Minify by the Numbers

I’ve been thinking about what it means to live a pared down life. How much is too much? When is it good to have a spare, and when is one enough? Here’s the current state of things at my house, for comparison’s sake:

  • Number of wrist watches owned: 1 (Timex Weekender)
  • Number of bike panniers: 1, but sometimes I think a second would be handy
  • Number of iChargers: 2, plus a car charger! 
  • Pairs of shoes: 15 (yikes! this is definitely too many)
  • Purses: 2 (one big enough for school books, one little one for weekends, both casual)
  • Raincoats: 2 (a sporty one and a work one)
  • Winter coats: wayyyy too many – I have a vintage coat problem. No, really. I have a Skittles rainbow of vintage coats, and can’t bring myself to part with many…I think there are at least 8.
  • Pairs of jeans: 6. WHY DO I OWN 6 PAIRS OF JEANS?!
  • Black pants: 1 (my closet makes no sense)
  • Pottery place settings: 8, less the pieces we’ve broken…
  • Boxes waiting to go to the thrift store: 5
  • Cars: 1 (shared), plus a farm truck waiting to come live with us
  • Bikes: 1 (mine)
  • Sweaters: at least 20
  • Sweaters I actually love: about 5
  • Alarm clocks: 1 (shared)
  • Bookbags: 1, plus a messenger bag
  • Bedside tables: 1 (mine; Josh just doesn’t have one)
  • Pajama shorts/pants: 5
  • Bathrobes: 3 (winter; summer; kimono)
  • Fancy dresses: 4 (3 from bridesmaiding…)
  • Fancy pairs of shoes: 1
  • Board games: 13! 
  • Cats: 3, all foundlings
  • Dogs: 1 hound/lab mix
  • Fish: 11 (all cohabiting in one 30 gallon tank)
  • People: 2 (no housemates at the moment! It’s a new feeling. We’re still adjusting).
  • Lamps: 3
  • Computers: 1 of my own, plus Josh’s 2
  • TVs: 1 (we watch Netflix, but never real TV)
  • Rugs: 1
  • Curtains: 2, in our bedroom
  • Throw pillows: 0
  • Throw blankets: 4, all handmade by loved ones (and we use them!)
  • Candles: 3
  • Dog toys: 18 (Arlo is decidedly unminimalist)

So that’s the breakdown of stuff at our place. Some of it is very pared down (the shared car, for example, or the single watch), and some of it is NOT (how can I possibly have so many shoes?!) Project 333 has made me ever more aware of how much stuff I have, and how little of it I actually need or enjoy having. Simplicity, I keep reminding myself, is a process, not a destination. There’s a scavenger hunt happening on the Project 333 page for aspiring minimalists –  I think some of the steps (like 10 books, or 2 winter coats) would be really good for me, and others (throw pillows? we don’t have any) we’ve already gotten ahead on. This is my challenge for May: I will part with at least one winter coat, 5 books, and a kitchen item. And a pair of shoes!



Simple Living Tip #1: Reconsider Your Commute (Be a Citydweller)



The view from my usual seat

I’ve been thinking about the things J and I have done to simplify our lives over the last couple of years, since we started this whole Project Minify in the summer of 2010. We’ve learned as much about what not to do as what to do! In the interest of shaking things up, I’m taking a break from habit change and writing a series of tips (or lessons learned) about simple living.

One of the first things we did, even before starting the blog, was reconsider our commute. We knew in moving from Asheville to Chapel Hill that we wanted to change our driving ways. We were each commuting at least 90 minutes round trip from our cabin in the mountains into town for work each day.

When we moved to the cabin the first month we were married, we thought we would love living in the mountains, in 400 adorable square feet, among the trees and the wildlife. And wildlife we had – we heard owls and coyotes and saw all sorts of critters. I got to see an owl up really close when I hit it with my car. And that sums up what I felt about living in the mountains – I felt really bad about my destructive impact on the mountains I loved. (The owl glanced off the windshield one night as I was driving home. He lived, but he was really pissed off). I wanted to quit driving then and there (especially when I found out that the rural community in which I hit the owl was called Owl Town – I assaulted their mascot with my vehicle!). But what could I do? We drove everywhere. There was no walking, no biking, because we lived on a beautiful winding road where the speed limit was 55 miles an hour. Cars and transfer trucks regularly went 75 down our stretch (that’s 120 kph for you metric folks!) We had to stand behind the mailbox – as far as we could get from the street – and reach around the front of the box in order to safely check the mail. We were always in our cars. It was a 40 minute round trip to get groceries, an hour and a half to work, a minimum of an hour to grab a drink with a friend. We spent $600 to $800 a month on gas. So that affordable little cabin in the mountains, the super cute one with the really low rent? That’s a simple living don’t. Pastoral does not equate simple – we learned that quickly, and reinvented ourselves as urban creatures. Both sick of the auto-dependent lifestyle, when we moved, our first priority was a home accessible to local transit. Fortunately, Chapel Hill has an awesome free bus system, which runs all over town, six days a week (Sundays are our only auto-dependent day during our current ordinary week).

We live a little over a mile and a half from town/campus, which means we can walk or bike, but mostly, we bus it. It’s been one of the best changes we’ve made to our everyday lives. I love the free buses. I particularly love my regular bus driver. Here’s why: One semester my bus broke down on the way to campus. This doesn’t ordinarily happen. I was anxious about being late for class, as I didn’t have quite enough time to disembark and walk it with hopes of being in my seat before class started. My driver got on the radio and asked them to send another bus to get his passengers. When he heard that it was going to take a while, he got on the radio again. “You need to get another bus here now!” he told the dispatcher. “I’ve got to get these children to their school on time!”

We “children,” mostly med school and dentistry and allied health students in our twenties and thirties, rejoiced to have him looking out for us. He did indeed get us to our class on time.

The bus is full of fellow students, faculty, local residents taking the bus to shops to run errands, school children riding to after school programs at the planetarium, little ones catching the bus to daycare with their parents in the morning. We passengers include the local homeless population, the graduate student population, the business class in their suits with their smartphones. It’s a chance to read or listen to music or just relax on the way to or from work and school. My favorite part of the local bus culture is the tradition of thanking the driver as you disembark. Almost everyone does it – my favorite driver asks me how I’m doing every morning when I get on the bus, and wishes me a good day as I disembark, and I always thank him for the ride. It is, on the whole, a dramatic improvement over driving in my Honda (which I still have, by the way. It’s possible to make radical changes in your commute and keep your car, if you’re like me and reluctant to give it up). If you want to live more simply, this is the best advice I can give: think about how to change your morning commute. I know not everyone can do it, but for those who can, it’s well worth moving house to break free of the old automotive. Bus it, bike it, catch the train…you’ll be glad you did!

On Clutter Mountain

Today, I was mesmerized by this photo slideshow. It depicts the homes (specifically the clutter) of average middle class American families. I was struck by the garages full of stuff, the offices cluttered with old computer equipment, and the knowledge that there are drawers and closets in my house that would look equally chaotic and hoarders-esque if I let photographers into my own home. So today, we cleaned out drawers and closets, organizing and examining our possessions and asking the one question I’ve found helpful in minifying our lives: “Do I actually want to carry this thing around with me for the rest of my life?”

You see, it’s easy to imagine that you might need an object down the road. I found three pincushions, at least ten different rolls of tape (and an equal number of containers of glue) and about a billion pens, hair ties (the pup’s favorite snack) and embroidery hoops (I could equip a small army of cross stitchers…) They’re all useful objects, with value to someone…but how many of each do I actually need? Or want? I got rid of as many as I could comfortably part with. I suspect that I still have more than I need.

I’m not suggesting that we should get rid of the things we actually like owning many of. I’m the contented owner of many belts and scarves and photo albums, and I’ll be keeping all of them (at least until I become tired of them or they wear out. And the photo albums are here to stay).

The other question I’ve found helpful is “when is the last time I actually used/wore/read/watched this?” If it’s been more than a year, most items can go.The only exception is things with high sentimental value, like my husband’s great grandmother’s cake stand. Whether we use it or not isn’t the point – it’s an actual family heirloom, and it gets pride of place in our dining room. I’m not certain that the same courtesy should be extended to an old computer printer, or an extra chair, or a damaged dog chew toy, all of which also happen to be prominently displayed in my home as well. Those are the kinds of items I’ll be rehoming or repairing in the near future. Sometimes I wonder why we hold on to this sort of clutter at all. For my part, it’s either because something was given to me (the hardest sort of clutter to part with) or because I fall victim to the “what if I need it someday?” mentality. It’s a valid question…but I think we all often fail to recognize that we probably won’t need the item. Ever. Or that if we do, we’re likely to be able to borrow another or buy one secondhand when the day comes that we actually find that 1983 vacuum cleaner to be indispensable again.

We’re a culture of loss aversion. We don’t like for things to go to waste, we don’t like to part with the money we’ve spent. But the money we’ve spent on the objects in our homes is already gone. Spending more money on plastic containers to organize them is not a good investment. Giving them to someone who will get more use out of them than we will? That’s a good investment of resources indeed.

Finally, I’ve found inspiration boards and photos helpful. Instead of the photos from the clutter slideshow that I linked to at the beginning of this post, I’m working toward a home that looks and feels like this:

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