Full Interview with Joshua Becker

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The following is a good chunk of our interview with Joshua Becker, a family man and minimalist who blogs at Becoming Minimalist. The interview was part of our The Rise of Less, the Story of Minimalism article.

Wand’rly
I read on your site that you got into minimalism after spending a long day cleaning out your garage and having a neighbor mention the word to you. From first hearing that there was an actual name for ditching your stuff and living simply, what did you do next? What was the transition period like, emotionally and literally?
Joshua
The first step was to get my wife’s opinion on the matter. I sought her out immediately after the conversation (she was spring-cleaning the inside of the home). I told her about the conversation and asked what she thought. She was immediately intrigued as well. From there, I ran a simple Google search on the minimalist lifestyle. I was surprised to find an entire community of people online living this “minimalist life.” And I was hooked… this whole time frame took roughly 15-20 minutes. The transition to desire the life was a quick one… within minutes. The actual process of downsizing our possessions and house took much longer. The initial sweep took us 5-6 months. The more difficult rooms (basement storage, garage) ended up taking a few years. And it wasn’t until 3 years later that we actually moved into a smaller house.
Wand’rly
How much do you actually own now? Did you end up getting rid of your house for something smaller? What kinds of real changes can you tell us about that were made in an effort to achieve this lifestyle?
Joshua
I have no active measurement of how much we actually own now. There are some minimalists who count their items and list them or photograph them, but we’ve never cared enough to count. Also, we tend to describe our minimalism as a bit more moderate than others. We make it work for us, rather than force ourselves into some self-imposed boundaries. Though we never kept track officially, we removed roughly 60-70% of our personal belongings. These would represent belongings of all sorts: clothes, toys, furniture, dishware, books, sentimental belongings, technology, etc. We did move into a smaller home after we had minimized our possessions. We didn’t need the room of a larger house and hated the extra expenses that accompanied it. We’ve made countless changes in our lives over the years because of minimalism. But all of those changes were precipitated by one change: we started getting rid of everything we no longer used or loved. It took time and effort. But it paved the way for increased intentionality in our life.
Wand’rly
When it comes to material possessions that you already own, I think a lot of people would associate things like cars and houses with ongoing costs, but if you already own two sets of fine china, for example, they don’t cost you anything to continue owning, right? In your experience, can you tell us how getting rid of things that you’ve already bought and paid for have had an impact on your life?
Joshua
It has a profound impact on our lives. And I think you’ve hit on one of the biggest fallacies about the owning of possessions in America (and other industrial societies). Namely, that they don’t cost us anything once they are already in our possession. But they greatly affect our lives. We’ve just become so accustomed to things being in our possession, we don’t realize how much of an impact they bring.

Consider this, every possession we own – whether it be a car, a t-shirt, or an extra set of China – takes up space in our lives. This can most easily be seen in a physical sense. They take up physical space. As a result, we build shelves to store them, we move them around, we sort them, we organize them, we clean them. Additionally, and what we don’t typically notice, is that each of these possessions also take up mental space. They own a little piece of real estate in our mind just like they require physical real estate in our homes. Our minds won’t let us forget them, they can’t. They are, after all, our responsibility to care for… and everything that we own has to be dealt with someday by somebody. Our minds remind us often of this responsibility. Now, I should add, if we are only talking about one extra set of China, this spatial and mental burden is pretty minimal. But the problem is, nobody owns just one extra material possession. Our closets are full of things we don’t need. Our cupboards are full, Our drawers are over-flowing. Our attics are full of boxes of “things we already own with no ongoing costs.” Sometimes, our garage and storage units are filled as well. There is a very good reason why people who embrace a minimalist lifestyle speak of a new-found freedom in life. Not only has physical real estate been cleared of clutter, but mental real estate has also been cleared.

Wand’rly
Did going minimalist also come with a career change?
Joshua
No. Minimalism did not bring with it a career change… but it did bring an opportunity to pursue my career on different terms. By that, I mean, I do work in the same industry (non-profit) as I did before our decision. But because of our decision to live a minimalist life, we have had more freedom in where/what we do. I had a friend of mine call me 6 years ago about moving to a new part of the country to work alongside him in a new organization. But I had to decline because it wasn’t going to pay enough to support my family and our lifestyle. 3 years later, we were introduced into minimalism. We soon discovered we could enjoy life on a much smaller budget than we previously thought. And as a result, when he called again last year with the same offer, we were in the right position to say yes. Same industry, significant pay-cut, but more enjoyment.
Wand’rly
How does having two school age kids who are probably bringing home tons of artwork, A+ type papers, and the various other plethora of disposable stuff work with minimalism? Or grandparents who want to “spoil” their grandchildren or kids getting allowance and wanting to buy GI Joes, etc.?
Joshua
Good question. On some levels it makes it more difficult… much more difficult actually. As you mentioned, it’s unbelievable the amount of stuff that kids bring home from school, church, parties, even just an afternoon at a friend’s house. To be honest, I never realized how much stuff until we started embracing minimalism. Interestingly enough, this question actually gets to a tougher issue of minimalism as a family. Namely, the difference in opinion among the family members about “how minimalist” we should become. I usually say, “If I was 80% in, my wife was 60% in.” As a result, getting rid of the first 60% was easy. The difficulty came when we reached 61%… I wanted to keep going, but my wife was ready to be content. For a little while, it caused some strife in our marriage. One day, I thought to myself, “What am I doing here? Removing our possessions was supposed to bring us closer, not push us apart.” And I made an important decision: I could define my personal brand of minimalism wherever I wanted to draw the line, but I couldn’t draw the line for my wife. So I removed 80% of my possessions, allowed my wife to remain at 60%, and decided to stop being the “minimalist police” around my house.

Back to the question of the children: As they have grown older and their personalities have begun to emerge more and more, I have once again had to stop being the “minimalist police” and allow them to discover their own personal brand of minimalism at their unique stage of life. To accomplish this, we set limits for our children which forces them to identify values. For example, my daughter has a collection of dolls and dress-up clothes and art supplies. And she’s able to keep what she wants (and ask for what she wants) as long as it remains inside a certain parameter (currently, the shelving in her closet). My son is less concerned with toys and as a result, has a smaller area within which he houses his toys and books. Similarly, we have two boxes (again, I allowed my wife to pick the size) where we store their paper stuff from school. Once it is full, we sort out the papers that are no longer meaningful to create space for the things they really want to keep. And as I mentioned before, we do the same with toys and gifts. I have never asked their grandparents to stop sending gifts… it is how they desire to express their love to their grandkids. But I have made some requests (quality over quantity, need over want, and smaller over bigger). And if after the holidays, the toys no longer fit on the shelves, we remove some of the old, unused ones.