Rules for Stuff

KeyYesterday I blogged about why I’m wary of 100-thing minimalism. Despite my skepticism about the “100-thing” practice, however, I still believe it’s beneficial to avoid clutter and overconsumption. I agree with the voluntary simplicity guideline that you should strive to own only those items you (a) love, (b) use on a regular basis, or (c) need for emergencies.

A.  Those items you love

Extreme minimalists would reject this first category of Stuff entirely.  However, bare, completely functional rooms don’t give me any aesthetic pleasure. My apartment contains artwork done by friends and family, antiques inherited from my mother, and other oddball items that give me pleasure to view and hold. These “useless” items remind me of people and experiences I’ve enjoyed, and they make my apartment feel like a home.

The trick is to keep this category small. Look at every nonessential item you own, evaluate the amount of pleasure it gives you, and edit out anything that isn’t personally meaningful and fulfilling. Remember as you do this that objects are not magic; they are not the people and experiences they represent. Getting rid of a space-cluttering memento does not imply rejecting an individual or memory.

B. Those items you use on a regular basis

For many of us, careers come with unavoidable material trappings — for example, the artisanal supplies you use as you paint, sculpt, sew, design, and decorate; the equipment you use as you compose, perform, program, troubleshoot, repair, and build; the artifacts, evidence, and/or reference works you use as you inspect, research, analyze, and model, and so forth. In addition, we use many other objects outside of our careers — furniture, linens, cookware, and the like.

The simple-living approach is to make sure that you own only those things that you use regularly, seeking to use the same item for multiple tasks and to rent or borrow items only used once in a while.

The minimalist approach would be to cut down to the bare minimum necessary to do the job.

What’s the difference? Someone practicing voluntary simplicity might choose to own two sets of sheets; one for use while the other is being washed. The minimalist might choose to own one set, washing the sheets and remaking the bed with them in the same day.

C. Those items you need for emergencies.

The decluttering guideline “if you don’t use it in a month/year, get rid of it” has one serious flaw: some things are worth owning even if you hope you’ll never use them. Fire extinguishers, for example.

Don’t be so clutter-averse that you risk your life by not having important emergency supplies on hand!

…Although minimalists would stop there (if they even bothered with emergency supplies at all), those practicing voluntary simplicity may want to extend this perspective to items they don’t use often but would be difficult or expensive to replace. Do you own camping gear that you only use once a year? A minimalist might say “get rid of it and borrow or rent what you need when you need it.” However, if you already own the gear, getting rid of it may not be the most simple or frugal choice. Weigh your aversion to clutter against your frugality and make the decision that makes the most sense for you.

Relevant Reading:

• In a nice bit of timing, Joshua Becker at Becoming Minimalist, one of the blogs I recommended yesterday, has just released his ebook today — Simplify: Seven Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life. He’s using the term “rational minimalism” to differentiate his approach from the same kind of extreme/100-thing minimalism I’ve been critiquing here; I suspect his rational minimalism is more or less what I’m calling minimalism (in the non-extreme sense) or simplicity.

• My comments on Does This Clutter Make My Butt Look Fat?, The Power of Less, and Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less.

Unclutterer — a great blog on getting rid of clutter informed by the voluntary simplicity movement, albeit not necessarily minimalism.

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