Real Life Minimalists: Heather

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.

Today, Heather shares with us a story of near-disaster. She tells us how the experience changed her perspective on “stuff,” and strengthened her commitment to a minimalist lifestyle.

Heather writes:

I have always considered myself a fairly simple person, so when I started reading about minimalism about six months ago, it really struck a chord with me. My husband had actually been after me for a while to get rid of some of our “stuff.” One day I read “Organized Simplicity” by Tsh Oxenreider, and I haven’t looked back. I went through the house one room at a time, top to bottom. My husband and I each gave away a 39-gallon bag of clothes. I consolidated my beauty supplies into a single small drawer (fairly easy since I don’t use makeup). We sold some of our furniture and rearranged what was left. We pulled out nearly half a kitchen’s worth of unused cookware (why do we have two Dutch ovens?). I tore up and disposed of my old scrapbook. The hardest part was our book collection. We are both avid readers and each have two shelves of college textbooks. We have four floor-to-ceiling bookcases holding over a thousand books. We culled about 150 and are selling them on Amazon and Half. We each have Kindles now, so we are not adding new books as frequently, but there is still a long way to go. Overall, I was quite happy with the progress we made. It was, as so many new minimalists say, liberating.

And then disaster struck. Our state’s largest wildfire raged less than two miles from our home. The whole town was told to evacuate. In the few hours we had to pack, we were told to pack the six Ps: People, Pets, Prescriptions, Personal Computers, Papers, and Photos. We packed three suitcases of clothes and personal items for the four of us. We grabbed our photo albums and pulled photos out of their frames. We found our insurance papers, titles and such, all thankfully located in the same place. Two laptops and the backup for the main computer. Medicine. Diapers and toys for the two kids. Carriers, food and litter for the four cats. Everything and everyone fit into a small wagon and a sedan with a Thule. We lived for a week with a friend, wondering if our house would be there when we got back, wondering if what we brought with us would be everything we owned. But something strange went on in my head: I was okay with that. If we lost our house, so what? If we lost our massive collection of books, or the China from our wedding, or even my original drawings, so what? We had everything we needed: each other.

In the few months since we returned to our unscorched home, I’ve been slowly getting rid of more things. I’m in the process of scanning all our photographs and documents, so if we ever have to evacuate again I can just grab a couple disks. I think this cleaning out has had an effect on my daughter. As her birthday was approaching, she started cleaning out her room, giving toys to her little brother, to make room for new things. Her room is always tidy now without my having to ask. I even managed to convince my family to swap charitable donations for Christmas instead of physical gifts (thank you Miss Minimalist for that suggestion!).

I have also been trying to simplify my life. Being a stay-at-home mom, my life isn’t very complicated. I don’t have a lot of commitments, and I won’t make my kids (15 months and 5 years) have a full schedule. Down time is important. I am still stressed occasionally, but not nearly as much as I used to be. I’m still new to this whole minimalism thing, but it has already made a significant positive effect on my life.

{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.}

52 comments to Real Life Minimalists: Heather

  • AussieGirl

    I enjoyed reading your story Heather! Was eagerly looking forward to this week’s real life minimalist and I wasn’t disappointed. :)

    It is amazing how much things don’t really matter until we’re forced to choose (in this case it was when the fire broke out). Yours is the second story I have read today where some good ‘what really matters’ perspective was offered. Is the universe trying to tell me something? Probably. I’ve been feeling hung up over lots of little things that in the grand scheme of things don’t really matter. So I thank you for sharing – It has helped me to clarify some thoughts.

  • Love the comment about kids. Down time is so important, how awful when kids are so tired from too many commitments..let ’em play in the mud, that’s what I reckon.

    • Nicole

      You’re so right. We have a dedicated mud pie making area in a corner of the garden. It’s the first and last place all visiting kids under the age of 8 go to.

  • A.

    Great story – thanks for sharing it! May I suggest some sort of online backup service for your files, such as Dropbox or Carbonite? I use one, and it’s a relief to know that scans of my family photos are backed up off-site. Should something dreadful happen when I’m not home to rescue a local backup, my virtual stuff is still safe. (I don’t recommend storing sensitive data there, or even on the computer at all. I do keep pdfs of tax forms and the like on a flash drive in a safe deposit box.)

  • Anna D.

    You are doing great! I like the 6 P’s- what a cool way to grab what really matters:)

  • Loulou

    Really inspiring post today! Thank you for sharing.

  • Great story. It sure helps us see things in a different perspective when we stand to lose what we have. I am glad you didn’t lose your home and that you were able to take a potentially bad situation and to learn something good from it to bless your life. Thanks for sharing.

  • Jackie s

    I really enjoyed reading about your journey heather.

  • Jackie s

    And ive never heard of the six p’s, but earlier this year, when a hurricane struck and we had to evacuate, i did exactly that–the 6 p’s.

  • Nicole

    Hi Heather, I really connected with your story as we have similar lives. Having a minimalist home with kids can be done and isn’t it wonderful? I read a book called “Simplicity Parenting” last year which I think you may really enjoy – it advocates exactly what you have touched on regarding down time for kids. It is a really comprehensive book and, along with minimalist blogs like this one, has really improved the quality of my families life.

    • Heather

      “Simplicity Parenting” is on my to-read list, but it’s always checked out of the library! I guess that means it’s a good book. I hope I have the chance to read it soon.

  • Sarah

    Your minimalism story is great! I’m curious how you’ve incorporated minimalism into your kids’ lives, especially having a baby. I’d love to hear more!

    • Heather

      Thank you, Sarah! I’m no expert at this, by any means, but here’s what I’ve done with my kids so far: When a new toy comes in, an old one goes out. I rotate toys with my youngest and he thinks they’re all new even though they just came out of the closet! Most toys stay in the kids’ rooms, and our play area a.k.a. living room must be picked up every night. I don’t give them many large toys that crowd a room. We don’t have a swingset, we walk to the park instead (nice that it’s close). As far as baby stuff goes, by the second kid you realize that all those cute things you bought for the first really aren’t necessary, like the diaper holder and matching rug…

  • Great story! It’s so good to get into the simpler mindset while the kids are still young :)

  • Elizabeth

    My most difficult purge will be the books. I have been saving it for last, but slowly donating a few books at a time to our Friends of the Library. It was nice to read that someone else has the same affinity for reading.

    You are so right about children. The millenial generation have all been over-committed, (proud to say my children were not), and more than 80% of them did not have a family meal, which I find not only astonishing, but sad. I read, recently, that marketers are hopping on that habit/tendency and creating on-the-go foods or converting existing foods to snack foods to be marketed to the millenial niche. I also read that at least 80% of millenials are overweight or obese. Coincidence? I think not.

    • Heather

      80%, wow. I remember reading years ago that they did a study on high school valedictorians (or some similar group of kids), and the only thing they all had in common was they ate dinner with their families every night. Really wish I remember where I heard that.

      “Einstein Never Used Flashcards” was a great book about what young kids need – free play time and such.

  • Grace

    Great story Heather! Thanks for the neumonic device of the 6 P’s. I would love to be able to have my photos all scanned someday. However at this stage of the game sorting through them makes me melancholy. Has anyone else felt this way?

    • Amy

      I just finished scanning all of my photos. I have a seven year old daughter, so there were many. I made myself scan them all- took a week. When I went through them on my laptop later, it was so much easier to whittle them down to the most important. I think I cut the amount of photos by half. Now we look at the photos more because they are so easy to access.

    • Heather

      I am so glad that I got a digital camera before my daughter was born! I’m still not done scanning; took some time off to do outside work while it was still nice out. Now that it’s snowing I guess I should get back to it! Grace, if you don’t want to sort through old memories, you could always see if a photo store will do it for you, though it would cost more.

  • runi

    Heather: Sure glad everything worked out okay for y’all. Evacuation is scarey. (I survived one a long time ago–along with several cats. Now there is only one cat.)

    A.–Thanks for the reference to computer backup. I had been putting off this step, but after reading Heather’s post, it’s time to get on it.

    One suggestion if you have pets. Set up some sort of reciprocal arrangement with neighbor to evacuate each other’s pet(s) if one of you aren’t home.

  • Kathy

    I enjoyed your story Heather. So glad that your house survived and you got the opportunity to sort through things on your own. I admire the fact that your 5 yr old keeps her room clean and is willing to let go of things. My 6 yr old daughter wants to keep everything and genuinely mourns toys I convinced her to let go of from a couple years ago, even if she had outgrown them. She genuinely plays with them all, but it’s too much and I’ve told her that I will be limiting the amount of new things coming in until she lets go of some of the old to make room for the new. It’s the only idea I’ve come up with. We live in tornado alley so I have all our documents scanned and on a flash drive & all my photos scanned & stored online in case something were to happen while we weren’t at home. I admire that you evacuated and fit everything into your cars. It really does put into perspective what’s important.

    • Heather

      Thank you, Kathy. I found that being a role model and getting rid of my own stuff before I buy new things has had more influence on my 5-year-old than any amount of talking and reasoning ever could. Although she does occasionally ask for things back that she gave to her brother. I have no problem letting her have back a thing or two now and then, but not too much. It helps her realize what she does like to play with and what she doesn’t even remember she had.

    • Hi Kathy. My 8-year-old daughter also finds it very difficult to let go of things. Because she gathers so much stuff and pulls it out to play with, it is difficult for her and I to keep her room clean and organized. She has been diagnosed with a dust mite allergy so that is a good reason to pare down her soft toy collection, which we have been working on.

      Now, I have talked to her about the ease of being able to keep her room tidy when she has less stuff, how good and calm it feels with less, and how other kids can play with toys she doesn’t want, BUT when it came down to it, the best way I found to kickstart the decluttering process when we were making very little headway was to offer her 10 cents or 20 cents (Australian) per toy she was able to let go of. I did explain to her that normally we would have a garage sale that she could sell her toys at, but this year we didn’t have time, so I would “buy” from her any toys she didn’t want instead. Within half an hour, she’d cleared three garbage bags worth of toys from her room! I held onto them for awhile in case she missed them, but she hasn’t so they have been taken to the op shop. I’m not suggesting this as a long-term solution as it doesn’t deal with the root of clutter, and it’s obviously not good to always attach decluttering with dollars, however it can be another tool against clutter that we can use.

  • Amy D

    To Heather:
    Could I ask what “Half” website you wrote about in your story? I am trying to get rid of many things but I’d like some ideas about “Half”. Is that an Ebay website with Half? I searched on Google and found too many to narrow down one…

    I should kick myself and start scanning all my photos and my child’s too. Time to get started!!!

    • Heather

      Yes, Half is Half.com, from eBay. They don’t have as many seller fees as Amazon, which is nice, but I’ve sold more through Amazon so far.

    • not heather (obvious), but i’d guess that she was referencing half.ebay.com. i’ve used it multiple times to sell books, dvds, and video games with great success. definitely look into it!

  • You give me hope with how your daughter has changed! Although our boys have been growing up around minimalism, they still aren’t at a point where they are ready for it. I truly hope they can come to the same turn around your daughter has!

  • Carolyn

    Regarding books: I am learning about minimalism because I had to flee a hidden toxic mold situation in my house. The doctor said I must get rid of all books that “have been opened” – they absorb contamination. It took me a while, but I’ve come to terms with that thought, except for a few things like baby books or my mother’s bible, which I’ll keep in a closed bin. It feels freeing, although we haven’t actually done it tet!

  • Carolyn

    I mean “yet.”

  • Judy

    Amy D. Half.com is affiliated with Ebay..It’s a good place to sell or buy books.

  • Thank you everyone for all the wonderful comments!

  • Cynthia

    Wow, Heather. I really admire your focus and your ability to evacuate on a dime using the 6-p’s. Never heard of them but a good thing to remember when in a panic. On minimalism, enjoy your journey, not just the results. Minimalism is freeing but you learn so much about yourself on the path there. Good luck!

  • Hi Heather, I was really moved to read your story. You sound joyful and really connected with your family, and able to be realistic and objective about your stuff. I completely understand about the books. I just finished writing a post about shopping within my own bookshelves for books to read, as I’d reached the point where I had too many unread books at home to justify going out to buy more. What helped you to let go of the 150?

    • Nicole

      Hi Kim, it’s not Heather here obviously but I have recently let go of around 300 – 400 books. I realised that alot of the books were there for “just in case” (my kids might like to read them when they grow up, I might like to read them again etc) – so those books went. I also got rid of the books that were for “show” – so people might see how amazingly intelligent I was – how silly so those went. Bunches of favourite authors also went. If I need to read them again, I can order through my library. It has been an extremely freeing and positive process and I was one of those people who lugged around boxes of books for years as we moved and couldn’t ever imagine getting rid of them. It feels like reaching Stage 21 of the Minimalism Journey – it certainly wasn’t the first thing I purged.

      • Thanks Nicole, I find it hard to cull books, but I’ve recently been able to let go of books by an author, even if I had lots of their other books (I felt like I was not keeping a “complete” collection of that author!). You are right, it is tremendously freeing. Thank you so much for your tips. You have inspired me to have another look at my bookcases!

        • Hi Kim and Nicole,
          Yes the books are hard. It’s hard to part with the college textbooks that we spent hundreds of dollars on, it’s hard to part with a collection by a favorite author, it’s hard to part with those classics you know your kids are going to have to read at some point in high school. Which is why I haven’t been able to get rid of those yet. We also have a sizable collection of “show-off” books (Isaac Newton’s Principia, for example, which I have never actually read), too (Nicole, you’re not the only one!). The books we managed to pull out were ones we knew we would never read again or reference again, sometimes they were gifts from others, sometimes ones that just didn’t turn out as well as we thought, several obsolete computer books. The good news is we have just decided to remove an entire bookcase section, so that will have to be another 100 or so. We’ll see how that goes!

          • Gin

            I got rid of my university textbooks when I realised they were 15 years out of date, and if anyone I knew (including myself) ever wanted to study that subject again, the information was obsolete. I may have paid hundreds of dollars but they ceratinly weren’t worth that!

  • Rob Dean

    As a veteran of multiple flood evacuations (3 this year), I have to agree that there’s nothing quite like it for reminding you of what’s really important…and my evacuation package keeps geting smaller.

  • Wow Heather. Some of us cannot understand what you go through every time you have an evacuation warning. I find your calmness when decided what to take, “6 Ps”, very admirable :) It must be a blessing and a curse living in parts where the population must evacuate. As some other readers have said itdoes give people a reminder of what is truly important to them.

    Your story is very inspiring, thanks for sharing! :)

  • When I give away old stuff, the books are always hard to dispose.
    I also agree with A., dropbox could be helpful.

  • moira

    I, too, needed to evacuate my home on the night of the devastating fires in Victoria on ‘Black Saturday’. My husband works with the emergency services and rang me at nearly midnight to tell me to get out and quick. I was terrified and my son was in tears. I put on woollen clothing, grabbed some water and blankets and got in the car. My son wanted to take his cricket set,his boogie board etc. I said yeah,yeah, anything to keep him calm. He put them in the car. Meanwhile, I had walked into my bedroom full of stuff, the earrings collected over 30 odd years, the photos, all of it. I walked out empty-handed. All that stuff about what you’d grab if the house was on fire is rubbish. I needed none of it. I even forgot to take a change of clothes!
    Our town was spared by a wind-change at the last minute. We had to evacuate our home twice more and each time had more notice and I took more stuff with me, Turkish rugs, photos, the earrings!, etc but I always bear in mind that when it came down to it, I needed nothing.

  • Tina

    Another one I’d never seen. My pills take a whole tote bag when we travel, so now I know what goes first.

  • Tina

    I have a whole empty dresser in the guest room. At the end of winter, it will have 2 blankets in it. When my son finds his own place to live, we will give him a bookcase. I want less in our home and in our lives.

  • I gave away a whole bunch of silver plate no one wanted. Then I have been giving away china. Then pots and pans. More will go. I want very little but my husband has all kinds of stuff.

  • Our quilts are 16 years old and ragged. I will wash them and recycle the fabric or give them to the veterinarian. I am giving away some 20 year old towels,too. We have a small linen closet which is 1/2 empty. I just repotted some plants and I have 2 boxes of plants to give away. My husband gave me some clothes to give away.

  • Tina

    My friend has big black plastic bags full of empty toilet paper rolls. I said when you need them just tell everyone to start saving them. Then she has boxes full of egg cartons. I said to stack them up and keep one box full. She bought big Rubbermaid bins for yarn and string. I told her to keep her bags of sugar and flour in the plastic instead of on the floor. Someone offered me yogurt cartons because I give away plant cuttings. I kept 6 and recycled the rest. This is the second time I’ve tried to declutter her basement.

  • Tina

    When my kids were little they had small toys like small cars, action figures, my daughter had some dolls and there were a few games and puzzles. Instead of big houses or playsets, they used cardboard cartons and smaller boxes for the furniture. At the time, Han Solo and Greedo fought in a cantina with toothpaste and soap boxes for furniture. Later, He-Man and Skeletor fought in another carton. No big plastic toys sitting in a junk pile. Barbie had her own carton.

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