How to Be a Grownup: It Costs a Lot of Money to Look This Minimalist

I read them in the checkout line: organization porn. Magazines like Real Simple, which, like all good science fiction, show things that are beyond our mortal ken (in this case, spare, perfectly tidy children’s bedrooms).

The hot design trend is a “simple,” “minimalist,” Buddha-chic look. A look which says, “I only have a few items in my home, because I am detached and not crassly materialistic like you. Is it my fault that the few items I do have are exquisite? That’s only because God rewards deep spiritual devotion with equally deep Persian rugs.”

So, a few points about all this.

First of all, it’s great to de-clutter. A few years ago I got really into it, and my home looks a lot better for it. Getting rid of so much stuff helped me to get organized, which then gave me positive reinforcement to get even more organized. And that paved the way for me to be able to live in a lovely, small apartment – with my boyfriend – while also working from home. So, yay.

But, there are a few things I want to point out.

First of all, most of the people writing these design books live in New York City.  Only New Yorkers have to think, “Well, I bought this new pillow, so to make room, I’m going to have to throw out the cat.”

New York design is all about overcompensation. These folks live for years in cramped, cluttered quarters, so they spend their free time fantasizing about vast empty spaces filled with beautiful white nothingness.

But you, clever person in Iowa, have a spare bedroom, and you’re not even a millionaire! So live it up and get the second throw rug.

Second of all, I would like to point out that there is a hidden paradox to minimalism: living a beautiful uncluttered life can often take a great deal of money.

Let me explain. When you’re poor, you don’t just have, say, one clock radio — instead, you have the one where the alarm still works, the one that still gets FM on the low end of the dial, and the one that still plays CD’s (sometimes). You cobble together what you need out of half-broken things, and you keep weird crummy items around because they help you gerry-rig your broke-ass life (“No, you can’t throw that away, I use that to jiggle the radiator when the heat won’t come on!”).

Pretty soon, you end up with a lot of . . . stuff. Not stuff you’re proud of, just crap that you can’t afford to get rid of.

By contrast, when you’re rich, you can buy an item that really fits your purpose and needs. You can buy things that are well-made and built to last. And you can afford to maintain, repair, and replace things.

In the Victorian era, when the manufacture of dry goods was laborious and expensive, having lots of things was a sign of wealth — and that led to the fussy, over-decorated Victorian aesthetic.

In this day of planned obsolescence and Ikea, living without a lot of stuff has become, in a strange reverse-snobbery way, a sign of wealth.

It is the ‘white couch’ of life — simple, but hard to achieve without money.

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Disappearing Packaging

A while ago, I posted about my pet peeve: excess packaging and waste.

Here’s a man after my own heart. For his senior thesis at Pratt, he re-imagined products with better packaging. Not only are the designs creative and fun, but they would also save the companies money if implemented.

Here’s the link.

How to Be a Grownup with Money

Every once in a while, I read a book that enhances my “grown-up” skills. There are some skills I had down pat by the time I reached adulthood — for example, I was an excellent student — but there were many that were frankly mysterious to me, the lack of which caused me much pain during my 20’s. So, over the years, I’ve taken my “good student” skills and applied them to creating my own course, called How to Be a Grownup. (Of course, like every real course of study, the task is life-long…)

If you are familiar with my music or my writing, you’ll know that I have a strong interest in poverty, debt traps, and self-education around issues of money. So, the first title on my How to be a Grownup syllabus is the quirky and wonderful The Complete Tightwad Gazette, by Amy Dacyczyn. This book is part of what allowed me to pursue music for several years in Austin, living on a very-part-time income. It’s also part of what helped me to stay afloat as much as I did during the first two years I was struggling with Lyme Disease.

On the surface, this book is a household budgeting book, but it also has a number of fabulous essays on what I would call Tightwad Theory — the process and thinking behind how to make good decisions which are A) creative B) economical and C) fit into a long-range goal. Not only do I think everyone who runs a household should read this, I think everyone who runs a business should read it too.

One of the most useful concepts I learned from this book was calculating the “hourly rate” of tasks. We’re all familiar with an hourly wage for work done outside the home…this takes a similar concept and applies it to “unpaid” labor that saves you money.

For instance, if you live in an apartment building where it costs $2 to dry a load of laundry, every time you line-dry it instead, you will save $2. If line-drying one load of laundry takes 15 minutes, then you could do four loads in an hour — for an “hourly rate” of $8, tax-free.

By using this quick calculation, combined with other factors such as your enjoyment of certain tasks, you can decide if a certain frugal activity such as packing a lunch, rinsing out a ziploc bag, or changing your own oil is “worth it” according to your budget.

Once you are able to see tasks with this framework, you can apply it to many other areas of your life, including business. For example, if you’re planning a meeting, calculate the approximate hourly wage of all the meeting participants. If employees at your company are paid an average of $35 an hour including benefits, a meeting with 10 employees “costs” the company $350, so the meeting should be providing $350 of benefit to the company.

There are lots of other great recommendations, such as keeping a “price book” to track which items are cheapest at each of your local stores, and using her methods to calculate the true net value for a second income.

She also talks about the fundamental overlap between being ecologically responsible, and being frugal. In her words, “Economy and ecology are like two circles that overlap about 90%. The remaining 10% is the area where doing the right thing by the environment costs more.” She also gives great advice on skills such as goal-setting, long-range planning, childrearing, and being part of a couple that works well as a team.

Overall, this is a great book for anyone and everyone.