Financial Planning for Geeks

Give Minimalism a Chance

- Potpourri

Wait, wait…hear me out. Don’t go away just yet.

A color drawing of a deer
A deer in nature

“Minimalism” may have 10 letters but it’s kind of a four-letter word. It can bring up some pretty negative connotations, such as deprivation and scarcity, and it can provoke images of a white, sterile space with nothing in it: cold, spare, and unwelcoming. The good news is that there are as many ways to do minimalism as there are people, because we’re all different. I would like to make a case for minimalism, in whatever form it might take for you.

Believe me, I was not the first person to jump on the minimalism train and there are many areas of my life which are decidedly NOT minimal. But to the extent that I’ve applied what I’ve learned about minimalism I do find it freeing. It simplifies my life so I can spend more time on what really matters, rather than maintaining a bunch of possessions or putting energy into activities that don’t line up with what I care about.

My latest foray into minimalism started with Marie Kondo, who helped me distill some of my overabundance of crap into a reduced set of things which bring me joy. I ran into the idea again after watching “The Minimalists” and “Minimalism” on Netflix. Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus took me a little further with these films, helping me question what I truly value and why.

So what IS minimalism? According to The Minimalists (Millburn and Nicodemus), there is no hard and fast definition, because minimalism expresses itself differently for everyone. But for them, “minimalism is a tool to rid yourself of life’s excess in favor of focusing on what’s important—so you can find happiness, fulfillment, and freedom.”

So it’s a tool for getting rid of what is excess for you, but there is no strict set of rules. The Minimalists offer a free, 21-day journey you can take to implement your own version of minimalism, starting with how to make decisions and ending with reflection on what you’ve learned. They also offer free resources to help you on your way. I love that they have a Values Worksheet, because this is one of the first things I advise clients to do when they kick off the financial life planning process.

In lieu of repeating a process or resources, I thought it might be fun to take you through a little more of my own journey. I grew up thinking more stuff and more money were always better, money was a finite resource (a lake rather than a river), and working until my fingers bled for 8,000 hours a week was the only way I “deserved” to get paid. I had a serious case of The Lacks. That’s some context to help you understand my battle with maximalism…or maybe I should call it affluenza.

Fast forward to 2003, when my husband, Andrew, and I bought our house in Golden, CO. To be precise, we chose all the finishes and watched as it was built for us. We went whole hog: 3,200 square feet, four bedrooms, a walk-out basement, and 2/3 of an acre of land on open space facing the Flatirons. Friends, it was beautiful! Deer would come up to our living room window and gaze at us curiously while bluebirds flew, singing, around my head. OK, that last part is from some Disney animated film, but the deer were real.

This was our first lesson in minimalism: there were TWO of us. Just the two. I think a grand total of three people ever came to visit us in the three-and-a-half years we lived there. There is no ever-loving way we needed a house that big; it was outrageous. We never even went in most of the rooms. Anyway, we were fortunate enough to sell that house in August of 2006, just before the housing bubble burst, when Microsoft moved us to the Seattle area for my work. Lesson learned.

When we finally bought our condo in the Seattle area, it was a much more manageable 1,150 square feet and had no yard at all. Now, I will readily admit that I would love to have a kitchen which could accommodate more than one person at a time, but I am SO happy with our current home. We spend almost no time cleaning or maintaining it, and a lot more time walking down to the restaurants and bars in our little downtown area, hanging out with friends and spending time together.

My further forays into minimalism have happened haphazardly and not necessarily in a neat sequence. For instance, I have always loved a clothing bargain, and eventually wound up with two pretty full closets, not to mention all the drawers. I’ve found it hard to part with the clothes that I might someday need because I might be thinner or heavier. I’ve found it hard to part with the shoes I might wear if I ever go into an office again. I was one of those people who had clothing with the tags still on, hanging in the closet. Well, no more. I’ve been through Wave 1 of the Great Clear-Out of 2020 and am now working on 2021’s Wave 2. Huzzah and check my before-and-after pics!

A bunch of boxes and bags full of extra stuff
A clearn, tidy area in a bedroom
After, and yes, the piano stays!

I have also always loved free stuff. If there was a swag bag at a trade show, you could count me in. If friends were cleaning out their cupboards, I could probably take that casserole dish they weren’t using. And when our local watering hole used to have Brewers’ Nights, Andrew and I won literal metric tons of beer-branded t-shirts, caps, bottle openers, and glasses. Oh, the glasses. We had pints (US and Imperial, natch), jars, flutes, goblets, pilsners, weizens, tulips, snifters, chalices, and steins, oh my! We could have started our own bar.

You may recall that I said our current kitchen is very small. This means we don’t have a lot of room to store beer glasses. They started to migrate into other areas of the condo, like the garage and under the bed and in the dresser in the spare room. After receiving my most recent kick in the pants from Fields Millburn and Nicodemus, I pulled out all but a handful of the most special glasses. It took a couple of large boxes, but we donated those glasses to Value Village and we didn’t even miss them. And don’t get me started on what a “mature” woman was doing wearing beer-branded t-shirts. Those went, too, along with the plethora of other tchotchkes (with Andrew’s approval, of course).

Those are just a few examples of the things in my life I needed to examine and clear out. Some others included kitchen gadgets, paperwork, and books. I found that once I got started thinking about my possessions in one category, I’d catch the minimalism bug and start looking at other categories, too. I started to enjoy looking in my cabinets and seeing extra space. I felt good that I could see my most-loved clothes, instead of losing them in the tightly-packed disarray that was my former closet. Perhaps not coincidentally, as I let go of things we also shed our debt (except for the remainder of our mortgage and the lease on our moderately-priced car).

And now the more I let go, the easier it gets and the more I want to let go. I have more time for myself and Andrew and the people we love. I breathe more deeply, have better focus, sleep better, get less distracted, and am able to stay a little more mindful and present. As I reread all of the benefits I’ve realized from my dabbles in minimalism, it's almost like I’ve been taking a Magic Life Improvement Pill...and it didn’t even have side effects.

So that’s my pitch. If you want to take a few tentative steps into minimalism, I suggest you start with The Minimalists and read as much as you can in some of their guest posts. You will find the approach and philosophy which are most helpful for you, and that’s what it’s all about. You’re not going to have the same issues or results or feelings as I did, but I truly hope you benefit as much as I have. And I’m just getting started, baby!


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Penny Farthing

I, Penny Farthing (non-wizarding name Kerry Read ), actually have a day job in the world of finance. This blog came into being because of my deep and abiding love for geeks and Personal Finance.