How 21st-Century minimalism works - Living your life with a handful of possessions

by | Aug 17, 2010 03:00 PM ET

The last time I had an office that wasn't at my house, it was the absolute minimal office. There was a desk, a chair, a waste basket, a phone on the desk and a laptop computer that came and went with me. That was it. And it was perfect. An office can't get much more minimal than that.

As you can see, the idea of minimalism appeals to me. As a homeowner with a wife, four kids and a dog, it is harder to be a minimalist. How hard? Here is a funny example of how "family life" can conflict with minimalism. Everyone in the Brain family has a bike. Plus there is a spare in case the kids have a friend over. So that is 7 bikes. Everyone has a helmet, so 7 helmets. And a water bottle - 7 of those. And locks. And a bike rack to put the bikes on the car. Plus if you own 7 bikes you are running a small bicycle repair shop and you need some tools: Screwdrivers, wrenches, allen wrenches, spoke wrenches, tire irons, chain breaker, patch kit, chain oil. So the simple idea that "we would like to be able to take family bike rides" ultimately turns into a hundred objects and an investment of more than $1,000.

But that doesn't mean I can't try for minimalism, with varying levels of success because Leigh is a little on the other end of the spectrum.

Last week in this post...

To maximize happiness, should you spend your money on “stuff”, “experiences” or “assets”?

...we looked at this article...

But Will It Make You Happy?

...and it contained one description of 21st century minimalism:

A two-bedroom apartment. Two cars. Enough wedding china to serve two dozen people.
Yet Tammy Strobel wasn't happy. Working as a project manager with an investment management firm in Davis, Calif., and making about $40,000 a year, she was, as she put it, caught in the “work-spend treadmill.”
So one day she stepped off.
Inspired by books and blog entries about living simply, Ms. Strobel and her husband, Logan Smith, both 31, began donating some of their belongings to charity. As the months passed, out went stacks of sweaters, shoes, books, pots and pans, even the television after a trial separation during which it was relegated to a closet. Eventually, they got rid of their cars, too. Emboldened by a Web site that challenges consumers to live with just 100 personal items, Ms. Strobel winnowed down her wardrobe and toiletries to precisely that number.

I imagine that Tammy was looking at this web site, among others:

100 Thing Challenge

The goal of the 100 Thing Challenge is to break free from the confining habits of American-style consumerism. A lot of people around the world feel "stuck in stuff." They feel like their closets and garages are too full of things that don't really make their lives much better. But how to get unstuck?

Why did she "step off" the conveyor known as the "work-spend treadmill"? One reason might have to do with the sentiments in this video:

See The Story of Stuff for more info on this video.

Another article on minimalism can be found here:

Cult of less: Living out of a hard drive

Chris Yurista, a DJ from Washington, DC, cites this trend in digital music as one reason he was able to hand over the keys to his basement apartment over a year ago.
"It's always nice to have a personal sense of home, but that aside - the internet has replaced my need for an address," the 27-year-old said.
Since boxing up his physical possessions and getting rid of his home, Mr Yurista has taken to the streets with a backpack full of designer clothing, a laptop, an external hard drive, a small piano keyboard and a bicycle - an armful of goods that totals over $3,000 (£1,890) in value.

In this mode, the site could be very useful. In theory you could couchsurf every night and pay no rent.

This reminds me of a guy I knew in a prior life. He and I were consultants on the "training circuit". I was on the road about 3/4 of the year. I would fly into a city on Sunday, spend a week training people, fly out Friday and repeat. He was doing the same thing, and his contracts put him on the road just about every week. So he gave up his house. He simply flew from city to city, never returning home, and living full time in one hotel after another. He said it was great, except occasionally he would wake up in the middle of the night and have no idea whatsoever where he was. He said that could be disorienting.

That article also references, where you can get more ideas on minimalist lifestyles.

This article from the WSJ points out that retirees may get to experience 21st century minimalism whether they like it or not:

Another Threat to Economy: Boomers Cutting Back

Policy makers have long worried that Americans aren't saving enough for old age. And lately, current and prospective retirees have been hit on many fronts at once: They have less money, they earn less on what they have, their houses aren't rising in value and the prospect of working longer to make up the shortfall has dimmed significantly in a lousy job market.
"We will have to learn to make do with a lot less in material things," says Gary Snodgrass, a 63-year-old health-care consultant in Placerville, Calif. The financial crisis, he says, slashed his retirement savings 40% and the value of his house by about half.

Where do you fall on the scale? Are you a minimalist, a maximalist, or somewhere in between?

See also: How Cast Iron Skillets Work

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