When less is more: Living a minimalist lifestyle
March 19, 2017 Updated Tue., March 21, 2017 at 10:57 a.m.
Minimalist Tammy Bell keeps a Howdy Doody doll, given to her by her mother, along with a few books and canned goods on a shelf near Bell’s living room. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Tammy Bell kept her mother’s antique Howdy Doody doll. She’s also hung onto a gumball machine to delight visitors.
At 50, the former pastor turned writer lives alone in a 1,200-square-foot Spokane home appearing both spacious and warm with its limited decor. Closets lack doors so junk can’t hide. Bell gave away household duplicates, narrowed her wardrobe, kept a few keepsakes, and digitized most photographs.
Starting a minimalist journey five years ago, Bell has purged more than 5,000 possessions and 3,000 books, all itemized in a computer inventory. It’s ongoing because with less to clean and maintain, she said there’s more time to focus on health, relationships and adventures.
“When you have so much stuff, all of your time is spent tending to it,” Bell said. “My goal is to have quality of life. I’d rather spend money traveling than cleaning stuff, dealing with stuff, looking for stuff. I’d rather take two people out to lunch than have new clothing in my closet.”
Though different influences led her there, Bell has found inspiration from reading about co-authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, known as “The Minimalists.”
Both 35 and relocated to Missoula, Millburn and Nicodemus wrote “Minimalist: Live a Meaningful Life” and “Everything That Remains.” They left high-salary corporate careers and many possessions to pursue simpler lives, ones they say are richer in time, relationships and meeting life goals.
They don’t suggest eliminating technology or a magic number of items. They do question unending consumerism and challenge people to weed out the superfluous to focus on what adds meaning to life, discussed via a website, blogs, podcasts and a film on Netflix, “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.”
“Their story resonated with me because they’re both young men who had everything – corporate jobs, stuff, money, and they weren’t happy,” Bell said. “I wanted freedom, and more than anything else, for my values and spiritual beliefs to be more congruent with how I live.”
Years ago, she dealt with estates of her mother and grandmother with “so much stuff.” In Uganda during 2010, she witnessed poverty among people who were joyful, so Bell started questioning.
Others from all walks of life are questioning too, Nicodemus said recently by phone.
“I feel there is a snowball effect happening,” he said. “In America, we typically aspire to own a house, get a 30-year mortgage and if we’re lucky enough, a job where you can take a nice vacation, buy a car, and get enough stuff. It’s a format people aren’t buying into anymore.”
Americans see or hear thousands of ads daily. Nicodemus argues that early-day advertising served more to fill needs, like selling a farmers’ product, while modern commercials do more to create a need.
“That’s what people are waking up to, and they’re not buying it,” Nicodemus said. “Anyone who is thinking of becoming a minimalist or implementing some of this in their life, they need to ask themselves how might my life be better with less? That’s different for each person.
“It might be I can see my bedroom floor, or I can get rid of a $300-a-month storage unit. For me, it was reclaiming my time.”
For Spokane real estate agent Melissa Murphy, 35, a turn to minimalism began after a 2015 trip to Southeast Asia. She wanted time for travel and exercise. After long work weeks, she paid someone else to mow the lawn and clean mainly for “maintaining stuff.”
“After the trip, I sold my house which was bigger than I needed and downsized, and even then I’ve downsized again,” Murphy said. “You’re not spending so much time cleaning, sorting and organizing. I found that the more I got rid of stuff, the more I had time to do training and spend time with people.”
Millennial minimalists are ditching stuff too. Rachael Chambers, 28, pursues the outdoors and road trips after unloading items. Once a toy collector, she sold about 400 pieces including designer ones.
“I felt really overwhelmed with all the stuff I had,” she said. Casting off DVDs and household gadgets followed. “I really pared it down to the stuff I use every day.”
Kettle Falls husband and wife Steve and Lisa Brozik hadn’t heard of The Minimalists, but they chose a similar approach decades ago. Now, an adult daughter is trying some minimalism too.
“I think the first realization of hearing the term was in an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ when Kramer got a camcorder from a guy who was becoming a minimalist,” said Lisa Brozik, 50.
Last year, the couple built a 769-square-foot home.
“They say technically a tiny house is anything under 1,000 square feet,” she said. “Our house to us seems huge. It’s really easy to clean. I carry my memories in my mind.”
One weakness is purses, but Brozik is down to four after selling others. “I’m always on the hunt for the perfect purse. I’m down to four, because you’ve got to match.”
The Minimalists have a 30-day game on their website. Nicodemus once packed up everything as if moving, then pulled out essentials. “And 21 days later I had 80 percent still in boxes,” he said. “Try telling that to a family of five, and that’s probably not the most reasonable place to start. Then you have Josh, who committed to getting rid of one thing a day.”
Murphy began following The Minimalists’ podcasts and Spokane meet-up group. She also started a Facebook group in April 2016 for a 30-day challenge among friends for each to remove one household item the first day, two the second, and so on cumulatively for the month.
Going through her house, Murphy said she looked for anything she felt was unnecessary.
“I actually ended up filling probably three or four carloads of stuff that I took down to my office and put on the conference room table,” Murphy added. “I gave it away to anybody in my office – jewelry, books, housewares and clothing.”
“I took the rest to Goodwill.”
Most of her personal items are now in one closet, and she uses Rent The Runway online for a rotation of designer clothing for work that she later returns to the service, which handles dry cleaning.
The approach has changed her buying habits.
“I can’t think of the last time I’ve actually purchased an item of clothing,” Murphy said. “I just pay a flat monthly fee, and I’ve eliminated that shopping need because I get a package every couple of weeks with new clothing. It’s stopped me from going into malls or shopping online.”
Now, Murphy said she evaluates before buying any commodity. “I’m just so much more cautious about what I purchase and acquire, deciding whether it’s really adding value or not.”
Bell grew up in retail helping at her family’s Colville store and operated her own candy store in her youth. Later, her career included high school coaching and parish ministry. She decides what to keep by asking: Does it bring joy? Is it used regularly? Does it support priorities?
If thinking “I might need it one day,” she asks another question. Can it be replaced for under $20?
Bell’s remaining keepsakes include a few antiques – her mother who ran a cafe collected them — and select items from Africa. She also kept a small piece of the Berlin Wall because she helped in 1988-89 peace activities. Books were tough to weed out, but Bell said she can always borrow.
“There have been only two things I wish I hadn’t gotten rid of. One was an antique typewriter I really enjoyed, and another was a gift my mother gave me, but I didn’t use it,” Bell said. “I’ve never given a second thought to anything else. You have to remember, memories aren’t in the thing.”
Dealing with a neurological disability, she has priorities of health and eating more nutritious foods, so she keeps canning equipment. She has a minimalist goal to try one new experience a day.
Mark Simonds, 44, went through a divorce and moved from a big house in the suburbs to a small apartment. Now remarried to wife Erika, 32, he has read minimalism blogs and listened to The Minimalists’ podcasts.
Minimalism to him in part means more time and “not being slaves to a job.” Their apartment has about 700 square feet.
“I subscribe to the tenets and ideas of minimalism,” he said. “When I was married before, we had a suburban home, more room than we needed, and were getting a bunch of things. When I got my own place, it was a smaller space, so I kind of got forced into the minimalist approach.”
The trick is disposing of items without throwing them in the trash, added Simonds, a Zaycon Fresh web developer. He’s also weeded out clothes, and he usually takes outdated electronics to Earthworks Recycling near downtown.
But he added that minimalism might be a challenge for families with kids. “I’d imagine this lifestyle would be really tough.”
Chambers, the former toy collector, said she now finds the house she’s living in too big. So she’ll be moving soon into a studio apartment with a friend.
She finds the toughest part of minimalism is telling friends and family she doesn’t need gifts.
“People don’t always get it,” Chambers said. “I don’t think it’s a fad. I think people are getting overwhelmed. I think simplifying life, getting rid of those everyday distractions, can be really helpful. Plus, you save money if you’re not constantly updating things.
“I’m not going shopping when I’m bored, and I can afford trips, adventures and experiences going out to dinner with my friends. Those are worth a lot more than things. I can help friends and family with funds when they need them.”
Murphy spent the past summer at a lake cabin with no internet or TV, escaping smartphone use. Returning to her Spokane home, she’s kept a nightly ritual of reading a physical book and unwinding, rather than being on a computer or checking email.
“You shut down at a certain time without the constant barrage of information,” she said. This past Christmas, she and her fiancé agreed they wouldn’t buy presents.
“We went to Cuba instead and had an experience,” she said. “My fiancé met me after I started doing this, and sometimes when we go to the grocery store, he’ll reach for something and I’m saying, ‘Why? We don’t need that’ He looks at me like I’m crazy. So it’s an adjustment.”
Nicodemus said audiences at The Minimalists talks cover all ages and demographics: from kids who bring a parent to an Occupy Wall Street supporter and major corporation CEO in the same room.
“They were both there, two sides of the spectrum, asking the same question: How do I live a more meaningful life?” Nicodemus said.
He said the same concepts can be traced to Jesus, Epictetus, Buddha, Thoreau. “This is an old idea, but it’s an old idea that’s an answer to a new problem we have, compulsive consumption.”
“What Josh and I hope to really help people understand is love people and use things, because the opposite never works.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.