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Pay It Forward

The joy of living with less

About the author

Kate Ashford is a New York-based freelance journalist who writes about personal finance and health. She has written for Money, Real Simple and Redbook magazines.

Keeping it simple. (Thinkstock)

Keeping it simple. (Thinkstock)

If you’ve ever fantasised about selling everything you own and paring down your possessions to the bare essentials, you’re probably familiar with minimalism.

But it’s about more than just de-cluttering—it’s about getting rid of all clutter, permanently. “Minimalism isn’t about empty white rooms with hardly any furniture,” said Chris Wray, who writes a UK blog about minimalism, TwoLessThings.co.uk. “It’s about removing all the things that distract us from what’s important in our lives.”

For extreme minimalists, such as Andrew Hyde, who lives in Colorado in the US, it means owning only about 15 items. For others, it means getting rid of the excess until you are left with essentials — and your definition of essential might evolve.

“A minimalist lifestyle entails being mindful about the things we own, the things we buy, and how we spend our time,” said Francine Jay, author of The Joy of Less. “It is a lifestyle that values experiences more than possessions.”

Naturally, minimalism tends to flourish in countries that have embraced consumer culture, such as the US, UK and parts of Europe. It’s difficult to revolt against the get-more-stuff mentality if that isn’t your country’s way of life. But you can live a minimalist life anywhere and capture more money for savings and great experiences, and have less stuff to maintain and clean.

Here’s how to get back to basics:

What it will take: Mental fortitude. Getting rid of your things requires commitment. You have to make a decision about every item you own, and that can be mentally taxing — and it won’t happen overnight.

“It almost certainly took you longer than one afternoon to collect all the possessions in your life, and it is going to take you longer than one afternoon to sort them out,” said Joshua Becker, a minimalist in Arizona and writer of the blog BecomingMinimalist.com.

How long you need to prepare: Not long at all — you can start this process today by putting a box in every room. “When you come across something you haven’t used in a long time, or ever, throw it in,” said Rachel Jonat, who lives in the Isle of Man in the UK and writes the blog TheMinimalistMom.com. “If you are scared about wanting those items again, hold onto the box for six months and then donate everything.”

Mentally, you may have to do some preparation to get into the right mindset — because, let’s face it, a lot of us like our things. But things have a catch. That big house and everything in it take time to clean and organise, and it takes money to maintain it all.

“Look at an item and think about how many hours you had to work, or will have to work, to pay for it,” Jonat said. Every piece you own is a chance to regain time and/or money if you sell it or give it away. Once you’re ready to start purging, dive in.

Do it now: Think about the places in your life where you feel anxiety or frustration, said Cristin Frank, US author of Living Simple, Free & Happy. “Too many decisions? Is your closet so crowded that things get lost or easily wrinkled?” Pinpoint those areas and deal with them first. Name brand clothes and household goods in good condition are perfect for eBay — check recent sales of similar items to help you set a price. Your first 50 listings every month are free; if you sell it, the site takes 10% of the final sales price.

Start small. You aren’t going to be able to declutter your life in a day, or even a week. And the process may seem really daunting. If you are feeling anxious about change, “try one thing for 30 days, starting with the easiest things to get rid of,” said Joshua Fields Millburn, a minimalist who lives in Montana and writes at TheMinimalists.com blog. Another strategy: Spend 15 minutes a day de-cluttering. Set a timer — you can make great progress when you race the clock.

Ditch the obvious things. Get some forward momentum by starting your giveaway pile with the items you clearly do not need—the mugs you never use, that ugly thing you received as a gift. Start a pile for a car boot sale or yard sale. List furniture and larger household goods on classified-ad site Craigslist, which is available in more than 80 countries. You can also make it easier to part with things by passing them along to someone else who can use them via local charities.

“Throwing it all in the garbage can make you feel guilty or wasteful,” Frank said.

Do it later: Once you’ve started selling your stuff and not buying new knick-knacks, repurpose the money you’re saving.

“My husband and I paid off our home in less than seven years with our minimalist lifestyle,” Frank said. “I was then able to quit my job and be a blogger and author full time.”

For Francine Jay, living minimally allowed her and her husband to travel. “We lived in London for two years, and travelled throughout much of Europe and Asia during that time,” Jay said. Rachel Jonat and her husband paid off $80,000 in non-mortgage debt in less than three years. When you don’t fritter money away on junk, you have more to put toward the essentials — house payment, debt, retirement, and experiences.

Reassess after a few weeks and see how you feel. “Decluttering isn’t something you just do once,” Jay said. “It’s an ongoing process.” You may find it difficult to let go of certain items in the first or second round of purging, but on the third round it could end up on the giveaway pile. “It took me eight months to slowly pare down my possessions while constantly asking myself, ‘Does this thing add value to my life?’” Millburn said.

Be smart about future purchases. Shop only when you need something, not for fun or entertainment, Jay said. Before you buy, “make an inventory of what you already have,” Jay said. “Counting just how many shirts or kitchen gadgets you own will likely discourage you from purchasing anything new.” When you do add to your home, seek out versatile, multipurpose items.

Consider a big change. Moving into a smaller space isn’t for everyone. But if you are a renter and your lease is coming up, or you’re really struggling to manage your home payment each month, downsizing accomplishes a few things: It encourages less stuff, less time cleaning, and of course, smaller bills.

Do it smarter: Avoid comparisons. Your minimalism is yours alone—it’s what works for you, in your life, at this time. If you want to keep every book you’ve ever read but cut your wardrobe down to 12 items, that is what you should do.

“Comparing your progress to someone else is rarely helpful,” Becker said.

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