Podcasts that will make you a boss at life

condensation1I’ve made a fair few changes to my life in the past few years.

But if there’s one change I’ve made to my daily routine that has boosted my happiness more than any other, it’s listening to podcasts while I’m driving to work.

Commuting is the worst kind of dead time, especially if you’re driving, as it’s really not the done thing to, say, read the paper at the same time.

But I made this pretty straightforward change to my routine a few months ago and I’m still absolutely loving it.

Podcasts are just better than the radio, because you have that much more control over what you listen to. I find that they a) take my mind off the fact I’m heading into the office (boo! hiss!), b) introduce me to loads of new and interesting discussions and c) act as a great motivator, getting me fired up to take action on the issue of the day, whether it be the refugee crisis or sorting your socks.

Here are some of my favourites but I’d love to get any other recommendations because I am going through these at a fair old rate!

TED Radio Hour
In a nutshell: It’s a universal fact that everyone loves TED talks. Even the snobby people who sneer at them secretly love them, but just don’t want to admit it. This takes a few talks on a similar topic as a stepping-off point for a big discussion.
If you listen to one episode, make it: Maslow’s Human Needs

Afford Anything
Formerly known as The Money Show, this makes personal finance loads of fun, from interviews with people who make a living selling second-hand finds on eBay to discussions on how to reach that Holy Grail of financial independence (aka super-early retirement). It’s fronted by Paula Pant of the Afford Anything blog and earlier episodes were co-hosted by J Money of Budgets Are Sexy. Personally, I preferred these earlier episodes because the two had a great double-act going on.
If you listen to one episode, make it: The Habits We Use to Grow Wealth

Death, Sex and Money
This is my other half’s favourite podcast. It’s a really gossipy, open chat between host Anna Sale and the guest of the day, from A-list actors to normal people with an extraordinary tale to tell. And the things you learn are just eye-opening. (‘He asked you to do what at gay conversion therapy??!’, ‘Jeff Daniels earned how much less than Jim Carrey for Dumb and Dumber??!’)
If you listen to one episode, make it: Falling In Love…With Heroin

The Mind Palace
Ah, it’s great to hear a proper regional British accent on a lifestyle podcast. Melissa Cain, from up Sunderland way, joins Jessica Lynn Williams, who seems to flit between idyllic coastal US locations, in a weekly transatlantic chat about minimalism, living sustainably and lots more. Sometimes esoteric, sometimes silly, always a good listen.
If you listen to one episode, make it: Waste

Serial
The podcast that made podcasting famous, the first series of Serial is quite simply excellence in journalism. I have yet to listen to the second round, which seems to divide opinions a little more.
If you listen to one episode make it: S1 E1 The Alibi. After that you will be hooked anyway.

Good Life Project
Ok, so this one may be a bit earnest for some, but I like it. Imagine the kind of personal development workshops you might find at an eco music festival between the falafel stall and the fair-trade scarves and you’re kinda halfway there.
If you listen to one episode, make it: Karan Bajaj On Yearlong Sabbaticals and Real Jobs

This American Life
Another giant in the podcasting world here. Each week there’s a topic and various segments which riff off it.
If you listen to one episode, make it: Are We There Yet? (Haunting accounts from refugee camps in Greece)

The Minimalists
This podcast may seem a little repetitive if you’re as familiar with The Minimalists’ blog, books, film, talks and interviews as I am, but there are still nuggets of wisdom in these discussions worth hanging on for.
If you listen to one episode, make it: Documentaries

10% Happier
Sceptical TV news reporter Dan Harris had a panic attack live on air and realised he needed to make some changes. He was surprised to find meditation helped him and wrote a book about it called 10% Happier. A nicely bullshit-free look at the world of ‘striving for enlightenment…whatever that means’.
If you listen to one episode, make it: RuPaul


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Capsule wardrobes, fast fashion and a surprise from an old holiday photo

sockssmall

OK, so here’s a question: how long is it appropriate to keep an item of clothing for?

I ask, because today I was flicking through some old holiday snaps and came across one from 2013, when my wife and I were on holiday in France with some friends.

In the photo, I was wearing a grey t-shirt. I looked down to see I was wearing the exact same t-shirt, three years on.

I was partly horrified and partly impressed. The t-shirt no longer looks brand new, as you might imagine, but it’s…fine. It covers me up and stops me from getting arrested when I step out of the front door.

Mostly, I wasn’t that surprised to discover how long I had owned it for. I tend to be a person who keeps hold of their clothing until holes appear, rather than until the next fashion season hits. I like saving money and I hate waste, so this just makes sense to me.

But that holiday snap piqued my curiosity.  I started looking through photos from other trips, seeing how far back I could go and find items of clothing I still own today. I got to 2012, in Iceland, when I found myself in a purple, woollen winter coat which is still hung up in the house. Now this coat does look worn now. The lining is coming apart in places and I’ll probably replace it before next winter.

But in other photos, I found myself thinking, ‘I liked that top. Why did I get rid of it?’

I was actually surprised to find that most of the clothes – even ones I was wearing last year or the year before – had actually disappeared from my wardrobe.

So, if I tend to wear all my clothes to death, why was this?

I have a theory.

Firstly, I have been trying to create a capsule wardrobe and getting rid of everything I don’t absolutely love. For it to stay, it has to a) fit, b) suit me, c) not have any holes, stains or defects and d) be something I like to wear.

This means I have got rid of a fair few items of clothing in the past year or two, by either donating quality items or binning raggedy ones. I hadn’t really had a huge wardrobe to begin with anyway, so all my stuff now fits on about seven or eight hangers, two large drawers and two boxes for shoes.

It meant that t-shirts I was keeping for sentimental reasons also went. You know the kind: the ones you buy at gigs, or a celebrity has signed for you, or you get given after completing a charity fun-run. A quick photograph, then off they went.

Secondly, the fact that my wardrobe is pretty small means I wear the remaining items a lot. Effectively, I wear them out pretty quickly. So while I’m not one for fast fashion, I do end up replacing things quite a bit.

One type of clothing tends to hang around a while longer: dresses.

It’s a tiresome fact of being female that you’re really not supposed to wear the same dress repeatedly to functions, year in, year out. So come wedding season, I usually end up buying a new one. But I don’t want to get rid of old dresses I’ve worn half a dozen times, and they linger.

It seems to me that there are two extremes at play in the world right now. There’s the frankly horrendous fast fashion industry, where workers are exploited to make cheap goods sold for less than the price of a pint of beer and only designed to last the three-month season.

Then there are the older generations, who will keep clothes for absolutely ages, repairing where necessary. Heck, if they hadn’t, vintage clothing wouldn’t even be a thing. I know someone who inherited a well-worn suit from his father, and happily started wearing it to work. That’s just great: it shows a really touching pride in his family, a money-saving attitude and a rejection of the throwaway culture.

But while wearing clothes from the 1980s and earlier is the epitome of hipster-chic, wearing clothes from 10 years ago just isn’t, is it? I’m a minimalist – I’m not going to stash stuff in the attic for a few decades until it’s acceptable again.

So, what is an appropriate amount of time to keep clothes for, assuming they still fit and are in good condition? I’m interested to know what other people think. How much of an influence is the changing fashion world? And do people’s attempts at minimalism see them ditch their togs more readily?

How old is the oldest thing in your wardrobe?


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Wedding bells, balls-ups and budgets

 

IMG_0144It’s that time of year again: wedding season.

I’ve just been to the most wonderful wedding on a beautiful farm in the middle of the countryside. The day was full of carefree fun: playing with my niece, exploring barns, dancing, eating and drinking too much and catching up with people after FAR TOO LONG apart.

It made me think back to my own wedding, nearly two years ago. We’ll be celebrating our anniversary in a few days. See the picture above for a frighteningly accurate depiction of how we looked on the day (I’m on the left).

Our wedding day was, of course, the happiest day of my life. I married my best friend. I wouldn’t change a thing. (Except maybe that one thing about the….nah, forget it, Claire. Move on)

But the weeks, months and even years planning the thing, stressing about the budget and worrying about how our big day compared to other people’s? That wasn’t so good.

There’s always one person in a couple who does the bulk of the organising. That person was me. I was struggling with loads of debt at the time and my girlfriend and I had made a solemn pact that we would not borrow more money for the wedding. I’ m so glad we decided that.

But it meant we had to make really tough decisions. I remember at one point, as we were getting pressured to put this person or that person on the guest list, I broke down in tears in the middle of a phone conversation to a relative. I knew we just couldn’t afford to host any more people, no matter how much we might have wanted them there.

Here’s the thing: organising a wedding is not easy and despite what the glossy magazines might tell you, it is not always fun.

But in the end, we worked our socks off to get the best day we could on the budget we had.

This is my advice for anyone who is planning a wedding at the moment.

  • Work with what you have. Set a budget and include some contingency cash. Things will go wrong and having extra money on hand will alleviate stress. But if you have the budget for a shotgun wedding, you won’t be getting married in a castle. Accepting that is the first part of the battle. Work out the best wedding you can afford on the budget you have. Don’t get attached to a fantasy plan you will never be able to finance.
  • So you can’t afford an identikit wedding? So what??! Consider out-of-the-ordinary options; it can really inject some personality into your big day. We got married at a beautiful old building which is the home of a children’s charity. It was offering better rates than many of the hotels’ wedding packages and as a bonus we knew our cash was going to a good cause. You might want to consider getting married on an unusual day, or out of season, to save cash, or you might consider a pot-luck meal instead of a more formal dinner.
  • If you take people’s money, you also have to accept their input. Parents and other people might be kind enough to help you pay for your big day. But with that donation, they can also reasonably expect to have a say in how their money is spent. You may be pressured to invite great-aunt Nora, have a sit-down meal or hold your big day in a certain place. If you want complete freedom to make your own decisions, you have to pay your own way.
  • Don’t be afraid to haggle with suppliers. Flattery goes a long way. We found a DJ who we really liked, but the company was a little more expensive than the competitors. We fired off an email saying we were dying to book them but couldn’t quite afford their rates. Guess what? We got a discount.
  • Call in any favours you can get. We managed to get friends to perform music, a colleague’s daughter to use her staff discount to help us buy bridesmaids’ dresses and another friend to give us mates’ rates on photography. They may be happy to help, and consider it their wedding present to you. But don’t pressure any of your friends into working on your wedding. They might just want to kick back and enjoy your day with you. Give them the choice.
  • Enter competitions like CRAZY. I won three!! Hair styling on the day, wedding favours and the table plan, all hustled through entering all the contests I could find.
  • Feel free to get crafty, but beware: it may not always be a money saver and certainly isn’t stress-free! We made our own invitations using a kit and embellishing with our own decorations, which worked really nicely. But I also took the mad decision of baking our own three-tier cake with different flavours in each tier, which was really stressful and I’m sure didn’t save that much money, once I got all the stuff I needed.
  • Economise like mad on the areas you don’t care about, so you can spend more on the things you love. I got married in £35 high-street shoes so I could go on a honeymoon to Thailand. If your budget means you can’t do it all, make a list of your priorities.
  • Don’t be afraid to skip things. We didn’t have a wedding car. My wife rocked up in her band’s van and my dad dropped me off. That’s money saved and one fewer contractor to deal with.
  • The most powerful money-saving tip of all is to try your hardest not to see weddings as a showing-off contest. I know that sounds high-and-mighty and I really don’t want it to, because I had a real struggle with this. ‘It’s not a competition’ became the mantra I was often uttering through gritted teeth, not quite believing it. The truth is, you want people to have the most fantastic time at your wedding. Of course you do. But first and foremost, this is about the start of a marriage. Getting into loads of debt for one day is just a heap of stress you don’t need.
  • Lastly, enjoy your day. You may have worked your behind off bringing the damn thing under budget, but when there’s a hitch – say a friend announces at the last minute that they can’t make it – you can either fret over the wasted money on their non-refundable meal and the now-inaccurate table plan, or you can just shrug and let it go. Make a conscious effort to do the latter.

Before I go, I want to give a quick shout out to people struggling to pay to be a guest at weddings. I hear you! It can be a pricey business – the gifts, the outfit, the hotels and especially the hen or stag parties. A warning to people younger than myself: you will hit an age where you inexplicably have five weddings to go to within a few months and you’ll soon be broke, broke, broke, flat broke.

If you’re planning a wedding, the last thing you’re probably thinking about is the wallets of your guests, as you tuck into another meal of cheap noodles to save a few more quid for the big day. But you can help them by keeping any pre-wedding parties affordable, pointing wedding guests towards hotels that would suit all budgets,  letting them know that giving you a gift is optional and hooking them up with other guests (not in that way! Well, maybe…) so they can share rides. They’ll thank you for it!

The 30-day minimalism challenge: Part three

Get out the bleedin’ bunting, I’ve only gone and finished the MinsGame! I feel like I need some kind of fanfare – perhaps the music that plays when Sonic the Hedgehog defeats Dr Robotnik.

You may remember, I’d been struggling to get rid of an increasing number of things every day. So much so, I’d started to dredge up rusty nails from the outhouse.

You may also remember I’d recently tried and failed to sort out all my old childhood stuff in my parents’ house and left behind one box of crap to go through another day.

So… (and no prizes for guessing what happened next) I drove to their house to pick up the box, thinking there would be some wonderful loot in there that would help me in my quest. And it worked a dream. I stormed through the last ten days. Here’s how it went.

21_magazines

21 old music magazines

22_objects

22 random things 
(If you’re wondering about the woollen item, it’s a jumper for a bottle, of course)

23_art

23 school art projects

24_letters

24 letters and cards

25_paper

25 miscellaneous bits of paper

26_certificates

26 childhood certificates (for achievements like ‘turning up to things’, ‘going on school trips’ and ‘raising a piss-poor amount of money for charity’)

27_loan

27 boring documents about taking out a student loan

28_postcards29_postcards30_postcards

(And I was a bit loath to share these but) 28, 29 and 30 are all slightly embarrassing pop culture cards and postcards I collected when I was about 13. I had some questionable taste.

So there you have it. I won’t lie, I feel pretty good about getting through this, and I’ve now been gleefully throwing things in the recycling and the bin. There’s another pile to take to the charity shop when I get the chance.

I won’t pretend playing this game is easy. But it does completely change your mindset. You end up looking at all the objects in your house in a new way: it forces you into considering ditching things you otherwise wouldn’t.

minsgame

Further reading:

The 30-day minimalism challenge: Part one

The 30-day minimalism challenge: Part two

The rules of the game on The Minimalists’ website

PS Since my last post, I’ve been featured in a Q&A with the very funny Ang and Sporty over at the blog Mostly Mindful. We cover very important questions about peanut butter. Enjoy!

The 30-day minimalism challenge: Part two

Well, this was a big mistake. Turns out, playing the MinsGame is really hard. Discarding one thing on day one, fine. Eighteen things on day 18, now that’s getting tricky.

I’ve been scouring areas of the house I normally wouldn’t venture into – the cobwebby toolkit, the junk drawer in the kitchen – all in search of more stuff to throw away. Shudder.

I actually don’t know how I’m going to complete this. But, on the other hand, I have got through another ten days. Here’s how it’s gone.

11_magazines

11 magazines and magazine articles

12-photos

12 badly-taken photos of people I don’t even recognise

13_CDs

13 CDs and DVDs that came free with newspapers

14_cards

14 cards and postcards

15_pockets

15 of these things. (Are they called plastic pockets?)

16_mixtapes

16 mixtapes (By the way, my wife says HMV has started selling cassettes again. What the actual?? They were terrible!)

17_junkdrawer

17 bits of shite from the junk drawer

18_toolkit

18 bits of shite from the toolkit

19_bank

19 bank statements (and yes, I am starting to pull at straws)

20_rusty

20 rusty nails and screws

Eek! As you might have been able to tell, my hauls are getting flimsier and flimsier. Have you done a better job at the MinsGame? Share your tips in the comments section!

Further reading:

The 30-day minimalism challenge: Part 1

Decluttering is boring as hell, let’s face it.

This month, I’ve been trying to liven it up a bit by joining in with the MinsGame, aka the 30-Day Minimalism Challenge.

The idea is simple: you get rid of one item on the first day, two on the second, three on the third and so on.

Trouble is, in hindsight it was a bit daft of me to leave it so late in my ‘decluttering journey’ (Ew, I just heard myself. Sorry, I won’t say that again) to give this a go.

It may be a great introduction to minimalism, easing people into getting rid of a lot of their possessions, but I’ve been throwing things out willy-nilly for over a year now and I really don’t know if I’ve still got enough unwanted stuff to be able to make it through this game.

Anyway, here’s what the first ten days looked like.

1_guitar

One guitar: sold for £50 on Gumtree by my lovely wife, who bought me the guitar in the first place. How’s that for supportive?

2_bottles

Two bottles

3_shotglasses

Three novelty shot glasses (because I am no longer 19)

4_dvds

Four DVDs

5_books

Five books

6_badges

Six badges (and can we just take a moment to reflect on the 90s-tastic gems that are the Fast Forward badges of Gary and Jason from Take That?)

7_cassettes

Seven cassettes (ditto the 80s-tastic cassette at the front which is a bootleg with Kylie on one half and Jason on the other. I shit you not. That is about as 80s as a Rubik’s Cube wearing legwarmers)

8_boxsets

Eight boxsets

9_clothes

Nine unwanted items of clothing

10_beauty

Ten beauty-themed nicknacks

So how much further can I go before I have to give up? Does ’18 grains of rice’ count? Tune in next week to find out!

My finances: Great advice I live by, great advice I don’t

poundsWe all make money mistakes. That’s just life. Some we can learn to avoid in future, some we can’t avoid without a crystal ball. I’ve documented my biggest money mistakes on this blog before, but to cut a long story short, I ended up in a right debt pickle.

I’m now powering my way out of this mess and in the process, I’ve been doing a whole crap-ton of research on personal finance.

Certain bits of simple-to-follow advice just keep cropping up all over the place, so I thought I would share them here for anyone who thinks their finances could do with some fine-tuning.

Some of these ‘money rules’ I now live by (hooray!), some I hope to follow one day and some I frankly don’t find that useful. But hopefully there will be one or two tips here that might work for you.

 

FIRST UP, THE GREAT FINANCIAL RULES I LIVE BY

 

Live below your means

The rule: We’re starting off with a simple one – spend less than you earn – but it is pretty much the bed-rock of a sound financial footing. If you can get this one down, you’re way ahead of many people.

Why I stick by it: After years of not just living paycheque to paycheque, but spending more than I earned each month, I ended up with thousands of pounds in credit card debt. It’s a mistake I’m literally still paying for now. Living below my means now allows me to pay back those debts and when I’m done it means I will be able to start saving for the first time.

 

plugsmallAutomate your bills

The rule: Never get a red reminder letter through the post again. Sign up to direct debit payments for all your bills, and set them to come out of your account a few days after payday. Worrying about bills becomes a thing of the past.

Why I stick by it: Life is too short to spend on admin, so getting these automated was a no-brainer for me. Quite a few firms offer discounts for direct debit payments, so I can save money as well, and increasingly it’s now given as the only option when you sign up with a new utilities company.

 

Shift credit card debts onto 0% deals

The rule: Credit card interest rates can be eye-watering, and if you have debts you can end up seeing the costs spiral. So, shift them using zero per cent balance transfer offers and you can effectively get a free loan (although small transfer fees usually apply) for up to a year or two. It means you’re now properly paying back your debts rather than just paying whopping amounts of interest.

Why I stick by it: I used to pay around £800 a year in interest alone on my consumer debts. No wonder I wasn’t paying them off very quickly. This is one of the most important moves I made when I started to get serious about becoming debt-free.

 

Challenge all your outgoings

The rule: Go through all your regular bills and payments and see if you can get better deals elsewhere. Use comparison sites to make this easier. Cut anything you don’t need any longer and don’t be afraid of calling up your current providers to haggle better deals. People who haven’t done this before will save a lot of money.

Why I stick by it: It’s a really simple way of saving cash without feeling deprived. Honestly, who cares where your electricity is coming from? I wouldn’t dream of not shopping around now, it’s become an ingrained habit and I’m pretty sure it’s one that will stick with me forever. Haggling lower prices over the phone is also really satisfying.

 

Save into a pension and take full advantage of any employer match

The rule: If you work for the man, chances are the man will have a company pension scheme. If you’re lucky, the man will match any contributions you make towards your retirement. Take the man’s money, for goodness’ sake.

Why I stick by it: My employer offers a match of up to 6 per cent, meaning that if I pay in 1 per cent of my earnings, I get another 1 per cent thrown in free, but if I pay in 6 per cent of my earnings, I’ll get another 6 per cent thrown in free. Guess how much I pay in? Up yours, the man.

 

Pay yourself first

The rule: If you want to either save money or pay off debts, decide how much you want to set aside and then take that immediately from your paycheque when you get paid. Don’t save what’s left after spending, spend what’s left after saving.

Why I stick by it: Like the ‘automate your bills’ rule, this is just a great way to keep things simple. If I pay my debts early, I’m not worrying about whether I’ve got enough money to pay them at the end of the month. Also, it is a statement of intent: my debts are my priority, and they will be gone from my life!

 

Track your net worth

The rule: Take a regular snapshot of your overall financial wellbeing by totting up your total assets and subtracting your total debts. This is your net worth. Monitor once a month/quarter/year to see how it is changing over time.

Why I stick by it: Firstly, it’s really easy. Secondly, I’m an utter gimp and I like plotting graphs to chart my progress on things. As I’m also a big fan of oversharing, my current net worth is £14,720.

 

AND NOW, FOR THE GREAT FINANCIAL RULES I DON’T FOLLOW

 

Have an emergency fund

The rule: Put aside around three to six months’ expenses in an easy-access savings fund. Then, if the boiler breaks or you write off the car, it’s a minor niggle rather than an all-out fecking catastrophe.

Why I don’t stick by it: I know I need one of these. But I’ve been prioritising paying down debts for the past few years. It’ll be my priority after that, promise??!!

 

Save at least 10 per cent of your income

The rule: Put aside a big chunk of your wage. You know it’s the responsible thing to do. You’ll reduce your reliance on debts, accrue interest and generally be a boss at life.

Why I don’t stick by it: As with ‘have an emergency fund’, I just haven’t got here yet. No, one’s perfect, right? Right?

 

Invest in the stock market

The rule: If you leave your money in the stock market, for long enough, it sprouts new money. How awesome is that? Returns tend to be better than with savings accounts, but that’s because you’re taking greater risk. After all, no returns are guaranteed and you may even end up losing money. One top tip is to diversify your investments (ie invest a bit in bonds as well as stocks, and/or invest in lots of different companies by choosing some kind of fund rather than shares in specific firms). Another is to see the stock market as a long-term thing, and a third is not to panic and withdraw your investments if the market takes a tumble.

Why I don’t stick by it: So I was investing a bit of money in the stock market once a month for a year, until recently, when I decided to pull it out to pay off some debts. I made a fraction of profit (I think it was £10?) but nothing to write home about. In hindsight, I went down the investing route too early. This should really come after I have an emergency savings fund in place.

 

Have a budget

The rule: Give every £1 (or $1 or whatever) a job to do at the beginning of the month. This one will pay the phone bill, this one will be on food, etc. You can set up lots of separate bank accounts to divide up your money in advance so you know you’re not overspending in one area.

Why I don’t stick by it: Honestly, life is too short to obsess like this. By automating my bills and ‘paying myself first’ I know that once that’s done, I can spend the rest on food or petrol or class A drugs* or whatever.

 

Run a side-hustle

The rule: You have a main wage packet, but what if you could supplement that by making extra money on the side? AirBnB hosting, filling in surveys, freelancing, blogging, mystery shopping, Uber driving and starting a small business are all common side-hustles. It means you have a back-up income if your regular job hits the skids, and side-hustles can even become a main job, given time.

Why I don’t stick by it: Honestly? I have neither the time nor the energy. I have tried various survey websites and found them an utter waste of time, given the hours you have to put in. Ditto mystery shopping.

As for blogging, well, yes, I do already do that, but I make no money from it (in fact, it costs me a little money). I dislike blogs covered in adverts and I particularly hate those that carry advertorials, so I’ve never wanted to take that route for my blog, especially given that I’m blogging about saving money and wanting less stuff.

I’m sure there are better ways to make extra money, but I’ve never been that motivated to pursue one.

 

brickssmallOverpay your mortgage

The rule: You can save thousands in interest by paying off your mortgage early. Then after that, you have a house, for like, free.

Why I don’t stick by it: I really want to do this. I really want to. And I will. Just not right now, ok? Stop hassling me, perfect internet finance peeps, with your shit together.

 

So there you have it. Have I missed any big tips that you live by, or ones that you find just don’t work? Tell us in the comments section!

 

*I don’t really buy class A drugs.

My biggest challenge to date: the childhood bedroom

stuffsmlI take it all back. I’m a terrible minimalist. I’m no good at this at all.

Last week, I went through the clear-out to end all clear-outs: my old room in my parents’ house.

And despite all the advice on minimalism I’ve been peddling on this site for nearly a year, I found it REALLY hard.

The room is by no means a shrine to my childhood self, it’s now a fully functioning guest bedroom. But lurking under the bed and in a few boxes at the side of the room were artefacts of a previous existence, one of Take That scrapbooks, silly teenage fanzines and tap dance exam badges.

I went in with a solid game-plan. I had four big boxes of stuff, a few bags and some other items to sort out, because my parents wanted my stuff gone (and why the hell shouldn’t they?? I am 33).

So, I planned three piles: bin/recycle, donate, keep. I blog about this, I thought. This will be a piece of piss.

I started strong: all my university work, bar a few key bits of paper, went straight in the recycle pile. My mum said it was a shame after all that work, but I hadn’t looked at it for over 10 years so I knew I didn’t need it.

Next was a pile of CDs. This was easy, straight in the donate box. My dad came in and started flicking through the stack looking for CDs to pilfer.

“Don’t bother, Dad,” I told him. “They’re all bloody Robbie Williams.”

“Ah,” he said, backing off. “A lovely chap.”

There were a good few items where taking a photo meant I could let go for good. A beer bottle that served as a prop for my high-school musical, photographed and gone. A clock I made in school during a design class, photographed and gone. Three Beano and Dandy comics I had kept in the misguided off-chance they would be worth something one day, photographed and gone. A lighter from the sweaty rock club I used to go to with friends before I was legally old enough to go out drinking, photographed and gone.

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But then I hit the skids.

Photographing my old art projects and binning them was a real struggle, but I made myself do it.

Things were starting to get harder. It was almost like I had a reserve of willpower for throwing away sentimental goods, and I was running out of it fast.

I stumbled across a box of mix-tapes lovingly made by friends when I was a teenager. Photographing those was hardly going to work, was it? I shut the lid and shoved it to one side.

My mum came up to my room half-way through the day to see how I was getting on, and she  suggested getting rid of a cuddly horse that came with an accompanying story on cassette.

I clutched it and pulled a comedy sad-face.

“Not Bobbin,” I said.

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Bobbin went in the end, but I was losing my grip on what was worth keeping.

I discovered a heap of magazine articles about my favourite bands as a teenager, and instead of throwing them away I wanted to read them all, then keep them so I could do the same in another twenty years’ time. I found autograph collections, letters from friends and photographs. This task suddenly felt incredibly daunting.

I decided to put the most heart-wrenching items in a box and leave them for another day. I talked my parents into accepting this, and hid the box back under the bed. I also brought home a few treasured items I know I’ll want to keep.

Now, if I force myself to look on the bright side, then first off, I did get rid of A LOT of stuff last weekend. More than three-quarters of it was discarded.

Secondly, if it hadn’t been for this minimalism kick I’ve been on in recent years, I honestly think I would have kept far more if it and found this all the harder.

But this was my most difficult de-clutter so far, and I’m not sure I passed the test at all.

The hidden downside of wanting to turn your life around

Hillside in sepiaThere’s a dark side to wanting to improve your life.

It’s a depressing one, but it’s one I want to talk about today.

Many people get to a point where it hits them: this isn’t the life they want to live. For me, I realised stress and debt were pulling me down.

You might then start to wonder how your life, once so carefree and full of spontaneity, friendship and joy, somehow became all about the daily grind, paying the bills and doing the chores.

You might start to question everything: what you do for a living, how you spend your time, what your home looks like or even where you live.

You might start, as I did, researching different ways to live. You might start reading about people who retire in their 30s after saving like mad and drastically cutting their expenditures. You might start reading about people who sell almost everything they own and start travelling around the world, living out of a backpack. You might start reading about people who make their fortunes by setting up their own businesses after leaving low-paid jobs. You might start reading about people who, conversely, packed in highly-paid but soulless jobs to pursue their creative passions despite earning peanuts by doing so.

Many, if not all, of these ways of living might sound very appealing indeed, even the ones which directly contradict each other. You fantasise about every life but your own.

Wanting to make big changes to your life is a worthwhile goal. But it can have the effect of making you even less happy with your day-to-day reality. Very few of us can just flick a switch and retire early, or go travelling, or create a lucrative business empire. These things will take years, if not decades, so if your goal really is happiness, you need to find a quicker way of getting there.

This week, I tried something a little different. I called it my ‘reverse bucket list’. I didn’t make a list of all the high-falutin’ goals I wanted to achieve or things I wanted to do. Instead I listed loads of cool, interesting and impressive things I’ve already done.

This included flying in a helicopter, experiencing an earthquake, partying at a cherry blossom festival in Tokyo, watching an event at the Olympics, getting my MA, kayaking around a tropical island, taking part in jury service, dying my hair purple and (one I can add from just last week) sitting in the cockpit of a commercial airliner.

It wasn’t an exercise in boasting. Other people will have done different cool things – perhaps things that would terrify me, like getting a tattoo or skydiving or even (gulp) having children.

Instead, it was a reminder that life isn’t something that starts when I’ve got that dream job, or I’ve quit the rat-race, or I’ve moved abroad, or sold all my stuff. It’s happening now and it can be bloody awesome.


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A total f***ing life-ninja

harmonicasmallDitching stuff, beating debt, getting a life.

That’s the sub-heading I chose for my little blog when I set it up last year. It was these three areas where my life was falling woefully short: I was up to my eyes in consumer debt, drowning under crap and had little time, energy or money to get out of the house, meet people and have fun.

Now my piles of rubbish have subsided and my debts are a third of the size they were a few years back.

But there’s one area I’ve been neglecting: getting a life.

As a result, my life (and by extension, this blog) has been pretty po-faced and serious. Sitting at home poring over the latest zero percent credit card offers has been really important in busting my debt pile, but my god it’s been dull.

I’ve been reining in my spending for longer than I remember, which has put a serious dent in my social life. Restaurant trips, fitness classes, hobbies and nights out drinking all took a hammering.

Now things are going to change.

I’ve just finished a great little book called Level Up Your Life by Steve Kamb. He describes how he realised he was living vicariously through characters in action movies and computer games rather than getting out there and experiencing things for himself.

So he started his own ‘Epic Quest of Awesome’ by hiking the Inca Trail, living like James Bond for a weekend in Monte Carlo, and all sorts of other great things.

His passion for grabbing life by the balls was infectious.

As a self-confessed nerd, Kamb has peppered his book with references to action films and video games. He talks about harnessing the principles which make computer games so addictive (small challenges, frequent rewards) and using them to improve your life. This can push you to do things you otherwise wouldn’t, like exercising or mastering a new skill.

And it’s not just about doing awesome ‘bucket list’-style things.

I’ve now created my own ‘Epic Quest of Awesome’, with loads of challenges in areas like hobbies, travel, having fun, finance, learning and fitness.

Some examples (complete with my own cheesy titles):

WALKING DEAD: Take part in a real-life zombie adventure

I’ve enlisted my wife and a friend to join me on a 5k run with a twist in October, the twist being you’re chased by zombies. Most other friends recoiled in horror at the idea. All I can say is, they will be the first to the wall come the zombie apocalypse.

SHE’S ELECTRIC: Learn how to change light switches and change at least two

This is something I’d always been too afraid to do myself, for fear of it being ‘game over’. But a friend inspired me, I did lots of research into how to carry out the work safely and now I’ve updated three of our light switches and counting.

THE MUSICIAN: Play the harmonica in a band

I’ve bought a cheap harmonica and instruction book off t’internet and I’ve started teaching myself. At the minute, I well and truly suck (pun intended).

I’ve also been trying to say yes to new opportunities as often as I can, even if they are daunting.

For now, I’ve decided my challenges can’t break the bank or involve buying a lot of stuff, as it’d throw all my other hard work off-course. But that still leaves me with loads of other ways to have fun, meet new people and learn new skills.

As I keep enthusiastically proclaiming to my long-suffering wife this week, I’m going to be a total fucking life-ninja!