As someone who loves lots of clothes, books, and art (and regularly paring down those collections), I’m fascinated by today’s guest blogger Ashley Riordan’s minimalist lifestyle. Here, she explains why she made the decision to get rid of her unwanted stuff and how it has helped her live a more fulfilling life.
I started my life as a minimalist before I knew anything about minimalism. I was a grad student buried in debt when the economy made an obvious turn in the wrong direction, and for the first time in my life, I felt like I couldn’t count on many things I had never even thought to question before. Some people respond to uncertainty by hoarding stuff. I responded by getting rid of everything.
In the years after I graduated from college and moved to California to start grad school, I developed a strange relationship to money and stuff. I had always worked really hard and had never made any major mistakes, so even though I was struggling to support myself, I had this blind faith that things would work out. I felt entitled to a pretty simple lifestyle where I could buy the books I wanted to read and live in a quiet apartment alone and work only a reasonable number of hours. When I saw my credit card balances, I thought to myself that there were things more important than money. Once I was already in debt, I used shopping as a form of distraction. The way I survived the stress of finishing my thesis and applying to PhD programs was spending the rest of my time in Sephora.
Deciding to pay off my debt was about fighting through layers of self-delusion. I had to admit that I was someone who could make a huge mistake. I had to admit that for a smart and responsible person, I had been behaving very stupidly and irresponsibly. I had to learn that what you can afford has nothing to do with what other people are doing or what you think you deserve. I had to learn that you can only enjoy the things that are more important than money when you’re not drowning in debt.
The way I lived when I was paying off my debt was not how I wanted to live forever, but the remarkable thing was how little not buying stuff affected my happiness. I was working 15 hours a day, and yet I wrote more than I ever had before and made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I had plenty of time to think about what I would buy when I could afford to buy things again, but when I finally paid off the last dollar of my credit card debt, the only things I bought were a flight to San Francisco, a new pair of purple Chucks, a couple pairs of jeans, and a tiara.
Spending more than a year not buying anything had cured me of the delusion that I could create the life I wanted out of stuff. Shopping is pretty boring when you know that nothing you buy will make a real difference in your life. I actually had to mourn that loss and then find excitement in more worthy activities. It was on a shopping trip about five months after I had paid off my debt when I first thought that maybe I should write about that thing where I kept getting rid of everything I owned. It had been going on for years by then, and I had barely ever questioned it. For a long time, I quickly replaced what I gave away with new things, so it wasn’t until I stopped buying new stuff that large spaces began opening up in my apartment. My closet looked like a museum of empty hangers.
I started to think consciously about what I was doing for the first time. Minimalism is misunderstood both by people who try to make it too simple and people who try to make it too complex. Minimalists are easy to criticize, because it’s the rare person who lives with so little that she can’t be accused of excess. I have seen people dismiss minimalism completely because the person writing about it uses too many words and is therefore a hypocrite. I have never been involved in anything more susceptible to hypocrisy than minimalism, and I study theology, so that’s saying something. I found my way to minimalism by accident, and I have continued on this path by walking very slowly. I always feel like I’m going in a direction, but I have never arrived, and now I don’t expect to.
You can look at the number of things I own and see my efforts toward minimalism, but the important part for me has to do with how I spend my time. It took me forever to get here, since you can keep yourself busy for years with the work of becoming a minimalist, which mostly involves constantly getting rid of things and figuring out how to live with less. But I am finally at a place where the distractions are so few that I have to figure out what I’m going to do with all of the empty space.
You know how you can spend all day at work thinking about how you wish you just had some time to write, and then you go home and sit in front of a blank page and the intensity of the flashing cursor drives you to find any available distraction? Minimalism is a lot like that. It is pretty terrifying to get exactly what you want. It is easier to always be chasing the next thing. It is much harder to sit with yourself in silence. It starts to make sense that we surround ourselves with stuff and fill our lives with distractions.
Many people take a spiritual approach to minimalism, but my approach is really quite practical. Often when I’m writing about my struggles with it, I expect to be asked, “If it’s so hard, then why are you doing it? It seems like you’re just torturing yourself.” I am a perfectionist who is quite capable of losing sight of what she really wants in pursuit of what instead sounds very impressive, but I am not interested in being the girl with the fewest things, and my pursuit of minimalism is marked by uncharacteristic patience. I started because it would have taken more energy to stop myself from getting rid of everything I own, and I have continued because I am happier this way.
There are so many writers who never write, and I am determined not to be one of them. I also want to spend long hours reading. I want to finish my PhD. I want to have time for my friends. I want to travel. I want to see live music and comedy. I don’t want to spend my life jumping from distraction to distraction. I don’t want to wake up and wonder what happened to my life. I want to be present in moments. I don’t want to push my feelings to the corners of life because I have no time for them. I don’t want to judge my success by how busy I am. I don’t want to be scared of silence.
What I learned from first putting myself into debt and then pulling myself out is that you can’t underestimate the importance of money and stuff. I used to deny the amount of space they took up in my life until the crushing weight of debt was all I could think about and the only way to distract myself was to buy more stuff. Once I was free of debt, then I didn’t need distractions. I took that opportunity to pursue the things that actually matter to me, none of which are found in Sephora.
It is worth it to me to live in a small apartment if it means I don’t have to work more than full time. It’s worth it to me not to buy new stuff if it means I have time to study and write. It’s worth it to me not to own a car if it means I can get on a plane once a month and go somewhere new. It’s worth it to me to own only a couple outfits if it means I can go to a concert or comedy show every weekend. I’ll be the girl always wearing jeans and a blue shirt.
Perhaps the greatest gift of minimalism is that it makes me think about the choices I’m making. This isn’t just what has happened to me. I choose what I don’t spend my time and money on, and that makes it possible to choose what I do spend my time and money on.
Ashley is a grad student who lives in a very small apartment in California. She is working on a PhD in theology, travels whenever she can, and blogs about writing, creativity, minimalism, debt, travel, introversion, and feelings at ashleyriordan.com. It probably took her longer to write these 61 words about herself than it did to write this 1422 word post.
Print in image above for sale here.