and will do our living areas, kitchen, and garage next. I will declutter my office(s) next. Then my car. Streamlining my digital life will follow. When done, I hope to have a lean, manageable relationship with stuff. I will own things that are essential to my life. I will cherish the things I own because I will select for need and joy and insist on only owning quality.
The tribe of minimalism
I’ve been on this path for a while. We moved into our current house three years ago. When my wife and I talked about our requirements, I advocated for a smaller home with less square-footage, that would be less-expensive to run and simpler to maintain. I wanted solar power to decrease utility costs. I felt, even then, that we could purge and declutter and live in in a smaller space. She wanted more outdoor space for her horses (which were being boarded at another house at the time).
We found the perfect place, that checked both our boxes, and we and purged and purged and purged to fit the new space. We purged furniture. We cleared closets. We decluttered the garage. So the elements, the thinking, that led us to minimalism were there before now, just not taken all the way through. I just needed the help of having the philosophy organized into a system for me to grasp on to to turn it into action in my life. I found that system online in the many ways Minimalism is expressing itself; on YouTube, on Netflix, in books. There is a tribe of people pursuing minimalism as a lifestyle. They have blazed a path for the rest of us to follow. All we have to do is follow until we work out our own path.
Like I said above, we’re just getting into the work of decluttering. I’ll post more as we go through the process, sharing what we learn, what works and what doesn’t, how we fail and, hopefully, how we succeed.
What about you? Have you ever struggled with trying to keep up with the American Dream? Do you feel like you have too much stuff? Are you burdened by your possessions? Have you tried minimalism? How did it go? Comment below or contact me.