Tips for Minimalist Living [Updated]

This post was originally published in January 2015. I’m reposting it today because…well, I need the reminder…and maybe some of you do too. As I look around our apartment, I see more stuff than we had 3 1/2 years ago but even so, I’m hard-pressed to find things that aren’t used regularly or don’t somehow “spark joy”. Yet, there are days when I feel overwhelmed…by stuff, by obligations, by the thoughts in my head about what my life should look like at 45 years old (my version vs. other people’s expectations). It is in those times that I have to remind myself that the journey to a more minimalist lifestyle is just that…a journey…and each of our paths is different. There is no right way or wrong way to improve yourself.

Since we made the commitment to minimalist living in 2012, we’ve definitely had our ups and downs. We’ve given boxes and bags of stuff to Goodwill only to see new stuff come in to replace it. We’ve sworn never to waste time only to get to the end of a day, a week, or a month and realize that we’ve given our most valuable asset to things we care nothing about. We’ve promised not to accumulate debt (and thankfully we haven’t) but boy have there been temptations along the way! In short, the journey toward a minimalist lifestyle is a very human one.

Through these trials (and errors) I’ve found a good many things that really work in simplifying and bettering life.

1) Define minimalism for yourself. 

I recently read a blog about the definition of minimalism. The author was angry. He felt that minimalism was about living in a small space with very few possessions and attacked anyone who wasn’t taking this approach. I’ve said many times, minimalism is not just about your possessions (or lack thereof). It’s bigger than that. To be a true minimalist you must embrace a definition that works within your own life plan.

2) Decluttering is VIP.

You can’t have true freedom if you’re constantly encumbered by useless things – whether those things are possessions, people, or responsibilities. Getting rid of unworn clothing, unread books, unused exercise equipment, and excess furniture will make your home easier to manage and it really is cathartic to purge your closets. Getting rid of relationships that cause you unwanted stress and responsibilities that bring you no benefit is even more cathartic.

3) Buy less. Waste less.

I was raised in a Southern family where big meals were and still are the norm. So for me, learning to plan meals was hard. Learning to buy only what we would actually eat was even harder – especially when the grocery store is full of new and tempting goodies. Keeping a stock list of our most frequently used grocery items and shopping only from that list really helps. From a few basic ingredients we are able to make all of our favorite meals and have almost zero food waste. The same concept can be applied to other purchases too. Buying fewer clothes forces you to wear what you have and choose only things that you love.

4) Cut costs by prioritizing your wants and needs.

For a long time we had cable because everyone had cable. It was how you watched TV. I had a car because everyone had a car. It’s how you got around. We had a cell phone contract because that’s how you got the newest gadgets for free. When I discovered minimalism, I began to reassess my priorities. I sold my car, cut the cable cord, and switched to a prepaid cell service. I did these things not just to save money but to reallocate that money (and the time spent pursuing it) to things that actually bring me happiness – like travel and family time.

5) Keep it simple every day and in every way.

As human beings it is in our very nature to over-think and over-complicate our lives. We worry. We obsess. We plan. We do so much on a daily basis to ensure that our future is bright that we forget about our present. I’m just as guilty as the next person of doing this. In fact, I spend way too much of my time thinking about the weekend or the week ahead. If I were to pick one thing to work more diligently on in my life, this is probably it. Cherish every moment by making it the only moment that matters.

Simple Living is Hard Work!

After spending 45 minutes working out a meal plan and grocery list for our recent camping trip, I completely understand why so many folks opt for convenience. Tossing a meal in the microwave (or a hot dog on the grill) is so much easier than trying to figure out three balanced meals a day plus snacks for a week at the beach – in a primitive cabin, with no refrigeration.

You’re probably thinking: Why are you meal planning for your vacation?? Because that’s what we do. We love to go places but with a very limited budget we have to be quite frugal if we want to maximize the experience; so we often opt to camp wherever we go and prepare our own meals. If we’re traveling to an area known for a particular cuisine, we do try to sample it, but if our adventures take us to just another suburban fast-foodscape, dining out rarely makes it onto our list of activities.

Side note: According to ValuePenguin, the average cost of a 4-night vacation in the US is $541 per person (which includes a healthy budget for food and alcohol). We spend about 35-40 nights per year away from home, so at that rate, we really would go broke rather quickly.

With our list complete, we set off for the grocery store on Sunday night to pick up our supplies. As we were walking in to the store, I made the remark to Angie that “simple living is not so easy”. As usual, she came back with one of her short but profound quips, “Yes, but easy isn’t nearly as much fun.” Of course, that set my mind to pondering the many ways each day that we choose simple over easy.

We handwash all our dishes. Our apartment does have a dishwasher. We just don’t use it. When we downsized the number of dishes in our cabinet, I found that using the dishwasher was a pointless endeavor. Everything we wanted to use was always in the dishwasher waiting until we had enough to wash, which was never going to happen, since we only had a few dishes in the first place. See…pointless. Personally, I enjoy the process of washing dishes. Angie washes and I dry, while we talk about whatever crazy thing or idea may have come up that day.

We make our own cleaning supplies. The process of mixing Borax, washing powder, and soap flakes in the blender to get it small enough to dissolve in cold water can be a little time consuming, but well worth it in the end. We can usually make a year’s worth of laundry soap at once. Along with laundry soap, we make all our household cleaning supplies too, using just 4 ingredients.

Angie’s birthday dinner: spinach lasagna and pineapple cake. Better than Olive Garden!

We (usually) prepare 3 meals a day at home. And snacks too! Though we both love to cook, there are times when I just want to grab a bag of tacos and call it good. But we don’t. We’ve learned (through experience) that eating fast food or processed convenience meals all the time can have a very negative effect on your health and your wallet. Cooking at home takes some time and effort but, in the end, I’d rather have one of our meals than one prepared by any of the world’s finest chefs.

We take water and snacks with us every single time we leave the house. To be completely honest, this is Angie’s rule and it drives me crazy sometimes. When I’m ready to walk out the door, she’s filing the water bottles. We don’t even go to my mom’s house (8 miles away) without water. “You never know…,” she says. And usually she’s right. There have been times when we’ve gone for a walk after leaving mom’s house and were glad we had the water. There have also been times when we’ve been out all day and were glad to have granola bars and peanuts in the glovebox for a quick pick-me-up snack.

We do haircuts at home. If you’ve followed us for a while, you know this one by now. We have been cutting our own hair for the past 5 years, playfully calling our makeshift salon, Outdoor Clips. Over time, the process has gotten easier, but it still takes 2-3 times longer to cut hair at home (considering cleanup) than it does to go to a real salon. Is it worth it? Yes! The last time I went to the “real salon”, I ended up wearing a hat until my hair grew back.

We manage our own money. Sometimes I think we watch our money like a new mom watches her first child. Okay, maybe not quite that close, but we do know where our money is invested because we’ve chosen each investment ourselves. From the funds inside our IRAs to our non-retirement investments, we’ve researched and selected each one on our own. No broker to help us choose the “right path to retirement”. No CPA to do our taxes either. It’s not easy but we’ve learned that the only people who are ever really invested in our success is us.

Making oatmeal with the coffee pot.

We try to fix things when they break. Last week, I mended a sock…for the third time. Not because socks aren’t cheap but because it is my favorite and I don’t want a new one. Today, I’ll be working on our camp stove. It stopped working midway through our trip. Yes, that means that all the aforementioned meal planning had to be reconsidered but luckily there are still ways to cook without a stove (like making oatmeal in the campground’s coffee pot). This weekend, I’ll be repairing my kayak. The folding fin fell off when I hit the beach on Sunday. For $50, I could send it back to be repaired or I could take an hour, some hinges, and a little marine glue and try to do it myself. Easy? No, but I know afterwards I will feel like a million bucks for doing it on my own.

Recently, we’ve been watching Alaskan Bush People. I know, I know…reality shows aren’t all that real…but then again, neither is the news these days and at least this is entertaining. Anyway, as we’ve watched the show, we’ve noticed that these folks work pretty darn hard to stay simple. They build houses out of tires. They hunt and fish and chop their own wood. They make delicious looking cakes without an oven, for goodness sake! And despite the fact that they work sun-up to sundown just to survive, they are all HAPPY! In fact, in the brief times they have had to deal with modern conveniences, their happiness level has plummeted (one so much so that he began drinking to cope).

All of this has made think, once again, that simplicity really is the key to happiness. Yes, it is harder to wash dishes by hand and more time consuming to cut our own hair. Yes, it would be 100 times easier just to grab take-out for dinner or stop at a convenience store for an afternoon snack. And yes, it would have definitely been easier to buy a new computer than to spend 3 days figuring out the problem with mine. BUT…

We wouldn’t have the skills, the increased self-esteem, and the confidence that comes with doing something for ourselves. Or the memories that are made when you tackle a challenge. And as Angie so aptly said, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.