One of the biggest struggles I have in my life is this constant battle between two guiding values: minimalism and preparedness. I see great value in both of these things.
In minimalism, I see the value of having fewer things to worry about and take care of, leaving me more time to actually do things instead of having to maintain stuff. It also leads to more financial flexibility because I’m spending less money on stuff overall, and my natural tendency is to spend my time making things or exploring nature, neither one of which is very expensive for the most part.
In preparedness, I see the value of having more things so that I can handle unexpected situations with grace and effectiveness. Whenever a situation comes up that I am not properly equipped to handle, I feel a great sense of frustration and disappointment.
Those two things obviously come into conflict rather often. One pushes me toward owning more things (and thus investing my money in those things and perhaps sometimes saving money due to being prepared for an unexpected event), and the other pushes me toward owning fewer things (and thus investing my money in experiences and in savings for the future). They push against each other constantly, a debate that boils down to the simple question of whether or not I actually need to own a particular item.
Do I really need this thing? Owning it makes me more prepared for whatever may come. Not owning it means I have more money and flexibility and have less stuff to take care of.
Which is the right path to choose? Quite often, whichever path I choose, I feel like I’m making something of a misstep.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that having a well-thought-out set of guiding principles in life for situations such as these makes it much easier to make those decisions with confidence and without guilt. I’ve been spending a lot of time reflecting on those principles over the past few years so that I can simply trust those principles when it comes to decisions like this and know that I have made a well-considered decision, even if I happen to make it quickly.
Here’s what I’ve come to realize is true for myself in this battle between minimalism and preparedness.
First, being prepared doesn’t mean more and more and more stuff; it means having items that serve real purposes that aren’t met by other items. Being prepared means I am ready to handle a particular challenge that comes into my life. It doesn’t mean having every possible color of pen ink or two hundred games on my game shelf or a ton of books on my bookshelf. It means having a reliable pen or two for taking notes and drawing. It means having a game or two to choose between depending on the guests (I think it’s reasonable to have fifteen or twenty games when it’s your hobby, because different games work best with different situations and different people and different player counts). It means having books on your shelf that you actually turn to for reference beyond what you can find with an internet search.
I use this principle when I’m tempted to buy another board game or another pen or another book. Do I really need these things? Are there situations where I would want to have these things right at hand to meet some situation that isn’t already largely met? Couldn’t I just borrow this item or use something similar in such an event?
This keeps me from buying a game similar to one I already have or buying more pens unless I’m running low (I write a lot, so this happens) or buying many books.
Second, the purpose that I have items for are actually real purposes, not fancies of the imagination. When I’m in a hardware store, it’s easy for me to visualize uses for many of the items in there, but are those scenarios that are even remotely likely to actually happen? Probably not. The same is true when I’m at a tea shop – I’m surrounded by delicious teas, but am I really going to drink any of those teas in a period of time when they’re actually fresh? Probably not – I do drink some tea and/or coffee most days, but that doesn’t mean I go through the stuff very fast.
It’s very easy for an active imagination to visualize scenarios in which you’ll really want or need a particular item, but the thing to remember is that most of those visualized scenarios will very likely never happen. Stopping and recognizing the reality of such scenarios is absolutely vital in fighting this battle.
Third, items that can handle lots of tasks are far better purchases than items that do only one or two things. A smartphone is better than an alarm clock, for example – I actually use mine as an alarm clock, among other purposes. A griddle is better than a sandwich press, and a sandwich press is better than a breakfast sandwich maker. Why? You can make anything on a griddle (within reason) that you could make on a sandwich press and more, and you can make anything on a sandwich press (within reason) that you could make with a breakfast sandwich maker and more.
What happens when you have items in your house that serve lots of purposes is that you eliminate the preparedness argument for large swaths of items. I wish I had thoroughly understood this principle ten years ago when we were stocking our kitchen with cooking supplies, as we still have quite a few things that are basically redundant buried in the back recesses of our kitchen cabinets.
Fourth, hobby supplies are fine if you’re actually replenishing something you’re going to use in the near future and not just buying something that’s a somewhat redundant replacement for something you already have. For example, I’m completely fine buying a new notebook for myself if I’m within a month or two of running out of notebooks to fill up (again, I fill up a lot of pages with handwritten notes, as it’s how I learn about topics and how I process my life and ongoing projects and think through things), but if I have a bunch of notebooks already, buying more is silly unless they’re like 90% off. The same is true for pen ink (lately, I’ve moved to using pens that last and just replacing the ink in them as the cost is lower over the very long haul). With board games, though, I’m not really replenishing anything, so buying a new game means that I’m either tired of a game I already have (in which case I should sell it) or I really have a niche in my life for playing games that isn’t already fulfilled.
If I had to boil these principles down to a single statement, it would be this: unless there is a high likelihood that I will be using this item in the next month for a purpose that isn’t fulfilled by something else I already own, I shouldn’t be spending my money on it. This even goes for fun things – if I’m not actually going to use it soon or I already have something similar, there’s no reason to buy it. The thing is, I already own items that fulfill almost every need or want that I actually spend time on in a given month and I already have most realistic emergencies covered, so I really don’t have much purpose to buy many things for myself.
For me, the challenge is now turning toward the “paring down” problem. If I have multiple items that meet the same need, why do I need to keep all of them? If I have more books than I will ever read in the next ten years, why do I need to keep them?
The purpose here is to reach a happy medium between preparedness and minimalism, where I’m prepared for almost anything I might want to do and any situation that might realistically come up in the near future, but nothing more than that. That way, whenever I do buy an item, it’s a purposeful purchase and a sensible use of my money, but I’m still spending a minimum amount of time taking care of the stuff I have and keeping it organized. I’m spending my time right now inching closer and closer to that happy medium, and it’s actually a joyful journey.
So, what can you take away from all of this? Whenever you’re considering a purchase, just ask yourself whether you’re really going to use this item in the next month for a purpose that isn’t already met by something you own. If you’re buying something that is already fulfilled by another item, why have that other item? Then, do the same thing with your possessions whenever you go through them – is this item one that I’m actually going to use sometime in the next few months that isn’t already met by something else?
If you take those questions seriously, it’s very likely that you’ll slow down on your purchasing and find yourself, when you do make a purchase, buying things that are purposeful and don’t fill you with regret. Similarly, you may also find yourself slowly paring down the number of items you own, which will make you a little pocket money as you sell them off and also reduce the time you need to spend maintaining and storing them and the space you need to devote to housing all of your stuff.
There is a happy medium, and it’s a journey finding your way there, but that journey is a rewarding one in many ways. Good luck!