Monday, September 21, 2020

The Beauty of Budgeting

"This is your money.  Stop wondering where it went and start telling it where to go."

Dave Ramsey The Total Money Makeover 

To many, the idea of a budget seems restrictive, boring, and old fashioned.  But believe it or not, "budget" is not a dirty word, and a budget is not an outdated idea, but a useful tool for us today.

The process of making a budget helps us focus on our needs, of course, but it also lets us find a way to afford our desires.  A budget doesn't tell us what we can't spend; it's simply a plan for how we choose to use our money. 

Many of us are near-sighted about money.

We pay our bills every month, and manage to afford clothes, restaurant meals, salon appointments, and our morning lattes, but we're always caught short by our annual auto registration fees or property taxes.  Lots of our entertainment requires a credit card, as does any true emergency.  We don't save much for retirement, even though it's inevitable that someday we will need or want to stop working.  And we may dream about something we really want to have or do, but we have no plans for how we might afford it, and we fritter our money away on things that don't really matter to us.

We work too hard to wonder where all our money went.  We shouldn't have to deal with thoughts like Why can't I pay my bills? or Why am I so broke all the time?  And even if we feel pretty comfortable about our financial situation, a budget can maximize our options for achieving our most meaningful and valuable goals.

A budget gives us control over where our money is going.

It lets us pay for our day-to-day expenses, and helps us prepare for quarterly or once-a-year expenses too.  It also lets us plan for those unplanned expenses, like an emergency room visit or refrigerator repair.  And it lets us have fun without resorting to a credit card.

The beauty of a budget is that it helps us pay attention and become intentional about how we use our resources.  A budget lets us make sure that every dollar we earn has a purpose, that we are meeting our needs and using our earnings to satisfy our deepest priorities.

My budget isn't going to look like yours, and your budget isn't going to look exactly like anyone else's.  We can tailor our budgets to meet our specific requirements.

You can create your budget on a piece of paper or with an Excel spreadsheet or an app.  Whichever way you decide, you'll follow the same steps to create a zero-based budget, one in which your monthly income minus your expenses equals zero.  A zero-based budget gives you a plan for every dollar.

Photo by Michael Longmire on Unsplash

Friday, September 18, 2020

Rethink the American Dream

My husband and I moved four times in our first four years of marriage, then bought a house and stayed there for eight years.

When we moved to a larger town for a better job, we sold our first house for about 50% more than we had originally paid for it  I thought we had done well.  But after subtracting the amount we had spent on home improvements over the years, I realized we had actually made far less on the sale.

We rented an apartment in our new town so we could get to know the area before deciding to buy another house.  Our rent was approximately the same as our previous house payment, but of course it didn't qualify as a tax deduction the way our mortgage interest had. 

Imagine my surprise when we filed taxes the next year, took the standard deduction, and realized that it wasn't that much less than our mortgage interest had been.  We had paid thousands of dollars in interest every year in order to save a few hundred dollars in taxes.

I started to wonder if owning a house was such a good investment after all.

We lived four years in that apartment, and bought a house when our children were 8 and 11 years old.  They were excited to finally stop sharing a bedroom.

Six years later, in 2007, we sold that house and made just enough to use as a down payment on a brand new, slightly larger house.  We were a bit over-extended with the new housing costs, but we figured that with cost of living raises and my new part-time job we could manage.

That was a mistake.  In 2008, not only was there no raise, there was actually a cut in pay.  And my new job was cut also.  This was not according to plan, and by the time we paid for our daughter's wedding in 2011 we had serious credit card debts and an underwater mortgage.  Millions of people were in the same situation.

Fortunately, our lender accepted a short sale in 2012, and we moved back into an apartment.

And here we are, eight years later, out of debt, with well-funded retirement accounts and reasonable rent.  Our 800-square-foot apartment more than meets our needs.

We have no plans to buy a house.

I realize that's not the American Dream.  With 80% of the US population preferring single-family home ownership, and only 8% preferring apartment or condo living, we are outside the norm.

In European countries, however, more people live in apartments than in detached houses.  My uncle has lived in Germany for decades, and he and his family have always lived in small apartments.  That's not unusual – 62% of Germans live in apartments.

My husband and I are very happy apartment dwellers.  I think that if you stop to consider the benefits, you might actually agree.

6 Reasons to Love Apartment Living

1.  Less effort

Any living space requires upkeep, but less space means less time spent cleaning and tidying.  Chores don't feel overwhelming, so it's easy to keep up with them.  Vacuuming takes less than 20 minutes, and caring for a mini garden on a balcony may be pure joy compared to mowing, watering, pruning, weeding, fertilizing, and raking an entire yard.

2.  More ease

When we owned a house, I always had a list of repairs and upgrades I wanted to make.  We were always doing something inside or out.  I was constantly thinking of new paint colors, new flooring, new landscaping, better windows, and more.  As a renter, those things aren't my responsibility, and I've learned not to be a slave to my house.

Some people love working on their house, but if that's not how you want to spend your weekends, vacations, and extra money, apartment living frees you from the obligations of home ownership.  It's not lazy, it's an intentional choice to focus on other things.

3.  Less clutter

Apartments are generally a lot smaller than houses, and that means you have a lot less space to accumulate possessions.  This forces you to be vigilant about clutter.  In a house, you might have a basement, attic, garage, or shed where you can stash things you want to keep "just in case."  In an apartment, extraneous stuff is obvious, and so you learn to edit.

4.  More connection

Unlike a house where a family might be scattered in various separate rooms, in an apartment you tend to gather together.  You might use your kitchen table for meals and also as a desk, and spend a lot of time together there.  Even if I am watching TV in the living room and my husband is reading in the bedroom, we're only about a dozen yards apart.  We have breathing space, but we're present for each other.

5.  Less conformity

Our culture tells us that the more we own, the happier we'll be.  Pursuing the American Dream means constantly raising your standard of living.  However, the 2019 World Happiness Report indicates that multiple factors determine happiness, particularly connection and generosity.

As an apartment dweller, you realize that you don't have to get caught in that work/spend cycle just because everyone else is doing it.  You're free to explore other avenues to well-being.

6.  More financial freedom

What trade-offs are you making if you decide to upgrade to granite countertops or if you need to replace your HVAC system?  If your money is always going toward home projects and repairs, then maybe you don't travel as often as you would like, or you don't buy those season tickets, or you don't pay for organic food, or you don't give as generously to causes you care about.  Apartment living lets you build your budget around what's really important to you.

Our way of life isn't for everyone, but for us a minimalist lifestyle in an 800-square-foot apartment has brought more contentment and stability than our years as homeowners.  Challenging the American Dream might be a positive choice for you too.

Photo by Alexandar Todov on Unsplash

Monday, September 14, 2020

MINIMALIST TOOL KIT: Enjoy the Simple Things

Don't get me wrong.  I love the occasional filet mignon dinner.  I enjoy live theater.  It's wonderful to stay at Glendeven Inn on the Mendocino coast.

But my tastes are actually very simple.  I sometimes think I could live on sourdough bread, cheese, red seedless grapes, and minestrone soup.  My Starbucks order is a Cafe Misto (coffee with steamed milk).  My favorite outfit is dark wash jeans and a jewel colored, three-quarter sleeve v-neck tee shirt.  I love library books, crossword puzzles, and the classical music station.  Give me a drizzly day and a wooded path and I'm in seventh heaven.

A lot of people believe that if you're not constantly striving, if you don't have an extensive bucket list, you can never be happy.  I think they've got it wrong.  If you want to be happy, you need to learn to appreciate the things around you, the things you can enjoy every day.  No one is happy who constantly fixates on what she doesn't have, while overlooking all of the good things already in her life.

For a happy life, cultivate simple tastes.

I'm not saying it's bad to have a few extravagant aspirations.  I've already admitted that I have some.  I'm not saying that it's wrong to be ambitious, to have goals.  I'm just suggesting we need to live happily every day, not just on a few high points.  What good is it to attain something if you can't savor your success?  If every achievement just makes you want to climb the next mountain, none of your accomplishments will make you happy.  If every treat just makes you want more treats, so that they become commonplace, you won't enjoy them anymore.  You won't anticipate your special experiences, and you won't pay attention to every detail when they occur.  You'll be spending more and more money, but you won't get nearly the fun that you used to get when a treat experience was rare.

I appreciate a fancy dinner or a special trip when I have those opportunities, but for day-to-day living I have simple tastes.  I suggest you do the same.

5 Benefits of a Simple Life

1.  Every day is better.
Since I have simple tastes, they're easier to fulfill on a regular basis.  If I could only be satisfied with the rarest and most exclusive, I'd either need to be very rich, deeply in debt, or constantly disappointed.

2.  Decisions are easier.
As I wrote in "Why a Uniform Might Work for You," choosing a simple, consistent wardrobe saves time, money, energy, and worry, and lets you feel free, confident, and in control.  When you cultivate simple tastes that let you enjoy an egg and toast for breakfast every morning (for example), or that make an hour of reading aloud your family's favorite evening activity, you aren't pulled in six different directions trying to decide what to do or eat or buy.  You aren't constantly second-guessing yourself.  What a relief.

3.  I'm not a slave to trends, brand names, or advertising.
All of us live in a media-saturated world.  It's hard to be completely unaware of whatever is fashionable right now.  But when I cultivate simple tastes, I don't feel deprived if I don't own the latest must-have item.  I'm satisfied continuing to use or wear what I already have, without feeling the need to run out and get something new simply for the sake of its newness and popularity.

4.  I don't need to inflate my lifestyle.
Lifestyle inflation is the tendency to increase spending on non-essentials whenever your income goes up.  Obviously, if you can barely support yourself, then a larger income that allows you to spend more would be a relief.  But if you're reading this, chances are your current lifestyle is at the very least comfortable.  When my income increases, I don't need to spend more if my tastes remain simple.  I don't need to upgrade my electronics or my car or my house if I'm happy with my refurbished iPhone, my Kia sedan, and my cozy apartment.

5.  I have the means for an occasional splurge.
If I don't spend money on expensive treats every day, then I have more money to spend when I really want something special.  I don't always remember this when I don't feel like cooking, or when Starbucks Pumpkin Spice Latte season arrives.  But it's really a no-brainer.  When I keep daily expenses simple, and don't fritter away money on stuff I can live without, I have the means to indulge in the things that matter to me.

I'm more grateful and contented when I keep my tastes simple.  I think you will be too.

Photo by Roman Purtov on Unsplash

Friday, September 11, 2020

A Day to Remember

It's Patriot Day in the US, the National Day of Service and Remembrance on September 11.

It's generally thought of as a day to remember the nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but it's also a time to be thankful for all of the first responders who risked their lives, and the many others who pitched in to help and comfort those who were affected by the tragedy.

Today is the perfect time to volunteer for an organization that improves the lives of others, spreading kindness and offering hope.  You might also give a monetary gift to such an organization, drop off a bag of groceries at your local food closet (or some food and treats at the animal shelter), or simply pick up garbage in your neighborhood or the park.

Today is also a good time to write one or more thank you notes to the people who have made your life better.  Your parents, grandparents, pastor, or a friend would love to hear from you.  If you have children, I know their teachers would appreciate a note of thanks.  An appreciative text message or social media post would undoubtedly make someone's day.

It's fire season in California, and firefighters all over the state are battling blazes.  Remember them, and pray for their safety.

Wear your face mask, and be sure to thank the grocery clerk, bank teller, delivery person, or barista who serves you and wears a mask all day every day for your safety.

We're all busy, and we all have a lot of other things to do today.  But a life of maximum gratitude and minimal stuff means we can always take time to appreciate all of our blessings.  We never have to wait for a designated holiday to give thanks or do a kindness for someone else – it is always appropriate.

Just a reminder to you (and myself!) that a life of gratitude is the path to happiness and contentment.

Thank you for reading.

Thank you to Wilhelm Gunkel for sharing this photo on Unsplash.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Why a Uniform Might Work for You

Say a man wears a navy or charcoal suit with a white dress shirt every day.  The only change he makes is his tie.  Former President Obama did this, explaining, "I'm trying to pare down decisions.  I don't want to make decisions about what I'm eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make."  To which almost everyone said, "Cool.  That makes sense."  When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wears jeans, a gray tee shirt, and a gray hoodie every day, or any other man wears Levi's and a white Oxford button-down as a daily uniform, people either make no comment, or decide that the look is "iconic" and makes a lot of sense for a busy, important man.

However, if a woman wears a signature outfit every day, most people write her off as unstylish and/or unfeminine.  People wonder if she's letting herself go.  When Hillary Clinton went through a period of wearing dark pant suits (the closest parallel to the outfits of her male counterparts), she was labeled "dowdy" and "boring."  Michelle Obama is constantly praised for her style savvy, as if that's the only thing she has going for her.

It's really a double standard.

While it might be fairly common for men to wear variations on the same outfit every day, for women it is harder to achieve the same kind of wardrobe simplicity.  As Susan Sorokanich, a 60ish interior decorator explains, "You need to have a lot of self-confidence in your choices."  She wears a black boat neck shirt with three-quarter sleeves and slim-fitting blue jeans, adding jewelry or a scarf for variety (much like a man who owns several snazzy ties to go with his navy suits).  She'll don denim shorts if she's gardening, and black trousers if she's meeting a new client or going out for dinner.  "I don't waste any time shopping for clothes or deciding what to wear every day," says Sorokanich, who's been dressing this way for nearly 20 years.  "It's been so incredibly liberating."

Women do feel social pressure to wear different outfits every day.  Every time I've written about a capsule wardrobe, I've talked about ways to accomplish that even with a small number of clothes.  And maybe the socialite or royal doesn't dare wear the same thing twice.  They probably need wardrobe mistresses and on-call couturiers.  But the rest of us aren't on display.

What would happen if a woman pared her wardrobe to a single outfit (with multiple copies, of course, so that she always has clean clothes)?  Would it actually streamline her mornings?  Would people notice and think she wasn't professional?  Would it get boring?

It turns out that most women who experiment with a uniform find it a pleasant experience.  Stephanie Mehta, editor-in-chief at Fast Company, found that her outfit of a black turtleneck with a black skirt worked well for school drop-offs, on-camera TV appearances, and dinners out.  She varied lipsticks, earrings, belts, shoes, and bags for different situations.  She was surprised by the lack of reaction to her outfit, and believes that her clothes were so inconspicuous that people did not seem to remember what she wore from day to day.

Matilda Kahl, creative manager at Sony Music, chose a white silk blouse and black trousers for work (adding a black blazer if it was cold).  She enjoys wearing different color shoes – "That's my little creative channel," she says.  Kahl has noticed an increase in productivity since she stopped focusing on what to wear.

Renata Briggman, real estate agent and mother of two young children, has opted for a uniform of black trousers, white tee shirt, gray blazer, black ballet flats, a silver necklace, and a slim red belt.  On weekends she wears black jeans and a denim jacket; in the winter she wears black boots.  She used to look into her crowded closet and feel that she had nothing to wear.  Now she says, "It's saved me hours.  I get more compliments and feel more put together.  And nobody notices the uniform.  We assume that other people are paying attention to what we are wearing when they are all really more focused on their own lives."

Kate Rose, a self-described "plus-size person," says, "I've found I never had the same amount of choice in trying to find things to wear as my smaller friends....  The lifelong struggle of trying to find a way to look acceptable to the world every morning, especially as a fat person, was making me extremely unhappy."  (I can relate to this.)  When she bought multiple copies of a black dress she liked, she felt more confident about getting dressed every morning.  Ms. Rose enjoys being creative with belts, cardigans, jewelry, and hats, and reports that "wearing the same thing every day has been the single thing I have done this past year that has contributed to the satisfaction of my day-to-day life."

8 Reasons to Wear a Uniform

  1. It saves time.
  2. It saves money.
  3. It saves emotional energy.
  4. It saves mental energy and reduces decision fatigue.
  5. It frees you from the tyranny of whatever color or look is currently in vogue, so you dress for yourself rather than in response to others.
  6. It allows you to choose quality pieces that are just your style.
  7. It gives you polish and confidence.
  8. It removes the worry and distraction of what to wear so you can focus and accomplish more in other areas.

Photo by Christina @ on Unsplash

Friday, September 4, 2020

The 4x4 Wardrobe

One secret to dressing stylishly and well with a smaller wardrobe is to limit colors.  This doesn't mean you need to dress all in black.  A capsule wardrobe can certainly include bright color.  The trick is to choose a base color.  A base color is a neutral that can be worn with many other hues, such as black, brown, navy, khaki, gray, or denim.  This is the color you want to use for trousers, skirts, jackets, cardigans, suits, and dresses that you wear over and over.

Look in your closet and pull out the trousers, skirts, suits, or cardigans and jackets that you wear most often and feel most comfortable and attractive in.  Do they share any colors in common?  Many of us gravitate toward one or two base/neutral colors.  One person might find that she consistently likes and chooses black and charcoal for trousers and jackets; another person naturally chooses navy, while a third gravitates toward shades of brown.  I like black and dark wash denim.

The color(s) that we like to put on below the waist, or wear as a jacket over trousers and a shirt, or over a skirt and a blouse, make the perfect base color(s) for a capsule wardrobe.  More than that, this color guides our choice of shoes, belts, and bags.  If you consistently choose gray skirts and suits, for example, you don't need brown shoes.

Do you already own two bottoms and two tops in a favorite base color?  Perhaps you have black trousers, a black skirt, a black jacket or cardigan, and a black and white striped shirt.  You can combine these four items into four outfits:

  • trousers + shirt
  • trousers + shirt + cardigan (or jacket)
  • skirt + shirt
  • skirt + shirt + cardigan

These pieces by themselves are not very exciting, and that shirt is certainly going to be over-worn, but they constitute the first four pieces of a 4x4 Wardrobe.

Now see whether you already own two more bottoms and two more tops in the same or a complementary base color.  I own the group of four I've already described.  I also own another group of four:  black jeans, dark wash denim jeans, a black and white patterned top, and a denim jacket.  I can combine the second four items into four more outfits, PLUS I can mix and match both sets of four into even more combinations.

  • black jeans + patterned shirt
  • black jeans + striped shirt
  • black jeans + patterned shirt + cardigan
  • black jeans + striped shirt + cardigan
  • black jeans + patterned shirt + denim jacket
  • black jeans + striped shirt + denim jacket....

You get the idea.  There are actually 24 ways to wear these 8 items.  But there's still not much color in my wardrobe, and those two tops are being seriously over-used.

That's why the next four pieces in your 4x4 Wardrobe are all tops.  They can be all different colors, if you want.  They all simply need to look good with your base color(s).  My four tops all have subtle tone-on-tone patterns, but each is a different color:  periwinkle blue, rosy orange, mossy green, purple.

Once this third group of four pieces is added to the first two groups, all 12 pieces mix and match into 72 outfits.  Wow!

To recap, I've chosen twelve pieces of clothing in three groups of four.  I have black trousers, a black skirt, black jeans, and dark wash jeans.  I have a black draped cardigan and a denim jacket.  I have two different black and white tops and four tops in other colors.

Of course, I also own shoes.  Mine are all black:  heels, loafers, sandals, demi boots.  I have one black belt and one black handbag.  I wear one necklace and my wedding ring every day, but you might choose to own more jewelry or even a few scarves to embellish your outfits.

If you work in a nice office, you may need a career 4x4 wardrobe and a leisure 4x4 wardrobe.  Follow the guidelines I've described.  If you live with weather extremes, you might need a different wardrobe for each season (or at least for fall/winter and spring/summer).  You'd still have a curated selection on any given day, even though you'd own more clothing.

I haven't forgotten the Final Four!  So far we've only discussed a 4x3 Wardrobe, which really might be adequate (I'm doing a 30 day challenge with only 10 pieces, after all).  These final pieces are for fun and/or practicality.  So you can add whatever you want, love, and will use (of course, they must mix and match with the first three groups of four).  For summer, I've added a black and white dress, denim capris, a teal/aqua shirt, and a black tank top.  In the winter, I like to have a couple of black silk turtlenecks for layering, an extra pair of denim jeans, and a multi-hued crocheted shawl (of course I have a coat and rainboots too).

The 4x4 Wardrobe is a fantastic tool for creating a minimalist closet.  It can help you buy less clothing that you love and wear more often and with greater ease.

  • First Four:  two bottoms, two tops (perhaps including a cardigan or jacket) in a favorite neutral color
  • Second Four:  two bottoms, two tops in the same or a coordinating neutral color
  • Third Four:  four tops (your chance to add more color and style)
  • Final Four:  additional items you need or want to extend the versatility of your wardrobe

P.S.  Thank you to Janice at The Vivienne Files for the general idea of the 4x4 Wardrobe.

Photo by Hailey Moeller on Unsplash

Monday, August 31, 2020

Simple Money

Introducing my newest book, Simple Money: Achieve Financial Peace and Abundance with Minimalism, available now on Amazon!

Minimalism doesn't mean lack and deprivation.  Minimalism is a tool that helps us find happiness by steering us in the direction of what we truly desire.

Physical clutter can be obvious: that unused treadmill, those stacked up boxes, or the pile of knickknacks, mail, and various remotes on the coffee table.  But financial clutter, such as debt, overspending, and a fuzzy understanding of what we owe and where our money goes can be much less apparent.  When we let go of financial clutter, we create more resources to accomplish the things we really care about.

I'm not a financial planner or investment guru.  I grew up knowing I would have to work and figure out how to pay for the things I needed.  I've budgeted and run the accounts for our household, both when we were underwater on our mortgage and overburdened with credit card debt, and as we have climbed out of that situation to a life of abundance.

Simple Money can help you:

  • discover your money beliefs and how they influence your financial decisions
  • buy less and demolish debt
  • make a budget that lets you meet your needs and find a way to afford your desires
  • feel empowered, not poor, as you control your spending
  • increase enjoyment and satisfaction without spending much money
  • and more!

We work too hard to wonder where all our money went.

Life is better when we use money to achieve our dreams, and Simple Money can help you along the way.

Simple Money is available now on Amazon, in paperback and as an ebook (Amazon's Kindle editions can be read on any phone, tablet, or computer with their free app).

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Friday, August 28, 2020

30 Day Challenge: One Suitcase

It's an eye-opening experience to have to physically carry everything you own.

When I was in college, I spent two summers traveling all over the western part of the US and Canada, singing with a choral group.  I took the ferry from Seattle to Victoria BC, saw snow falling on hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone Park on July 4, toured the amazing Carlsbad Cavern in New Mexico, and hiked the Mist Trail to the top of Vernal Fall in Yosemite, as well as singing concerts in nearly 150 venues.  I lived for ten weeks each time out of a single suitcase (and a garment bag for concert attire).

I learned to love the minimal completeness of packing for travel.  You can be weighed down by multiple pieces of luggage that have to be checked, hauled around, unpacked and repacked, or you can enjoy the agility of a single rolling bag. 

Of course, you have to consider carefully which clothes you'll need, which toiletries and accessories.  You might include a book or a journal; you'll surely bring your phone and charger.  But you have only what you've chosen to take with you.  It's the ultimate in decluttering.

There's something very freeing about living with only a fraction of your possessions.  You have mindfully curated a collection of the things you use and love the most, and in my experience, you still have plenty!

For the month of September, I've decided to metaphorically live out of one suitcase (I'm not considering kitchen items).  My suitcase will hold ten items of clothing, plus underwear, nightwear, and basic toiletries.  It holds my laptop and cords, my current crossword puzzle book, and a zipper bag with my current embroidery project.  I'll also have my purse and its contents (including my phone, on which I have several unread books).

FYI, the ten items of clothing include a pair of black jeans, a pair of dark-wash blue jeans, a black and white dress, comfortable black leather sandals, and six tops.  I've limited my colors to black, white, dark denim, periwinkle blue, mossy green, and rosy orange (a sort of deep coral).  I have one necklace and my wedding ring that I wear every day.

This is what I might take on a long holiday (although I'd probably include some sturdy athletic shoes too).  In fact, when you're not loaded down with the contents of a packed closet and dresser drawers, or a hobby space, an office, and a library, life can feel like a vacation.

Do you want to join me?  Take the challenge and see what you learn from it – what you miss or don't miss, what unexpected events or challenges arise, how fewer clothes impact your laundry situation, if getting dressed every day is easier or not, whether this is crazy or actually doable, etc.

And if ten items in your suitcase just seems too confining, try twelve or sixteen items.  The purpose is to try living with a limit – the actual limit you choose can be different from mine.

As with so many other categories of possessions, most of us wear 20% of our clothes 80% of the time.  My bet is that you'll be happier with fewer wardrobe choices than with whatever is cluttering your closet right now, but you won't have a chance to realize that unless you test it out.

Photo by Mantas Hesthaven on Unsplash

Monday, August 24, 2020

Break the Consume/Donate Cycle

My first step to a better financial future was to start paying attention.

I was living and making decisions on autopilot, but one day, as I decluttered my closet for the umpteenth time, my eyes were suddenly opened.

I spent a lot of time organizing my closets and drawers, and regularly donated bags of clothing to charity.  Since that was the case, I couldn't understand why my closet always felt too full.  It must have escaped my notice that I went shopping almost every weekend and on most lunch breaks, just for "entertainment."  I didn't always buy things, but the more you browse, the more you are tempted.

My wardrobe was like a revolving door, yet I wondered why I could never save any money.  Yes, the connection should have been obvious, but I enjoyed all of my new goodies (at least for a while), so it was easy to ignore.  When I finally linked my shopping habit to my empty bank account, I stopped shopping almost overnight.  From then on, I wore and enjoyed the clothing I had, donated the fashion mistakes that were cluttering my closet, and eventually got to the point where I only replaced items as needed.

I didn't feel poor – I felt empowered.

Instead of giving all of my hard-earned money to the mall, I enjoyed the security of a growing savings account, and I loved using and caring for what I had.  It made me appreciate everything so much more.

Eventually I realized that all of the shopping had been partly about boredom, and partly about needing to fit in and be fashionable.  At least some of my self-worth had been involved.  Once I stopped shopping and focused on other things – more satisfying pursuits – my self-worth increased.  You know, the better you feel about yourself, the less you are influenced by whatever other people are doing.  You become more independent.

So constant clothes shopping receded into the background.  But a new challenge waited.

After we bought our first house, I started shopping for home goods.  I constantly had plans for painting, putting up wallpaper, adding a French door, enlarging the patio, or setting a unique holiday table.  We built a shelving unit that covered an entire ten-foot-long wall, and filled it with books and art and knickknacks.  I collected figurines and limited-edition plates, antique quilts and other American folk art.  I bought lots of toys for my children.

I was no longer a clothes-horse, but once again I would regularly declutter things I was tired of.  I'd donate some items, have a yard sale with the rest, make a little money, and go out to buy other stuff, spending even more money in the process.  I was back in the consume/donate cycle.

Then two things happened.  My husband and I had opened individual retirement accounts soon after we were married, and over time we had slowly added money to each account.  I decided I wanted a brick hearth and a wood stove installed in our living room, plus new furniture.  We emptied our IRAs to pay for it, since our credit cards and home equity line of credit were maxed out.

I cannot describe how stupid that was.

We had to pay taxes on the amount we withdrew PLUS a 10% penalty because we were nowhere near retirement age.  Such a waste.

The second thing happened in the mall book store when my eye happened to land on Elaine St. James' book Simplify Your Life.  Two sentences in the Introduction caught my eye:

I decided that if the two of us... had gotten so caught up in the frenetically paced lifestyle and rampant consumerism of [the 1980s], there must be other reasonable people out there who had done the same thing, and who were now looking for practical things they could do to simplify their lives.

Wise men and women in every major culture throughout history have found that the secret to happiness is not in getting more but in wanting less.

"Not in getting more but in wanting less."

I didn't want a fat mortgage, maxed-out credit cards, depleted IRAs, a tax bill, and a long list of home improvements.  I was out of control with my revolving door home, filled with items I would buy, declutter, and sell cheaply only to go out and buy even more.  I had two children under the age of six, and I wanted to home school them.  I wanted more time, more freedom, more creativity, and less worry, hassle, and debt. 

It was a relief, and exciting, to discover a worthwhile goal.

Once again, it was like waking up, and I finally made the connection between my constant shopping and home alteration and our lack of money, free time, and satisfaction.  I had been stupid, but never wanted to get caught in the same mistake again.  I didn't want to be a discontented, insecure person.  I didn't want to envy what other people had, and I didn't want to make my house the center of my life.  We had spent our money as if having some sort of showplace was a priority, and I finally saw how little value that held for me.  There was so much more that was worth our time, money, energy, and talents.

This wasn't a lighthearted time, but we realized that it was possible for us to change.  That did add a ray of hope.  There were many steps along the journey.

Can you relate to this at all?  Have you ever justified a shopping habit by regularly donating used items to charity?  Is there an area in your life that is claiming most of your time, money, and effort even as you're starting to sense it is not going to be fulfilling in the long run?

Maybe you have been preoccupied with the wrong things, perhaps in an effort to fit in, or feel worthy, or simply because you're bored.  Maybe you're not sure what you will do if you're no longer filling your life with shopping, social media, an unfulfilling job, or constant busyness.  Maybe you're only just now starting to question whether this is really going to be worth your life energy.

Have you started asking yourself, "Is this all there is?"  Have you been caught in a cycle of consume, donate (or sell), consume some more, purge again, consume, consume, purge a little more... on and on and on?  It's not too late to break that cycle.  Your age and situation don't matter.  No time is a bad time to stop living on autopilot and start making real choices for what really matters to you.

Photo by Nikola Duza on Unsplash

PlS. If you enjoyed this post, watch for my new book Simple Money: Achieve Financial Peace and Abundance with Minimalism, coming soon!


Friday, August 21, 2020

MINIMALIST TOOL KIT: A Place for Everything

When our two children were young, we lived in a three-bedroom house of about 1200 square feet.  Compared to the modern American home that is small, but in spite of that my house was usually fairly tidy.  Even if the kids were in the middle of playing one of their epic pretend games, with dolls, stuffed animals, play dishes, dress-up clothes, Lego creations, and lots of homemade props, we could make the house "company ready" in a fairly short time.

Does that sound like an impossible dream?

The secret isn't really secret – everything had a home.  Everything.

I know you've heard this:  "A place for everything and everything in its place."  But what does that mean?  And why should you go to the trouble?

It means I can hand my child any item that belongs to her or is used by the whole family and say, "Put this where it belongs," and she knows exactly where to go.  I can ask her to go get an item, and she can, quickly and without fuss, locate the item and bring it to me.

And that's the reason you should create a home for each thing you own, and why you should develop the habit of putting things where they belong when they're not in use.

"A place for everything" simply makes life easier.

Multiple times every day, it makes tasks a little smoother, a little quicker, and a little more pleasant.  Try to calculate the value of that as it happens over and over and over, and contrast it with the constant low-level irritation of a cluttered, disorganized home where you can never find anything when you need it, or you never realize that you're out of ketchup (or that you have three partially-used bottles) because it has no designated home.

To get to that level of organization, you have to start by letting go of unneeded and unloved items.  Most of us live in houses that are big enough to accommodate the stuff a family needs, but if you have three couches, four sets of dishes, 19 bath towels, and too much of everything else, you might be struggling to find a home for it all.

Your difficulty is understandable – you have too much stuff!  In most cases, items end up "homeless" because there are too many of them.  If your cupboard won't hold all of the family's games, you need to pick out the games that you actually play, and get rid of the ones the kids have outgrown, or that are broken or missing pieces.  Prune the collection until it fits, or if you truly enjoy and use a lot of games, remove something else from the cupboard so the games can live there.

If your bathroom counter is covered with bottles and potions, you probably have too many.  Get rid of the duplicates, the things you tried once and didn't like, and the outdated creams and remedies.  Use the medicine cabinet and vanity drawers to store the things you need and use each day, and keep the counter clear of everything except hand soap.  It's not only more soothing and spa-like, it's far more sanitary.

I hope you're getting the idea that organizing without decluttering won't accomplish your purpose.  My mother's cupboards and drawers were always so full you had to practically empty them out in order to find what you were looking for, even if you knew it was in there somewhere.  Many of us live like that, and think that we have a place for everything.  But we can't actually retrieve anything or put it away again with ease.

A system that is hard to use won't be used.  If your shelves and baskets and closets are packed full, they will quickly become chaotic once more, and your attempts at order and peace will fail.

The answer is not to buy a bigger house.  It's not to run out and buy a closet system or more matching containers.  All of those things are simply camouflage for clutter.  The answer is to put your favorite, most used items in the containers you have, and declutter the lesser-loved items that don't fit.  Let your drawers, cupboards, closets, spice racks, book cases, and shoe bags place limits on what you own.  Let your containers contain (corral and control) your belongings.

You know you've decluttered successfully when everything you own has a home, and can be accessed or put away with a minimum of fuss.

Don't waste another minute looking for your misplaced phone or that bill you need to pay, or shuffling through drawers looking for your favorite yoga pants.  Find a home for these things, and never put them down except where they belong.

In the end, it really comes down to habits.  At first it may be difficult to put craft supplies where they belong, to hang your keys on their designated hook, or to train your children to hang up their backpacks or put away their clean laundry.  It will sometimes seem that it's just easier to do it all yourself, or to give up altogether, but in the long run it won't be.  Trust me.

Once you've put everything in its place, you'll be able to live more peacefully and enjoy your home more.  You'll have more time to do activities you value instead of feeling overwhelmed and frustrated by your house.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Monday, August 17, 2020

Work Less

It's not just the current and seemingly insurmountable political divide in America – human beings are really prone to extremes.  In education, for example, the pendulum swings all the way from rote or programmed learning on one side (boring, but easily facilitated by computers) to discovery-style, discussion-based, hands-on learning on the other (which leads to deeper thinking, but may leave students light on concrete facts).  In another circumstance, we have hoarders on one side and location-independent, live-out-of-one-backpack proponents on the other.

The challenge is always to find a compromise which takes the best of both approaches (as in education), or a happy medium that meets the needs of the majority of people (as with minimalism, which seeks to meet essential needs and a few strongly-desired wants without excess). 

When it comes to work, I think most of us fall into one of two extremes:

  • We work way too hard, with little boundary between work life and everything else, and never feel that we've accomplished enough;
  • We procrastinate and are prone to distraction, and feel guilty about how little we get done.

Either way, we're dissatisfied with the results, and feel stressed and depleted by work.

I'd like to propose a solution to both groups of people:

Work less.

What would that entail?

  • Do fewer things, and be more mindful and committed to those things.
  • Recognize your victories.
  • Rest, recreate, and connect more.

Now I know that not everyone falls into one of these two extremes, and that not everyone can change the number of hours they work.  But now that so many of us are working from home, I think this concept is useful.

The "Work Too Hard" Group

This is the group I tend to fall into.  I try to get everything done, and I hate leaving anything unfinished.  When I work, I work very long hours with very few breaks, because I'm trying to get it ALL done.  Of course, at some point exhaustion takes over, and the quality of my work slips, and I'm forced to stop.  But I feel like I haven't done enough.  I often feel like that, even when an objective observer would say I've made a ton of headway, or that they can't believe how much work I've churned out.

So working less doesn't seem to fit my MO, even though I recognize that I sometimes work too hard and rest too little, and that my work sometimes takes over the rest of my life.

Working less would mean reducing the number of projects I undertake, which means I need to focus on higher priority tasks.

So if I could work for only two hours today, how would I spend my time?  And what would I do with the rest of the things on my to-do list?

When I ask myself these questions, my priorities become clearer, and I might figure out that some of my jobs can be done more efficiently, done by someone else, or are unnecessary and can be eliminated.

Then I could focus on the one or two things I need and want to pay attention to.  At the end of the two hours, I could feel pleased and victorious, because I accomplished important things.

The "Procrastinate Too Much" Group

I've noticed that many people tend to fall into this group.  They seem to be prone to distraction, and can spend a lot of time on rather mindless pastimes, even when there are more important jobs that need to be done.  Of course, as a workaholic, it's easy for me to judge people who fit this profile, yet I also realize that this group feels a lot of guilt about the time they waste.  Maybe they feel that the "work less" philosophy shouldn't apply to them, because they think they don't work enough as it is.

Guilt can be a time-waster too, and can actually keep you from accessing your abilities in order to do your best work.  Guilt won't make this situation better, so let's toss that and try to start fresh.

With that clean slate, what should someone who tends to procrastinate do with his day?  What would give him a feeling of victory and accomplishment?

If you fit into this group, "work less" means working fewer hours, but with more focus.  Rather than avoiding tasks and wasting time, cut back on the number of hours you work, and be fully committed during that time.

A concept called Parkinson's Law (after the British historian who wrote about it) states that "Work expands to fill the time which is available for its completion."  In other words, the more time we allow for a task, the longer it will take to complete it, even if it could have been finished in a shorter time.  Students and building contractors often exhibit this behavior, but it can be a problem for anyone.

So you don't want a deadline for a task that is too generous or too open-ended.  Ask the same question that the "work too hard" group asks:  If you were to work only two hours today, how would you spend that time?  Which tasks are most important to accomplish?

Once you've determined those jobs, set aside the time, block all distractions, and pour your attention and energy into the work.  If it helps, work in 25 minute chunks, with a five minute break (to make a cup of tea, perhaps, or to take a quick walk or do some stretching).  This gives you a chance to recommit and refocus several times during your work period.

The point of this is not to make yourself feel rushed, or to do shoddy work because you truly haven't allotted enough time.  Setting this artificial two-hour deadline is just a way to let you home in on your most crucial assignments.  When you work fewer but more focused hours, you accomplish more and do higher-quality work because you're bringing all of your talent and attention to bear.

For both groups, working fewer hours not only lets you accomplish valuable work, but leaves you with more time for true rest and recreation, and for meaningful connection with others.  That's a victory for everyone.

Photo by Deniz Altindas on Unsplash

Friday, August 14, 2020

Make Time for Low Tech

I just spent nine hours in front of my computer.  Again.  I took only three short breaks, and spent maybe ten minutes outside.  I even ate lunch at my desk.

I know this isn't healthy, but still it happens much too often.  Maybe it does for you too.  And now we're getting our kids ready for distance learning, which will require them to spend hours a day in front of a computer.

Before school starts and life gets busier, let's take some time to live with less technology.

Technology has always been touted as progress, the revolution that will change the world.  And I certainly use technology.  I don't publish this blog on parchment, after all, and I'm not keeping cool in this August heat by means of a servant wielding a palm branch.

But as we keep breaking boundaries and changing the way things work, sometimes we lose sight of the fact that some of the best (and healthiest) solutions are low tech.

I'm going to use what I think is an urban myth to illustrate, because it really does make my point.  (That's an awful pun too, as you'll see.  My apologies.)

It was the 1960s, and NASA was having trouble coming up with a reliable replacement for the pen.  You see, in space, with no gravity and no air pressure, pens don't work very well, which is bad news for astronauts who need to keep a log or do some calculations.  Millions of dollars went into research to develop a zero-gravity pen.

The Russians, faced with the same problem in their space program, used a pencil.

What's the lesson?  Sometimes the best solution is the easy one.  Sometimes we complicate the problem by looking for a new, high tech solution.  Sometimes, when we're busy using our smart phones to look up yet another piece of trivia, we forget to pay attention and think.  We tend to fall for the newfangled, designed-for-a-problem-we-didn't-really-have gadget, instead of simply using the tools that have worked in the past and still work just fine.

I'm reminded of people my age or older who swear they can't get by without their _______ (fill in the blank with your favorite piece of modern technology), even though they lived the majority of their lives perfectly well in the pre-smart phone, pre-Internet world.  How did we ever manage to live productive, independent adult lives in the olden days?

Our kids are growing up even more shackled to the latest-and-supposedly-greatest tech than we are, and it might be good to take a step back to a less mechanized way of life before we hook everyone up to a virtual classroom for distance learning this fall.

I'm thankful for many modern technologies, but there are always consequences to our desire for ever more speed and convenience.  Those consequences too often include uncounted tons of plastic waste and toxic electronic waste.  They include dissatisfaction with last year's technology and the constant pursuit of the next big thing.  They include a skewed work/home balance and an unhealthy tendency to substitute virtual activity for physical activity in the real world.  And they include a lot less connection and intimacy with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities.

Let's take a little vacation from modernity.

Low Tech Activities

1.  Go camping.

Okay, maybe it's too late to plan a camping trip before school starts.  You can still do some of the wonderful things you would do while camping, such as:

  • cook and/or eat outside
  • take a hike
  • listen to the birds and the wind in the trees
  • watch a sunset
  • stargaze (use binoculars if you have them)

2.  Use human power.
Before machines pervaded our lives, most of us were in better shape physically.  You don't need a gym to:
  • leave the car in the garage and walk or bike where you need to go
  • take the stairs
  • wash your car with a bucket of suds and some elbow grease
  • pull some weeds and sweep your garage, patio, and sidewalks
  • forgo appliances that chop vegetables, shred cheese, or mix batter

3.  Play without electricity.
Want entertainment?  Turn off computer and video games and put away your smart phone while you:
  • break out the board games and jigsaw puzzles
  • bring out paper and crayons and scissors and glue
  • get creative with the millions of pieces of Lego in your child's room
  • knit, crochet, draw, or paint
  • read a book

4.  Reduce waste and emissions.
Our parents and grandparents learned to be comfortable and meet their needs without a lot of technologies we take for granted.  Try these lower-tech replacements:
  • use an electric fan rather than air conditioning
  • hang clothes to dry
  • ditch paper towels and napkins; buy or make reusable alternatives
  • quit bottled water and soda and drink sun tea instead
  • take advantage of daylight by sleeping and rising earlier

5.  Make connections low tech.
Sure, telephones have been around for a long time, but with party lines and expensive long-distance costs, our ancestors did not spend hours on the phone every day.  Instead:
  • remove alerts, and check your email and phone messages only two or three times per day
  • ban phones at mealtime and share a conversation
  • meet your neighbors (you can still practice social distancing)
  • hand write a letter
  • snuggle with your pet, partner, or child (or all of them at once)

I promise that a few days spent in a lifestyle that was normal 40 or 50 years ago won't be the hardship you might imagine.  In fact, I think you'll find it quite refreshing.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Monday, August 10, 2020

Get Ready for At-Home Learning

I was a homeschooling parent.

My older child turned 5 in 1994; my younger child was 16 (and ready to go to the local community college) in 2007.  During those 13 years, my kids did not go to school.

They didn't have computers either, until we got our first desktop in 2001.

We lived in three different houses during that time.  The largest was just over 1200 square feet, but for four years we lived in a two-bedroom home of about 800 square feet.

Both of my children have earned college degrees with honors.

And yet I never spent a ton of money on school.

If you have children beginning distance learning this fall, you've probably seen a lot of social media images of the ideal "home classroom" situation.  These usually involve a separate "school room," a desk, and organizational items such as a large white board and a lot of cute, matching storage containers.

If you're starting to panic that you don't have a spare room for your home school, and you don't have a dedicated desk for your 6-year-old, don't.  You don't need a conventional classroom setup or even a dedicated room.  You can set up distance learning in the dining area or living room.  Just focus on the basics:  a clean, flat surface, comfortable seating, good lighting, minimal distractions, and a space to store school materials.

6 Tips for At-Home Learning

1.  Find a flat writing surface where your child can sit comfortably.

This can be one end of the kitchen table or counter, if your child doesn't have a desk.  Completely clear the surface and commit it to school needs during the day.  It's best to have a chair that offers back support.  If your child is so young that his legs dangle when he sits, set up a footstool or even a box so that he can rest his feet. 

Just as your child may move from class to class at school, you could arrange different study spots in your home.  While she may need to sit in front of her laptop for online class meetings and lectures, she could sit on a pillow at the coffee table to do math homework or to study a history text.

2.  Provide ample light and a power source.

Eye strain can occur if you try to focus on a computer screen for too long in a dimly lit area.  If you can put the table or desk near a window, that would be ideal.  Natural light is both physically and mentally healthy.  However, good overhead lighting or a reading lamp will also promote vision hygiene.

Access to a power outlet is also important, but avoid having to stretch a cord across the floor where it might be a tripping hazard.  As you do for your phones, create a spot where laptops can be charged every evening so they are fully charged for morning school.  They can be plugged in again during lunchtime, if necessary, in order to avoid a stretched cord.

3.  Maintain a rhythm to your days.

Just as you would if your child were going to school, get up and eat breakfast at the same time each day.  Plan regular breaks during the time your child doesn't need to be online, and encourage him to be outside during those breaks, perhaps taking a short walk in the neighborhood (while practicing social distancing).  Have him learn to prepare and clean up his own lunch.  

Set a time for school to be over, and help your child learn to clean up and put away his school materials.  Use containers you already have for your child's distance learning essentials.  Pens, pencils, markers, rulers, scissors, etc. can go into a shoebox.  Binders and paper are cheap right now, but don't overbuy.  One binder with dividers and paper may work for each child, as most of their work is going to be submitted online.

4.  Remove distractions.

Make sure toys are put away before bedtime so they are not in evidence while your child is trying to concentrate on learning the next day.  In fact, he may find it easier to "go to school" in the kitchen or living room and then "go home" to his bedroom and his toys or hobbies.

Turn off the TV and radio.  In fact, they are probably distracting you too.  Many studies show that we actually concentrate and learn best in silence.  If you have more than one child who is distance learning, get each a pair of headphones so they can listen to their online lessons (or TED talks for kids, or a virtual museum tour) without distracting each other.

Now is the time to declutter for a calmer, more focused learning environment.  The whole family is home, so make it a family affair!  

  • Deal with dirty dishes and food prep items after each meal so counters are clear.
  • Remove magnets and papers from the refrigerator door and create a family bulletin board with current items only.
  • Pick up toys, clothes, hobby supplies and other items that might clutter the living room and put them away. 

5.  Introduce variety.

Just as your child might sometimes sit at the coffee table instead of her regular school area, she could copy a list of spelling words, brainstorm essay ideas, or simply read a book under a tree in your yard (an old-fashioned clipboard could provide a firm writing surface).  If it's stormy or too hot to take a break outside, stream a yoga lesson for kids (there are tons on YouTube), or play some favorite music and have a dance party.

6.  Supply as many books as you can.

In the Internet Age, communication skills are more important than ever.  Reading is the key to increasing all of those skills; it's the stepping stone to success in school and any career.  Just as with anything else, the more you read, the better a reader you become.  So if you're going to spend any money on school supplies, spend it on books your kids will enjoy reading just for fun.

Your child's teachers are working very hard to make distance learning as worthwhile and productive as possible.  With a little planning and very little money, you'll be able to set up a learning space that will work great for your child.

P. S.  If you enjoyed this post, you might like my book about children and reading, The Magic of Words, available in paperback and as an e-book on Amazon.

Photo by Jessica Lewis on Unsplash

Friday, August 7, 2020

Our Unused Items Are Not Harmless

Many of us live in homes that hold far too much.  

We find it hard to declutter unless and until something forces us to do so.  As long as we have the room to stockpile all of our extraneous belongings, we will.  Our drawers, counters, closets, basements, garages, spare rooms, and rented storage spaces become full.

What's the harm in that?

Another way we stockpile is with collections.  We buy one item we like, and then another (because we're convinced that a single item looks too bare and lonely), and then someone gives us another.  Now we're officially a collector, whether of world globes, graniteware coffee pots, Marvel action figures, vintage cameras, old wooden cutting boards, or something else (I used to collect patchwork quilts).  It becomes a hobby, and we spend tons of time and money hunting for the perfect item to add to what we already have.

It reminds me of a squirrel putting away nuts for the winter, though at least the squirrel will eventually eat the nuts.  Collectors just add to their stash, and try to figure out ways to store and display what they own.  Some people invest even more money in large lighted display cases and curio cabinets, lovingly arrange the items in their collection, and then never really look at them again.  The collection is a conversation piece for visitors, I suppose, but as an enhancement to daily life I don't think it qualifies.

And how many collectibles have been touted as valuable "investments," only to go out of fashion or become commonplace after a decade or two?  Hummel figurines, anyone?  Norman Rockwell plates?  Limited edition Barbies?  Thomas Kinkade paintings?  Like Grandma's silver tea service, these items now sell for very little, if you can sell them at all, even though the original investment might have been hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars.

But it's only money, right?  It's not that big a deal.

Unneeded items, those in storage and those that are part of a collection, are inert.  Think about it.  Items that are used move from one place to another.  Dishes or cookware are used, become dirty, get washed, and are returned to the cupboard.  Clothing and linens are used, dirtied, laundered, folded or hung, and returned to the closet.  These items flow through our homes; they possess energy which enables us to do the things we need for every day life.

Possessions that stay in one place for a long time are lifeless.

Does your home contain shelves, drawers, closets, maybe even entire rooms where nothing comes or goes?  This is the meaning of clutter – something that simply takes up space, that lies dormant.  When clutter fills your home, you have no room to spare for new plans and ideas, new experiences or pastimes that might contribute to your best life.  All that staleness and stagnation needs to be cleared away.

Experts in feng shui, the ancient Chinese philosophy, say that clutter brings confusion and drains your energy, whether or not it's in plain view.  You don't have to believe in feng shui to agree that crowded items leave no room for growth.  It's a bit like a beautiful house plant that becomes sickly and stunted because it's root bound.  In this case, if the roots are not untangled, or even cut, and the plant isn't given room to grow, it will eventually choke itself to death.

Our lives are meant to be living, growing things.

We are meant to think, explore, learn, and become the mature, wise, valuable people we were created to be.  We are not meant to confine ourselves to the pursuit of useless stuff.

Worse than the crowded, inefficient, depressing ugliness of clutter is the way it robs us and our homes of vital, creative, happy energy.

If you're buried in clutter, don't despair.  You really can dig yourself out from under.

7 Easy, Tried-and-True Decluttering Methods

1.  The One-a-Day
Remove one unneeded or unloved item every day.

2.  The Ten Minute Tidy-Up
With three bags (trash, donate, put away/make a home), tackle one area for ten minutes.  Do it again tomorrow and the next day.

3.  The All Clear
Completely clear the floor in one room, or the top of a counter, table, or dresser.  Trash, donate, put away, or make a home as appropriate.

4.  The Combination
Make decluttering part of your daily routine by combining it with a regular task.  For example, as you put away freshly laundered towels, remove frayed and stained towels.  As your child puts toys away or gets ready for bed, remove outgrown, damaged, and rarely-used toys and clothing.  As you put away the groceries, toss outdated items and the seven jelly jars with only one teaspoon of jam in them.  Wipe the shelves before you restock.

5.  The Worst First
Instead of handling a small area, tackle the area that feels the worst.  Get the tough stuff out of the way and you'll feel invigorated!  Ask a friend for help and declutter fearlessly.  Who knows?  You may feel so energized you won't want to stop.

6.  The Paper Chase
Pick a convenient time each day, say as soon as you walk in the door from work.  Deal with mail (recycle, shred, file, or pay as needed), organize school papers, update the family calendar and discard notices.

7.  The Before and After
Use your camera to build decluttering inspiration.  Take pictures, and watch the chaos become order.  If you ever feel discouraged, revisit the photos and remember how far you've come.

Photo by Amador Loureiro on Unsplash

Monday, August 3, 2020

Minimalism is Full of Possibilities

The style icon Coco Chanel famously advised, "Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off."  While removing a scarf or a bracelet won't leave you underdressed, it does make room for other accessories to shine.

This sounds a little like the Japanese aesthetic of "Ma."  Ma is a concept that celebrates emptiness or negative space.  It's found in Japanese architecture, interior d├ęcor, and garden design as well as music, flower arranging, and poetry.

In a home where there are too many things, there is no place for the eye to rest, and nothing is highlighted.  Think of a 19th century Victorian interior suffocating in heavy furniture, tasseled drapes, marble busts, travel souvenirs, dark paintings, macabre hair art, doilies, ferns in every corner, and patterned everything.

I get a headache just thinking about it.

Unfortunately, some of us live with a decorating "style" that is rather Victorian, even if it involves brighter colors, plenty of ready-to-assemble furniture, and a lot more plastic.  Some studies say that the average American home contains 300,000 items, from sofas to salad forks.  Consumers in the US, a country with just over 3% of the world's children, buy 40% of the world's toys.  And storage facilities are the fastest-growing segment of the commercial real estate industry.

Can we embrace the idea of Ma?  Can we apply Chanel's advice to our homes and our schedules?

  • Remove (and donate or sell) one piece of furniture that you don't really use and that just fills an empty corner, like a chair, a desk, or a table.
  • Remove one collection so that another one can shine.
  • Remove duplicates – kitchen utensils, an extra set of dishes, extraneous sheets and towels – whatever reiterates the items you actually need and use.
  • Remove "just in case" items such as the computer or phone you replaced, the tool you bought and used once, or your seventh flashlight.
  • Remove one time commitment – the committee that's become more of a chore than an exciting challenge, or that recurring social activity you don't really look forward to any more.
  • Remove one time waster, such as a game, an app, or a social media platform.

"Ma is the emptiness full of possibilities," according to the Japanese lifestyle site Wawaza.  When your home or your schedule is chaotic, you have no extra space or vitality for something new, or for the unexpected.  Creating Ma can make you feel energized yet calm, the way taking a quiet tea break in a busy day can leave you feeling recharged and ready for what comes next.

In the US and other affluent countries, we pride ourselves on being "crazy busy," with no Ma in between tasks.  We cram our homes, our closets, even our dinner plates with more and more, until everything loses value.  Think of how the first bite of a rich delicious food is so wonderful, but if you keep eating and eating you eventually feel sick and full of regret.

With simple actions, like owning fewer things or leaving space between each activity and appointment, there's room to focus on and appreciate what's left.  We increase the Ma, leave room for possibilities, and make everything more precious.

What can you remove today?  Try it – Coco says you should.

Photo by Suhyeon Choi on Unsplash

Friday, July 31, 2020

Don't Wait to Downsize

Maybe you're like me, and you've helped a newly-widowed parent pack up and sell their home.

You've spent days (maybe even weeks) going through drawers and closets and boxes full of stuff, deciding what to do with old books, papers, paintings, furniture, towels, knickknacks, DVDs (or even VHS tapes), dishes, mementos, small appliances, tools, and more.

You've had to decide what to give away, what to sell, what to throw away, and what to remove to a new dwelling that is half or a quarter of the size of the home they're leaving.

And you've had to do all of this while your grieving parent turned their focus from the lost spouse to the often dusty and unused possessions they're losing.  Instead of using their time and energy to begin to recover and move on to what is left of their own life, they're worrying about the loss of their belongings.  My mother said she felt like she was losing everything.

And then a few years later, when that parent dies, you go through the process all over again.  This time you're dealing with your own feelings as a newly-orphaned adult, and you have a bit more understanding of how your parent felt.  All of those tangible reminders, those physical possessions, seem so poignant.

Can you part with them, or does it feel like you're losing everything?

Fortunately, by the time my mother passed away, I had a lot of minimalist habits in place, and I wasn't very tempted to keep her stuff.  I didn't need to transport or store anything.

After all, she and my dad had already given me a great legacy:  happy memories, life lessons, and plenty of love.

Decluttering has become a global trend in affluent countries, led by advocates like Marie Kondo, Peter Walsh, and Joshua Becker.  There's also the "gentle art" of Swedish death cleaning, which is the process of mindfully clearing out one's own possessions before others have to do it for you.

Many of us live in homes that hold far too much, and we find it hard to declutter unless and until something forces us to do so.  But downsizing in distress, because of illness, financial difficulty, natural disaster, or death, is even more difficult.

To me, it makes better sense to remove the excess and live in something smaller long before the inevitable happens.  I don't want to be surrounded by a bunch of useless stuff when I die. 

There are some things I need because I use them every day, week, or month.  I have to bathe and dress, after all.  I have to cook and eat.  I need a bed, a table, and a comfortable chair.  There are a few books, photos, and pieces of art that make me happy.  I have a couple of hobbies.

But I can live comfortably, lightly, enjoyably without a huge number of possessions.  And it's likely that you can too.  No matter what your age, it might be time to consider death cleaning.  

And consider your legacy.  It's not a house, or furniture, or cars, or collections, or a storage unit full of boxes.  Your legacy is your talents and accomplishments, your humor, your wisdom, your compassion and love.

What kind of life do you need to live in order for people to remember the things you want them to remember about you?

Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash