Kondo-ing When U Broke

This week when Marie Kondo released her new shop and line of curated items, a lot of people were yelling at her on the internet, which I rolled my eyes at. I think many people fundamentally misunderstand the Marie Kondo philosophy and probably haven’t actually read the book–also, let the lady sell things in peace, the world is unfortunately capitalist.

However, I do think that there are some unique challenges one faces while trying to “kondo” one’s life on a budget.

The easiest things to toss are the things we don’t like and don’t use. The harder things to toss may be the things we feel “meh” about but do use (for me right now, it’s my winter coat). It may be difficult and even unwise, at certain points in our lives, to simply get rid of these items and purchase one that “sparks joy”, particularly if the joy-sparking variety is expensive (basically all good quality winter coats). This is where a lot of classist criticisms of minimalism come into play, but I still think minimalism is useful for almost everyone, especially Americans and anyone living in the “developed” world.

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look at this family costume that won halloween. wow. 

1. Be Grateful, Be Thoughtful

I still think it’s useful for everyone to reduce their stuff, and start by getting rid of all those things we don’t like and don’t use. Marie Kondo offers guidance on important but not necessarily “joyful” things, like a screwdriver. She implores you to thank the screwdriver out loud, to list the ways in which it helps you in your daily life (even if that feels silly). Expressing and practicing gratitude can invoke some joy in the items that are purely practical, and I think this can also work on items that we can’t afford to replace just yet.

The part of Marie Kondo’s philosophy that involves practicing gratitude is the part that I think is most useful and helpful to everyone. We can all be more thoughtful about our material items, understanding the impact they have on the world around us (from a sustainability point of view). We can all take care of our things so they last longer and we don’t have to consume so much. We can all be more mindful when we purchase new items. The slowing down, the re-calibration of one’s mindset is another useful thing that comes out of minimalism and the process of tidying that Marie outlines in her book.

2. Organize Your Thoughts

After going through the process and realizing there are some items we can’t afford to replace yet, being grateful for their usefulness and for the fact that we own them, we can then organize our thoughts around these purchases. I’ll use the example of my winter coat–I want to replace it, but I will only do so in a way that makes financial sense for me. My current one is fine for now, so I’ll continue to use it with gratitude. The next one I purchase would ideally be with me for a long time, so maybe I can wait to purchase it in the off-season or spring, when winter coats will be less expensive. I will look into ways I can sustainably let go of my current coat–it’s from The North Face and they have a take-back program where you can give them your old coat and they’ll donate it; in return you get a $10 off coupon. I could use that toward a new coat, or something else.

This way I can make a plan to save for this item. For a relatively big-ticket clothing purchase, I steer clear of fads and trends and get something classic that can last many years.

3. Clean, Repair, Use Gently

I’m an engineer, physically active, I like being outside–I’m generally pretty rough and demanding on most of my things, because of the nature of my lifestyle and my personality. I became more minimalist in college, but I was still missing a crucial piece of this puzzle–I started purchasing fewer, better quality things, which were more expensive and supposedly more robust. Then, I’d find that it would still break, tear, or stain beyond salvaging later. I thought higher price/quality automatically meant an item would last longer, but we still have to take good care of our things.

I learned how to gently and properly clean my clothes, and my shoes (the last one was a huge game-changer). I regularly take items to the tailor to repair now. I invest time and resources into my cleaning products–I choose to pay a little more for laundry detergent so that my clothes last longer, and I hang dry a lot of items.

My favorite cleaning guides are:

The Strategist on washing ‘dry clean only’ clothes at home

My own post on Jason Markk and cleaning shoes

The New York Times: How to Take Care of Your Clothes

I don’t think you have to do *everything* in all of those, but you know, you take what seems approachable (hang drying) and skip what may not for your lifestyle at a given time (hand washing).

One of my favorite ways to bring new life into a (clothing) item is to have it altered–I had some generic t-shirts hemmed so that they fit more like a cropped box top. It cost less than purchasing a new item and fit in with the philosophy of reusing and recycling, or “upcycling”. You can also get shirts tapered so they are more fitted, or get really creative and make something else entirely (I am not good at this but more power to you if you are). I have two go-to tailors, one for basic repairs and alterations (buttons, tears, hemming) and one I trust with more delicate materials or complicated repairs/alterations. The first tailor also does dry cleaning. I have a fabric shaver that I use to remove pilling from clothes (though that should be used with caution) and, of course, an iron to remove wrinkles.

When you take good care of your items and use them long enough, the reverse starts to happen–rather than wanting to get rid of or replace the item, you might develop a sentimental attachment to it. I have a simple, light blue Ralph Lauren oxford shirt that I bought from an outlet store, right as I was beginning the journey into minimalism–it’s not the most expensive shirt I own by far, but it is certainly the most robust. Even back before I knew how to take care of my things, it survived my rough treatment and is still in almost perfect condition, due to the tight oxford weave and heavyweight fabric. I’ve now owned it for three years, and since it’s a classic, basic piece, I intend to keep it for many more.

This applies to other items too–I have upholstery cleaner for our couch and my car seats (you can use a fabric shaver on upholstery too). I use a scratch cover/wood stain product for wooden furniture, which was especially useful when I bought a used desk, bringing me to my next point…

4. Buy Pre-Loved

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I have a confession to make, which is that I’ve never had much luck in the secondhand market when it comes to clothing. My size and style just doesn’t often match with whatever is on offer. However, I am a professional at buying furniture and home goods from Craigslist and Facebook. In the Boston area, everyone and their mama moves on September 1st, which means the summer is the ideal time to swoop up on high-quality items left behind by Harvard MBAs who planned poorly and steeply discounted things to get rid of them as soon as possible (or already got their 25K starting bonus and don’t care). Currently all my furniture is free or used. Furniture and home goods also have better resale value than clothing. I bought a used futon for $25, used it for three years, and then sold it for $15–the net cost of this futon was just $10, or $3 per year! However, because there are moving/seasonal patterns in the greater Boston area and in every city, timing for both buying and selling can be very important.

I currently have a Room & Board desk and bed frame and two West Elm rugs. Rich, I am not–just resourceful! Brand/quality is important to pay attention to here–I love Room & Board because they make near-heritage quality furniture that can last for decades, so picking up a bed frame that was 4 years old and in good condition was a no-brainer. Materials are another factor to consider (this bed frame is solid steel).

Point #3 applies here too–after a good clean and polish, my furniture looked great. It was comfortable, having been pre-loved; I felt like I made a sustainable choice, and best of all, I don’t ever feel stressed about spills, scuffs, or scratches. All my bedroom furniture sparks joy for me now–in no small part because of the incredibly satisfied feeling I have about what a bargain it all was, which I constantly rave about to other people (yes, I am that friend). I also know that, being a young person, if I have to suddenly pick up and leave for a dream opportunity, I could resell these items for close to the same price I paid for them, making the net cost almost $0, just like the futon. We bought a used microwave before realizing our new place had a built-in one, and I actually made money when I re-sold it (just $1, but still…)

Why Minimalism?

Again, I don’t think the point of Marie Kondo’s philosophy is just getting rid of everything; it’s about living with intention. People who make fun of the way she personifies objects or talks about “spirit” and “energy” do not realize the roots of this philosophy in Shintoism. A lot of critique in the media seems to be Americans misunderstanding other cultures, which is not new…

I started being more minimalist as a college student, long before Marie Kondo became popular in the West. The lifestyle change was driven in large part because college requires you to constantly move (twice a year at least). My parents helped me out with tuition and board, and I received financial aid, but I still took out loans for some of my tuition and I paid for all my own food and most personal items, textbooks, and plane tickets in my later years. I earned money from summer internships and campus jobs to afford this. I consider myself very fortunate; I wasn’t struggling, but I certainly wasn’t wealthy and I didn’t even have a stable income. The emotional and mental stress of financial insecurity was alleviated by the knowledge that, should I really be down to the wire, I could have asked my family for help–but I wanted to be as independent as possible. I’m not making a comparison to true poverty and I recognize my privileges, but if minimalism is accessible to a more or less broke student, I think it can be made accessible to most people, rather than a wealthy few. It helped me to be grateful for what I have, to recognize that my actions as a consumer have consequences, and to be mindful about my actions. I followed much more severe minimalists (the YouTube Scandinavians, mainly) than Marie Kondo, but now I leave a little more room for the things that bring me joy in my life.

This balance and contentment is something I think everyone can find.

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