Shopping Simply

Simplicity changes several aspects of your life: your physical surroundings, your finances, and your schedule. Simplicity has changed so much of what I do, but the biggest change has probably been in the way I shop.

As a minimalist, I try to avoid shopping, but things wear out. I use them up. A new need arises. At some point every minimalist has to go shopping. Here are a few thoughts to keep in mind when it’s time to buy:

Know what you need. Before heading off to the mall take inventory of what you already have. Know the styles and colors of your shirts in order to determine if a new shirt is really needed. Know what types of shoes you have. The moment you’re standing in front of the dazzling shirt display of many colors is not the time to try to remember which shirts you already have. Know before you go. If you take inventory before you go you may discover that you need less than you originally thought.

Shop for versatility. When choosing an item try to go for versatile pieces that can be worn with several outfits. A white collared shirt will get more use than a silver top with sequins. Focus on the fundamentals and only get the specialized stuff when necessary.

Buy only what you need. Knowing what you need is half the battle. This should eliminate aimless wandering in the store. It will also help you stay on track when that friendly salesperson comes suggesting things for you to buy. There are some stores where I have to go with a detailed list of what I will buy because I get in trouble when I just go in without a strategy (Teavana anyone?). Have a plan and stick to it. Also beware of the group pricing ploy. If you need one then just buy one. So what if you save a dollar by buying three? Is it worth having two more shirts that you have to store and wash? Only take advantage of the group pricing if you need that many of that particular item.

Buy for quality. I wrote about quality here. I believe that if you’re spending your money you should get the best use out of it. I believe in buying high quality items even if that means buying less. Higher quality items will serve you better and last longer.

Use the envelope system. Instead of using the debit card, use cash. Decide how much you will spend and put that amount into an envelope. Use only the cash in the envelope to make your purchases. This should eliminate impulse purchases and help you stay on budget.

Get in and get out. Once you have what you need, make your purchase and get out of the store as soon as possible. Don’t wander around looking in other stores and other departments. Minimize your exposure to the temptation of new, shiny merchandise.

Mindfulness is the key to shopping as a minimalist: being mindful of what you need and being mindful of the tactics stores use to get you to buy more. If you know what you need and buy only the things you need you can avoid the accumulation of clutter and the stress of buyer’s remorse.



Greed As Idolatry

I am surprised by how much I am learning as I pursue the simple life. I’ve learned about the world and the society in which we live, but I have also learned about myself. I see how I have been conditioned to behave like everyone else.

At the moment, I am reading an article by Timothy Keller: Counterfeit Gods. He argues, based on Colossians 3:5, that greed is idolatry. Generally, when people think of idolatry we think of statues and shrines. However, according to Ezekiel 14:3, we can set up idols in our hearts.

Keller rightly states that the human heart can take good things (career success, love, family, material possessions, etc.) and make them idols in our hearts. Keller says it beautifully: “Our hearts deify them as the center of our lives, because, we think, they can give us significance and security, safety and fulfillment, if we attain them.”

I can see evidence of this in our world. What’s scary is that I can see evidence of this in my own life. I have been conditioned to be addicted to material possessions. Stuff.

If I saw something I liked, I had to have it. Since committing to minimalism, I have made great progress. But it’s still hard to walk by a gorgeous pair of shoes without whipping out the debit card, because in that moment, those shoes are more than footwear. They are fashion, and style, and self-confidence. They’re everything that will make my life better. They are the solution to every problem. They have become my idol.

Even if I do pass on the shoes, I think about them all night long, and try to find a way to make them mine. And all the while, I feel that this is normal. That use to be my reality. However, minimalism has taught me that this is not normal. Idolatry comes in many flavors, and extreme materialism is one of them (one that I have personal experience with). I realized that greed was an indication of a sick society and misplaced priorities, but I didn’t realize that it was idolatrous. As I read through Counterfeit Gods, I am learning that greed is more than a problem. It’s an idol.

I could tell you time after time when the thought of something new overruled good judgment. The promise of that new thing would suck me in every time. Sure, I’d be happy and giddy for a while but the newness wore off and I was back to normal. Lucky for me (retailers?) there was another big sale only a few days away. I’d have another opportunity to try to fill that internal need with more stuff. And that’s how you wind up with enough bath products to last for years.

I have been there. The need for stuff can dominate our thoughts almost to the point of obsession. The need for more can become the driving force in our lives. That is when it becomes idolatrous.

I like the solution that Paul give later in the chapter: seeking to know our Creator and become more like him. This should be the focus of our lives. It is so easy to get caught up in the new and beautiful, but if we focus on knowing and becoming more like God then greed won’t get a chance to take root.

Train your focus. Guard against greed and excess. Let your life God-driven, not greed-driven.




Sneaky Stockpiling

As I shared in a recent post, I sometimes have a hard time letting things go. I got new running shoes to replace a worn out pair, but kept wearing the old ones. I let the new ones sit on the shelf in the closet for months. The same thing happened with a pair of clogs at Christmas. I finally did move into the new shoes last week, but only because the soreness from running in the old shoes got to be too much. his is not new. Even as a child, when my mother bought me things I would put them in the drawer or closet and wouldn’t wear them for weeks. Apparently my stockpiling tendencies run deep. My family used to make fun and ask why I saved things for so long. I don’t think that I was ever able to answer them. So why was I saving my shoes? Part of me felt guilty for eating ice cream the day before and I didn’t feel like I deserved new shoes. Another part of me didn’t want to wear them because they were expensive and I don’t know when I will be able to afford another pair. Therefore, I wanted to delay using them as long as possible. Of course, I believe in using things completely. I believe that we should get all the use out of whatever we buy. But to continue to use something beyond its usefulness is impractical. To do this when you have a replacement is nothing more than stockpiling. Since I started simplifying I thought I had broken my tendency to stockpile. However, I am seeing that disuse is just another form of stockpiling. Stockpiling is not just buying more than what you need. Stockpiling is also not using what you already have. Either way you’re amassing a supply of something. Really, this is a trust issue. Isn’t it always? This is about me not trusting God to provide new running shoes when I need them. It is about a fear of scarcity or running out. Stockpiling is a behavior that is driven by fear. Stockpiling is a problem though. It’s a problem because when we stockpile we use things to comfort ourselves. We look to things to provide security instead of finding security in God’s promises to care for us. Another problem with stockpiling is that stockpiling can easily become hoarding. Hoarding is stockpiling taken to the extreme, where a person accumulates beyond the point of what is useful and beneficial. Storage becomes a problem; either finding enough space to keep all the stuff or finding a way to secure it. And this is where we see the ugly side of hoarding: obsession. At this point, the stuff owns us.   Not using what you have is just another form of stockpiling and it is rooted in fear. Judiciously use what you have and don’t give in to worry. When the time comes, ask God for what you need. He will take care of you.

How to Keep it Simple This Summer

It’s late June and summer has finally come to Chicago. It’s time for cookouts and picnics and outdoor parties. The ever-popular Taste of Chicago will soon be here. This is the season I live for.

From festivals to vacations, summer is busy. That makes summer the perfect time to keep it simple.

Simplify your Wardrobe. I love this season of shorts, skirts, and sandals. If you live in a temperate climate you probably have a completely different wardrobe for summer. Before getting too far into the season be sure to evaluate your wardrobe. Figure out which things you wear most often and consider donating the rest. Are last year’s sandals worn out? It might be time to replace them or simply toss them. Having fewer things in your wardrobe makes getting dressed faster and easier.


Simply beautiful. I don’t know about you, but humidity wreaks havoc on my hairstyles. Summer is the perfect time to simplify your beauty routine. It might be time to part with the flatiron for a while. It might be time to get a haircut. Try hairstyles that will still look good even in the humidity. Wear simple makeup, if you wear it at all. Spending less time on beauty creates more time for enjoying the summer.

Simple pleasures. The pleasures of summer are like no other, and many of them can be enjoyed at little or no cost. Simple things like biting into a slice of watermelon, talking with friends in the cool night breeze, or riding with the sunroof open while singing along with the radio (a personal favorite) are things that make summer great. The best moments of summer rarely happen in the mall. They usually happen with friends and family. Enjoy the simple pleasures of summer.

Simply free. Kids see summer as extended play time. It’s like a three month long play date with the kids on the block. But kids aren’t the only ones that take advantage of this time to play. Adults get out there and enjoy the weather too. One way to keep it simple this summer is t rein in your schedule and leave some time to play. Have lunch with friends, go walking downtown, or ride your bike. Make time to enjoy the beautiful weather while it lasts.

There are lots of great events that take place during the summer. Don’t try to go to all of them. Choose a few of them to attend. Focus only on those. Trying to do too much creates stress and takes away from your enjoyment.

The last thing you want to do is let summer pass without taking time to really enjoy it. The best way to enjoy summer is to keep things really simple. Don’t focus on things this summer. Focus on enjoying every moment.



Small Effort, Big Rewards, and Even Bigger Confidence

Last week I accomplished a huge goal: I finished my first novel. I had been working on it for a couple of years and should have finished long ago, but I kept giving up. I eventually finished because I also kept getting back on the horse and writing again. Last week I finished. I tried to avoid mentioning it on this blog because I typically don’t blog about writing, but I am so excited and I feel like I learned a lot in the process.

I started getting up at 6am to write in December. I knew I didn’t have much time so I set a small goal: 500 words a day. 500 words a day is not a lot. Some authors recommend 2,000 words a day. The plan for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) calls for writing 1,667 words per day. With all that is going on in my life I knew that writing that much every day was unrealisic. I knew that eventually I would finish my novel writing 500 words every day. So starting in December, I wrote 500 words a day (with few exceptions).

What have I learned? I have learned that small, consistent effort yields big results. It took place over a long period of time, but my small efforts led to the accomplishment of a huge goal. The same is true of weight loss, school projects, paying off debt, and countless other goals. Chipping away at your goal will eventually lead to success.

The same can apply to simplifying your life. Maybe you have a few kids and the accumulation of everyone’s things would make purging a Herculean task. Maybe you’re a student and you’re not able to take several days to go through your whole apartment. Maybe you don’t have $1,000 to put toward credit card debt.

When you can’t do it all at once do it little by little. It will work. It may take longer, but it will eventually pay off. Consistent effort is the key.

Seeing the result of that consistent effort is extremely rewarding. On some level I knew that small, consistent effort produced results, but to see it in my own life reinforced this truth. What was once an abstract idea became a concrete reality.

Finishing this novel has given me such a rush. It feels amazing to see the results of your hard work. It has also given me a greater level of confidence. I finished a novel. So I started to look for other goals to accomplish.

I have decided that I want to run a marathon. I am nowhere near marathon shape though. I can’t even run half a mile, but I won’t let that stop me. It will take longer, but it can be done. I formulated a plan. My plan is to run a 5K this September, run a half marathon in 2015, and a full marathon in 2016. I can’t go out and run five miles today. I will have to start smaller — much smaller.

Whether I start with a mile or a quarter of a mile (that’s about all I can run right now) the important thing is that I start and apply small, consistent effort. I started training last week. I changed my diet. I will build upon this week by week until I am able to run the full 5K.

So where can you apply small, consistent effort? Don’t worry if you can’t make huge strides. Do just a little bit. Sustained effort produces results. Don’t let big goals intimidate you. You can do it. Just take one step at a time. Better to start small and make steady progress than to never start because you are overwhelmed. Start working toward your goal today. Start small. It will take time, but that’s okay. Remember the tortoise and the hare: slow and steady wins the race.




Quality vs. Quantity

I love tea. Few things bring me as much pleasure as sitting down with my journal and a steaming mug of tea. The problem is that I love loose teas, which can be expensive. I recently bought tea from a new online retailer to save money. My logic: I can get twice as much tea for less money. Why not order?

It sounded like a good thing. I ordered three teas. Two of those teas are good. The third I hate and will probably throw away. Yes, I have twice as much tea, but is it better?

Not in this case. Though the new teas were pretty good, they weren’t nearly as good as my favorite teas. I eventually broke down and bought my favorite tea, which I feel is higher quality anyway. Wouldn’t it have been simpler, and ultimately cheaper, to just buy the higher quality tea to begin with? It would have, but in this case I was sucked in by the idea of getting more.

We live in a world that tells us that more is better. We are told to get as much as we can. Too often we are tricked by the idea that we need more. I wrote about that here.

We are often encouraged to seek quantity over quality. However, I have found that quality is so much more important. I found this to be true about just about everything, including tea. I believe in buying for quality. As a minimalist, I believe that everyone should.

It discourages stockpiling. When you spend a bit more for a quality item you will most likely not buy as many. You are also more likely to take better care of what you already have.

It ensures that you make better use of things. When I only have one of an item it gets used a lot. Fewer pairs of socks means that each pair gets used more often. I don’t have a drawer full of socks that don’t get worn. I get the full use out of my things to make sure that I get my money’s worth. I use them until they need to be thrown out or replaced.

It ultimately saves money. Buying cheap and replacing often can often cost more in the long run. As with my teas, sometimes we end up buying the higher quality items anyway when the lower quality items don’t work out.

It uses fewer resources. I have been carrying the same handbags for many years. Because I am not replacing my handbag every year I use fewer materials and fewer resources. There is less waste.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t try to get the best deal? Absolutely not. There is a difference between getting a high quality product at a lower price and buying a product of inferior quality just so that you can get more. If there is a product you like that happens to be on sale it’s fine to take advantage of the sale. That is being smart with your money. You may even buy an extra to save yourself money later. That’s great as long as you don’t get carried away and start stockpiling.

An important note: higher quality things are not necessarily expensive, and expensive things are not always high quality. Quality is determined by what serves you well and, to some extent, what you like. For example, I really like MAC cosmetics. It isn’t the most expensive, but I feel that their products are of good quality. I am pleased with them so that’s what I buy.

Don’t sacrifice quality  for quantity. It may cost a little more, but it’s worth it in the long run. If everyone focused on quality we would use fewer resources and create less waste. Purchasing high quality items benefits everyone — except retailers that specialize in low quality merchandise. I’m talking about you, Walmart.






Loss, Living With Less, And Loving It

Today’s post is from a guest blogger, Russell Carstens.

Russell Carstens is a freelance writer from Central NJ. In 2007/08 he held a writing position for Princeton Theological Seminary’s Office of Communications/Publications, where he wrote for their inSpire Magazine and website. After earning his master’s degree in 2012, he worked in management and is now pursuing writing again.

Last December, my wife and I were greatly inconvenienced when we were essentially forced to move out of the first apartment we shared together. Our downstairs neighbor had let a pest problem go untreated for several months. Facing the risk of potential future issues, we decided that it’d be in our best interest to leave.

My favorite thing about that apartment was my precious extra room (or office, or man cave…whatever you’d like to call it.) The first thing I did when we moved in was set my stereo up in that room so I could hide away from the stresses of life and listen to my prized vinyl records. I look back with shame about how selfish it was of me to make this my first priority, rather than help my wife unpack items essential to our everyday life together.

When we moved into my mother-in-law’s house to escape the neighbor’s pests, I was terrified of not being able to participate in my record-listening ritual. As a lifelong music lover, I had wrapped up an enormous and unhealthy amount of my identity in being someone who lived, breathed and ate music. I considered myself a collector, spending hours in music stories seeking rare albums or other treasures that I could proudly display and feel special about owning. I saw my passion for collecting albums as a snobby status symbol that set me apart from more casual listeners. Now that I was sleeping in my brother-in-law’s old bedroom, I had nowhere to create an elaborate audio sanctuary.

So I did my best with what I had: an iPad with the streaming music service Spotify. I took a paper plate and cut out a small circular shape to act as a makeshift speaker enhancer. At first, I was disappointed to be without my more advanced stereo, but then something happened. I stumbled upon an unused Bible that was gifted to my brother-in-law over twenty years ago. I kept it bedside for nightly and morning reading. As someone who was raised Catholic more out of tradition than anything else, I hadn’t seriously studied the Bible until 2009 when I truly came to faith. One night I stumbled upon 1 Timothy 6:7, which reads, “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.”

Streamlining my possessions was something I had been doing gradually over recent years, but didn’t dare apply to my precious music collection. Now that I was forced to live without it, this Bible passage struck me to the core. Why cling to possessions when they will eventually no longer be ours? Everything in this world is fleeting and it’s important for us as Christians to keep this in mind. I realized I was no less happy having to listen to music on my simple little iPad. In fact, I discovered that I rather enjoyed the simplicity of it.

I used to waste hours sitting in front of my music shelf and organizing CDs, or protecting my vinyl records from the dangers of my cat’s eager-to-scratch claws. Once I got away from my most prized possessions, I realized they owned me more than I owned them. As a result, I embraced the simple new way I enjoyed music. More importantly, I had more time to focus on being a more faithful Christian and more devoted husband. My identity is now wrapped in my faith, where it should be.

After three months, we moved into a new apartment. The stereo and music collection came along, but for now they sit in the basement. I’m sure they will be in use again at some point, but I’m in no rush. I also know they will no longer have the grip on me they once did.

The minimalism bug has bled into other areas of my life as a result of this experience, and I’m now overjoyed by the liberating process of giving away or selling other possessions I realized I didn’t truly need. With every item we lose, our identity may die a little bit, but this is an opportunity to refocus ourselves in the right direction.



Why Is It So Hard To Let Go?

It’s the craziest thing. I purchased a pair of running shoes recently. I bought them because my old shoes were worn out. I had been looking forward to the purchase of these new shoes. The week I bought them I had a long discussion with my best friend about why I needed these shoes. But when I finally bought the shoes, I looked at how cute they were, put them back in the box, and proceeded to run in the old shoes.

This makes no sense. My best friend saw the humor in the situation. I was really looking forward to getting the new shoes but once I got them I didn’t put them on. I couldn’t let go of the old ones.

It wasn’t so much that I was emotionally attached to the old ones as it was that I wasn’t ready to step into the new pair. I wasn’t ready to step into a new phase of running. I didn’t know if I had what it took. Would I be consistent? Would I eat right? Would I do these shoes justice by training and eating like a runner? I knew what a runner should be doing and the shoes reminded me of that. I was afraid that I wasn’t up to the challenge.

It’s the same thing with writing. I hesitated to open the Writer’s Market I bought because I wondered if this would be the time that I actually used it. Would I put in the time? Would I finally do it? Would I press through the fear and feelings of inferiority to pursue my dream? Purging is the same way. It can be hard to let go of the jeans in the bigger size because it will mean that you can’t mess around with diet. It can be hard to let go of the purse you bought in Paris because it reminds you of better days and it’s hard to think about life without that memorial. It may be hard to let things go because you’re afraid of going without in the future.

It can be that way with people too. We can hold on to relationships. I stayed with my college boyfriend for months even though I realized that he wasn’t right for me. Our relationship wasn’t working. But I stayed with him because I was afraid to be alone again. I was afraid that I would miss him. I was afraid of what my life would look like without him so I held on to him. When I graduated my family took a week long vacation. That was the longest I had gone without seeing or talking to him — and it was fine. In that short time I realized that life without him was actually better than life with him. I broke up with him as soon as I got home and I haven’t looked back.

It can be hard to let go of the old because we are afraid of the new. It is completely understandable. The next thing can be scary. The unknown is always scary. And it’s okay to be afraid. The fear manifests itself in the holding on to things of the past because we are afraid of moving into the future. It becomes problematic when we let that fear hold us back.

Things aren’t just things. They mean something to us. They can come to represent periods of time or thought patterns or habits. There comes a time to let go of things and all that they represent even if it means moving into a scary new future without them. Don’t hold on to the old because you are afraid of the new. Yes, the unknown is scary. It might be hard. But might also be great. You will never know if you don’t move forward. Release the old. Prepare for the new. Go boldly.

Mother’s Day

Mother’s Day is bittersweet for me. I lost my mother to Breast Cancer in 2006. Though she fought breast cancer for two years her sudden death was the result of septic shock. She walked into the hospital on her own and was gone in three days.

Her death was hard for me because it was so sudden but also because I was in China at the time. I came home from an awesome time ready to share my trip with her because she would have gone too had she been feeling well enough. I even had souvenirs for her.

When my flight landed my family met me at the gate. I noticed that everyone looked horrible but I thought it was because it was late and they were tired. My world stopped when they told me that my mom had passed a couple of days before. Initially, I was numb. I didn’t really get it. Then my head started to hurt. I remember going into the bathroom and telling God that I would get him through the funeral. I wouldn’t leave him then. After the funeral, though, all bets were off.

I stayed with my grandparents that night. I think I only slept for an hour and a half, partially due to jet-lag and partially due to the fact that my world had just been turned upside down.

My family was sad but I was confused. Part of me kept wondering if there was a mistake or if this was some kind of horrible joke. We talked about funeral arrangements, which had already been started. The reality didn’t hit me until I was driving with my family from my house back to my grandparents’ house. My uncle was driving my mother’s car and that’s when I realized that she was gone. I can’t even describe the pain. It was so violent that I couldn’t even cry.

The next few days were surreal. There was a funeral. Lots of people came to the house. There were flowers and cards and Thank You cards to send out. Then there was emptiness.

The pain was so maddening that we had to get away. My aunts, my cousin, my best friend, and I took a trip to Orlando — in July. It was great to get away and have a change of scenery. Going to such a busy place was somewhat therapeutic. There were tons of things to do, even if we chose to just hang out in the pool. That time helped me get through.

The next few months were difficult. The next few years were difficult. I eventually went to graduate school. It was really cool that my mother and I had visited Tulsa when she was still alive so I had memories of her in Tulsa that I could relive as I drove around.

I had a new city and a very challenging master’s program but it was still hard. It’s still hard nearly seven years later. I cry as I write this. My life has never been the same since losing my mother. It never will be. The pain never goes away. It changes, but it does not go away. It’s not always raw and violent. It is not always on the surface, but it is always there. It surfaces when it wants to, sometimes very unexpectedly.

One thing that has helped me through the last seven years was the overwhelming sense of pride that I have for her. My mom was an extraordinary woman of God. She loved people. She organized a feeding program at our former church. She started a bible study for teenage mothers and helped them get prom dresses when they needed them. She was active in our church. Her coworkers loved her and cried as hard as we did at her funeral. During the whole time of funeral and visiting I was filled with pride. I was so very proud of my mother.

I miss her. Every day. I still see her in my dreams and it is the most comforting thing in the world (usually). On occasion she is sick in my dreams and that completely ruins my day. Usually, though, my mommy is alive and well in my dreams and it is wonderful.

My mother was fearless. She was brave and strong so I try to be those things too. I have a lot to live up to as her daughter. But I have such a privilege of being her daughter. And it’s that feeling of pride and honor that gets me through difficult days.

I love you Mommy!

Past Failure Does Not Preclude Future Success

I have this problem. When thinking about things in my life I feel optimistic, but then the thought creeps up: Things didn’t work out when I … they probably won’t work out this time either. Or I’ll think some thing like, There’s no guarantee that this will work out this time because things didn’t work out last time.

Last night, I had an epiphany. If that logic holds true, then nothing will ever work out for me again. Allow me to explain: Let’s say I have Plan A for my life but something goes awry. Things don’t work out. Because Plan A fell part then I can be sure that Plan B will do the same. Likewise, Plan C will blow up, Plan D will crumble, and Plan E will run right into the ground. In fact, every other plan that follows Plan A will fail. If that’s the case, there is no point even trying anymore. My while life is doomed to failure because I had one thing that didn’t work out. I might as well just sit down somewhere and wait to die.

To put it in different terms, let’s say I played for the Chicago Bulls. It’s the third game of the season and we lose. Based on the logic I had, we would lose every game after that because we lost one game. We shouldn’t even show up to the rest of the games because we lost that one. It took me actually thinking through the implications of that line of thinking to realize how ridiculous it is. The past does not equal the future. Past failure does not preclude future success. It never has and it never will.

Not only has this thought pattern zapped me of hope and optimism, it has increased my anxiety level. It’s like I wait for something to go wrong. This is no way to live. Worse, I think that I have let this logic hold me back from even trying some things because things didn’t work out some other time. So things didn’t work out last time. Am I never supposed to try anything again? That’s just crazy.

I am not belittling failure. Failure hurts and can have consequences. I don’t deny that. However, I am boldly stating that we must move past failure into a future of possibilities. We must move forward with a bit of faith knowing that things very well could work out this time. We will never know if we never try. We have to step to each challenge as if the past failure never happened. We have to give 100% to the new challenge and not use past failure as an excuse to give less. Everyone fails at something. Don’t let past failures destroy your hope. Move forward knowing that past failures do not preclude future success.

“… failure is not disgrace. It is just a pitch that you missed, and you’d                 better  get ready for the next one. The next one might be the                                       shot heard round the world. My son and I are Americans,                                                                 we prepare for glory by failing until we don’t.”

-Craig Ferguson, American On Purpose