I’ll never forget sitting in the passenger seat, watching my Mom sobbing as she drove away from our house. Despite my meager attempts to console her, tears continued to stream down her face. Just a few weeks before, we’d sold our 4-bedroom home of 15 years - not by choice, but by financial necessity. Now, here we were, tracking behind the moving truck that was leading the way to our new home - a two-bedroom apartment that would be shared between my myself, my Mom, and my two sisters. I would share a bedroom with my sister for the first time since I was five.
Our relationship with stuff can be a deep and intimate one. Whether we realize it or not, the clothes we wear, the home we live in, the car we drive, and the trinkets and gadgets on our shelves play a definitive role in our lives. They tell people who we are, what we’re about, and what we’ve done. And, ultimately, what we’re worth.
Leading up to our big move, we sold most of our furniture on Craigslist and Kijiji. Two sets of couches, an 8-seater dining table, four queen-sized beds and entire bedroom furniture sets. All gone. What we weren’t able to sell, we kept in a rented storage facility. I now had nothing but my clothes, and a twin mattress. I would be sleeping on this mattress on the floor, next to my sister’s mattress on the floor, for the next six months.
In 1975, the average-sized house in Canada was 1,050 square feet. 25 to 30 years later, that number has more than doubled, with the average newly constructed single family home taking up around 2,600 square feet. According to the Bank of Canada, household debt is around 170% of average disposable income. That means Canadians owe about $1.70 for every dollar he or she earns per year, after taxes. Added to that is whopping levels of student loan debt, most recently sitting at approximately $28 billion dollars owed to all levels of government. In 2018, credit agency TransUnion reported that the average credit card balance is $4,154. Regardless of whether we’re simply trying to make ends meet, or we’re buying things we don’t need, it’s clear that we, as people living in the developed Western world, have a consumption problem.
Minimalism: The antidote to consumption
But, what’s driving this consumption problem? Over the last decade, social media has largely been to blame for more reported anxiety and depression amongst people of all ages, particularly Millennials. Before, we only had our schoolmates, colleagues, or neighbours to compare ourselves with. Now, we’ve got the Joneses and everyone else in our back pocket. It’s getting easier and easier to buy something you see on Facebook or Instagram immediately, with in-app purchasing slowly becoming the new norm. We’re buying more things we don’t need with money we don’t have, and it’s only going to get worse unless we reframe our approach to stuff and the accumulation of it.
Embracing the simple life
I slept on that twin mattress on the floor for 6 months. I took the train into the city every day, worked to pay off my credit card debt, help my Mom out, and ultimately, keep looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, after months of paying down my credit card balance, I was free and clear of all debt. Suddenly, I had some margin in my small income to save up for first and last month’s rent on my own place - a studio apartment in someone’s Toronto basement where I’d sleep on a couch. But, at least it was step up from sleeping on the floor.
Slowly but surely, I was rebuilding. I lived in that basement apartment for 9 months, during which time my boyfriend and I got back together after being broken up for a year, got engaged on New Year’s Eve, and I moved back to my Mom’s place (a new townhouse) a month later in order to save up for a wedding.
I left my Mom’s house as a married woman, having cash-flowed a $23,000 wedding with my husband. We moved into our 1-bedroom apartment in a 1930’s walk-up. We had nothing but a bed (finally!), a TV, and a sleeping bag on the hardwood floor that was doubling as a makeshift couch. And, I was in complete and utter bliss.
Reframing your perspective on loss
It was in losing everything that I reframed what was of real value to my life long before the concept of minimalism became mainstream. What I actually needed to be genuinely happy. And, as it turned out, I didn’t need much. Does any one single person or couple really need dozens of dinner plates? How many bedrooms in a home is too many? How important is it really to follow and buy the latest fashion and technology trends?
Losing all my material possessions taught me the most valuable lessons of my life, and how I now approach life and money. Here I breakdown three concepts that help me maintain focus on what is really important.
CONTENTMENT > COMPARISON
I wish I’d taken more photos of my dark, studio basement apartment. For all intents and purposes, it wasn’t Instagram-worthy. But, I was proud to be fully self-sufficient, living within my means, and working towards greater personal, career, and financial goals. I loved that little place. It wasn’t much, but it was enough, and it was good. Rather than scrolling through social media and comparing what others had that I didn’t, I practiced contentment and embraced joy in the season I was in. Before you go online and compare yourself others, look around at what you do have, and practice gratitude. Contentment will beat comparison every single time
INTENTION > IMPULSION
Honestly, since getting married, we haven’t added much stuff to our home or our lives. Instead, my husband and I have spent the last three and a half years traveling the world. And, we’ve been acutely intentional about the items we do bring into our our life. Minimalism involves being very mindful about purchasing decisions and evaluating what we actually need, the purpose an item serves, and as Marie Kondo made famous, we ask ourselves, “does it spark joy”? If a product or service doesn’t meet any of those criteria, we don’t buy it. Practicing intentionality circumvents impulsivity, helping us remain free of clutter, guilt, and shame, and also save money to travel more.
QUALITY > QUANTITY
I joke that I am the furthest thing from frugal. On the contrary, I have very expensive taste, and prefer luxury items, whenever possible. Minimalism is about quality over quantity. I’d rather wait, save up, and buy the thing I really want, than settle for something of lesser quality. The principle of buying quality over quantity is a key minimalism concept. It relates back to being intentional over impulsive. Just because something is on sale, doesn’t mean I need to buy it, or that I even want it. Have less stuff, but the best stuff. And, that doesn’t always mean it has to be expensive. I buy things second-hand whenever possible.
What can minimalism and loss teach us? Stuff will never bring you that deep, belly-laugh kind of joy. Things will never feel as good as a squeezy hug from a loved one, no matter what the marketing copy says. Now, the few, selective nice things, cool clothes, or home goods that I do have are simply a happy little bonus, and nothing more.