Wednesday , July 17 2019
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Frugal Minimalism: Do Less, Buy Less, Worry Less, Live More

I’m currently engaged in what can only be described as a battle with our basement. When we moved to our homestead last May, we established a mentality and practice of minimalism in our home. Mr. Frugalwoods and I eliminated just about every object that we don’t actively use on a daily basis. As we unpacked, we only removed things from boxes that we find ourselves in need of regularly. And I wish–fervently, in fact–that I could take my own advice and establish a practice of minimalism throughout my entire house (ahem, including the basement… ), but that has yet to come to fruition.


Having Only What We Need

throw pillowsWhat didn’t we unpack? Here’s an example: throw pillows. Back in Cambridge, I had this elaborate array of throw pillows on our bed that I had to take off every night and reapply every morning after waking. What a waste of time! Mr. Frugalwoods and I made the unanimous decision when we moved that we’d no longer be slaves to such worthless time sucks.

No one even saw these pillows except for Mr. FW and me and we both thought of them as a chore. How dumb is that? We first wasted money buying those pillows, we then had to purchase a bin to store them in while we slept, we had to clean them periodically, and ultimately, they came to represent a dreaded daily chore. All because I thought we should have throw pillows. Because on Instagram people’s beds have throw pillows. And on HGTV, everyone waxes about their lovely throw pillows. But I didn’t want throw pillows. Mr. FW certainly didn’t want throw pillows. They evolved into nothing more than a pointless waste of time, money, and energy. And so? Our bed is now happily sans throw pillows.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with throw pillows. In fact, you might love your throw pillows! For me, however, I came to realize that I only had throw pillows because I thought I should have them, not because they brought me lasting joy. I’d become a servant to my material possessions and I was owned by my stuff.minimilized home

As we unpacked our moving boxes last year, I realized we have TONS of possessions that represent this loss of time, energy, and money that we’d previously surrounded ourselves with. Decorative vases and candles that must be dusted and cleaned, table cloths that must be washed and ironed… the list of futile home decor items goes on. In an effort and a desire to simplify our lives–and give ourselves back hours of time each week–we decided not to unpack these things. We streamlined. I still have vases of flowers and candles strewn about, but in a greatly reduced iteration.

I love our minimilized home. It’s comfortable, it’s beautiful (in my opinion), and most crucially, it’s functional. It serves OUR needs. We are no longer servants to our stuff, we no longer feel hemmed in by clutter, and we have everything we need easily accessible. It’s also true that our home is largely toddler-ized. In light of the fact that we have a curious, inventive, creative, exploratory 20-month-old in our household, things like precarious end tables with glass bird figurines balanced on top are nothing more than a death wish. I’m a firm practitioner of leaning into the phase of life you find yourself in.

Since our phase of life is currently “parenting a toddler,” we’ve structured our home environment to match. We don’t have to follow Babywoods around from room to room in a panic that she might pull some artifact or piece of furniture down on top of herself. Rather, we’re relaxed in the knowledge that our furniture is secured to the wall, breakables are beyond her tiny grasp, and she has plenty of books and toys to examine down at her level. There’s no joy or pleasure in militating against your present condition. Wherever you find yourself on your life journey, sinking deeply–and gratefully–into that phase will yield the greatest level of contentment and ease.


If Only I Followed My Own Advice…

baby spring house flower

That’s the good part. You may now be thinking that I–like some frugal sage–then gave away all of this unneeded extra stuff. Right? I just took it all to Goodwill and never thought about it again. RIGHT?! Wrong. So very wrong.

Beholden to an unrepentant packrat gene that courses through my blood, I ferreted it all away in our basement, following in the footsteps of my grandfather and my parents before me who both had basements of towering, mountainous junk. Mr. FW and I piled box after box of stuff that we decided we didn’t need (on a regular basis) down in the depths of our basement. Why oh why didn’t I just get rid of it all?!

After a year of allowing these partially unpacked boxes to languish in our concrete basement, I’m organizing them. I’m tackling the colossal, perilous piles of rifled-through moving boxes that made walking through our basement reminiscent of an obstacle course. There were so many boxes down there (many of which contained roughly one or two items… ) that stepping off the staircase was becoming a problematic proposition of where to place one’s foot. That’s just embarrassing.

But now, I’m sorting through the contents of each box, and at long last, setting aside things to give away. Why is it so hard for us to let go of material possessions? I know that for me, a large component is my desire not to buy things again. It’s something of a sunk cost fallacy.

I’ll never be a true minimalist for exceedingly practical reasons: we might need it someday. I have sets of sheets we received as wedding presents nine years ago that I’ve never taken out of their packages. I keep them because I know that one day, our current set of sheets will wear out and we’ll need another. To me, this is practical frugality. But what about all the candles and vases? Why can’t I just let them go? When we own things, we tend to imbue them with a greater sense of importance because we feel invested in their ownership. Letting them go, however, is a form of liberation and a means of cutting our shackles to ultimately meaningless material possessions. However, I counter this with my pragmatic frugality–it makes no economic sense to get rid of bed sheets that we’ll use in a few years’ time.


Stop Doing

What I’ve discovered during this past year of living with less stuff is that I’ve embraced an ethos of own less, do less, buy less, and as a result, live more. Just as I’ve stopped wasting my time tending to clutter in my home, I’ve also stopped doing quite a few activities I used to do that ultimately brought me stress.

There’s an exhaustive list of things we’re all apparently “supposed” to do everyday, but that we may or may not enjoy or even require for our survival. There are some things we should do even if we don’t particularly enjoy them (brushing our teeth, exercising), but then there are things we can let go of. That we can simply choose to stop doing.

I stopped shopping. Clothes and home decor were my two worst offenders in the shopping category and I used to spend an unbelievable amount of time, energy, and money in pursuit of these things. I’d cruise through thrift stores in search of yet another dress or yet another funky vase for the kitchen table. I had no need for this stuff and I didn’t particularly enjoy shopping–but it was an activity I’d always done and always assumed I would do.

Three years ago, I stopped. I didn’t do anything fancy or wild, I simply stopped shopping. And I became happier. I was less stressed because I wasn’t always on the hunt for something. I became less anxious because I wasn’t constantly surrounded by things I didn’t own and that I thought were better than what I did own. I spent less money (my initial goal) and I became more content with the things I do own. I never realized the stress and anxiety that regular shopping caused me until I let it go.


Frugality Takes Less Time

Through my shopping cessation, I came to realize that in many instances, frugality actually takes less time than non-frugality. There’s a myth that a life of frugality is more time consuming than a life of consumption and in some specific instances, I’d say that’s true. But my experience is that, on the whole, frugality takes less time. Why? Because there is so much less to do and to worry about and less to militate against. Much of my frugality pertains to simplicity and how I can streamline my life in order to make it more efficient.

Take, for example, the fact that I do not buy clothing and haven’t for over three years.


This saves me:

vacation walking

1) Time.

I’m not dashing in and out of thrift stores trying on clothes with a toddler in tow, I’m not cruising the internet shopping for dresses on Amazon, I’m not even wasting time thinking about buying clothes or what I might need/want next. It’s just not part of my life. When–and if–I truly need an article of clothing (as happened with those winter boots last year), I buy it. But I don’t spiral into a frenzy of buying an entirely new wardrobe just because I need one item.

2) Stress.

I don’t panic about whether or not I have fabulously fashionable clothing for every single social event of the year. I wear what I own and I focus on wearing things that are comfortable and that I enjoy. I really don’t care if I’m in style or not. I think I look nice and I’m happy with how I dress.

If other people care, that’s entirely their problem–not mine. I no longer internalize the belief that I must define myself by how I dress. I define myself by my actions. By what I DO with my time, not by some articles of cloth that I use to keep warm and stay on this side of decency laws.

I’d much rather people judge me by what I say and what I do than by something so arbitrary as what I wear. And you know what? They do. Once I let go of defining myself by my outward appearance, I was able to connect with people in a more genuine way. I became confident, which in turn breeds happiness, which in turn spills over onto the people you meet.

3) Money.

This is the obvious one and it was the reason I stopped buying clothes in the first place. But it quickly became the least important attribute and benefit for me of not shopping.

There are countless other examples of how frugality saves us time: home haircuts take 15 minutes as opposed to the embodied time and cost of driving/walking/biking to a salon, waiting in line, getting your hair cut, and then driving/walking/biking back home. Cooking in your own kitchen takes far less time than driving to–and waiting at–a restaurant, and the list goes on. But the biggest time savers are the things that Mr. FW and I’ve simply stopped doing and stopped needing as a result of our frugality.

Think through your typical week and write down everything that sucks up your time. What on this list can you simply let go of? What can you simply stop doing? No major crises need happen, no transformative seismic shifts, just the simple acceptance that you no longer need to do it. Anything that felt like a hassle and that didn’t bring us fulfillment we let go of.

Simplification: An Ongoing Effort

This process of simplifying my stuff and my actions is ongoing. I struggle to strike the right balance between keeping things stashed away in my basement for future needs and my desire for organized, streamlined efficiency in our home operations. When we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Cambridge, MA, it was mandatory that we didn’t own more than could fit in our two closets. We gave stuff away like it was our job and were ruthless about what objects we allowed to enter our home.

Now, however, we enjoy the blessing and curse of ample storage space in our basement and barn. Almost everything we own is a hand-me-down or a supremely cheap garage sale or thrift store purchase, so it’s not a question of actual sunk costs. It is, however, a question of the fact that since I’ve stopped shopping, I now loathe the experience. I will do just about anything to not have to enter a store, including saving things for future usage. For now, I’m content with my process of sifting through everything we own and making a considered decision to either keep it or give it away. I’m proud of the massive pile of give-aways I’ve amassed and I’m equally proud of my organized, labeled storage boxes.

It’s easier for me to give up actions. To stop doing activities that aren’t fulfilling. I find liberation and freedom every time I identify some worthless use of my time that I can cease. The temptation to employ efficient use of my time is a powerful motivator for me and the fact that stopping these activities usually saves me money is a tertiary benefit. The most precious resource of all is our time–it’s what allows us to create a life we enjoy, build healthy bodies, experience our families, pursue our passions, and figure out the impact we want to have on our world. I refuse to fritter away my time–or my money–on anything that doesn’t facilitate an authentic, well-lived life.

What are you doing that’s expensive, time-consuming, stressful, and not fulfilling? What have you stopped doing?

About Abel Tom

Abel Tom
Buy less. Choose well. Make it last. Quality, not quantity.

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  1. Adventure Rich

    This article is very applicable to us right now! We moved from a 650 sq. ft. one bedroom in CA to our house here in MI last year. The sudden expansion of space certainly led to a less cramped lifestyle, but abled us to pile up items we did not use in extra closets and in the garage (similar to your basement). While there is still room for improvement, we ruthlessly cut through much of the clutter both before moving and after settling in, hauling away excess and suppressing our tendency to say “we can still use this, right?”.

    The result is wonderful. Our furniture consists only of the pieces we use, our house is also toddler friendly for our newly minted 2 year old (birthday this week!) and we have fewer “piles” forming around the house (of what? I have no idea… but we used to have lots of “piles” prior to simplifying). Our shopping is focused on our bigger needs or desires like saving for a tractor to help maintain our land or looking for a used canoe (found it!)… and beyond that, we just don’t bother looking. I have even removed the need to go to a store by using several grocery delivery services. With both Mr. Adventure Rich and I working full time, our time is precious and I do not want to spend my evenings and weekends battling crowds or being bombarded by potential impulse buys in the grocery store, so the cost is well worth it to me. It is a newfound freedom that we savor every day as we have more time to embark on spontaneous evening beach trips, stroll our fields, or watch the sunset.

    In a large part, this simplification has been inspired by your story and your encouragement to take the path less followed, embrace frugality and find the true joy life has to offer. Thank you!

    • buylcw

      Very well said! You make a great point about maximizing your time by minimizing your stuff and your shopping. Well done on staying so organized :). Makes such a huge difference with a toddler!!

  2. We, too, have a basement. I love home décor too, but stopped buying it as I simply love how my home is decorated (or, I should say, I simply stopped giving myself a budget for home décor, so I don’t even browse at my favorite internet stores). I do throw pillows and table cloths, they make me happy when I look at them, despite added work.

    As for the basement, we downsized about a year plus ago and there are so many boxes yet. When the kids are at school in a few more weeks, I am going to spend a bit more time tackling this basement once and for all. I have been chomping at the bit. Plus, I want to sell some expensive stuff we got at our wedding (note: we didn’t do a registry but my MIL felt compelled to create one for us, sigh) to make money for Xmas.

    Great article!

  3. Mao

    I love love love this article and this is exactly how I thrive my life to be. Even though my girlfriend is still not a big fan of going minimal. Especially when it comes to kids, people spend so much time and money buying stuff their kids don’t really need instead of just spending time with them. I believe the kids will grow up with more meaningful relationships with their parents.

  4. My wife and I have been decluttering ever sense her mom passed away. Having to go through and throw out so much junk from her mothers house taught us that we didn’t want the same experience for our children. It took over a year to clean out all my mother in laws stuff. So now we try to only keep stuff that we use on a daily basis. It’s saved us a ton of time and we’re much happier.

    • Jennifer

      Yes! When my grandparents passed it occurred to me how much “stuff” they owned. Much of it, they’d planned to pass down but the truth is a lot of what they had was miscellaneous stuff no one needed (like a can opener or toaster) and, of the things that could be passed down 90% of it wasn’t anyone’s style or people had no room for. Their intentions were good but it occurred to me that they couldn’t take any of their material possessions with them. Aside from a few sentimental pieces, whatever enjoyment they got from these things was gone and now everyone else had to deal with paring it all down. I swore my kids would not have to deal with the headache.

    • Tiger Lily

      Agree 110%! When my father in law passed away suddenly my husband and I had to go clean out his home to prepare it for market. Although it wasn’t QUITE a “hoarder” status case, it was close. (Example, we opened a linen closet to find shoebox after shoebox after shoebox neatly stacked and filled with…. wait for it…. cancelled checks going back to 1967!!!) CRAZY! We swore to one another that we would never leave this type burden to our children!

  5. Fiery

    I have never seen the benefit of throw pillows and have never bought them. I know they can make our bed look pretty, but only Mr. FAF and I can see them every day. We hardly EVER have any guest in our bedroom. I’m glad we are on the same page!

  6. “Throw pillows” reminded me of a friend who tactfully endured the dust ruffles her mother-in-law purchased and INSISTED every proper home have, even though she hated them. At least those don’t have to be moved to use the bed.

    Someone passed on advice to me once for dealing with “things you might need some day.” Estimate how many you need for the rest of your life, and move the rest along. Shirt buttons? Rubber bands? Flower pots? Sheets and towels? Craft supplies?

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