To Give or Not to Give? Minimalism and Gifts

Christmas berries_FotorNow that I’m a minimalist, the best part of childhood Christmases has become a balancing act: the giving and receiving of gifts. It is a way we express our affections –I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of human nature, not just how we are socialized in a world of conspicuous consumption. Giving something we treasure means “I treasure you, too.” But this act has been greatly exaggerated as holiday traditions evolved. It seems we hardly know how to express love using currencies other than those available at the bank.

It has become less about “treasure” and more about “something.” I need to find something for Uncle Bob. Anything. Even though I only see him once a year, I need a gift, taking a wild guess at what he might like, to show him I care. Otherwise, how would he know? I forgot to call him on his birthday, after all.

Now add the negativity caused by comparison: Why did Uncle Bob give Cousin Sue a bigger gift than me? Did she call him on his birthday? How can Cousin Sue afford such expensive gifts? We’re the same age – do I need to find a new job to keep up? Why is my pile of gifts smaller than last year? Does my family finally understand minimalism or do they love me less?

I still like to receive gifts, but now it can be bittersweet. My new default is “I don’t need this.” But that is not the reaction givers are looking for. My solution is asking for specific things I actually need. It takes away the surprise, but with my default, surprises are usually of the bad variety. But since I don’t casually talk about the exact shirt I want (or my measurements), the odds of someone else finding the perfect fit are slim. Hence, the Christmas list.

There are so many things I only kept because they were gifts. They are weighing me down and I have the hardest time removing them. Despite knowing that the giver probably no longer remembers the gift and that passing it along does not mean that I don’t love and cherish whoever gave it to me. Whenever I do part with a gift, I feel lighter, and able to give better love. A win-win – but one I can’t share with the other winning party. However, it’s a long struggle for every gift, and while in the midst of it, I wish I had never received it – also not what the giver was going for.

Experiences or giving to charities are great and often suggested substitutes, since you still spend money, but add value without adding stuff. Unfortunately, not everyone can be convinced that physical items are not necessary: My mom needs the floor under the tree to be covered with gifts to feel like she is giving her (grown) children a proper Christmas (yes, we’re spoiled). She realizes that that is not how we measure her capabilities as a mother, but somehow she can’t help herself. She has given me experiences, but only in addition to things. Maybe there will be more gaps under the tree this year. Here’s hoping.

If someone asks you not to give them a gift, listen. Not using money to express love may feel insufficient at first. But respect their wishes, let them explain their version of minimalism – Minimalists love preaching talking about why we should all declutter stat. That is the best gift you can give to someone who knows they have more than they need.


A Question to Help You Unplug


When was the last time you checked your phone while talking to a loved one? That you went to bed hours later than you should because you were trying to get to inbox zero? That you didn’t do something you said you would because you spent all your time on social media? All three happened to me during the last weeks. Multiple times, if I’m honest. Despite knowing I shouldn’t, despite knowing that it will make me feel bad about myself.

But I’ve found a solution. I now ask myself: Am I really that important? And the answer is no.

Are people really contacting me so frequently that I can’t ignore my phone for half an hour? No. Even if they were: are their requests and problems more important than the person I am talking to? No.

Are the emails I receive so urgent that I need to sacrifice my sleep? Can’t they wait a day or two? Even if the sender says they need an answer ASAP, shouldn’t they be sleeping, too? No, yes, and yes.

Is everything on social media a message for me personally that I need to see and acknowledge? No.

At first, it is odd to say to oneself “I am not important.” But it is easier than saying “This text/email/post is not important.” Because usually I know that I don’t need to reply right away/tonight/ever. But that doesn’t stop me from catching up on everything that happened on Facebook in the last 24 hours when I was meant to be doing yoga. I’d also claim that yoga is more important to me than Facebook, but on some days, you’d conclude the reverse from looking at my time management. Asking “Is this important?” obviously didn’t work.

“Am I that important?” is akin to asking “Is my contribution to this absolutely crucial? Does it have to be instantaneous for the world to keep spinning?” It helps me see the ridiculousness of inbox zero – sure, I’d feel accomplished. But who emails me is not in my control. What if I get an email the second I open the last unread one? And another a second after I’ve dealt with the newest arrival? It’s a potential hamster wheel.

The key is being honest with myself. While I am very important to my family and close friends, I’m not that important to every single person who emails or texts me – think about how many emails you get from people you don’t even know. Not everyone can care deeply about what I think or do. It’s a fact of life. Thus, I can let some time pass until I hit reply.

I’m going to take some time today and over the holidays to let email be email and life be life. Meanwhile, I’m going to have coffee with friends, read books, cuddle with my boyfriend, write, and do yoga. Savoring the holiday season while connecting in the old-fashioned sense. I hope you’ll join me. Because seriously: what is the worst that can happen while we unplug? Chances are, if there’s a true emergency, we’re not going to be able to help via email. That’s what 911 is for.

33 Things to Do Other Than Shopping

Shopping used to be a thing to do for me, like horseback riding or going to the movies. But once you decide to be a minimalist, that activity has to be one of the first things to go. What to do instead? Fear not, I have made a list of things that are infinitely more rewarding than searching for a parking spot at the mall:

  1. Read a book. Maybe even try an intimidating one.
  2. Agree with a loved one not to give each other gifts this holiday season.
  3. Go for a run or walk. With a friend, a dog, a camera, or just yourself.Flowers Bridge_Fotor
  4. If you decide to run: sign up for a race and start your training.
  5. Listen to amazing podcasts like Happier, Limetown, The Misandry Hour, The Slow Home Podcast, just to name a few favorites.
  6. Have coffee with a friend. Frugality bonus points for doing it at one of your homes.
  7. Your mind has been busy with something lately. Let it out. If all else fails, write about why you don’t want to go shopping. Or why you want to, even though you don’t want to want to.
  8. Declutter your phone. When is the last time you used all those apps?
  9. Clean a dirty corner of your home and feel truly satisfied after.
  10. Do yoga. Ask YouTube how, it knows everything.
  11. The same goes for bodyweight exercises.
  12. Clear off your desk and revel in the feeling of accomplishment.
  13. Proceed to do the same thing with your desktop.
  14. And your bookmarks. Finally read the things that looked interesting two months ago and immediately stop if they turn out not to be.
  15. Call your grandmother. Or mother/father/uncle/old friend you’ve been meaning to talk to for weeks.
  16. Finetune your capsule wardrobe.
  17. Make out with your favorite person.
  18. Knit intricate socks. Or basic socks if you’re a beginner. Ask elderly family members/acquaintances for yarn and needles, if you don’t have your own. They tend to have a huge stash they can no longer use due to uncooperative hands and/or eyes.
  19. Research something you’ve long been curious about: Does being in the cold actually cause colds? What happens to your trash after you put it in the recycling bin? Why does it rain so much/little where you live?
  20. Review your budget. Has lifestyle inflation crept in?
  21. Write a blog post.
  22. Try a new recipe. Bonus points if it’s something you didn’t think you could actually make yourself. Looking at you, pumpkin pie.
  23. Declutter your junk drawer.
  24. Make a list of sorts.
  25. Tackle something on your to do list. Bonus points for something dreaded. Revel in accomplishment as you tick it off.
  26. Rewatch a movie you love. Or an episode of Gilmore Girls.
  27. If you have a pet, do the things pet owners do. Clean its home, wash its fur, walk it? (Clearly I’ve never owned a pet.)
  28. Reorganize your bookshelf. While indulging in that, ask yourself if you are truly going to reread those friends. If not, introduce them to others.
  29. Unfriend people on Facebook. You know whom: High School friends whose birthdays you ignore despite notifications, people you are unproductively envious of, old crushes you shouldn’t be stalking, because sanity.
  30. Collect seasonal artifacts to keep for a few days/weeks and then discard: flowers, berries, chestnuts, red leaves, snow flakes (maybe settle for keeping those no longer than a few seconds).
  31. Unsubscribe from emails that want you to go shopping and spend money. The key to dealing with temptation is eliminating it.
  32. Organize a clothes swap. Leave with fewer clothes than you came with. No, don’t leave naked. I mean the clothes in your bag. Find my guide for getting rid of clothes here.
  33. Make a list of things that, should you ever go shopping again, you will not buy. Be specific: the colors, necklines, arm and skirt lengths that you are ready to admit never really worked for you. The gadgets whose function you can’t even guess. The home décor that looks great in the store but will only collect dust and disrupt the minimalist aesthetics of your home.

What do you do instead of shopping?

I Aspire to Own Only Old Things

But NOT by purchasing them! No antique stores for me! No, this aspiration is purely passive – I want watch the things I own age, and only remove them as they become truly unusable. However, this does not mean I aspire to be a hoarder – I call myself a minimalist, after all. The superfluous is continuously removed to make space for the important (nonmaterial) things in life.

Some things age faster than others – my smartphone is celebrating its third birthday in December and still going somewhat strong, so I intend to keep it at least until it turns four, hopefully five*. (Clearly, I’m a sustainability loving optimist.)

Things that don’t have an on-off switch generally last much longer: the sheets I sleep in were part of my grandmother’s dowry (time has made them wonderfully soft), some of my towels are much older than I am, and I very much intend to keep the bookshelf my boyfriend built me for at least the rest of my life.

Old thingsThis process requires patience and self-control. I’m literally watching my stuff age, which is – unlike shopping used to be – not an afternoon-filling or even slightly entertaining activity. In fact, a coffee cup does not age at all in one afternoon. If it looks different, that is because the light changed or I drank all the coffee. Both, most likely.

I have righteousness and my moral standards on my side, but when faced with genius marketing**, I sometimes wish for a more tangible defense. This post will add accountability, so thank you for reading.

Reminding myself of the numerous benefits helps resist the siren call of Madison Avenue (as does removing ads from my life):

  • Time and money saved by not shopping.
  • Ingenuity practiced by mending where I can – this still needs to be improved, I’ve historically been too quick to use the one-in-one-out method yielding a high turnover and seemingly minimalist lifestyle, but not much sustainability.
  • Over time, I will get even better at not caring what other people think, which means buying fewer things, because I will impress people with who I am, not what I own.
  • Buying less = fewer things to clean = more time saved (my favorite equation).
  • I’ll be kind to our planet. When I do need something new, I’ll be able to buy ethically produced high quality that will age well and slowly.

In twenty years, someone will say “Oh, cool, did you get a vintage XYZ?” To which I’ll reply: “No. I mean, yes. I mean, maybe? I’ve had this for twenty years, does that make it vintage? Or is it only vintage if someone else owned it first? I’m confused?”

Either they’ll explain, or they’ll walk away disappointedly, as they were looking to get an antique store recommendation…

What is the oldest thing you own?

*side note: does anyone know of a company that produces phones and other electronics that are intended to last longer than that? It would be a great way of marketing to minimalist and sustainability conscious people: “This phone will last you at least 7 years.” Not sure if that is compatible with capitalism, though.

**like the people who managed to make Oktoberfest an international thing. How is beyond me.

October Results

I guess by “check back on Monday” I actually meant “check back on Thursday?” But moving on, life happens. Since it is only improbable but not impossible that you’re dying to find out about the results for my Oct
ober experiments – without further ado (except the obligatory imaginary drumroll):Halloween

  1. The Minimalism Game – success! I made it until day 26, which means that I got rid of 351 things. Yes, technically, I didn’t win, i.e. make it until Halloween – that would have meant removing an additional 145 things. But that’s ok. Considering that I only have one room to declutter (most of the kitchen stuff belongs to my roommates), and things were already pretty minimal, I’m more than satisfied. I got rid of many things that I wouldn’t have questioned otherwise – why do I keep every postcard I receive in a box I never open? Who needs 71 buttons? Why do I own a CD when I don’t own a device that can swallow it? Just a sample of the fascinating questions I had to ask myself this past month… I hope I stay in a decluttering frame of mind over the holidays, since I’ve discovered that that is the best prevention to accumulation and the holidays are, well, a risk factor. I’ll maintain momentum by getting rid of one thing a day.
  2. Eating slowly – failure! At the beginning of the month, I was surprised that I remembered this resolution during so many meals. Instead, what should have surprised me was that I failed to act on this remembrance. Not always, but most of the time, my eating speed was the same as in September and all the months before. Not quite the point of this exercise. So what went wrong? Two things:
    1. The resolution was not specific enough. What is slow, even? That word means nothing when you’re hungry and only have 20 minutes for lunch. On the next try, it has to be something like “Chew at least 15 times” or “Put your fork down every three bites.” Numbers. Best way to specify a habit.
    2. I didn’t track my progress. While I took notes of every thing I got rid of and kept track of my September habits daily, I only took one little note regarding slow eating. On October 6th. As the month progressed, I remembered to slow down at fewer meals, until it had no influence whatsoever on my behavior. Next time, I should write a little note after every meal, recording my progress and keeping the resolution in the antechamber of my mind. This will probably also help in defining “slow”, since I’ll be forced to think about it at least three five times a day.

But I did learn a valuable lesson (which I recorded on October 6th): When consumed slowly, convenience foods to not pass the test: when you try to actually enjoy and savor them, they really don’t taste good enough to even deserve to be eaten. I also learned that this is a lesson you forget about as soon as you stop eating slowly.

How do you deal with setbacks? How do you formulate resolutions to make sure they are specific enough?

I hope you were more successful with your habits in October!