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Monday, April 27, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 17 - One of each

andrechinn, Flickr

Our culture of abundance and consumerism makes it possible (and "normal") to own more than one of the same object. 

For many reasons, I want to be an advocate of owning only one of each thing. 

In ascending order of size and/or value:

Own only one of each beauty/hygiene product. I'm like everybody else. I do find little jars of beautifully scented lotions, powders and other "beauty products" to have an uncanny appeal. Especially when said jar (or any other type of packaging - think individually wrapped soap bars) is pretty. Like everybody else, I also like a good bargain: whenever possible, I buy those items on sale. The consequence? Well, open your pharmacy cabinet or pull your shower curtain: you'll see. Most of us are "bathroom pack rats" in one way or another. How many bottles of shampoo, conditioner and shower gel do you really need at one time? Do you sometimes have to throw sunscreen away because it's expired? Do you know how many tubs of lip balm/lipstick you own and where they are located? I don't know for you, but I'm tired of that kind of clutter. Right now I am gradually using up all those accumulated bottles, jars and tubs... and will not replace any product until it's drops from being all gone. Also: I will only replace the products that I really need. I will live my everyday life like I do when I travel: with only the products I use daily, and with only one of each.

Are you dealing with a similar "beauty product overload" situation?

Own only one couch, kitchen table, TV set and the like. This is mostly for family-bonding purposes. The more couches, tables and TVs you own, the less time you will end up spending with your family members. 

Do you notice a correlation between the amount of time your family spends together and the number of those items you own? Is it any different when you go on vacation?

Own only one vehicle. Okay. Some couples and families have jobs or activities that take them in opposite directions. But that is not always the case. I have seen people go to pretty much the same area at approximately the same time (you know, within 30 minutes of each other) with two separate cars. With some planning, some optimization of our time, and the willingness to sometimes have to wait a little bit, it is more than possible to function with only one car in a lot of cases. I know some people who will rent a car for the very rare instances in which they really need one. It is also perfectly acceptable to ask a friend for a ride (you can pay them back in wine bottles). Not to mention the wildly overlooked options that are called, respectively: carpooling, public transport, bicycles and your own feet. Slow down, look around, actually engage with your surroundings and the people, be kind to the Earth, avoid the stress of driving and parking... and save thousands of dollars each year. (What are you gonna do with that money?)

Are there any situations in which you could ditch the car and travel differently?

Own only one house. Meaning no cottage or summer home in the country side, and no pied-à-terre in a bigger city. To many, owning more than one property is not even an option, but to those who can (or think they can) afford it, please give it some thought. A second property means cleaning, maintenance, repairs. It doesn't matter that you are paying someone else (assuming you can afford that too) to do all the work. The responsibility is still on your shoulders. Plus, consider the alternative: the freedom of going to a different, new place with different, new sights, activities and people every time you travel. The wonders of discovery, the surprises, the excitement.

If you own a second property... do the advantages exceed the disadvantages? And are you getting outside of your comfort zone (as you should)?

Exceptions. Some things you might want (need?) to own two of (maybe):

  • bathrooms: if you are a family of 4+ and especially if you have teenagers, 2 bathrooms will make your life more comfortable. It might not be a fundamental need, but it's nice.
  • sunglasses: one sturdy, flexible, aerodynamic pair for sports, one trendy pair for dressier outfits
  • watch: same as above
  • purse: one for spring-summer, one for fall-winter
  • bed sheets: same as above (if you live in a country that has very pronounced seasons - I like flannel in the cold months!)
  • PJs: same as above
  • towels: so that you can use one while the other one is being washed
  • sets of workout clothes, favorite bras, bathing suits, etc.: same as above
  • sets of dishes: same as above - for a family of 4, that would mean 8 of each item - I know I rarely use all 12 of my plates, forks and glasses at the same time!

Do you have any other examples I might have overlooked?

Please share any thoughts, no matter if you agree or disagree with the above!



I was early for an appointment. Did not feel like waiting in the car. Walked into a store. Spotted a very nice pair of boots, price 25% off, my size. Tried them on. Liked them. Looked at my other pair of boots on the floor (the ones I had walked in with), not the same style but definitely the same kind: not too warm, laced, earth tones, ankle height, perfect for mild spring or fall days. Would the new boots serve a different purpose than the ones I already own? Absolutely not. Walked out in my old (but still perfectly fine) boots without buying a new pair.

My friend S, on the other hand, has been questioning her recent purchase of a short faux leather jacket. Her argument: she already owned a soft shell jacket that she used for similar temperatures (again, spring and fall). She therefore questions whether that purchase fits a minimalist lifestyle. However, she did not own a stylish jacket to wear when she dresses up. I think her new purchase was justified.

How do you determine whether an item qualifies as a need or as a duplicate of something you already own?

Donations (good riddance)

Small, gently used toys my kids are not using anymore are becoming the "prizes" I use when playing Bingo with my students. Up to now nobody has complained.

How are your children, parents or partner reacting to the idea of getting rid of things they don't use anymore?

Observations and cogitations

A reader commented that she hides things from her family, and that if no one has noticed or asked for those things in a month, it means they can be donated. If you are not ready to "play that game" with your loved ones, why don't you play it with yourself: hide things you don't really use in a box. Tape it shut. Don't list the contents anywhere. Wait a few months. Did not need anything that was in the box? Don't even remember what you put in it? Donate the box "as is".

Does that sound scary to you? If you decide to try it, tell us what happened!

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 16 - Mental clutter

Luis Marina, Flickr

When it comes to clutter, a lot of it is invisible: it's in your mind. And by "it's in your mind" I do not mean that you are imagining it. 

Mental clutter can take many forms. 

Mental clutter happens when you own a lot of stuff which, even if it is well organized and stored neatly, still nags you imperceptibly. Part of your brain knows that the stuff is there even if that stuff is put away, and that knowledge adds to your levels of stress. That's one reason why I want to own fewer things. 

Home owning in particular adds to the stress because of all the different things you have to maintain and generally take care of. We recently had to service the water softener. It will soon be time to re-stain the decks. And clean the windows. If we're lucky we'll eventually see the grass and the flower beds, with all the work that it implies. Meanwhile, some of the baseboards need touch-ups. One of the bathtubs could use new caulking. The list is endless, and as soon as you take care of an item, another one pops up! Whether you do it yourself or pay someone else to take care of it... there is always something. Your mind is very aware of that.

Mental clutter also happens when you have a lot of activities, responsibilities, appointments and the like to keep track of. CEOs and working parents are equally familiar with that kind of clutter. No matter how organized you are, and even if you have a personal assistant, everything you have to remember still hangs above your head like a sword of Damocles. That also adds to your levels of stress. This is one reason why I want to simplify my schedule and that of my family members... and learn to say no. Easier said than done.

Where do you think your mental clutter comes from?



One of the main topics at my last Minimalist Meeting was photos and mementos (and children's artistic productions). How do we eliminate clutter without completely getting rid of those items that are high in sentimental value? The answer: take a picture (if the item isn't already a picture), scan it, and store it in a safe place. No more thick photo albums, no more dust gathering trinkets, no more boxes and boxes of preschool crafts. If you want regular access to the memories, you can then put the scanned pictures in a digital frame. 

What was my temptation this week, then? Well, I bought an external drive. My music and photos and documents were not safe enough stored on my computer only. Computers crash. An external drive provides an extra safety. So yes, I bought something, but I believe it is a step forward in my minimalist endeavor: for one small object and about a hundred dollars, I can now get rid of a lot of clutter.

There is another temptation in the back of my head, and it's in the shape of a house: nice, big, on a lake, reasonably priced, in our neighborhood. The funny thing, however, is that it's over 4000 square feet. That doesn't sound too compatible with minimalism!

Any tips on how to manage sentimental items?

And how do you reconcile luxury (e.g. a big house on a lake) with minimalism?

Donations (good riddance)

I finally got rid of books! Twenty of them! As is often the case when you are stuck, I got unstuck by asking for help. I had D go through the bookshelves and tell me which books he thinks no one will ever re-read. Now that we got started eliminating books, it doesn't feel so daunting.

My next goal is to get rid of paper. Some documents need to be kept, but I find organizing paper stressful for some obscure reason. I wish I had a magic wand to take care of the piles I have accumulated. Running a business from home is not the most conducive to a minimalist interior. Got to work on it. 

How do you manage paper documents and work-related supplies in your home office?

Observations and cogitations

I have been reading Everything that Remains, by The Minimalists. It's a nice account of what it feels like to experience abundance and then decide that frugality makes more sense. That's where the "voluntary" of voluntary simplicity takes all its meaning. A lot of stuff you have dreamed of acquiring can lose its appeal once you have easy access to it. As a French Literature Master's (and writer in the making), one of my ideas of "making it" was to acquire a Mont Blanc (those luxury pens are a couple hundred bucks a piece). Once I did get one, however, the initial excitement quickly faded. Did I really need a Mont Blanc? Nope.

What minimalist book, article, blog or website have you been reading?

Have you experienced a blasé feeling once you had reached a certain level of luxury?

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, April 13, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 15 - Work

Tax Credits, Flickr

How much should one work, and how much should one earn? Reading on that topic I have learned that:

  • the minimum wage is usually not enough to afford a salubrious shelter, reasonably healthy food, medical expenses and an education - especially if you have kids
  • happiness increases as you make your way up to $75,000 a year - after that, additional increases in income will not make you any happier
  • the American Dream costs $130,000 per year

Of course each of those statements has been questioned on various grounds.

I have lived on incomes all along that continuum, which makes me look like I'm qualified to draw my own conclusions. 

However, I'm afraid I cannot comment on the lower income end since in my case, when I lived on very little it was 1) by choice (I refused to borrow any money at all while I was in college) 2) temporary (I knew my situation would improve as soon as I got out of school and got a "real" job) and 3) complemented by my parents' contribution to both my tuition and groceries - plus I could enjoy their property on the weekend. In the end, I did spend a few years living very frugally (1-room apartment, no TV, no microwave, very few possessions in general and not going out much), but it never felt like actual poverty. (It might help that despite my low income, I was treated with respect, which doesn't seem to be the case in many low-income realities.)

I can, however, comment on the fact that the American Dream as described by USA Today is not an infallible recipe for happiness. There are many reasons behind that. First and obvious is the fact that safety and material comfort are only one factor of happiness. From what I have either witnessed or experienced personally, pleasant relationships, meaningful activities, good mental health and such count just as much in the well-being equation. I would rather live in a shack with people I love than live in a castle with people I despise. I would rather have a job I love that pays okay than have a job I hate that pays well. I would also rather have less stuff to look after. I could list examples of well-off people I have known that were not happy, but I will trust that you have your own examples.

This is where an honest appraisal of the reasons we work the way we do and of the costs and benefits of work comes into play. You might have landed the prestigious, well-paid job you had dreamed about. Or you might simply be working really hard at a regular-Joe job. But is it filling you with contentment or with misery? How do you truly feel? Is all that hard work really worth it?

If you really love what you do, and if the time and energy commitment doesn't get in the way of other life goals (like spending time with loved ones, engaging in hobbies or simply relaxing), then by all means keep at it. 

But if you feel like the trade-off might not be worth it... time to reconsider. In my field, I have met many colleagues who left secure jobs as physicians, lawyers, engineers, financiers, senior managers and the like to become freelance translators, editors and writers. I have yet to hear one of them say they regret it at all. Despite the initial uncertainty, precarity and fluctuations of income (it does get better as you gain experience), more than one has told me they would "never go back". 

Within one's ideal field itself, one must also be weary of crossing the line of "too much". There have been times in my freelance career when things were going so well for me that I started feeling they were going a little bit too well: the money was good, but I was working so much that I could never use said money - there simply was no time for anything else but work! Life was made of hours worked and checks deposited, with very little in-between. I had to cut back.

Doing so has had less negative impact than I imagined. I realized that having the time to watch life go by is a luxury I enjoy way more than most material possessions. I also realized that if I cut down on certain paid tasks I like (translation in fields I am not passionate about), I have more time to indulge in paid tasks I love (teaching, writing, and translation in the fields that I am passionate about). Interestingly, my income did not significantly decrease as I changed how I invest my time: it simply comes from different sources now. I certainly feel like I don't work as hard as I used to, but it's simply because I love what I do. 

Everything is relative of course: there are fields and cities where working less than 50 hours is considered slacking, and there are people who cannot fathom working more than part-time. Each of us has to ponder our need for stimulation as much as our need for rest as we tackle the $ numbers.

I have to be completely honest: I am not ready yet to fully indulge in hardcore minimalism. There are "luxuries" I still enjoy. Plus, I am not even handy. But I am more than ready to mindfully assess the use of each and every minute and dollar to make sure that it truly serves the purpose of maximizing my well-being.

What is your relationship to your job and the money you make from it? Do you think any changes in that area could make you happier?



They say it takes a few weeks to form a new habit. After 15 weeks of not buying, I think the habit has been formed. I can walk into a store and get the one thing I need without even considering anything else. It's a wonderful feeling. 

Donations (good riddance)

I am stuck in the book department. Really stuck. I know as long as I live in an English-speaking environment I will keep my French classics since they are so hard to come by, and I want my kids to have access to them (plus, I teach French). But any other book seems like it could go. Which doesn't mean I feel ready to let them go. Any advice?

Observations and cogitations

I have had that conversation with a few friends and family members: what should one do about things that s/he doesn't use but feels s/he will use in the future? For example, I am keeping some pairs of jeans for when the ones I currently wear the most have to be discarded. It seems logical in such a case. But such a logic also opens the door to accumulating things "for later", which can certainly go too far. I have seen more than one older person move to a nursing home or pass away with enough hand towels and Javex to last 3 generations. What do you think?

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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Monday, April 6, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 14 - Little luxuries

Philip Taylor, Flickr

As the members of our local Minimalist Group would tell you, living simply does not exclude pleasure. I had just apologetically admitted to owning a lot of books. Uncomfortably staring at my feet, I said "We all have our weaknesses... don't we?". A fellow member reassured me that we all do; another one added that "we cannot be frugal with everything".

It reminded me of this tiny house that was equipped by its owners with a system for brewing their own beer. What a paradox: getting rid of most things people take for granted, yet making place for specialized equipment - plus the collection of beer appropriate glasses? 

Which had in turn reminded me of the fact that everywhere in the world, even in the poorest slums of India, people will go out of their way to celebrate when they feel an occasion warrants it, spending the last cents of their meager income on "superfluous" items such as candy and colorful decorations.

Those stories are all a lesson in human experience: we need to enjoy life. In many cases, even living an ascetic existence, where you purposely deprive yourself, brings about pleasure, as it makes the simplest things significantly more enjoyable: drinking water when thirsty, for example, is one of the best feelings in the world when you focus on it. When you have very little, everything just "tastes better".

As I get rid of things and scrutinize each and every one of my consumption habits, I face the fundamental question: when is a superfluous object or activity acceptable? Luckily for us, The Minimalists (of the eponymous blog) have the answer: 
instead of mindlessly getting rid of everything, let's simply ask ourselves if the things we own (and the things we do) really add value to our lives. If they do, they can stay. If they don't, they have to go.

I know I can live without good quality olive oil, balsamic vinegar and wine as opposed to the generic. I also know that keeping a bottle of each of those in the house really does add value to my life. In fact, when it comes to wine and chocolate, I would rather have less if it means having "the best". Quality vs quantity. For me, the choice is easy.

Another area where I think quality (as opposed to the cheaper version) makes a significant difference is outdoor gear. Oftentimes, it is not even more costly... if you consider the long-term. Good quality hiking and camping equipment, after the initial purchase, will provide you with years and years of comfort and convenience. The cheap stuff will quickly have to be replaced. I know from experience.

No matter what your actual means are, there are areas of your life that are worth some indulging, whereas other areas could use some skimming.

What are your own personal luxuries, the things that are worth your time and money? 

Are there other areas of spending, objects or activities, that don't really add value to your life?



I cannot speak of temptations per se this week, but I realized that shopping for basics still adds up, after buying a CO2 detector, a smoke detector and a few other needed items for the house. 

Donations (good riddance)

I took advantage of the long weekend to make some progress on my spring cleaning. This time, the unsuspecting victim was my walk-in closet. This closet was one of the - many - reasons I fell for the house when we first bought it. I loved its size and layout. But big closets have that annoying tendency to overflow with stuff. I had already "worked" on that closet last year, and yet I still found tons of various things that should not be in it - things that should not be in the house altogether, to be more accurate. This cleanup created 3 big bags of clothes and accessories for donations, and 1 big garbage bag of "ungivables".

Observations and cogitations

Easter. As all of the other "big holidays", it has turned into a festival of consumerism. I will not deprive my kids of the wonderful pleasure of a chocolate egg hunt, but chocolate is all I bought for Easter, and in reasonable quantities. I am happy to say that I did not succumb to the plethora of pastel colored and spring related items that were everywhere to be found. 

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? Did you face any challenge? Please comment below! And...

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