One of my goals at the beginning of this year was to get more organized and get rid of a bunch of clutter. I’ve donated about 3 bags of clothes and have gotten down to what I consider a pretty compact wardrobe of items that I wear regularly and get consistent use out of. I’ve also refocused my budget and finances and organized my workspace. As a result my life (and my mind) is a lot less cluttered.
As I was purging physical artifacts from my life I thought a lot about Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, which was published in the US in 2014. Kondo, a Japanese organizing consultant and author, developed the KonMari method, which consists of gathering together everything you own, one category at a time, and then keeping only those things which “spark joy” and choosing a place for everything that makes the cut. While I didn’t specifically use her approach, I did spend a lot of time thinking about why I felt the need to drastically minimize my possessions and place a high value on what I did end up keeping.
The Search For the Perfect Jacket
I don’t buy a lot of clothes – probably half of my clothing spending is on work pants and shoes, as those tend to wear out pretty quickly. I spent maybe $2-300 last year on clothes.
But earlier this year I started a search that continues to this day – the search for the perfect jacket. My go to jacket is a 4-year-old Carhartt that’s still in perfectly good shape. It’s showing some wear, and while the fit isn’t perfect it’s warm as shit and tough as nails. I also have a Levis denim jacket. It has a more stylish fit and is pretty well made, and it’s warm enough down to about 30 degrees with some layering. The combination of both of these jackets actually covers all of my needs – each one serves it’s respective purpose and goes with everything else I wear.
I was in the stages of some hardcore organizing and minimizing, hellbent on reducing the clutter of my life so that I could focus on the bigger things I’d been putting off for a while. I was optimizing my finances and my life, and it was a rush to feel myself becoming more and more weightless, my mind freer to think about more than bank bonuses or asset allocations.
As I’ve talked about before, the rush you can get from getting your shit together is pretty exhilarating. It inspires you to do more with what you have, especially when it comes to time and money. I found myself looking for anything else I could minimalize, make more efficient, and declutter. Thus began the search for the one perfect jacket. Why did I have 2 jackets when I was pretty sure I could find one that would cover all my needs, and would cut my jacket ownership by 50%?
The Paradox of Choice – Fear of Missing Out – Decision Paralysis
You’ve probably heard of Fear of Missing Out (often abbreviated FOMO, all too similar to YOLO). If you haven’t, FOMO simply describes the recent, social media-fueled phenomenon that people fear that something better is always happening somewhere else, and if they don’t diligently refresh their Facebook app said event will take place and be awesome, and they will have missed out.
I think FOMO applies to more than just events on social media. Even if most people don’t realize it, it applies just as smoothly to buying things. To get here, just think of what causes FOMO – a concept called The Paradox of Choice.
The Paradox of Choice – Why More Is Less is a 2004 book by American psychologist Barry Schwartz. In the book Schwartz equates the growing anxiety people have about making decisions to the endless amount of choices available to them. Not only are there tons of choices for each decision (who you marry or what jacket to buy), but a review of each choice is easily accessible somewhere on the internet, and those reviews might be on a website that advertises similar products, but you’re thinking about waiting because a newer, better version might come out soon. So you can either make the decision now and either a) be happy with it or b) settle and continue to look for something better. But option A could also lead to Aa) being content with your decision indefinitely or Ab) wondering in 6 months if there’s something better out there yet.
If you’re content, you probably won’t feel the need to continue searching for a newer, better version, and thus will miss out on said version if it truly does exist. If you wait and don’t make a decision, the thing you passed up will be gone (or hard to find) and a better one might never come along. Either way you’re missing out, no matter what choice you make.
The result? You’re stuck in a loop of decision paralysis and either making a bunch of decisions half-heartedly or making no decisions at all. Or worse, as described by Aziz Ansari:
I do think there’s a new thing where we always want the best. Whatever we’re doing we want to do best funnest thing. Whatever were buying we want the best. We have all these options and we have all this information at our fingertips to research it and we want the best. Why not have the best? And it’s very useful, right? I’ve made a lot more educated decisions in my life – but at a certain point doesn’t that stuff become debilitating?
Like now it’s kind of to the point where before I make any choice or decision in my life I have to Google something to make sure I’m not fucking it up. You know what I mean. Like the other day I had to get a toothbrush. Before I left my house – without even thinking about it – I Googled “Best Toothbrush”. That’s right, I’m about to get the best toothbrush! Why? Why do I need the best toothbrush? Every other toothbrush I’ve bought on a hunch has been fine. What is the big fear now? Have you ever run into someone with no teeth and you’re like “what happened?”
“Bought the wrong toothbrush. Shoulda done more research!!”
-Aziz Ansari, Live at Madison Square Garden
Minimalism, Frugality, and Buy It For Life
I often see minimalism and frugality linked but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive. A natural byproduct of trying to achieve Financial Independence is a smaller home, less but more useful stuff, and a strong frugal mindset that dissuades buying more stuff unless it is needed or “sparks joy”. A minimalist lifestyle by default.
Minimalism and FI have something else in common – an optimization high.
The high you get from organizing finances, automating savings and watching your net worth rise as a result is the same as organizing your home and experiencing the energy you get from not being surrounded in clutter. You transform your portfolio of 100 stocks into an index fund like you consolidate a whole filing cabinet into a single folder. There is slashing and cutting and deep thinking about what is necessary, meaningful, and extraneous.
Now, when you do buy something, you’re going to make sure it’s exactly what you need (and want), and that it’s going to last because it’s worth a little bit more money up front to not have to replace it as often (or ever). You’re going to Buy It For Life. There are numerous websites and even a reddit page dedicated to BIFL. Reviews, pictures, and discussions on the quality of whatever you’re considering buying. And of course similar products. Now you have some choices.
Let’s return to the original task of finding a jacket. One jacket to replace two perfectly good jackets. I’m thinking, “I’ve consolidated so much already, and it’s great! This should be easy”. Spoiler Alert: It wasn’t easy, and I got pretty far down the road of Diminishing Returns before realizing I was being ridiculous, that two jackets is not a superfluous amount of clothing and that both of them suit my needs, are used often, and are in fine condition.
In the early stages of this post I wrote out the results of traveling down this rabbithole:
- I looked at how much time, money, and effort I’d spent on acquiring a new jacket. I’ve spent quite a few hours doing online research (searching Google, reading message boards, etc.) plus some time browsing in physical stores.
- In the last few months I’ve actually purchased and returned around 10 jackets, and while some had free return shipping others I had to pay out of pocket to return.
- There’s also the factoring in of time driving to the UPS store to ship something back that didn’t fit.
- Finally there’s the cost of thinking about the purchase. There’s a good amount of brainpower I could have used to think of things to write about, flesh out photography projects, or learn about new topics that I spent thinking of search terms, stores I hadn’t looked at, and keeping my budget straight with all these temporary purchases.
Basically, I wasted a lot of time and energy, as well as a decent chunk of change, with the results getting worse and worse as I kept digging – for something that I didn’t even really need (or later want) that badly. I did get a blog post out of the deal, so there’s that.
There’s a common theme that runs through the FIRE community – finding balance and happiness today despite making sacrifices (that are extreme, by most people’s standards) to achieve a goal a lot sooner than nearly everyone else. What is enough, and how do you know. It’s probably the discussion I connect with the most. At the end of the day there’s only so much optimizing you can do before you have sit back and let things take their course. The space – mentally, physically, financially, emotionally – that results from all this fine-tuning is not to be taken lightly. You can let yourself go crazy in it, or you can embrace it and make it meaningful and productive.