Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Rose Lounsbury.
How many towels do you need? This was the surprisingly life-changing question I faced on a Saturday afternoon in early 2012, as I scrutinized my linen cupboard.
I had just started on a minimalist journey, inspired by my 1,500 square foot house that could no longer comfortably contain the possessions of me, my husband, and our three 2-year-olds (yes, you read that right… triplets).
A few weeks earlier, we’d returned from visiting out-of-state relatives for Christmas with a van absolutely packed full of presents. As I walked into my house and assessed our already stuffed surroundings, a slow, frightening realization came upon me:
We didn’t have room for the things we already owned. Where was I going to put this new stuff?
I felt defeated and overwhelmed. I knew the gifts had been given in love. I knew they were supposed to make me and my children happy. But more than anything, they added stress to my already stressful full-time-working-mom-of-triplets life.
Luckily, though, a change was coming.
About a week after Christmas I had lunch with a good friend, and I explained my problem. I thought the solution was to either buy a bigger house or allow no one to buy my kids Christmas presents again, ever.
But my friend looked at me between bites of soup and casually suggested another idea, “Or… you could just become a minimalist.”
I immediately thought of monks living in a cave or college students traversing Europe with all their possessions on their backs or black-clad hipsters lounging on white couches in apartments that doubled as art galleries. None of that sounded like my real life in the Ohio suburbs with three kids, two cars, and a mortgage.
But my friend reassured me that minimalism was just a philosophy, a less-is-more approach to living, and that any modern American could adopt it. Skeptical but intrigued, I went home and started reading. I was hooked.
Which brought me, a few weeks later, to January of 2012, when I went to put away some towels in my linen cupboard and asked myself the aforementioned life-changing question:
How many towels do you need?
Now I want you to realize, this wasn’t the first time I’d asked myself questions about my stuff. Unbeknownst to me, I’d been asking myself questions about my stuff my entire life (and you probably have, too).
But those questions sounded different. They sounded more like this…
“Rose, how much stuff could you AFFORD to buy?” I was a dedicated closeout, clearance, and coupon shopper, always scouring the racks for the best “deal” I could find.
Another favorite: “Rose, how much stuff could you FIT in here?” I used every spare inch in my snug home to cram in as much as possible, often resorting to space saver bags and bins stacked precariously high in my attic.
And, finally, the Big Daddy of them all, the question I continually asked every night as I spent hours putting away toys, shoes, sippy cups, and errant paper: “Rose, how could you better ORGANIZE this stuff?”
I thought organizing was the answer, the Holy Grail, the thing that—if I could just master it and buy the right bins with the right labels—would solve my problem. I’d finally have the home in the magazines. I’d finally stop feeling like every day was a continual battle between me and the chaos.
But that Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t asking myself any of those questions. That day, fresh in my nascent minimalist awakening, I was asking myself a very different question:
Rose, how many towels do you NEED?
That’s the kind of question that just might change your life.
The answer was surprisingly clear: two per person.
Which immediately felt wrong. Because if you passed third grade math you know that’s only 10 towels for a family of five, which certainly wasn’t the number of towels I’d registered for on my Bed, Bath, and Beyond wedding gift registry. It wasn’t the number of towels in my friend’s homes. And it certainly wasn’t the towel message I received from Better Homes and Gardens magazine. They were telling me I needed pink towels for spring and yellow towels for summer and towels with festive reindeer prancing across them for Christmas! Ten towels just didn’t feel right.
So, I did something I rarely do. I entered the sanctum of my husband’s man cave on a Saturday afternoon (aka prime sports-watching time) to ask him a very serious question, “Honey, is it okay if we have just 10 towels?”
Josh paused. He looked at me for a long time. I’m certain that during this time he was deeply pondering the critical issue of the towel supply. He eventually responded with a somewhat confused, “Yeah, I guess. I mean, that sounds about right.”
That settled it. Ten towels.
Now remember… that was EIGHT YEARS ago. In that time, I have not increased our number of towels and everyone in our family has been dry when they needed to be dry.
This early venture into minimalism taught me two very clear things:
- I can live with a lot less than I think I can.
- I can definitely live with a lot less than society tells me I should.
In my closet right now, you would see five bath towels—because the other five are in use. You would also find 5 pool towels on the bottom shelf. So yes, technically we have three towels per person: 2 bath towels + 1 pool towel. The surprising thing about this is that my kids are on a swim team every summer and we’ve gotten by on this number of towels.
The most interesting thing about minimalism is how it changes my mindset.
Every June when I see the pool towels on sale at big box stores, I think, “Maybe I should just buy a couple more.” But then we get through the swim season just fine and I’m reminded again of lessons #1 and #2.
My towels are just one example of minimalist thinking. After I decluttered my towel cupboard, I went through the rest of my house, asking myself different variations of that original question:
Rose, how many coffee cups do you need?
Rose, how many pairs of shoes do you need?
Rose, how many boxes of holiday decorations do you really need?
And slowly, over a period of almost one year, my home physically transformed. My cluttered corners turned into open spaces. My formerly crammed cupboards had room to breathe. My now unstuffed drawers opened and closed easily.
So yes, my home looked neat and tidy, but that wasn’t the point. That wasn’t why I kept doing what I was doing. The reason I kept doing it was because of how I felt. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I felt free. I felt at peace. I started to find myself, at the ends of my long working + parenting days, relaxing on my couch instead of frantically picking up my stuff.
So today I want to encourage you: ask yourself a life-changing question.
Insert any word you like (towels, sweaters, hammers, wine glasses, email subscriptions, volunteer commitments, etc.) into the blank space:
How many _______________ do you need?
My wish is that this simple question starts you on a journey toward a more peaceful life, full of the possibilities of open spaces.
Cheers to less stuff and more you!
Rose Lounsbury is a minimalism and simplicity coach, speaker, and author of the Amazon bestselling Less: Minimalism for Real. Rose spends her days speaking, writing, coaching her clients and online students to stuff-free freedom. Rose’s advice has been featured in USA Today, and she’s been a guest on Good Day Columbus, NPR, Good Morning Cincinnati, and Living Dayton. You can find her online at RoseLounsbury.com.
I don’t understand this either.
I’m a white plate person, buy occasion center pieces, servettes etc. Works for me with no clutter in cupboards for the rest of the year.
Love this! Currently looking at downsizing. I’m coming to the realization my daughter and I simply have far too much (mainly clothes & towels / wash cloths). I just bought our first house—a modest 900 sq ft two bedroom house.
Some of our surplus was previously a necessity. In an apartment complex with 60 units & 4 washers / dryers it wasn’t uncommon to find all the machines in use during the time frame I had the availability to do laundry. Often one or more was out of order. Going to a laundromat in town wasn’t always possible. We needed plenty of clothes & linens to see us through in case it was a while before we could get laundry done. Our new home has a washer & dryer in it. There is also a laundromat about a block away (just in case).
We’ve downsized our bedding to ONE set of sheets each (mattresses will just be uncovered for the laundry cycle), we didn’t really have “an abundance” of sheets before—three sets each, but to make the best use of storage space it just made sense to have only one set of sheets each. No need to store extra sheets.
Towels & clothes are next on the list. Neither of us need 9 pairs of pants, 12 shirts / tops, 4 pairs of pjs, etc. Nor do the two of us need 15 towels (that’s just what we’ve unpacked thus far, I’m sure more are lurking in boxes yet to be gone through). I like the idea of a couple per person plus one for the pool. Our city swimming pool might as well be in our back yard, less than 1/4 blocks away, so I’m sure we’ll be frequenting the pool during summer. Wash cloths we may actually legitimately need more of those (I don’t reuse wash cloths for my body and I do need plenty for kitchen use & household clean-up).
I don’t use the same towel more that one time, so I have 6 towels for myself, 6 for my husband and 6 for my son and 6 in the guest room just in case family member want to stay for the weekend or longer. When they start looking old or in bad condition I replace it. Same thing with bed clothes, dishes.
Towana Fuqua says
I was taught that if you have bathed thoroughly, you are only drying clean water off of your body, and if you hang your towel to dry, it can be reused a couple of times. I just never dry my face on it after using it on my body — just in case.
Kraye B says
Where can 5 towels be hung to dry? How can a family member know which is their towel? Unless each member has a different color. My towels co-ordinate with the bath itself.
Marleen B says
Love this. Very true.
McKenna Jaymes says
I took care of my elderly mother for the last few years of her life. When I moved in with her, I was overwhelmed by her ‘stuff’ – collectibles, antiques, out-dated food, multiple sets of silverware, etc. But, most notably, tucked away in many cabinets throughout the house, were towels. I was fascinated and disturbed. I was writing a blog at the time about caring for a parent with dementia. I wrote:
“There is a cupboard (with two shelves) full of towels, yes, kitchen towels. Where I would put the pots and pans, next to the stove/oven, there are dozens of dish towels, dish cloths, tea towels, wash rags, etc. In fact, throughout the course of my move, I discovered that my mother is some sort of towel hoarder. The linen closet in the hallway has at least a dozen bath towels and hand towels. Her bathroom has a shelf that also holds at least a dozen towels and wash cloths. The cupboard above the toilet in the hall bathroom had nine bath towels in it. I had nowhere to put my toiletries. I lived with only a toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant for a few days, until I finally started pulling towels out. I suggested we sort through them and give some to charity. This includes show towels. If you’re not familiar with ‘show towels’ then your mother wasn’t proper, just kidding. These are towels that occupy one or two racks as decoration. They are not to be touched, not even to dry your hands after using the sink. They are only for show. I have never understood this concept. But looking at my mother’s kitchen and bathroom as objectively as possible, everything is for show – nothing is functional. She balked when she saw me putting away a British ceramic teapot covered with a crotched tea cozy. “When was the last time you used this teapot?” … “Never, it’s for show.” She also has a kettle on the stovetop, even though she uses an electric kettle. “It’s blue, it goes with the canister set.” Don’t get me started on that damn canister set. It’s taking up valuable real estate meant for cooking utensils!”
I have two bath towels, one in use and one in the laundry, they rotate every week. If I have a guest, then I wash both together. I have a hand towel at every sink, and two kitchen towels which I mostly use as pot holders.
Apologies if this is insanely long or inappropriate, but reading about towels made me think of my mother, whose been gone since 2019. I just wanted to share the insanity of towel hoarding and ‘show towels.’
“my mother is some sort of towel hoarder”. I broke out laughing when I read this line. I was a towel hoarder. Specifically tea towels and dish cloths and oven mitts. I had a huge stash that was never used but they did have a purpose. I bought a house that had a horrid kitchen that was in desperate need of gutting but I could not afford to renovate at the time. I would appease myself by buying some nice things for “my new kitchen” that I would get someday. I did eventually get a lovely new kitchen but I still have more tea towels than I could ever use.
My mom has dementia and I’m her “carer” . I’ve desperately tried to try and get her to donate things after personally feeling the freedom of a minimalist life. But poor dear mom cries and gets confused and thinks someone is stealing her things. I’m realizing that for HER, in this last season of life, minimalism isn’t freedom, but fear of the unknown. So I’ve taken it off my list and am enjoying the time I have left with her and the memories that some of these excesses can spark in her.
That is very sweet of you. You ca continue minimalist ways once she’s gone but for now enjoy your time with her. 💞
Heather C says
“ I discovered that my mother is some sort of towel hoarder. ”…..This made me laugh so much😂 thanks I needed that 😂😂