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What You Own, Owns You: Minimalism For People Who Love Things

“You are not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You are not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You are not your fucking khakis. You are all singing, all dancing crap of the world.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Radical acceptance is not easy. It can be tough to come to grips with the idea that the way you have always viewed the world may not be working anymore. But that is no reason to not see it differently.

I had to come to terms with the fact that the way that I was living my life was not fulfilling me. I had to realize that the notion of success I had been chasing after for years was empty. Most importantly, I had to accept that I alone was to blame for the predicament I was in.

I was following the typical American path. Get the degree. The job. Move to the city. Get an apartment. I was on my way, or so I thought. I was so driven to succeed that I had lost focus on why I wanted to succeed. What was the whole purpose of working long hours, making a lot of money, and climbing the ladder?

Honestly, I didn’t know. It was just the only thing I had ever known. This mindless living, left unchecked created massive anxiety in my life. I was lost. I didn’t know what to believe anymore. And it was in this space that I found out about mindful living and minimalism.

Millions of people were dealing with exactly the same problems as I was and were doing something about it. They were taking back control of their lives and doing some pretty amazing things. Immediately, I was hooked. By living intentionally, I could pursue work that I was passionate about while not giving up anything that brought me true value.

The American Un-Dream

The American Dream is shifting for millions of people. Jobs are collapsing; wages are stagnant, and even with all of our advances in technology, economic productivity hasn’t increased.

Most people associate more money with more happiness, due to the freedom they believe the former will bring. However, that is not the case. As many people know, there is a limit to the economic utility (re: happiness) that money brings and that limit is around $70,000–80,000 a year for couples. The number varies on the city, but the truth remains: Money does not bring happiness.

In fact, the things you own, including that massive 30-year mortgage on your home, are more of a liability to your growth and happiness than assets to them.

Most people view the things they own as assets. They look into their closet or their living room and see valuable products that boost their self-worth. The flaw with this way of thinking is that things rarely give us the kind of satisfaction we think they will. In fact, the things you own could very well be the liability holding you back from living a life on your own terms.

By following their lead and taking on the challenge to follow a more mindful life, you too could come to understand just how much more control you can have over your financial and personal freedom. Here are some simple strategies that you can implement today if you so choose.

The Alternative Wisdom of Living

“When it comes right down to it, the challenge of mindfulness is to realize that “this is it.” Right now is my life. And I accept that.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn

Minimalism, or mindful living, is not about owning nothing and moving to Walden Pond, however that wouldn’t be the worst idea for most overwhelmed Americans living in debt.

Why minimalism is so powerful is that it allows you to take more risks and do more of the things that you want because you have fewer things to pay for and fewer things to leave behind.

In other words, less becomes more.

It may be time to take a good hard look at the path you are on, the things you spend your money on, and the way you want to live your life because the world is changing and it may be time to wake up and take back your freedom.

This lifestyle isn’t for everyone, and that’s okay. I’m not trying to sell you on anything, but simply show you that there is another way.

Sustaining The Status Quo

Once upon a time, there was a young man named Billy.

Billy was a 28-year-old corporate employee living in Chicago. An expensive city, but definitely doable at most income levels if you are resourceful enough.

Currently, Billy works an 8 to 6 job in finance making $150k a year. He doesn’t hate his job, but he has always wanted to start his own business one day and just hasn’t ever taken the leap. He has always promised himself that he would one day, but over time, as his salary increased, he began to feel more and more fear about leaving the security.

“I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it’s not the answer.” — Jim Carrey

After saving up $100,000, he and his wife just bought a 2-bedroom condo in one of the nicest areas of town. Although the down payment used up most of his savings, they viewed the purchase as an “investment” and felt like it was the best move for their stage in life.

On top of the new condo, they also had to buy new furniture to make the place feel like home. So, they bought a bed, a couple couches, and some beautiful, and expensive, artwork to articulate their unique style.

Once the down payment and all of the furnishings were paid for, Billy had very little left in his personal savings account.

This would’ve been a perfect time to start that business he had always dreamed of, but now, with the new condo and increased living expenses, he can no longer take the risk.

Billy, just like most overextended people, finds himself working to live. He has to stay in a high paying job that has long hours to pay for the lifestyle he believes he needs to be happy.

Without ever checking this logic, Billy will continue living a life of quiet desperation — unless he takes action to stop this way of doing and starts intentionally “being” something new. He must start living intentionally where his lifestyle and expenses revolve around the way he wants to live in the world (job, location, freedom, etc.), instead of mindlessly increasing expenses to match his salary.

He may never get out of this cycle. He may find himself, years from now, working to live, and failing to ever live intentionally. Worst of all, he may never start that business he always dreamed up, because of the golden handcuffs that lock him into a high paying job to pay the mortgage.

There Is Another Way

“The future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” — William Gibson

Now, on the other side of town, Jackie is sitting at a coffee shop contemplating what to do next with her life. Jackie is 33. She has been working in marketing for almost a decade and is completely burnt out.

A couple years ago, she bought a one-bedroom condo when the “market was hot,” believing, like Billy, that buying a home was a good investment. However, over the years of paying a mortgage and losing her life savings on the down payment, she is becoming more aware that the ideal of owning a home is less appealing than she thought, due in part to her realization that she doesn’t actually own the home, the bank that lent her the money does.

Jackie is single and like Billy, she has always dreamed of living a life on her own terms, with the freedom to pursue her creative interests. She has grown tired of the “grind” and wants to break free. Jackie tells her friends that she wants to live intentionally, and honestly, dedicating herself to something that matters.

After reading a couple books on minimalism and the gig economy, she was hooked. Although she doesn’t see herself as an obsessive consumer, the idea of financial freedom and living a life on your own terms captivated her.

That’s what I want, she tells herself, after completing the documentary Minimalism on Netflix. I want to live an intentional life, where I can work on things that I care about and not be strapped down because of the things I own.

She pulls out a journal and starts writing:

  • I want to be able to travel without worrying about paying my mortgage.
  • I want to take time off whenever I want to, instead of meticulously planning my PTO days around the company schedule.
  • I want financial freedom AND professional purpose that are driven by a new way of being in the world.

With her end in mind, Jackie started taking a ruthless eye to everything she owned — and what she found astonished her. She realized that most of the items in her home added no true value to her, or would add no value to the new life she was planning.

She was shocked by how much stuff she had accumulated over the years of “not really being an obsessive consumer.” This realization led to another empowering insight: Jackie could sell all of the things that didn’t add value and make some extra cash to fund her new journey.

A win-win.

The biggest expense (and liability)was her home (re: mortgage). She had bought the house because that is what “you are supposed to do.” It didn’t bring her any more joy than renting a place, so she called up a realtor friend and put it on the market.

If she could sell her home, she would have a large “safety net” to fund her newfound freedom until she got her new business off the ground. For the first time in her life, Jackie was making the decision to live her life intentionally.

Within days she had sold 80% of her possessions and had an offer on the house. Once she sold the house, she would finally be “free” of everything that had been holding her back from living the life she wanted.

Prior to this, Jackie and Billy had viewed their possessions as assets, or at the least, value adds to their lives. But after ruthlessly analyzing each item, they understood that, in fact, what they owned them. Their so-called assets had become liabilities that were keeping them tied down to a life they didn’t want.

Lower Your Overhead

“The true value of a human being is determined primarily by the measure and sense in which he has attained liberation from the self.” — Einstein

Any business owner knows that increasing your overhead is bad for your bottom line and can stagnate growth. But we as individuals rarely look our expenses this way.

We attach too much meaning to things and therefore lose sight of what they really are; jumbled-up raw materials meant to give the feeling of substance, but without ever really doing so.

We are emotional about our purchases, irrationally believing that the clothes on our hangers and the mortgage with the bank somehow bring happiness and security that we so long for. On the contrary, these are the very things that are decreasing your life’s “net-margin.”

Loads of books and blog posts have been written about how to become more mindful and intentional with your life. Some focus on the spiritual side of things. Others focus on the organizational side of things. And some focus on the financial freedom side of things.

I won’t belabor the point here because the act of becoming a minimalist is in itself very easy. It involves looking at your life through the lens of fulfillment rather than accumulation. It requires you to be ruthless with your ingrained logic and analyze whether the way you are living and consuming is adding value to your life.If it isn’t, then you need to ask yourself why are you continuing to do it.

All of these things are simple, but not easy. It requires a mindset shift, a reexamining of innate beliefs and a reorganization of priorities.

If I told you that forgoing that new wardrobe now would allow you to retire early and pursue your passion for teaching yoga, would you still make the purchase? My guess is that you probably wouldn’t, or you would at least take a long hard look at the benefit the new wardrobe would bring you before swiping your card.

The problem is, we rarely look at our life -specifically our purchases -in totality like this. This creates a life in which we work to pay for our expenses versus mapping our expenses to how we want to work.

Minimalism offers an alternative to this thinking. And it isn’t want you think. Throwing away the things that don’t “spark joy” is a great concept, but if you are just going to buy a new wardrobe next season, it doesn’t really change much. If you are only focused on the number of items you own, then you are missing the point. It’s about practice, not theory.

Let’s map out a couple of easy steps to get you started, even if you think you “could never” be a minimalist.

Strategies For People Who Love Things

“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” ― Joshua Fields Millburn
  1. The Laundry Micro-Purge (Area: Things)

The biggest hang-up most people have starting out is that they try to do it all at once and get overwhelmed. Just like any other skill or habit, mindful living takes practice and time for it to become ingrained. So, I suggest you start small with what I like to call the micro-laundry purge.

Here’s how it works. The next time you have a full basket of laundry, go into your closet/dresser and see what is remaining. Most of us recycle the same 20% of clothes 80% of the time, therefore the things in your hamper probably constitute the items of clothing you most often wear This means what is left are things you most likely haven’t worn in months, if not years.

This is where you start.

It may be hard, but before doing your laundry pick out one section of clothes (e.g. t-shirts, shorts, pants, etc.) to purge. Take the time to pull out each individual piece and lay it on your bed or floor, making sure that you can see each piece separately from the others.

Next, pick up each piece and ask yourself these questions:

  1. Could I make money if I sold this item?
  2. When was the last time I wore this item?
  3. What is one reason that would make it reasonable to get rid of this item?

If you still feel like you need to keep this item, great, put it back in your closet or dresser and move on to the next. The purpose of this exercise, at least initially, is not to throw out all of your things, but to start becoming aware of the things you own and appreciating them more.

If you are on the fence, set up a 3-month box, where you keep items that you are unsure about to see if you will use it in the next three months. If you don’t, toss it.

Your goal on the first go around should be to sell/donate at least 1 item. Then commit to doing this exercise each time you do laundry. It should take all of 5–10 minutes and will be a great way to start ridding yourself of unnecessary things that could result in you making some extra cash.

2. The Little Black Book Technique (Area: Finances)

If you are anything like me, personal finance is rarely at the top of your mind. I used to think that my finances would work themselves out and that I would innately be able to tell if I was spending too much. This method quickly stopped working when I moved to New York and started making 50% less than I was in a cheaper city.

At first, I did what most people do when they embark on the personal finance rabbit hole, I created a budget. Inevitably, this strategy failed to0 because it was too much work to keep track of and tag every expense.

I knew financial freedom was the ultimate goal, so I kept working out new ways to help me control my expenses and that is when I came up with the Little Black Book Technique.

The LBBT is so simple you may think it won’t work for you, but I promise it will. Everyone I have told about this strategy has ended up making it part of their daily routine because of the power it gave them over their expenses. Remember, you can’t always control your income, but you can control your expenses.

How it works:

Borrow/Buy a small notebook that can fit in your pocket.
For one day, track everything you buy in this notebook.
Write out what you bought, where you bought it, how much it cost, and why (e.g.. “I was hungry”).
At the end of the day, total up your expenses and carefully look at each line item and ask yourself these questions:
Why did I need to buy this item?
Is what I bought still making me happy?
How could I have avoided spending money on this item?
Did this purchase remove a pain from my life? It is well known that removing pain offers more satisfaction than adding excitement.

Like the Micro-Purge, the purpose of this single-day strategy is to make you mindful of your spending, and more importantly, the story of why you consume things. Try this strategy for one day and if you enjoy it, think about doing it for a full week. It may radically change your money mindset, which in turn could change your life.

3. The Minimalists Flywheel (Area: Mindset)

A flywheel is a mechanical device that resists change. It takes a lot of energy to get a flywheel moving, but once you do it is hard to get it to stop.

This is a great metaphor for transitioning to a minimal, mindful living mindset. It can be hard to change your way of thinking, but once you get the flywheel moving it becomes hard to go back. The main reason humans have such a hard time getting rid of things is that of two psychological factors: Loss Aversion and Identity Investment. If you can learn to be aware of your biases, and move past them, you will be well on your way to getting the minimal flywheel moving.

The main reason humans have such a hard time getting rid of things is that of two psychological factors: Loss Aversion and Identity Investment. If you can learn to be aware of your biases, and move past them, you will be well on your way to getting the minimal flywheel moving.

Loss aversion is the psychological fact that humans perceive the pain of losing something to be greater than the pleasure of having it. This is why it feels like you “have” to keep that sweatshirt from your 8th-grade band camp. You are emotionally attached to it and feel that losing it will bring you great pain, which it won’t because the sweatshirt is simply cotton and ink.

The second term, identity investment, is a dangerous self-identification to the things you own. It means humans tend to believe that their self-worth is found in the things they own, but as we learned above, this is simply not the case. In Fight Club, Tyler Durden proselytized that: “The things you own, end up owning you.” Identity Investment is what Tyler was talking about.

Okay, now that you understand your biases, here are some categories to focus on first to limit the pain and increase the odds of getting your flywheel moving.

  1. Start with things in storage: Unless it’s your mother’s china, if it’s in storage you can live without it.
  2. DVDs and CDs: If you own either of these items, please throw them away.
  3. Television: This may seem absurd, and it was to me at first, but I have been living without a TV for over a year and I’m still breathing! Use your computer, or instead, read a book or talk to another person.
  4. Clothing: By following the Micro-Purge strategy, you are well on your way already You really don’t need all that shit, I promise. If you are a woman and don’t believe me, check out Project 333. You’re welcome.
  5. Furniture: No, I’m not suggesting you throw away your bed or your couch, but think long and hard if you need that 6th lamp or that 4th side table. Furniture is the biggest liability to mobility and freedom. If you want to go extreme, try renting out your apartment and living in a furnished Airbnb for two weeks. You may realize that you don’t really miss all those things. Pro Tip: This will make moving, traveling, and relocation easier, cheaper and quicker. Sign me up.

Pulling it Back Together

Most of the things you own are not assets. They are liabilities. If you are ready to regain control of your life and have financial and personal freedom, adopting a more minimalistic approach to life will serve you well.

As Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus say at the end of their documentary, Minimalism,

“Love people and use things because the opposite never works.”

It’s time to start prioritizing life over work. It’s time we start living intentionally, grounded in our decisions, resisting the pull of modern society to tell us what we should do or who we should be.

You are already you and that is enough. You are enough. Thanks for being you.

Go Deeper

Do you want to be more focused and find more happiness in your life?

If so, sign up for my free 5 Day Mindfulness Email Course. I’ll be sending you an email every day that will help you reduce stress, increase focus, and find more happiness!

If you are ready to take back control of your life and start living above stress and overwhelm…

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Originally published at www.fullyrichlife.com on June 8, 2017.