The Luxury of Minimalism

For 15 years, Dave Bruno has lived without television. A self-described “restless wanderer” who settled on the sunny West Coast, Bruno also has succeeded in raising his three daughters without the help of a microwave. 

Though his way of life has sometimes come at the cost of convention and convenience, Bruno took his quest for simple living to a new level three years ago. “I took a look at my desire for minimalism as it relates to the amount of stuff I had around the house,” he says. “I had to be honest with myself and realize I still hadn’t cracked the nut of consumerism.” 

With steely resolve, Bruno embarked on a profound challenge—paring his personal possessions down to 100 objects. While most Americans can probably open a single closet in their home and find 100 things, Bruno now lists his personal effects on a single sheet of paper. The prized possessions surviving the cut include a guitar, a toothbrush, an iPad, an iPhone, a wedding ring, a razor, a tent, hiking boots and a suit.

Minimalism has been a popular way of life for centuries, most commonly practiced by monks and religious orders of all faiths. Dave Bruno, however, represents a new kind of minimalist—one who believes a simpler, more balanced and vitalistic way of life can be achieved beyond the confines of cloistered monastery walls. 

“One interesting thing about our society is it’s far easier to go out and get things than it is getting rid of them,” says Bruno. “The things I had the hardest time giving away were things that had a connection with aspects of the life I aspired to. I had these woodworking tools I’d aspired to use, but wasn’t actually using. I was buying tools in the hopes I’d become a woodworker.”

Detailing his experiences in a book and blog called “The 100 Thing Challenge,” Bruno has learned to channel his aspirations for a better life into actions instead of possessions. Now that weekend trips to the mall or big-box retailers are out of the question, Bruno has more time to spend with his wife and three daughters. 

“If you have less stuff, there are fewer things pulling you away from what you really care about,” he says. “Fundamentally, human beings want to make a contribution to our world. Consumerism messes with our minds and gives us a false sense that we’re filling that need, but we only find fulfillment in giving our skills and ourselves to others. Consumerism takes away the energy we could be giving to something really valuable.”

Christine Mulcahy came to a similar conclusion when she and her family were living in their dream home and fixing up another property as a real estate investment. When the 2008 financial crisis rippled through every sector of the economy, the Mulcahy family moved twice in six months, eventually settling into its half-renovated investment property. 

“I was living in a house with a garage full of boxes,” she says. “There was so much stuff, I didn’t even know what to do with it. Finally, I realized I could clearly live without the stuff, so I decided to get rid of everything that wasn’t essential.” 

Mulcahy, who lives on scenic Whidbey Island just off the coast of Seattle, ripped into the stacks of boxes, giving away unread books, ill-fitting clothes and outgrown toys. During her purge, she learned a staggering 28 percent of the people in her small community were now receiving food from the local food bank, which is funded by a local thrift store. “When I found out about this invisible culture of need,” she says, “I decided to give the thrift store our stuff.”

Starting with her closet—a perennial organizational problem—she filled 10 large garbage bags with clothes and shoes. “I decided if something wasn’t a part of my daily life or wasn’t out in the open, it needed to go,” says Mulcahy, who details her experiences in a blog called “The Minimal Challenge.” “It felt liberating and rewarding, now I don’t spend a lot of time rearranging clutter and dusting little trinkets.”

For minimalists like Bruno and Mulcahy, the modern cycle of desire and consumption can present many challenges, particularly when it comes to raising well-adjusted children in an environment where peers devour trends as a form of social capital. “My daughters notice that, when their friends worry about stuff, they become less friendly and happy,” says Bruno. “When you’re young you play with stuff because that’s your job—it’s how you learn—but as you get older a preoccupation with stuff can get in the way of relationships.”

For most of human history, even something as simple as a cooking pot had to be mined, smelted and pounded by hand, thus making material possessions rare, expensive, useful and always precious. With the advent of mechanized production during the Industrial Revolution, however, nearly every kind of good could be made and bought cheaply, allowing families of all income levels to own more possessions than the average Renaissance nobleman.

Two centuries after the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, scientists and critics are warning that the negative effects of rampant human consumption are beginning to manifest on a massive scale. In 1900, the world had a population of 1.8 million and a combined economic impact of $2 trillion. A little more than a century later, the world population is pushing 7 billion with a total gross domestic product topping out at $55 trillion. As populous countries like China and India grow in affluence, the American standard of wealth—2,500-square-foot homes on half-acre lots—simply isn’t sustainable on such an exponential level.

For her own part, Mulcahy says she’s trying to combat the rising consequences of consumerism by simply acquiring less stuff. “When you have less stuff, there’s less anxiety or guilt and you don’t have that feeling that there’s something you need to buy,” she says. 

Admittedly, living on an island where a ferry ride is required for any trip to a big-box retail store helps Mulcahy be a conscious consumer. Though she also encourages her large network of family and friends to take her two kids out for experiences rather than buy them presents on holidays and birthdays.

When she does need something, Mulcahy first heads to her local thrift store and then to local merchants before considering a purchase from a national retailer. “We still spend and consume, but we’re conscious of what we’re spending and where our money is going,” she says. “We’ve changed our perception, and we really think about what we need and why. Capitalism isn’t bad at a fundamental level, but the need to always have the biggest, fastest and greatest things—and rapidly turning them into trash—is the problem.”

Even as the by-products and bygones of mass consumption continue to build up in landfills—leaching toxic chemicals and fumes into the soil, air and drinking water—recent studies have shown wealth in excess of $100,000 a year does nothing to increase happiness, and lottery winners usually return to their pre-windfall level of happiness within a year. Although perhaps it may seem counterintuitive, consumption without limits is a lonely way of life. 

With a renewed appreciation of the value of family, Mulcahy is pondering an even bigger minimalist challenge—selling everything and hitting the road with her husband and two young children for a yearlong cross-country road trip. “It’s a daunting adventure,” she says, “but I really want our kids to see other people and cultures before they get too rooted in school.” 

While pondering this potential trip-of-a-lifetime, Mulcahy realizes a minimalist lifestyle gives her the freedom to take the kind of risks that make life worth living. “I’ve never been tied up in wealth,” she says. “I’ve always defined abundance as joy, happiness, laughter, adventures and more time with my family.” 

Like Mulcahy, Bruno’s greatest joy is a home filled with the laughter of children and a menagerie of beloved family pets—cats, dogs, hamsters, guinea pigs and parakeets. “I think now I understand wealth doesn’t come from owning stuff,” says Bruno, who travels the globe inspiring people to take up his minimalist crusade. “Beyond that, I measure my life by a wealth of time and relationships and really thriving at life and taking time for vacations and family—things you can’t buy at the store.”


From Castle to Closet
New York City’s vast selection of art, culture and history has inspired me for as long as I can remember, but thoughts of living in a closet-sized apartment filled me with fear every time I pondered the realities of moving from Atlanta to the Big Apple. 

As a writer who makes a living dwelling in stories of the past, I’ve always had the gift (and curse) of being able to link a vivid memory with almost any object, making minimalism an uphill battle. Besides the sentimental attachments holding me back, when I was barely out of college my aunt gave me her beautiful, seven-piece cherry-wood bedroom set, and I likewise reaped the benefits of downsizing from nearly every branch of my family. Five years later, though, I found myself standing in my 1,200-square-foot apartment, wondering how I’d ever get to New York with so many possessions.

When a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity arose, I didn’t want a houseful of stuff to keep me from living my dream. So, with four months until the big move to Manhattan, I recycled trash bags full of magazines and got rid of clothes, shoes and trinkets I hadn’t worn in years. To calm my nostalgic mind, I scanned papers I wanted to save and took pictures of items that reminded me of fond memories—knowing digital files wouldn’t take up space in my moving truck. 

I bought an e-reader to create a convenient, clutter-free digital library, and I recycled plastic CD and DVD containers in favor of more space-efficient media sleeves and decorative file boxes. Keeping only the cherry-wood furniture, I made $6,000 selling big-ticket items on Craigslist, giving unsold possessions to friends and charities. After spending weekends hauling carloads to Goodwill and the recycling center, I succeeded in getting rid of two-thirds of my stuff.

Though moving to Manhattan was the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken voluntarily, as I sit here in my three-room, 450-square-foot apartment, I’ve never been happier. I own far more than 100 things, but I’m living my minimalist dream, surrounded by nothing more than the possessions I loved enough to cart 900 miles up the East Coast.

Living in one of the greenest cities in the country, I take mass transit everywhere, buy only what I can carry and enjoy a $20 power bill. And I’m also glad my minimalist journey has had a positive ecological impact on the world. With less stuff to maintain and the world’s greatest city as my backyard, I love living in New York—even if my kitchen is in my living room.


The Power of Less
Six years ago, Leo Babauta decided to change his life. A husband, writer and father of six kids, he quit smoking, became a marathon runner and simplified his life. As a result, Babauta lost weight, got out of debt and tripled his income. His radical experiment in minimalism led to the creation of his popular blog, “Zen Habits” and a book called “The Power of Less.” 

What prompted the major life change you embarked upon in 2005?
I’d wanted to make changes for some time, but I felt overwhelmed and paralyzed by all of it. The catalyst came when I really put some effort and research into changing habits so that I could finally quit smoking after failing to quit seven times. I realized I could apply the same principles I’d learned to running, and then eating healthier and many other habits.

How did you stay motivated when you were faced with difficulties?
I learned to become aware of negative self-talk, which most of us don’t realize we’re doing. It’s incredible how much of an effect this negativity has on our psyche and our lives. Once I realized the terrible things I was telling myself, I put an end to it and now I’ve learned to view any setback and difficulty as an opportunity to learn, to practice, to get better, to grow.

How is life different now that you’ve taken a minimalist approach to possessions?
I’m still learning what this approach is, and what it means. I feel like I’m still stumbling in the dark with minimalism, trying to describe what I’m stumbling across to others also stumbling in the dark. But what little I’ve learned includes the realization of how little we need to be content. Finding contentment is so simple, and yet we make it so complicated. 

How do you delineate between want and need now?
Almost nothing besides food and shelter is a need, and even most things related to food and shelters are wants—we buy processed or fancy food we don’t need, and bigger houses than necessary. I’m guilty of that still. Even clothing, which is a necessity of course, is rarely a need. So it’s not hard to delineate—I just need to remind myself when I get tempted like anyone else does.

Is it difficult to raise children in a minimalist household?
Absolutely. We’re so bombarded by advertising and the expectations of society, my children are more influenced by outside sources than by my wife and me. In the end, I have to relinquish the idea of controlling the people they grow up to become‚ and just do my best to lead by example and have an ongoing conversation about values that truly matter.

What about consumer culture are you most critical of?
Consumer culture keeps us trapped in an artificial world in which we have the illusion of freedom, but with very little actual freedom. We must work as wage slaves (or employ wage slaves ourselves) to keep up with the fake “needs” that society has placed on us. We must give up the major portion of our waking lives for these fake needs. And because we’re greedily trying to attain this incredibly wasteful lifestyle, we exploit powerless people in the third world for our gain, leaving them desolate and starving.

How do you define wealth now? 
Wealth is within. That sounds trite, but if we stop thinking that having nice clothes or cars or televisions or gadgets or houses are signs of wealth, we realize we need none of that. And what’s left? What then gives our lives meaning if not external things? Relationships, of course, but those are meaningless unless we’ve learned to value ourselves. So I value most the things I always carry with me—my ideas, my internal conversation, my learning and the amazing person I’ve found within myself.