Pure Genius

Becoming minimalist: when having fewer possessions means living a better life

Posting in Cities

Two years ago, Joshua Becker decided to cast off (some of) his possessions to live a minimalist lifestyle. We spoke about what minimalism means, how technology can help us get there and how this lifestyle could impact the environment.

Two years ago, a conversation with a neighbor motivated Joshua Becker to cast off (some of) his possessions to live a minimalist lifestyle. With his wife and two young children, Becker pared down the family's possessions in suburban Vermont with the goal of improving their lives.

Becker, a pastor of student ministries, chronicles the family's minimalist lifestyle on his blog, Becoming Minimalist. We spoke this week about what minimalism means, how technology can help us get there and how living this lifestyle could impact the environment.

What does it mean to live a minimalist life?

Most people live their life trying to acquire more and more things. Living a minimalist lifestyle is completely the opposite. It's about trying to live with less and less things. It's about trying to get back to the bare minimum of possessions. In doing that, it frees up your life to pursue the things you most value.

You and your family live in suburban Vermont. How does city minimalism differ from suburban minimalism?

I think it's a little bit easier in a city to live a minimalist life. I picture living in apartments, having public transportation, not having as much space in your living environment. Living in the suburbs adds a different flavor. Maybe the bus line doesn't go by your house. You have a basement where it's easy to store stuff. I look at some of my minimalist friends who are young and they're living in the city and they're living with less than 100 things. I wish I could get down to that many. But I need to take care of my lawn. I have to have certain things for my job.

You mentioned your friends living with fewer than 100 things. That's amazing.

Dave Bruno started a blog called the 100 Thing Challenge and took it upon himself to own less than 100 things. TIME did a story on him. He's finishing a book. A number of people have jumped on board to try to pare down to 100 things. Some try to go less than 75 and less than 50. Most of them live in a city or they're single, college students. They don't have kids running around who need toys.

What role does technology play in minimalism?

It is a definite balancing act. There are times when technology makes minimalism very easy. For example, with the Kindle you don't have to own physical books. [With scanners] we can scan our papers and documents. [With] digital cameras, you're able to store your photos digitally. You don't need to get a newspaper delivered to your home. You can read it online. But it's easy to go too far. The collection of technology to collect technology becomes cumbersome. Technology needs support and time and energy to invest in it. There's a balancing act of using it to make your life simpler, but also not complicating your life.

Talk about how minimalism can affect our impact on the environment.

When we consume less, we're able to preserve the world in a better natural state. Also, embracing a minimalist lifestyle leads you to desire less. In that motivation, you find greater good for the environment. So often, the environmental movement is motivated by guilt. [But] if we can truly inspire people to find contentment in the life they have, that becomes a much more powerful motivating tool to taking care of the planet.

What about personal health effects? Has becoming minimalist affected your health?

Yes, in direct and indirect ways. One of the best benefits of embracing a minimalist lifestyle is there's less stress. You don't have debt hanging over your head. There's less hurry to make more money to buy the next thing coming out. Less stress leads to a more healthy lifestyle.

We started about two years ago in May living a minimalist lifestyle. My birthday comes in December. I was trying to decide what I'd ask for for my birthday if I don't want more possessions. I noticed a local gym and I thought, How about I start exercising? I've been going faithfully all two years. I've run a marathon. An indirect health benefit is finding more time to be outside and to relax and exercise.

For you, what are the most difficult aspects of living a minimalist life?

  • The easy one for me to mention is having kids. It requires more effort and energy and thought. They're growing, so they need more clothes, age-appropriate playthings, things for school and sports. It keeps you on your toes. And it keeps you on top of purging: giving away things they no longer need or clothes they don't fit into.
  • From the family aspect, there are always different expectations of what minimalism means. My wife and I certainly differ on things like how much clothing we should own, how we decorate the house. Those things are always a balancing act, but they lead to conversations and opportunities to get to know each other.
  • There are a lot of emotions attached to your possessions. There are motivations to collecting what you have. When you begin removing them, you start pulling back some of the layers. [You're asking], Why did I buy this? It's a very emotional process to get rid of things you've been holding onto for years.

Speaking of the emotional reaction to getting rid of possessions, the guest post on minimizing your book collection really hit home for me.

I get a lot of questions from people about books. It seems to be a real sticking point. I've never had that sentimental attachment to books. Robyn Devine from Minimalist Knitter wrote a post that I could never write. It came from the attachments she had and how she got over that.

If books weren't a sticking point for you, what was?

[There are] two things I have to take the next step on minimally speaking. We bought our house five years ago and embraced this minimalist lifestyle two years ago. I want to live in a smaller home and haven't been able to take that step yet. I don't think it's a sentimental attachment. It's just a logistical issue of selling and buying and moving. We still have two cars. As part of that suburban mindset, my wife takes the kids to school and runs them around all day. I work on the other side of town. How do we logistically go down to one car? Those aren't sentimental attachments, but they're steps I want to take.

Image: Joshua Becker

Share this

Christina Hernandez Sherwood

Contributing Writer

Contributing Writer Christina Hernandez Sherwood has written for the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and Columbia Journalism Review. She holds degrees from the University of Delaware and Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is based in New Jersey. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure