Stop Buying Useless Crap, and Other Tenets of Militant Minimalism

I’ve always joked that if my apartment building ever burns to the ground, I’ll mourn my computer and maybe a few incinerated wardrobe items for a hot second, then shrug and begin hunting for a new rental. This attitude serves me well, especially from a financial standpoint. See, I’m a militant minimalist.

Being a militant minimalist doesn’t mean I subsist on peanut butter sandwiches and wear only secondhand clothes, but I do live in a 10×6 Brooklyn bedroom without a closet because the rent is lower than what some New Yorkers pay to ride in cabs over the course of a month. (And 95% of my belongings fit inside of it.) I’ve had my favorite Frye boots repaired so often that the last time I asked my cobbler to gussy them up, he handed them back to me and remarked that they were too old to be salvaged in the same tone a vet would use to tell a pet owner Sparky isn’t going to make it.

Some of these lifestyle choices sprang forth from necessity, because I’ve yet to earn a lot of money. Rather than spend what I do make on a bigger room that I’m rarely home to enjoy, or designer sunglasses I would lose or sit on within a week a day of purchase, being a bit of a tightwad enables me to travel and stockpile cash into my Don’t Be a Poor Old Person fund. 

The last time I visited my parents, I realized just how set in my ways I’ve become. They recently did the get-old-move-South thing, abandoning my Pittsburgh childhood base to occupy a new house in sunny South Carolina. Since the move, my mom* has become obsessed with stuffing it with The Right Things. I didn’t realize how dedicated she was to this mission until I observed her hunched over her computer one early morning, clicking with purpose around a site called** The living room, see, was missing a ‘certain something.” (If you’re not in the know, soothing walls are basically free-standing illuminated rectangles over which water trickles. Fake rocks may or may not be involved.) These wastes of space can be purchased for hundreds or thousands of dollars each. My parents are comfortable, but by no means rich. And honestly, even if they balled as hard as Oprah, what is the point of paying for an ornament that uses as much electricity as a fridge?

While my mom doesn’t let clutter encroach upon her like those poor bastards featured on voyeuristic TV shows like Hoarders (in fact she keeps a lovelier home than I probably ever will), she does collect shit. Lots of it. And on that fateful morning last January, I briefly considered staging an intervention, but honestly … she’s too far gone.  There may still be hope for you, however.

Since I made my bare-bones lifestyle sound sufficiently glamorous in the previous paragraphs, here are four ways you, too, can be a militant minimalist:

Don’t buy useless crap. Don’t even buy nice crap, unless you need it. The answer to “should I or shouldn’t I” buy something isn’t always as clear cut as the example my mom inadvertently provided—I have a dear friend*** who shops for new books on the regular. I covet each and every one of them, with their beautiful covers and new-book smell, but I recognize that they’re money pits and shuffle off to the library instead. (Note: if you’re paying to store useless crap you’ve accrued because it will no longer fit in your apartment or house, well … as they say in the South, “Bless your heart.” You, too, may be a lost cause.)

Get rid of things. Constantly. From your closet to your car, purge any item that’s no longer serving you. if you acquire something new, toss something old. Bonus: you might even be able to sell it. That pile of Lonely Planet books you consulted for your trip to Thailand? Post them on Amazon Marketplace and someone in Des Moines, Iowa, or Fresno, Calif. will take them off your hands within hours. Trust.

Shut your eyes and plug your ears (Chanting ‘LALALA’ like a defiant three year-old is optional). You can’t want what you don’t see. For me, flipping through an issue of Lucky triggers a case of the sads. “Ooh, metallic wedges! … For $398.” Toss the magazines and catalogues until you know you need to pick up a specific item; then have at it. If you do encounter something you desperately want, wait 24 hours before making it your own. Chances are another thought will soon take up real estate in your brain and you’ll forget all about it.

Don’t be cheap. Minimalists buy fewer products, but what they do drop green on is good quality, so it’ll likely last longer. Don’t be afraid to cough up the cash, without guilt, for a well thought-out purchase. And don’t cut corners. if you decide it’s worth it to go out for a fancytime dinner, that means committing to the entire expense — including a good tip for your waiter.

That’s pretty much it. If you’re still not convinced, check out what someone way smarter than I am has to say on the subject:

I’d send it to my mom, but that ship has sailed.

* “Writers are always selling somebody out.” — Joan Didion
** Just Googled “soothing walls” to double check the site name; “Soothing Fire Places” and “Soothing Bean Bags” also exist. God bless America.
*** Yep. Doing it again.


Jessica Adamiak is fantastic at managing money. Not as good at making it. Photo: crabchick/flickr


35 Comments / Post A Comment

alpacasloth (#108)

I need a person to follow me around all the time and just chant at me, “You don’t need that. PUT IT DOWN.” Or to sit at home with me and tell me, “Stop visiting websites that sell things that you want.” I go through phases where I have great self control and I stop buying stuff, then I go through phases where I want to buy ALL THE THINGS. I pay all my bills, have no credit card debt and save money every month, but I know I could save sooooo much more if I kicked my consumption habit and only spent money on things I actually need or fun experiences, like eating out and going to concerts (though those can get out of hand too — I almost bought tickets to see Washed Out then I realized… $23 to see Washed Out? Meh.) Oh, how I yearn to become a minimalist.

@alpacasloth I had this problem and decided to just STOP buying clothes for a year. I knew I was spending way too much on clothes I did not need, and “buying less” was too vage. So I just did not buy any (well, I did buy some black pants for work towards the end of the year. It was urgent). Maybe you could do that? maybe clothes are not your spending thing, but shoes or books (I should do it with books) or videogames. Now that the year is over, I’m much more responsible with my spending habits, clotheswise.

alpacasloth (#108)

@MaríaJosé E.H.@twitter It’s a testament to how much I love buying things that your response made me think, “You are a GOD among humans.” My problem is not clothes, it’s clothes, shoes, jewelry, random beauty products, books, records, cooking utensils, and the list goes on… So today I deleted all the shopping apps from my phone that made it WAY too easy to spend money with the tap of a finger. I don’t buy apps, so it’s okay that I can’t delete the app store. I need an app that slaps me in the face whenever I get the urge to splurge. Or maybe it can zap me. I salute you!

@alpacasloth That is exactly me. It’s like dieting and binge-eating. If you deprive yourself too much for too long, you’ll crack. If only we could learn to spend moderately like a normal person all the time we wouldn’t starve ourselves and then eat an entire birthday cake in one sitting.

My problem is not buying stuff. I have very little stuff. I’m moving in a few months, and I’m only taking one carload, and that’s it. I’m good about that. What I’m terrible at is then spending my money on EXPERIENCES such as dinners, drinks, trips, concert, karaoke, ect….I need help minimalizing that. I recently stopped going to shows altogether unless the ticket was less than it would be to buy the CD.

Mostly, if someone could just stand next to my door and remind me every time I try to leave the house that I have yet to publish a novel, that would be very helpful.

@Bridget Callahan@facebook I do that too. I value weekends out too much. Some of my friends can go to a bar and just not order anything, and I don’t know how to do that :(

Exene (#391)

@MaríaJosé E.H.@twitter Going out to a bar and not ordering anything is a signature dick move.

@Exene Wait…how exactly is that a dick move?

Are you saying that if I can’t afford to go out drinking I should just stay home and never socialize with my friends?

I don’t understand the point of fancy phones. I feel like if I have one constant source for the internet, I’m fine. I don’t ALWAYS need to go online. People are paying through the nose for it these days.

@Laura.I.Wildest@twitter I’m thinking about getting a iphone because my ipod is slowly dying and I can’t live without one, and I am not sure I can afford to buy a new one outright. Buying it on a phone plan is actually pretty cost effective here is Oz, although I have to go to a store and check out the fine print… and wait for my current contract to run out (I HATE YOU, Vodaphone, you are the worst).

But I am, in general, fine without a smartphone or a laptop. I was at a party the other day and someone found out I didn’t have a smartphone. They actually gasped and made this face: O_o and then asked how I knew how to get places. I… look them up before I leave the house? I figure I don;t need more ways to procrastinate.

I am pretty good at not spending money on useless crap. The part I am bad at is getting rid of all the useless crap. I acquire it despite (almost) only spending money on beer and food, and then, it collects dust. But I cannot bring myself to throw away things that could be useful to someone somewhere, and I have no car access to donate or otherwise get rid of all the things. Halp!

Changeling (#126)

I get rid of a lot of useful stuff through freecycle, and people just pick it up at my house.

alpacasloth (#108)

@highfivesforall Depending on where you live, some donation centers will come pick up your stuff. You call them and say, “I have five boxes of books and clothes” or whatever and set up a time and date and dudes in a truck will come take it away for you. Get a receipt so you can write it off on your taxes next year, and get the stuff out of your place! I was amazed at how much stuff I donated last year (and also depressed by how much money I spent on stuff that I gave away).

nyikin (#32)

@highfivesforall The Sharepin! Join the Google Group of Hairpinners giving stuff away to each other!

jennette13 (#375)

Right on. I go through a fevered bout of possession purging every few months. I’ve got things so pared down that I’m running out of stuff to get rid of. The tricky part is cultivating some sort of style so you don’t end up with a cold, sterile space that screams “burgeoning sociopath” to visitors.

Julia (#376)

But… but if we stop buying disposable crap, how will late capitalism survive? Minimalism’s a real job-killer.

Mike Dang (#2)

@Julia You are totally allowed to buy as much useless crap as you want—as long as you have the money.

DrFeelGood (#401)

@Julia Yes! I hate that I am a “bad American” by not buying tons of useless disposable crap, because apparently, that’s the only thing driving our economy. Yay!

teenie (#243)

i actually went a year without buying anything new (except for things like food, toilet paper, and underpants, obvi) and it was a pretty awesome experience. dying from a dry winter and want a humidifier? go onto craigslist or freecycle. i became close friends with the local thrift and consignment shops. and i lived really well. i don’t think i’ve actually bought any new clothes(besides my wedding stuff) in over a year.

it’s not that hard, it makes shopping really fun, and it’s a little easier on the conscience. i really recommend it!

@teenie ha, wish I had seen this before bragging about not buying clothes last year!

crocuta (#380)

@teenie I’ve been trying to not buy new, too, but the problem is it’s almost TOO EASY. I am great at finding awesome things in free boxes/thrift stores/etc, and as a consequence my closet is exploding and my bookshelves overflowing. I’m constantly thinking things like “Sure I already have 4 cashmere sweaters, but here’s another one for only a dollar, so how can I pass that up?” It’s really fun, it saves me money (at least, relative to buying stuff new), but it does not help me become a minimalist.

@crocuta Yeah, I am way worse about bargains. But it’s a BARGAIN and it will only be available for the next however long, I must acquire and hoard it NOW.

My general rule of thumb is to walk away. If I am still thinking about it in an hour/a day/a week, then I can go back and get it. If not, I didn’t need it (note: this can be hard).

Alice (#392)

@Craftastrophies I once terrified my dad by explaining to him that I’d bought something that was such a good deal that I would have been losing money if I hadn’t bought it. I think I almost made his head explode with that logic.

@Craftastrophies I’ve been spending a ton of money at a nearby supermarket that is going out of business. They have a lot of useful stuff that’s 40 or 50% off, and I’ve spent a lot of money in there over the last couple weeks. Some of it is just stocking up on things I already buy, but admittedly I’ve also gotten stuff I wouldn’t ordinarily have bought. But seriously…50% off mouthwash, toothpaste, and toothbrushes? 40% off that one brand-name cereal I love that has no store brand equivalent? 50% off compact fluorescent lightbulbs? How can I pass those up?!

Pistachio (#378)

I want to be a militant minimalist for a season! Sounds like fun.

This weekend, I am making an IKEA trip to get a bookshelf to replace the three (free, handmedown) ones in my living room that are not an efficient use of space. I am also helping my friend to take his stuff out of my shed that has been there for two years. Then I am having a big reorganise. My rule? If it doesn’t have a place to go, neatly and out of the way, then it goes out. Then I am going to do a follow up and throw out stuff that fits but I don’t need – I do this fairly regularly, my problem areas are books, clothes and craft materials, but they are pretty pared down at the moment.

I’m really looking forward to it. I don’t have that much stuff, comparatively, but it’s still overwhelming me!

ThatWench (#269)

@Craftastrophies My recent “buying things” purchases have been posters/frames so as to have walls that aren’t plain standard-issue-apartment white; and organization tools/furniture (wine and wineglass rack, foot locker for keeping smaller storage bins in, etc).

I figure buying things so my other things have a place to live doesn’t count as buying things?

@ThatWench “I figure buying things so my other things have a place to live doesn’t count as buying things?”

I say that all the time, which is why I avoid the Container Store like the plague. I go nuts in there.

mishaps (#65)

I bought nice furniture that will last for years, but I miss furniture shopping so much I have voluntarily gone with other people to help them buy couches.

MsAmosFrankly (#114)

Oh man. Whenever I lived alone, this was me. I rarely bought clothes or anything else for that matter, and I saved almost all of every paycheck and my tips that didn’t go to necessities like rent and food, etc. Then I moved in with the boyfriend. He NEEDS to buy things. Last fall we experimented with him doing things my way and walking away from stuff unless it was a necessity or a once-in-a-great-while splurge. He actually got, like, angry. At not being able to just hemhorrage money. I just don’t get it. So we went back to me having money my way, him having money his way. He still has a ton of THINGS in his house, though. I dread moving. This article makes me want to talk to him about starting to pare some stuff down.

Lenora Jane (#395)

(NOTE: I just re-read this and want to clarify before I begin that it is not intended as any sort of counterattack. I did not even feel first-attacked, or anything! You minimalist ladies and gents keep…downsizing…your bad selves? Or something? But it’s not for me, and I just wanted to throw in another perspective here, ’cause the comments seemed pretty unanimous in tone about the Desirability of Owning Shit. Maybe this is paranoid? Eh.)

I may be alone on this, but…I am kind of okay with being a person who owns a whole lot of stuff? And I feel as if I get a lot of crap about it. I mean, of course we should all stop buying “useless junk.” Down with that. Don’t want stuff that has no use. But there’s sort of a big spectrum between “stuff that has no use, like no purpose, like on the level of Soothing Bean Bags” and “stuff that I absolutely need every single day of my life,” after all, and there’s a lot more wiggle room in the definition of “useful” than I think in these minimalism discussions sometimes acknowledge? We tend to conflate “acquisition” with “mindless capitalistic impulse acquisition” to a certain extent?

I get that there is a whole capitalist culture out there urging you to buy, buy, buy, and I get that minimalism is in no small part a response to that–but I just wanted to point out that this is sort of a false dichotomy. I buy stuff–not with absurd abandon, I’d say, but not on a teeth-pulling “once-in-a-great-while” scale either. I spend money every day, and I’d say a larger part of that than most people I know (people with less AND with more cash than I have!) is in object acquisition, but I am pretty satisfied with the set of objects I have.

I’mma narrow to the book issue for a sec because I think my take on books can maybe express in a more streamlined way where I’m attempting (so far unsuccessfully, it feels like) to go with this. I have a lot of books. Like, a lot of books. I live with two dudes, we have 9 bookshelves, 7 1/2 of them are “mine.” I buy new books from the indy bookstore my friend runs, I buy used books from the stores by the university, I pick up ancient paperbacks and weird nonfiction tomes that people leave on the curb in my neighborhood, I saved all my college texts, and yeah, sometimes I buy books from the Chapters or Paragraphe or another chain superstore. I didn’t love them all; there are some I haven’t yet read, even. I cull about once a year during spring cleaning but rarely to any great extent. The books take up a lot of space and buying them costs money, but I feel strongly about having them for a couple reasons:

a) I like having access to the books I love at any time. I could keep a small shelf of my all-time favorites and dispense with the rest, but I do value being able to say either “hey, I’m really feeling Ferlinghett-y [HA HA] today, lemme grab ‘Coney Island of the Mind’ and pour myself some lemonade for the balcony” or, during a dinner discussion with friends or the guys, “wait, the crazy priest the four Orkney brothers are friends with in the ‘Once and Future King,’ he tells a story about–what? Damnit, I forget, lemme go check” and…be able to. I was sick and vomiting a couple weeks ago, would never have got to the library and back, and wanted something easy and ridiculous to read while I feverdreamt–a couple random Meg Cabot books from my sister that would never have survived a more than cursory cull were just the ticket. I genuinely value the way the collection enables all this, and having it satisfies me greatly.

b) Most of my friends don’t have that many books. Some still have their school textbooks, some don’t; some have a shelf or two of other books among the residents of their apartment, some don’t. All of us read. All of us also use the real library, but for reasons of both content (I have a fair number of graphic novels/comics, a lot of old books including a collection of pulp novels that I mostly picked up in the charity book fair’s discard and 50cent piles, and some other more library-obscure categories) and convenience (the library is open a certain number of hours a week; I am open whenever I am home and awake), the Lenora Jane Community Lending Library has become a…clanwide benefit to my social tribe. It’s good for everybody that I have books, because everyone borrows them–and it’s good for us as a group, because borrowing or returning a book will often mean “okay, you’re here, we’ve both been busy lately, let’s at least sit down and drink some tea and catch up before you run away with William Gaddis, and oh wait M just got home from work, how nice that we all get to be together right now.”

c) The fact that the shelves aren’t particularly well edited is…part of the appeal, really. It’s an adventure. I can poke through one of the crates in the milk-crate shelf in the front room and find (as I did the other day) “A Wrinkle in Time,” and think “egads! I have this! I can read it now!” and then make a cup of tea and read it. The most satisfying of surprises.

I understand this is a choice. I want my library. If I ever considered it a need something would be wrong. When I moved house last summer “bookshelf space” was definitely on the “if possible” and not the “dealbreaker” list during my apartment search. But my cherishing of my possessions, my satisfaction at the thought of those shelves and shelves of books…I don’t think that has all that much to do with rapacious capitalism, really, as it stands with me personally. There is a third option here to take! I have my stuff! I like my stuff! I do not feel my stuff is useless!*

*some of my stuff is probably useless, relative to other of my stuff. But I’m not sure the answer to that is necessarily “stop having stuff.” My stuff helps more than it hinders, in the happiness game, I think.

Lenora Jane (#395)

@Lenora Jane …AND that seemed way shorter while I was typing it. Sorry.

@Lenora Jane Books and craft stuff are the two areas where I cut myself slack. I still pare and edit regularly, because I am now way in hell stopping acquiring. But those are more than things – they’re potential, they’re worlds, they’re friends and satisfaction and all of that.

Everywhere else? For me it’s a case of whether it gets used. Is it in a box somewhere because it’s too good for everyday? That’s dumb, it either needs to become the everyday set of plates (or whatever) or go live with someone who is fancy enough to use it. Some things do not get used that often – some of my kitchen stuff is a good example. I don’t use that cake plate more than once a year. But it makes me SO happy when I do, and it makes me happy every time I see it in the cupboard. So it stays. Other things get used once a year, and I have the space to store them in the shed until that one day a year (or whatever). I do have the space, and it’s generally well ordered, so who cares. But when, for example, I couldn’t see the clothes I DO wear in my closet, because they were behind the ones I don’t wear? That’s not a clean, elegant system.

Hahaha, this sounds like I am not a semi hoarder. I totally am. I like my stuff! I’m fine with it, but I also need to watch myself or I get caught up in the sentiment of it and don’t get to actually enjoy either the stuff itself or the space, time and dollars I would have without it.

lemons! (#384)

I really like collecting things that mean something to me. I want to die with a bunch of art and little things like my towel rack I bought on ebay that’s brass and has a fish holding the loop with it’s mouth. I bought it on ebay for $10 and makes me infinitely happier than some design crap at bed bath and beyond. I like minimalism, but I really love is a well crafted environment full of worn artful things. I like the house with the quirky fence made out of rusty car parts. I don’t want somebody who just cares about a laptop. That all being said I regularly try to weed out the special from the guilt-ridden things/junk. I still haven’t gotten rid of some horrific socks my mom gave me yet. Today could be the day.

LOVE this article. for most of my adult life i’ve been able to pack what really matters (my underground comics collection, some memorabilia and so on along with some clothes and the necessities of life) into a large car or small van. I had a devious flirtation with “having a house with a spouse” which got filled up with crap rather fast. the purge that first time was epic and since then I do a purge any time I have too much crap. the things I value are truly of value and are irreplaceable but suffice to say that is not a lot (i.e. family photos, the aforementioned underground comics collection and so on). For years I lived with no furniture either (renting furnished places) and it has been liberating. Only in the last few years have I purchased a little bit of IKEA furniture for a studio apartment and i’m still hella spartan and I LOVE IT.

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