Less Is More

Ode to a minimalist life

In our consumerist society, the engine that makes America run is an insatiable need to acquire more and more things. It’s an ethos that has never appealed to me, and I credit my parents for showing me, through their own example, that stuff just does not matter.

In college, I lived with just the bare necessities—a futon for a bed, a computer and a bookshelf. No TV. I didn’t own anything that I couldn’t get rid of at a moment’s notice. When I was 20, I lived for a year in Germany with nothing but clothes in a small suitcase and a mass market paperback of Les Misérables. I worked as a nanny, got paid weekly, and spent all my earnings traveling on the weekends. What I craved was adventure, not material things.

I moved to New York City when I was 28, and that experience cemented my minimalist mindset—not by choice at first, but by necessity. Living in a 600-square-foot apartment as a newlywed, there was little room to maneuver, much less to store things I might not need. I became deft at finding novel uses for IKEA furniture—bookshelves became open shelving for clothing, as there was no closet; under-bed space was a premium spot for off-season items such as blankets and coats; luggage stacked together covered by a bright piece of fabric became a night table.

Instead of feeling restricted by the lack of space, I felt liberated. I didn’t have the need to buy a new piece of clothing, because that would mean getting rid of something I already owned. Where would I store it otherwise? At one point, I joined The Compact, a social group and environmental movement founded in San Francisco, in which members pledge not to buy anything new for an entire year, with the exception of toiletries and underwear. This meant that if you needed something—a pot, a coat, shoes—you had to find it used or just do without. What this experiment taught me was how little I actually needed, and it opened my imagination to ways I can lessen my carbon footprint beyond mere recycling.

Of course, this is all very doable when it’s just you and your partner. But then a baby came along, and with him, a mountain of gear that I never knew existed: strollers, diaper bag, baby bottles, snack cups, Wet Wipes, board books, teething rings and giant plastic keys to distract him on a long subway ride. By the time he was a toddler, it became a full-time job to constantly prune our belongings and explain to relatives back West that no, we don’t need another toy because we don’t have space for it. But then the baby got bigger and out went the diapers and the strollers, and things got back to a manageable level again.

By the time we moved back to the West Coast, we owned so few possessions that we couldn’t furnish a 1,400-square-foot rental. At the same time, I was caring for my terminally ill mother. When she eventually passed, it fell to me to dispose of her belongings. It wasn’t much—but it was still a wrenching process. I then traveled to Asia to take my mom’s ashes home, a three-week trip in which I brought two things: a small backpack and the 2-pound box of ashes that I held on my lap for the 20-plus-hour plane ride. In life—and in death, it turns out—we don’t need much more than this.

Today I live in a 1,000-square-foot condo, which is still too spacious for my liking. I had not been nearly as disciplined as when I lived in New York, so last summer, I took to the KonMari method from The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this decluttering process is indeed magical. (The premise is simple: You hold every object you own and ask if it sparks joy. If it doesn’t, off to Goodwill it goes.) Author Marie Kondo (or her translator) offers nuggets of wisdom like: “The question of what you want to own is actually the question of how you want to live your life,” or, “The place we live should be for the person we are becoming now—not for the person we have been in the past.” I have also dabbled in Project 333, in which you narrow down your wardrobe to 33 items, including shoes and accessories, and that’s all you wear for three months. (Hey, coworkers—if it seems like I’m always wearing the same two yoga pants, it’s because I am.)

What all the experts don’t tell you, of course, is that the work is never done. Just like losing weight is only half the battle, it’s the maintenance that’ll bedevil you. Every day I am confounded by the amount of paper, receipts and packaging material that passes through my door. And I am not such an ascetic that I’m immune to the power of purchasing. Just recently, I bought a Vitamix blender. It was not a spur-of-the-moment decision but months and months of agonizing, because an appliance that heavy and expensive felt like a serious commitment. What if I grow dependent on it? What if I become a smoothie snob and turn up my nose on blenders with less than 2 horsepower? This, of course, is my biggest fear with stuff: that it will own me instead of the other way around.

Living a minimalist life is a constant work in progress. I will falter many more times in the future, I’m sure, but for me, a life with less stuff is a life lived with intention. For now, I’ll drink those kale smoothies every morning and touch my blender in appreciation, ever so thankful for the joy it sparks.

Thinking of becoming a minimalist?

Here is some required reading: