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6 Minimalism Principles You Should Embrace (Even If You Hate Minimalism)

Minimalism is a particularly polarizing topic in the personal finance space, and with good reason. Many of us would probably agree that minimalism — owning less, creating less waste, living in a less cluttered environment — is a good concept, but it’s nearly impossible to detach it from the associated baggage. It’s ironic that a concept associated with a lack of baggage, both physical and mental, seems to come with so many negative associations. But this happens any time a concept or lifestyle becomes part of a “movement,” particularly when social media comes into play.

A movement centered around owning very little and leaving a small footprint shouldn’t be considered unattainable, alienating or elitist. And yet, super-clean and bright #minimalist Instas have a way of making you feel like a failure, because you happen to live in a poorly lit apartment with a big ugly brown couch and a cluster of family portraits on your off-white walls.

I don’t like it any more than the next dissenter. And yet, I still call myself a minimalist, and I think there are lessons we can all learn from minimalism — even if you really, really hate the idea.

1. Evaluate how and why you buy things ahead of time

In the past, even telling myself to only go shopping when I knew I “needed” something was a lost cause — living in downtown Toronto often means going out for one thing and coming back with five, all things I was legitimately convinced I needed. These days, I temper my purchasing mostly through planning ahead of time. I only use my own shopping bags, and I take them with me based on exactly how much I plan to buy. If it doesn’t fit, I don’t take it home. I also adhere to a mental checklist when making any purchase that wasn’t pre-planned. Ask yourself these three questions instead of the generic “do I need this?”: 1) How many days per week will I use this? 2) Do I have space to store it? 3) If I put off buying this for a week, what will my life be like?

2. Live as waste-free as possible

While many minimalist goals seem to be exercises in self-deprivation (living out of only a suitcase, going X days without spending any money), I try to view my minimalism through the lens of what kind of carbon footprint I leave. Trying to live as waste-free as possible (no, not living 100% waste free, because this is nearly impossible and gets into performative self-deprivation territory) has not only helped me feel a lot better about how my habits affect the world around me, but it has also helped me make better spending decisions. For example, I now buy everything I possibly can in bulk and always bring my own reusable containers. I also bring my own grocery bags and travel mugs everywhere, which usually results in a minimal discount (the kind that does add up when you do it enough times). It’s also just stopped me from buying things that are unnecessary and create stupid amounts of waste, like take-out cups of tea, fast fashion (which is a leading cause of textile waste) and bottled soaps and shampoos. By the way, my current bar soap, which I use for body, hair and face, costs $2 at a bulk store, is cruelty-free and is amazing.

3. Take an inventory of your clothes (and other “collections,” like dishes)

Forget about the term “capsule wardrobe” for a second. Aiming to have as small of a wardrobe as possible is not practical for someone who doesn’t know jack about fashion. Instead, introducing new behaviors that help one think about clothing in terms of utility instead of something to “collect” can help you curb unnecessary purchases of clothing. At the very least, you should take inventory of an item like shirts, determine whether or not you are comfortable with owning that much, and the purpose each serves. Think of your clothes through the lens of your “uniform” with a couple special occasion pieces. My typical uniform is usually either a T-shirt, skinny jeans and a blazer, or nice leggings and a big sweater. I may find myself buying new skinny jeans because I need them (and end up tossing out an older pair) but when I evaluate my clothes through these criteria, it helps me give into the temptation to buy those pre-ripped, cropped boyfriend jeans I’m convinced I need.

4. When you can, go digital

It’s usually seen as shallow and a waste of money to brag about the size of a shoe collection, but for some reason joking about the size of your book collection makes you an adorable quirky nerd. Books and magazines are one of the easiest things to clean up by going digital, and yet many millennials will go full-on-baby-boomer on the idea of switching to e-books. Look, book smell and the sound of flipping through pages (not to mention how your book collection can look like a little mini-trophy case to visitors) are great, but the fact is, e-books are almost always cheaper (in my experience, significantly cheaper), cause less clutter, and you can take a near infinite-amount everywhere. I’ve also started going digital with my subscriptions to most publications, and have moved almost everything I used to do on paper to an electronic equivalent. Why not utilize technology you already have with you at most times to clean up your collections a little?

5. Plan your day more thoughtfully

When I said I have moved “almost” everything I used to do on paper to electronics, I left out the exception of my daily planner. I’m not actively into bullet-journaling (it causes more stress than it solves for me), but building the habit of putting all my tasks and goals for the day/week in one central spot has helped me get more stuff done in limited amounts of time. We’ve all seen enough YouTube videos of cool minimalistas filling out their daily planners in a perky “Plan with me!” video enough times that we may want to cringe at the concept all together, but actually taking the time to set your goals and intentions for the day can help keep your day more organized and not leave you with the sense of flailing through your obligations. Of course, you can do it electronically as well (not everyone needs to plan their day in a tangible planner), but I lead a significantly more productive and less wasteful life when I actually have before my eyes a list of what I need to accomplish.

6. Meditating

There are two wonderful things about meditation: One, pretty much anyone can do it. Two, it helps with so many things. When I started meditating at the end of every day (with the help of one of the many free apps out there) I was initially doing it to help me deal with my social anxiety and stress management. Eventually, however, meditating also taught me how to deal with things like calming my impulses (like shopping) — I started to internalize the practice of waiting for things. It’s easy to shrug off a term like “practicing mindfulness” as pretentious nonsense, but meditating can help you learn to say “I am okay with where I am right now,” which is a true principle of minimalism.

Bree Rody-Mantha is a business journalist and dance teacher living in Toronto. In her spare time she enjoys sport climbing, lifting and running the vegan food blog, Urban Garlic. Follow her on Twitter here.

Image via Unsplash

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  • Summer

    Re; #4, I am someone who both refuses to give up paper books but also loves my Kindle. I have a Paperwhite, which is glorious for when I want to continue reading after my husband has turned out the lights to go to sleep, and it’s also ideal for traveling in obvious terms of saving space and weight. BUT, I also love being able to pull something off the shelf and fall down onto the couch and page through it (and no shame, I do love the aesthetic of books on crisp white shelves as a decor component). To strike a happy-medium between ebooks vs. actual books, I now only buy paper books that I am likely to refer to again. This keeps me from dropping €14.99 on a random novel I’ll read once and probably never think about again until the next time I move and have to decide whether to pack it or donate it, but it still lets me collect the types of books that I love and am inspired by. I guess this is a fairly common sense “tip,” but it does help me reduce spending and clutter while still allowing me to enjoy one of my favorite things about being a human.

    • Hailey

      I agree! I love my paper books, but I’m “embracing minimalism” (I guess?) by taking advantage of my local library! If I think I’ll read the book again, I’ll buy it. I also commonly fell into the trap of buying a book to never pick it up again, and this let’s me have the best of both worlds.

    • BI

      What are some books you’re keeping? I’m always on the lookout for books to add to my reading list!

      • Summer

        I absolutely LOVE cookbooks, so those I always buy in tangible form. Classics or the types of novels that otherwise really stick with you are ones I also like to keep around…Goethe’s The Italian Journey, Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Anya von Bremzen’s The Art of Soviet Cooking, etc. I really enjoy narrative/memoir/travelogue type books too, so sometimes those I will purchase actual copies of, particularly if they are peppered with recipes (Elizabeth Bard’s Lunch in Paris and Picnic in Provence are both great!) or are maybe a little older or too obscure to have an ebook version but they can be had as used copies for only a few bucks. I have some language-learning/grammatical books (for German and Swedish) that I prefer using sometimes over staring at a computer screen. We also have a shelf full of older books, some in English and some in Swedish that belonged to my husband’s grandparents, those are particularly charming as the ones in English often have notes or translation hints handwritten in the margins; those types of books I intend to always keep around even if the subject matter isn’t necessarily what I would opt to read for myself.

        So I guess this was just a really long-winded way of saying “it depends,” haha.

        • BI

          Thanks for the recs! I don’t think I’ve ever read travelogues… I am intrigued. Adding your books to my list 🙂

    • Maggie

      Another option is only buying used books. I also LOVE having a book collection (although I am starting to see the benefits of an e-reader) but there are so awesome used bookstores in my city, including one where you can trade in books you no longer want for a small credit at the store. Or use the library! We’re all paying for it through our taxes so we might as well use it.

  • Dana Ernest

    I was with you, until you called books “clutter”. Have to disagree on that. E-books may be cheaper, but I’d rather spend more on a book from a local new or used bookstore and support a local business. This is where I disagree with minimalism = the idea that all possessions are “clutter” or “wasteful”. Some are, but if you use something constantly or it has value to you, it’s not a waste of space. I consider books necessary to a cozy/friendly living environment. A house or apartment without them seems cold to me.

    • vitadulcis

      Agreed! When I moved into my first apartment, I couldn’t figure out why I hated my room so much (I mean, other than that it was super small, had shitty lightbulbs, and the window faced a brick wall…) but then I added a bookshelf and filled it with my faves, and all of a sudden it was home.

    • GBee

      I feel the same way. Plus, you can use books as a way to decorate your home. Too much blank space on the entry way table? Put a stack of travel books on it and bam you’ve filled the space with 1. something you likely already own and 2. something with a purpose/useful

  • Anon

    Yeah, the book thing is nonsense. It’s not about aesthetics – if you’re​ reading electronically, particularly if your Kindle app is on your phone, it’s easy to get distracted and flip to other things like Facebook or read in that shallow away you do when browsing the internet. Reading a physical book provides much more focused attention.

    Also, it drives me crazy when people insist that it’s vain to keep books around, as if the only reason to keep them is to impress people with how smart you are. Are you obligated to excise any trace of every other hobby you have? No? So why I can’t I have books around because I get pleasure out of them? And even if they do display my tastes and interests, so what? So does everything else in my house. Am I supposed to pretend I don’t read a lot because it would be bragging?

    Also, you’re limiting yourself by only reading ebooks because you don’t haven’t the experience of walking through a well-curated physical book store.

    I could go on but, suffice to say, I think the whole argument that books are clutter and “trophies” as opposed to – god forbid – deeply meaningful conversation partners is anti-intellectual and crass.

    • GBee

      There’s nothing wrong with preferring paper books, but it is certainly possible to read hard books electronically. E-readers without internet access exist…

      • Anon

        I guess? I might be biased because I teach philosophy and can’t really imagine reading Kant on an e-reader. It’s possible my students can and do, though. You’re right I shouldn’t generalize.

  • Chelsea

    whoops “current car soap”

  • lateshift

    could not agree with you more about books — unfortunately, they’re also tied into intellectual self-worth and subconscious visual reassurance for a lot of people, maybe even most people. Which is a big reason many of those people tend to react defensively and pretend owning dozens and dozens of physical volumes they haven’t cracked open in years, many of debatable quality, is somehow a moral virtue of some kind or says something about how much they value Learning and Life and etc. And that owning it in a different format, one that would make them MORE likely to actually read the book — but would be less visible to other people as a status symbol, which is really at least half the point — just can’t suffice for some reason you just don’t understand like they do. [eye-rolling emoji here] Look: if someone’s got a first edition To Kill a Mockingbird, or a childhood book their grandfather gave them, or that one college book that changed their lives, then the object itself, the physical book, has meaning and some personal value. But 99% of the books on people’s shelves are just mildew bait; what matters is the knowledge inside those books, which they can now get in another generally superior format.
    Anyway, like I said: I applaud the author for pointing out that the emperor has no bookshelves…because unless a sudden viral outbreak of self-awareness occurs, they can probably expect a lot of haterade from people who insist that books can’t be clutter because they’re DIFFERENT, for some reason blah blah blah status anxietycakes.

    • Court E. Thompson

      OR – they prefer a physical book. Science says that the more senses an activity uses, the more pleasurable it is. The feel and smell of a physical book is more pleasurable to some people than a piece of plastic.

    • Anon

      But why would you assume people don’t read their books? That’s the anti-intellectual assumption I always see in these rejoinders – that reading is just a thing we want other people to think we do, not something we actually do.

    • Kate

      I literally own thousands of books in my home, as does my family. There is not a book on those shelves that has not been read by one of us, and there is not a single book being displayed for display’s sake. Frankly, I don’t care if a person who visits my home is looking at my bookshelves, and I certainly don’t curate my collection towards what others might deem “intellectual” or what might be seen as a “status symbol”. I own books because I like to read, and because I far prefer an actual book in my hands to an e-reader.

      Also, I’m curious as to what would be considered a book of “debatable quality”…if someone likes to read, does it really matter if their shelves are filled with Shakespeare or James Patterson? I have everything from religious and academic texts to a large collection of children’s books, and have never thought that I need to rearrange them, hide them, or show them off so that people will view me in a certain light. I may think that Stephenie Meyer is a hack, for instance, but if someone gets something out of her books, what right do I have to judge that?

      While I don’t agree with #4 on this list, I do think e-readers serve a good purpose for those who learn or read better with them, use them to read books they’d be unlikely to read again, and for travel, where taking a bunch of volumes is burdensome. I have friends for whom reading words on a page is debilitating and who stick to audio books for that very reason – it doesn’t make them any less well informed. I don’t look down on someone because they’ve found a different format for reading. I do disagree vehemently, however, with the idea that the majority of people who have books on their bookshelves do so for a reason other than the fact that they simply enjoy them. Seems a bit of a stretch to me.

  • AN

    I want to go fully digital. I love that you can highlight and search in ebooks, and that a kindle is so much less bulky than two or three books when traveling. But I HATE that you can’t just buy an ebook and give it away to someone else!That’s literally the only thing that’s keeping me from committing to ebooks only (and why book piracy is still very much a thing)

  • Scarletbee

    What’s even cheaper than buying an ebook is having a library account – and if your local library offers ebooks as well, then everyone can have their preference. If a book I want is in high demand, I’ve found it’s easier for me to reserve an ebook copy, since then the link gets emailed straight to me the moment a copy becomes available again, vs making time to go pick it up… but browsing a library bookshelf in person if you’re not *quite* sure what you want to read, that’s pretty nice too. Most recently, the digital book I have checked out is longer than I’m going to get through in the period I have available, and it’s one I think I’d like to have for reference, but I can now base that purchase on having read a few sections rather than it being a potential waste of money.