Monday, April 4, 2016

Decluttering when poor & the fear of minimalism

Hobo Mama wants you to know she's a professional blogger! Look at how professional she's being!

Have you ever tried to pare down your belongings when you have no money?

It takes a steady hand and a brave heart, that's for sure.

I came across Marie Kondo's book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, a little over a year ago, when Karsten was still quite small. I started implementing some of the techniques — picking up objects and determining whether they sparked joy, and even folding my socks the KonMari way — and immediately enjoyed the increased serenity that came with less clutter, less crowding, less need to organize and cram and put away. I am a declutter-o-phile and reforming packrat, and the KonMari options clicked with me.

Some examples:

How I redid the kids' drawers. I love how visible everything is.
My mismatched socks before. I'm NOT KIDDING. These are all SINGLE SOCKS with no mate.
HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE? These all went bye-bye.
My sweet little socks and undies afterward, with socks organized and separated by color family.

But … it was around this same time that we realized how little money we had coming in. Sam and I work for ourselves, which means our "paychecks" are unpredictable, so things can sometimes coast for a bit before we realize there's been an income swing. We've always had a dip like this when we've had a new baby, but this one was perhaps deeper because the pregnancy itself was hard as well and we have — count 'em — three children now to care for and homeschool. I don't worry about telling you this, because I trust I've been honest that being self-employed is only for those who can handle some degree of risk, and we are such people. Our income has always been cyclical, so we tightened our belts while we devoted what energy we could to earning more money, and we have pared way, way, way down on spending.

And this is where the KonMari giddiness took a nosedive.

I suddenly no longer felt confident about giving up items, even if their joy-sparking potential was limited. For instance, I had gathered bags full of lesser-desired hair items: styling products, accessories, curlers, chemical processes. Unlike usual, I actually got around to listing the haul on Freecycle, and someone bit right away. The only thing she didn't want was the half-bottle of spray gel, because she didn't use spray gel, so I removed it, intending to include it with a future Freecyle offer. Not long after, my preferred, somewhat pricey brand of haircare product ran out. I couldn't justify reordering. I wasn't even sure if I could justify buying new gel at the grocery store or if I should just use whatever Sam was using. I dug through my Freecycle remnants and found that half-used bottle of spray gel, and darn it if I wasn't relieved that I hadn't given it away after all. I used it gratefully.

Lately, my remaining underpants have gotten ratty. Yes, I know, underpants! This should not be a big deal. Marie Kondo would have me tossing those puppies out in a heartbeat. But I've really come to love a certain brand of undies (cotton ones from Victoria's Secret — don't judge!), and I can't justify buying them and have had bad experiences with the sizing on box-store brands. Undies aren't the sort of thing I really want to acquire used. So I'm wearing my holey underpants and making do. They still cover my butt. Good enough.

It's made me ponder, from my still admittedly privileged middle-class position, how hard it is to live as a minimalist if you know you can't replace anything you give up and then miss. The KonMari Method suggests that you'll be happier to get something new and better as a substitute — but for many, such a fortunate outcome is not an option. I have to make do with our disgustingly dirty couch (no, seriously, it's gross, but it's a comfortable sofabed that doubles as our "guest room"), because new furniture is not in the cards. I have to live with having one pair of jeans that fit well, because I'd rather spend our clothing budget on my fast-growing boys (and then at the thrift shop or with hand-me-downs when possible).

On the one hand, I personally really love the lightness and clarity that getting rid of excess grants me. I don't even mind being in frugality mode. But I can't deny the fear that comes along with getting rid of perfectly usable items when I know I won't be replacing them. This calculus might change a bit if I were selling the items, of course, but even then, you don't usually make money on used goods, and selling takes an energy that could be spent better elsewhere. In almost all instances, it's cheaper and more efficient to keep something and live with it than get a new item. Something might not be ideal, but it's often a heck of a lot better than nothing.

I expect our income situation to level up soon enough, so I'm not particularly concerned for us and not asking you to be. We walked into our own situation with open eyes. And I'm not speaking for any or all low-income families. I know several such who do embrace minimalism and declutter frequently, and I hope maybe I'll be able to write a follow-up post about how I conquered this fear of losing stuff myself.

But I resolve to remember in the future that decluttering and minimalism, while perfectly admirable for those who like that sort of thing, are not for everyone. This is a no-duh message but needs to be spoken amidst all the gleeful Pinterest pins and blogposts about getting rid of anything that's not perfect (my own included). Some people, whether due to current or past or fear-of-future economic downturns, will feel more comfortable holding fast to the stuff they have so they don't have to worry about doing without.

Helping organize those clothes

The Sorting Cat

Have you decluttered during disparate periods of family income? How did it feel for you?


Olivia said...

Oh, I love this post. While I think many of us have too much sruff (watch any home improvement show where people say their house is too small. No, you have too much stuff.), getting rid of things just because the don't "spark joy" has never made sense to me. There are things we need, serviceable things, that may be old or merely functional, that we need and it's wasteful to replace them.

I also understand your undie situation. Mine are in similar condition, but replacing them is such a low priority. And I'm talking $12 for a pack of hanes! Maybe this month. :-)

Inder-ific said...

Ugh, yes! There is so much middle class privilege implicit in the whole decluttering "sparks joy" THING. I mean, let's get this straight, I totally need and benefit from this type of advice. But it would be wrong and naive to assume everyone had the same relationship to their stuff. For my Depression-childhood grandparents, knowing that they never threw out a rubber band or newspaper might have given them joy and a sense of security. They knew better than I likely ever will what it is to lack common everyday necessities, so what can I do but have compassion?

When I was reading the "Life-Changing Magic", the part that struck me most in this respect was when she talked about "overbuying" necessities like TP or kleenex. She said it was better just to consider the local market/store as a place to store those items. They will always have more if you need it. They're holding it for you. Now, actually, this is really insightful for some of us with a Costco problem, and point well taken. But it did strike me as insanely privileged too. It must be nice to be secure that you will always have the money for TP or necessities later when you need them. I enjoy that security, yes (for now), but of course, not everyone does! My grandparents certainly did not have outlook on life. Their experience had taught them that what privileges they enjoyed now could be taken away at any moment. You could lose it all and be on the streets. Now, I am not saying that is a healthy way of thinking, but it does point out the implicit privilege in thinking, "oh, there will always be more of that at the store and I will have the money for it."

Anyway, I am the target audience and I totally need the advice myself, but I can't help but think, well, yeah, but ...

P.S. Your socks! Are you for real? My drawer is still a morass of unmatched singles. I have two full drawers that look like the one you posted above.

wideman said...

Being poor or on a tight budget makes you a Minimalist by default. There is nothing wrong with having nothing go to waste. You look to be crafting the life that works for you and your family as you should be ;-)

Unknown said...

I think this is absolutely true. I am a stay at home parent and money has been tight since we made the switch. I actually told my husband the same thing about feeling weird getting rid of stuff to see what we really have. Great post and I completely understand where you are coming from.

beezwings said...

The implicit privilege of coming from a middle class background struck me immediately upon reading the book, having lived everywhere from rich countries to extremely poor countries. However, I loved the book. So then I read the sequel. Have you read it? In it, she gives more details, including what to do when you come across something that doesn't initially spark joy, but is actually necessary/can't afford to get rid of it. She talks about the importance of infusing joy into those things by appreciating its usefulness; I think she even says you should verbally praise it aloud! So anyway, I was glad that she addressed that, though it would be nice for her to include that in the initial book. And by the way, I also have experienced crazy clutter even when living with very poor families.

Unknown said...

We have a really small place and I've definitely kept stuff so that we don't have to buy it again when we can get a bigger place but I need to let it go!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Olivia: Yes, I can't stand the house-hunters type shows where I know they'd fit just fine in their current place if they just got rid of the extras — so, yeah. And I'm pulling my undies on reaaallly carefully so they don't disintegrate, ha ha.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Inder-ific: Yes, I liked that part of the book — the idea of letting the stores hold those items for you — but obviously that's such a privileged assumption!

And the socks. The single socks!! How do they DO that? I could sort of understand it when we used shared washer/dryers, that maybe I left one behind here and there. But now — seriously, where do they go?!?!

Lauren Wayne said...

@wideman: It certainly can lead to that. I do find on a tight budget that it's hard to say no to free things (that we don't want) or get rid of things (that we don't want), though. Thanks for the encouragement!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Alissia Haggard: Thanks! I'm glad it resonated with you.

Lauren Wayne said...

@beezwings: I didn't know there was a sequel — I'll have to check that out! I should say, if it wasn't clear, that I really did love the book. I read reviews before reading it that were dismissive of it, but I thought it was more nuanced and sweet than I'd been expecting. I think some of the misunderstandings in English-speaking culture reading it might be that it's a translation and from a Japanese perspective. Like, I could intuit that she'd encourage *finding* the joy in a useful item by appreciating just that about it, but that's not what all of us first think of when we hear the (English) word joy. And, honestly, things like my undies are sparking — well, what's the opposite of joy? So there's still some grin-and-bear-it in there. Thanks for letting me know about the sequel!

Lauren Wayne said...

@Kari Guastella: Part of what's helped me (a little bit) is admitting that we're not getting a bigger place. Like, ever. But holding on just in case is such a hard habit to break, even so! Thanks for sharing!

Pam said...

I'd never even thought about the huge amount of privilege involved with de-uttering, so thank you for making me stop and think about that.I'm usually very proud of myself for downsizing, but now I'll remember that it represents the luxury of abundance--perhaps a misuse of abundance, actually--and be a little less proud.

K8tie5 said...

I noticed that Victoria's Secret was having a sale on Memorial Day...7 for $27! Maybe it's still going on?! If worse came to worse, and your business were to fail (it won't in Jesus' name!!), it wouldn't be because you bought yourself some new undies! ;-)

PS Your husband will NOT complain either! ;-D

Unknown said...

The privilege isn't the decluttering in and of itself. It's the fact that we've even been able to accumulate stuff that we need to declutter. Imagine if we hadn't spent all that money initially on this stuff that we don't love or need! The Konmari method is supposed to be a one time deal and then from then onwards we are supposed to be more responsible consumers who don't purchase for the sake of purchasing and therefore don't accumulate. Obviously we also need to adjust our purchasing behavior based on our available income.

Alanna Pink Narcotic said...

Minimalism is for the wealthy. I have a cleaning supply for every part of my house because I can't afford a maid to keep it all with her. I keep the plastic bags from grocery shopping for dog poop and diapers. And yes I also keep all the little toothpastes I get from the dentist.

Also buy my toilet paper at Costco because it's cheaper in the end and when you are on a budget every dollar counts.

Unknown said...

i also can't afford to let go of all my stuf that doesn't spark joy
but i did find many papers i could let go. so my home is tidier now.
and decided to use up everything i have and buy no more unless for necessary things and try to actually like them.

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