I'm a Minimalist

Less is More

I can't stand a lot of clutter. Junk. Stuff. [1] As much as I possibly can, I try to avoid having things. Mind you, I do not eschew having things, in general. It's more that I prefer to have a small number of my favorite things. There are the 3 coffee mugs I got from the gift shops of places we've visited; the quilt in my office that a coworker made for us; my Sonos speakers that keep the house filled with music all day.

Elsewhere, I try to minimize or eliminate excess. It's why I drive an 11 year old truck; why I live in a modest townhouse despite the bank telling me I can go bigger; why I cut the cord on cable TV and only occasionally binge watch shows on Netflix.

There are many positive side effects to this approach: I care for, and maintain, those few things so that they last. And this adds further value to them. My truck just crossed the 65,000-mile mark. I spent $30 on a soldering iron and some capacitors to fix a broken TV that is now 10 years old and (nearly) works like new. I spend more time doing things I want (like reading books) than searching for new or replacement items.

While it might appear that I'm being frugal, my lifestyle choices are not purely (at least, immediately) driven by saving a buck. In fact, I optimize for experiences; I'd rather spend my money on a great meal at an out-of-the-way spot or have fun on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. As most things, the way I live now has much to do with how I grew up. I can trace my choices back to 2 aspects of my childhood: growing up an Army BRAT [2] and, for a time, being poor.

Traveling BRAT

While my father served in the U.S. Army, we often moved roughly every 2 years. From a logistical perspective, the less you had, the less you had to pack up every other year. Also, at least at the time, it was common for things to get lost or mixed up in shipment. If you were lucky, your delivery would be delayed a few weeks. Other times, your favorite toy never made its way to your new home.

In short, one got used to moving quickly and lightly. The best way to accomplish this was to not have a lot of things. And your favorite things you often carried.

Technical Poverty

My folks separated when I was 12 years old. I helped my mother pack up a late 80s Ford Fiesta with only those things we truly needed and we drove off to make a new life closer to family. For a few years, we were technically poor, my mother's salary being below the poverty line. We supplemented our groceries with staples we were allowed to purchase with food stamps provided by WIC. WIC limits the foodstuffs you can buy to those with actual nutritional value: Cheerios are in, Lucky Charms are out; whole milk is a yes, Yoohoo is a no. When presented with limited options, though, making decisions gets easier, not harder. [3]

As I got into high school and social pressures became a thing, I was getting free lunches through a school program that helped students like me. I hated it. Sure, I got fed for free, but handing my free lunch ticket to the lunch lady while my peers waited behind me was a daily embarrassment. So much so that all the money I made at the job I had, I spent on extra food at the snack bar. Granted, I was ravenous in those years, being a young man, but I also needed to feel like I could provide for myself.

I often overspent my money as well. As soon as I cashed my paycheck, I'd go out with my friends and offer to pay for that extra basket of fries for the table. My friends would laugh that I was spending money like it was going out of style. But I was either trying so hard to appear like it didn't matter or I felt it wouldn't do me much good to worry about being broke, that I enjoyed myself as much as I could. I felt I was putting my money to good use, at least, in the moment.

I have to pause for a moment, to be clear that I did not live in abject poverty. I had a roof over my head, clothes on my back, and I had family close by to help out. My relatives were amazing and there was always a cookout, outing, or destination vacation that they'd take me to, without batting an eye. I never wanted for the necessary things. But at the time, I sometimes felt like a have-not. And I came to peace with that because it made my life simpler.

I could still move quickly and lightly.


As I started by career, I bought more shit than I needed. And it was shit. None of it had any real lasting value. I'd buy the latest DVD releases every Tuesday at Best Buy. I picked up PlayStation games that I'd never play more than once. I ordered the cable TV package that included every channel despite knowing I'd never really sit down to watch most of it. I had a monthly gym membership I still paid for but never used, despite the gym literally being 2 doors from my apartment. I went to the bar each night and bought pricey small batch beers and whiskies that made me pass out in front of the cable TV subscription as it flashed unwatched cooking shows on the bare walls of my bachelor's pad.

After a while, I became sick of my own consumerism. It only served to feed a fleeting dopamine rush of some weird hunter-gatherer instinct.

I no longer moved quickly and lightly.

And I remembered that I liked to build. I had to build. I wanted to produce something rather than pick it up from a shelf of similar, mass-produced items. I desperately needed to leave my impression on something. The need to build is the source of my desire to work with computers: I can build so many things that have purpose. I can be creative and make useful things.

I have fond memories of working in a shop with my father when I was younger. Sometimes I'd get the simple tasks of sanding. I learned to appreciate different woods and their grains (mostly from scratching, rather than sanding). I learned to love fashioning what looked like an inert material into something beautiful. Better if it was beautiful and useful.

I started to buy woodworking equipment and trying to build small projects. I built some terrible, but really sturdy furniture for myself. I even began making gifts for family for Christmas. [4] I couldn't bring myself to go to a store to pick up some impersonal, shrink-wrapped replica of some shit idea someone came up with to sell during the holiday buying binge. I enjoyed those Christmases more than any other since Santa was no longer real.

What Minimalism Means

I went searching for a definition of minimalism recently and came across a group of folks that refer to themselves as The Minimalists. My first thought was "Holy hell! These cats are in my head!". Much of what they share about their lives resonates with me. I recommend giving their blog a read.

For me, being a minimalist is about keeping life simple by avoiding the idea that one needs material things to be happy. Moreso, it's about focusing on those things that truly make me happy. What makes me happy are the things that have value. My family is valuable to me. The time I make to be with them is irreplaceable. The home my wife and I have built over the years has value. We have created a comfortable little nest for ourselves. The future we're building for our kids by saving for their school and spending time with them now is valuable. The trips we take to see the world are valuable because those experiences shape our world and the views of our children.

Most of all, we can move quickly and lightly. And that is valuable.


1. "If you didn't have so much goddamn stuff, you wouldn't need a house!" Return

2. (B)orn and (R)aised (A)rmy (T)rained Return

3. Google for articles on the (tyranny|paradox) of choice and you'll find things like this article in The Economist and a book by Barry Schwartz describing how too much choice is paralyzing and makes us less effective. Return

4. I draw inspiration from my grandfather who, to this day makes a gift for everyone in the family, every year. He finds some new hobby, learns about it, and crafts something unique. One year, he gave everyone cash that he'd folded into various origami shapes. To a person, no one could bring themself to unravel the money to spend it. Return