A little more than a year after we moved into our house, certain parts started to feel a little cluttered. Considering that only two of us (plus a dog) were currently living in a 3 bedroom house, this was quite alarming! Apparently, all of the stuff we owned was multiplying at an unsustainable rate that would have us upgrading our house within years if we didn’t get to the bottom of it. The large number of households caught in an endless mortgage loop of upgrading houses almost started to make sense… almost.
Fortunately, we decided to attack the problem head on and eventually found out we had a lot more stuff than we actually needed. After filtering through a few areas of our house one at a time, we found the overall process extremely rewarding. First, it’s fun to get a good look at all of the stuff you own every so often, some of which you probably haven’t seen in a while. Second, it’s nice to let some stuff go in order to free up space both physically and mentally. Third, once you put all the stuff back that you’ve determined worthy, it’s like a whole new area of your house!
I’ll break down how we go about filtering through our possessions one area at a time and maybe inspire you to go through that closet you’re scared to open. You know the one I’m talking about…
The 80-20 of Minimalism
If you’ve never heard of the Pareto Principle (or 80-20 rule), it basically states that 80% of the results come from 20% of the effort (with several variations). I love this rule for many reasons and it seems to apply to just about everything! The wikipedia page linked above goes through examples in economics, science, business, software, and more, but I would say the general application can stretch well beyond that.
For our finances, saving a large percentage of our income off the top gives us 80% of the benefits of extreme frugality, while penny pinching every aspect of our spending may only bring a marginal 20% increase.
With churning credit cards, simply chasing the large signup bonuses seems to return 80% of the value and going beyond that into things like manufactured spending makes the effort ramp way up to get the same value.
When reselling gift cards, it didn’t take me too long to realize that 80% of my profits were coming from ebay deal stacking, which happened to be the easiest way to flip cards (probably <20% of the total effort), so I eventually scaled back from all other avenues completely.
While reducing possessions is just one aspect of minimalism (or simple living), I’d like to think we’re getting 80% of the benefit of it by regularly purging our items at minimal effort, as opposed to going to the extreme with something like The 100 Thing Challenge.
Overall, I think having something like the 80-20 rule in mind is key to optimizing just about everything in your life. There will always be things you enjoy so much that going beyond the 20% effort threshold will be well worth it, but for everything else it’s probably better to take a hard look at what you’re actually getting by pouring more and more time into it.
Another way to look at the 80-20 rule is in terms of diminishing returns. Once you get past the 20% of effort, the amount of benefit received for each additional % of effort goes down significantly.
Our Multiplying Stuff
Once upon a time, all of the possessions between Becky and I couldn’t even fill half of an average moving truck!
I had just graduated college at the time while Becky had already been working for a year, but was still living at home with her parents. Coming out of college and not having a place of our own meant we never really had the chance (or money) to accumulate a bunch of stuff.
Once we got to Seattle and settled into our 2-bedroom apartment, it didn’t take long until we started filling the place with furniture. A much needed bed, a nice couch, a coffee table, a desk, and the list goes on…
By the time we moved out of the apartment and into our townhouse a year later, we had enough stuff to completely max out a 14′ U-Haul truck from top to bottom. We even had to make a few extra trips with various boxes crammed into the back of our own car!
By the time we unpacked it all, the house no longer looked empty and it might have been hard to tell that we added an extra bedroom and ~500 sq ft compared to where we just came from. After adding a few more pieces of furniture to fill out the place, we were living comfortably and seemed to have plenty of space for everything.
Fast forward another year or so and it no longer felt like we had much extra space at all!
The Overflowing Kitchen
I think it started with a casual comment from Becky about how our next place would definitely need a larger kitchen, or at least more cabinets. Always a skeptic, I decided we were probably just doing something wrong. In my mind, a couple without kids should probably be able to make a studio apartment kitchen work and we had way more room than that to work with.
After a little deliberation, we agreed that there were definitely a few pieces that we no longer needed and the overall cabinet strategy is probably less than ideal. This makes sense because our stuff tended to get haphazardly placed wherever while unpacking, just so the next box can be moved onto quickly. Stuff we rarely use was blocking stuff that we use regularly, several things that don’t need to be in the kitchen were taking up space, and the vertical usage of shelving was simply terrible.
We decided to just start from scratch and emptied everything out of all the cabinets all at once!
Once it was all out in front of us, it was easy to see some of the waste we were hiding in the various corners of the kitchen. Why do two people need enough hard plastic cups to play beer pong with!?! (college of course!)
My favorite part of the whole process is probably just getting rid of stuff in general. Reduction of our unnecessary possessions is very rewarding which is why I titled this post Addition by Subtraction.
There were numerous things we simply had too many of, several items we hadn’t used since moving to Seattle over 2 years ago, and many others that simply weren’t worth the space they took up. Whenever we were on the fence about something, we tended to get rid of it, especially if the cost to buy it again would be minimal in the rare case we actually did end up needing it.
Given 100 items that each have about a 1% chance of being needed in the next year or two, the odds are you will end up regretting at least one thing you got rid of, but I’d say that’s preferable to keeping around the other 99 that just sit around and take up space! Get rid of the hoarding mentality and just let it go.
In the case of our kitchen, I think everything was donated to the local Goodwill because the few dollars we might have gotten from selling it wouldn’t have been worth the hassle. On a couple of future purges in other parts of our house, we ended up selling some of our findings which made for a nice bonus.
By the time we put it all back in the cabinets, it was hard to believe it was even close to full before! We did add a couple shelf helper things from the container store where they made sense, but most of the benefit came from simple reduction. Not only was there plenty of space, but everything was laid out more logically and was a lot easier to access!
We both enjoyed the process and end result so much, it wasn’t long before we started looking for other areas of our house to filter through.
Reducing Our Stuff Gives Us More Options
Going through various parts of our house like the kitchen example above helps us in numerous ways. We get the immediate benefit having a nicer looking, easier to use space with less waste, but it also helps towards a few of our mid to long term goals.
Whenever we discuss financial independence and possibly leaving work in the next decade or so, people often ask what our plan is after that and we honestly don’t know! We struggle to even narrow down what city we might want to live in long term, let alone how we’ll be spending our days, but we have plenty of ideas, and the freedom that FI brings will allow us try out whatever we feel like at the time.
A few of those longer term ideas involve traveling the world for months at a time, probably without a home base, or at least with a much smaller one. We’ve also talked about traveling around the US in an RV for a while, or maybe downsizing and living in the heart of a city somewhere. Luckily we don’t have to decide now, and who knows, maybe we’ll end up trying them all!
Another goal I have for the next year or so is to get our current place to a point where we can rent it out on AirBnB (or similar) when we travel. I’ve previously discussed the inefficiency of traveling while paying for a place to live you aren’t using, and a recent Travel Is Free article finally pushed me enough that I’m actually thinking about the logistics of it all. Even just renting our place for a few nights at Seattle prices would significantly cut our travel spending (or increase our income depending on how you look at it).
The one thing that a lot of these goals have in common is that they all become increasingly difficult in a way that’s directly tied to how much stuff we have!
Being able to cut out unnecessary stuff little by little gets us just a bit closer to our goals, but more important is the mindset shift that will hopefully prevent us from getting the stuff in the first place. We’re pretty good on that front naturally (a good chunk of the stuff we’re tossing is from our college days), but it definitely helps to think about the bigger picture when considering whether or not to buy the next doo-dad or knick knack in front of you at the store.
And The Purging Continues…
After the kitchen experiment was an amazing success, we’ve since cleared out a couple closets, our filing cabinet (lots of credit card junk in there), and have already talked about a couple other places that we’ll go after when we have a free day.
If you haven’t tried anything like this before, I highly recommend it. There’s no rush or need to do the whole house at once, just start small with a corner of a room or even a storage bin and slowly work your way around the house. Along the way, you’ll feel better about each area you’ve covered and by the time you finish it might just feel like you moved into a brand new place!