Category Archives: Thoughts

Giving up the need for control

Things around my house have been a bit chaotic, but in a good way.

In August we welcomed the birth of our son. He’s a wonderful blessing, and having a baby around the house has brought with it some interesting challenges on my minimalist path. Namely, babies require more things around the house (for the time being).

A newborn also adds some complexity until routines are established, especially with other children in the home. Toys don’t get picked up as often. Rooms don’t stay as clean. And, the regular stream of stuff leaving the house has diminished to a trickle.

It would be easy to think that this could turn into a time of frustration since it’s hampered my ability to downsize. Instead, I’ve taken the approach of using this time to appreciate my son, spend time with him, my girls, and my wife, and to know that I’ll be back in the swing of things before too long. And as he gets older, more baby things will be leaving the house for good.

I’m thankful for what I have accomplished to this point, because I’d be much further behind had I not started yet.

As part of my journey to give things away, I’m pressing pause and allowing myself to give up the need to keep pushing so hard to minimize. Now is a time for special moments. Things will be messy, for awhile. Life will be chaos, for awhile. Sleep will be minimal, for awhile.

And that is quite alright.

What moving day can tell you about consumption

Moving day junk

If the stuff in your house just ends up in the trash, why have it in the first place?

My cul-de-sac has seen a flurry of activity in the past week.

There are two really busy times of year for people in a college town like mine. The end of May is when a lot of the students move out, and near the beginning of August is when a lot of students move in.

It’s obviously not a one-for-one scenario, but those two times are usually quite active with people moving in and out of their rentals and finding new ones, either in town or somewhere else.

The trash pickup in my area is early on Wednesday morning. For whatever reason, some of the people moving out in the neighborhood didn’t get everything they were discarding out until after that. One of the things I like about where I live is the view from my bedroom looking out the window. But since last Wednesday afternoon, I’ve had to look across the street to see a pile of junk that didn’t make it out in time for trash pickup.

It’s an eyesore to look at, but it gave me something to think about.

Seeing these piles of junk left behind really gives perspective to the people living there. Why did they have things in their home they eventually decided was trash? What value did those items left behind give them when it was in their home? Will they think differently about their possessions at their next dwelling, or will this cycle of consumption continue?

Putting yourself in the “I could move from here someday” mindset might be helpful when you’re taking stock of what you own. We know that we’ll be moving from here before too long. It might be a year, it could be two, but we definitely know this isn’t a long-term domicile for us. That mindset has been helpful for us as we continue our path toward minimalism. The thought that we’re going to move helps us to decide what things we should keep now, rather than deal with it at a less opportune time in the future.

I’ve had many people tell me, “When we moved, we got rid of so many things.” Therein lies the problem. If we end up getting rid of things when we move, then why do we have them at all?

This goes beyond decluttering. Having things organized simply means they’re hid better in our homes. But freeing ourselves from the possessions we no longer truly love can help us prepare for the inevitable and help alleviate the necessary maintenance that comes with making a home for “stuff.”

We have a long way to go, but I’m thankful we’re edging toward the mindset of only having things in our home that we value. And perhaps, if we’re diligent, we won’t have many things at the curb when we’re ready to move on to the next place.

Peak consumerism

peak consumerism

Do possessions bring happiness or the opposite? NOTE: Not a scientific chart by any measure, except my own experience to this point.

Recently I was in a store killing time while I waited to meet up with someone and I took stock of all the items that were available to purchase.

This store wasn’t special. In fact, the most striking thing about it was its lack of speciality. It was a type of general store and offered anything and everything it could get on the shelves in case someone wanted to purchase anything at all.

There were many tempting things to purchase, but I left the store buying only one: a package of air fresheners for my automobile. The package cost $2 and I purchased it because I thought it would add value to my traveling life.

Most everything else in the store? It was crap — disposable, low value, low priced, crap.

As I make this journey to minimalism, I’ve reached a mental state where I start giving a conscious thought to how I spend every dollar. It is starting to shape every buying purchase, and is helping to curb new items from coming into my life that don’t need to be there.

I call this state of mind peak consumerism.

Our local library recently re-opened after a major renovation. On opening day my wife and I went to check out the new digs. The building is stunning. It’s equipped with video games (presumably for the teens but they might have to fight me for it), video and music rentals, meeting rooms, a small concert hall, books (of course), and even soundproof rooms equipped with computers and recording equipment for those who would like to try their hand at making an audible creation.

While walking through the library, I had what should have been an obvious thought: libraries are a minimalist’s best friend. You don’t need to own books, you can rent them for the price of your taxpayer contributions. The more modern libraries (like ours) takes that a step further with even more items you can use without purchasing.

Because of this, I’m working on getting rid of the last of my books and the bookshelf along with it. I’ll keep the few books I deem important, read the ones I want to finish before I donate them, and be done with collecting bound trophies.

A change is already upon us

While at a conference earlier this year, I saw a car with a pink mustache attached to its bumper. My curiosity got the best of me, so I approached the driver to ask what it was all about.

She was a driver with Lyft, a service where people use their own automobiles to act as a taxi to others for a fee. Other services are getting into this game as well. Uber and Zipcar also offer alternatives to owning a car. In nearby Kansas City, Bike Share KC lets you rent bicycles to ride around the city. I saw a similar service at that same conference where I saw the Lyft car.

This summer has been filled with little projects, one of which was building up the foundation of my house with dirt to provide a better grade for water to drain away from the foundation. I found a company to deliver two tons of soil to my house, but I needed a way to move it from the delivery spot in my front yard to various points on my property. I went to the hardware store to purchase a wheelbarrow, but the thought of paying at least $40 for something I’d likely only use once and then need to store it didn’t set well with me. And then I remembered that only a few more blocks away was a place that rented all sorts of tools.

I rented a wheelbarrow for the day and didn’t even have to find a place to store it. Total cost to me: $12.

There was an age where I put a lot of time into building up my music collection. I made my entire collection digital and donated or sold the CDs, but what was I to do about new music? The library is certainly one option, but recent changes in the music industry has led to another option for those who don’t care to own the files: streaming music. Spotify, Pandora, and Beats Music have made this perfect for someone like me.

Movies are no different. Netflix has allowed me to watch movies and TV shows without a single box having to enter my home. Amazon’s Prime Instant Video and Hulu are other options. And if you want to purchase something and can live with the walled garden of DRM’d movies, buying movies for download from Apple, Google, or Amazon are fine alternatives as well.

That’s not to say you can do all of this for free. But it certainly can be much cheaper. My Netflix subscription is pennies for what I get and Spotify offers ad-supported listening, for example.

But what these new offerings bring us are alternatives to the need to have an abundance of space solely so we can store physical items. If you think about it, that does factor into cost when you consider the price of needing to buy a bigger home or renting a bigger place to accommodate storing your possessions. How many dollars per square foot are you willing to pay to store your movie collection, or in my case, your empty DVD cases?

What other changes will peak consumerism bring?

I am unsure if peak consumerism will occur on a wide scale. A majority of people love to purchase and own things. But I do think that individuals reach peak consumerism, and that can translate to a trend over time.

For example, one thing that has captured my attention recently is the tiny house movement, where people build customized, intentionally small houses. Many cities have building codes that require a minimum size that exceeds what these buildings end up being, so workarounds are made by building the homes on trailer frames and parking them on land somewhere.

Of course, to live in a tiny house means you have to sacrifice a lot of your possessions, which turns the occupants into forced (or desired) minimalists. I have some doubts that I could pull it off with a four (soon to be five) member family, but you never know … it’s all about thinking outside the box you’ll be living in.

But if peak consumerism becomes more widespread, change will occur. City codes will need to be altered or traditional home ownership will decline. Laws created to favor tax services will need to change to allow companies like Uber and Lyft to operate legally in some areas.

But ultimately, the buyer has the power to simply say, “no.” Consumption is not the only option. We can choose to resist the urge to mindlessly consume and instead be thoughtful about each and every purchase.

We can achieve peak consumerism as individuals, or we can reach it en masse, but I believe a sea change is happening.

The forced minimalism of a hotel stay

La Quinta guest room

Image courtesy of La Quinta, which means I lifted it from the company’s website.

Last week I traveled to Austin, Texas, for a weeklong conference. I stayed at a hotel, which reminded me of one of the things I love so much about a hotel stay.

The beauty of a hotel room is it forces you into a state of temporary minimalism.

I traveled with only three bags: one backpack for the entire conference that held my computer and other needed gear, one duffle bag with my workout clothes, and my favorite travel bag (instead of a  suitcase) the Tom Bihn Aeronaut. I quickly learned I had packed too much. My intentions of working out were just that: between the Texas heat, the large number of steps I took each day at the conference, and having my time gobbled up with all the educational sessions, I simply didn’t have the energy to put in some extra miles.

In addition, I determined I could have packed my travel bag a little lighter. In the closet was a plastic bag that I could have used for laundry service for a few extra dollars. Had I to do it over again, I would have had the hotel wash my clothes a couple of days into the trip rather than bringing multiple changes.

My hotel room looked much like the one pictured above. It had a comfy chair to relax in, a bed, a desk to do some work at, a dresser, closet, and a bathroom. There was even a tiny fridge and microwave. The TV was the only real luxury in the room, but it was nice to have. The first channel on the TV had a computer generated image of the ocean with sounds of waves playing in the background. I would turn it on and fall asleep to that almost every night.

All of that was enough. It wasn’t too much, and it wasn’t too little, it was enough.

At home, we’re still plowing away on our journey toward minimalism. I’ve been systematically working my way through the garage — easily one of the worst offenders to minimalism in our home — with the goal of having a garage sale in early August after we’ve sorted through all we own. I’m excited to see how we end up at the end of the summer. I predict good things to come.

But I keep thinking back to that hotel room. Why own more than that? I feel calm and stable in environments with less, so why have more?

It is difficult for me to pare down. I find it very challenging. But when I see what the other side might look like, and how it makes me feel, I have hope.

Minimal birthday

Today is my 38th birthday.

To celebrate, I was with family after returning from a weeklong work trip. Most of the celebrations happened on Saturday. I took a nap. I swam in the pool at my mom and dad’s house with my daughters and nephew. We followed that up with a fantastic supper. And yes, there were gifts.

What do you get someone who’s shedding his things? Easy — only the things he would find value in. I got some money (always accepted), Diet Mountain Dew and Dunkin Donuts coffee (which are great because they’ll disappear when I’m done with them) and some wonderful, handmade items from my daughters and nephew. Those are excellent gifts, because I can always take a picture of them and keep the spirit of those gifts forever. I also got some bacon-themed t-shirts, a total win.

And I even got an electric hand sander, which I’ve written about elsewhere. That will have incredible value to me soon as I begin work on a bunk bed for my daughters.

Minimalism doesn’t mean you never get another thing, but it does mean that you make sure the things you let into your life have value to you. I am so honored that every single gift I received this year was something I could find value in. It’s as though the gift-givers were listening to me and tailoring those gifts to match who I am becoming.

Perhaps that’s the best gift of all.

How an 18-year-old pay stub almost threw me into depression

I thought I was doing well, and then I went into the garage to look for something.

box full of crap

Oh look, it’s another box full of crap.

Feeling ambitious in my quest to de-clutter, I grabbed a random box. It was on top of another box of course, but it wasn’t that big and I thought I could tackle it real quick before dinner.

Real quick? Nope.

As I dug into the box I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. There were several framed pictures of my girls, three ice scrapers, four pens and 10 paper notebooks. There was a little bit of easily discernable trash, but there were plenty of things that needed a decision made about their future right now since I had the box in front of me.

It was overwhelming. With half the items in the box, and the rest strewn about on my living room floor, I sunk into my sofa (a futon, if you must know) and paused. I was paralyzed. I began to wonder, “Am I really going to be able to get through all of the stuff in this house?”

Sorting through it all, I picked up a little momentum: The pictures of the girls will go on the entertainment center. The appliance manuals will go with the other ones I have stored in the basement. The DVD and some CDs can be taken to the store for some cash. The notebooks and some other items can be donated.

I was feeling good, and then I hit the stack of papers.

You know the bloodwork they make you get when you start a new job? The results from that test — from 2006 — it was in there. Some random document from the job before that was in there. A cover letter that had nothing more than the address of my former tax preparer was in there. And then, the one that stopped me cold: a pay stub from my dirty, grimy (but fun), blue collar, mid-college, summer of ’96 job was in there, too.

pay stub image

It’s a pay stub from a blue collar job I worked at almost 18 years ago. Seriously?

One pay stub, and it almost sent me into a complete depression. Why? It had my parents’ home address on it. That means this one, worthless piece of paper that had my social security number on it and my hourly wage of $6 per hour had traveled with me through almost 18 years of moves. From Baxter Springs, KS, then to Carthage, MO, then to Joplin, MO, then to Lawrence, KS. While in Lawrence it went from my first apartment, then the Ohio Street house, then it went with me after I got married. After that, it went from our place on Cynthia, then to our place on Arizona, then to the Randall Road place, and finally to our current home.

You have got to be kidding me. What have I done? Why did I keep this? How much more crap like this is there?

I sulked a bit and walked around the room, then I regained my composure. I am firm in my resolve. The things that have no value to me have no place in my home. I redistributed the rest of the things to their appropriate waiting areas until I can take care of them this weekend, digitized some things I wanted to keep with my iPhone, then headed upstairs to the shredder and said goodbye to those papers for good.

I couldn’t tell if I was actually making progress, or if it was just a pyrrhic victory. I really have no idea how many more papers and knick-knacks that have no value to me are in the house, and especially in the garage. I just know the amount is large.

And therein lies the potential danger of home organization. When the items are in a box, you can put a lid on it and store it, move it, stack it, and take it with you everywhere, forever.

But it’s easy to avoid all the things inside the box until you choose to do so. It has never been more clear to me than it is now: I have a lot of work to do and it’s way, way, way overdue.

It’s not my job to make my children happy

The oldest daughter, Ember, was upset with my wife, Amy, and because of that said, “I am not happy.”

In turn, Amy told her that her job as a parent is to take care of her, discipline her, and to love her.

“Do you feel loved?,” Amy asked. “Yes,” was Ember’s reply.

“Then I’m doing my job,” Amy said.

We don’t see our role as parents as the purveyors of happiness. Sure, we want our children to have happy lives, be healthy, seek out good relationships, and have an good overall sense of well-being. But it is not our responsibility to make our children happy.

It is our duty to teach our children how to be happy.

My minimalism journey is, in part, because I want to be an example to my children so they might not end up with the same stuff disorder as their parents. It is my goal to teach my children that you can be happy without having an excess of things. This will be a tough sell, of course. Our society does a fantastic job of encouraging desire for the next new thing.

How many times have you purchased something and it made you feel really great? You get high from the shopping experience, take your stuff home, and revel in your purchase. New pair of shoes? Fantastic! New phone? Shiny! New car? Love that new car smell!

The truth is, that feeling does not last. In turn, we consume more and more in our endless pursuit to feel good. Eventually, we end up with a house full of stuff and still left feeling unfulfilled.

Sadly, it doesn’t stop with tangible items.

We see parents running themselves into the ground for the sacrificial cause of their children. Swim lessons, gymnastic lessons, soccer, baseball, basketball, dancing … it never seems to end. We know parents who go from one event to the other, often back-to-back in the same night and sometimes multiple evenings a week, so their children can have something to do. Meanwhile, mom and pop are time starved and stressed, but hey, they’re “doing it for the kids.”

Should we be teaching our children that a boatload of activities and a house full of things is the path to happiness? Or, should we instead teach that there are some things they can do and some things they can have that will add value to their life without bringing on stress from excess?

We pick one or two activities to sign the kids up per year, and that’s it. We find this manageable and sustainable. As for the toys and the knick-knacks and the endless stream of artwork my kids create that they can’t let go of … we’re working on it.

Purge with care

The top of our refrigerator has become our version of my parents’ roll-top desk. For us, it is the place where “I’ll deal with it later” things like junk mail, odds and ends, and other assorted crap end up.

I was cleaning out our makeshift junk repository when I saw this heart-shaped box.

heart-shaped box

This heart-shaped box contained a Valentine’s Day gift for the wife.

I thought, “Oh yeah, I remember that. I went to the $1 store and picked up some cheap stuff to use for Valentine’s Day.” We must have forgotten to do something with it, but since it was on top of the refrigerator, that wasn’t a big surprise.

I was about to throw it away, but my wife, Amy, decided to look inside real quick. It’s a good thing she did.

heart-shaped box with money in it

Turns out, the box has $20 cash and and $25 gift card in it. Glad we didn’t throw that away!

Inside the box was a $20 bill and a $25 Visa gift card.

Good grief.

There are a few takeaways from this near miss:

  • Have a system in place to handle your gift giving and receiving event. My aunt once threw away a $50 bill by accident one year. After the family unsuccessfully dug through the trash, it was decided it likely got burned up when my grandfather took the trash out earlier that day (country living means you burn your trash).
  • Even though it was “just a dollar,” I spent money on packaging for a gift that has been forgotten for months. I donated the box to Goodwill. What was the point of that again?
  • Some types of gifts might not be the best choice for the person, or, at the time. I’m sure my wife likes to get gifts, but let’s face it: it clearly didn’t appear to add value to her at that time, otherwise she might have been more aware of her gift’s disappearance (she claims that’s not the case, but I’m skeptical). Perhaps I need to learn more about my wife to see what kind of gift would be a better choice.

The main point is: purge with care. Take a moment and review what you’re throwing out, because you might be throwing out more than just stuff.

Starting the journey

My journey toward minimalism began with a tornado.

On Sunday, May 22, 2011, an EF5 tornado ripped through Joplin, Mo., destroying the homes of a few of my friends and changing their lives forever. I grew up near Joplin in nearby Baxter Springs, Kansas, which was also hit by a smaller EF2 tornado on Monday, April 28, 2014.

Not long after the the Joplin tornado, my wife and I went there to help in the cleanup. We helped people as they rummaged through the debris for what they could salvage from their former livelihood.

During that experience, I found something really striking about the people whose homes we helped clean: they didn’t care about most of their possessions. Instead, we ended up being on a mission to find that one family keepsake they wanted to salvage, or that couple of personal items that they hoped we could find in the wreckage.

After the cleanup, after I had time to think about all I had seen, it made me wonder: why do we keep so many things that we don’t think are exceptionally important?

Not long after that I stumbled across The Minimalists, a team of two friends who were enriching the world through their blog about a life of more substance and less things. I was intrigued, but not so much that I changed my life overnight. But it got me to think, and that’s always a good important first step.

Now we fast-forward to 2014. I look at my two children and their room, and I think I’m a guest on the TV show Hoarders. I realize how much children absorb from their parents. My life is no different. I have things in my home that I keep for nothing more than sentimental value but very little utility. I’ve coined my illness sentimental attachment disorderbecause every time I go to throw things away, I’m paralyzed. Maybe I should keep this because of the memories I have from it. What if I need this later? Shouldn’t I have a backup of this thing just in case? I would hate to just give it away or sell it, because I paid more for it and I’d lose money.

The excuses are endless for why we hold onto things.

And then, a sea change. The Minimalists came to Kansas City on April 24, 2014 for a tour of their latest book, Everything That Remains. Hearing them speak gave me a renewed sense of urgency. I need less things. I need more things of value. The most meaningful tactic they taught me was one sentence. That is to say, whenever you start to purchase something, or whenever you are trying to decide to keep something, ask yourself this question: Will this thing add value to my life?

They also offered a challenge; a 21-day one, in fact. Their 21-day challenge is where you get rid of one thing on day one, two things on day two, and so on, for 21 days. I started it in May of 2014 but didn’t finish for two reasons. First off, life got in the way and it became quite a chore to keep up consistently (I made it to day 12). But second, I found my sentimental attachment disorder getting in the way of getting rid of some items that I knew had to go.

This is where The Chaff comes in. I will continue my journey to minimalism through here and I hope you find some inspiration. Along the way, I will tell the story of the items I’m letting go for my own closure. In turn, I hope you find the strength to do the same if that’s your calling.

In the novel and film Fight Club, there’s a powerful line that sums up the problem with a personal obsession of the accumulation of stuff: “The things you own end up owning you.”

I have found this to be true, and frankly, I’m tired of it. I refuse to be a slave to my possessions and instead choose to pursue a more meaningful, rich and full life of experiences, relationships, and personal freedom.

Thank you for reading my story. Feel free to come along on my journey.

– EJG