Moderate Minimalism

Our house isn’t too small. We just have too much stuff. And not just any kind of stuff. We have too much stuff we don’t use. That’s the thing. Our house is the perfect size for our people, and the things we use all the time. Perfect size, I tell ya.

Unfortunately, a lot of other things have crept in over the years. Some of these items were well used in the past. Now they are in the back of a drawer, back of a closet, or on some shelf just taking up space. They are adding to the burden of ownership without giving back any benefit.

So here is what we set out to do.

Touch everything.

Every. Single. Item.

We asked three questions.

  1. Do we use it?
  2. Do we need it?
  3. Is it earning its keep?

These seemingly easy questions were in fact quite ruthless in their honesty. Take stuffed animals for instance. Are they used? Well, yes I suppose. They all have a spot on our kids’ beds. They each get held occasionally. But we are talking about 100 of these furry beasts. So do my kids need 100? Sure they each  need maybe 5, 10 at the most, but 20 each? 5 stuffies (as we call them) would easily earn their keep. They would be played with and loved enough to earn a spot in our home. But if we spread that love over 20 per child, the stuffies start to look a little lazy. We have room for them to each have 5 well loved, hard working stuffies. But we don’t have space for 20 lazy stuffies per child.

Books are a weak spot. Do I use it? Well, I read it once. Skimmed it twice. Do I need it? Hum. Will I need it in a pinch, or could I check it out from the library? I tend to hang on to books I need to reference quickly. But a casual read? Is it earning its keep? If I don’t read it at least once a year, and can easily pick it up at the library, maybe not.

It’s tempting to think that these items are doing no harm, even if they aren’t used. But everything is a small burden.

  1. We dust it.
  2. We sort it.
  3. We look around it to find something else.
  4. It takes space.
  5. It adds visual clutter.

Some things are well worth their effort. The things we use every day and are so helpful. We joyfully want those things in our home. We have room for those things. They make life easier. They add fun.

It’s the things we don’t use that are the problem.

The tea light candles that have been stashed in the back of my cabinet for 3 years. The 5th pot for boiling water, when 4 is plenty. These things aren’t really earning a spot in our home with the benefit they provide.

Our home can’t become a sanctuary for barely used things.

They need to move on. Someone else might be able to put them to work. I hope my old hiking backpack sees 500 hikes with its new owner. It has the ability to be a hardworking backpack. I hesitated to let it go, because I saw it’s potential. But at our house: it wasn’t used, wasn’t needed, and wasn’t earning its keep.

Moderate minimalism looks a little different when you’re a family of 7. We aren’t going to count our things. We own way more than 200 items. We don’t live in a tiny house. No magazine will be knocking on our door to photograph our home.

But I see the progress. We donated 50% of the kids toys. They are each allowed to keep 1 toy (or set of toys like blocks) in the toy room at a time. The rest of the toys are in the laundry room waiting for their rotation. There is actually floor space in the toy room. Space for the kids to play and create. That alone resolved 90% of the flights over toys. Oddly enough, our kids love it! They hated cleaning up before, and now it takes them literally 3 easy minutes to have that space perfectly cleaned.

I wrote about the struggle of letting these items go. But after the struggle, we are finding the benefit.

1. Emotionally

I feel more relaxed. I don’t look around and see piles of things that need to be “dealt with.” We all have goals and dreams we want to work towards. But the clutter or the abundance can steal our emotional energy.  Trying to find the right outfit in a sea of clothing, only half of which fits properly takes time and energy. If we feel worn out by the end of the day, finding areas of our lives that can be simplified will create the margin we crave.

2. Free Time

It takes less time to find an item. It takes less time to clean up our house. The kids can actually clean their own spaces. (That is one of the rules: they can only keep the number of things they can clean up in their rooms. Folks: that alone revolutionized my life! I should write a whole post about it. Mom doesn’t pick up toys! Coming soon….)

3. Financially

This was a surprise. We really thought we needed a shed. We do a lot of remodeling, and have no garage or storage space. But after getting rid of 50% of the items in our basement/laundry room area, all our tools fit just fine. Getting rid of things we don’t need meant we didn’t need to spend $5000 on a shed. Let that sink in for a minute. We were about to pay $5000 for a shed so that we could hold on to stuff we rarely used. Now it’s easy to criticize folks for paying specifically for storage space.  But I see so many people buy bigger houses just so it will hold all their stuff. Or pay more for a house that has a garage so it can hold all the extra stuff. When people are hesitant to get rid of things because, “It’s not costing me anything to keep it, and I might use it one day.” I wonder if all the barely used stuff was a factor when they picked that place to live, and will be a factor in their next home.

What amount of financial freedom are we trading for things that rarely get used?

My suggestion is take is one small space at a time. One closet, one pantry cupboard, one shelf or one kind of item. Do your best to honestly discard things that aren’t used, aren’t needed and aren’t earning their keep.  Ask if it’s honestly giving back to you much benefit.

Give that space rest for a couple months. Then go over it one more time.

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Discussion questions:

  1. Is there an area you are tying to pair down?
  2. How do you balance a desire not to waste money, with wanting to reduce the clutter?
  3. How long will you hold on to an item that you might use? 6 months, 2 years, 10 years or forever?


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49 thoughts on “Moderate Minimalism

  1. “It’s the things we don’t use that are the problem.” Absolutely! Minimalism is about deciding what is valuable and what isn’t. All the excess clutter just makes it harder to focus on the things that matter. We’ve been decluttering for most of 2016, and we get so much value out of our possessions now because we actually use them! If we haven’t used something in the last 6 months, then there’s no reason to hang onto it.

    • I’m shocked and slightly embarrassed by the amount of stuff I forgot we had. Or we hadn’t used because it was too inconvenient to get to. Or even worse… the items we bought twice because we couldn’t find the first one. It’s been a ton of work! But the upside has been awesome. 6 months is a good time frame. If I don’t have plans on using something in the next year or two, that is a line in the sand for me. We got rid of our 2nd tent because I have no plans to use that for at least 3 or 4 years. That is too long for us to hold onto a $30 tent with our limited space.

  2. I’ve found a good rule of thumb is if I haven’t used it in a year then it should go. We do a quarterly trip to Goodwill with all the stuff that accumulates to keep things in check and to give us a tax write off. With kids especially we find all the grand parent gifts and other things make toys stack up so high the kids don’t know what to play with or have room to do so. A good proportion of those donations are those toys that are no longer used.

    • I think having a scheduled donation day is an awesome idea! Things just pile up so fast with kids. I have to go through the kids clothes 2x a year, between summer and winter season and them growing into the next size, 20% of their wardrobe is ready to be passed down or given away. Or in the case of the baby 50% every 4 months!

  3. I sort of posted on this today.

    My bread machine died, and I can’t decide whether to say goodbye or replace it. On the one hand, it gets used about once every other month, and we have way too much stuff for our house. On the other, I have a deep emotional response to fresh bread (family memories) and breadmaking is a lot easier to make fresh bread happen. So I’m really torn on what the actual utility of the machine is.

    We need some serious decluttering. Mostly this year we’ve been concentrating on the easy stuff and we have a bit more room. But we still have a long way to go and a lot of things to which we have stronger emotional attachments.

    • I think it’s great to start with the quick wins! Those things that are easy to part with, then work to the harder stuff. After 6 moves, we finally dealt with the really painful choices this year. I quickly wrote a post about how hard those things were, because I didn’t want to forget the struggle and then become flippant as that experience became more distant. Personally I would probably give it 6 months then decide on the bread maker. See how it goes first before rushing to buy one or swearing it off forever. Good luck!

  4. I struggle with books. Living in a one bedroom apartment means that if we want to buy something new, we need to get rid of something old to make space for it. This means that we take care of most of our unused stuff on a rolling basis. But I haven’t been able to make myself get rid of my books.

    I see the bookcases full of books and recognize that I will never again read at least 90% of them. I used to dream of having a glorious library room in my house one day. That dream eventually died because books get expensive when you read a lot of them and the public library is free. Add to that that downloading e-books to my ipad is cheaper and more convenient than buying the physical copy, and I have stopped amassing new books. For whatever reason, though, I haven’t been able to make myself donate the physical books that I know I won’t read again.

    • I started a few year ago by gifting my favorite books to people I thought would like them. Now I have been bring boxes of books to the used book store for credit. Both ways I feel a benefit about them leaving instead of just feeling the loss. I had to admit to myself that part of my reason for holding on to them was to be braggy. =/ It was embarrassing to admit, but I liked having a 100’s of books on display that I had read. People could see what common interests we share, strike up conversation, or just know that I read a lot. I had to get to the place where, if I am inviting someone over to my house, trust they know me well enough to love me with or without the book display.

      • YES we totally emphasize with wanting a library for the pride/conversation starter/wanting to be able to lend books out, etc. It made my English-degree husband sick to his stomach to get rid of hundreds of books, but it was amazing after the fact to have all those open shelves. In two years there have been three books that he wished he still had on hand, so has since bought used copies. Three – versus hundreds!

        • I can’t imagine how many books we have gotten rid of over the years. We have about $90 of credit at the used book store. Beings you earn 10% of the cover price as credit, we have dropped off about $900 in books there. That is just in the last 2 years. It is hard at first. But I am SO glad we don’t have 6 full size book cases in our house! Using the library helps my one books a week habit. I still buy a lot, but I try to keep a one-in-one-out rule. It was so awesome to chat with you the other day!

      • That’s fair. I suppose that is part of it as well, if I am being completely honest with myself. It feels very self-indulgent looking at it from that angle.

        • Now that you feel a bit more self-aware, feel free to send me that copy of Bittersweet when you are finished with it. 😉 It was awesome to get to skype chat with you!

  5. This reminds me a lot about college. At the end of every semester when moving out of my room I always had a garbage bag to give away items to the donation pile. Every year I would have almost a full garbage bag of clothes and what not which was good to get rid of as my drawers were usually full having to balance winter and summer clothes.

    One thing I always found hard to throw away, and probably why I still have it, were my national jerseys I got for representing my country for swimming. Even though they are old and worn out I think they have too many memories. I honestly never wear them again but I know it is something to throw out. Other than this I am pretty good with throwing away stuff after a year of no to little use as I hate clutter.

    • I have my great grandmothers cedar chest, and I will keep any sentimental items that fit in there. Every year or two I go through and get rid of a couple items in the chest and add a few new ones. I think it is good to keep a few sentimental items, but it’s also good to draw a line in the sand on the amount.

  6. I have SO much crap that one person probably doesn’t need. When I downsize into my car, I’m going to have to document all that stuff and do a post. I certainly have way more clothes than i need, but on the plus side most of it was purchased more 5-10 years ago or more.

    I used to have an enormous compact disk collection. I did find it rather emotionally freeing to get rid of it. I sometimes said I didn’t own the CD’s ,but that they owned me…

    • What did you end up doing with your CD’s? I have a case or two and have been wondering what to do. I threw away all the cases years ago to save space. So I can’t even give them away. That one is a quandary for me.

      • I sold the valuable ones on eBay or Amazon and I donated the rest of them to the local library.

        The problem is that i like some fairly niche music (movie scores) and some of it is only released on limited edition physical CD format, so I slowly accumulate more….

        • I think it would be easier for me if I could donate them. But with out cases, I think I just need to throw them away. Although I have been letting my older boys listen to them in their room. =) Gotta make sure they grow up with good taste in music.

          • List them as a batch on Craigslist or ebay for free + shipping! Set a time period and if they’re not snatched up by the deadline, then throw them away. Then you can rest easy knowing you tried to pass them along to someone who would get better use!

  7. At our house, the main problem area is the garage. My husband wants a shed. I’m going to suggest he reads this post. It’s true, we do a ton of DIY, renovation projects around the house (and are soon going to search for a rental that will likely need some attention), but I’m a little resistant to buying a shed.

    We don’t have any toys in the house any more, but I remember constantly looking for a solution to the mess. Sounds like you’ve got a great thing going on at your house!

    • I would love a garage so so much! We renovated a kitchen in one of our rentals and doubled it’s size. I was silly and decided to hand paint all the new cabinets. It was a huge project (while I was 7 months pregnant and also huge!) Needless to say that happen in our bedroom! Good luck on the pairing down. =)

      • The garage is nice to double as a workshop. I refinished the cabinets in our old house – stripped, sanded, stained and sealed. Oh my goodness. Never again! They looked great, but it took 4 months. At least I wasn’t pregnant! 🙂

  8. Very true article. We did a similar exercise a few months ago… We now have space left over in our house.

    According to my theory, people buy as much stuff as they can store, and then some more.

    There is one thing I need to think about making it a rule: they can only keep the number of things they can clean up in their rooms.

    • That is such a true theory! As to the toys, our friends tease us a bit because they swear their kids would cry for days. I worried about the same thing, but they actually love it. They hated cleaning their room, not being able to find toys, not having the floor space to play, and having the sets of toys so scattered they were worthless. It has been an amazing shift. Plus despite having 5 little kids, our house doesn’t look like a daycare! =)

  9. Oh man, things just creep into our home. It’s a small place and it’s getting really full. We’re trying to go with the replacement policy. That works pretty well most of the time, but it seems like we pick up a lot of free junks too. We send stuff to Good Will occasionally and that helps. We will do a total clean up when we move in a year or two.

    • I don’t know if you can ever call it “done.” Things just flow into our home. Mail, art projects, important paperwork, gifts, even our food cupboards. I’m just resolved that most areas in our home will need to be sorted once a year. Another upside to a smaller home, less unruly closets to go through. =)

  10. I hate it when I feel like I’m living in a storage locker. It’s approaching quitting time on a Friday and I’m now in the mood to go home and do some serious de-cluttering. thanks for the timely post!

  11. After my wife’s mother passed away, my wife was responsible for cleaning out her belongings. It took almost a full year to dig through the clothes and various items to determine where they belong. After that experience my wife said never again. She quickly started to declutter our house and she basically has a one rule of one item in and one item out. This has been incredibly helpful in keeping our items to a minimum.

    • My grandmother passed away this year, and it was overwhelming. The one in one out rule is so helpful. It really causes me to think if I like the new item that much more than the one I already own. I started that years ago with my clothes. All the super cheap items that I use to buy just because they were cheap stopped seeming worth it when it meant I had to get rid of an different item.

    • It’s been great. They read so much more (we kept the bookcase, just got rid of about 25% of the unread books, which still leaves a crazy amount!) They color and write little stories more. They have been making paper airplanes like crazy. They make up the funniest games now. Our family has really gotten on-board with the no toy holidays. (which ends up being 1 or 2 sharing toys.) We go do fun family events instead, or they buy the kids $5 McDonald’s gift cards.

  12. Oh, man, the “How long will you hold on to an item that you might use question is tricky!

    In practice, my answer is years, but I’m not proud of that. :-/ My biggest issue is when it makes the most sense to sell something, as opposed to donating – it’s just so much more hassle and I procrastinate.

    • For us it also depends on the size, price and how easy it is to find another one for cheap. The huge baby walker we found at a garage sale for $5 would leave the minute isn’t not being used even if we were going to have another kid. Too big, and super cheap to replace. A $300 extra digital camera? Maybe years. It varies by item for sure, and current storage space. If we had the space I might hold on to more things I know we could use again. But when there is too much stuff, I can’t find anything even if I remember we have it and want to use it.

  13. I had a realization similar to this after we moved into our new house last year. We had things in our old house that probably hadn’t been used in 12 years. Clothes that hadn’t been worn. Tools that were never used. Etc. Now whenever I look at something in our house and at first hesitate to use it, I collect myself and think “why? why not use it? It’s ours and I bought it for a reason!” You can’t take it with you, so you might as well enjoy it while you can!

    • We are trying to be more of a “use it up” kind of family. I use to have a tendency to save things I perceived as extra nice and just use it for special occasions. Nice bath salt, specialty oils for cooking, ect. Only to end of forgetting about them because they got lost in the abundance. Now if I like something I try to use it up. If I don’t like it, and don’t want to use it, then get rid of it.

  14. It’s incredible how much time and energy can be given to “stuff” we’ve accumulated. Our garage is a bit cluttered and I blame it on not having proper storage, but what in our garage can we sell, discard, or put to use? Probably about half of it. And that’s just one room and one example! I went through my desk and threw out two grocery bags of trash last weekend. Felt great!

    • When I was 20, I could fill pages with a list of things I thought I needed. In my 30’s I could have filled pages with a list of all the things I got rid of. We literally took it one drawer, closet and shelf at a time. I only have a few spaces left to deal with. I went through my food cupboards a few weeks ago. And my tea chest yesterday. I found 6 boxes of tea (never opened) from 2011. Beings I never had any desire to drink that tea in the last 5 years, it’s a safe bet I won’t miss it. We did the spice cupboard a few weeks ago… oh dear. I should have taken a picture.

  15. Love this post, Ms. MT! We’ve found a ton of positives in paring down our possessions, though we’re far from “minimalists.” At some point, the effort and energy to reduce things to their true bare minima just isn’t worth it to us (we get value out of owning more than two spoons, and sometimes we even like having people over to our home). For most people, though, there’s a long way to go before pushing that level of extremism.

  16. I agree that “minimalism” looks differently for each family. We don’t even claim to be minimalists, though I think I’m naturally bent that way. Books are a weakness, though I’ve given lots away in the past a year. That is awesome your children have donated so many toys. My kids have parted with some, but then they’ll be upset months and even years later about their things that I’ve donated. I like the idea of drawing the line at what they’re able to clean up, though I’d have to extend some grace to my 2-year-old!

    • We started by making the kids try to clean their own rooms over the course of two days. It was very overwhelming and frustrating for them, and they were much more open to parting with some of that work. We do a big shelf in the laundry room for their toys that they can rotate through. But the rule it the toy they were playing with has to be 100% picked up and get switched out for the new one. Even our 3 year old is pretty good at picking up one kind of item and putting into a bucket. The baby is a slacker. 😉 We still pick up his toys.

  17. Hi Ms. Montana,

    This is my first visit to your blog. Nice post, what can I say, less is more!

    Less stuff means more time, more space, and more money.

    Even our breath in life is like a long term lease. We gotta let it go at some point :).

    When you have fewer things, you don’t need to maintain them – which means more time in your hands – the only resource that cannot be purchased.

    I like the title of your post – moderate minimalism. Everything must be done in moderation.


  18. My husband recently sent me this blog because he thought it would resonate with me. He was right.

    I have felt a lot of these emotions over the years. When we downsized (temporarily) to 320-square-feet it felt like such a burden was lifted. I realized I had been a slave to our stuff. Working, buying, cleaning, organizing, repeat. It was stressful. And when I had to narrow it down a lot, I felt freedom from the stuff. And realized what we didn’t really need. But it’s easy to fall back in the trap of stuff again. For me, it’s been something j have to keep top of mind to keep from being a slave to stuff again.

    I especially love your comment about whether your stuff is earning it’s keep. Maybe it did once, but isn’t now. Such a great, thought/provoking idea.

    • Ah, thanks! And thanks for commenting. =) 320 sq ft is small! Right after we married we lived in a travel trailer, and it made those choices so easy. We had room for the things we used every day, and no room for anything else! Sometimes I will look at a rarely used item and say, “I love you, but you’re lazy.” We just don’t have space for the lazy stuff. =) I totally agree that too much stuff just adds work and stress. And with 5 little kids and a neurotic dog, I don’t need more of either.