The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine.
One practice I find myself often returning to during our financial journey is minimalism. I usually find myself overwhelmed by possessions, usually of some specific type or in one specific area of our home, and I dive into that particular niche, cutting back significantly on my possessions in that area. After that, I usually adhere to some kind of rule to keep that particular area from growing again.
Why do I do that? There are a lot of reasons. It’s usually triggered at first by simply feeling overwhelmed by the possessions, often because I’m spending too much time organizing and maintaining stuff that I actually don’t use very often. Sometimes, I’ll recognize that I’m spending too much money on a particular hobby or type of good without getting much benefit from each new purchase, a recognition that perhaps new possessions (and even old ones) aren’t really bringing much happiness into my life. A few times, particularly during our financial turnaround, I couldn’t justify keeping an item because the value it was providing to me personally was less than the value it would provide from selling it and using that money to help stabilize our finances.
The More of Less by Joshua Becker delves into all of those issues and more. The book focuses on the idea that there is a happy balance between the quantity of items you own and the time, money, effort and space they require and the happiness they bring you. Most Americans find themselves on the side of that balance that involves having too many possessions and not enough time, money, space, energy, and happiness.
Becker clearly spells out this idea early in the book when he writes, “Our excessive possessions are not making us happy. Even worse, they are taking us away from the things that do. Once we let go of the things that don’t matter, we are free to pursue all of the things that really matter.”
Let’s dig in and find out what Becker has to say.
The book opens by describing the benefits of owning fewer possessions. Becker makes a direct list of these:
More time and energy
Less environmental impact
A better example for our kids
Less work for someone else
I find a lot of overlap between minimalism and frugality when I look at this list. Most of the benefits I’ve found in being a frugal person in terms of time, money, and energy is found in that list — more time, more money, more energy, more generosity, less stress, better relationships, and more contentment with life. The two philosophies overlap so much because they’re both aiming for the same thing: a more effective and efficient use of life’s resources so that we get more value out of them.
Becker’s direct comparison of minimalism and frugality in this chapter was particularly interesting: “Minimalism is not necessarily the same as frugality. It is a philosophy recognizing that owning more stuff is not better; owning better stuff is better.”
While I consider myself more frugal than minimalist, I find a lot to agree with in this idea. You’re better off owning one reliable well made item that you use every day than 10 scarcely used items that fill up your pantry and closets. You’ve probably spent a lot less money overall and you have one item that you use all the time that’s top quality. That’s a far better deal than ten items you scarcely use, in my opinion.
Becker’s focus here is centered on addressing two main misconceptions about minimalism.
The first misconception he addresses is the idea that minimalism is about giving up everything. Rather, it’s about assessing what’s important to you and giving up stuff that has little or no importance in your life. A minimalist doesn’t give up everything that they value. Rather, they examine their lives and possessions and honestly assess what actually gives them value and then try to strip out the things that don’t give them value.
The other misconception that Becker looks at is the idea that minimalism is about organization. Organization is about moving stuff around, whereas minimalism is about owning fewer things. Organization is a practice, a set of things to do to make things look neater. Minimalism is more of a philosophy, one that centers around evaluating our lives and possessions and aiming for a different sweet spot. Organizing doesn’t remove anything; it just finds a new place for the same old stuff.
Becker clearly states this to close out the chapter: “Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts from our lives.”
Minimalism Your Way
Many people, when they want to make a change to their life, just want a checklist of things to follow to make that change happen. The problem is that effective minimalism, the kind that adds up to a strongly positive change in your life, is very personal. It’s deeply tied to the life you have and the life you want to live.
That’s why Becker describes minimalism as heuristic. In his words, “minimizing became a heuristical process for us. That is, it was a learn-by-doing, learn-as-you-go experience. I recommend the same approach for everybody. Get started on de-owning and decluttering right away. It will help you clarify your purpose and values.”
In other words, his main advice for people who want to try this out is to just look around your home for things that you own but don’t use and get rid of them. Sell them, give them away or whatever. Along the way, think about why you’re getting rid of those particular things, as your lack of use of that item probably speaks to what you really value, and keep those values in mind going forward when you buy things and when you get rid of more things.
The best way to try out minimalism is to just dive in, feet first.
Furthermore, it’s vital to keep in mind that the reason you’re doing this is to have a life with fewer obstacles in it so you can actually do more things that you want to do. Again, in Becker’s words, “[t]he goal of minimalism, let’s remember, is not just to own less stuff. The goal of minimalism is to unburden our lives so we can accomplish more.”
The Fog of Consumerism
It is very common in America for people to buy into the idea that happiness is just a purchase away and that the act of buying something and spending money should be joyous. That approach to life is one encouraged by an economy that wants us all to be consumers.
Becker makes this point by asking the reader what they think of when they think of success. What do you think of when you think of success? Most Americans immediately think of material things: the big house, the shiny car, the nice possessions in abundance and so on.
Is that really success, though? What is success? What is the good life? Is it simply being surrounded by lots of stuff? Or is it relationships and people and experiences and low stress? I personally tend to think of the latter as being a successful life.
As Becker puts it, “[s]uccess and excess are not the same.” A successful life isn’t one that’s loaded down with tons of goods that you barely use. Rather, a successful, fulfilled life is one where people live quietly and contentedly with minimal time spent acquiring and maintaining and storing their stuff and maximum time living life — being with people and doing meaningful things.
The Want Within
This might be useful, but it doesn’t change the fact that we often really want stuff. We want things because they seem like they’ll entertain us or make our lives better or make us happier. The truth? They won’t. As Becker puts it, “all these motivations really have the same fatal flaw: you’re looking to material possessions to provide what you can only get somewhere else.”
Many people buy too much stuff because they equate it with security. If they have plenty of stuff, they feel insulated from the uncertainty of the world. In reality, almost all of that accumulation is simply comfort, not security, and that comfort can easily be provided with a healthy bank account rather than a too-large house overflowing with possessions.
Sometimes, we buy things because we want acceptance and even fawning from others. The truth is that we can’t buy those things other than in the most transparent and temporary of ways. To have true acceptance, we have to have good strong relationships, and that takes an investment of time and energy, time and energy we don’t have if we’re constantly cleaning the big house and worrying about the bills and shopping for more stuff. It’s hard to feel accepted when you don’t feel content in your own life.
So, how does one find that kind of contentment? Becker’s answer is that it’s found in not accumulating things for ourselves, but in building relationships with others. Becker’s 3-step plan for doing this is straightforward: “Instead of seeking security in buying lots of stuff, seek it in loving relationships with other people. Instead of trying to earn acceptance from others by owning the same stuff they have, rewrite your definition of what success looks like to you. Instead of chasing contentment by always adding to your stuff, let contentment come to you by appreciating what you have and giving away what you don’t need.”
That sounds like a better life to me.
Take It Easy
Many people instinctively resist minimalism because they immediately think of it in terms of the things they care the most about. They think of their most treasured possessions and collections, imagine cutting back on those things, and then instinctively resist the whole concept.
Becker’s response? “You don’t need to start with the hard stuff. Start easy. Start small. Just start somewhere.”
In fact, the advice given here is to actually avoid those possessions you care the most about. Instead, look at the possessions you have outside of those areas. What do you own outside of those areas that you rarely or never use? Those are the things to target first.
Another key step in minimizing is to sit down and really articulate why you’re doing this. Why do you want to downsize your possessions? Why do you want to sell them off or give them away? The answers you give to those questions should be your motivation in everything you downsize.
For example, my usual interest in minimizing is that I want to get rid of clutter in a particular area, and that’s because I usually want more time overall spent on doing things I enjoy and less time overall spent on managing and organizing and storing stuff I rarely or never use. That’s the core motivation I have behind every area of my life that I minimize.
For an initial strategy, Becker suggests the “three pile” strategy, something I’ve used myself in various ways. In his words: “As much as possible, with each new physical space you tackle, create three piles: things to keep, things to relocate within the home, things to remove.” I often have a fourth pile of “maybes,” which are things I’m not quite sure about keeping. So, I’ll just go through an area I want to minimize and put everything into those four piles, and then I process each one. I first process the stuff to be relocated, taking each item to where it should go. Then, I process the stuff I want to get rid of, listing it on Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or giving it away. Then, I put all of the “maybe” stuff in a box with a date one year in the future (and then I get rid of everything left in the box at that date). Then, I put everything I’m keeping back where it goes.
For me, the “maybe” box solves the “just in case” problem. I understand that if I haven’t touched something in a year, I’m almost definitely never going to need it so it’s fine to downsize it.
Some areas can be particularly hard to downsize, and Becker addresses several of these in this chapter. He looks at book collections, paper, technology, keepsakes and surprisingly, your car and your home.
For each one, he offers some specific tips on downsizing that work pretty well for that type of item. For example, if you’re downsizing books, consider that the memory of a book still exists even if you don’t have the book itself anymore, consider forwarding a great book to a friend or a loved one as an act of love, and put a boundary on your book collection (I use the “if I acquire a new one, I have to get rid of one I have” rule for collections that can get too big). For keepsakes, he suggests keeping “only the best,” identifying just one or two truly meaningful keepsakes to keep and then taking lots of digital pictures of the rest before downsizing them.
The real trick, in each of those cases, is to understand that you’re not giving up something important when downsizing, but that you’re gaining something important by doing so. Downsizing things frees you from the burden of having to manage them later, from having to deal with boxes of papers or shelves full of long-untouched books when you need to move or when you want to try to jam another book on there. You often gain far more from downsizing than you lose.
Experiments in Living with Less
One of my favorite strategies for trying out life changes is the 30-day challenge. If I think some change might improve my life, I try that change on for size for 30 days and then reflect on whether that change had the impact I desired.
Becker proposes this exact strategy for areas of your life that you’re struggling to minimize. Basically, just start a 30-day or 90-day (or whatever timeframe you need) challenge in which you aim not to use something or some group of possessions and then, at the end of that challenge, assess whether or not you really need those possessions at all.
I’ll give you a great example. Late last year, I did a 30-day challenge (that turned into a 90 day one) in which I challenged myself to live with just 33 clothing items excluding underwear, undershirts, and socks. (This is the “333 challenge,” which Becker actually mentions in the chapter.) Basically, a total of 33 pants, shirts, coats, and pairs of shoes. Could I do that? I selected the clothing and put it in the top two drawers of my dresser, a small section of the closet, and the coat rack, and I did just that for three months. At the end, I concluded that such a restriction was just a little too tight for me, but that a restriction of about 50 could work, so I have been living with that restriction ever since and have been slowly whittling down my wardrobe via donations and via getting rid of worn-out items ever since.
The key benefit of challenges like this is that they counteract “leveling.” What is “leveling,” you might ask? It’s when you “minimize” by just putting stuff in storage and never dealing with it because you might want it someday. A 30-day or 90-day challenge addresses this head-on because the challenge intentionally ends with the question of whether you need to keep the item (and if the answer is “maybe,” that’s a call to continue the challenge).
If this type of challenge seems too restrictive, invert it. For example, I’ve started downsizing my board game collection by making a “30-day pile.” I put 15 or so games in that pile and then say that if I haven’t played any of the games in this pile in the next 30 days, I’m getting rid of them. This does sometimes motivate me to intentionally choose one or two of them, but most of the time I just choose the game I actually really want to play which isn’t in that stack. That stack might number 12 at the end of the month, and if that’s the case, those 12 get traded away or sold or given to friends. You can use that type of “slow cut” approach for downsizing any larger collection of items.
You can use this very approach with some pretty challenging things, too. Try doing a 30-day or 90-day challenge without watching cable television. If you do that, are you still going to want to be paying your cable bill? Consider doing it with all television viewing period, or all social media use. You might be pleased with what you find.
One of the real tricks with minimalism is sticking with that minimal level once you downsize. You’ve rid yourself of all kinds of unnecessary things and now you have all of this free space and it can be kind of tempting to fill it.
Becker points to a number of common pathways that people use to refill their homes with stuff — disorganization, shopping, television (and other sources of material temptation), gifts — and offers advice for each one on how to keep them from contributing more stuff to your home.
For example, he advises people who find a lot of relief from moving in a minimalist direction to minimize their television watching (perhaps with a 30- or 90-day challenge as noted above) and to intentionally avoid places where they might shop unless they’re going there with a shopping list.
Those are new habits to adopt, of course, but they’re habits that do powerful work in terms of keeping your home and life more minimal once you make that transition. Remember the reason you’re doing this: the less stuff you have, the less money you have invested in it and the less time you have to spend taking care of it.
The Minimalist Family
What do you do if you’re committed to minimalism but you share a home with a family that isn’t? It’s not realistic to expect everyone in your life to commit to a new idea or principle just because it appeals to you, so what can you do?
Becker offers a number of suggestions. For starters, simply try to live minimal by clear example. Let your family members see that you’re downsizing. Explain clearly what you’re aiming to do — you want less stuff so you have fewer things to take care of and thus more time to enjoy life. You might find that some of your family members are attracted to this idea, especially as they see it working out in person.
If you have younger children, you can work with them to be more minimal in their possessions by making up simple rules like “all of your toys have to fit in your toy box.”
If you have a partner, communication is key. Again, you can’t expect your partner to be immediately be on board with your changes, but you can clearly communicate that this is something that’s important to you and expect that your partner will meet you in the middle, provided that you have a supportive relationship where you meet each other in the middle on all manner of things you disagree on.
Shortcut to Significance
Although many people will look at downsizing as an opportunity to generate some cash in their pockets, doing so comes with downsides. You’ll have to put in a lot of additional effort to sell it off and you won’t always get the returns you dream of.
Throwing things away isn’t a great option either. You get nothing out of it and the landfills of the world become ever more full.
Becker argues here for a third option: consider giving some of it away, particularly in a purposeful fashion. Give specific items to people you think will really enjoy and value them. Give items away to charities that you care about that will use them in a meaningful way.
That act of giving in a meaningful way allows the item to provide a final boost of value in your life. You’ll feel good about putting the item in the hands of someone that can use it. It may also cement a relationship with someone.
An Intentional Life
One of the most powerful elements of minimalism is that it’s really a gateway to living a more examined life. When we start putting more thought into the possessions we have beyond just an accumulation mindset, we are taking steps toward living a more thoughtful life, one where our possessions and actions are more considered and more in line with our true values.
Most people operate out of reflex and instinct most of the time, honed from years of acting and reacting without consideration of why they’re doing it. When you begin to spend time really thinking about why you do the things you do and how you could do things better and more in line with your values, you start gradually living a life that’s more fulfilling because it’s more in line with your values. You can much more clearly see how the things you do each day line up with the things you most care about.
Minimalism is just one part of a more intentional and more considered life. It’s a step toward a life where the things in it are truly in line with your values and things that aren’t in line with your values are removed from it. A life like that is joyous to live.
Don’t Settle for Less
In the end, the main reason to adopt a minimalist approach to your possessions — and your life as a whole — is to give more time, energy and space to things you care about more and give less time, energy and space to things you care about less. That’s the entire point.
In the end, the things that fill up your closet and clutter your shelves, the things that gather dust and have to be dusted, the things that make you dread the thought of moving, the things that take hours to go through and reorganize, those are things that are providing you with little value for the time and energy and thought that they require. Your life should be filled with things that provide enormous value for the time and energy that they require.
Keep that in mind as you consider downsizing. It’s not about getting rid of possessions, but removing obstacles that are keeping you from living a more free life.
The More of Less is a powerful book about the philosophy and practice of cutting back on your possessions.
The More of Less makes a succinct and powerful case for minimalism and functions as a good counterpoint to other minimalist and decluttering approaches out there, such as the Konmari method. Becker’s approach is a little more philosophical in nature as this book often digs into the “why” of minimalism, which I think is a vital piece of actually sticking with a profound life change.
It is worth noting that Becker was, at one point in his life, a pastor, and his Christian beliefs do come through at many points in the book, as he sometimes nods towards Biblical parallels for the ideas he’s sharing. For some, this will be a positive; for others, a negative; for many, it’s a non-factor. Regardless of where you fall, it’s worth noting before you pick it up.
If you’re thinking about minimalism or are just feeling overwhelmed by how many possessions you have, give this book a read. I think you’ll find a lot of value between its covers.