The Year I Plan to Embrace Minimalism

Originally published on July 7, 2014.

Today is my 29th birthday. Usually, I’d write a list of 29 random facts about myself to share with you. I’d also considered writing a 30 Before 30 list. It’s the last year of my 20s – I should do something fun/impulsive/[insert more synonyms for spontaneous], right? Maybe I should finally go to Europe; live/work from France for a month; or do the same from Hawaii for three. Omg, I’ll probably settle down, get married, buy a place and have kids in my 30s. Ahhh! Must take advantage of freedom and do all the things NOW!

Those are more or less the thoughts that have been rolling around in my head the last few weeks. What is it about getting closer to a new decade that makes us want to flee from reality? If I had the vacation time, I probably would’ve booked a one-way ticket out of here last week. Instead, one conversation + two days of being holed up in my bedroom + two blog posts led to an aha! moment I’d never expected.

One Conversation

A couple weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about impulse purchases we’d made in the past, when she admitted one she’d recently made. Her reasoning for it: that she saves 20% of her income each month, so she’s allowed to spend the rest of her money on whatever she wants. I don’t necessarily disagree with this. If all your expenses are covered, you have no debt and you’re meeting your savings goals, you should absolutely enjoy some of your hard-earned dollars! But without blinking, this reply came out of my mouth instead:

“But could you save MORE? Do you NEED 80% of your income or could you live on less?”

As soon as I asked the question, I realized I’d been telling myself the same excuse for the last year – that I was meeting most of my goals, so it was ok for me to spend the rest of my money on whatever I wanted. However, if you remember, I set some lofty savings goals that I’ve continually had to shave down. Why? Well, I’ve let lifestyle inflation get the best of me. As soon as I made my final debt repayment, I started spending more and excused it. And when I got a raise last year, my budget (and allowances) only went up.

It’s taken a full year for me to finally allocate 20% of my monthly budget for long-term savings. And while I’ve appreciated everyone’s comments about how I’m doing the best I can, the fact is: I could definitely live on less and save more. (Remember: There was a time I allocated 55% of my budget for debt repayment.)

Two Days in Solitary Confinement (Joking, Not Joking)

Last week, we experienced some unusually hot weather in Greater Vancouver. Despite the fact that I live on one of the highest floors in my building and only get the morning sun, my apartment was hot hot hot – except for my bedroom. So, for two days, I basically lived in bed with a tall, oscillating fan next to me.

I don’t know if it was the fact that I didn’t see a single person in those two days, or if the heat just got to me, but I found that I was annoyed at everything in my apartment. Why can’t I find the can opener? Because it’s surrounded by a bunch of random stuff I never use or even think to look at. Where is my stash of new razor blades? Stuck under a year’s supply of shower gel and lotion. Why do I have 5 black tank tops? Because I’ve never tossed my “fat” clothes. And so on (with more curse words).

The more annoyed I felt, the more I wanted to grab anything I didn’t like and throw it in the garbage can. My place is always clean and organized, so it doesn’t look like I have a lot of “stuff”, but there are probably bags and bags worth of things I could get rid of. It’s so easy to spend $5 here and $10 there, and tuck things into closets and cupboards because you “might need it one day”. But nothing I’ve purchased recently has brought me true, genuine happiness. I’m still consuming for the sake of consuming.

I hate to admit this but, even after moving so many times, I still have 4 or 5 unpacked boxes in my closets full of stuff I don’t want to deal with; it’s just clutter. After my little freak out last week, I think it’s time to open them up, as well as all my drawers and closets, and sort everything into keep/toss/donate piles.

Two Blog Posts

Personal finance experts say that, in order to pay down your debt, you need to spend less money or earn more. In my own debt repayment journey, I always focused on spending less money. Since becoming debt-free, however, I’ve started to spend more. Then I began to earn more, and started to spend more yet again.

Last week, I told you that I’d finally made the decision to cut back on my spending, but I still wasn’t sure where to start. Even though I’d had those two little epiphanies, my aha! moment didn’t happen until after I read this post on J$’s blog. Somehow, despite the fact that I’d read and bookmarked the post it was inspired by, it took him pulling one sentence to make me see why I had to get serious about cutting back:

“Every permanent drop in your spending has a double effect: it increases the amount of money you have left over to save each month, and it permanently decreases the amount you’ll need every month for the rest of your life.”

Wow! What did I ask my friend during that one conversation? How much of your income do you NEED to live on? I’m not talking about the variable expenses that come up – just the fixed costs you have to take care of each month, such as rent, health care, food and transportation. I can tell you that my answer is a lot less than what I’m currently spending. The more I cut back, the more I’ll be able to save now and the less I’ll need in the future (e.g. when I want to travel or retire).

My Aha! Moment

After having those two epiphanies and then reading J$’s post, I felt irked. It wasn’t his fault. He just forced me to face up to something I’ve been trying to excuse for months: I’m making more money than I ever have and yet my savings goals are going nowhere, because I’ve been wasting money on things that don’t align with my life goals.

I’ve let raises become larger allowances and allowed freelance income to be used to pay for things on my wish list… and yet I don’t feel at all content in my current financial situation, or with where I’m at in life right now. This is totally unacceptable. Unfortunately, what I’ve allowed to happen is entirely my fault. The only good thing about that is it means I have the control to change my habits and turn the situation around.

How I Plan to Embrace Minimalism

According to The Minimalists, “minimalism is a tool used to rid yourself of life’s excess in favour of focusing on what’s important, so you can find happiness, fulfillment and freedom.” The answer to the question of how I plan to embrace this has two parts:

  1. My monthly budgets need a total revamp. I’m still brainstorming how to do this, and will wait until August to share what I come up with, but I can tell you it’s going to revolve around determining the smallest amount of money I can comfortably live off of and saving the rest. Instead of saying “I want to save 20% of my income,” I want to be able to say “I need 60% (as an example) of my income to live off of and I save the rest”. My budget will still fluctuate from month-to-month, as travel and other events come up, but I want to get my basic living expenses down and save the rest.
  2. I’m going on a yearlong shopping ban and I want to organize my place and get rid of everything I don’t use/need. Note that this is not a consumer fast. I’m not going to start making my own deodorant or laundry detergent (not that there’s anything wrong with that, but that’s not my priority). I’m simply banning myself from shopping for anything that doesn’t absolutely need to be replaced and/or won’t help me/save me money in some way. (I’ll save details on the shopping ban for a post of its own, but I think it’s going to be a really good challenge for me!)

The overall goal for this year – the last one of my 20s – is to focus on enjoying what I have (with special focus on the people in my life and my surroundings), only buying what I absolutely need and letting go of everything I can do without. I’ve let myself believe that I need to live a big city lifestyle, with as many takeout coffees, restaurant meals and new things as I want – and yet I still don’t feel content. Can I afford to keep going at the rate I am? Maybe. But will I accomplish any of my financial, travel or other life goals by doing so? No, I will not – at least not in the timeframe I’d like.

So, instead of doing something fun/impulsive/spontaneous before I turn 30, I’m actually going to try and live the most frugal year of my life. Who knows – maybe I’ll save so much that I can afford to go to Europe for my 30th birthday. A girl can dream… but let’s see what I can actually accomplish!