The Lose-Lose Choice of Living in an American City or Suburb

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Growing up, I considered myself a “city person.”

In retrospect, I now realize that translated to “I don’t know what to do with myself when there aren’t people and businesses surrounding me.” Then, when I did go to the city, the first thing I did was find a major shopping street, and let my pop culture insecurity-induced consumerist desires come to life. Ok – that’s not quite the truth – in reality I have so little awareness of pop culture (I become pretty clueless when people start talking about famous actors and other celebrities) that its impact on me is pretty minimal. But the part about finding a major shopping street is true. As a kid who stayed at home 99% of the time, I racked up plenty of insecurities over time and never quite figured out how to deal with them, and buying my way out was a coping mechanism that I had to get rid of. The idea of minimalism and simple living in classic keeping up with the Jones’s environment was not a concept I was ever really exposed to until much later.

I admit, cities have perks I enjoy immensely. Infrastructure is wayfarer-friendly, which means stores and services can be easily accessed without a car. There are more festivities and public events. There are more career and networking opportunities. The social scene is more diverse. Simply put, the availability of human beings you can interact with is just greater. It is tiring, though, especially as an introvert, to be out and about all the time. Fortunately, introverts can experience not-being-entirely-a-hermit by mingling in the city, with the option of talking to others.

At the same time, city-living has its limitations. It’s expensive. Really, really expensive, for some cities. You’re paying a major premium for the privilege of being in the middle of the action, and for some, it all gets old as priorities change. Approaching 30, my city-dwelling friends are starting to reach typical home-buying and family-rearing age, and more and more of them are starting to leave the city in favor of buying a home with a lawn and hosting large parties and barbecues on a back door patio.

This is where it gets tricky.

I have mixed feelings about suburbia. Or at least, the suburbs I’ve been to.

First of all, its ludicrous that every single American family is expected to own their own huge private dwelling – do we really need to eat up that much land and resources to support our already rich lifestyles? America is a huge country, with not great rail infrastructure. Thus, it was built on the premise that the vast majority of its inhabitants owned cars. And so, chances are, you are driving your car everywhere. To the grocery store. To the daycare. To Target. To the gym. To the yoga studio (I guess to make up for the stress of driving there??). To your kids’ dance practice. To the theatre. To work. All that time spent driving is time not spent walking, or cycling, or doing something else remotely active. So of course, we start losing our health, unless we become gym rats or runners, which is pretty difficult if you’re tired and run-down all that driving (it’s not exactly an energizing activity). Exercise and moving around is just not built into suburb life. Sitting on the couch, driving everywhere, and sitting at restaurants/movies/offices is, well, fattening. At night, walk around any neighborhood in a middle-class suburb and you’ll probably be 1. The only person walking and 2. See lots of flickering TV screens in the windows.

Ideally, being active should be easily baked into the day. We buy all sorts of fancy equipment for our houses, hoping that dropping that money will motivate us to work out. But it doesn’t help that suburbs are ill-equipped to handle bicycles. All sorts of sidewalk-riding routes (too dangerous to ride on the road, so the next best choice is riding on the sidewalk) and disappearing sidewalks (sidewalks that just “end”) next to 45-mph speed limit roads and the absence of bike racks at strip malls are not conducive to bicycle riding. Everything being so spread out makes it so the grocery store and the school are too far apart to realistically walk to.

So when I ask myself the question of whether or not I am a city person, I have to be frank: it’s hard to say. Neither is great. As a minimalist, I think I have an overall dissatisfaction with both. I don’t want to be surrounded by advertisements and businesses wanting money, and I certainly don’t like high costs of living. At the same time, I don’t want to be too far from people in general – feeling connected to our communities is a basic human need. I feel like I have this dream of living in a city like Copenhagen, where bicycles rule the road, people value their health, and the community is in god spirits.

Fortunately, there is hope – millennials in Seattle have recently reversed the trend – car ownership is finally starting to decline, thanks to the uptick in people cycling, car-sharing, or public transportation. For our health and for our environment, I look forward to a future where we are not boxed into car ownership should we choose not to live in an expensive city.

Signs that Minimalism is Working for You

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I’ve been rocking the minimalist mindset for a few years now. I had gotten myself deep in clutter during my early 20’s and resolved to change it around 24 or so. Growing up, I had picked up my mom’s habit of never throwing away anything for the sake of not being wasteful. A virtuous reason, but not without its consequences. It took me a long time to realize that my time spent cleaning up and organizing my things was also wasteful, and buying more and more stuff was only adding to the pile. Watch The True Cost and you’ll get a not so rosy picture of the hidden tolls behind our consumption habits (the montage of young teenagers showing off their shopping “hauls” on YouTube stuck with me, but here’s an example of what I mean).

Not everything is bad, though. Minimalism when viewed from the outside is criticized as stark, idealistic, and full of sacrifice. When I first heard of tthe  concept, my immediate reaction was defensive. How many things am I allowed to own to be a “minimalist?” How can I be without my things? What if I regret throwing something away? Who would I be without my treasured possessions? So I tip-toed into the journey tentatively, slowly – not quite Marie Kondo style where you go all in, but as the journey has progressed, I’ve noticed quite a few things.

1. Cleaning takes less time. I used to get tremendous joy from the act of cleaning up and organizing. It gave me a sense of accomplishment – as moving around and other forms of exercise usually dies. But it honestly gets old after a while. It’s a bandaid solution to the problem of why does my home get so dirty so easily that it warrants cleaning it so much? Now that there is so little stuff to put away, all it is is some scrubbing and vacuuming of stray bits of dirt and hair every couple weeks and my place is still largely spotless.

2. You no longer have a need to “organize” things. Everything has its place. Stuff that gets used is returned to their places. But for a while, I spent a lot of time perusing The Container Store, looking for ways to better organize all of my stuff.

Then it hit me: Silly Meg – You don’t need more organizing solutions. You just need fewer things that need organizing. I think my dad said it best when he exclaimed that it was ridiculous that I was buying containers for things that already came with free containers. Decanting is generally an aesthetic exercise (unless you buy in bulk).

Not that an utter lack of thoughtful design in your home isn’t valuable – because it is very much a way of creating a sanctuary you actually want to be in – but reducing the stuff removes some of the need for it. I haven’t had to organize makeup since I switched to rubbing some argan oil on my face when it gets dry. If I need makeup I can borrow it from someone who uses it more often so I don’t need to blow money on something I only use a few times a year.

3. Less time looking for things. When you know where everything is, and your system prevents stuff from getting misplaced, then you won’t need to look for things as often. Given the ridiculous amount of time and panic we put ourselves through looking for our things, clearing out all of the hiding places will make what we do own more easily accessible.

4. A decreased need, and desire, to go “shopping.” With fewer things comes fewer maintenance tasks, and fewer tools needed for those maintenance tasks. With how much thought I put into purchases these days, and how little desire I have to get into my car and drive, it’s no surprise that I rarely go to the mall these days.

5. …and subsequently, a change in your spending habits. With less stuff needing maintenance and care, my trips to Target whittled down from once every two weeks to once a month. Purchases made on a whim were reduced as I got more thoughtful about what would make the cut to live in my home. The price of maintaining, storing, moving, and disposing of the item and subsequent environmental impacts are all questions I’d ask myself before handing over any cash. What I do spend my money on – classes, books, travel, gifts for others –  is all tied to innate desires and goals rather than buying stuff that I’ll get tired of in a few months.

6. Less bumping into things – less stubbing of toes, accidentally whacking an elbow, stepping on odds and ends, knocking over decorative knickknacks, and other annoyances. Helpful for adults, children, and older adults too. With a clear floor, there isn’t just room to walk, but room to dance!

7. More time to ponder life. Ohh, this one is huge. Somehow, I’ve gotten myself into a situation where I’m getting identity crises on a weekly basis. With less time living life on autopilot mode (cycling through routines without any break), I’ve gotten more and more thoughtful about how I want to live, which leads to me questioning my thoughts, behaviors, and actions more thoroughly. Living with intention has thus become a habit.

8. More space in your brain. This leads to more calmness of mind, as you have fewer things that call for your attention and valuable brain energy. There are only so many things you can deal with at any one time, and Type A personalities like me tend to forget that. You’ll then also be more able to comprehend difficult subjects or run your brain through something mentally challenging.

9. You’re more efficient with your time. I suddenly found that I was spending so much less time doing mindless, unsatisfying tasks, and spending more time on things that have proved fulfilling. The workout equivalent for me would be the mindless 30-minutes-on-a-treadmill workout vs the lifting progressively heavier weights workout, where I can see and feel progress.

10. You’re happier . This is the bottom line, right? All of these enhancements should lead you to become a happier, more fulfilled human being. If it’s not working out this way, then perhaps there is another type of change that needs to happen. Minimalism is just a means to an end.

Breaking My Shopping Habit

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As a former shopping addict, I can tell you that it took a a lot longer to break the habit than I am willing to admit. The Chicago area is flat and rather uninteresting from a geological perspective. Sure, you’ve got plains, grasslands, forests, and man-made Lake Michigan beach – all of which is gorgeous in the summer and crystalline in the winter. But as far as “things to do,” urbanites and surburbanites often end up running off to shopping malls. Chicago suburbanites are spoiled by fabulous venues like Woodfield Mall, Old Orchard Mall, Northbrook Court, Chicago Premium Outlets, Mag Mile, and so on. Naturally, the sprawling nature of the area is conducive to valuable retail real estate, and spending a day shopping at the mall ogling over shoes happens to be a popular weekend activity around here.

I spent my childhood around relatively rich kids who got more or less what they wanted – birthday parties at outside venues, brand new toys from Toys ‘R Us, and custom-made cakes. It was a wasteful, indulgent environment of plenty, and that was the only reality I knew. The kids on the school bus showed off their toys and playthings all the time. I was never taught the dangers of materialism or the shallowness of judging others by what they had and flaunted. I was never told to find friends based on their personalities and not based on their level of privilege. Even as adults, we are encouraged to befriend powerful people to boost our chances of making it professionally or befriend rich people so that we can take advantage of their wealth. Unfortunately, there is truth behind that advice, but in the end, the presence of an ulterior motive brands these kinds of relationships as superficial.

On the bright side, the reason I can review products and provide my opinion to you free of affiliate ties is due to my shamefully extensive experience shopping and hours spent researching and testing products. Not in quite as an organized way as some sites, and my opinion is just one opinion, but after years of weekly Amazon packages, day trips to outlet malls, hours spent meandering around indoor malls and browsing shopping sites, I figure I’ll use my knowledge to help educate you, my reader.

It took me getting fed up with cleaning up my room all the time and having no time for anything else. It took an honest look at my credit card statements and shuddering at the numbers. It took many frustrating shopping trips, realizing that my insatiable desire for the Perfect Everything was just that. Insatiable. And that insatiability had to change. Even though I was a minimalist, I still felt a desire to replace or renew all of the things I already owned, which in itself is not minimalist behavior. My mind was still consumed by Stuff – albeit, less the accumulation of, and more the optimization of. For a few years, I upgraded everything from my shoes to my backpack to my gloves to things as mundane as my keyboard. I would have different “phases” every month, and I would look at the money I had in my account as a way of seeing how much I could afford rather than how much I could sock away in an investment account. It took several years of decluttering, relapsing, slowly adopting minimalist habits, and, quite frankly – getting older – which, by constantly reminding us of our limited time on earth and fleeting youthful bodies, has a way of gradually revealing what we should care about.

You can upgrade anything, really. I could upgrade to the next generation laptop, set of headphones, or keyboard. I could upgrade to a nicer car, a nicer house, a nicer couch, a nicer mattress. I could always add to my shoe collection, sweater collection, and so on. There is always more that can be desired. Until something limits you. For many people, it’s the money. Thankfully, I hit a Stuff Tolerance limit so that I could intentionally stop rather than forcibly stop. I couldn’t stand the maintenance of all the stuff I owned and how much time and energy it was eating out of my schedule. I wanted to spend less time getting ready in the morning, so I nixed the makeup collection and the stuffed wardrobe. I wanted to spend less time packing for trips, so I got rid of travel-unfriendly clothing. I wanted to spend less time cleaning up after myself, so I got rid of as many decorative items and unnecessary furniture as I could. And I relapsed. I relapsed over and over again for a while, trading in old versions for better versions in a never-ending cycle of upgrade-ism.

I’ve somehow stopped my upgrade-ism for a couple months now, only buying things when things break or wear beyond repair, and only recently started to appreciate what has managed to survive the purging of belongings. The gifts I did receive for my birthday this year were either extremely practical or extremely meaningful, and I’ve started to taste the wonderful feeling of gratitude for what I have. I hope that the upgrade-ism habit has stopped – not because I’ve already upgraded everything – but because I am getting wiser about what really needs to be upgraded or replaced.

Let’s Talk Jewelry: The Oxymoron that is Minimalist Jewelry

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I know, I know. We need to talk about jewelry. I am a young professional woman and a so-called self-proclaimed  minimalist. And yes, we are going to have the jewelry talk. Before you come at me with your pitchforks and cries of heirloom problems and diversification of assets and judgmentality – just relax for a second and just know that I do indeed own and wear jewelry. I’m not here to tell you to throw it all away – what a scary thought!

Yes – fundamentally, there is never a need for jewelry. There is no reason why anyone would need jewelry to survive. Nobody climbing icefalls on Everest would ever decide to take a pearl necklace because it would help him or her safely ascend the mountain, and animals certainly don’t care to wear jewelry. The value and meaning of jewelry is assigned by culture or religion for symbolic reasons only – traditions, memories, class, aesthetics – all of which don’t really require material things. Historically, silversmiths and goldsmiths hammered away at crafting fine crown jewels and intricate adornments for members of the upper class. It was rare to see a peasant wearing a gold necklace.

Today, jewelry is still used frequently as a marker of social class. This is where my vexation starts. We tell prospective husbands that a wedding ring should cost three months of salary, but we don’t tell them that the cost of the ring correlates with their chance of divorce. To think that financing a rock is a thing. Just like how we ask questions like “How much house can I afford” rather than “How much house can I buy to maximize my LIFE EFFICIENCY?!” Life efficiency defined partially as: less time spent sitting in traffic and more time enjoying the immediate community without requiring a trek. These days, loans have made it ridiculously easy for most people to purchase things they cannot really afford. They’re essentially the opposite of sale prices. Instead of 10% off, a loan is really a way of saying, “pay 20% of the price, then another 10% on top for every month that you haven’t paid the remainder of the price!” In a country like America, uninformed people get sucked into predatory lending contracts all the time and end up in financial disasters when they realize that perhaps they didn’t get the whole picture of what they were getting themselves into.

I realize that I went off on a tangent – but the point I’m making is, fine jewelry is generally a poor investment – diamonds are not actually rare – and at least in this country, because we can easily take out a loan and buy one, mean nothing in the realm of social class. The appearance of social class is becoming meaningless anyway. These days, when I see someone’s fancy car, I wouldn’t automatically assume that that person is well off. That person could be in crippling debt, or just be willing to toil away at the office a bunch of extra years to afford it. Moreover, after having spent enough time in the corporate world and paying a lot more attention to people’s conduct and professionalism than the jewelry they are wearing, I’ve become numb to the presence of jewelry. I’ve only really paid attention to it if it was particularly distracting, like clinking bracelets, oversized necklaces, or baubly earrings. My mom has told me stories of people cutting off strangers’ fingers in China to steal rings for money. I’m sure they’re mostly freak situations, but nonetheless – just like with expensive bags, I prefer the peace of mind of not having “STEAL ME” posters all over me than the “pride” of walking around with a thousand dollar necklace. Lighter, freer, more peace of mind. No need to remove jewelry at the airport security line and no need to worry about someone stealing fine jewelry.

But that doesn’t mean I go to my nearest Claire’s and try to get the sophisticated look with fake pearls and cubic zirconia. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Sterling silver tarnishes and gold wears down. My favorite material of choice…happens to be stainless steel.

Yes, surgical stainless steel. The kind they use in dental implants and other medical devices. It’s durable, hypoallergenic, easy to clean without nasty chemicals, and doesn’t stain easily like sterling silver does. Best of all, it’s not expensive. Yet, it’s so hard to find places that make jewelry made of stainless steel (my favorite vendor is from the Netherlands). As far as jewelry, I am partial to studs because I can put them on and forget about them. Rings, necklaces and bracelets usually get in the way of athletic pursuits, not to mention the danger of snagging on delicate materials. Studs are a simple way to adorn myself without much fuss. And isn’t that the point of minimalism? To reduce the amount of fuss you have to make so you can focus on what’s truly important to you?

Spare Yourself from Overdecorating, Gifts, Last-Minute Shopping, and other Holiday Woes

The holidays have become an iconic time of gift exchanges, unbridled dietary habits, and restless travel time. With just how much running around we have to do – buying things for large families, cooking epic meals, writing checks for charitable organizations, buying gifts for gift exchanges at work or at friends’ parties…it’s no wonder “Christmas feels more like a deadline than a holiday” (a shower thought from Reddit).

December has turned into a spending and binge-eating frenzy. At my office, holiday babble sounds like:

“I have x more days until I have to eat right again…”

As though there was some kind of time limit…

“I still have to finish Christmas shopping for everyone in my extended family and in laws…”

Because I’m sure everyone needs another “little something.”

“I was supposed to get my package yesterday, but UPS keeps delaying it and now it won’t show up until after Christmas!”

Oh, well…

“As the decorator in the house, I’ve gotten a little crazy with the lights…”

Amongst frustrations like people not knowing what to get other people, etc. Like not getting someone something is not an option.

I’m lucky, though. As someone who travels off-season and isn’t chained to kids’ school vacation schedules, I purposely pick up the slack from everyone who is vacationing over the holidays and jetting off from crowded airports (read: quiet office!). Since my extended family is thousands of miles away, I’m spared from the ridiculousness of buying-gifts-for-family-members-I-barely-know. For the most part, we only buy things for each other that we actually want, so we’re spared from the guilt of not wearing some ugly sweater I got from my aunt or some other similar situation and don’t burden our loved ones with things like themed linens or gag gifts. I don’t feel pressure to compete with neighbors with Christmas decorations – I let retailers and the city put up lights and I can enjoy them without burdening myself with putting them up and taking them down.

My idea of an indulgent holiday season is cozy time by the fireside, frolicking in the snow, learning artful present wrapping, and reflecting on how to make the upcoming year more levels of awesome. I find solace in cleaning up my life when no one else is around, enjoying the quiet snowfalls of winter, planning my next trip abroad, and enjoying peaceful hours at the gym before the new year rush begins.

Let’s take holiday traditions into our own hands and toss out the excess unnecessary stuff. Let’s talk about holiday “savings” instead of holiday “spending.” I’d love to know about what people do instead of following all the necessary traditions. Most importantly, let’s make the season a true holiday.

Crafting a Minimalist Holiday Season

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Historically, I have not been good at reining in my spending during the holidays.

It all starts with a Black Friday shopping spree, which for many retailers, starts on Thanksgiving day, a day in which we’re supposed to be thankful for what we already have. I accumulate a “Future Purchases” list which becomes a time suck during precious holiday time as I research the Best Deal for each item, which eventually makes it to my front doorstep after mulling over countless sellers and options. As you can guess, getting whatever was on my Future Purchases list was not the end of it. Anytime you visit the website of a smart retailer, you’re bound to be suckered into all the other Great Deals plastered all over each page, and you’re reminded of it constantly. Let’s say you’re browsing REI.com and you’re checking out a Patagonia rain jacket. You then move on to Facebook to catch up on your friends’ newsfeeds, and a wha? A box appears on it with that same jacket you were just looking at. This is a tactic called remarketing, and it’s scarily effective. What happens is, when you visited REI.com, a pixel fire tags you by setting up a cookie in your browser that will trigger a real-time ad exchange. Because the ads are personalized based on your browsing history, the more you browse, the more often you are reminded of what you were shopping for, and the more likely you will make a purchase. $$$$!

No one knows my browsing history better than than the retailers.

My holiday spending habits were a natural response to temptation. Who could blame retailers? We all want a fresh start and shiny new things are an easy way to achieve that. $100 for a new coat here, $50 for a new game there, it adds up quickly and before you know it, you’ve spent a good chunk of your paycheck. With tinsel and cheer and sparkling holiday-themed decor around, how could we not join in the fun? But you can! You can enjoy the efforts of your community and neighbors without breaking the bank. If you live in a populous enough neighborhood, chances are, you’ll have friends and neighbors putting up their own decorations. You can join enthusiastic relatives on their Christmas shopping adventures. You can use scraps of paper to handmake Christmas cards. You can make candied pecans, caramel popcorn, and hearty beef stew.

I don’t want to rant about the consumerist focus of the holidays because enough has been written on the subject. I’d rather spend my time sharing actionable activities you can do with friends and family.

Instead of blowing a few grand on a trip to waiting in long lines at Disney or sitting on a cruise ship, why not make some slow cooker hot chocolate and making snow forts?

Instead of browsing the clearance rack at Macy’s for an afternoon, why not spend thirty minutes catching up with an old friend?

Instead of blowing a few grand on Christmas gifts, why not invest it in some mutual funds?

Shiny new things can temporarily seem refreshing, but I’d say a great workout session with a shower afterward is even better.

Yesterday, I spent $0. For someone who had no qualms dropping a couple hundred on random stuff in the past, I think it is a baby step in the right direction.

5 Items I Don’t Miss & 5 Items I’m Glad I Own

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Is it ironic that a minimalist would write a post on “stuff,” the very “stuff” that we’re trying to detach ourselves from? Yes, humans invented millions of tools and objects, but I’d still give credit to the people who devise clever things that actually make our lives better or easier. I’ve decluttered hundreds of items from my life, but a few of them stick out in my mind as things I’m certain I made the right decision on.

5 Things I Booted Without Regret

  1. Bath mats. I used to own two memory foam bath mats and had them lying in my bathroom for my wet feet. They got so dirty so quickly, caught a lot of hair/dirt/lint/grime, took forever to dry, and had to be cleaned so frequently that eventually I threw them out. It’s not much extra effort to dry the bottoms of my feet before stepping out of the
  2. Dish drying rack. After a few iterations of dish racks, I settled on an oversink solution. I have a dishwasher and everything except my pots, baking pans, and knives are dishwasher safe, so I don’t really need more than that. More counter space and no more moldy plastic!
  3. All of my leather bags. Leather is high maintenance and good leather is expensive. My Patagonia bag is big enough for a 3-city trip in Europe and durable enough for daily bike commutes.
  4. Decorative porcelain and specialty glassware. Not worth the storage space/worry about knocking them over/cleaning off the dust, and like most decorations with no purpose other than to look pretty, I got tired of looking at them.
  5. Jeans. As an athleisure addict, I stopped wearing jeans. Even Uniqlo’s ultra stretch jeans, which I wore for years before finally donating them (and they were still in excellent condition!), couldn’t beat the comfort of stretchy skinny Ponte pants. Jeans are fashionable, sure – but if you’re like me and prize comfort/practicality over fashion (but look for pieces that intersect the two), you might find that jeans, while excellent for heavy-duty work or painting jobs, are just too stiff and take forever to dry to earn a place in your closet. There, I said it. I don’t own jeans, and it’s okay!

On the flip side, here are…

5 Things I’m Glad I Own (this list was harder to write!)

  1. My road bike. It is my workhorse in fair weather. It is my workhouse in less than fair weather. In exchange for just a little more time, it has greatly improved my commuting experience, strengthened my body, given me another appreciable form of transportation, and another network of friendships. It is a life-giving, money saving item!
  2. My electric toothbrush. If you haven’t upgraded from a normal toothbrush to an electric one…you’re missing out on epic levels of cleanliness in less time and effort. The first time I saw my dentist after buying an electric toothbrush, he complimented me on how clean my teeth were, and I stopped getting cavities!
  3. An oversized 8×10 shag rug. My mom had a couple of extra couches that she gave me, but I often have more guests around, and instead of buying an even bigger couch for my already small living space, I bought a giant, thick, and fluffy rug. It doesn’t shed, is insanely soft, and the high pile makes it fun to lie around in. The drawback of high pile shag is that they are harder to clean, but for how much use it gets, I don’t mind it at all.
  4. My speaker system. I grew up on music, and the difference is palpable when you have a sound system to enjoy it with.
  5. My iPad mini 4. Some minimalists may chastise me for this one. But I am an ultralight traveler, and bringing a laptop is almost always too much, and bringing only a phone is bad for my eyes. My iPad is just perfect. Apps can help me great fun digital content (videos, pictures…) and I can read eBooks on it. The portability makes it easy to record aerial videos and even whip up a blog post in a pinch.

It ended up taking me twice as long to finish the second list, which just goes to show how easy it is for me, and indeed most people, to take things for granted. Sometimes, it is a fun exercise to analyze what you have in the house and realize that your real needs (outside of survival) are satisfied by meaningful relationships, activities, and interactions. Everything else is just stuff. Stuff doesn’t reciprocate.

Bring on the good life, fueled by what matters most to oh-so-unique you.

My Simple, Lonely Life of Sobriety

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Before reading any further, I already acknowledge that the rejection of all alcoholic beverages is a touchy topic. But hear me out on this one, because it impacts almost every social situation I face, and I’m certain I’m not alone.

Hi, my name is Meg, and I am horribly allergic to alcohol. Can we do something other than “grab drinks?” No? No ideas other than go to an establishment to buy overpriced liquids that make me feel like absolute garbage? Can we, perhaps, *do* something together rather than *consume* something together?

Ugh.

Now picture this.

You’re at a party and there’s a bar. Everyone around you is happily sipping colorful cocktails and clinking fancy wine glasses and getting all buzzed up. Good times abound. Then your friend, or perhaps a coworker, or even someone you’ve never met –  asks you if you want a drink. You politely refuse, knowing that alcohol will send you into a downward spiral. Your friend continues to pressure you with harmless intentions:

“The night’s still young!

“Have some fun!”

“Lighten up!”

“One drink won’t hurt anyone.”

“It’s on me.”

“You deserve it.”

“Don’t be lame.”

If you’ve ever refused a drink or even a night out, I’m sure something like this has happened to you.

Sobriety is generally seen as unexciting and boring. Choosing not to have a drink is easily interpreted as an opposition to Fun, a sort of silent rebellion of social norms, casting a shadow on your livelihood in other people’s view. People like to be validated for their behavior by being around others who have the same views and attitudes, so sobriety can easily send you to social isolation. You’re no fun, so they’ll stop inviting you.

If I have even just a few sips of beer or any other alcoholic beverage, my skin gets flushed, my head throbs, I start getting dizzy, and I even start feeling cold, as though I were running a fever. Throughout college, at any party where alcohol was served, I was often confused about why everyone around me in their altered state of consciousness was having a fantastic time, yet I was left faking drunkenness, while my body fought basically what it thought was a toxin. I never liked alcohol. It never made me feel good – during the party or after the party. Yet I still felt compelled to consume it, even though I’d feel sick soon after.

I’m wiser now, 5 years out of college, and for the most part, am consciously rejecting the need to follow social norms for the sake of fitting in, especially one that makes me feel so unhappy and sick. But I feel this pressure at every situation where alcohol is involved. Our society is built around socialization by consumption (cafes, restaurants, etc.), and especially alcohol consumption. So, it’s really awkward when you don’t join in the alcoholic festivities at…

  1. Happy hours, where we celebrate coworkers promotions, birthdays, or other accomplishments
  2. New year’s parties, where we toast champagne to the new year
  3. Networking events…when your boss gets you a drink, you wouldn’t throw it out, would you? That would be uncomely.
  4. Frat/sorority parties, where participating in risky drinking rituals are actually a part of social acceptance
  5. Bars/clubs/lounges, which are pretty much centered around alcohol-induced socialization

I have at least witnessed the amazing effects that alcohol has on stripping down our mental barriers in social situations or helping us unwind after a long day by clouding our consciousness a little bit. I just wish that in an alternate world, we don’t need to rely on alcohol to such a degree to be comfortable around other people. As someone who has no experience enjoying the stuff (in the past, I’ve had to have it loaded with sugar or juice to mask the bitterness), I’d have a much less difficult time integrating with people around me.

As kids, we socialized with each other through play. Play included games, plenty of imagination, lots of running around, and other creative pursuits. And all of that was real! We didn’t need beer or wine to extract our fun selves – we simply made our own fun. Have we lost that ability as adults? So much so that it is somehow necessary to consume alcohol to have a good time? So much that we are proud of our stories of when we trash our bodies with so much alcohol that we throw it all up in a smelly projectile vomit?

The nice thing is, I’ve probably spent less than $50 on alcohol in my entire life. I have no desire to add a $5-10 drink to my meal or collect a few dozen bottles of various alcoholic potions. I don’t need a wine holder, a bar table, or any other accessories that are alcohol-related. I don’t need to worry about going out to bars, knowing I will never be able to join mind-altered states of my companions. I can be intentional with my desire instead, and put my money and time into more meaningful pursuits. I don’t need to put an asterisk* after my name when you meet me, because what you get when you meet me is the real and authentic Me. No footnotes in sight.

I just sometimes wish, you know, that there were more people out there who would join me.

The Ridiculousness of Luxury

Via Pixabay

Living in America is, by definition, already a luxury. Look how far along society has come in the last 50 years. In the past, we had to chug along in squeaky, horse-drawn carriages. We used to have to farm our own land and weather storms by the fireplace, hoping that we put enough effort into our autumn harvest and that no one catches dysentery. Now, at a moment’s notice, we can hop into our personal gas-powered miracle machines they call automobiles, loaded with fancy surround-sound audio systems, padded seats, and blast air conditioning into our faces as we drive a couple miles to the nearby store to buy some more Fancy things like plastic cases and thin glass sheets for our expensive blinking gadgets we can command to do things like set personal alarms, tell us the predicted weather for the next hour, or navigate us to the nearest pizzeria. Heck, we don’t need to do even that – we can simply power up our overpowered computers, press a few buttons and make a few clicks, and said plastic case and thin glass sheet will show up on our doorsteps in a matter of hours. There are even more Fancy things we can do if we pay enough money. We can buy massive floating machines and hire people to drive them for us as we sip expensive wine. Every time we eat at a restaurant, we’re essentially hiring someone to cook our meals and deliver them to us on a serving platter. We don’t even need to do so much as lift a finger. All we need to do is sit back, relax, and do absolutely nothing. That is what we’ve defined as The Good Life. And that is where the Good ends. Because what those things have in common is that they help us avoid exerting any effort at all. Bring us the Good Life on a silver platter, and allow us to bask in laziness. I sure am curious to know why the feeling of no effort is so satisfying, because I find more satisfaction from earning my way through life and taking full credit for my success.

Society seems so content with lifestyles that suck money and time out of our wallets faster than we care to count the dollars. We insist on eating out once, twice, maybe even several times a week. We book expensive tickets to jet us off to places where we can be coddled in a luxury hotel or private room with a view that looks basically the same as the view in a public area on a cruise ship yet costs several times more than a normal room. We buy absurdly expensive brand name vehicles that, despite having more powerful engines and a slew of Fancy features, still have to follow posted speed limits and are just as likely to suffer a dent or scratch from careless drivers around you. We’re completely okay with buying multiple $7 cocktails on a weekly basis and $30 steak dinners. We buy silly experiences like indoor skydiving, sitting in a motorized teacup to get dizzy for a few minutes, the chance to be a member of an exclusive club of people bragging about their “success,” or a chance to get the latest fashion styles before everyone else does.

As someone who does not do any of those things and does not feel any FOMO, I am confused by the people who feel like they’re poor or lacking excitement because they are simply not doing those things. I can do them should I so choose to throw money around at pointless, empty activities, but what for? I feel no envy for other people’s cars, purses, or foreign countries they’ve set foot in, though I may feel some disdain if it means they’re wrecking more of our earth. I don’t care about the dinners people have in the premium airport lounges (especially because I am skilled enough at cooking to make a meal I’d enjoy equally as much if not more), or the “crazy night out” they had at an exclusive dance club where supposedly they witnessed an “important” celebrity.

The trouble with criticizing this lifestyle of luxury is that no one likes to be told how they should enjoy life. It’s not some kind of universal standard where everyone should enjoy the same kinds of things, even if it has been proven that happiness is not coming from those things per se. I am just some random blogger on the Internet, after all, who just happens to really enjoy pursuing minimalism, and there will always be those who resist it. They have something of a “need” for it. But I think can safely say that there is more satisfaction to be gained from creating rather than consuming.

Let’s make our own silver platters and serve them to the world. The privilege to create and be free with our time on this earth – that is the ultimate luxury.

More Consumption, More Boredom

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Minimalism is frequently criticized as stark, empty, boring, and dull. Some find themselves fearful of the aesthetic, the spartan lifestyle, the “less is more” mantra. Lack of decorations  and unwelcoming, bleak eggshell whites conjure up visions of hospitals and cold laboratories. Not an inviting, “homey” place.

America is a society, a culture if we will, where we buy things to solve problems. Stylishness promises confidence, so we purchase tasteful decor and fashion. Buying a FitBit promises that you’ll be healthier. The large house promises a comfortable, rich, life. The fancy car promises to make your commute or daily drives more fun and tells the world about how sophisticated we are.  We also have tend to consume things to solve problems. Drinking makes us better at socializing. Taking in caffeine to get us through the workdays. Eating (junk food) to prevent boredom while we work. “Killing time,” as they call it, through consumption. Then, in our land of plenty, why are we so unhappy and stressed out?

It is when we think the things we own validate of the importance of our own existence. That we deserve fancy stuff, or think that an upgrade in a gadget will generate dramatic improvements to our lives, that we get stuck in the consumerist frenzy. We’ll finally lose weight, magically have more time, and that thing will be that kick we need to be motivated to be better versions of ourselves. The improvements do happen sometimes, but over time, the new gets old, and the cycle repeats itself.

Buy, get bored, buy, get bored, rinse, repeat. You see what’s happening here?

Consumption cycles can cause us to be bored more frequently as we desensitize ourselves to new things and experiences.

When I feel stuck, I start looking at expensive flights to other countries and fantasizing about travel plans. Yet, if I travel too much, I lose that excitement.

When I feel like I have a lot of unpleasant tasks to do, I feel like getting something to eat while I’m doing them. Yet, if I get in the habit of eating while I work, I’ll work up a dependency on it.

Life tends to get harder as we get older and our bodies and safety nets fall apart.  So when someone suggests minimalism as a method of making life easier, we first resist. Why should we purposely relegate ourselves to less? Gosh, how would we ever prepare ourselves? Say we have a dull day – how do we get through life without relying on autopilot consumption mode?

Think of minimalism as a blank piece of paper or an empty dance studio, where the space is full of possibility. Any little Thing that you add to it diminishes its potential just a little bit. But let’s keep in mind that minimalism is not the solution either. It is a way of focusing ourselves so we stop the consumption cycle and refocus.

The fresh new gadget may refresh your old one, but some empty space just might give you fresh room to breathe, and it costs nothing.

Minimalist Challenges: You Have Permission to Declutter Gifts and Heirlooms

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“It’s an unhealthy setup, in which people become slaves to inanimate objects [ . . . ] Once you’re defining it as something you can’t get rid of, you’re not in control of your life or your home.”

– Barry Lubetkin

Gift-giving goes back to ancient times. History textbooks make it a point to elaborate on various treasures that were gifted to leadership figures such as kings, queens, religious figures, honorary soldiers, and others. Gifts were exchanged as symbols of respect, collaboration, and loyalty. I’m no history buff, but at history trivia games, one can at least figure out that gift-giving was a really big deal when it came to impressing people back then.

Gift-giving continues as a tradition today, but they’re mainly tied to holidays like Christmas and birthdays. Growing up, like most kids, I just loved looking forward to Christmas morning. I loved the shiny gift wrap, the sparkling tinsel, the giant ribbons and bows, and the shining Christmas tree. And I loved getting stuff for my birthday. When you’re a small child and you don’t have the freedom of easily acquiring stuff of your own, the prospect of getting toys and stuff is incredibly exciting. In Asian culture, gift-giving is still a pretty big deal. So much so, that among traditional Asian families, people have come to expect gifts as mandatory courtesy (though they won’t say it out loud). You come to my house, you’d better bring something with you. I was born in America to immigrant parents, so growing up, I witnessed much of the gift-giving culture firsthand (it carries on even today). These gifts are usually consumables – boxes of fruit, multivitamins, traditional desserts, tea, or other foodstuffs, but sometimes home goods, like decorative plaques, lotions, or toys for the kids would be given.

So I also loved having family friends over…not just because I would potentially have a playmate, but also because they’d usually bring me treats and trinkets. Due to customary gift giving in the culture I grew up in, I was taught at an early age that stuff was something I should expect from visitors and friends. Looking back, I am not sure I noticed that we also gave gifts because I was too excited about receiving things.

There isn’t usually anything ill-intentioned at all about gift giving. In almost all cases, we are simply communicating affection or appreciation to the receiver, nothing more. Unfortunately, opportunistic businesspeople have turned gift-giving into consumerism bait (read: Hallmark Holidays). Heck, gift-giving is even touted as a love language, and I suspect that it has something to do with childhood grooming of my future (now past) stuff-obsessed self. Thankfully, it is not my primary love language, but at one time, it might have been.

It is really hard to declutter gifts. You feel like by removing the item from your home, you’re throwing away or giving away the good intentions that the giver had, not to mention the money and time spent on acquiring the item for you. And if that person finds out, we dread the possibility that he or she may very well feel offended. The more the item is worth, the worse the guilt. And when the item is an heirloom or a prized family treasure, even more is at stake. The perceived value of an item is dependent on more than monetary worth and replace-ability (rarity) – its value is also tied to what it represents. We dread communicating to others an unappreciation for what it symbolizes. Getting rid of your grandfather’s war medals would suggest to others that you perhaps don’t appreciate his sacrifices and your good fortune that he did what he did.

That guilt and fear is enough to paralyze people in their decluttering efforts. But I am here to tell you that:

  1. These feelings are perfectly normal, and in fact, perfectly healthy ones, and
  2. Your feelings about a particular event, person, or concept, do not have to be tied to you keeping something associated with it, or even to the item itself.

The fact that you even have guilt as you declutter a gift should be enough to clarify your true feelings about the subject at hand. Because if you thoughtlessly threw something in the garbage without any regard for who it might affect, then it would really suggest a lack of care. Because your feelings about a person does not live in a thing. It lives in you. And you, are so much more precious than a thing. Any reasonable gift giver would not want you to feel burdened by a gift. And as any responsible gift giver knows, the minute you give something away, you are effectively passing ownership to someone else. If you wanted it to be kept, you should not have given it away.

Let’s not gift burdens to other people. There are other ways to give to others: (see here, here, and here). I’ll eventually make a list of my own, but for now, I’ll let other minimalists speak. It is okay for you to declutter gifts. Release the burden and honor the intention.

Shopping as a Minimalist

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Shopping is not something that we were taught at school. Growing up, we probably accompanied our parents to the store, watched them put things in a shopping cart, watched them swipe a card or hand over a few dollar bills, and walk out the door with the goods. Eventually, we deduced that things could be acquired from stores. Somewhere along the way, we learned how to “want” things.

On my minimalist journey, shopping has been one of my worst habits to break. Growing up in Midwestern suburbia where there is not a whole lot to explore but a new strip mall that just opened up, I developed a love for shopping. I found great pleasure in browsing racks of clothes, imagining how they would look on me, trying out different outfits, and dreaming about the increase in life satisfaction I would get by having it. This habit followed me into adulthood and well into my 20’s.

You do not have to be a fast fashion shopper to have a shopping addiction. You could shop at thrift stores, luxury retailers, online retailers, eBay, convenience stores, or even grocery stores. There are a lot of reasons that people go shopping, but the reasons below have been some of my triggers that kick in the shopping habit.

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My Flirtation with Luxury High-End Designer Handbags

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Designer handbags, and indeed luxury goods in general, are “investment” pieces, hold a lot of “history,” are “well-made”, support “timeless design,” are “dream bags…”

Believe me, and I’m ashamed to admit, I’ve justified my purchases using those exact reasons. No matter how much we try to run from it, though, they are still seen as class symbols, especially in China. When I refer to luxury designer brands, I am talking about Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel, Marc Jacobs, Christian Louboutin, Hermes, Prada, and the like. Bags, accessories, clothes, and shoes. And for the even more ostentatious, luxury cars.

There was a brief year of my early 20’s in which I coveted and was able to purchase obscenely expensive (>$1000) leather bags. It all started with ExtraPetite’s Chanel bag review video. My reasoning was something like, if I was going to only own one bag for the rest of my life, why not splurge on the “best of the best” instead of buying 20 “just okay” bags? Why was there any reason to buy a bag, get tired of it, buy another bag, get tired of it, and continue the cycle forever? If I had the “best of the best,” there would be no reason to buy another bag.

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You are what you Consume

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Like it or not, our lives are full of consumption. Our bodies consume food and drink; our minds consume ideas and information through books, magazines, television, and other forms of media. Our consumption habits are mostly by choice, and knowingly or unknowingly, our consumption habits drive our personal development, so each consumption choice we make, however insignificant we see them, becomes a reflection of how we direct our lives.

So, in the spirit of an against-the-grain attitude, I do believe that we are what we own, and we are what we consume. There are plenty of feel-good statements out there that people make, like “you are not what you wear,” or “you are not your work,” or “you are not your body.” The truth is, while no one is exclusively work, clothes, or appearance, they all have some contribution to who we are as a whole.

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Why Have Less: The Cost of Ownership

Every item you own has a lifecycle. Let’s call the item “Joe.”

1. Acquisition

Items come into our lives through many channels.

If you bought Joe, then you spent money and time looking for Joe, and if you had to travel to acquire Joe, you definitely spent more time, plus gas, or a bus ticket, or a train ticket (and in extreme cases, a plane ticket). If you bought Joe online, then you may have to adjust your schedule to sign for the package, unpack Joe, and dispose of Joe’s packaging.

If it was gifted or inherited, then your costs will mainly be mental. You may or may not like Joe. Joe may not be right for you. Gifts are inherently not “free” – once the process of gift-giving starts, there tends to be a cycle of two people wondering if they’ll get something in return from the other person, if they’ll need to give for every holiday, if they’ll owe that other person something every year, if they feel guilty for not giving, and so on. Gift giving is even touted as a love language. Couples will fight over not buying something. Is Joe really worth that? If Joe was inherited, the person who wanted you to have oh precious him trusted you to keep him safe. If you end up accepting him, you may worry about the person giving him to you feeling betrayed should you choose to let him go down the line.

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Not pictured: anxiety, ca$h money spent on the gift, inner monologue of “what do I do with this, what shoud I give in return…”

If you got Joe for free, well…you still have the next few steps to go. If you purposely took a separate trip to acquire him, you’re still spending time and money to fetch him. Or, in the case of giveaways – you might be giving personal information to a bunch of unknown marketing companies. Who knows how much junk mail you’re going to get now?

The burden of gifts is often more than people realize, and the cost of buying Joe is more than what is on the price tag.

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