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Living with Less: Getting Started

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Spring is here, it’s Easter weekend, and I don’t know about you guys, but I have been super-involved in spring-cleaning projects. There’s just something so beautiful about new beginnings in the springtime, and nothing says “starting fresh” to me like a clean, distraction-free house. I know I’m not the only one, because this is the only time of year I ever have to wait in line outside our Salvation Army’s donation truck (and I drive past this place daily taking Celia to school- there’s always a line this time of year).

If you’re just tuning in, I just kicked off a series highlighting how our family does minimalism, which is super-trendy right now, but doesn’t exactly come across as doable for the average non-hipster American family. So, to prep you: no, I don’t have a capsule wardrobe, yes, I still have an Amazon prime membership, and yes, if we had to move tomorrow, it would probably still take a team of 5 guys 3 days to pack and move all our stuff (we have the corporate relocation thing down pat at this point). We are a work in progress. I can tell you that in the last year, we’ve reduced the amount of clothing, furniture, and objects we own by roughly half, and will continue to do so, mostly because I don’t want to live in an enormous house with an enormous house payment simply because we need a place to keep all this stuff. I want to be able to pay off our house, send our kids to college, and enjoy retirement before we’re 65. That’s our motivation and we’re sticking to it.

So whether you’re our spirit twins and want to work toward a bare-bones household, or just want to cut down on all the crap you have to clean up every spring, my next several posts should be able to help you pare down and eliminate some of the unnecessary clutter that’s weighing you down.

PHASE ONE: Cut clutter off at the source.

Last summer, when staying with my in-laws, a leaky pipe burst, flooding the basement. All the water made it impossible to find the source of the leak, so we had to cut the water off at the street. If you have an overabundance of stuff in your house, the first phase is to stop bringing in more. This is the single most significant phase in downsizing or decluttering. Even if you’re not a minimalist and have no interest in becoming one, this is an amazingly helpful exercise. It’s also the toughest one. After consistently hauling 10+ black trash bags full of donations every single season to donation sites, I realized I didn’t have an organization problem, I had an accumulation problem. How did all this stuff I didn’t want or couldn’t use keep finding its way into my house? In looking in those bags, I fully realize that most of it was purchases that I thought were necessary but just didn’t work out (hello, cupcake carrier). I just had no idea the magnitude of those purchases.

I have essentially been supplying thrift stores with free inventory for the past five years thanks to my superfluous purchases.

That is crazy to think about. We are all doing that, people. It’s nuts. And in getting off this crazy-train, I had to basically send my self to shopaholic rehab…which basically means I had to invent a program for myself to stop shopping and start using what I have. This is my rehab program:

  1. Write down what you bring in. One of the most effective weight-loss tools is food-journaling. There’s nothing worse than realizing that after months of dieting and not losing weight that you’ve been sneaking in hundreds of calories by snacking without thinking about it. The same is true for shopping/acquiring “stuff.” In the beginning of cutting back, I kept a little journal by the door to my house, and I wrote down everything I brought in. (Not an inventory- a journal. I wrote “groceries” or “clothes” or “shoes” or “kids uniforms.”) That in and of itself helped a lot- I hated this activity, and when I was tempted to buy that Acacia wood cake stand with the pretty etched-glass dome, I remembered that I really wouldn’t like to write that down, and I didn’t buy it. This activity will also help you identify how stuff you don’t buy still makes its way in- gifts from friends and relatives, crafts the kids make at school (nope- that glittery, feathered headdress for Thanksgiving is not even coming inside. Love you, kids, but no.), and things you pick up or get for “free.” If it crosses the threshold to your house, write it down. Do it for a week or two- it’s life-changing.
  2. Assess what you’ve written down. This was so significant for us. Once we got my spending under control (I’m pretty sure I bought a shirt or a piece of kitchen equipment at every Target I’ve ever entered, regardless of the reason for the trip), we identified a HUGE source of stuff: grandparents. And it came in various forms- things that were “picked up while we were out,” care packages, gifts for holidays, and “I saw this and thought of…(name any kid).” This was fairly easy to fix- our family is fabulous about our lifestyle for the most part, and it took a few conversations to get them to come up with alternatives to material things. Which brings me to my next point…
  3. Come up with alternatives. I realized that I was buying shirts (or at least, justifying buying shirts) because the ones I had were worn out. I was buying kitchen equipment because what I had wasn’t working anymore. The answer here was to invest a slightly bigger amount of money into quality pieces that I liked and would use long-term, and stop buying cheap alternatives in hopes that they wouldn’t break or wear out. We used the same logic in talking to grandparents about gifts, and they were wonderful about it. Now, instead of a box full of toys and trinkets, the kids get clothes for school or church, book series that they’re interested in, and activities or memberships that let us do things with them. This also lets the kids have something to talk about with their grandparents- Miss Co can actually tell her Grammy about the books she’s been reading, and go to ballet lessons with Grandma, and see a puppet show with Pammie. And I don’t have to sneak stuff into the trash when no one’s looking. Bonus.
  4. Repeat after me: it’s 100% off if I don’t buy it. I know. I come from a long line of “that’s a great deal! I’ll take two.” I grew up with the mantra “it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it,” and then married into a world of amazing bargain-hunters. That was a recipe for shopaholism if ever there was one. I still struggle with this, and I have to literally remind myself that even if it’s 90% off, there’s another 10% I can save by leaving it on the shelf. That 10% is painful. But it’s worth it. It’s one less thing for me to dust, wash, wipe down, or put away.
  5. Every special occasion doesn’t have to be commemorated with stuff. This doesn’t have to be a downer. I get that it’s annoying- we don’t do Easter baskets or tons of Christmas presents, or even big birthday gifts, but I promise the switch from stuff to experiences is an amazing one. This year, Miss Co got one material present from us: a dress-up sticker book. We didn’t throw her a party, so she didn’t get a ton of gifts from friends. Instead, we spent what we would have spent on a party (and not a fancy party) to take her and a friend (only one friend) to a show in the city, let her pick the place to eat beforehand, and let the friend sleep over afterward. My girl was over the moon and didn’t miss the party or the presents one bit. Even if you don’t want to go that far, you can easily fill an Easter basket with movie tickets, Chick-fil-A gift cards, and little snacks and call it a “promise for a family-movie-date.” Do the same thing with passes to activities- my girls have loved one-time experiences like indoor rock-climbing, behind-the-scenes tours of some favorite places, or local school musicals. Taking a selfie with them at those events is waaaaay more meaningful than one more Barbie or Thomas the Train set.

See what I did there? I didn’t even say “stop spending money.” Although, you’ll be amazed how much money you don’t spend when you aren’t casually picking something up here or there. Last thought for you: Given that it’s Easter, I’m particularly reminded of a ladies’ fellowship night, where over wine and box-mix brownies, I heard an awesome speaker challenge us to think about what we treasure. When Jesus talks to the rich man, and tells him to sell all his things and come follow him, and the man can’t do it, what holds him back? We never really find out, but this speaker asked us to fill in the blank with ourselves. Why can’t we do it?

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When I started this journey of reducing by half, I found myself really struggling to let things go. And when I asked myself why, I found that I was emotionally attached to a lot of my possessions for no good reason. Tee shirts from high school clubs and activities, books about political leaders I no longer agree with, luggage with my old monogram on them…I could go on. Reducing isn’t about always purging. It’s about being extremely selective of what you have. Our faith is a huge factor in this lifestyle choice, and for us, we are trying our best not to have things that stand between us and where God would have us go. I’m not sure how we’re doing in our attempt, but I can assure you it’s better than where we were, and we will never be going back. And that’s an amazing feeling heading into Easter this year.

However you believe, whatever you celebrate, here’s wishing you new beginnings.

xoxo~ LWH

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