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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 4 - Less stuff, less stress

Tallkev, Flickr

Getting rid of stuff and not buying anything might seem like a daunting project, but as the house is becoming more and more decluttered, so is my mind.

Why do we acquire so much stuff? One reason for accumulating unnecessary things might be similar to the reason why we eat too much food: evolution and instinct dictate to get as much as we can when it's possible. We succumb to the temptation (and god knows temptation is everywhere, in the form of bargains, coupons and the like). But for those of us who live in abundance, it ends up being counterproductive. In fact, it can be detrimental to our health: just like eating too much food puts us at risk for a wide range of problems, owning too much stuff has been shown to have an effect on the "stress hormone", cortisol (which in turn can create all kinds of health issues). 

This is why minimalism/frugality cannot simply be about being thrifty, looking for deals, buying things on sale and/or second hand, or even making them yourself. Yes, you can find nice stuff at nice prices. Yes, you can create your own stuff with your own hands and labour of love. But it's still stuff! Minimalism is about taking your distance from stuff altogether.

This is why decluttering cannot simply be about arranging things orderly on shelves or in neat boxes and cupboards. You don't need those extra storage bins. You certainly don't need a bigger house or garage or shed. What you need is less stuff. Decluttering is about actually getting rid of the things you don't need! 

For more on this fascinating topic, please see the Becoming Minimalist blog, especially the post entitled Don't Just Declutter, De-Own. And share your comments below!



Interestingly, I did not face too many temptations this week. I was not in stores, did not read magazines, still do not watch much TV, and managed to ignore the pop-up ads when I was online. Maybe that's the trick: out of sight, out of mind!

I do have one kid who likes stuff, and she regularly asks for this and that... but I do not yield. From all of her eight years and a half, she is beginning to understand why.

We ran out of some food items, but I have not replaced them yet: 

  • seeds (flax, chia and hemp)
  • Dijon mustard
  • protein powder (for smoothies)

Are those needs? You tell me.

Instead of stuff, I focused on pleasant experiences: 

  • My daughter's 11th birthday party. We kept the gifts to a minimum and instead focused on a really cool activity: wall climbing! 
  • A night out to celebrate (surprise party!) a friend's 40th birthday. The most pleasant part of which was simply to chat and laugh late into the night with the dozen of good friends who were there (and take a walk on the beach together the next morning). 


Water bottles.

Good riddance - the things that are in too bad a shape to even be donated: 

Water bottles.

If you're intrigued about all the water bottles, read below...


While cleaning out the kitchen cupboards, I made a scary discovery: our family owns no less than 24 water bottles... not including the small ones that fit in my runner's belt, and not including the travel mugs (of which we only have 4). We are active people who love playing sports, hiking and camping, but... isn't 24 water bottles a tad too much? In my defense, a lot of them were not purchased: we got them for participating in a variety of events. But still. We should not have kept them all. Well, that's a problem solved now.


Not shopping while here at home might not be too hard, but I just realized that I won't be able to shop when I go to Montreal next summer (or if I travel anywhere else, for that matter). For a moment, I felt disappointed. But I am aware that not shopping will probably refocus my attention on other, more interesting things. When I backpacked around Europe for a couple months after I graduated from university in 1999, I was on a frugal "student budget" (precisely $40 a day including shelter, food and transportation), and therefore did not shop whatsoever. Instead I explored the cities' streets, visited a few hand-picked museums, hiked in National Parks, and generally took the time to feel the pulse of each place I went to. I didn't need to buy anything for that. If I remember well I did not bring back any souvenir from that trip - even the photos I took were rationed as I still used 35mm film - but I did bring back tons of unforgettable memories!

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Less is More project: Week 3 - Pleasure

PinkMoose, Flickr

Man is a pliant animal, a being who becomes accustomed to anything. (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)

Have you ever heard of hedonic adaptation? Also called the hedonic treadmill, this concept refers to the phenomenon by which our happiness stabilizes after an increase or a decrease caused by positive or negative events in our lives.

In our pursuit of happiness, we often fail to realize that once we have achieved what we believed would bring satisfaction and joy, we eventually return to our previous levels of happiness, as if nothing had ever happened. If you have finally found your soul mate, bought your dream house, landed your dream job or lost weight, and feel happier for of it... that new found happiness might not last. One shocking example of this phenomenon is the fact that people who win the lottery do not experience a permanent, long-lasting change in their levels of happiness past the initial excitement.

(The good news is that this phenomenon also works in the opposite direction. If you have become, say, paraplegic following an accident, your happiness levels might see a drop, but that drop is only temporary.)

In the context of this Less is More project, the phenomenon of hedonic adaptation applies to the pleasure we experience as a result of acquiring things. Have you ever noticed how short-lived the "high" we get from purchasing a coveted item can be? Even the most exciting new acquisition eventually looses its appeal. It becomes part of the decor. We take it for granted. As an exercise, I encourage you to look around your house for objects, big and small, that you were very enthusiastic about in the beginning, but that you now fail to notice or at least fully appreciate.

What lesson should we take from this? Is is worth our money and our planet's natural resources to shop and buy things that will only keep us content for a short amount of time? Does such a short term increase in happiness justify the stress material consumption puts on the environment? Is "I can afford it" a sufficient reason to buy something?

If we want to make ourselves or others happy, is there a way to achieve it without actually buying things?

Next comes the question of experiences. I am wondering if the privileged wouldn't benefit from spacing out their "special outings" such as nights out on the town, weekends away and longer trips in order to appreciate them better. Part of the pleasure in such activities lies in the build-up and the memories. When you do something too often, it's not special anymore, and you don't savour it quite as much. 

Do you have any personal, specific examples of how buying less and doing less might actually promote happiness?



Target is closing all its stores in Canada, and that means big sales as they try and get rid of the merchandise. Many friends of mine mentioned going, just in case they find something interesting (notice they did not mention an actual need). When I said I would not go, a coworker told me: "but you might get a super bargain, and maybe you do need something" to which I replied (with a smile): "well of course if I walk into the store I will suddenly discover all those needs I didn't know I had". 

Not going. Period.

I went to get a haircut at my usual salon - which is located in a shopping mall. I walked fast and looked ahead of me. Bought nothing. I used the opportunity to be more mindful of my spending: I got a cut but no color. In the coming year I will try and go back to my natural color as part of the Less is More project.


I have a pile of clothes and a pile of books ready to go. I might add to it, as I realized I still own some maternity clothes and baby bedding. Not planning on using those anymore, so... farewell!

Good riddance - the things that are in too bad a shape to even be donated: 

I am recycling a number of outdated traveling guides. I am also using an outdated agenda's pictures to make bookmarks, some of which will make fun, homemade presents to fellow readers. Even if that's the farthest my craftiness will go for now, it's still better than nothing.


I realized that:

Owning pets is not a good idea if you want to keep your budget in check. Find tapeworms on a furry friend's behind, get appropriate treatment plus preventive flee treatment for the other furry friends in the house, and my wallet is now $235 lighter. A couple months ago, one canine eye infection cost us about $125. And I'm not talking about the food, the treats, the toys (which we keep at a minimum) and other equipment such as crate, leash, cushions. Which also take up space. But pets are such a nice addition to a home, aren't they?

Like adults, children like new stuff and neglect the old. That is... until you "threaten" them of getting rid of the toys they don't use. All of a sudden my kids are rediscovering what had been hiding at the bottom of the toy chest, and enjoying it fully. The flame has been rekindled. 


The problem of presents: I knew it would be an issue. As adults, we can agree on not exchanging presents, but what about the kids? It's only January and between the 2 of them, our girls have already been invited to 4 birthday parties. I was not gonna send them without a present. All I can do is pick something that I think the recipients will like (or a gift card). As for our own kids, we will focus on things they actually need, like a new pair of basketball sneakers, a new bike (the current ones are falling apart), etc. Last year, when R turned 10, instead of presents she decided to ask for donations to the local SPCA. I was very proud of her. We might try and replicate, but of course this is not something we can actually force on children. It has to come from them.

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 2 - Gratitude

View from my window in the morning

In the past weeks, I have been reading Nickle and Dimed, the story of a writer and activist, Barbara Ehrenreich, who investigated (by putting herself in the situation) what it's like to live with the minimum wage (which is, at the moment, around $7 an hour in the States and $10 an hour in Canada).

It has been an eye-opener. We all know that poverty exists, but unless we actually witness it on a regular basis, we tend to forget. Even me, the woman who spend a significant part of her childhood in a third world country with parents working in international development.

Now the stupid things I am not allowing myself to buy appear in front of my eyes in all their glorious insignificance. I cannot believe I worried that I could not replace my Chai tea. I cannot believe I thought one year without buying would be long. Looking around me with new eyes, I realize I could probably live for 10 years without any new acquisition, solely replacing what is broken beyond repair whenever that happens (eg. the computer, some pairs of socks, etc.) 

Another realization I came to is that the pride I take in my accomplishments might be misplaced. The American Dream tells us to "just put in the effort, and you will reap the benefits". And so, as many others, I have been patting myself on the back for how well my life is going. We live in a meritocracy, and it's easy to assume that the luxury one affords is a direct consequence of elbow grease. By reading about the people who sometimes have to take on two jobs just to make ends meet, I am reminded that hard work does not equate material comfort and financial success. Nor does it always equate self-actualization, as some of the low-wage jobs are rather uninspiring. Of course, a positive attitude and a good work ethic will rarely come without rewards, and I still value them highly. But let's remember that being born in the right place at the right time is a big part of the equation.  

No matter how you approach it, either by reading, by volunteering or in any other way, get acquainted with the situation of the less affluent. Chances are you will have a renewed appreciation for what you have. You might even decide to share more, by donating money, things or your time.



I had to go to the post office. It is situated in the grocery store. Normally I would have found something - anything: food, cosmetics, office supplies, ... to buy. Probably not a big purchase, but something. This time, however, I walked straight to the post office desk and back. Even buying food was not an option. Groceries are not my responsibility anyway - we realized early on that they cost less when D is in charge, and since he seems to enjoy grocery shopping more than I do, I happily handed him over the task many years ago.

A similar situation occurred when A's teacher asked for a large quantity of Popsicle sticks for some "engineering" project. Since I do not own that many Popsicle sticks, I had to go and make the purchase. I cannot begin to tell you how many tempting items I saw on my way to the art and craft section of "the big store I won't name". I had to take a couple deep breaths. In the end, I realized it was easier if I did not look at the displays whatsoever. 

The kids' basketball team took pictures in the Fall, that they are now selling us. I had to by one, right?

A got a set of bow and arrows for Christmas. The kids have been using it daily. One arrow just broke. My first reaction was to tell her to not worry: we would get her a new arrow. But she said "It's okay, mom, I still have 2 other arrows". Pfiew!

So my only purchases of the year, up to now, are Popsicle sticks and my kids' basketball team picture. Who would have thought?


Good riddance - the things that are in too bad a shape to even be donated: 

I got started on cleaning my office. Oh, how I dread that kind of cleanup. Any other room is fine, but the office? It takes forever as I feel the need to re-read every single sheet of paper before I decide to toss it or keep it. I really need to learn to apply the Touch It Once rule. File papers right away. Don't let them lie on top of your desk indefinitely!

I still have to go through my books, but I am aware this will be a gradual process. A year should be enough to complete the endeavour.


I realized that:

  • (Well, actually, I already knew that.) The kids have too many clothes, and instead of providing them with a wide array of choice, it puts them in a state of anxiety whenever it's time to get dressed. I'm sure if they only owned a few pieces for each kind of weather/activity, as opposed to having overflowing drawers and closets, morning routine would be more peaceful. Let's work toward that.
  • A lot of the things I own, I did not buy. I received. Not necessarily as a present, but rather as a "donation" from someone (older family member, most of the time) who did not need it. I have to learn to say no, thank you.


Does owning good quality items conflict with an ideal of minimalism, I wondered as I put on my winter gear for my 15-minute walk to work on a -28 Celsius (- 18 Fahrenheit) day. But since we have made the choice of not getting a second car (D uses the one we have for his longer commute), I realized that the winter gear I own is my means of transportation. It has to be in good working order. Especially in such hostile weather conditions. That being said, I do realize that some people who need it do not have appropriate winter gear. 

The answer to "Can you make your own Chai tea?" is a resounding YES. I already had plain tea and all the spices: ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg and clove. I add turmeric for its health benefits. 

View from my other window in the late afternoon.

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Less is More Project: Week 1 - Shopping frenzy

MacBeales, flickr

“All ads do the same: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.” ―David Foster Wallace

One week into the Less is More Project! Contrary to what the title of this post implies, I did not go shopping. However, I do want to tackle the reasons why people shop. It boggles the mind how shopping has become such a daily part of our lives, a hobby, even, especially when you consider that most of the things we acquire are absolutely not necessary.

As Bill Bryson aptly demonstrates in The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, this tendency isn't something new:

"By the closing years of 1950s most people had pretty much everything they had ever dreamed of, so increasingly there was nothing much to do with their wealth but buy more and bigger versions of things they didn't truly require: second cars, lawn tractors, double-width fridges, hi-fis with bigger speakers and more knobs to twiddle, extra phones and televisions, room intercoms, gas grills, kitchen gadgets, snowblowers, you name it."

And what's wrong with that, you ask (apart from the obvious stress it puts on the environment and the ever-increasing problems of globalization)? Keep reading: 

"Having more things of course also meant having more complexity in one's life, more running costs, more things to look after, more things to clean, more things to break down. Soon millions of people were caught in a spiral in which they worked harder and harder to buy labour-saving devices that they wouldn't have needed if they hadn't been working so hard in the first place."

I don't have to convince anyone that this phenomenon is still very much alive some 55 years later. But why do we keep buying? If the objects we acquire do not really fulfill a need, maybe the act of shopping in itself does?

Thomas Hine's book, I Want That - How we all Became Shoppers, might hold the answer. People do not simply shop to acquire nice things. Here are 9 reasons why we shop (and buy):

  1. Power - the use of objects to assert authority and prove your worth.
  2. Responsibility - shopping as a nurturing activity.
  3. Discovery - going among strangers to trade and learn.
  4. Self-expression - the role of objects in a world where individuals' identities aren't fixed.
  5. Insecurity - the conspiracy of shoppers and sellers that conjures the illusion of scarcity and creates fashion to enhance the eventfulness of life.
  6. Attention - the craving to have one's desires recognized but not judged.
  7. Belonging - the use of objects to forge communities of taste and to rebel against mainstream thinking.
  8. Celebration - the ways in which shopping helps give meaning to Christmas.
  9. Convenience - the integration and entanglement of shopping with the rest of life.

Do you recognize yourself or someone you know in those 9 forces that drive people to shop? Please share your examples in the comments!



Holidays and vacation time might be the worst, temptation wise. My spending style is what I call "Save 'n Splurge". I don't tend to spend little amounts on a regular basis; instead, I will be reasonable for a while, until a "special occasion" pops up (such as holidays), at which point I will go on some kind of shopping spree. When on vacation, I spend more time out and about in general, and downtown in particular, where nice shops abound (as opposed to my quiet neighborhood in the woods). 

But I resist. I am proud to say that I was able to walk past an outdoor gear store, a running store, a yoga store and a wine store (some of my biggest weaknesses). I also refused to enter a variety of other stores that advertised huge sales in their windows. I would probably have bought nothing (my commitment to this project is serious!), but I would definitely have ended up feeling very frustrated. Instead, we went for a stroll on the waterfront. We browsed an interesting (and free) exhibit on the war of 1812. But the highlight of the day was rather unexpected:

There was a homeless man on the street, enthusiastically singing an upbeat song. I couldn't help but smile from ear to ear. Considering this an "experience" worthy of my small change, I gave him a dollar. We exchanged Happy New Year wishes. The whole interaction itself was an exchange. I was not the giver, and he the receiver. We both gave to each other. We were both happier after the interaction. I really mean that. 

Oldest daughter R said "That was nice, mom. This man will put that money to good use" (her actual words). I don't know about that, but it does not matter at all. What that man does with the money is none of my business. Plus, we all deserve some fun. No judging.

Surely, giving away a dollar to a homeless person does not qualify as buying?


My youngest daughter, A, and I, did a serious cleanup of her bedroom, and filled a big bag of toys, books and decorative objects that she no longer appreciates, to donate to younger children. 

I also gave away some books from my own personal library.

Good riddance - the things that are in too bad a shape to even be donated: I threw away an array of random things that we found under A's bed.

The house already has a fresh, decluttered feel to it. As I had been getting rid of things for the past 2 years already, most rooms are in a pretty good state. However, I know the time will come when I will need to do a serious cleanup of my office. And to be honest, that prospect scares me. I have no trouble getting rid of objects, but I hold on to paper like my life depends on it! Wish me good luck on that one.


I realized that:

  • I own 8 pairs of jeans. I always wear the same 3.
  • I work outside the home 3 days a week (and work from home the 2 remaining days), but judging by the contents of my wardrobe, you would think I work outside the home 7 days a week and change my entire outfit 3 times a day.


One thing I have noticed in the past is that I cannot be trusted in wholesale stores. They might be good value for your money, but I always end up buying things I don't need, in a quantity I don't need, or both. Our membership card to one of those stores has just expired and we decided that in 2015, we will not renew it.

What did you resist this week? Did you donate or get rid of anything? How did that make you feel? Please comment below! And...