An Epidemic of Stuff
For most of human history, an idea like minimalism (only owning things that added immediate value to your life) just couldn’t really exist. Practically everyone was a minimalist out of pure circumstance. Humans only owned things they needed. Most people in the United States have access to stuff our ancestors couldn’t have ever imagined. And thanks to online shopping, and even same day shipping, we can have the stuff without having to ever leave our couch. And with credit so ubiquitous in our society, you don’t even have to actually pay for it when you order it.
Some of the statistics surrounding how much stuff the average American owns is disgusting, but frankly not surprising for anyone paying attention. I’ve highlighted a few below from Joshua Becker’s article over at Becoming Minimalist:
- There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times).
- The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).
- 25% of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them and 32% only have room for one vehicle. (U.S. Department of Energy).
- 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally (UCLA).
- The average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year (Huffington Post).
- Currently, the 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe account for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent (Worldwatch Institute).
All of this stuff isn’t free either. Americans are saddled with absurd levels of debt. The average American household has $5315 in credit card debt (Debt.org), and 69% of Americans have less than $1000 in savings (GO Banking Rates).
If that’s not enough, visual clutter can turn our homes into sources of stress and anxiety, rather than a place we come to feel safe and relaxed at the end of a long day (SAGE Journals).
Our possessions aren’t just bad for our mental health and our finances, it’s bad for our communities and our environment.
Our stuff ends up in storage units:
Total self storage rentable space in the US is about 2.3 billion square feet. (That figure represents more than 78 square miles of rentable self storage space, under roof – or an area well more than 3 times the size of Manhattan Island (NY).
Some 65% of all self storage renters have a garage but still rent a unit; 47% have an attic in their home; and 33% have a basement. (Key Storage).
Our stuff ends up in landfills:
The U.S. is the #1 trash-producing country in the world at 1,609 pounds per person per year. This means that 5% of the world’s people generate 40% of the world’s waste.
Out of every $10 spent buying things, $1 (10%) goes for packaging that is thrown away. Packaging represents about 65% of household trash. (USI).
Meanwhile, the world is literally burning up. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the “United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change”, released an alarming report in 2018 stating we have roughly 12 years (so 9 now…) to make sweeping changes to our society to avoid the most damaging effects of climate change.
“The report highlights a number of climate change impacts that could be avoided by limiting global warming to 1.5°C compared to 2°C, or more. For instance, by 2100, global sea level rise would be 10 cm lower with global warming of 1.5°C compared with 2°C. The likelihood of an Arctic Ocean free of sea ice in summer would be once per century with global warming of 1.5°C, compared with at least once per decade with 2°C. Coral reefs would decline by 70-90 percent with global warming of 1.5°C, whereas virtually all (> 99 percent) would be lost with 2°C.” (IPCC report).
Global warming is calculated vs. pre-industrial levels. For reference, we surpassed 1°C warming in 2017 (IPCC FAQ, pg. 7).
At some point within our or our children’s lifetime, climate change could render our consumer way of life impossible. We collectively in the United States have too much stuff. It’s destroying our wallets, our mental health, and our environment. Minimalism as an idea exists in response, and as a remedy, to this epidemic.
What Exactly is Minimalism?
Although there are many definitions and interpretations of what “minimalism” means, I would define it as being intentional about what you own, and only keeping things that add value to your life. As you’ll notice, that is quite broad. If you’ve come across minimalism and dismissed it before, you’ve likely seen pictures like the one below.
Beautiful, sure, but not very practical. I have a small collection of board games (that we play regularly), a few books, and plenty of other stuff, and I would still consider myself a minimalist. I also have a wife with slightly different values when it comes to material possessions and a toddler running around. I’ve learned to find a balance. Also, as counter-intuitive as it may seem at first glance, extreme minimalism can be quite expensive.
The point is, there is no one right way to implement minimalism into your life and it will mean different things for different people. Some people value different things, have hobbies, live with lots of people, and so on, and that’s okay. The “right” amount of stuff is subjective. However, we all could gain something from the process of evaluating the things we own and being intentional about what we choose to keep in our lives and even purchase in the first place.
I’m sold, where should I start?
Minimalism is an ongoing process, a mindset, and a lifestyle. It’s not something you do in a frenzy over beer and pizza one weekend (although that might not be a bad starting point). It is about becoming mindful of what we own and getting rid of things that don’t add value to our life. And of course, stopping the in-flow of useless stuff in the first place. And the principles of minimalism can be applied to other things in our life. Hobbies, our work, relationships. Always be asking the question: “Does this add value to my life?”
That being said, we have to start somewhere.
I’m going to steal some advice from perhaps the most famous de-clutterer of all time, Marie Kondo. I’m pretty sure she doesn’t use the word “minimalism” in any of her work, but she could definitely qualify as one. She suggests we start by getting rid of things that likely have the least sentimental value working up to things that hold the most sentimental value. This way we are building our “letting go” muscles during the process. By the time we get to boxes of old photos of our grandparents, your first grade report cards, and your collection of old hockey cards (all things that hold a lot of sentimental value) we are well-honed, letting-go machines. And for most of us, clothes are the things that hold the least sentimental value.
To roll with the “Marie Kondo method” for a bit, find every bit of clothing you own. Every. Last. Item. Lay them all out in a single place, like the living room floor. Pick up each item individually and ask (in Marie’s words), “Does this spark joy?”. I find value in that phrase because she’s not saying not to own anything or try and pretend we don’t enjoy some of the things we own, but rather just hold on to the things you genuinely find joy in. It also implies that if you are you going to add anything to your life in the future, it should also “spark joy” to make the cut.
More practically your internal dialogue might sound something along the lines of, “Do I wear this regularly, and do I enjoy wearing it when I do?” Of course, there are things we may genuinely need, like a uniform and work boots for our job for example. Everything else we should throw out, sell or donate (preferably donate so you can get rid of it quickly and have as small an impact on the environment as possible).
Hopefully by the end of going through your closet (and everywhere else in your home you may be keeping clothes), you will be inspired to tackle something else. And it should hit you how often you buy clothes you don’t really need.
Now of course, the “Marie Kondo Method” is not the only strategy you could employ to pare down your things. I personally did not pare things down in one fell swoop, but rather it was a gradual process. One shelf or surface at a time, one room at a time. The process continues to this day, and likely will continue for my lifetime. “Does this add value to my life?”
If anything, take away this. Organizing the mess isn’t the solution. That doesn’t get at the root of the problem: we own entirely too much stuff. On top of that, most of that stuff doesn’t serve to improve our lives. Buying a bunch of boxes to put your useless stuff in doesn’t change the situation.
I got rid of my stuff, now what?
Now it’s about stopping the in-flow of new stuff. Take that same tactic you used while going through the things you already owned. When you find yourself contemplating a new purchase, take a moment to reflect and ask, “will this add value to my life?”.
Assuming the purchase isn’t something like groceries (and frankly, these skills could be applied at the grocery store too), a fairly common strategy that I like to implement is to just walk away from it (or close the app and put the smartphone down) and let it sit for a few weeks. If you’re still really craving that purchase, perhaps it is something you may truly need and would in fact add meaningful value to your life.
But that doesn’t mean you should buy it. Try some other methods first. Depending on what it is, are you able to make it? Borrow it? Rent it instead? Can you fix one you already have?
For example, one thing I have a decent collection of are tools. Most tools I own are multi-purpose and serve a wide variety of functions. A hammer, a drill, screwdrivers, etc. They find their way out of the toolbox very often for a wide variety of projects. However, I was working on a small home improvement project that needed a nail gun. I most likely wouldn’t use the nail gun more than once or twice a year. Purchasing one would have been more convenient from a time perspective, but it would be very unnecessary to own one. I was able to borrow one for the weekend from a friend who happened to already have one. I’m sure I will return the favor at some point.
Another big source of incoming stuff in my household are gifts. I am extremely grateful for the generosity of my family and friends, especially when it comes to their support of my daughter. We have had to buy very few clothes and diapers thanks to all of the hand me downs and gifts we received. However, we also ended up with two toy boxes full of very well meaning but unnecessary gifts of stuffed animals and dolls. I had also continued to receive gifts well into my 20’s from well meaning parents and in-laws that added little value to my life and inevitably ended up in the donate pile.
Rather than let this go unaddressed, I shared with my family members my values and what my goals are for both myself and my children. For myself, I tell them, “don’t get me anything, but if you must here are some charities I support”. That has been hit or miss. I also like to inform them, “experiences over stuff”. Buy me a round of golf, a trip to the movies, a short weekend getaway. These are gifts that will create memories and be something you and your family member or significant other can enjoy together.
And when it comes to our children, directing my family’s loving energy and desire to give and support has gone a long way. For example, my mother-in-law has yet to show up to the house without a bag of stuff she managed to acquire in the few weeks since we last saw her. But now she knows what we need and what our values are. Rather than more stuffed animals, we are getting educational toys and clothes our daughter will grow into in the coming months. Win, win, win.
There are lots of other ways things find their way into our lives. It’s okay to own stuff, just always be asking, “Does this add value to my life?”
So now you’re a full-blown minimalist. Your home is clean and inviting. You have exactly what you need and it’s all in its proper place. You have less mental clutter. Your bank account is a little healthier. And you’re helping to save the world.
Now what you do with all that extra time, energy, and money? That’s where minimalism really pays off.