Minimalist Shopping: Decisions & Considerations

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Faithful readers of my blog will be familiar with my past shopping struggle. A habit that, I’m ashamed to admit, has commandeered my free time – many hours I will never get back. And now that the holiday gifting madness has begun, I want to address this habit that has become more than just a chore, as businesses continue to enhance the shopping experience, making it an immersive, mentally engaging act that has captured the leisure time of teenagers and adults all over the world, no matter what financial situation they’re in. They start with commercials, enticing you with eye candy and personas that go beyond the product itself. Buy our clothing, and you will be more attractive, successful, confident, or healthy, like the person in this commercial. Buy this magic pill, and behold the transformation you will experience. Buy this car, and just look at how happy and safe your family will be. Buy this beauty product, and you will attract attractive people. This is no more evident than in perfume ads. Buy this massage chair because hell, you deserve it, and oh by the way, we offer a payment plan, in case you cannot actually afford it! Browsers store your shopping history, and that pair of boots you were drooling over suddenly follows you in other places – news sites, social media, blogs, and more, reminding you that the option to purchase is still there, until you finally cave and make the purchase.

All that aside, I am not going to be that strict minimalist who tells everyone to opt out of gift giving or shopping altogether (I do still buy things!). Some people have traditions they want to follow, or kids’ birthday parties to attend, and who’d want to embarrass their kid by not bringing a gift? And, we still have to buy things from time to time. Things break, become obsolete, and so on. And in many cases, a purchase or upgrade will save you time or significantly improve your quality of life. This post is meant to help you think through the buying process from the perspective of a conscious consumer and not a gullible buyer.

Let’s now move onto factors to consider in any purchasing decision.

Emotional Buying

“Retail Therapy,” as it’s commonly known. I like to think that most people know why they are out browsing things at a store, but when you ask them why, they answer that they don’t know, or have “nothing better to do,” or “why not.” It is easy to cultivate an addiction, too – the high that people experience after acquiring a new item can feel like a  physical reward from the effort of making money, and the excitement of getting to enjoy the new item is a pleasure, particularly if it’s something highly coveted.

Humans are not always logical and sensible creatures – otherwise no one would smoke – so we must at least learn to recognize if our shopping habits are emotionally driven. Without that awareness, we won’t be able to stop ourselves. Commonly, we shop in response to stress – at work, at home. We also shop in response to positive emotional events, like when we get our bonuses (anyone go out and spend their entire bonus in one piece?), or when we get a promotion, or when we just “feel rich.” Without a specific need in mind, shopping, just like drinking, can easily become something we do to distract ourselves, rather than something we do because we need something.

Lifetime maintenance

As seasoned readers know, stuff begets stuff – clothes need detergent, sometimes even special detergent; spare tables then require spare chairs; leather requires leather cleaner. A great example is owning a bike or car. Unless you plan to bring your bike to the shop every time something goes wrong, you have to buy a lock, spare tubes, degreaser, a pump, bike lights, and a helmet. More stuff, more time spent dealing with said stuff, more money spent. With a car, you have to deal with oil changes, gasoline, tires, brakes, fluids, storage, parking, insurance…have I mentioned that cars are ridiculously expensive? The same thing with a home – the larger your home, the more time and money you will be sinking into your living space to maintain it.

I’ve already talked a lot about the maintenance of certain types of clothing (dry-cleaning, removing pills, ironing…), but the same is true of anything you own. Everything needs to be stored and probably maintained to some degree, taking up space and time – time to maintain, organize, and clean.

Longevity

As people say, classics are for life – but what is a “classic,” really? I still think that some “classics” are just things that have been marketed really well, and that we should build our preferences and styles not around what other people deem as “classics.” There are many arguments for buying things that last – not needing to buy another one later (the poor man pays twice) environmental impact. For this reason, “disposable” or “temporary” items are to be avoided. Dollar store junk – anything that fills kids’ goody bags, party goods, particularly anything made of plastic – as wasteful as it gets, even if they are cheap and convenient. I don’t know about you, but walking around a place full of garbage sucks. It’s too bad I can’t make other people care about this – garbage out of sight, garbage out of mind, after all – but sooner or later, we are all going to feel the effects.

I also recommend, for this same reason – in some situations, buying the cheaper option is not always the right option – delaying gratification and buying only . A good example of this is buying a cheap mattress – it will cost you more in labor, money, time, and likely frustration than it would to buy one that will last and serve you well.

Resale value

Another thing to consider is resale value. As a long term eBay seller of used things, items of quality that retain usefulness over time will sell much better than cheap crap. I like to check eBay for approximate resale values of certain brands. Ideally, I shouldn’t need to sell what I buy in the long run, but sometimes, it happens.

Money

This one should be self-explanatory, but there are certain things where you are blatantly paying for a brand and not a higher quality item. I am skeptical of the quality promised by certain brands, when it is not always the case that you’re buying a higher quality item. Often times, a cheaper version could be better. One good example of this is clothing made by Abercrombie and Fitch. I have no reason to believe that their clothes are inherently better than clothes made by companies that make clothing sold at Target, but they’ve somehow built a brand where many people believe that that is the case – so much so that people will buy shirts that simply have the name of the brand on it. Seems silly – or brilliant, for the brand – to pay a company to advertise for them.

There is also the question of affordability. I like to calculate the number of working hours for each item, but it’s also important to recognize the power of compound interest, and every dollar that you spend today is lost capital gains over time. As a minimalist, working just to buy things seems like a rather unfulfilling, repetitive existence. The whole question of money is not something I want to discuss in this post in detail.

Sales

While we’re on the subject of affordability, I want to mention sales. Sales are just a clever way to entice people to buy. And they are great – if I am eyeing something for a while and I notice it is on sale, I am certainly more incentivized to buy. But buying just because it’s on sale, or just because it’s cheap – won’t cut it. Because you will have bought something – not because you truly wanted that thing, but because you found a bargain, and it is likely that you will then subconsciously undervalue it.

“Personal load”

I made up this term myself, but my fascination with the “living out of a backpack” has led me to wonder exactly how hard it would be for me to pack my bags if I needed to move. It is easy to avoid ever needing to assess the sheer volume belongings I have when I don’t move, or if I am not traveling frequently. This personal load then also translates to an “environmental load” of sorts. How much space am I needing just for my “stuff?” Everything I buy adds to that load burden, and that burden is not just physical, but mental too.

Intent

The question of “why” I want something is really what this whole post is about.

We buy things because we generally believe that these things will make us better, happier people, or they will help us in our quest to become better/happier people. The problem is, we are often awful at determining what truly makes us happy (hint: it’s not more stuff). Ever seen the people in poor countries, barely scraping by, yet somehow still wearing banana smiles and finding the joy in everything

When shopping for others, similar considerations apply, but most of the time, I simply ask what the person wants, and if I must purchase a gift for that person, I buy that exact thing. An unwanted gift is a burden and a lose-lose situation I’d rather avoid.

Happy Holidays and I truly hope that your holiday gift-exchanging practices only add happiness and ease to the holiday season.

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.

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.

Let’s Talk Shoes: Minimalist Shoes, Barefoot Shoes, and Decluttering Footwear

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Growing up, my go-to footwear was always a comfortably padded pair of athletic sneakers. I wore them despite not being athletic at the time. I wore my first pair of heels when I went to my high school prom, and I was hooked on the way I felt while wearing them – confident, sexy, and feminine. Prom was the beginning of my 180 degree transformation from t-shirt and jeans teenager to frilly dresses and high heels young woman in college. I still had a few pairs of Skechers Mary Janes for daily wear, but I obsessed over high heels and purchased an unthinkable number of them from Aldo and Nine West. I didn’t even necessarily wear them – I had them all lined up in my closet and just looking at the shiny, polished leather made me feel happy. I would sometimes strut around my dorm room in them and practice walking in heels while looking in the mirror, trying to look poised and confident.

I flipped a 180 again after graduating college and I began obsessing over flats. It wasn’t until I purchased my first pair of Tieks in 2012 that my obsession came to fruition (thanks, Facebook ad). Tieks marked the end of my search for a comfortable ballet flat, and I still wear Tieks today, but I have largely pared down my collection. After beginning to wear Tieks on a daily basis, I inadvertently discovered that my feet did not need “arch support.” I have high arches, but because I had been wearing Tieks for so long, the muscles in my feet gradually developed to support my body. Think about it – decades ago, children ran and played outside in the dirt barefoot, only wearing shoes for formal events like Sunday church. Now that modern society grows up wearing “supportive” shoes, we’ve adapted to our feet needing a sort of “brace” to feel comfortable walking, and we are no longer used to developing foot muscle. Shoe companies come up with all sorts of ways to sell us the concept that our feet are unable to support our bodies, especially when we are active, so they come up with thousands of models of shoes to convince us that we need a certain type of shoe for every activity we perform.

While high impact activity like running on pavement and HIIT training still give supportive shoes with padded soles a place in our closets, I find that we still have more to gain by wearing barefoot shoes or minimalist shoes on a daily basis. Not only do they allow your feet a chance to develop muscle, they are also usually more lightweight and flexible, giving them the added bonus of being travel friendly. With the strength of your own feet, your shoes are enablers rather than crutches – they protect your feet, but your feet support themselves.

My closet contained about 40 pairs of shoes when I first began decluttering my shoe collection. For transparency, today, my shoe collection consists of the following (will be updated as needed):

1 pair of running shoes for pavement running or stair running (Nike Flyknit Lunar 3)
1 pair of cycling shoes (Giro Riela II)
1 pair of cross fit shoes for HIIT-style workouts involving heavy lateral work (Inov-8 F-Lite 240)
1 pair of trail running shoes (Salomon Speedcross 3)
1 pair of minimalist trail running shoes (Merrell Vapor Glove 2) <– these are my lightest pair, at 4 oz per shoe
1 pair of classic pumps (Ann Taylor Perfect Pumps in patent black) <– discontinued
4 pairs of foldable flats (Tieks – neutral pink, copper, yellow, and blue)
2 pairs of flip flops (the <$5 variety) for showering in public places like gyms or going to the beach
1 pair of minimalist boots (Vivobarefoot Gobi Hi-tops)
1 pair of rain boots (Hunter Classic tall) for clamming and muddy hikes

Total: 14 pairs of shoes

One could argue that my collection is not really “minimalist” judging by the sheer number of shoes and the fact that I have 4 pairs of Tieks. However, I am not trying to only own the “essential” for keeping myself comfortably alive – all my footwear serves a purpose that facilitates an active lifestyle. There is some truth in the claim that having the right gear will motivate you to #optoutside. But I can justify why I have each pair and I know when I would use each and every one of them.

Perhaps I will pare down my 4 Tieks to 2 pairs, and then 12 will be my magic number. Perhaps I don’t really need rain boots because I use them about once or twice a year (I keep them in wet ‘n’ rainy Seattle). The bottom line is – I am fully aware of what I own and after owning too many shoes, I have become very careful about what I add to my collection. I’m sure my collection will morph over time, but one thing is certain – I will not let any of my shoes go unused and unloved.

Shopping as a Minimalist

Shopping mall

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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