Packing light

DSCF4332Budapest is an amazing place. I’ve just come back from what might be the best city break I’ve ever had. There was so much to do: live escape games, thermal baths, ‘ruin pubs’ in dilapidated buildings and a pinball museum that was a place of pure joy.

As I mentioned before, I was also trying out a period of extended minimalism, with a carry-on bag of luggage having to last me five days.

This had to include outdoor clothing to keep me warm and dry on big treks around the city, and fancy togs for a meal in a Michelin starred restaurant (yep, the exchange rate is so good, we could afford to eat Michelin stars – and very tasty they were too).

Actually, having less stuff with me was great. I love staying in holiday lets or hotel rooms, where you’re not surrounded by all your junk. You just have the stuff you know you’ll need. You can always find the things you’re looking for, and keeping everything clear and tidy is a piece of piss.

So I came back with renewed enthusiasm about the whole minimalism idea. Today, I dropped off four more bags of books, clothes and bric-a-brac to a charity shop. And to top it off, the woman in the shop was actually enthusiastic and grateful at the haul of goodies – even the really heavy bag with the dumbbells in it. I know they’re volunteers and all, but in another nearby charity shop they look so put-out whenever anyone drops by to donate anything, as if it’s the last thing they want. I know which shop I’ll be going back to.

My trip was also a great reminder that spending money on stuff is never as much fun as spending money on memories. And spending money on pinball is the most fun of all.

Battling debt fatigue

The LakesIt’s milestone day today – I’ve officially paid off £9,000 of my debts, with less than £6,000 left to go. That’s three-fifths gone, fraction fans.

Some people make a big thing of paying off their debts quickly. I’ve not managed to do that.  Life (mainly my wedding) got in the way. My glacial pace means I’ve come up against the full horror of something called ‘debt fatigue’ – the point where you think, ‘Oh sod it, this is incredibly boring and thankless. Maybe I should just start spending money again?’

One way to battle debt fatigue is to make sure you don’t feel too deprived of the stuff you enjoy. I love travel, so I’ve made sure to treat myself to a few breaks away over the past couple of years. (The photo at the top of this blog is one I took during one such trip, to the beautiful Lake District just a couple of hours away from our home)

Of course, the main thing to remember is not to blow all your money again.  My travel budget is incredibly tight. So I’m really quite proud of myself for securing a four-night trip to Budapest for me and my other half, including flights and a four-star hotel, for £230 each.

The main trick here was to pick a country where the cost of living is a lot cheaper than our own. You can get a meal in a restaurant for about £5. Amazing.

Another way we’ve saved money is to only take carry-on luggage, which has also put our minimalism to the test. I was frankly marvelling at how little I’d packed, until last night I counted it all. Including what I’m wearing on the flight, I’m taking about 75 things. There are some minimalists out there who live with less than 100 things, total. That’s put me in my place.

Keeping things in perspective: why my minimalism has limits

DSCF4038aI’m currently doing a free online course in happiness. It’s really good (not nearly as ‘out there’ as it sounds), and I’ll probably write a post on it soon. But today I’m going to focus on one thing it taught, which really stayed with me. It’s the folly of something called ‘medium maximisation’.

A medium, in this context, is essentially a tool we use to get something we want or need. Money is the classic example. It’s of no use on its own, but you trade it to get stuff or services you would like. The trouble is, people get fixated on the money, and forget why they wanted it in the first place – to work less, to live in a nicer area, to be happier. They work more, accrue more just for its own sake, and end up miserable. Medium maximisation is this tendency to focus on the medium instead of the outcome you’re after.

There are other examples. Take status. Why do people want it? They want to be respected, admired. They want what they say and do to matter to other people, they want to have an impact on the world. But some end up tailoring what they say and do, simply to gain people’s approval. Others pursue positions of power and start abusing them. Or they work so hard, they lose touch with the very people they wanted to impress. They may build up status, but respect and admiration? Maybe not.

So when you have a goal, it’s important to remind yourself occasionally why you’re working towards it. I think it’s the same with minimalism. Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists once said you could easily get rid of all your stuff tomorrow, but still be miserable. Minimalism is only a tool you can use to improve your life. It isn’t the improvement in itself.

When I think about why minimalism first appealed to me, a few things come to mind.

I liked the idea of not having to tidy, clean, maintain and organise my stuff as often as I was doing. I liked the idea of spending less time looking for lost belongings. I liked the idea of needing less space for my stuff, giving me the freedom to up sticks and move, or go travelling, more easily. I liked the idea of freeing up my time and money so I could try interesting experiences and socialise more with family and friends. I particularly liked the idea of buying fewer things so I could pay off my debts instead.

Essentially, I wanted to be happier, to see and do interesting things, and to spend more time with those I care about.

The trouble is, if you start trying to dramatically cut down the number of things you own, you can get carried away with pursuing minimalism for its own sake. Yes, there’s plenty of junk you find it easy to ditch at first. Then you find yourself wondering if you can bin old letters from friends, because the drawer would look so much emptier without them.

But what would the point of this be? If I’m trying to spend more time building strong relationships with the people I care about, what purpose would it serve to throw away the nice handwritten letters from grandma? They’re not exactly taking up space, or weighing me down emotionally.

That’s why I think I’ll only take the minimalism so far. I’m not sure an empty drawer will make me happier than a drawer full of memories. And happiness is the goal. Minimalism is only one way of getting there.

Tackling your Gremlins

DSCF4080There are a few areas in our house where I swear the crap just multiplies when we’re not looking, like a Gremlin that’s got wet.

Today we tackled the terrifying cupboard under the kitchen sink, which is meant to house cleaning products. We found, among other things, car maintenance stuff, slippers, compost, driftwood, a smoothie maker, more incense than we can feasibly use in our lifetimes, more than 20 lighters and heaps and heaps and heaps of plastic carrier bags sat waiting to be reused.

We emptied it all out onto the kitchen counter tops and it looked ridiculous.

About half the stuff went back in and the cupboard is at least functional now, although a lot of the carrier bags have lived to see another day. That’s because a mandatory 5p charge for plastic bags in shops is starting in England next month – a move I support – and it’s giving me an added incentive to actually reuse them rather than keep them in a pile of good intentions. Oh, look, another one of those times when minimalism and frugality clash.

Often, newbie minimalists are told to start easy, clear off a shelf and see how it goes. That’s great, and that’s certainly how I started. But I have to say, it’s far more satisfying to blitz a heap of shit and see it totally transformed.

The ‘5 in 5’ decluttering challenge

DSCF4010Here’s a quick way to inject some fun into the process of getting rid of your excess stuff. I’m going to call it the ‘five in five’ game.

The challenge is to find five different things you no longer need in your home, in just five minutes.

And sorry, items you’ve already set aside to discard do not count.

It’s best done as a contest against someone else, but works as a solo game against the clock too. And it is tough.

My wife, Ruth, and I tried it out this evening. I managed to find three items of clothing, a brochure and the oldest of my three laptops (why the hell have I kept three laptops?) but it was just in the nick of time.

Ruth, well, she found three things. But she tried to palm off two items already earmarked for the charity shop, which I was having none of, so her total was one really. I also had to tell her off when I caught her rooting through the bin. Naughty.

So round one to me. Hurrah.

Anyway, it’s one way to alleviate the boredom of decluttering, especially when it has been taking you weeks, months or even years. Get set, go!

Packing party: the results

The idea is simple: pack up all your stuff, only unpack what you use and after a set period of time, ditch the rest.

It’s the fast-track way to a minimalist lifestyle that The Minimalists’ Ryan Nicodemus pioneered, and I’ve been giving it a go.

But because I’m a spineless, sorry, cautious person, I’ve been trialling it in one area of my home. Specifically, my bedside tale, which was, I have to say, my main crap collection area. I mean, all the stuff filled three boxes and then some, for god’s sake.

Now the results are in, and here’s how it’s gone:

  • Clean… clean
    Once I’d packed everything away, I was struck by how great my room looked with no crap in it. So clean and tidy, and I found myself determined to keep it that way.
  • I use practically nothing
    I was absolutely amazed how few possessions I actually used on a daily basis. Over the next few days, I got out maybe five or six items, like my iPod (which I use as an alarm), lamp and basic toiletries.
  • I rediscovered lost treasures
    In what was perhaps a cynical ploy to keep hold of things, I found myself using items I had neglected for some time. But in the process, I found myself getting into some really good habits, like looking after my skin and nails better. Not really the point, but I felt great!
  • Timing is everything
    Ryan described unpacking things over a period of three weeks before slinging the rest of his stuff. But for me, three weeks wasn’t nearly long enough. I still found myself pulling things out of the boxes more than a month later, like posh jewellery to wear to a wedding, for instance.
  • I discovered why I was hoarding things
    When the time came to deal with the stuff left over, I found myself making arguments for something-or-other to be kept. ‘I paid a lot of money for it, and throwing it away will mean it was a bad decision’, ‘It was a gift’ and ‘I might need to keep hold of it just in case’ were the biggies.
  • I’m so low-maintenance
    I halved my make up collection and my jewellery collection too. I had been hanging onto things I never wore or used.
  • I wasn’t too ruthless
    While sorting through the remnants left in the box, I made allowances for things I’d used in the past few months, or things which were seasonal, like my slippers.
  • I tried to give things a good home
    I sold some of the stuff at a car boot sale, gave some to charity, put some in the recycling and only binned what I really had to.

The experiment was definitely worthwhile, but I’ve discovered one main thing – I don’t think I’m ready to get rid of all possessions I don’t regularly use. I just don’t think I’m that hardcore.

Some people want results fast, and for those crazy go-getters, I say give this decluttering technique a whirl.

But slow-and-steady remains my preferred method of paring down. It may be achingly slow, but I can’t think of anything I’ve got rid of so far that I regret.

Window shopping


I might not buy as much as I used to, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do a spot of window shopping.

All I need to do when I see something I like is say to myself, ‘You can like it. You don’t need to own it.’

I even say it to the wife sometimes when something shiny catches her eye. Which usually goes down as well as you’d might expect.

If you love shopping, you don’t need to leave it all behind when you’re trying to cut down your spending or your belongings.

You can think of shops like museums or art galleries, rather than places where items are auditioning for a spot in your home. Just look…and appreciate…and move on.

On a related note, the great thing about getting rid of the shit in your house is that the process is like shopping for free. During the clear-outs, you find things you’d forgotten you even owned. And then when you do sling all the sub-standard belongings, the stuff you keep is the stuff you really like.



This weekend I had to face up to a sorry fact: I had lost my passport.

My passport lives in an important drawer, full of important things. The thing is, even though that’s where it ALWAYS is, that’s the one place I knew it wasn’t. I’d checked. This was bad news.

It was one of those nagging concerns that I had been ignoring for a month, two months, three months…but now I’d booked a holiday and needed to sort this out.

So at the weekend I had one aim: find the bloody thing. In the process, I realised how many areas of the house were now so much easier to search, since I’d thrown away so much of my junk.

Sadly there were still too many places still rammed with crap and it took until Sunday evening before I finally found the damn thing in a bag I’d taken on my last holiday.

But it did make me think long and hard about the end goal – of a house that just works, that functions without me having to spend hours of my life filing stuff away, sorting stuff out and rooting through it all. A house where all the things are important things, not just the bits and bobs in that one drawer.

Bourgeois, solipsistic, self-indulgent

DSCF3884 - Copy

Minimalism. It’s so trendy right now.

Inevitably, where a trend is found, a backlash is never far away. And so it is with simple living, decluttering and paring down.

There’s plenty of ammunition for those who want to mock smug minimalists for extolling the virtues of living an ‘intentional’ life while drinking green tea in their hipster tiny homes and talking about how they’re now giving back to the community through writing their blogs.

Some piss-takes are bang on the money, like this one.

And maybe the critics have a point. Maybe minimalism can be bourgeois, solipsistic, self-indulgent. But it doesn’t have to be.

At the heart of the matter is a desire to question over-consumption. An over-consumption which is pushing people into debt, into larger homes they struggle to afford. Buying stuff they don’t need which will end up in storage facilities, and eventually in landfill. I don’t think that’s self-centred.

And by the way, I will never advise you to drink green tea. That stuff is revolting.

Saying goodbye to sentimental items


Here’s the next haul of stuff gone from our lives. I realised I was hanging onto a lot of these things for sentimental reasons. The really awesome Lego bag that I bought during a fantastic trip to Berlin, but never use, the Divine Comedy t-shirt I bought on the night I met Neil Hannon and the tote that was a thank-you from a charity for running the Great North Run – all items I didn’t want to say goodbye to until now.

Sometimes the hardest things to let go of are the ones that spark memories of great holidays, concerts or achievements. And I don’t buy that platitude that the memories don’t lie in these objects, they lie in our heads. So much has come flooding back to me during my recent clear-outs, that I would otherwise have never thought about again.

So I used a tip from The Minimalists and took photos of all the sentimental items I was getting rid of. That way, I’ll still have something to jog my memory, which I find is failing me more and more now I’m in my terrifying 30s.

All these bits and bobs are bagged up and in Ruth’s car ready to be donated. Hooray.