Not Your Mother’s Minimalism

In the third installment of “Kat Discusses Minimalism Despite Not Being an Expert,” I can give you an honest review of the new Minimalism documentary on Netflix. It’s called Less is Now, and I would absolutely recommend it, and in fact you can skip the book recommendation for Everything That Remains if you watch the documentary instead. Both are by the two guys behind the website The Minimalists, and the documentary is a retelling of the main themes in their book. The film clocks in about fifty-three minutes so it is concise and efficient which seems incredibly on-brand for these guys.

The monologue portions are over rehearsed by non-actors which gives them an awkward slam poetry vibe, but if you overlook that, the themes are really helpful for understanding the basic tenets of modern Minimalism. If you just Google the term, you’ll get a lot of photos of white rooms and empty walls, but that really has nothing to do with the actual theory or practice. It’s not a competition to see who can own the least, it’s streamlining your life so the things that you love are at the forefront always. For example, in the film Joshua’s mother dies and he wants to hold on to all her belongings in a storage unit, but has the realization that keeping only a handful of the most special items will have more emotional value, since they are specific items he can bring out and reminisce over, rather than boxes of stuff that will remain taped shut because the items don’t have a proper home. But, it’s important to note that you don’t have to be cutthroat about purging sentimental items in the year 2021, because there are methods to preserve these items more efficiently.

You can have boxes of old photographs that might fade or bend over time, or you can scan them all into a computer and back them up on a hard drive. Get one of those digital picture frames that flashes different photos all day, and you can enjoy all of them. You can scan important documents and free up space in your filing cabinet for the papers that must be kept in hard copies, like social security cards and original signed contracts. Upload your receipts or even your kids’ art from school so it can be preserved by taking up minimal physical space.

The key theme in the documentary that isn’t as prevalent in the book is their reflection on consumerism. The guest speakers discuss the ways Amazon, Google, and Facebook advertise to their users, and how the commercials are targeting a feeling of deficit. I won’t be happy unless I have that. I need that to feel young. Everyone has that except me. The key takeaway is something I have been working on in my own life for the last year or so: if you want to buy something, make sure it’s your idea.

Our city cancelled the recycling program when several drivers got COVID, so our shopping shame is haunting us from the garage.

Black Friday is a great example of brand-driven need. This is it, the biggest sale day of the year when everything is deeply discounted, and we show up at big box stores or sign onto our computers to be told what we just can’t pass up. When there’s a stampede for a cheap toaster at Walmart on Black Friday, those people didn’t camp out overnight because they wanted a toaster, they wanted to “win” something, and they wanted a deal. A big change I’ve made is not shopping a sale unless I already know I need/want something. If there’s something I want to purchase, I will wait for a sale or buy it full price. If I don’t remember I wanted it during the next sale, I didn’t need it. If I’m willing to pay full price, I probably need it. I have unsubscribed to all the emails advertising sales, and if I need something, or the kids need new socks, I’ll shop around online and decide what works best. Stores like Old Navy are a problem for me, because that’s where I get most of the kids’ clothes and once you spend money, they give you discounts and digital cash for your next purchase, which expire in a month. But…it’s free money, right? The next time I spend $100 I’ll get $25 off! If there are things you need, it’s a great deal. If you don’t need anything, you just lost $75 and prime dresser real estate.

I’ve unfollowed a lot of Instagram personalities that I enjoyed watching because I found myself skipping over their shopping content and discovered that’s 95% of their activity. I follow people still who do the occasional ad, but that isn’t their primary focus. I would find myself thinking I needed some tie-dye joggers even though that is not something I would ever wear, and realize mindless scrolling through influencers and straight advertisements was convincing me I needed something I absolutely didn’t. I’m not immune to ads and FOMO, but I really have made progress checking in and making sure an item will actually serve me well beyond the excitement of getting a package in the mail (2020 was boring at home, and mail was the highlight of our days).

So the bottom line is that you can absolutely shop, and buy things that spark joy (Marie Kondo has an online store where she sells a $75 tuning fork if that’s your jam) but make sure the idea for your purchase came from you. But if you’re setting out to be a Minimalist, first subtract. Maybe you have a couch with a busy pattern and you want something more serene, but you first need to know what else is staying and what is leaving, so you can better assess your space. After all, you might shed so much excess that you want to downsize your home, and the couch you’re thinking about today might not suit the new leaner space.

The documentary offers several testimonials from people who speak presumably from their homes, and their walls aren’t bare white asylum walls, they have art or photos that are specific to the owner. Joshua Fields Milburn shares a scene from his home where you’ll notice a Vitamix, the most maximal of all the blenders, but it is in use and must be important to his daily life. Also, the big picture ideal is that buying a $600 blender (it better make my whole dinner and clean itself for that price) would require commitment and research, but since he doesn’t buy anything he doesn’t need, he’s got the cash to spend on something that will enhance his daily life. Just think of all the impulse purchases we make in a year, of all the things we purge that have never been used, the supplies for projects we never start. If we hadn’t bought those things at all, we could all have the Vitamix equivalent that would enhance our day to day lives.

The two authors, Joshua and Ryan, came to Minimalism at different speeds. Joshua gradually shed most of his stuff over a year, and Ryan boxed up everything in his condo and only unpacked what he absolutely needed over three weeks, then donated the rest. I fall somewhere in the middle. I did the whole KonMari Decluttering, but when I reassessed a year later, there were things I still hadn’t touched, so I did a touch-up. This summer I went through a mini-decluttering with the kids, where we pulled out all their toys and resorted everything so they could find what they needed, like poor Mr PotatoHead’s facial features that were all in different bins. We threw out anything broken and donated toys they had outgrown. But, since then we’ve had two birthdays and Christmas, so you can imagine the chaos going on in the playroom right now. Their play area is also their classroom five days a week, and it’s hard to keep everything in it’s place.

There is no perfect example of Minimalism, as your belongings are specific to you. In order to make sure it stays that way, choose your belongings yourself, and don’t let a “50% off” tag tell you what you need.

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