The Challenge – and the Advantage – of Going Minimal

A few days ago, an article about minimalist money appeared at Get Rich Slowly, in which the guest author (Leo) advocated going strongly minimal with your spending – opting out of consumerism as much as humanly possible, cutting every optional service, and essentially starting again from a blank slate.

Some of the readers unsurprisingly reacted negatively to this idea. One commenter, Stephen, sums it up pretty well: “I don’t know if it’s possible to give up both cable and not going out to bars, restaurants etc.”

Stephen, like most of modern society, operates under the assumption that certain categories of non-essential spending is impossible to cut. In other words, if you cut some of the luxuries in life, life no longer becomes enjoyable, so these luxuries become viewed as essential.

Unlike a lot of other personal finance writers, I don’t advocate cutting out the elements of your life that make your life enjoyable. Instead, I take a different approach. I argue that a lot of the routines we consider essential in our lives aren’t bringing us joy on the whole.

Take eating out, for example. Many people do it because they see it as quicer and more convenient than eating at home. They can just drive to a restaurant, sit down, place an order, chat with their dining companion, get the meal, pay, then go home. Easy enough.

But when you start adding up the time invested there, it becomes less of a joy (trust me, I’ve done this a lot). For us, it takes fifteen minutes to drive to a decent restaurant. Five minutes to park and get seated – assuming no wait. Another five to ten minutes to place our order. Twenty minutes or so before we get our food. Another fifteen minutes to eat. Ten minutes to get the waitstaff to bring the bill, pay the bill, and leave. Another fifteen minutes to drive home. That’s an hour and a half just to eat out.

At home, I can have a meal from scratch on the table in fifteen minutes. It then takes fifteen minutes to eat and ten minutes to clean the table. That’s forty minutes – and you can, of course, tack on more time if you want to prepare something exquisite. Even then, though, you’re still not competing with the time investment of eating out.

Considering the much higher cost of eating out at a quality level comparable to what I can prepare at home, it was often the case that I found I was basically spending $15 to sit somewhere outside the home for half an hour.

So I cut it. Instead of eating out several times a week, we eat out perhaps once or twice a month now – and it’s only done as part of a family day out and about when we don’t expect to get home until very late (with the kids falling asleep in the back seat).

Do I miss it? No, not at all. I didn’t give up the part I loved, which was eating a delicious meal with my family. Once I gave the idea of not eating out all the time a chance, I started cooking quick meals at home a lot more – and I got better at them. Now, I can produce some pretty good food very quickly, so the food quality isn’t a question. We’re also often finished with all aspects of dinner an hour faster than if we eat out, so we have more time to do things like play a game together or watch a movie together.

What’s my point? Our lives are like a river. They flow through the channel of assumptions and priorities that we set for them. If we begin to alter those assumptions and priorities a little, sometimes the river will fight that change in flow, but most of the time, it’ll happily shift course and find that this new path is even more serene than the old one.

Here’s another example: bookstores. I used to be utterly addicted to bookstores. Twice a week (at least), I’d stop at a particular local bookstore not far from where I worked, browse for a while, and usually walk out with a book or two.

At the time, this seemed normal and quite enjoyable. I couldn’t imagine life without lots of fresh, new books to read. When we had our financial low point, I couldn’t even imagine cutting out this “habit.”

Several of the frugality tip lists I read strongly encouraged substituting the bookstore for the library, but my mind was already made up. Libraries were boring places that smelled like mice and I wouldn’t enjoy it. I basically pushed myself into going, simply because I was willing to try anything.

Lo and behold, I walked out the door with two books I really wanted to read under my arm (along with a big pile of personal finance ones). For free.

And the path of my river changed. I started using the library all the time. I discovered PaperBackSwap. And I gradually slowed my bookstore stops to a crawl. Now, I visit a bookstore once every couple of months at most.

The net result of that? I didn’t give up what I loved – reading books. I still had a big pile of fresh new ones to read. What I gave up was spending a lot of money on them – a big relief, indeed.

For me, the advantage of going minimal is not to give up the things you love. It’s to figure out what about them you truly do love. When people say, “I can’t possibly give up cable,” why is that? Are they afraid of losing a specific program? Or are they afraid to lose those lovely evenings that they enjoy in their comfortable chair or on the couch snuggled with their partner watching a show they both like?

If it’s the latter, why not ditch cable, hook your computer up to your television, and watch some shows off of Hulu? Or get a Netflix streaming subscription for just a few dollars and do the same? That way, you keep the experience you love – watching television from your comfortable chair – without the inconvenience of a hefty cable bill each month.

Alternately, you might find that you’re throwing money towards things that you think you should care about (likely because others around you do), but internally, you don’t really care about them at all. Cut these behaviors out of your life. Engaging in things you don’t really like because you think others will like you because of it is a sure path to unhappiness – and a sure path to an empty wallet.

Strip back your life. If you get rid of something you truly, deeply miss and can’t find a way to replace it, bring it back. The whole purpose is to figure out what you really do value (which are things that are perfectly fine to spend money on) and the things that you really don’t value. Often, there’s a ton of grey area in our lives between these groups – and that grey area is lost money that brings us nothing in return except heartache and missed opportunities.

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