We are regulars at our local tip, or recycling centre as it’s called here in Germany. This morning we took another load of assorted items from our flat and the cellar to keep on track with our aim to downsize, declutter and simplify life.Bearing in mind we moved from a fully-furnished and equipped 100 square meter flat to a fully furnished and equipped 60 square metre flat that we used for holidays and weekends, it was a bit of a challenge. But we are doing pretty well, although it’s work-in-progress. I’ve been reading around issues like decluttering, downsizing and simplifying life and especially enjoying the Break the Twitch podcasts produced by Anthony Ongaro. While quite a lot of the advice seems fairly obvious, it’s another very big thing to make the decision and do it. So here, in no particular order, are some of the things we have been doing for the best part of the year to get rid of the stuff that doesn’t matter, freeing us up to do more of the stuff that does.
- throw things away
We didn’t use any particular system or challenge, we were just pretty ruthless. We started in the cellar, and were careful to separate what we wanted to get rid of so it could go in the right boxes to be properly recycled at the tip. Obviously if it was broken, it got thrown out. If we didn’t realize we even owned it, we threw it out. If we hadn’t used it in the last six months, and were pretty sure we wouldn’t use it in the next six, we threw it out. We stopped ourselves thinking along the lines of “maybe we should keep this in case it might be useful …” and instead, threw it out. It was very liberating. We could have sold stuff, but for the money we would have made for the hassle of advertising/haggling etc., we decided not to bother. That’s partly because we were too busy in full time work to get back some of the money we had pointlessly spent on stuff we didn’t need. The stupidity of that is self-explanatory and lots of people are writing whole books about it. We did give things away to people who said they could genuinely use them, so some useful recycling came out of it.
- don’t throw things away
There’s no point in being extreme and throwing away things that we had place to store that could replace things we use that get broken. We have quite a lot of kitchen equipment, crockery and cutlery that we can bring out of the cellar to replace what gets broken. There was also a bag of six cans of spray that you always buy when you get sold new shoes (partly because it’s hard to say no, and partly because I could never remember what we had) that I was tempted to throw away wholesale. But I took out the two fullest cans and put them on the cellar shelf. Next time I buy new shoes, I will politely refuse to buy the spray because I have decluttered and have an overview. We also put valuable and sentimental items, like the children’s best books and toys, into longer term storage in case there could be grandchildren in the future. These are boxed up in clear plastic boxes and stacked at the back of the cellar so we can clearly see what we have. Clear plastic boxes are a great tip for storing because you can see what you have, your stuff is protected and they stack easily.
- go digital
We love books and hate throwing them away, but part of downsizing was getting rid of a lot of books we knew we would never read again. They were all donated to charity. Neither of us really likes e-books, so that attempt at going digital got cancelled. We now mainly only buy from charity bookshops (36 books on the last haul!) and limit the amount of storage space we have for books. The more storage you have, the more you fill. So whenever anything new comes in, something old has to go out. We don’t buy physical music or films anymore in the form of CDs and DVDs but instead have subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify. It’s still consumption, but it takes up a lot less space and it means we can try music or films/documentaries that we might not have bought as CDs or DVDs. And the children appreciate being users on the subscriptions. Interestingly, we kept one small shelf for DVDs of programmes that we couldn’t find online, and since we did that over a year ago, there is only one favourite box set that we return to. Time for some more decluttering …
- don’t buy things
It’s easy to have a casual shopping habit, especially when most things are a click away and get delivered to your door the next day. The key is to separate want from need. What you want – that better, more aspirational version of yourself that you can buy, or that gadget you can’t believe you never knew existed but will do the job so much more easily – is very often not the same as what you need. We have a mouli and a ricer in the kitchen that have been used precisely once each just to try them out and I thought they would make me such a better cook. Turns out I am a better cook with less. Although we never had a house packed full of impulse purchases, we have become very strict about what we buy. A recent trip to Ikea was with a list for three things. And those three things on the list were thought through very carefully and have turned out to be great. But we actually bought five things – things 4 and 5 were two mats for a total of 1.60 euros. We have a mat already which is really useful for keeping the mud out of our campervan and wanted spares. Not perfect, but it was mindful buying. We didn’t also buy 1,000 tea lights, a box of biscuits, a houseplant and some cushions on the spur of the moment.
- buy things, but thoughtfully
Everyone has to buy things, but the trick is to do it mindfully based on need and not mindlessly based on want. It is also worth thinking about how much something costs. Last year I made the mistake of spontaneously buying a small frying pan from our local discounter supermarket because the other one was losing its non-stick surface. It was cheap, I was happy with a “good deal”, but it has lasted for less than a year. So it wasn’t really a good deal, and I should have bought less impulsively and paid more for something more sustainable. One of the things I have done recently to simplify buying is to consolidate most of our insurances to one provider. With so much being online it gets hard to keep track of all the login details for different providers, so by transferring all our insurances to the one company I feel I have an easier overview. I feel this overview is worth it, even if there are slightly cheaper insurance deals out there with other providers.
- life admin
Sometimes I feel that keeping on top of life admin is a part-time job in itself. There is always “the pile” of papers that has something that needs to be attended to, or some document that needs to be located. Keeping on top of our life admin works pretty effectively most of the time, but I’m always looking to optimize how I do it. It’s about removing clutter and easing the cognitive load of having to think about what needs to be done. One of the best changes I have made to reduce “the pile” is to set up an online filing system in the cloud. So whenever a document comes in needing action, I do it, make a hand-written note of what I have done on the document, scan it, file it online and throw the piece of paper away. The pile reduces, and I can easily locate the document. The next plan is to set up alerts on my phone to prompt me to make regular doctors’ appointments, get all my documents together for the tax return, cancel/renew insurance policies, etc. etc.
- track spending
This is a huge topic, and worth a book that lots of people have already written about it. If you know where your money’s going you can do all sorts of things like cancel subscriptions you don’t need, get better deals on the things you have to pay for and start to budget. Money is a finite resource (for most people) so it makes sense to use it efficiently. That doesn’t mean you have to be cheap. Giving yourself what is sometimes called a money-makeover is one of the best-paid days of work you are likely to do. And then doing the simple maths of checking that what is coming in is not more than is going out, or that your financial model you live with will be sustainable over the longer term, is the final step. Of course that’s much, much more easily said than done because there can be so much emotion or just difficult circumstances tied up with money. One of the things we are doing right now when we track our spending is to see how much fuel we are using in our campervan, and that might impact on how far we travel. Or we may decide fuel is a priority spend so that we don’t limit the distance travelled. We have also averaged out what it cost to stay each night at different sites throughout France when we were travelling in October, and it worked out at about euro 5 per night. That will give us a good baseline to budget from. It is, of course, whatever works best for people as individuals, but the key is to have structure and a plan when it comes to money.
As a kind of disclaimer, so much of what is here is so much more easily said than done and not something that really comes with a road map. I don’t ever recall having a conversation with anyone about how they manage their life admin, beyond them having a pile of papers on the kitchen counter and hoping for the best, even though we all have life admin. I’m still finding my way with so much of this. I think our hunter-gatherer brains are not built to deal with the complexities of the digital 21st century – especially the speed it runs at and the distractions we have – and most of us, if we are honest, are over-challenged trying to deal with some or all of it. So the best we can do is to find coping strategies that work for us, and make a plan, but make changes in small steps. I have found it’s better to make small changes and stick with them consistently. Thinking about making huge changes can be a way of setting up yourself up to fail, a kind of self-sabotage, when too much at once becomes overwhelming and it’s easier to revert to the old, less-helpful way of doing something, and unhelpfully feeling like you failed. On the positive side, we are finding our attempts at downsizing, decluttering and simplifying pretty rewarding. But there’s still a way to go …