Note: This is a guest post from Craig Stephens of Retire Before Dad.
The fundamentals of minimalism resonate with me today because of a period of my life when I lived well with few possessions.
In my 20’s, I left my career to go backpacking in Asia and Latin America. During the 14 months of bumpy bus rides and cheap hostels, I could travel more freely with a lightweight backpack.
After a few months into my trip, I had reduced my backpack to less than 40 pounds by eliminating all the items I wasn’t using or wearing.
The backpack carried everything I needed and nothing else.
This period was among the happiest of my life.
Now that I’m in my early 40’s, a bigger home, parenting, and the proceeds of a successful career have led to the accumulation of more possessions than our family needs.
I’ve struggled to declutter unwanted items and failed to fully convince my family of the benefits of owning less.
I feel the burden of material objects every time I walk through our basement.
My wife and I envision a life where we are free to travel or live abroad as we wish. But with our current home and the possessions inside, we’d be hard-pressed to pick up and leave on short notice.
Though we’ve changed our mindset and made some progress in reducing the number of items in our house, we still face hurdles every day.
I am telling my story here, not because I have everything figured out. Quite the opposite.
I am sharing my story to highlight the obstacles I continue to encounter on my journey toward minimalism—a life I desire, but struggle to embrace.
Here are five struggles of this aspiring minimalist:
Our family uses unnecessary timelines to justify keeping stuff in our home.
Each spring, our neighborhood organizes a yard sale. It’s a perfect opportunity to sell unwanted items and teach our kids about money and household decluttering. We encourage our kids to participate by selling toys they no longer play with and they keep the money.
But we’ve become too reliant upon the event.
The neighborhood sale becomes a reason to build up clutter in our basement and procrastinate removing it from our house. There’s always a pile waiting for the yard sale in the spring. Unfortunately, its construction begins in the summer.
One year, we were out of town the weekend of the sale. The pile sat untouched for another twelve months.
The same is true for a bi-annual children’s clothing consignment sale at a local church. Stacks of plastic bins full of kids clothing are always accumulating until the next sale.
Overall, organized sales are great for eliminating clutter. But they should not be an excuse to delay the removal of unwanted items from the home.
The best day to remove unneeded items from your home is today.
Parting with Items of Value
Parting with items that have a known value can feel like throwing away money.
For example, I kept two rare band t-shirts in my possession for 25 years because they were worth about $30 each on eBay.
I never wore them and felt no sentimental attachment to them. Yet, I failed to prioritize the time to sell the t-shirts online.
$30 wasn’t worth the time and effort to photograph, post, ship, and pay a sales fee. But since I knew the shirts were worth money and they didn’t take up much space, I kept them in my drawer crowding the t-shirts I wore.
Most of the clutter in our homes used to be money. The items we buy lose some or all their value the moment we purchase them.
Items that retain some value usually aren’t worth the effort to sell them.
Sometimes it’s best to let go and accept that the time it takes to extract value from something isn’t worth it. The donation may even become a lucky find for a teenager at a local thrift store.
That’s where my old t-shirts ended up.
My wife understands the concept of minimalism and is frugal by nature, but she isn’t as eager to reduce our household items.
She grew up in a home where her parents kept everything and still do. In comparison to both of our parents, we’re already minimalists.
Our opinions on what is needed in our home differ.
This is especially true when considering the removal of items that might be useful in the future.
If an item might be useful in the next three to five years, she’d prefer to keep it handy in a nearby drawer. But if it’s unlikely to be used frequently, I prefer to store it somewhere out of the way or maybe even get rid of it. Why get rid of something you’ve already acquired if you may need it in the future?
Certainly, many items such as high-quality tools or kitchen appliances should be kept for future use. But items that pile up and might never be used, such as our growing collection of rainbow unicorn birthday gift bags, are probably not worth keeping around.
There’s a balance.
Additionally, we communicate our differences and are slowly finding a balance in our household. But I’ve realized my preferred level of household simplicity may never overrule the will of the majority.
Knowing that the task is large, I’m hesitant to get serious about eliminating clutter from our house.
Closets, toy storage, and desk drawers are easy to clean and don’t take much time. But once the low hanging fruit is gone, I avoid attacking the real trouble spots.
I’d rather be at the pool with the kids, on a weekend family excursion, or working on my side business.
The benefits of decluttering are well-known. But setting aside the time to achieve those benefits is a challenge.
It’s an upfront time investment that pays dividends over the long-term. But I choose to do other things with my time. Without prioritizing enough time to remove items from our house, more stuff accumulates.
This goes beyond sorting through old boxes and separating items into donation or trash piles.
Selling larger items via online classifieds takes a lot of time and effort. Each piece needs to be photographed and posted. Then you need to monitor the listing, field inquiries, and set a time to complete the final transaction.
Each step takes time, cutting into weekend leisure. So I often choose to begin the selling process another day.
Instead of delaying the task, I try to remind myself that time spent minimizing possessions frees more time in the future and immediately creates a better living space for our family.
Our children love presents and our parents love to give gifts for birthdays and holidays.
My mother believes it is her right to spoil her grandchildren. When I’ve approached her about cutting back on toys, she declares that watching the excitement of her grandchildren opening gifts is among her greatest joys in life.
It’s not the gifts that bother me, it’s the volume.
We are grateful to have generous and loving parents who bring joy to our children’s lives in many ways, gifts being just one of them. But the inflow is a struggle despite our efforts to make room for the next wave of toys.
Asking her to buy fewer gifts introduces friction in our relationship. Instead, we provide specific toy suggestions that are more likely to be enjoyed and come with fewer individual pieces.
Still, it’s hard to stay ahead of the volume, especially during the holidays. Our kids, ages seven, five, and three, quickly grow out of clothes and lose interest in toys. Inevitably, outgrown clothing and tiresome toys end up in bins in the basement, waiting for the next community sale.
To cope with excess toys in our home, we’ve implemented toy rotations, asked the kids to consign toys to the yard and church sales, and donated unused toys to charity.
Many of our struggles are a byproduct of the season of life we are in. In the past eight years, we moved out of a small apartment into a single-family home and had three children. These events led to dramatic inflows and outflows of stuff.
Now that we’re likely through the baby years, we can remove an entire category of items from our house. However, prioritizing the time to do so is more challenging as the kids become engaged in activities.
Though I’m nostalgic for the days when I lived out of a 40-pound backpack, my life today is far better thanks to the people around me. Our family life requires a lot more stuff than what a 26-year-old backpacker needs. But removing clutter and spending less time cleaning and organizing gives us more opportunities to enjoy each other’s company.
And just because there’s space, doesn’t mean it should be filled. As Francine Jay puts it, “You home is meant for living, not storage.”