I hear it every week–the anxiety women feel about keeping up with their homes. This should come as a surprise, because housekeeping has never been easier. We have machines that clean the floor, the dishes, the laundry. Machines to cook the food. We have running water and electricity and store-bought clothes. This is reality, yet to hear me talk, you’d think I was a scullery maid, not a SAHM with grocery delivery service!
Yet the women* I talk to express great angst about their homes. Too much clutter. Too many toys. Too many clothes. So many rooms to paint. So many house projects to get the home “updated.” And so much guilt if you ever feed your kid fast food or hot dogs on a busy night.
Yet the solutions we often hear don’t always serve us well: Simplify. Declutter. Tidy up. One in, one out. Create a capsule wardrobe. Choose minimalist decor. Meal prep.
Insofar as any of these lifestyle trends decrease stress, I’m all for them. Challenging excess consumerism and fostering contentment are worthy goals. Owning less and simplifying our space and schedules can make our lives so much easier. However, I sense many women are more stressed by these trying to attain to illusive ideals, than by the “problems” these ideals try to solve.
For example, my parents never seemed stressed by the generous amount of toys we had as kids. Granted, the toys weren’t allowed to live in the living room. But with 5 kids, plus others my mom babysat, and neighbor kids, having a lot of toys was useful and fit with the season and situation we were in.
Sometimes I long for the 90s, when purple paint, green carpet, and knickknacks abounded. Back then you could feed your kids Kool-aid, send them outside unsupervised, then welcome them back to a toy-strewn home and a Kraft Mac-n-Cheese dinner without feeling like you were failing as a parent.
Either you’re thinking, “The horror!” or “Those were the days!” And either reaction is a pendulum response to the modern narrative of a beautifully curated life. The counter-narrative we need to preach to ourselves each day is, “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.” This was one of my biggest take-aways from visiting India, where the people I met just made do with whatever they had and seemed pretty grateful for it, too.
So where is all this “lifestyle stress,” as I’ll call it, coming from? After all, women’s magazines have always depicted impractical aesthetics as ideal. Now, HGTV, Pinterest, Instagram, and other forms of media spread trends with a speed and force like never before.
Yet it’s not our surroundings, our wardrobe, or even healthful meals that will make our lives work. These things appeal to us for many good reasons, but also because they give us a sense of control. If I can just control how my house looks, or how I appear, or what I eat, then I will be in control and life will work smoothly. I promise you, it won’t. You can’t plan your way out of life’s messiness.
Of course, being healthier and less materialist are absolutely good goals. But living under a weight of anxiety over not living up to the fable of these lifestyle trends is not healthy. And it can become reverse-materialism when we spend so much time thinking about stuff–having the right stuff and getting rid of the wrong stuff.
I, too, get stressed out about tidying my home. But one thing is certain: I will never get it even close to perfect. With the help of my husband, I’ve accepted that we will own more now than in any other period of our lives. We will have more mess. And that’s okay. Being a young family is a season, one filled with fun, giggles, and ridiculous amounts of toys. It’ll all go away someday, and we’ll probably even miss the Legos and paper crafts everywhere.
Realizing this doesn’t mean the angst all evaporates. But if you continue to struggle with lifestyle stress, I suggest trying some of the following:
- Take a break from media that reinforces ideals you don’t buy.
- Focus on defining the values you do want to live by. For example, isn’t being hospitable better than having a perfect house?
- Write down 5 things you’re grateful for each day.
- Take a break from non-essential shopping, so you can practice contentment with what you have.
- Reflect on what appeals to you about certain ideals. Identify what’s helpful and unhelpful about these ideas, and how you can apply what serves you and discard what doesn’t.
- Serve someone outside of your comfort zone. It may bring some perspective, as well as joy, to your life.
Amazingly, Jesus addressed worry over these same topics over 2000 years ago: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” Check out the rest of Matthew 6:25-34 for his solution to this age-old problem.
*Do men feel this way too? I have no idea.
Have you experienced this “lifestyle” stress? What ways do you fight these feelings?
My coffee maker broke. As fate would have it, I’d stayed up too late the night before and my toddler woke up an hour early. She then proceeded to poop her pants while I took a quick shower. After cleaning up that mess, I frantically pushed the coffee maker’s power button. I fiddled with every moving part, turning the machine in various positions like a woman in labor. Alas, nothing happened.
What do you do when something breaks, and can’t be fixed?
- Go to the nearest store and replace it immediately.
- Buy one on Amazon that day.
- Compare prices on several web sites and order one later in the week.
- Search Craigslist and buy-sell-trade pages for a couple weeks.
- Hope you find it at a garage sale, hand-me-down, or in the trash.
Choices 2-5 are all pretty good options, in my opinion. But there is another, less considered option that we’ve found by practicing a wait period.
We all know the importance of waiting to make purchases. Give yourself time to think it over, asking do I really need/want it? Can I really afford it? Is it worth the space it’ll take up, as well as the cost? Is it worth the opportunity cost?
When planning a new purchase, we often take time to research it. Maybe you ask around to see if anyone has a lead on a good deal, a giveaway, or feedback about the best brand or type.
But when something breaks, we often reflexively replace that item without thought. If I already owned it, I don’t need to go through the agonizing decision all over again.
Except, why not? There are certain possessions that I’m 100% sure I want to own. Coffee maker is certainly in that camp. Ditto for a phone. But when one of nine lamps in my house broke, I realized…I don’t need nine lamps. Maybe eight will suffice, at least now.
We’ve waited on replacing even big items like cars and furniture as well as smaller items like home goods, clothing, or toys.
Broken or worn out stuff is an annoying inevitably. Yet therein lies the perfect opportunity to minimize, simplify, or deflate your lifestyle. Rather than rush out and buy a new one that day, or asking Amazon to mail you one, implement a wait. Unless it’s super important, wait and see if you really need to replace that object.
Naturally, the very first step is trying to fix it. We love free and broken stuff, which means we love fixing stuff. Okay, Neil loves fixing stuff, and I love cheering him on. But if Neil can’t fix something (or doesn’t know someone who can), I know the object in question is probably a lost cause. The man has skillz.
Your ingrained consumer instinct is to get new thing ASAP. Maybe a better one. As per constant barrage of marketing, broken = opportunity to upgrade. It’s the lifestyle inflation that feels totally justified. After all, you need a new one!
Every time something breaks or wears out, you face a consumption crossroads. You can 1) inflate your lifestyle, 2) maintain your lifestyle, or 3) deflate your lifestyle. Discerning the right move requires a bit of time.
What if you waited? One of these beautiful things might happen:
You realize you don’t need it. One of our glass end table tops broke when a vase fell on it. First of all, who needs a decorative vase? That thing had to go. Secondly, who needs all these end tables? We didn’t replace our end table, and I can’t say I’ve missed it. (It’s twin is still going strong, far away from ceramics armed with potential energy.)
The bigger the belonging, the greater opportunity for savings or lifestyle deflation. Who knows? You might not just save yourself the initial cost of replacement, but the ongoing costs of maintaining and replacing in the future as well.
You get a free one. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve wanted something and then I came by it for free or very cheaply. It happened just last week, though I was replacing broken toys for our church nursery, not my own home. Whether it’s replacing an item, or just a new want or need, free rules! There’s hand-me-downs, gifts, give-aways, and tree lawns. Because we’re not above trash-picking.
You get a great deal. We all know how sometimes during that wait you find a better deal than you ever would have at traditional retailers. When one of our cars broke, we waited a month to buy a new one. While this arrangement might not work in our current situation as it did then, it allowed us to find a great deal on a (very) used car which cost us only $5/month to drive.
You get creative. When I suggested we buy our son a CD player for his audio books, my husband thought he had an old one in his “electronics lab” (read: boxes of cords and broken electronics collecting dust in my basement). He fixed it up by adding a second power plug.
This is just a smattering of examples, and I know I’m not the only one who waits on purchases. Who’s realized they didn’t need something, or found a freebie, great deal, or creative solution rather than going the traditional retail route? Share your stories!
To minimize or not to minimize? That’s not really the question. The crux lies in why you’re minimizing.
Like frugality, simple living, or values-based spending, minimalism must be viewed as a tool in order to be effective. Owning less stuff is hardly a worthy life direction. Getting rid of clutter cannot make your life meaningful. Meaning makes life meaningful.
Meaning means you’re doing something significant on this planet. Something worthwhile. It means having a purpose. But figuring out your purpose is whole lot harder than cleaning out your closet, and I suspect this is why many more articles are written on the latter.
I won’t pretend I can tell you what your purpose should be, though you can check out some overarching principles in the post “How to Pursue Happiness” (hint: pursue purpose instead). I will share that our purpose is very much related to living out our Christian faith. This means we value involvement in our church, hospitality, and poverty relief.
Let me illustrate how your purpose might shape how you practice minimalism. If you want to be a minimalist so you can be generous, maybe you won’t be the type of minimalist who spends $300 on the perfect bag to end all bags. You’ll keep your three bags, while spending minimally in order to help the poor.
If you are the type of minimalist who has downsized forever, you probably need to buy that $300 bag because you don’t have room for three bags. And you’ll save much more than $300 by downsizing.
But if you’re the minimalist who highly values hospitality, you may not downsize. And you’ll keep more furniture and more toys or kitchen appliances or linens. But you’ll avoid adding unneeded stuff to make room for more people.
If you’re the minimalist who loves to DIY, you’ll have more tools. If you’re the minimalist with lots of kids, you’ll have more stuff than the minimalist without a large family. Okay, enough examples?
It’s been said plenty of times that minimalism looks different for everyone. But it doesn’t look different randomly. It should be different for a purpose. Linking your choices to your bigger picture will free you to own your choices about what to own and spend.
I largely curtailed recreational shopping when I read Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger at age 18. Suddenly browsing clearance racks at the mall for clothes I didn’t need seemed absurd. Helping people in poverty became part of my purpose, which changed my spending and owning habits forever. I’m certainly not the most generous person, but having a deeper motivation helped me change my consumption habits for the long haul.
Once you determine that purpose, start asking if the things in your home fit that purpose. I don’t care whether my possessions bring me joy. I don’t think the point of possessions is to evoke emotions. They are there to serve my purposes. My kitchen’s contents allow me to produce many healthy, homemade meals each week. They also help me to host and feed many guests throughout the week. My dishes hardly enrapture me, but they sure are useful.
I can tell you one possession that does not give me joy: the giant Rubbermaid tub of hand-me-down Legos. There’s stepping on Legos. Seeing my basement covered in Legos. Telling kids to clean up the Legos. Helping the kids clean up the Legos. But I could never get rid of the Legos. They’ve helped make our house a place where kids want to come. They’ve served as a way for me to bond with my son. And they foster my kids’ creativity and development. They may be annoying, but those little pieces of plastic serve my purposes so well.
The framework of purpose helps us use minimalism as a tool for a greater good, rather than falling into materialistic minimalism. After all, it is purpose, not possessions, that truly brings us joy.
How has your purpose influenced your consumption choices?
I felt a bit frazzled during a recent purge. It was all worth it when my mother-in-law, a total neat freak, noticed that “you’ve been cleaning up lately” after seeing my basement. “All the rooms are so clean!” Music to my ears.
There are approximately one million articles about the benefits of decluttering , and I contributed one or two to that mess. I genuinely enjoy clearing our home of excess and find it makes life easier in the long run. However, there are some drawbacks I’ve experienced throughout the process.
I imagine these are the very reasons people stop short with this task, or don’t get around to it in the first place, so let’s just all acknowledge that decluttering and minimizing is hard! And that’s why we need one million articles reminding us why it’s good.
So don’t to be surprised when it’s hard. This is all a normal part of the process. Here’s what I experienced:
- You will neglect other chores. Dishes, laundry, yard work, vacuuming…something’s gotta give if you’re going to go through all your things and then sell or donate some of the excess.
- You will feel more stressed initially. The joys of owning less are more of a long-term promise. In the short-term, you will actually feel more stressed out or overwhelmed as you make time ot go through your stuff, and have to make decisions about what to pitch. After you’re done, you’ll have a backlog of laundry and other chores to catch up on.
- You will think about stuff too much temporarily. Minimalism promises less focus on material possessions, but the actual process of minimizing requires thinking about stuff more. I found myself absentmindedly thinking about whether I needed to keep a particular item when I should’ve been focused on other things.
- Your kids will not cooperate. They’ll make crazy messes while you try to reduce the mess potential of your home. Especially with the stuff you are trying to go through, which will make it tempting to keep that stuff because they’re playing with it! They also might request stuff back after it’s entered the donation truck! You know, stuff that they told you they hated and never use. This was a little embarrassing but the attendant was very kind about it.
- You may have to go over an area more than once. I’ve gone through my closet and kitchen twice this year, and I always find more I can part with. Something I may have been on the fence about 6 months ago can probably go if I haven’t needed it in that time. I’d love to minimalize once and for all, but realistically, it’s more of an ongoing process that gets quicker and easier each time.
- Your house may not look that different. If you have children or a messy partner, they will continue leaving stuff around the house. Even if there is a lot less stuff in your home.
- You may not be able to find stuff. The second half of decluttering is supposed to be organizing. But sometimes when you do a lot at once, it’s hard to find it next time you need it! It took me 10 minutes to find Neosporin after moving our medicine cabinet. I’ve also found myself looking for clothes I got rid of.
- Your kids will cry months later, too. You know the toys they never touched, so you gave them away? When my kids spot those in old pictures, they suddenly spout tears and profess their eternal love for that item. Although the storm passes, it’s not my favorite part of decluttering.
- Your spouse may not like it. Just because you’re on a mission to clear your space doesn’t mean the rest of your family will automatically be on board. And there may be some areas that are simply off limits. It doesn’t matter that I don’t think my husband (a cube-dweller) doesn’t need 5 pairs of old, dirty pants for working on cars. He thinks he does, and it’s not worth marital strife to fight over “minimalism.”
- You may regret some purging. Out of sight, out of mind? You won’t even miss the clutter? Sometimes I wonder if I got too over-zealous with a few items, especially when I find myself looking for them. In the long run, it’s insignificant and I could replace the item if I really wanted to. I’m sure I hang out to more that I don’t need, than vice versa.
Lest my warnings de-motivate you, let me remind you of just a few of the many benefits:
- Someone else can use it. Whether I decide to sell, donate, or just give it to a friend, I love knowing someone can put my excess to to good use.
- Find what you need easier (in the long run). I’m not just talking about finding rarely needed items in a basement box. I’ve decluttered my kitchen and now it’s so much easier to find the items I need every day.
- Less to clean. I still have plenty of messes to tackle but clearing out the extra toys, clothes, and household items means there is less for my children to make a mess with!
- Use what you already have. I was longing for a new summer dress when I found one I’d forgotten about in storage. And I’m a lot more likely to actually wear it now that I’ve donated the stuff I never wear.
- Freedom from the burden of maintaining and storing stuff. Less stuff (to a point) means more flexibility.
- Your mother-in-law might be impressed, or even think you’re a cleaner person than you actually are!
How you experienced any difficulty with decluttering? What is your favorite benefit?
What if ads showed the true landscape of over-consumption?
We all know ads tell lies to twist us into spending. Yet their manipulative power is hard to resist. A useful frugal hack is picturing a new purchase in your home, rather than the sleek, minimalist settings depicted in ads. That stuff is not coming home to a vacuum. There’s nothing sleek or minimalistic about buying stuff you don’t need, and no matter how pretty something appears in a display, it’s not going to make your home look like a Williams Sonoma spread.
I find it immensely ironic that ads portray sparse and immaculate scenes, when over-consumption only creates cluttered chaos. No one gets rid of all their equivalent possessions as soon as a new purchase crosses their threshold. Advertising sells the double lie that more stuff will improve your environment when it’s more likely to over-crowd it.
Here’s the Kohl’s ad that triggered this tirade:
Those two plush toys look so cute, simple, and minimal here. But who in the world has only two plush toys, one book, and one blanket on their kids’ shelf? These toys almost look like they put themselves away. Believe me, they didn’t.
Of course if you want or need something, buy it! I’m on a shopping-ban ban. But surely we don’t need to let these ads fool us into thinking that buying more crap is going to somehow make our homes look better–more orderly, organized, or peaceful. More stuff has just the opposite effect, just as buying a new outfit isn’t going to magically shrink your waistline to match that of its Photoshopped model.
More stuff doesn’t make you or your home skinnier. It just adds to the madness. This is why the minimalists are minimizing. So let’s just have fun critiquing a few ads:
Who the heck has a White Couch? If I bought a white couch, it’d stay that color for about 5 seconds. Especially next to a honey wand! Worst idea ever.
I don’t have a cream pitcher (or whatever those things are called). Will the one pictured make my table this pretty? Not a chance. We’re still working around the Thomas & Friends placemat. And am I the only one with multi-chromatic possessions? Maybe that’s why none of my shit matches.
The ad shows the drill literally in a vacuum. I guess that makes sense. It’s the only reason I can imagine why the pieces are all in the same place. I know nothing about drills, except that their habitats typically look more like chaos of my garage, in which any given tool can rarely be found when needed.
New electronics are also pictured in a blank white space, without the maze of cords, cords, and more cords emanating from my existing electronics.
Where are the cords?! That should be considered false advertising. Also not shown is this sleek machine’s dusty future with the loosely curated collection of antiquated computers drawn by an unseen force into my basement. It just seems wrong to add to this disaster:
Much of frugality is about simply not buying when you don’t need to. I’m comfortable with purchasing well-thought-out wants as well. But getting a handle on why you shop, and how to resist the million and one ads we’re assaulted with daily, goes a long way toward spending less than you earn. And that is the secret sauce to gaining financial flexibility. It’s much of what we mean by pretending to be poor—living below your means to leave room for options like saving, investing, giving, traveling, and volunteering.
Next time you’re faced with a decision over a purchase, look beyond the ad and visualize your own home. Will that purchase solve a legitimate and ongoing problem? Or will it add to existing problems like debt, clutter, and distraction? Only you can answer that, but I encourage you to ask.
I hope I haven’t tempted anyone with those marketing masterpieces above. Hopefully that last image scared any consumer lust right back out of you.
What are some other lies ads sling? Do you have a trick or mantra that helps you resist over-spending?
A new movement toward minimalism is emerging. People are building tiny homes, skipping Black Friday, turning their hangers around, and holding all their possessions in their hands to determine which items bring them joy. People are selling, donating, and trashing the not-joy stuff. And we are picking it out of the trash.
Reclaiming Our Basement
The Pretend to Be Poor household hasn’t been impervious to all the Joy of Less Junk hype. We’ve been wanting to increase our basement’s usefulness by creating a guest room with a bed my mom gave us. Our summer free time was consumed with a massive home repair and my India trip, so the project got delayed. But when we had to turn down a friend looking for a temporary place to stay due to our basement’s disarray, we knew we should prioritize the project.
Thus we embarked on our mission to 1.) increase usefulness while 2.) decluttering. My husband finally tackled several boxes of God Knows What that have been collecting dust since we got married almost 10 years ago. While untangling his fourth box full of cables and cords, he admitted he has a problem.
“I had no idea it was this bad,” he said, extricating a SuperNintendo controller from 100 yards of Ethernet cable. We do not own a SuperNintendo. Or a football field. He was allowed to keep one pager and a walkman in his box of ’90s artifacts. It all comes of marrying an electrical engineer, I suppose. At least he keeps a tidy budget spreadsheet.
After devoting several 1-hour increments to rearranging furniture, divesting ourselves of antiquated electronics, and unwinding furlongs of cords, we were riding a decluttering high. We felt very pleased with our progress and proud of the more useful, open space in our home. I started showing it off to unfortunate guests, who probably thought, “Um, still lots of cords.”
For my friends who did not have the awesome privilege of witnessing firsthand the 10% less cords, my decluttering high led me to brag about how much stuff we got rid of (3 old computers!), and how I even got Neil to undertake the cords. I probably made more than one wife jealous over that one. Sorry.
And then I realized—I’m obsessing about stuff. And that’s materialism. My de-owning high was almost identical to the thrill of consumerism. A new purchase feels exciting and important at first. You want to show it off and tell people about it and what a great deal it was, and why it was the perfect choice. You might even make someone jealous. And if you have too much stuff, all your friends are probably thinking, those look just like the boots you already have.
When Minimalism Turns Materialistic
I’m glad we got more organized, found stuff to donate and sell, made our basement more usable. I’m glad many Americans seem to be replacing insatiable materialism with a more contented minimalism. But I have to confess from experience that an inordinate focus on minimizing, at least in the short term, can end up being rather materialistic. We’re most at risk of minimalism going wrong when we absorb its practical pointers without embracing the philosophy of simplicity behind it.
Let me qualify such an irreverent proposition. I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart. When I was a kid I used to go through the old crayons to find all the colors I needed before the beginning of school, rather than asking my mom to buy new ones. I used to build tiny homes with my LEGOs. I used to say that when I had kids, I’d give them one teddy bear and a library card, because that’s all you really need. (Read here why I still believe the library is a secret weapon to a less-clutter home.)
But then I married a cord-hoarder, bought a house, had two kids, and didn’t have time to keep my possessions streamlined. Our frugal reputation must precede us, because we’re constantly being offered whatever others are jettisoning. I am extremely grateful to be part of a community of friends and family that shares goods. And to be fair to my cord-loving lover, I’ll confess I’m over-stocked on books, clothing, and kid’s toys. But at some point recently I shifted my default response to Free from “Sure!” to “Thanks, but no thanks. I have enough stuff!” If it’s something I currently need or want, or will need in the near future, I’ll gladly accept. But I’m trying to pass on more than I receive now.
There certainly are lots of benefits to owning less, including:
- Less to clean up.
- Less to store and maintain.
- Less to lose.
- Makes stuff you need easier to find.
- Better-behaved children (according to Super Nanny).
- More creative children (according to our moms).
- More useful space (i.e. guest room!)
- Looks nicer—I love uncluttered space.
- Allows unused items to be used by someone else–and may generate income if sold.
- Helps set a limit on lifestyle—you realize you don’t need to keep buying stuff. And you don’t need a bigger home or more storage space.
- Helps you enjoy and value the possessions you actually use.
- Reduces decision fatigue/simplifies everyday life.
Clearly it’s better not to be drowning in jetsam. But isn’t there a danger of minimalists’ thoughts being equally consumed with Not Stuff as the materialist is with Stuff? Just as a person with an under-eating disorder may have a view of food that is as unhealthy as a gluttonous person. I believe many minimalists avoid extremes and are focused on living the good life, but sometimes people glean nothing more than a reverse materialism from a more transcendent message. Minimalism gone wrong can be a life equally centered on material possessions, and this is what I’m calling us all to avoid.
A Pragmatist’s Solution
So for prospective minimalist converts, the de-owning process might involve a whole lot of thinking and dealing with stuff. I suppose that’s fine, but if I’m forced to choose between sorting through my junk or doing activities in line with my larger goals in life—like spending quality time with a friend, studying for a Bible teaching, or playing LEGOs with my kids—the junk can wait. Isn’t that what junk drawers are for?
People have proposed asking yourself “Would I keep this if I was moving in two weeks?” to determine which possessions you really need. If I’m choosing to spend time organizing a particular area of my home, this hypothetical is super helpful. But sometimes I can barely get the dishes done, and since I’m not moving in two weeks, I don’t need to angst over my unread copy of 17th Century Verse or a basement box of old video games.
It amuses me that some of my friends view me as a minimalist, while others are almost appalled at how much I own. It’s all relative, and if we’re honest, we all struggle against materialism in one form or another. I strive not to be a minimalist or a materialist, but hope to be a pragmatist. I’ll gladly own more stuff if it serves my over-arching purposes, such as hosting, being generous, occupying my kids so I don’t have to entertain them 24/7, making my life easier to a point (can you say microwave?), or if it may save me money in the long run. For example, I’m hanging on to my professional wardrobe in hopes that it’s not too ill-fighting or outdated when I return to the workforce in a future life when my kids are in school.
So what’s the practical take-away?
Declutter for a purpose–making better use of your space, selling or donating unused items, or making your life and home way more functional. (How about donating money you get from selling old stuff?)
Don’t declutter to keep up with the minimalists or strive for a magazine-perfect home. You have better things to do with your time. Focus on your bigger purpose, rather than Stuff or Not Stuff.
Release the guilt about those shoes that only match one dress, or that box of old wedding cards in your basement. If you have time and want to tackle it, by all means do. Provided you wouldn’t qualify to be on Hoarders, your possessions of questionable usefulness probably aren’t hurting anything. With excessive cord and cable collections as a notable exception, since they are almost certainly driving your wife crazy.
Have you ever found yourself consumed by minimalism? Do you have other tips for striking a healthy balance?