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How does a pack-rat practice minimalism?

April 14, 2010

This is my dilemma:

On the one hand, I love the energy in a space when everything is clean and organized and has a place. It’s peaceful and restful, and it makes me really happy.

On the hand, I am sort of a pack-rat and it’s hard for me to get rid of stuff because I like it and it might be useful someday.

In order for all the stuff I have to fit easily into a space, that space would have to be at least 1000 sq ft.

I have never lived anywhere where I had more than 700 sq ft of space for my stuff.

I am trying to imagine what it would be like to live in a pace with 900 or even 1000 sq ft (or more!). It’s sort of incomprehensible. It would be wonderful.

Right now, where we live in SW Michigan, 1000 sq feet costs roughly $750/mo. That would almost be affordable on our current budget, if we wanted to move. The only thing is, we’re planning to move from this small community in SW Michigan to Denver, CO. In Denver, 1000 sq ft is at least $1000/mo, and isn’t affordable unless I start making twice my current income. At least.

So, for the near future it looks like our space limitations are going to be 700-800 sq ft.

Since I have too much stuff for my living space, it seems that I should get rid of some of the stuff in my living space. Practice minimalism. But minimalism is directly at odds with my (inherited–thanks, mom) pack-rat tendencies.

And it’s not as though we don’t try to keep a cap on the stuff that we own.

Every year my husband and I go through our clothes at least and take them to good will, but every year I end up saving some of the things instead of letting them go because “I might make a t-shirt quilt with these!” or “These would make good rags” or… whatever.

Every time we move (four times in the last six years), we take stock of our belongings and try to get rid of all the stuff we no longer need, want, or have use for. All the stuff that accumulates because that’s the nature of life. But even that never seems to get rid of enough that it all easily fits in our space.

There’s the entertainment stuff…

We have more video games and video game systems than we know what to do with (almost all of them bought on sale or off of friends for cheap, but that’s hardly the point). I would say we should get rid of some of them, but Ben does in fact use each of them with some regularity, and he would never agree. I’m not going to be the wife who throws away the tools of her husband’s hobby, just because she thinks it’s a good idea. That’s just wrong.

We have more books than we will probably ever read. But I can tell you the origin of each and every one of them (most of them we bought because we had read and loved them), and parting with them would be like giving away our children. I do occasionally go through and purge the ranks, and take them to the used book store to be loved by someone else. But that hardly makes a dent. And there will always be more books for us to buy because we love them, so it seems like I’m swimming upstream, even if I purge regularly and limit the influx.

I have more movies than I will ever watch. As with books, I don’t buy a movie unless I want to either re-watch it, or share it with friends (and I never buy a movie for myself if it costs more than $10). So I have several boxes full of DVDs, and still they represent a small fraction of the movies I’d really like to own if I had a chance.

And, of course, hobbies.

I sew, which means I have tons and tons of fabric, all of which “might be useful some day” and in any case has a project planned for it, or is pretty, so I don’t want to get rid of it.

And because I sew, I have more dresses and skirts than I know what to do with, or could wear in a month. It really hard for me to get rid of them, though, because I, or my mom, made most of them. If I were to get rid of them, I would sell them (the things I’ve made, not the things my mom’s made), but I don’t currently have a venue. And if I did have a venue, once the things I current have made sold, then I’d have to make more things to sell. And along with no space, I also seem to have no time. 😦

My husband, along with playing video games, also cooks. And cooks well. So along with crazy numbers of regular fiction/non-fiction books, we also have more cookbooks than any two people probably ever need. And a bunch of kitchen supplies that we got for our wedding which we love and don’t want to part with… but which take up more space than most of our small kitchens have been able to handle.

In a perfect world…

The ideal solution would be to get a space that was more than big enough to contain our stuff, and just refrain from expanding our stuff. I could handle that. Probably. But there’s a part of me that thinks that I should be able to pare down even what I have now, so that it fits nicely (with the relaxed energy of a clean space) in the space that we have.

So I ask again: How does one practice minimalism when one is a pack-rat who likes stuff? Is it even possible?

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 14, 2010 11:05 am

    It’s not your mom’s fault; she got it from grandpa.

    I’m torn. On the one hand, you DO end up with too much stuff that “might come in useful someday” but might not. And in the meantime it is taking up a lot of space.

    But I also hate the US attitude towards disposable appliances. “Oh just throw it out and get a new one!” — whether “it” is a towel, a toaster, or a refrigerator. I want people to take more responsibility for their stuff, eh? I keep hauling around a bunch of toys that are clearly of no use to me now (I wish I had time to sit on the floor and play with blocks) but I don’t want to throw them out, only to have to buy them all again when I have kids, only to find that the truly awesome toys I had as a child have all been replaced with cheap plastic crap.

    It helps that my boyfriend is much less of a packrat than I am. We end up compromising at what’s probably about the right level.

    One of the things I’ve decided is that “clutter” is the stuff that you have but don’t use/enjoy/connect with. If it’s worth keeping, it’s worth paying attention to. So put those things that are emotionally important out on display, or throw them out. It doesn’t take much space to make a little altar of important things. I’m thinking about taking up scrapbooking or something, so I can save snippets of things or pictures of events instead of a drawer full of souvenirs.

    Clutter can also be turned into possessions through organization. Right now my office supplies are clutter. But if I got them sorted, filed, and listed (like I keep meaning to do) they would be an Office Supply Collection — one thing instead of 200 things. Clutter has been reduced, although nothing has been thrown away.

    That being said, here are some things you could possibly do to reduce the actual number of things:

    Sell your sewing projects on ebay. Plenty of people sell one-of-a-kind artwork or whatever, and there’s no expectation that you’ll keep it up month after month.

    Pack up all your books & DVDs now (preferably in such a way that you could find them again if necessary). Those that you’ve dug out between now and August are worth keeping. Those that you don’t can be donated to charities, libraries, and friends in need.

    Go through the cookbooks and make a file of the recipes you actually like; donate the actual cookbooks. I really like having my recipes on the computer, so I can modify them and make notes with infinite margins, so they take up no space at all.

    Leo of Zen Habits wrote a post about how we have lots of rituals in our culture for getting stuff (birthdays, Christmas, wedding shower, baby shower, engagement party, retirement party….) but no rituals for getting rid of stuff. I’m still trying to come up with a ritual for getting rid of stuff. I’ve thought about having a Boxing Day ritual where you put a little paper dot on everything in the house. When you use the item, you take the dot off. Anything that still has a dot by ___________ gets gotten rid of. I’m thinking maybe July 25 would be a great throw-stuff-out-day.

    I’m thinking maybe to offer stuff I don’t need on Craigslist or Freecycle or whatever, with a message that explains what the item is, but also why it’s important to me, what it means to me. So that although I’m getting rid of it, I’m also honoring its place in my life.

    I also think that you possibly could be clean & organized in 700 sq feet. It would fit easily in 1000 sq feet, but you might, with effort, be able to find everything a home and make it stay there. You just won’t have as much space between the homes as you’d like.

    That’s what I’m working on right now. I have about half the basement at my parents’ house, and one way or another, everything Adam & I own has to fit in that. So I have to organize it or throw it out. It’s a process, but it’s coming along.

    Good luck with all of it. Let me know if I can help.


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