Review: The Joy of Less

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

joy of lessOver the last several years, I’ve begun to appreciate how much easier life is if you have less stuff. You spend less time and effort on maintenance. You spend less time and effort moving. You spend less time and effort organizing your stuff and cleaning. What you’re left with is more time and energy and financial resources to actually enjoy the experiences and things that matter to you. It’s much easier to find an hour to practice on the piano if I’m not spending all my time cleaning and putting things away and finding room for just one more thing in that closet. It’s much easier to save for the future if I’m not in a non-stop race to see who has the most stuff.

Francine Joy, author of the blog miss minimalist, expands at length on that philosophy in her book The Joy of Less. The basic premise behind the book is that many people are often overwhelmed by their possessions rather than overjoyed by them. They have homes with every nook and cranny filled with stuff and, on the whole, it brings unhappiness rather than pleasure. How can you turn that around?

The book is broken down into four main sections, each composed of a big handful of chapters. Rather than endlessly discussing all of the chapters, let’s dig into the four main sections of the book.

Part One – Philosophy
Joy opens the book by arguing that our possessions fall into one of three categories: beautiful stuff, useful stuff, and emotional stuff. It’s pretty easy to realize which category most of our things fall into, but when you start looking seriously at the items within each category and asking yourself why you want items in that category, you find yourself paring down very quickly.

For example, too much stuff kept around for aesthetics usually just clashes with each other – sensory overload. Too many “useful” things result in items not being used at all. Emotional stuff often winds up gathering dust because it merely reflects a past time in our lives and can often be compressed sensibly (digitizing old photos, for example).

One of the key steps for keeping each of these categories under control is simply being a good gatekeeper. Don’t add new things unless you’re sure you have space for that new thing in your life. If you need to, make space for that new thing before it arrives by getting rid of the least-used or least important item in that category (of the three above).

Part Two – Streamline
Here, Joy focuses on specific tactics for actually enacting the philosophies from part one (of which I just scratched the surface). She advises starting from scratch and evaluating everything you own by asking yourself the three Ts about that item: trash, treasure, or transfer? Each item you keep should have an explicit reason and a good one. If you can’t come up with a good reason to keep something, you shouldn’t be keeping it.

She’s also a big proponent (as alluded to above) of the “if one comes in, one comes out” strategy of keeping your things under control. After all, the more things you have, the more time you spend in upkeep, maintenance, finding the specific item you need, and so on. It also encourages you to focus on utility – for example, you really only need two or three knives in the kitchen, not a butcher block full of them.

She advocates an “all surfaces clear” approach for helping people to minimize clutter. I agree, to an extent. For me, however, a surface with an item on it means that I need to focus in on that item, so I’m constantly doing things like leaving to-do lists out in the middle of my desk.

Part Three – Room by Room
Joy moves on to specific clutter-reduction strategies for specific areas of a person’s home. This section of the book felt a bit light compared to the previous two portions, mostly because these sections are just specific adaptations of the plethora of ideas from the first 100 pages or so of the book.

It works, though, because of the sledgehammer-like focus of each chapter in terms of hammering home the points of the previous sections. Each chapter on a specific area is actually broken down into sections, each one focused on a specific tactic from part two of the book, applied specifically to that area of the home.

For me, then, the specific ideas for each home area weren’t as useful here as the huge number of examples of how the principles and ideas from earlier in the book actually work. With some analysis, the ideas work for any area you might want to declutter and organize. It just takes some time and initiative.

Part Four – Lifestyle
Joy winds the book down with a look at how these same principles apply to time management (de-clutter your time!) and to working towards the greater causes that matter to us (de-clutter the world!).

For me, the most valuable piece of time management I’ve ever learned is repeated here: reduce expectations. You can’t do it all, nor should you want to. When you take on so much that your schedule is bursting at the seams, you’re not doing any of the tasks well – or you’re choosing to do some of them reasonably well and some of them very poorly. I think of the mother I used to see at my son’s soccer games who never stopped talking on her cell phone or twiddling with her Blackberry during the entire game. She was physically there, but mentally, she was as far away from that field as she could be. Rather than thinking she was a bad parent, I actually thought she was a good one in that she was making an effort, but her connection to her child would be so much greater with a less overstuffed schedule.

As for the social/environmental part of the book, I would agree that decluttering is great for the environment. More than that, though, I find there’s social value in passing on my unwanted items to people who can use them. Yard sales and Freecycle and Craigslist and the barter system are all fantastic ways not only to find a second use for something, but to pass along value to others, making the world a better place.

Is The Joy of Less Worth Reading?
If you ever get the sense that “stuff” takes up too much time or too much energy in your life, you’ll probably find quite a bit of value in The Joy of Less.

On the other hand, if you feel your life is in balance already, The Joy of Less probably won’t speak to you at all. It really provides answers for paring down, and if you’ve already done that – or never reached a point where you felt any need to pare down – this book really won’t add any value to your life.

I enjoyed it. Clutter is something we’re constantly battling at the Hamm household (mostly, to tell the truth, it’s kid-related clutter), and Joy offers a plethora of philosophical ideas and concrete suggestions for waging that war. For us, that made The Joy of Less a worthwhile read.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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