The Minimalist Home
Chapter 1, Minimalism Makeover.
I grew up in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where author L. Frank Baum lived for a while in his adulthood. Because of living there, I learned from an early age about Baum’s most famous work, The Wizard of Oz. I’d be surprised if you don’t know the story as well. The book was a bestseller from the time its first edition came out at the beginning of the twentieth century. The 1939 film version, starring Judy Garland, is today the third most-viewed movie of all time around the world (behind Titanic and E.T.). And what’s the most famous line from the movie? Click your heels together and say it with me: “There’s no place like home.”
I know not everyone has positive associations with home. For some, home has been a place where they aren’t safe or where they feel cut down instead of being encouraged to grow. Some are ashamed of or hostile toward their home. Sadly, some don’t have a home at all.
Despite all this, the concept of home as an ideal of comfort and safety, of acceptance and belonging, is one that resonates with almost everyone. It inspires longing within us, regardless of how closely or distantly our actual homes have aligned with that ideal. We yearn to make our homes better places than they have been before, both for ourselves and for the other members of our household. There really is no place like home. It is the foremost place on earth, our life’s HQ.
Of course, the most important part of a home is the people within it, including the interplay of their relationships, how they spend their time in the home, and the dreams they nurture. But it’s also true that a house and its contents can affect the family’s quality of life either positively or negatively. And so transforming the place can transform the people.
Make Over the Concept of Home Makeover
I shake my head at those home makeover shows that are so popular on TV. You know, a couple who are discontented with their home invite a design expert to come in and evaluate the situation. The couple nervously agree to stretch their budget as far as possible to make as much of a change as they can. Then a renovation team takes over, carrying out repairs and upgrades (there’s always an obstacle that arises and creates drama), and after that the designer stages the house with new furniture, store-bought decorations, and this year’s color scheme. Finally the homeowners come back for the big reveal and get teary-eyed at their house’s new look.
I shake my head because, even though their house may look nicer, the homeowners typically wind up with just as much stuff as they had before, maybe even more. That’s all stuff that may be getting in the way of how they want to spend their days more than it’s contributing to the pursuit of their goals. I wonder, after the initial dopamine zap from the redecoration, are their lives really any different? Is their home more personal and life giving to them now, or is it just more pleasing to the eye? Or, even worse, will their renovated home require more time and money and energy for upkeep than in its previous form?
Very few of us get picked to be on TV’s home makeover shows, yet most of us who have a house or apartment go through something similar with our own homes. We’re disappointed in our living space. We’ve spent a lot of money buying stuff for our home—and a lot of time organizing, cleaning, and maintaining that stuff. And nevertheless, in the rare times we have left to simply enjoy the home, it doesn’t feel like the place we really want to live. What do we do then? If we don’t just give up hope, we most likely double down, continuing to look in all the wrong places for help. We pay attention to commercials and visit showrooms and scroll through shopping sites online, and we decide that we need more stuff or better stuff, with a different organizing and decorating plan. And when we take our best shot at making our living space better, it’s…well, it’s somewhat better in some ways, but it still doesn’t give fundamental satisfaction or kick off any lasting life change.
What if the problem isn’t that we don’t own enough stuff or aren’t managing our stuff well enough? What if the problem is that we’re living in the homes that advertisers and retailers want us to have instead of the homes that deep down we really want and need?
I’d like to suggest that what the huge majority of people in my own country—the United States—and other countries need if we are going to be content with our homes and start living more fulfilled lives is a minimalist makeover of our homes. Are you willing to come along with me and explore that idea for your home—that there is more joy to be found in owning less than we can ever find in accumulating more? I hope you will, because I know from years of experience that by getting rid of the excess stuff in every room, you can transform your home so that you feel not only free from the stress of so much clutter around you but also free to live a life focused on what you want to do with your limited years on this planet.
Consider the benefits of a minimalist makeover of your home:
You don’t have to have an interior designer to do this.
You don’t need a demo-reno team or real estate agent on your side.
You don’t need a big budget (or any budget, really), and the investment of time you make up front is something you will recoup many times over in years to come.
You just need determination—and some advice to guide you on the way!
Over the first decade of their marriage, Shannan and her husband moved several times. But there was one constant: everywhere they went, they accumulated more and more stuff, and it was never long before a new home began to feel crowded and messy. Shannan didn’t like this situation and felt guilty but didn’t know what to do about it. She could sense a growing resentment from her husband over the clutter situation too. When company was coming over, she would move things around to give an illusion of neatness, but of course such maneuvers didn’t address the root problem that they simply owned too much stuff.
Not much changed until Shannan and her husband went on a trip from their home in the Midwest to Tennessee, where they stayed in a cabin. “With only what we packed for the week, the cabin seemed spacious and comfortable, though it wasn’t really that large,” she said. “Once we got home from the trip, I wanted that for our home—room to breathe and enjoy ourselves without things in the way.”
This was Shannan’s Aha! moment. Her trigger. Her tipping point.
I have noticed that, for most people, there is one moment when something causes them to undertake a minimalist makeover. I tell in my previous book, The More of Less, about my own trigger moment in 2008, when I was frustrated while cleaning out my garage on a Saturday and a neighbor pointed out that I didn’t need to own all that stuff.
Have you had your own minimalism Aha! moment yet? Something that has opened your eyes to the clutter issues you face at home and has pushed you to do something about them? If not, I hope this book will be that friendly shove for you.
Shannan’s cabin epiphany inspired her to finally take action on what I would call her “stuff problem.” As soon as she got home, she signed up for my online course Uncluttered and quickly began making progress on her home. She would take out ten or twelve boxes each week. Her husband got in the spirit as well, clearing out machinery and tools from his garage workshop. Their minimalist home makeover was under way.
Eventually the couple got down to some decisions about what to keep and what to toss that were tougher to make. These are the kinds of decisions that cause some people to quit decluttering before they get the full benefit (and they are some of the decisions I’m going to help you make in this book). Their progress slowed for a while, but they kept going and in the end transformed every part of their home through minimizing.
Shannan said, “Our home is now a place where my husband can come home and feel free to pursue his hobbies and for us to be the couple I know we are without fear of resentment or stress from the outside world. A sanctuary of sorts.”
But what’s remarkable is not just how minimizing has changed how they feel about their house. It’s how differently they feel about themselves. (Though I’m really not surprised.)
“To me, it’s so not about the stuff anymore,” Shannan said. “My husband has changed too. We’re bike riding now and spending more time together.”
And it goes even deeper than that. “Aside from my relationship with my husband becoming more loving,” Shannan added, “I’ve gone from being a homebody who was afraid of people and what they thought of me to being someone who wants to be a part of things. I’m consciously making efforts to stand among a group of people talking or offering help to a stranger. Looking people in the eyes when I pass them by, connecting. This is really not who I’ve been my whole life, and I feel more included in life now that I’m letting others in. How can getting rid of stuff do this? It’s really amazing.”
That’s right—how can mere minimalism change lives in a fundamental way? It seems like too much to expect. Yet I’ve seen it happen over and over. Owning less creates an opportunity to live more.
I’ve been writing my blog (Becoming Minimalist), teaching minimalism, and speaking about the joys of owning less with folks at conferences around the world for a decade now. And I’ve seen repeatedly, more times than I can recall, that there is an almost magical effect when people right-size the quantity of their possessions—in the process, the people themselves are changed in positive ways.
So although this book is about doing a minimalist makeover of your home, I’m warning you now that it may also mean making over yourself in a thousand unforeseeable, positive ways.
Means to a Better Life for All
I want to mention something before I go any further because, you see, there’s something I hate when the term minimalism crops up in conversation. What I hate is the misperception that so many people have about minimalism. Many people think of minimalism as a style of home, on a par with Colonial homes, Victorian homes, or Southwest adobe homes. A minimalist home, to them, is a boxy white house with almost nothing in it, and if you do happen to find a chair or sofa somewhere, it’s going to be really expensive—and good luck feeling comfortable sitting on it! A minimalist home, in this sense, is for people who don’t care much about coziness or comfort and definitely don’t have kids or pets or hobbies. Such a house might look good in a magazine photo spread, but who wants to live there?
Creating a minimalist home doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your favorite design style—or even your “no-design style” or “frugal living style”—to accomplish it. In my home, for example, we still use my wife’s grandparents’ old bedroom set. It’s anything but modern in design, but it works for us. My wife, Kim, our two kids, and I got rid of a lot of things when we were transforming our home, but we didn’t get rid of everything, and we didn’t feel every room needed a different look or style than before.
What’s widely known as minimalism in architecture and interior decoration today is fine as a design style, if you happen to like it, but that’s not at all what I’m talking about here. I’m promoting an approach to owning less that you can take regardless of the style of your home. It’s not about making an artistic statement or glorifying emptiness. Instead, it’s about transforming your home so that you can transform your life.
Minimalism, as I’m referring to it, is not about taking something away from you; it’s about giving something to you. My definition of minimalism is “the intentional promotion of things we most value and the removal of anything that distracts us from them.” As I sometimes like to say, minimizing is actually optimizing—reducing the number of your possessions until you get to the best possible level for you and your family. It’s individual, freeing, and life promoting. It’s a makeover that you can do on your own, in your current house, just by getting rid of stuff.
In battling against misperceptions about minimalism, I sometimes feel like Henry Ford when he was trying to convince the masses that automobiles didn’t have to be just for the rich. Except what’s available to everybody now—in our affluent age when it is sometimes said we’ve reached “peak stuff”—is a radical and amazing home makeover courtesy of minimalism. This is an idea whose time has come. Minimalism isn’t just for the few who happen to have some spartan quirk in their personalities; it’s for everyone. Homes everywhere would benefit from a thoughtful and deliberate reduction of their possessions load.
So that’s how I’ve written The Minimalist Home—with everybody in mind.
This book is for you if you’re single or married.
It’s for you if you are childless, have one or more kids at home, or have an empty nest where your kids and grandkids come back to visit you from time to time.
It’s for you if you have an apartment, condo, town house, duplex, detached single-family dwelling, cottage, trailer home, cabin, farmhouse, houseboat, or mobile home.
It’s for you if you live in the United States, Australia, England, Japan, Canada, South Africa, Brazil, or anyplace else, if your home is overcrowded with stuff.
I’m not trying to make you into someone you’re not or turn you into some kind of doing-without extremist. You don’t have to live in a tiny home or wander the world living out of a backpack. (My family and I don’t.) This book is about doing a makeover to your home, wherever that home may be and whatever it may be like. Now, after minimizing, you may want to downsize to a smaller place, but you certainly don’t have to move in order to enjoy the benefits of home minimalism. You can change your environment and change your life right where you are.