title image for my journey with minimalism with man looking out window in minimalist room

My 5-Year Journey With Minimalism

I’ve wanted to be “minimalist” since roughly 2016. I went through multiple phases of trying and failing, but was eventually able to make permanent changes.

Today, my closet is the smallest it’s ever been, my bookshelf has been cut down to 10-15 books, and my cleaning is the most efficient it’s ever been. The progress so far has even allowed me to discover new and exciting interests.

This is an account of my journey with minimalism so far, including the failed attempts and some key insights that made a big difference for me.

Failed Attempts

Changing my ingrained patterns is a huge struggle for me, because I’m pretty inconsistent and have a hard time willing myself to do (or not do) different things. Nevertheless, I kept trying to apply various minimalist strategies to my life.

When I wanted to focus better, I’d clear off my desk and file everything away neatly in drawers. The clutter quickly came back.

When I wanted to think less about getting dressed, or when I wanted to reduce how much I shopped for clothes, I’d try a capsule wardrobe… and then within a few days I’d decide to wear something that wasn’t in the capsule and fall back into my regular patterns.

And when I thought I had too much stuff, I’d go through some of it and painstakingly make a little pile to take to take to Goodwill… and then maybe half the items would be “rescued” from the Goodwill pile when I decided I could continue to use them.

I also tried to reduce the amount of stuff I owned by asking for only consumable gifts, because I had such a hard time getting rid of non-consumable gifts I had been given in previous years. This made me less stressed out about accumulating more things during the holiday season, but didn’t significantly impact the number of things I owned.

This went on for maybe three years. I had the best intentions, I read a lot of blog posts about minimalism, and I really wanted a cleaner space, but I just didn’t make very meaningful changes.

Key Insight #1: Remove Stuff

The first big turning point for me in my journey was the realization that I needed to remove stuff. Minimalism is about not being burdened by physical possessions, which (for people like me) means having less stuff.

people holding big boxes of stuff

Yes, in retrospect, this is pretty obvious, but a big part of my failed attempts at minimalism was that I never succeeded in removing a significant amount of stuff. I’d reorganize without removing, so the clutter would always come back. And I’d remove a few items here and there, but then offset them with more shopping, so I never made any meaningful progress.

The practice that helped most with finally removing a large amount of stuff was Marie Kondo’s item send-offs. When saying goodbye to an item, Marie Kondo advises holding the item in your hands and thanking it for its service to you, whatever that service was. “Thank you for making me look nice on that date,” and “thank you for teaching me not to buy bras without trying them on,” might be examples of how to thank an item during its send-off. 

When I did send-offs, it became easier to part with more items, so I’d do more send-offs, and part with more items.

The part of the item send-offs that was so magical for me was the expression of gratitude. Before I learned about item send-offs, I had a very hard time getting rid of things. I owned lots of things with nothing really wrong with them, and getting rid of them felt like a waste, and I hate to waste. Expressing gratitude for what an item did for me made its use to me explicit, showing me that it was, in fact, not a waste.

In addition to item send-offs, reading Fumio Sasaki’s Goodbye, Things, challenged my conception of which items I truly needed, putting things like dedicated shampoo on the list of items to be considered for removal. (I’m currently using a combo shampoo-body wash.)

I also needed to cut back on shopping in order to keep down the amount of things I owned. This continues to be a challenge for me, but I am getting a lot better. It has also gotten easier as, due to minimalism, I have begun cherishing the things I own more.

Key Insight #2: Minimalism Is Not A Goal

I got all fired up and spent a number of weekends sorting through my possessions and removing stuff. But as much as I enjoy having less stuff, I quickly realized that that removing stuff was not how I wanted to spend all my free time.

My big realization, after I had removed a bunch of stuff, was that I don’t want to be a minimalist. That is, that’s not what I want my friends to know me as, and that’s not want I want to talk to strangers about when I meet them for the first time.

I want to start a successful business, be a great engineer, make cool art, and/or learn biochemistry. Minimalism, like meditation, is a really great tool to help me achieve such cool things; it’s not a goal in itself.

water drop in calm water
Minimalism is like meditation because it clears your space and mind so that only the important things make waves.

My failure to realize this earlier was probably also a reason for some of my failed attempts. I knew that minimalism would make getting dressed easier because I’d have fewer clothing choices, but outside of that, I thought of it as mostly an aesthetic pursuit. Little did I know it is not a goal in itself, but rather a way to achieve other things and generally improve my life.

And with that, on to the benefits of minimalism that I’ve experienced.

Benefit #1: Fewer Chores

As it turns out, when you have less stuff, cleaning is a whole lot easier.

I currently live in an apartment with rather dusty, old carpet, and dusting and vacuuming used to be quite the struggle. I’d always have to move things so I could vacuum under them or dust around them. Now, I have less stuff, so I have less stuff to deal with when cleaning!

Also, when I had more clothes, I used to let the laundry pile up, because I could always wear something else clean from my closet. Then, laundry days would be big, annoying days. I had the same problem with dishes; I used to let dishes and pans pile up (yeah, I know, yuck) because I could easily grab another clean one.

Since I cut back on clothes and kitchenware, I do chores more regularly and in smaller bursts. Each burst is a small amount of work, often small enough to complete while waiting on something else, so the total amount of time I dedicate to chores and cleaning is much smaller than before.

Every item I own requires care in some way. If it’s out and I use it regularly, I need to regularly clean and dust it. If it’s not on display or is infrequently used, it will still require care to pack and unpack during my next move.

Having fewer things has resulted, wonderfully, in fewer things to care for and thus fewer chores.

Benefit #2: Relationships With My Things

I have magically become much more appreciative of the things I own. This is probably in part due to occasionally following Marie Kondo’s method of thanking each of my items when I am done using them for the day. It’s also in part due to having fewer items that I can reuse for more purposes, so many items I own are hardworking ones that get lots of use. 

Whatever the cause, my newfound relationships with my things makes me treat my things better while I own them, makes me eager to find better homes for them when I do not use them, and makes me careful about what new items I bring into my home.

Finding better homes for items I don’t use is especially relevant for reducing books. Books are containers of information. Letting them sit on a bookshelf deprives them of sharing their information. Because of this, I’ve been able to let almost all of my books go. I like to imagine that they’re happier in a Little Free Library than on my bookshelf because they have a greater chance of being read and enjoyed by someone else. 

The desire to find better homes for items I don’t use has also showed me the joy of giving. Not only is finding a new home a great way to treat the item itself, it can also be a wonderful thing for the gift recipient! I gifted an easel to a very-excited 12-year old, and I gifted all my knitting supplies to someone who was looking to try out a new hobby. My relationship with my things doesn’t mean that I will always keep all my things, but rather that I want to find them the most appropriate homes.

small gift
Taking care of my things includes finding new and good homes for them.

My relationship with my things also affects how I bring new items into my home. Rarely do I buy non-consumables just because they are on sale anymore. Instead, I think about what items I might have that fulfill a similar need. Continuing to use something I’ve owned for multiple years is a better decision because I trust that that item will continue working for me. A new item has a chance of warping in the wash, breaking after a few uses, or not performing as well. Thus, I often don’t feel the need to buy new things, because I prefer what I already own.

An unlikely relationship that I’ve developed is with my cast iron skillet. On average, I use it daily, and it gets better the more I use it. I hope to never have to replace it. I’ve gone as far as taking it on the occasional trip with me, because I prefer it to the pans available in most Airbnbs.

I’ve also rekindled a relationship with a pea coat that I’ve owned since high school. When I was more in-tune with the constantly-changing fashions of the day, I thought it looked a little out-of-style and tried shopping for something that looked more modern. But since I pared down my coat closet, I have rediscovered how much I like the classic style as-is, how the weight is perfect in a variety of temperatures, and how well the material has held up over many years. It is now my single nice (non-athletic) coat, and I adore how it does its job perfectly, and has done so for many years.

Benefit #3: Personal Discovery

Having fewer things has resulted in me having more free time and energy. To be fair, some of my newly-freed-up time is definitely due to the ongoing pandemic, but I attribute the newly-freed-up energy to my minimalism pursuits. 

I’ve recently been reading a lot more books, exploring new fields and ideas, and researching various interesting careers.

My newly-empty bookshelf has allowed me to stop feeling guilty about the books I kept hoping to read, so that when I recently identified an exciting new area I was interested in (biochemistry!), I could buy a book or two to learn more and really focus in on it without getting distracted by my other possessions.

My newly-cleared space has allowed me to invest in things I need to go deeper in this exciting area; in particular, I purchased a microscope and have been looking at various specimens! While this would’ve been possible before I made progress with minimalism, it would not have been nearly as successful because I would’ve had less time and mental space to devote to the new pursuit.

Oh yeah, and I also started a blog!

Conclusion And Resources

So that’s my 5-year journey with minimalism. I don’t think of myself as a minimalist and I certainly still have a lot of things, but I feel like I have come very far nevertheless. I continue to discover new ways that minimalism changes how I think about the world and I have no doubt I’ll continue trying and experimenting.

My favorite minimalism resources are:

What key insights helped you make minimalism stick, or what are you struggling with if you’ve yet to make it stick? Do you have any favorite minimalism resources?

girl shopping online with credit card

8 Ways to Stop Shopping and Reclaim Your Money and Time

Do you spend time scrolling through shopping websites only to realize a few hours have passed? Do you have a bad habit of frequently buying more than you need, and you’d like to cut back?

My own answers to those questions are yes and yes. Shopping is so fun, but it has big downsides: 1) the amount of time and energy it wastes (both up-front when you buy and down-the-line when you are cleaning or moving), and of course 2) the money that it costs!

Luckily, with the strategies I’ve been using, I’ve gotten a lot better. Read on to learn how to reduce your shopping so that you can free up your money and time!

Set a Time Limit on Browsing

There are a couple ways to do this. If you’re browsing online, you can set time limits on your phone/tablet/laptop. I personally have a daily limit of 15m for Mercari on my phone. I also have a 15m daily limit for Instagram because I never have more than a couple minutes of real content to catch up on and the rest are product updates. 

Another way to do this is to predetermine the amount of time you will spend in a physical store before you walk in the door. For a reference point, I can complete most big grocery-only runs in about 20 minutes, and if I only need two items I can be in the checkout line in under 5 minutes. I’ve done this enough that I don’t even need a time limit anymore, because I’m in the habit of going straight for what I need and ignoring other temptations!

Predetermining the amount of time you spend in a store also applies to shopping for clothing. For me, shopping for clothing is exhausting! It took me many years to realize that after about 15 minutes I get past the point of enjoying myself. Your threshold may be different, but I encourage you to experiment with time limits.

Wait On What You Want

(Cue Paul Pena.)

When you want to buy something, write down the item you want to buy, and give it some time. You can experiment with the amount of time, but they key is to avoid impulse purchases and instant gratification by inserting some amount of delay between the moment you want something and the moment you buy it.

Another way to do this, especially if you’ve already spent time browsing and have things in your online cart, is to take a screenshot of the cart instead of buying on the spot. You can always come back to the screenshot later if you want to!

This strategy has multiple benefits. It reduces buying, because you delay purchases. It reduces browsing, because you delay needing to look for something when you think of it. And having what you want written down can also be useful for prioritizing what to actually buy later.

Personally, I usually forget about or decide against buying 90% of things I write down, so this strategy works really well for me.

Don’t Shop Sales

Sales are a premium strategy for getting people to buy things that they were not otherwise planning to buy. Next time you visit a website or store because they are advertising a sale or deal, ask yourself if you would visit if they didn’t have a sale. If you weren’t planning to visit in the first place, then any money you spend there is 100% more than you would’ve spent without the sale. That’s not really a great deal after all.

For me, sales also make me spend way more time on a site than I would usually because I want to make sure I’m not missing out on anything. Is 15 or 20 percent off really worth that extra time? Even more, why do I feel the need to spend money that I wouldn’t have otherwise spent, just to take advantage of a sale? That makes no sense!

To be clear, I’m not saying to never buy anything on sale. If you’ve been waiting on something on your list (see point above), absolutely, buy it on sale! The main point here is to keep an eye out for how sales affect your behavior. They may be tempting you into shopping for and purchasing things you don’t need.

Calculate the Actual Value to You

Advertised value is not the same as value to you. A “$24 value” “free” gift has $0 value to you if it’s not something you want or need. (In fact, it arguably has negative value, because you have to expend effort to store it and/or get rid of it.)

In addition to free gifts, this principle also applies to bundle deals and clothing.

Bundle deals. If you saw low-effort, high-reward beauty, you’ll know I love skincare and subscription boxes. Subscription boxes and bundle bag deals always advertise high values, sometimes in the hundreds of dollars, for a low low price of $40!!!! The catch here is to calculate the value to you. I don’t need any makeup, so any makeup in bundles has no value to me. And a $80 serum that would replace the one you normally buy for $20 doesn’t have an $80 value to you, because you wouldn’t pay $80 for it in the first place. So, beware the advertised value of bundle deals.

Clothing. High value clothing is clothing that 1) will last and 2) you’ll wear a lot. If a piece of clothing costs $7 but it’s going to pill on the first wear, or lose its shape after the first wash, then the value to you is $7 per wear. If a piece of clothing (say a quality coat) costs $100 but it’s going to last 5 years, and you’re going to use it twice a week, that’s about 20 cents per wear. Watch out for high price tags with a large percentage off – those numbers are all about making sales and are totally unrelated to the actual value to you!

In sum, advertised value and actual cost can be very different from the actual value to you. Focusing on the latter can lead to better (and thus fewer) purchases. 

Consider the Raw Material Impact

Consumers in privileged countries like the United States are some of the greatest contributors to global warming because they consume.

Consumption has big costs for the planet, from the cost of creating or synthesizing raw materials such as cotton or plastic, to the cost of creation of the end product in a factory, to the cost of shipping the product, to the cost of transporting it to a landfill (or recycling center) when it’s “consumed”, to the cost of the gases it releases as it breaks down in landfill (or the perhaps the cost to recycle it). Every step along the way takes energy and resources from the earth and contributes greenhouse gases and various forms of waste/trash (including – eventually – the “consumed item” that gets thrown in the wastebin).

The best way to reduce greenhouse gases and many forms of waste is to not buy unnecessary things in the first place. Consider that next time you hit the checkout button.

I find this especially helpful when I’m buying inexpensive things. A lipstick on sale for $5? (Or a low-quality dress, or some plastic squirt guns?) Sure, the cost to me may only be $5 (plus tax and maybe shipping), but it comes in a combo plastic-metal tube which cannot be recycled, plus I’ll use it every few weeks at best, so I’m really paying $5 to create more trash. The same issues apply to most inexpensive items. They may be cool for a little while, but most of the time they quickly become trash.

Consider reducing your waste and your impact on the planet by simply not buying things you don’t need. It’s not a glamorous way to help the planet, but it is effective.

Don’t Buy Items Online, Especially Clothing

Have you ever bought something online only to pull it out of the package and realize it doesn’t feel as soft or as sturdy as you expect?

Buying online is a gamble, especially when it comes to clothing. It’s hard to tell how a piece is going to fit based on the photos, and it’s even harder to tell how a piece is going to feel. I’ve had some big disappointments in pieces that had good reviews but when I touched them for the first time the fabric was not comfortable, or did not feel good-quality.

Whenever possible, hold items in your hands before buying. Marie Kondo advises holding items in your hands before discarding, and I see no reason why this should not be applied before bringing new items into your home. It is a totally different experience from viewing pictures or reading reviews.

To make this more concrete: I recently made two disappointing online purchases, a beautiful dress and a frying pan. When I took the dress out of the box, I immediately felt that it was not as well-constructed and sturdy as I was expecting. I was disappointed but I nevertheless kept it… unfortunately. I only wore it once before finding it a new home. If I would’ve touched it before I fell in love with the way it looked in photos, I would likely have not wasted my money. 

I also had high hopes for the frying pan, which I had extensively researched before purchasing. However, when I took it out of the box, the weight distribution was all wrong and I knew I would have trouble tossing food in it. It went right back in the box and back to the retailer. If only I had bothered, in all my research, to go to a store and hold one.

Buying stuff online is obviously convenient, and sometimes there is no other option depending on what you’re buying and where you live, but buying in-person gives you the most complete information about what you are buying. That allows better purchasing decisions, which results in fewer bad purchases and fewer purchases in total. I highly recommend buying in person whenever possible.

Pay For Shipping

How many times have you bought more than you needed to hit the free shipping minimum? I was discussing this with a friend, and we realized that we both do this!

The thing about “free shipping” is… just like “free lunch,” there is no such thing! Someone has to pay USPS to get your items from place to place. If shipping is “free”, it’s really just rolled into the cost of the items, because the business has to pay for it somehow.

I recently paid $9 for shipping on a purchase of a $15 pound of gum. The particular gum I wanted to try out is “biodegradable,” and it’s sweetened with xylitol so it’s better for my not-great teeth. I was able to buy it in bulk so I create a little less trash. The shipping cost was high, but even after the cost of shipping, the amount of gum was cheaper per piece than what I can get in a local store, and it was exactly what I wanted!

So, just pay for shipping sometimes. Watch out for “free shipping” minimums which might be causing you to buy more than you need. Remember, extra items are not a great deal if you don’t need them in the first place.

Track Everything You Buy

Keep a single list of everything non-consumable that you buy. This includes things like clothing, electronics, and kitchen gadgets, but does not include things like bananas, toilet paper, and toothpaste. Non-consumables are less hassle to track than consumables, and they’re also a lot more work than consumables to deal with when cleaning house or moving, so it is valuable to keep the amount you accumulate in check. 

Tracking helps you with awareness of how much you buy and how much you are adding to your home. It will also help with reflection as you look back on everything you’ve bought. You might see patterns of bad habits emerge, or you might use your list of several months of purchases to set a goal for the months following.

Having recently done a big clean out at home, I started the new year with the hope of not reversing all my hard work by continuing to accumulate things. Tracking is a lot less effort than a full-on ban which has made the practice easier for me to stick with. Seeing my growing list is a gentle reminder that I mostly buy things I don’t need, which is a reminder that I already have everything I need, and I don’t need to be shopping.

Track everything you buy to keep tabs on your purchases. The knowledge you gain will help you reduce your shopping!

Conclusion and Further Reading

Above are 8 strategies to help you stop shopping so you can reclaim your money and time. The most effective strategies vary from person to person, so some of these strategies may work for you while others do not. I wish you luck in your personal journey!

Further reading: