Last year, our family committed to a minimalist experiment. We decided we had more than enough stuff, and set out to spend the year decluttering our home and hearts. Within our set of realistic guidelines, we were able to spend the year not shopping and consuming unnecessary items, and instead focused on adventures and experiences.This challenge was based in the physical world– not buying stuff. It was always about the mental and spiritual, though. We were using a concrete idea to help develop the more abstract principles of patience, gratitude, abundance, and simplicity. Looking back, I am overwhelmed with the way our life has changed through outwardly living these values that we believe in, but hadn’t known exactly how to express in the modern world.
Sometimes it feels like everywhere you look the message is that you don’t have enough. You need more, better, newer, faster, and shinier things to be happy. Well, we’ve proved that message wrong for our own little family. We spent the year viewing what we had as more than enough, and seeking creative ways to use and love it. We also learned a lot about what we need, like, and care most about. When you step off of the cycle of consumption it becomes really clear where the things you normally buy serve your life, and where they don’t.
Part way through our experiment, we got an unexpected job offer and decided to move across the country. Because of the abundance mentality we had been working on through our challenge, we made the decision to downsize to a temporary rental home and really dig into the idea of living with the essentials. This change brought about so many more new lessons, although it created needs for buying a few things we hadn’t foreseen (winter clothes for the colder climate, a couple furniture pieces to replace some we donated that didn’t work in the smaller home). I feel so grateful for the way that starting down the path of more intentional living and buying set us up for excitement about dramatically changing our living environment and discovering that our happiness is not based in our stuff or our square footage.
Simply breaking the habits of endless upgrading and consuming has given me clearer eyes. I can more easily see what things add value to our lives, and what is just stuff. This fresh perspective will serve me so well as we head into a new season, one where we maintain an intentional and essential mentality without the challenge of trying to not add anything new. This coming year and throughout the rest of our lives the challenge (though not formal) will be to only buy, choose, or acquire things, activities, and experiences that truly add value to our lives.
Now, let me get into the details a little bit and answer some frequently asked questions as I recap our year-long challenge.
The general guidelines for our experiment were to not buy any non-consumable goods during the year. We categorized non-consumable to mean: clothes, shoes, furniture, home accoutrements, books, toys, electronics, etc. Consumable items that were okay to buy were things like food, printer paper, soap, makeup, and things that could be used up completely.
We determined that if a non-consumable item broke, or wore out, it could be replaced with one similar. (But worn out shoes weren’t a green light for a shoe-shopping spree). We also set out to better use the items we owned, and organize and get rid of things we didn’t love or use.
CLOTHING + SHOES
This is always the one people wonder about. “What about when your kids grow?!”
We began our challenge in Austin, Texas where the weather stays warm, even in winter months. For years, my kids have worked with capsule wardrobes (as have I). We aren’t used to having an overwhelming amount of clothes, and I expected we would work well with what we had and could size up in January. I also naively planned to MAKE any clothes my kids would need as they grew this year, which turned out to not be possible for many reasons, one of which was that we moved and my sewing stuff was in storage for six months.
As it turned out, we needed to buy new clothes for the kids in the fall as the weather in Virginia turned colder. I got rid of smaller sizes and summer items, then took them each out for a fall/winter capsule wardrobe. It has worked really well to only buy what they needed one time–and stay out of the stores on a regular basis. In that way I was able to stay really focused and intentional about what they needed, and their drawers have stayed well-stocked but not overflowing.
I think they each got 4-5 tee shirts, 3 pairs of pants, new socks and underwear (which I consider to be consumable goods haha), and 1 winter coat.
We did initially plan to replace shoes as the kids grew out of them, which was a great way to manage not over-buying. When one pair was too small, we replaced it with a new pair and donated the previous pair, so the number of shoes we had stayed pretty static.
My own clothing went about the same. I bought myself 1 shirt in July when I was living from a suitcase. I also bought a couple long-sleeve shirts and sweaters when the weather got colder in Virginia. The other thing I did was replace my jeans and shoes as they wore out. I had three pairs of jeans wear completely through (holes in knees and bums) and two pairs of shoes that bit the dust this year through wear (holes in the soles!) and three pairs that were victims of puppy teeth. I replaced them as I threw them out, since I only have about 10 pairs of shoes total, and each pair has a purpose!
This experiment taught me a lot about the lifespan of a piece of clothing and how quickly they wear out with regular use. I could go on and on about buying higher quality clothes for longer wear, etc. That is a whole other topic. I did sort of love the feeling of actual using up some pieces of clothing. I felt a little like a pioneer! It was gratifying to know that those items had been well loved and appreciated. I also look forward to replenishing my closet with some new clothes for an intentional winter capsule wardrobe over the next month or so, because I have been living in so many threadbare pieces. As I move forward I’ll continue to move within a capsule wardrobe, because I really love it–I have been using one since 2014. It will feel good to freshen it up.
FURNITURE + HOME DECOR
The intention was to not buy any new furniture this year, and had we not moved, that would have been easy. In fact, I remember thinking as we began this experiment how grateful I was that my house was decorated and designed, because I could now focus on other things. Little did I know what a change we had in store.
When we moved and settled into our rental, I did buy a bunkbed with a trundle and a dresser for the kids shared room, a bookshelf for our master bedroom, and new dining chairs for the smaller kitchen. At the same time, I sold two couches, donated and gave away 12 chairs, handed down both the boys old bunk bed and Plum’s old bed, and hundreds of other home items that simply didn’t fit in our new space. I feel like we stayed more than true to the principles of not acquiring MORE, and I definitely resisted the urge to totally redecorate, buy new knick knacks and rugs and pillows and all the things I normally would have bought to settle into a new home.
I think it also helped that this current space is a rental home so I didn’t want to invest too much into designing it perfectly (although that hasn’t stopped me from redoing flooring, painting every wall, and trying to really make it feel like home).
I am generally a sucker for great home decor finds, and it was not unusual for me to add things on the regular to our home before starting this challenge. I think breaking that habit of always seeing what new, shiny thing I could buy has made me more aware of what I really love, and what will stand the test of time. I don’t need to follow the whims of every trend. I do think it is important and valuable to create a space at home you love. Just in moderation.
TOYS + BOOKS
This category was both easy and hard to stick with. We did not buy any toys or books for the kids last year. They do earn a small allowance and occasionally have some money from jobs and birthdays, and we let them spend it as they wish, which turned out to be on new toys a couple times (big surprise!) The boys love legos, and chose to add a couple sets to their collection, and Plum chose small things like My Little Pony figures.
Not buying new toys regularly meant that the small toy that comes in a Happy Meal became a BIG deal. I appreciated the way the kids treated those small toys with gratitude and excitement. It showed me that they really don’t need much to be happy, and new toys every visit to the store only add to their distraction and inability to appreciate the novelty of something special.
I really love books, so it was tricky to resist the urge to just order them when I wanted one. I learned to better utilize the library, and appreciate that service. I also bought a few books on kindle while I was traveling, which felt like a great way to enjoy a book without the clutter of the actual book itself. On Valentine’s Day, when our tradition is to give each kid a book, I actually chose out an old favorite from our book shelf and re-gifted it to them. They were as thrilled as if it was the first time they had seen it! It was another example of how when you don’t have everything all the time, things can feel more special.
BIRTHDAYS + GIFTS
I addressed the idea of receiving gifts with gratitude in this post early in our experiment. I maintained that attitude of feeling it was really important to respect other’s joy of giving, and accept gifts with authentic gratitude. Then, chose what to do with them, or how to purge other things so that we didn’t end up endlessly acquiring.
I found that our family and friends give us thoughtful items–and for the kids’ birthdays they were over the moon to receive presents, because we hadn’t bought them random stuff all year! Their birthdays became a really special occasion! Of course, we found creative ways to give our own kids experience rather than stuff for their birthdays.
Milo asked for a membership to an online learning game, Eliot got a pair of passes for a race car track, and I made Plum a handmade mermaid doll for her birthday. Through each birthday we stuck to our plan on not giving stuff, and were able to find meaningful experiences and handmade projects to make them special.
My intention was to give other kids gifts of experience too, and we did give a couple movie passes early in the year. I found it kind of tricky at younger ages to give gifts of experience that the kid would be excited about without knowing them well. So, we mostly opted to give kids Target gift cards with a small candy on top. As a mom, I have seen how excited my kids are to receive a gift card and then again when they get to go shop with it. So, although it may seem counterintuitive, we gave the gift of the shopping experience to kids this year!
I talked all about our Minimal Christmas traditions in this post, and I am writing a full post about the details of the gifts we gave the kids this year. In short, we gifted the kids a big family trip that we will take over Spring Break. It is something we will be able to look forward to for the next several months, and everyone is so excited!
Now, I want to answer some of the frequently asked questions I get about our challenge. I’ve been thrilled that this experiment has inspired so many people. I hear regularly from readers and followers who are excited to take on a similar challenge, or who said they “thought of me” when they decided not to buy some random thing they didn’t need.
To be clear, I don’t think buying things is bad or wrong in any way. I do think that as a whole, the messaging we hear about buying stuff is incorrect, and we should be intentional about the things we chose to add to our lives. Happiness is never found in more stuff, although happiness is what we’re usually looking for when we buy things.
“HOW MUCH MONEY DID YOU SAVE?”
Ha! This is by far the number one question that I’ve heard when people find out we didn’t buy random stuff for a year. It’s a complicated answer, because this challenge wasn’t about money for us. It was about reducing clutter, increasing gratitude, and shifting the focus of our spending from stuff to experiences that last.
I think the best answer I have is that we probably would have saved around $10,000, and instead we spent it on ADVENTURES rather than STUFF.
In fact, in the summer I coined the phrase “Less Stuff, More Adventure” to describe my ideal life and our new perspective. The money I saved each month on these different categories of non-consumable items, instead went to fund things like fun dinners out with the family, passes to movies, museums or parks, and trips.
We traveled more in 2017 than in any previous single year, and I attribute that completely to this shift in focus. In addition to our usual regular weekends away and family camping trips, Dave an I visited Cuba for a week in the spring, and were able to take an incredible anniversary trip to Kauai and splurge on some once-in-a-lifetime experiences. I spent a weekend traveling Europe with my mom and sisters that I had wanted to take for years. And just last month I joined some best friends from Texas in Chicago where we saw Hamilton and ate at all the hot spots around town. I don’t know that any of those trips would have come to fruition as they did without us having the goal to invest in experiences and memories rather than things.
Of course, how much someone else might save doing the same thing will be entirely dependent on how much they normally SPEND on non-consumable items. If you’re interested in trying to save through this type of experiment, I suggest determining how much you spend each week or month on these types of things, and discovering what you could save!
“YOU TRAVELED SO MUCH THIS YEAR, DID YOU BUY ANY SOUVENIRS?”
I’ve never been much for knick knacks, and Dave and I have generally brought home art from vacations, so this wasn’t too tricky. In each location I found one or two small, meaningful things for memories (a Christmas ornament in each city), but no extra bags or craziness. I did bring home some consumables from each trip: chocolate from Paris, cheese from Amsterdam, popcorn from Chicago.
In Kauai I found a piece of art that I loved, and had it shipped home for the kids’ room. I realized that particular thing was a now or never purchase (it was one of a kind and not technically for sale) and I don’t regret it one bit!
“HOW DID YOU EXPLAIN THE CHALLENGE TO YOUR KIDS?”
At the beginning of the year, when we decided to give this a go, we simply sat down and told the kids we wouldn’t be buying any new toys or clothes this year. Those are really the only categories that they’re aware of, and after talking about it bit they understood well. In fact, all year it made me laugh that when they would see something they wanted, they would ask “Mom, can I have this next year?” They totally got it, and what a way to develop patience!
I think we more than made up for the lack of new toys with fun, family experiences. We feel closer as a family than every before (maybe living in 1000 sq ft has something to do with that, too!) I did occasionally feel the pull of wanting them to have all the things they want. Then I remembered that they ALREADY HAVE all the things they want! A loving family, a few toys and games they enjoy plus brilliant imaginations and opportunities for growth and challenge! I think this experience and the family culture shift that has come because of it has been a real gift to my kids. Far better than the little toys they may have gained throughout the year without it.
“HOW DID YOU DO IT?”
This question both makes me smile and is really interesting. The thing about not buying things is that you’re actually NOT DOING something! It seems challenging because we are conditioned by society and culture and social media to assume that we need to buy things all the time. That is simply untrue! Not buying is as simple as not browsing the aisles where you don’t need something, not clicking on that email about a big sale, and simply not going to the mall.
If you’re interested first steps to breaking the cycle of consumerism in your life, I’d recommend unsubscribing from sales emails, unfollowing those people on IG that are really just introducing you to what you NEED to buy, and decide to stop going into stores without a clear idea of what you are buying.
Another thing that helped me was to be flexible. I started the year calling this an “experiment” and a “challenge” because I knew I couldn’t foresee everything that might happen in the year. In fact, if I had known we were going to move a few months in, I may never had had the courage to get started! I had to be able to pick up and continue on, even if I needed to buy something every so often that was outside of our guidelines.
The key was to not simply throw in the towel and say it was too hard, or I failed so it wasn’t worth continuing. The real challenge was recognizing that even in imperfection this challenge was changing and inspiring and benefiting our family. Forging onward and finishing strong with a really wonderful, experience-filled Christmas was empowering and awesome.
“WHAT THINGS DID YOU MISS BUYING THE MOST?”
I really wasn’t too tempted to buy random stuff after the first month or two, because NOT BUYING became so habitual. The things I missed buying the most were really things that my friends were selling! I have so many amazing friends who are entrepreneurs with small businesses that I love to support, and I found it so challenging to not automatically buy new products when they launched (even if I didn’t really need them).
I realized during the challenge that my money and where I chose to spend it says a lot about me. I feel so much more inspired shopping from small shops where someone actually smiles when they see that order come in. The same goes for local retail and farmer’s markets. Really making an impact with the dollars I spend, both by what I receive and also who it affects on the other side.
The other thing I missed buying was children’s books. I have a thing for pretty, entertaining children’s books and I love picking them up when I find one my kids will love. I feel like loved children’s books are an exception to the less is more rule, and I am excited to buy some this year.
“WHAT DID YOU DO WHEN YOU WANTED TO SHOP?”
This is such a good question because shopping can be so time-consuming! For some people it is a hobby and they absolutely love shopping. I like intentional shopping, and occasionally window shopping when I am looking for inspiration, but just walking through stores makes me keenly aware of all of the things I don’t need.
I did find that I saved a lot of time by not going shopping, or browsing endlessly in stores wondering what to buy. I also saved time that I would have spent on the computer doing online shopping. Instead, I probably spent more time reading, working, and hanging with my kids.
When I felt like “getting away” I would go on a drive or a walk, go try a new restaurant, or get my nails done. In fact, I’m sure I treated myself to more experiences this year instead of doing emotional shopping. It was nice to feel like I could spend some of the saved money to go to the spa or get a pedicure. Things that actually boosted my well being. That is one habit I’ve formed that I appreciate. It is nice to think of investing in some of those luxe experiences for myself as worthwhile.
“WHAT ARE THE FIRST THINGS YOU WILL BUY IN 2018?”
Haha, I love this question!
The weird thing is that I didn’t have a list of things waiting in online shopping carts. It may seem crazy, but I really have felt so inspired and happy with this more simple, minimal approach to life. That said, I am excited to refresh my worn-out wardrobe a bit. I need a new pair of converse tennis shoes and a couple cold-weather sweaters to make it through the winter. I’m excited to build an intentional capsule wardrobe and share what I’ve found.
I also fell hard and fast for this Hearth and Home Dollhouse for Target. I really wanted to get one at Christmas when they were in stores, and I held out strong. When I looked today, I was so happy to see there were still some available online and I ordered one to give to Plum at some future, yet-undetermined holiday. Maybe when we move into a new house later this year? I think it is just the most perfect doll house, and Plum is such a great age for imaginary play. I actually think Eliot will adore it, too.
Oh yeah, and I want to buy some of the things I wanted to support great companies and friends last year! A new Made by Mary moms necklace (I’m not sure what style, yet), a mini blush pink Fawn Design for Plum, a couple cool tees from Chipper Things (okay– I already bought two), a gorgeous apron from Leisure Lane, and maybe some others as I remember them!
“HOW WILL YOU TRANSITION INTO THIS NEW YEAR?”
We are not continuing with the specific guidelines of the challenge this year, rather adapting them to become a regular lifestyle. Sort of like starting a fitness plan off with a cleanse and then moving into a healthy routine.
The seeds of intention, patience, gratitude, self-control, and abundance were planted deep during our year challenge, and I look forward to continuing to approach life with these same eyes that see less as more and space as value.
We will buy things as needed, and measure them against the questions “How will this add value to my life?” “Where will this go in our house?” “Do I already own something that serves this purpose, and if so, am I willing to let that go?” “Do I love this?” “Is this worth the time, energy, maintenance, and effort that I will have to put into owning it, cleaning it, caring for it, and storing it?”
I am also determined to continue to organize and reduce the unnecessary clutter in our home and life. It’s incredible that even in 1000 sq ft I can see that we have things we don’t need and will be happier without. I just takes time and energy to follow through with that process of purging.
This year we will be buying a new house, and with that will come another transition of furniture and decor and all of the things that process entails. I will continue to be intentional with how I design rooms and decorate to reflect our family values and not just throw a bunch of cool, trendy stuff together! I think I’ve always approached my homes with intention, so that isn’t too much of a change.
Overall, we plan to use the lessons we learned. I don’t feel relieved as the year ends with a “Hallelujah, now I can go back to buying all the things…” mentality. I feel peaceful and empowered being back firmly in the drivers seat of my own consumerism.
I am looking forward to a new year with new challenges and goals. I’m planning to write a book about our experience, going into more depth and sharing even more insights. I want to dive back into sewing a bit more this year, which I didn’t get to do much last year as all of my supplies were in storage. I hope to complete a project each month to share on the blog. I will also be focused on remodeling and redesigning a house once we buy one, and that will take some intention, time, and energy. I think this minimalist experiment has set us up beautifully to continue on a journey of intention and essential living, and I am sure we have many exciting adventures ahead.
Feel free to leave any additional questions in the comments, and I’ll get back to them! I love that people have been so interested in this project, and am excited to continue sharing minimal, intentional, simple living tips and stories.
Find links to all of the blog posts regarding the challenge HERE.