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The Beginner’s Guide To Minimalism (Part 1: The Simple 4-Step Formula)

There is a lot of overlap between the tiny house communities and the minimalism communities. But it’s mostly one way in that tiny housers are forced to become minimalist whereas a minimalist can live in whatever home suits them.

And I think that’s where a lot of trouble arises. I often see future tiny housers complain or worry about being able to fit all their stuff in a space that is about the size of the average bedroom. I’m here to tell you it can be done, unless you’re the type of person who needs every collection of knick knack and kitsch currently occupying your space.

I didn’t discover tiny houses until I was fully into minimalist living. For years I’d gone far in the opposite direction of accumulating stuff, and then made a decision that enough was enough and fairly quickly pared down to just one 32 liter backpack and a computer messenger bag.

That was by choice and by necessity. On September 1, 2009 I set off on an adventure. The life of a nomad. My flight from LAX to Sydney, Australia was long and I was a bit scared at what was coming. But the freedom was unlike anything I’d felt before. No longer burdened by rooms full of stuff I could live with intention and only accumulate what I needed. I could also move at a few minute’s notice and be comfortable wherever I ended up. I proceeded to travel to about 20 countries, mostly slowly, usually staying at least a month in each place. (Favorites: Poland and Thailand. Least favorites: Panama and Costa Rica.)

Today my backpack is 36 liters, my messenger bag is slightly larger than before, and I own more things than I did then, but in general my life fits in a bag. I can pack up in 20 minutes and be off. Though, after a few years of doing that I got a little tired of constantly moving and have had my home base mostly in Wrocław, Poland since 2012.

All that to say, I’ve had a lot of experience with the minimalist lifestyle.

My goal for 2015 has been to find a place to build a tiny house and live in it for at least a year as an experiment in extreme minimalist living. I’ll likely live in it longer, but I can’t see the future. Finding the ideal place to build and live in a tiny house has been much more of a challenge than I anticipated. Luckily, the tiny house community is very helpful. I know if I keep at it I’ll figure it out, just like so many others have before me.

Even though I’m not yet a tiny houser over the years I’ve learned a few things about how to live tiny. More than anything, I learned that minimalism is not difficult — have only what you use and what makes you happy — but, for whatever reason, it gets turned into a big hassle. It doesn’t have to be.

With that I bring you my beginner’s guide to minimalism, part 1.

Step 1: Commit

This is both the simplest and the most difficult step. Nobody ever made any change to their lives without committing. If you don’t commit to a minimalist lifestyle then there is little anybody can do to help you with your tiny house dream. You’re just not going to fit.

The simple part is this: write it down. “I live with only what I need and none of what I don’t.”

The difficult part is, of course, following through. Which brings me to …

Step 2: Keep the following items

Before you know what to get rid of you need to know what to keep. This list is not exhaustive because every situation is different. But this is a great start.

  • 1 week’s worth of clothing. I know you think you need more, but you don’t. For 3 years I lived with 3 shirts and 3 pairs of socks and underwear and used a plastic bag as my washing machine. I promise it’s doable.
  • Any small sentimental items that make you happy. Don’t keep something because you feel bad about getting rid of it. The memory is often more important than the item, in which case a few photos will do the trick just as well as the actual item.
  • Whatever is necessary for your hobby. For example, I’ve been playing guitar for over 20 years and I get quite stressed when I don’t have one. Therefore, a guitar is a necessity for me even if it’s too much for most people. I also love to read, and I love the feel of real books. You know what I did? Bought a Kindle Paperwhite. It changed my life for the better. I used to read a lot, but since 2013 I have averaged more than a book per week thanks to Kindle always having a new book ready for me.
  • A computer and smart phone. This really depends on your situation, but for people like me who work online and travel often it’s a must. For you maybe it’s not. I recommend buying the best you can afford to buy for cash and keeping it until it dies. Use ifixit when things get wonky. If you’re scared about fixing electronics, don’t be. Be patient, it’s just a thing and if someone out there can fix it then you can too. I’m currently on a 4+ year old Macbook Air that probably has at least 2 years of life left in it (after I replaced the battery).
  • Kitchen stuff and toiletries. Or to put another way, your everyday life basics. Unless you’re a professional chef all you need is one good chef’s knife. It’ll do everything for you. Paring knives and all those other things? Nope, you don’t need ’em. (Ask Anthony Bourdain. Or read Kitchen Confidential. He recommends this knife.) If you’re an athlete or drink smoothies often (hello!) a blender or other small kitchen appliance might be necessary for you as well. As for toiletries, I replaced nearly everything with Dr Bronner’s soap, tea tree oil, and vitamin E oil (the best moisturizer I’ve ever found). I brushed my teeth with Dr Bronner’s for about 2 years (no cavities!), but eventually switched back to toothpaste due to taste. You don’t need shampoo or conditioner. Look up the no-poo method. I’ve been doing it for about 7 years. (Though I shaved my head last year so now I’m cheating.)

That doesn’t seem like much, but if you’re honest with yourself that list is all you need to be happy. And you won’t fit much more in your tiny house anyway so you might as well accept it now.

Step 3: Put everything else away

Meaning, take all of the stuff that is not essential to your life — everything left over after Step 2 — and put it in boxes or in closets or out of the way.

You’re not going to get rid of it yet.

You’re simply going to live without all of this stuff for 7 days. Just a simple 7 day commitment. After 7 days you’ll start to see what else is essential to your happiness. Add that back into your “keep it” list and go another 7 days. By this point there shouldn’t be much to add back to the keep it list. If there is, go ahead and add it and move on to …

Step 4: Sell, donate, trash!

Everything — and I mean everything — left over is unnecessary to your happiness. Put it into 3 piles: sell, donate, trash.

Then sell it, donate it, or throw it away. Depending on your lifestyle this might take some time. But Amazon, eBay, and Craigslist make it really easy.

To be honest, you shouldn’t have much trash, because there are always people who will take your stuff for free on Craigslist.

If you have electronics I highly recommend Amazon’s Trade-In Store. I recently got rid of an old iPod and received $76 in Amazon credit. That buys a lot of Kindle books! (I had the iPod for my app development business that failed.)

This is time consuming, but it can be fun. Especially when you see your bank balance rise, which will bring you that much closer to your tiny house dream.

Part 2!

That covers it for Part 1. See? If you break it down to a few steps it’s not as daunting as it seems. Take it as slow as you need to, but get started now.

In the Beginner’s Guide To Minimalism Part 2 I’ll cover exactly how to travel light, including my full packing list. No more checked bags! (Unless you get lazy or tired and don’t feel like carrying your bag.) Learning to travel light before you move into your tiny is a great way to commit to the tiny lifestyle before you move into a tiny house. That’s coming soon. Sign up for updates below so you don’t miss it.

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28 comments… add one
  • I started an Estate Share on my property in an affluent neighborhood in Arizona. I am an empty nester and realized that I didn’t need all of this for just Me. I started renting to IT people, lawyers, Cpa’s, professors and found that I am utilizing my space without downsizing. Often when coming in for a new position people do not want to purchase something or get into a lease. I am a Designer and the rooms I rent are beautifully furnished with desks, TV’s with Cable and secure pass code protected Wifi. These people live quite well in a 10X12 room and have the wonderful back yard with huge pool to enjoy. I rent to educated well mannered adults. It has given me extra money for charity and the friendships have enriched my life. Two men have been here for four years. I charge a bit more than the average room for rent and that keeps the unsavory types at bay. I feel blessed that I had a car accident and was injured and had to think of a way to replace the income. If it had not been this event in my life I would not have thought of this. If anyone out there would like a room for Winter I have one available because a Doctor that reserved the room had a change of plans. It is rare that I have a vacancy. Lots of hiking paths and high end restaurants in my neighborhood and living small while living large is wonderful for my guests.
    You are right all you need is a suitcase and a computer to be perfectly happy if you have a home to walk into that is welcoming and beautiful.
    Thanks for the article.

    Reply
  • May I suggest Freecycle (freecycle.org) in addition to Craigslist? I’ve used it many times to donate all kinds of things I no longer need or want.

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    • Thanks for that. I was thinking of including Freecycle, but Craigslist works just as well. I’ve never used Freecycle and prefer to recommend what I’ve personally used.

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    • Another good site is called “offer up” i have used it quite a bit and find it easier to navigate than craigslist.

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  • I learned a lot while moving around the country about letting go but I still am attached to some of my treasures I have acquired along the way.
    My way of dealing with this is to change decorations every season. That way I move things around. I think a good storage shed near your out door living space . But then I talk more of a perment living space which I would love to find.

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  • I have a massive DVD collection which was giving me problems managing. What I did was purchase a 2TB external hard drive for my computer and a program to make an .avi copy of the movie. I then pack my originals in boxes and store them.

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    • That’s cool. Although that probably wouldn’t work in a tiny house since the idea isn’t to declutter a big space but get rid of the extra stuff so you fit in a small space. My favorite option nowadays is Amazon Prime for occasional movies, but Netflix also works for many people (they have a bigger selection).

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      • I love your essay and ideas for the minimalist life but I have already live that life, upsized with a hoarder and raised two children there until me and the kids could no longer find a spot for us! I only partly exaggerate! I am in a home that was the perfect size for us 7 yrs ago but now I am looking at being an empty nester when the boys finish college. I do not want to give up all my possessions but do want to use your ideas/suggestions where they fit in allowing me to find and fit in a small house somewhere. I try to get rid of clutter regularly. The best thing I think you can conquer is the paper mail which gets opened by the covered kitchen trash can to prevent my changing my mind and fishing it back out! Look at your home and see how much space as well as emotional energy is being taken up by paper clutter!

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  • I am just beginning on the minimalist path. I am starting slowly, and my husband is also on board. We have two kids of four still at home, but the third is out the door to college next year, so we’re really examining our possessions. Baby steps. Thank you for the useful tips, can’t wait to check out your book.

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  • Excellent post Karol! My wife & I have been “minimalizing” (is that a word?) for about 4-5 years, and it seems to be a slow ongoing process. It’s also a lot of fun — we love getting rid of stuff! My biggest challenge is business travel. I’ve been trying to come up with a “uniform” that makes it easier, as well as trimming back my toiletries. Curious what toothpaste you ended up going with? Did you go all natural and try to avoid flouride? I was thinking of a tooth powder which would make it really easy to carry a small amount while traveling. I suppose I could just carry a small container of baking soda when I’m traveling, but who knows what TSA would think if they opened that up! LOL!

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    • Thanks, Dave.

      I use whatever brand of fluoride toothpaste is cheapest in whatever city/country/store I’m currently shopping at when I need it. Cavity free for almost 34 years!

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  • Thanks for the article. I found it really useful, I recently downsized from a two bedroom flat, one of the rooms was a crafting room / office … 3/4 crafting room though lol. I moved back home to live with my parents. This meant everything I owned had to fit back into my old room. I made it fit, just. I am slowly downsizing my stuff again as I would love to live in my own tiny house and possibly go travelling. My hobby is crafting and I would always downsize my crafting stuff but was convinced I would use everything in a crafting project one day!!! I decided to give away anything I hadn’t used in a year or crafting techniques I didn’t really enjoy, oh and any scraps (paper, ribbon ect) went in the bin. This got rid of 3/4 of my crafting stuff and I only buy what I need for one project at a time. I use to go into hobby craft and get everything for 3 completely different projects. I realised I can only really do one project at a time and hobby craft isn’t going . If I still want to do anything else in the future I can. Without having to store the products and feel guilty every time I see them knowing I spent a fortune on something I’ll probably never use. I also have cut right back on my spending and have decided to use what I already have first. I know to some it doesn’t sound that impressive but I’ve down sized my crafting stuff from a whole room to 3 draws and a small box. I will have to keep at it if I want to live in a tiny house though. I might try the steps Karol suggested but with my crafting stuff. Pack some of it away and see if I miss it. Thanks

    Reply
    • Hobby clutter creep is tough so congrats for figuring out how to manage that.

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  • I just got my Kindle Paperwhite today! And I’ve been decluttering for the last few months. I accept the fact that I do not need 40 pairs of black socks.

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  • Very useful sharing. Another thing that strikes me is age and where your in life. I will be 70 in April and am stuck for the moment in a house that is to big that I can’t sell because because I’m under water from trying to live the American Dream. Too soon stupid too late smart. I have a large family and 11 grandchildren. I lost my wife to cancer a year and ahalf ago. I have begun paring down and will walk away from the house as soon as it’s cleared out and my youngest daughter and her husband and my 5 year old grandson move this summer. I have desided to build a twenty by fourty foot house on one floor .
    I will build or buy a tiny house on wheels first. Until I can start on the perment house. Looking for land now.
    I read everything I can about this way of life. Everybodies ideas are important too learning and defining what you want out of this life, less is more comes through clearly. Thank you for this forum.

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    • I would encourage you to check out the idea of Cohousing, as I believe we need to not only downsize our stuff, but also formulate a plan to age in community. I have picked out a tiny house on wheels design that I love, and hope to put it where I can have neighbors I know well. Check out the Cohousing Company and Sage Cohousing Advocates. They can really help seniors get clear on what they need to have a wonderful life in their later years. NOT assisted living, etc. The Study Group 1 books help you determine what would work for you individually, and there are senior cohousing neighborhoods that are functioning to keep the power in the hands of the seniors and yet allow them to avoid the isolation that is so prevalent as we get older.

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      • Thanks, Sue. I like cohousing as an idea, but in practice I wouldn’t like it. I value privacy too much. It’s kinda like how I don’t like staying in hostels when I’m traveling. They’re cool, especially when you’re on a tight budget, but too many people in close quarters for me. Cohousing may be a good idea come old age (not retirement, I don’t want to stop working), but I’m dozens upon dozens of years from that.

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        • Hi Karol, and thanks so much for your comment and especially all the work you have done on this blog! I was hoping that perhaps George, who had lost his wife, might check out cohousing. I agree that I am a very private person, but have seen some fabulous examples of cohousing that treads lightly on the environment by sharing when it makes sense, while enjoying as much privacy as needed also. Thanks again, and keep on writing!

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          • Whoops! Amateur mistake on my part. I didn’t see that your comment was in reply to George’s. :) (I’ve only been using Wordpress for about 10 years. I’ll figure it out one day. haha)

  • I respectfully disagree with you. I think a lot more can fit in a tiny house than just a backpack’s worth of things. While I admire your Spartan ways, I think that your absolutism is not for everyone. Tiny homes are about using space in smart ways, not about living out of a bag. I’ve done it, and while traveling like a seed in the wind was fun, it’s different from being home.
    Tiny homes are just that; they are homes, and as such, should be designed to hold a life. That means items that are connected to memories, even if they seem silly. I will actually have room for MORE things in my tiny house than in my current apartment because of some of the clever storage tricks I’ve come across and devised myself. Not trying to pick a fight here, but it bothers me that some people get so militant about having to get rid of ALL THE THINGS. It’s quite simply not true.
    I do agree that anyone should keep in their life what makes them happy and bid good riddance to the rest. This I believe is the common ground between minimalists and tiny house dwellers.

    Reply
    • The issue is a lot of people struggle with this and being “absolutist” (which I am not, you misinterpreted) about it is much easier than being wishy-washy. The truth is, if you can’t fit all your stuff in a regular sized bedroom (10ftx12ft), with room to spare for sleeping, cooking, and bathrooming, you’re going to have a bad time in most tiny houses. No matter how clever the storage.

      Again, it’s about having only what you need and what makes you happy. That’s different for everybody.

      Reply
  • I really enjoyed this post. I like when people push the envelope of what is considered “normal.” It is incredibly inspiring to me and helps me to question my own “normals.”

    I keep checking back for the next part in this series… Hope to see it soon! :)

    Reply
  • Would love a small piece of land to set up home. How are people finding and financing their property for this. Especially when years of financial issues leaves credit questionable at best. Anyone willingt to lease/share/sell small acreage? Contact database?

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  • Does anyone have an idea of how to find someone who may be interested in assisting a Tiny House build? I don’t have tools, but I have time and desire and I want someone who knows the ins/outs of a Tiny House build. I want to do it right the first time. Kind of like marriage…only I’ve never been married, so like a Tiny House build, it’s my first. LOL

    Reply
    • Cindi if you don’t have tools or the know how you would not be assisting you would be watching someone build it for you. Might as well find one out there that is what you want and buy it. Or hire someone to work for you for six months and write them a paycheck each week. You simply cannot learn how to build and do it all. Tools and knowledge are required not optional.

      Reply

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