Real Life Minimalists: James

Every Monday I post Real Life Minimalists, a profile of one of my readers in their own words. If you’d like to participate, click here for details. (Note: the schedule is now full until May — but if you don’t mind waiting, feel free to send me your submission!)

This week we hear from James, who writes from upstate New York. He’s taken time off from shoveling his driveway, to share some words of wisdom about living with less in the frozen north.

James writes:


Illustration by James

My name is James, and I was born and raised in upstate New York, a place with all 4 seasons and a very long winter. It was in early 2010 that I became interested in the minimalist lifestyle, but it was during the fall that I really began aggressively cutting down on the amount of material goods I was responsible for. This is my first winter season after the massive purge, and already I can see things have started to change. I am living the dream of living lite in the frozen north, but this climate is not without its unique challenges.

One of the inescapable facts of living in a colder climate is that you just need more stuff. Shovels, boots, heavy coats, gloves, hats, brushes, insulation, the list goes on. As you become acclimated to the weather, your buying habits begin to change, stocking up with extra essentials such as food, water, batteries, blankets, and medical supplies. It may only be a 5 minute trip to the grocery store, but when it’s below zero and the winds are blowing over 40 miles per hour, you’re very happy to have an extra dozen cans of soup waiting in reserve!

This is something akin to the habits of a hibernating animal; building up fortifications and hunkering down against the long cold nights.

The problem arises when dealing with the non-essentials. With such a strong habit already ingrained in your mind to buy and save and build, it can be a little too easy to pick something up “just in case”. That line is used almost every day in stores to justify incredibly wasteful spending and accumulation, because to the cold climate mindset, spending is directly linked to surviving.

Other challenges arise in the middle of the winter as well. While it might be okay to go for a walk for fun and relaxation when it’s always over 30 degrees outside, there are entire days that can go by in deep winter when you don’t open the front door and you don’t want to! This can lead to a classic case of cabin fever, when people are trapped in the same place for too long a time with nothing to do but wait out the cold. This often causes people to compensate for their incarceration, spending more in pursuit of entertainment. We tend to accumulate new things during this time to add some variety to our surroundings, if for nothing more than to ‘buy’ a few precious weeks of difference. Even for the chronic exercise fiends among us who have to get out and stretch our legs, sometimes the easiest and only solution is an extended trip to the mall, which is not without its own perils.

But for all the challenges a minimalist faces in the middle of the snowing season, there are an equal number of benefits. One thing I’ve noticed already is that with so much less to occupy our living space, there’s finally room for all the weather-related extras. I can clearly recall last winter when the coats looked as though they were about to come cascading down on the occupant of the chair they were carefully balanced above, all the heating registers were packed with drying gloves and boots, and anything that could be stacked became part of an ever increasing number of tiny mountains on the tables. Nowadays, even with full weather gear present, I can move through any room without having to perform any elaborate feats of dexterity. Shelves that used to be packed with books now hold extra food stuffs, the corner that was host to the leaning tower of DVD’s now has a lovely coat rack, and the shoe organizer that once held all the extra crafting activities is now full of… well, shoes.

Strangely, having less seems to make it easier to not buy more. I don’t feel the same sensation of being trapped in a too small space. I can relax much easier in my own home, so I don’t need to turn to commerce and material acquisition to improve my experience.

Looking ahead, spring cleaning will be a breeze. With no inaccessible corners to collect dust and dirt, the house is cleaner and easier to maintain than ever. I am definitely planning on taking advantage of the spring cleaning mindset to get rid of even more stuff that I don’t need, thus ensuring an even simpler winter next year.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go shovel the driveway. I only have to shovel half as much because we got ourselves down to a single car, and I won’t have to spend ten minutes finding and unburying the snow shovel in the garage. Of course, I may have to unbury the shovel if I left it out in the snow… again. Unfortunately, minimalism has yet to help with my being so forgetful, but at least this way there’s less left to forget!

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

33 comments to Real Life Minimalists: James

  • Karen (Scotland)

    Oh, I can relate to James! Scotland is a four season country (well, maybe three as summer rarely takes a grip of this country!) so we need a lot of essential “gear” too – neighbours were warring over snow shovels as there was a shortage this year!
    Our country totally wasn’t prepared for the bad weather this last winter (even though it had been forecast…) so I was so glad I had bulk-bought everything from UHT milk through to bread flour. With four wee kids and a husband at sea, I tend to bulk buy anyway (hard to nip to the shops with that lot in tow) but, like James, I have to remember that not everything has to be bought “just in case”. Life will not fall apart if we don’t have ketchup in the house for a week or so, even if my four year old believes that…
    And also, like James, we got rid of the glut of winter woollies and invested in a cheap-but-decent snowsuit and ski gloves for everyone, so there were no multiple soggy coats and gloves lying around all the time.
    So, yes, we need all the “gear” but by keeping it to the minimum and keeping it orderly, we were calmer all round.
    Karen (Scotland)

  • Suzanne

    Living in a warm climate, with no cold snowy winters, I had never considered that there would be a difference when it came to minimalism. I actually used to buy lots of stuff “just in case”, but I’ve managed to curb my anxiety, and trust that the world will not end if I don’t have everything I think I need. I’m quite proud of how far I’ve come, and my diary has quite a few “took 2 bags to the charity shop today” entries.

  • Jonatan

    As a minimalist(ish) swede, I don’t quite agree. Sure, I need a really warm parka, but I use the same pair of shoes all year round(desert boots + extra socks) and that cabin fever is a great fueler for downsizing! I get all antsy and strut around the place looking for things to get rid of.

  • Sarah

    Hi James, I can sooo relate here in Michigan. I read everything about minimalism through a lens as there are many things we cannot do – going car free is literally a health hazard here.

  • Erin

    I can absolutely relate, being from northwest PA where the snow never stops. And its hard because when I get cabin fever, I shop online – uh oh, I know :( Slowly weaning myself off of that – AND it’s almost spring so things are about to get WAAAAY better!

  • kellie

    I can somewhat relate but I actually have the opposite weather problem – living in a tropical climate and storing the needed hurricane supplies and assorted water related activity gear (fishing, boating, scuba diving, etc). I am trying to gear down my supplies too! Good luck with your mission and shoveling – I haven’t seen snow or ice in years!

    • Kathryn Fenner

      Yes, me, too. We have several months when it never gets below a high of 95 and a low of 77 with very high humidity. You just want to stay inside in the AC. At least we don’t need special gear, but I find I need more multiples of hot weather clothing because I can only get one wearing out between washes because of the sweat!!

  • Great post! As another minimalistishly inclined Swede I can relate to James post and warm outerwear make up a large portion of my project333 wardrobe. Also – ene pair of shoes does not work for me. When it’s -20 degrees celsius I need way more than desert boots with extra socks to keep from freezing my toes off… Also we have several types of shovels depending on what kind of snow we need to shovel…

  • Claire

    I live 5 minutes away from the grocery store, but luckily the coldest the winter gets here is “freeze your nose off figuratively” not “freeze your nose off literally” cold.

    Since I live in the city, I don’t need to stock up on things. I have an advantage in my minimalism :)

  • ElizMcK

    I grew up in a colder climate and had sort of forgot about all of the seasonal stuff. I remember we had storage in our closet for the off season clothing and would switch everything out during spring cleaning and at the time the storm windows had to be installed. I still practice the spring cleaning ritual, which no one quite understands or relates to here, but some habits die hard. I recall we had a box of gloves, mittens, hats and scarves in our hall closet and the bar in the closet always looked like it was about to break during the winter months. I remember dressing in layers too. It is kind of overwhelming to think of all of the stuff required where there are true seasons.

  • Simple Zen

    Thanks James. It’s nice to hear some common sense minimalist living thats not “Look at my new iPad” (or other expensive gadget) from a 20 something californian student blogger. That’s just a new form of trendy consumerism for kids that haven’t accumulated much stuff yet.

    I live in West Yorkshire UK where it’s all “‘ills and oils” as we say (Hills and Holes – describing the rugged terrain). Being without a car is not an option unless you work in a big city. The rural buses are none existent.

    There are no staight lines here. A ten mile journey as the crow flies is usually about 13 miles by road. I would have to cycle a marathon every day just to get to work and back. Or take two hour each way bus ride. And thats on a good day, usually it rains.

    I’ve been minimalist since the 70s without even knowing it. It’s just a matter of keeping what works and dumping the rest. It’s not about shaving your head and buying white furnishing.

  • et

    A tip regarding online shopping: browse to hearts content (or maybe a bit less..), bookmark the things you want/think you need, revisit your bookmarks in a week or two, reconsider and then wait another 2 weeks before actually buying the item.

    This works for me in two ways.
    1. Browsing is substituted for buying
    2. By waiting almost a month before spending, lots of items become irrelevant.

  • hahah! I love this! But truly, this is exactly why I moved from Chicago to San Diego! Living with less has never been so easy!

  • I shiver just reading James’ post! I am in GA in the southern US and we really have 2 seasons here, winter and summer. And our winter most of you would laugh at. We have a very short spring and fall. And so we don’t necessarily need all the winter stuff you guys do, sometimes we will keep on hand, “just in case”. Like this winter, we actually needed snow chains. But we didn’t have any and couldn’t find any anywhere, lol!
    We have difficulty with the changing of the seasons and knowing which season of clothes to have handy. Last week it was 80 degrees, yesterday it was 40. We have to always keep a few of the opposite season clothes because we never know!
    Oh, to live in the tropics, where we would hardly need clothes at all. I mean, other than a bathing suit!
    Don’t live your life in default mode

  • Clare

    I live in Oregon, in the Willamette Valley, and we usually only get a few inches of snow a year, so you can go outside year round and make do with less. It does rain a lot, so it helps to have rain gear if you have a bicycle or go on long walks. I walk about 4-5 days a week for an hour each time, rain or shine. I had a friend from Boston that made fun of us mercilessly when it snowed: “Don’t people know how to drive around here, what’s wrong with you people?” I’m moving to the midwest for graduate school later this year, don’t laugh, but I’m actually kind of scared…I’m not used to it being really cold and needing all that extra gear. I’m going to have to buy a pair of boots.

  • I recently moved to a place with 4 seasons and am learning to adjust to all the gear I have needed for my first actual ‘Winter’ in about 10 years! And you are right! It does take more gear!

  • Elise

    Oh, I know! We live in Colorado and love a minimalist life in our home. But the weather, and the ski clothes, and the riding stuff, and all the other sports related accouterments really add up. However, I appreciate everyone’s stories and how they each help maintain the goal within our confines. I love the “browsing” tip.
    Thank you,

  • As a fellow cold weather minimalist from Ottawa, Canada I can relate. Here’s a tip that I found very helpful in downsizing my wardrobe…. Big bulky jackets are usually much less effective at keeping you warm than layers are. My winter jacket isn’t actually that thick and takes up relatively little room in my closet. I simply layer it with my spring jacket and a sweater if need be and it’s pretty damn warm.

  • Annabelle

    Wow, I adored reading this entry today! What an awesome writer, the bit of humour was a delight! Ahh yes, those of us minimalists who live in colder climates with major snow fall, we can so relate! We decreased our gloves/coats/boots/shovels/etc ownership (aka: decluttered, got rid of, blah blah blah) and can now find the things we actually need for cold/snow/rain weather. Ahh, such freedom. :)

  • Fawn

    Jason from stop and breath–

    I agree about the layering thing.

    et- I also found waiting on internet purchases to eliminate alot of unneccesary purchasing.

    And counting things helps me too. If I only eat 10 apples a week, I don’t need to buy more. If I only wear 6 shirts before I do laundry, the same.

  • Thank you all for the wonderful comments! I’m glad to have shared a piece with so many people who can relate. It’s really interesting that people have the same type of issues in the tropics as they do in the tundra; just trying to stay dry. Very good stuff.

    Again, thank you to a wonderful community of people trying to live more with less stuff.

  • You know what you said about finding the shovel in the garage, that is what I want.

    I have 3 kids, 2 dogs, 4 fish and to make it that much easier, ADHD.

    I need to be able to find things fast before some kid drops a drink on the floor, some dog scratches at the back door, or I just get plain-old distracted.

    Good post.

  • “Strangely, having less seems to make it easier to not buy more” Ooh this is so true! When I feel happy, calm and serene in my nearly spartan home :D I really want to keep it that way and I’m not tempted to escape the chaos to some retail therapy and be lured with promises of “buy this and your home will improve”.

  • runi

    Thank you. Also just want to mention how much I like your phrase “material goods I was responsible for”. Excellent way to think about stuff.

  • Caroline

    Very nice post – I like reading about different kinds of minimalism. All of it’s inspiring. I kinda wish I was forced to stay inside a bit more – nice and cozy! And you don’t have to worry about missing anything because everyone else is staying in too!

  • Miakat

    Oh, I so adore the north of New York state!! As an Australian, we have very bland winters (moderately cold, windy and rainy) which are messy, but nowhere near as romantic. I visited New York state in spring a few years ago, and while the cold was a shock, I was blown away by how beautiful it was. I think I would happily concede a few more belongings to live in an environment with more than one season!

  • Di

    James, Cute illustration and sentiment. What fun it was to read your humorous post. As a mid-westerner I can relate to the winter gear challenge. But I love snow and the four seasons. I look forward to the changes and each one has its own beauty and appeal. The only thing we can do as minimalists is to limit how much we have of the necessary items and narrow it down to what is enough for each of us.
    Francine, can you tell I just read your book? :) Loved it! So practical and hands-on. I am recommending it to friends.

  • Tina

    It is winter here in the Chicago area. I haven’t worked in a while, just volunteered. We are down to one car now. I have one winter jacket which by layering works from 35 degrees to zero. Below that, I stay home. I have 2 hats, 2 pairs of gloves and a few scarves. And even snow boots. We live in a condo with a south facing window and never have turned the heat on as we live on a middle floor. Since we can park inside, we only need a snow scraper and snow brush and blankets inside the car. We take public transportation but try not to stand outside at the station too long.

  • Tina

    I have 3 jackets, 2 light ones and one heavy one. I think I may get rid of one of the light ones. I keep it as an extra in case I need one for my mom if she comes out of the nursing home for a day. When I used to go to Los Angeles or FL in the winter I would take 2 sweatshirts and layer them instead of taking a heavy jacket. Gloves and a hat are easy to pack. I take thin gloves on vacation for cold mornings most of the time.

  • Tina

    Our winters are not as dreadful as I remember 30 or 40 years ago. We used to have more days below zero. Also, since we now have one car that is parked indoors, we don’t have to worry about the car starting in the middle of the night or the middle of the day. I have puzzles, and hobbies to do and have never stocked up beyond an extra bag of cat food and an extra bottle of milk.

  • The living room was full of tropical plants during the winter. Now, most are out on the balcony and I gave away a half dozen. In summer, I keep out 2 hooded sweatshirts, and 2 flannel shirts in case we get a cold spell. The bulk of our winter clothes and boots are in our storage locker in the basement.

  • Tina

    We took a big bag of clothes to Goodwill a few days ago. I still have much more to donate. We also took more books and magazines to the library. My freezer is full of bread from the day old bread outlet and I have enough beans and brown rice for several weeks. As I get older, I really don’t understand the need for walls of paper towels, napkins, and toilet paper. I remember a cousin stockpiling sugar and coffee. We never use coffee and use about one pound of sugar in a year.

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