Life without stuff: choosing a minimalist lifestyle

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. 

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minimalism

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 RiordanAshley 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.

 

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Comments

  1. I found this so interesting. I literally spent two hours on another minimalist site yesterday, mostly because I’m tired of cleaning my apartment and I wondered if having less stuff would eliminate that problem (answer: kind of, but not really). I found out so much about how having less things opens up avenues for more creativity, which it sounds like Ashley is saying when it comes to writing and being able to do more fun things. I feel like minimalism is something I want to explore, too. Thanks for the post!

    P.s I totally feel you on writing your 100 word bio; it’s the hardest part of writing! I hate the “about” section on my blog too, but I don’t want to rewrite it so I just hope no one ever reads it.

  2. This is excellent. I can relate so much on the debt front, especially where you say you spend so much time thinking about it and know that nothing will fix the negative feelings it brings other than getting out of it. I am working on chiseling away my debt and saving a little money so that I can put it toward things I really need (better work computer, annual vacation) and become less obsessed with satiating my feelings by buying more stuff that will suffocate me even more.

    I feel like I had something else to say, but now I can’t find it in my cluttered brain.

    Great post!

  3. so thoughtful, thanks for sharing your process and experience. i am inspired! esp. love the idea about trading the cost of a car for more travel–that’s a great way of looking at it! (and you don’t have to take care of a car!…)

    • I love the idea of not having a car to worry about, too. My car is one of the greatest sources of stress for me. If I were in an area with good public transportation, I’d get rid of it in a heartbeat.

      • I wish I could get rid of my car. The problem is there are not effective other means of transportation where I live

  4. What I love the most from this: “Shopping is pretty boring when you know that nothing you buy will make a real difference in your life.” So true. If I buy $129 sheets (something I contemplated today), will it make a difference considering I already have sheets for my bed? Probably not. Apply that instead to a savings account that will ultimately create a stronger cushion for me to do what I love. Yeahhhhh!

    It also reminded me of my career overall – my experiencing a lot of success causes many folks around me to say, “are you going to hire staff?” or “how are you going to keep up with all the demand?” and they forget one thing – I don’t have to take on more work just because it’s offered to me. I make enough as it is and my current lifestyle allows me to travel and, if I’m smart about savings, will allow me to take a couple months off each year to travel. Not to mention that sweet li’l thang called Peace of Mind. That to me is the best of minimalist living :)

  5. This is seriously inspiring, Ashley! I love that you’ve managed to write about debt and minimalism without sounding the least bit preachy. Great post!

    • I thought the same thing – not at all preachy, and yet it really inspired me to look at “stuff” with a new perspective.

  6. Suzanne Supplee says:

    This is so wise and true. Thanks for sharing!

  7. I found this to be really, really thought-provoking. Thanks for writing, Ashley, and thanks for posting, Cassie.

  8. Matthijs says:

    This is an inspiring story indeed. I have always been some kind of collector of stuff (I think I have light form of OCD) and I had a lot of money to spend so that made it easier to buy useless stuff. I moved into a new house 2 years ago because I wanted to move to a better neighbourhood. I am a single guy so I pay the mortgage all by myself. There is a couple living next to me in the exact same house and they had already 4 different cars since I moved in, they always have expensive new clothes and they refuse free second hand stuff like a tricycle for their kid just because they want a new one. But they have to work full time with overtime to pay for all of this, and they don’t look happy. This was some kind of mirror for me so I got rid of all the useless stuff I owned. Sold it all on the net or gave it away. I feel much better now, and I can spend more time and money on non materialistic things like travelling or have a drink with friends.

  9. Not only is shopping boring like you said— I find I dread going to department stores in general and “window shopping” is a drag too… I must admit however I do have the occasional guilty pleasure of rummaging thru aisles at the Goodwill or overstock-type stores searching for good brands, vintage items (like glassware) or organic products on the cheap- often times I leave empty-handed though as I am more choosy about what I will actually purchase :)

  10. I have recently ventured on the path of minimalism and I am already finding that it is starting to affect my life in a positive way. I am spending much less time chasing my tail doing housework now that I have started to reduce useless items in the house. It is early days for me but I am getting there. My husband for years kept asking why I buy two or three of everything. I always dismissed this question until I tidied out a cupboard in the spare bedroom and found 8 tubes of handcream and 10 different shampoos!!!! I love your article.I have found it a great motivator.

  11. Lovely post! I read this and found myself nodding through every paragraph. I also shopped my way through my graduate program in a desperate attempt at happiness (or escapism), and now I have the debt to show for it. I’ve started down the minimalist road with a smaller apartment and less spending, but you’re absolutely right that having less doesn’t necessarily mean greater peace. The peace comes from the inside, which is proving to be a long and interesting journey. I agree that the “silence” that comes from a clear space can be intimidating, but therein lies the work. It’s nice to know that someone else is on the same page. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Michelle says:

    Thank you so much for your blog. I too am on a journey to living a minimalist lifestyle. Last year I decided to leave a job that had me working all the time. I had some money but a good amount of debt. I was working all of the time & I never saw my husband anymore.
    When I realized that this wasn’t how I wanted to spend my life. I left my job for a less prestigious job with less hours. My husband & I began to go to the beach 3 times a week. It was the best summer I have ever experienced.
    Being at the beach so much made me realize how little I really needed to live on.
    Nine months have passed, & I am closer to my husband than ever before. I’ve donated so much to good will so I would have less distraction, less to maintain & now I have more time than I could ever ask for. I plan on another amazing summer at the beach because I have decided that these experiences are more precious then a new flat screen tv or the latest gadget.
    I am now calm & life is enjoyable.
    Now through my own journey I am carefully dissolving any remaining debt. It’s a work in progress that requires me to be mindful, however when I wake up every day grateful that I may enjoy a cup of tea with my husband with out feeling overwhelmed by what I have to do or have to maintain it becomes all worth it. I now feel like I can enjoy this beautiful life.
    It’s so nice to know that there are others having their own experience of freedom like this. Thank you again for sharing your experience!

  13. This is really interesting. I’m constantly complaining about money but then I walk by a pair of brightly coloured pants and somehow the next thing I know I’m standing at the cash swiping my debit card. I loved this post and I maybe I’ll even try the minimalist lifestyle out. Travelling and writing are my two favourite things but of course I find that I have no time for either of them. Thanks for sharing!

  14. “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?”

    Every day of my life!

  15. Thanks for sharing your story.

    I’ve been experimenting with a minimalistic lifestyle for the past four years. It’s totally worth it.

  16. Wonderful post Ashley! It’s even more wonderful that you discovered what really makes you happy at such a young age. As a Life Coach I work with people who are in the process of clearing the clutter out of their lives in order to get to the point where you are now. When you start getting rid of the material things it’s amazing how much more time you have for what you really love. You are an inspiration !

  17. Very nice piece.

  18. I love the closet it reminds me of my closet when I was younger. I love the minimalist ideology it makes life much less stressful.

  19. “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.” Brilliant! Your blog astoryofdebt has been a source of comfort to me as I pay off $80,000 of debt :)

  20. In planning Planning House Design, first thing you do often raises concerns about its success. All the things that you desire it feels like to put into the design entirely.

  21. Wow, where do I even start? This was an incredibly thought-provoking read! I’m amazed at how much I can relate to you all of which you have said. I myself am a minimalist. I believe that I’ve always been one, but have become more aware of my simplistic ways, therefore, making the desire for a simple life more profound than ever. Try being a minimalist while living with people who are the complete opposite. Clutter freaks! It is very frustrating and overwhelming at times, but I know that someday I will have a place of my own,and will not have to worry about clutter. I do look forward to it greatly. I as well believe that less is more. Cheers!

    ~T.B.

  22. One of the best posts I´ve ever read! Maybe it´s ´cause I´ve been trying for a long time to have this kind of life… a minimalist one.. I am always in debit with my credit card, always buying new things that I don´t really need … your sentence is PERFECT : “”Shopping is pretty boring when you know that nothing you buy will make a real difference in your life.” .. That´s exactly what happens with me… I keep buying craps and letting the things that would make a difference in my life behind… I wish I could really adopt this life style and be happier! Thanks a lot for your post, maybe it´s the advice I´ve been expecting. my whole life.

  23. I know this was posted a while ago, but I tripped across it today googling blogs about minimalism. I loved this post and found many great quotes in it. I hope that I can be on a similar journey. Thanks for sharing, Ashley!

  24. I totally understand the frustration with student loans. I graduated from college 7 years ago. I have barely made a dent in my student loans after all these years. It’s fun when you get that student loan check, but not so fun when you have to pay it back.

  25. Yeah, I am getting to a point where I realize that I keep wanting to get stuff because that’s how I’m “supposeTd to” have it at my age — 38 — and then going, why do I have so much stuff? I mean, I can wear the same outfit for days and not even care (what can I say, I am a grunger at heart). I really don’t even want a lot of stuff. The things I really want are so intangible that I can’t even explain it except I want everything to fit in a single backpack, and to hit the road and wander around like a nomad for the rest of my life. Or at least the thought that that’s even possible.
    I guess what it boils down to is freedom for me. I don’t want to be tied to anything, to be forced to put down roots anywhere. I want to spend my free time doing nothing, not striving for the next goal, the next Big Thing, all the expected things from society. I want minimal everything in life. I crave it And yet I am so scared to really give it all up, let it all go — and not rush to fill the hole left by the absent things.

    If only I could stop comparing myself to others, I think I would feel a lot better.

  26. Vanessa Bamback says:

    I love this article! Until now, for as long as I can remember, I’ve always had too much ‘stuff.’ It’s been a burden on me for years and I have longed to live a more minimalist lifestyle. The other day, I heard a radio dj say, “In your 20’s your busy trying to make money to buy stuff; in your 30’s you’re busy buying it; in your 40’s you’re trying to get rid of it and give it away.” I’ve been blessed to have many heirlooms handed down to me as a third-generation only-child….but, the majority of those heirlooms have become a burden to me. I have struggled with the decision of what to give away, donate or sell because it holds memories for me. Little by little, I am seeing that those items are better off with someone that desires and enjoys them, instead of myself, who feels dread each time I pass them because I want to have my own style. Help!

  27. After living 4 years of this lifestyle, I can tell you my wife and I are happy now then ever.
    Our history is as follows: Owned a large house, big yard, 4 kids and 3 cars. Now that the kids are gone, we sold and gave away everything that we didn’t need. We now live in a one bedroom apartment near the beach. People in my generation, think we’re crazy… That’s O.K.- for us – Well worth it.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Life Without Stuff: Choosing a Minimalist Lifestyle | [Witty Title Here] by Ashley Riordan. Ashley’s story of paying off debt, finding minimalism, and the positive influence it has made in her life. [...]

  2. [...] Life without stuff: choosing a minimalist lifestyle Life Without Stuff by Cassie Paton So Europe is light years ahead of us while not making an obvious attempt to do so. But just the idea of living in 250 square feet per person, or needing to wash clothes every third day, or taking public transportation or riding a bike and not owning a vehicle, or, for God's sake, no television, is enough for many Americans to start hyperventilating. Even many of the poorest families in the poorest state of Mississippi, who live on food stamps and other public dole, have a TV antenna on the roof of their hovel. Europeans value things we have yet to discover–such as health care for all their citizens. Virtually all those nations have universal health care of some sort. Would we live with less so that all our citizens could have the same? I think not. But God bless America! [...]

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  3. […] about choosing a minimalist lifestyle: “…I don’t want to spend my life jumping from distraction to distraction. I don’t […]

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