Minimalism Isn’t a Numbers Game


Last week, I announced I’d done one final declutter and had officially removed 65% of my belongings from my home; this means I’m living with just 35% of what I once owned (which are now 100% of my belongings and there’s literally nothing left to get rid of). For the first time, since starting on this journey, I felt a tiny bit of pushback from a few readers/followers. It wasn’t negative, but the concern was that I’d potentially given away too much, and a few people even wrote to say they wished they could do the same but they’d never be able to do what I had done. The minute I read that, I knew I wanted to write this post.

Nine months ago, I declared that I was going to embrace minimalism. It was my 29th birthday, and I made all these statements like, “I want to enjoy what I have,” and “I want to live an intentional life,” but I honestly had no idea what minimalism looked like or how I was going to embrace it. I got this idea in my head that it’d be nice to remove 250 things from my home, but there was no rhyme or reason to it. No magic calculation helped me decide on that number. I didn’t even know how much stuff I owned, let alone how much I could get rid of! All I knew was that my home felt cluttered, I was sick of not being able to find what I was looking for, and I wanted to stop bringing more unnecessary stuff into it.

In the first month that followed, I opened every closet, cupboard and drawer in my apartment, grabbed everything I owned and put it on the floor. There were boxes full of stuff I’d moved multiple times to multiple different homes, piles of clothes, over 120 books and a sinkful of bathroom products. It was a freaking mess to walk around in my condo. My friend Melissa had flown out from Toronto for a visit, right as I was in the middle of it, and I felt awful that she had to see my place covered in so much stuff – but it had to be done. Once it was all out in front of me, I went through each item and asked myself: When was the last time you used this? and Why are you holding onto it?

I chose to take inventory, as I touched every single item and decided which pile to put it in: donate, toss or keep. If I hadn’t used it in 6+ months and it was in good condition, it was donated. If I hadn’t used it in 6+ months and it wasn’t in good enough condition to donate, it was tossed. And then anything I kept had to immediately be organized and put back in its place. By the end of that first month, I had removed a total of 43% of my belongings from my home, and I got a new idea in my head that it’d be nice to clear out an even 50% before the end of 2014. Again, there was no rhyme or reason to it, and no magic calculation that helped me decide on that number; it just seemed like a good goal.

From then until now, I’ve continued to do little declutters/purges here and there. I’d notice there was a brand new bottle of lotion I’d held onto in a scent I didn’t actually love, or a sweater I thought I’d wear but it just didn’t fit right anymore. Each time I noticed something, I put it in a bag in my front closet. If, at the end of the month, I still hadn’t needed to grab it from that bag, I donated the entire thing. There were a few months where I managed to do larger purges, like when I finally opened my box of Christmas decorations or when I decided to give up my magazine collection. For the most part, though, it was just a gut instinct I felt when I saw something I knew I didn’t need – into the bag and out the door it went.

Last week, I did one final sweep (I swear!) of my place, and somehow managed to gather up more things I didn’t use, need or want to keep. There were a few magazines I’d held onto “just in case”, two sweaters I thought I would’ve worn this winter but didn’t (and don’t even like), a jacket I had tried to sell but couldn’t and a few other random odds and ends. I bagged it all up, dropped it off at the donation centre on Saturday and now I’m living with just 35% of what I once owned.

Despite all the percentages I’ve shared here, I have to tell you: minimalism isn’t a numbers game. Sure, I chose to take inventory of my belongings, as I did my initial declutter/purge, but it was purely because I wanted to collect the data. (Remember: This was originally just a personal finance blog. I love numbers!) Yes, I removed a total of 65% of my stuff, but to achieve the same life-changing side effects as I have, you don’t have to do the same. I continued to remove stuff until I could look around my place and say that everything leftover was something I used often or truly added value to my life – that’s it. Whatever percentage it takes for you to get there will be unique to you and your life.

The same is true for keeping an inventory of your belongings. While I’ve continued to track how many items I’ve removed from my home, I haven’t taken stock of how many have come in – and I don’t plan to. Since I can’t shop, the only things I buy are toiletries, but I don’t do that until I’m within days of running out of something. There’s no stockpile here. I have what I need. For fun, I can tell you that I now own just 40 items of clothing (76 with socks/underwear), but I don’t know how much I own of anything else. And I don’t have a goal to live with 100 things or less, which seems to be a common misconception about what minimalism entails. I probably have ~350 things. You might have 150 or even 500, either of which would be fine.

There’s also nothing saying that the size of your home is a direct reflection of how successful of a minimalist you are. My dad has jokingly asked when I’m going to move into a tiny house, and the answer is never. I currently have about 650 sq. ft. of living space. I’ve lived in smaller and have been fine, but I love this condo. It looks a little bare (I still have nothing up on the walls), but it’s open and bright and I’m happy here. Some minimalists live in less than 100 sq. ft. and others have 4-bedroom homes for their families. Whatever you need for you and your family is exactly that – what you need.

The more I think about it, one of the things I love most about minimalism is also what I love most about personal finance. We all have different backgrounds and took different paths to end up at this place where we had to decide what type of life we wanted to live. Everything we learned on those paths is what we use to help us make our decisions, as we start the trial and error process and see which method works best for us. The same way some of us use the snowball method to get out of debt is similar to the way some of us choose to live in tiny houses. Our stories are all unique, so our solutions are unique, too. It’s like the “personal” in personal finance. But it’s not about the numbers.

There’s no list of things to check off before you can embrace it and wear the title proudly. To be a minimalist, you don’t have to toss 65% of your belongings, own 100 things or less, live in a tiny house and never shop again. If you do some or all of those things, that’s great! But you don’t have to. It’s not about the numbers or how we stack up against one another. It’s not a competition. To be a minimalist, you just have to be able to recognize what adds value to your life, so you can subtract what doesn’t – that’s the only calculation you need to know. The more you can recognize what adds value to your life, the easier it’ll be to decide what to cut from it, and the happier you’ll be; that’s the prize you should be after.

Flickr: krawcowicz