Minimalist Advice to My Younger Self

When we were in our 20's, my husband and I bought a house because that's "what you're supposed to do" when you've been married for a few years and plan to have children.

Turns out neither of us really loved the house, and I, especially, was not cut out to live in a town of 5,000 people who mostly grow rice, hunt ducks, and listen to country western music.  There's certainly nothing wrong with any of that, but it's not me.

pensive student in classroom

Always looking for something more

We stuck it out for eight years.  We refinanced when interest rates dropped below 10%, but took out the equity and spent it.  Instead of saving money or paying down debt, we used every extra penny to buy stuff for our kids or for the house.  We paid thousands of dollars in mortgage interest while saving a few hundred dollars on income taxes every year.

I spent a ton of money trying to turn that house into my dream house, and when we sold it we just about broke even.  Once we paid off the first mortgage and the second, we netted almost exactly the same amount on the sale as we had used for a down payment eight years earlier.

The years weren't wasted, even though the money was.  We found a church we liked, and I belonged to a fun and supportive young mom's group there.  I directed the adult choir, started a children's choir and a men's ensemble, and arranged music for both of those groups.  My husband enjoyed his job and his colleagues, and I began homeschooling my children.

But we were always looking for something – the next purchase that would make us feel settled and satisfied.  One of us would become convinced we "needed" something – a bigger vehicle, a fireplace, custom windows, new flooring, wallpaper, or paint, toys for the kids, bikes for the kids, dance lessons for the kids, or something else.  Something.  It was always something.

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When we finally moved, it was better for a while.  We didn't buy a new house right away, so I learned to content myself with our apartment (admittedly it was a brand-new unit).  I found opportunities to start working with a voice coach and singing professionally once again, and then Jon was hired by the school where he has been so fulfilled for the last 22 years.  Our kids kept learning at home, and we became more creative and less toy-centered.  Without the costs of a house, we took a few memorable family vacations.

Unfortunately, a few years later we bought another house and started spending too much money trying to make it a showplace.  I can't blame Jon for most of it – I was the one who had part of my ego and identity wrapped up in where we lived.  When we got our lender to agree to a short sale in 2012, it was a relief.  We both began to learn how little our happiness depended on where we lived or what we owned.  The opportunity to start over was exciting.

10 lessons learned that I wish I knew when I was 27

1.  You don't have to do what your family or anyone else does.

Just because they think it's about time you bought a new car, or a house, or new furniture doesn't mean you have to follow their lead.  Most people are in debt (the average American carries over $6,000 in credit card debt alone), and trying to keep up with people who spend money they don't actually have is like playing with matches.  You're going to get burned.  

Remember:  Worrying about the opinions of others is going to cost you money.

2.  Don't be embarrassed by your hand-me-downs.

It was my younger sister who always had hand-me-down clothes when we were growing up, not me, and I know she wasn't always happy about it.  But as the oldest, I got the hand-me-down car.  I got the hand-me-down furniture.  Sure, they weren't necessarily in perfect condition and not exactly to my taste.  But they were useful gifts, nonetheless, and I should have used them longer instead of going into debt for new stuff.  If the only way I could feel good about myself was by living beyond my means, then I (and the people whose opinion I was worried about) had a problem (see #1).

3.  Don't buy a house until you're sure you want to live there long-term.

Owning a house is only worth it if you stay there for many years and eventually pay it off.  Otherwise, you might as well pay rent.  A completely paid-for home could be an asset, but moving every few years and continuing to take larger mortgages and pay more interest and fees is not a way to increase your wealth.  Instead, take the money you would spend on the purchase and invest it in other ways.

4.  Don't buy the biggest house the bank says you can afford.

The bank isn't trying to help you – it's trying to make a profit.  You will be miserable if you're deep in debt and yet still longing for just the right piece to fill that empty corner, but the bank doesn't care as long as you play by the rules and make your payments on time.  You may forfeit peace, rest, relationships and more in order to do that.

5.  Your dreams should include something more than a dream house.

In fact, in order to get the perfect house of your dreams, other dreams may have to go by the wayside.  Houses are expensive, not just to purchase, but to insure, maintain, and furnish.  They don't just cost money – they cost time and energy too.  Unless you're very healthy financially, buying a home could mean saying no to a lot of other things in life.

6.  "Retail therapy" doesn't work.

If buying new stuff really made us happy, we wouldn't need to keep buying new stuff.  If this year's hot gadget or fashion trend was really going to make life better, you wouldn't need the next gadget or pair of shoes in a few months.  

Bonus advice:  Shopping is not a hobby.  

More bonus advice:  Just because it's on sale doesn't mean you need it (or that you should go ahead and buy two).

7.  Things cost more than money.

They cost hours of your life – hours you can't get back.  Maybe you'll get some or all of the money back (or even make a profit) when you sell your house or car or used iPhone or antique armoire or whatever, but the time and energy you spent to earn the original purchase price is gone forever.  The time and energy you spent to take care of that possession is gone forever.  The other things you could have done with that time and energy are only figments of your imagination – dreams that never came true.

8.  Don't start collecting.

Denim Days figurines (from Home Interiors parties), collector plates (from the Bradford Exchange), vintage quilts, rag dolls, clocks, decorative crosses, English tea sets, Hallmark Christmas ornaments – I've collected all of it and more.  My sister collected Precious Moments and Lladro figurines, Willow Tree nativity figures, and porcelain music boxes.  Between the two of us we could have stocked a gift shop.  We spent so much money collecting (and so much time dusting) and then more time getting rid of all of it (at a fraction of the original cost).  

My advice?  Don't start.

9.  Memories live in your head, not in your things.

Okay, I admit I have three scrapbook/photo albums with pictures dating back to the middle of the last century.  I have two beautiful family photographs hanging in my entry hall.  So I've preserved a few keepsakes over the years.  But the family stories we tell to our children and grandchildren come from our heads.  As long as our minds are working, we own those memories.  And if they stop working, we're not going to recognize the mementos anyway.

10.  Life is more peaceful – and just as happy – with less stuff.

Just because most people acquire more and more (the average American home is estimated to contain 300,000 items) doesn't mean you should.  Too much stuff is actually a source of stress, and it's like an anchor holding you in place.  Pretty soon you can't imagine living without it, even if you don't really notice it unless it's in the way or you need to clean it.  But when you want to pull up stakes and try something new, suddenly the clutter you've tolerated is a stumbling block.  

As author Gretchen Rubin* puts it, "Outer order contributes to inner calm."  As you gain control of your surroundings and realize that you can get along fine with less, you gain confidence and curiosity about what you could accomplish if only you'd stop thinking about what you want to buy.

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This post was inspired by Joshua Becker and Charlie Brown.  Thank you.

Updated July 2023


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