Financial Minimalism

Financial Minimalism

This morning, when paying my water bill I realised that minimalism can be applied to all aspects of our lives, not just our physical belongings. It occurred to me that I spend time on the 15th of every month logging into a website, entering my card details and paying a utility bill. This process takes me around 10 minutes each month, or two hours over an entire year. What a waste of time!

Beyond the physical act of sitting & paying the bill, I also have to be conscious of the date & remember on the 15th of each month to pay the bill. This is absurd & it is one of the last parts of my financial minimalism journey.

This morning I took an extra 10 minutes to sit on the website & set up a monthly direct debit. I have now freed myself from the tyranny of the monthly water bill. I still need to set up another direct debit for my council tax bill & I’ve decided to do that later this evening.

My Financial Minimalism Journey to date

Things used to be a lot worse than this before I started my Minimalism & simple living journey. When I started I had so many bills & so many due dates. I had a student loan to pay each month, a student overdraft to clear, 5 separate credit cards all carrying an outstanding balance & all of my utilities had to be paid manually on receipt of a bill.

Luckily I didn’t have a car payment to make as I’ve tended to buy cars for cash since 2008 when I handed back my lease car, but I did have car insurance and breakdown cover to pay. I also had excessive debt to try to clear & a massive rent bill which I would pay via a bank transfer each month. Paying by bank transfer meant I had to login each month & manually transfer cash to my land lord. Not cool.

The problem I had was a lack of fluid cash in the bank to commit to direct debits. With so many commitments and around 15 separate payment dates each month, I needed to pay them manually just in case I didn’t have enough money to cover the bill. That way I could manage the bill, wait for a reminder or red-letter & hopefully buy time to pay off the outstanding bills. This was largely due to overcommitment.

Managing so many payments when you owe a lot of money is hard work. It requires a lot of thinking time & financial planning. It also introduces a lot of stress.

In 2012 I finally committed to living a more minimal & simple life. I sold the flash cars, handed back the keys to my house, sold a ton of stuff & moved in with family to get the finances under control.

Using money from the sale of the car, I instantly cleared an overdraft and one of my credit cards. I then started redirecting those payments to other cards to snowball them and bring them down more quickly. Over 18 months I managed to clear off all but one credit card, pay off all student debts & even get into healthy credit in my current account. Minimalism helped as not buying stuff quickly leads to you saving money. Also, when a married couple share a single room in a family members house, you quickly learn what your most valuable possessions are. It was like a crash course in minimalism & we became badass mobile people in days.

We had a small storage unit for all of our remaining house possessions & just enough stuff in the bedroom to live our daily lives. The funny thing is, when we moved in 2015 to our current house, we had the task of unboxing everything that had been in storage for so long. If I’m honest, apart from the very odd item, we had forgotten owning most of the stuff.

It was an instant realisation that we had lived for 18 months without any of this crap & lived good lives. We had travelled extensively. We could pack up everything we had into our small car and travel anywhere in the UK. At the drop of a hat we could pack up and go and stay with friends, or stay with family in Scotland. We shared a single set of drawers for the entire period & had more than enough clothing.

Packing for foreign travel was a cinch. We could share one bag, or take two small backpacks. When you remove your stuff, you realise that most of it is just useless crap or distracting rubbish.

Anyway, back to finances. Following this period as we neared the end of our 18 month pay off period I was left with no debt besides two credit cards. The balance was low enough that i could transfer one balance onto another card & be left with a single card. I actually did a double balance transfer. I transferred the balance from card A to card B leaving card A empty. I waited less than a month to be offered a balance transfer offer on the empty card A. They offered me 6% interest for the life of the balance, which made it more manageable and more like a loan. I then transferred the total balance from Card B back to Card A so all of my debt was on one card & at 6% for the life of that balance.

I had managed something I thought was impossible 18 months earlier. I only had one single payment to make each month. From 15+ payments to remember to pay each month to a single payment. Granted I no longer had rent to pay & would soon add that back into the mix, but one item, The pressure lifted was insane. I felt like a new person. The ultimate goal is zero debt & zero finance, & I’m working towards that goal daily

I instantly setup a direct debit for this remaining credit card payment & I haven’t given it a second thought since.

I’ve carried this financial minimalism with me since. When we moved house I used cash for everything. No credit or finance, just savings. When I needed to insure the house, I paid the entire premium cash up front. Better to pay all at once & save on interest payments. This also means I know exactly what’s coming out of my bank each month. The same went for car insurance, which I now pay annually for a significant saving. The same also goes for car tax, which I pay for a year at a time.

I setup direct debits for my rent, Internet & mobile phone, my credit card is still paid automatically each month. In fact the only things I still have to pay manually are my Council Tax & Water bill. That will be sorted by the end of the day on the 15th August 2016, I promise.

Financial minimalism is something that not many people write about. But it does work. You can take it even further like I have and cut out any unnecessary payments. I cancelled all subscription payments, I no longer have pay TV channels, I cancelled my Xbox live as I never use it. Thinking about it, the only things I do pay are the essential utilities (my internet is essential, right?). I don’t pay for any luxuries, subscription services or anything with a monthly commitment.

I like knowing that not many bills come out of my account monthly, it’s less to think about & surprisingly it is exponentially easier to manage your finances. Having a load of separate things to pay each month is no different from having loads of stuff. It’s distracting, it consumes far too much of our energy and thoughts. It’s just bad.

if you treat your financial commitments with the same minimalistic principles you apply to your stuff you will see a huge pay off. I’d go as far to say that financial minimalism is even more important than minimalism with your possessions. Finances can haunt people, they keep people awake at night.

One handy side effect of adopting minimalism is that you will find you have loads of stuff you no longer need or want. sell that stuff & you can go some way to paying off your debts. I’d guess that the sale of my stuff cleared around 35% off my debts overnight. That’s a great starting point.

I find that I feel much more content since addressing my finances & applying minimalism to them. They are easier to manage and easier to forget about. Address your smallest debts first. I know that is contrary to everything people tell you, but owing 1 person is much better than owing 5 or 10 people. The sooner you can shed creditors the better.

My aim now is to clear that last card, plan a trip to New Zealand to visit one of my best friends & to move to Amsterdam within 12 months. I’m now in a place to do all of those thanks to some major changes to the way I view possessions & finances.

Have you tried financial minimalism? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. I’m sure some people will be saying “easy for him to say, I owe loads of money & make very little”- trust me, I sacrificed a lot to pay off a huge amount of money & I earn a very modest wage from self-employed work, much less than I would in a ‘Real Job’. Anyone can do this & I implore you to give it a go. If you have tried it, please leave your tips & advice in the comments section.

If you are new here, be sure to checkout my Introduction to Minimalism posts

John Signature

Digital Decluttering in Minimalism

Digital De cluttering in minimalism

I’ve been online since around 1994. I have a Bachelors & Masters degree in Computer Science so I tend to spend a lot of my time on a computer & using the internet. In that time I’ve acquired terabytes of files and other clutter across various computers & devices.

When I started my minimalism journey I completely overlooked my digital life. I just thought that having files on a computer took up very little physical storage space. Surely that means digital files aren’t an issue?

I was wrong. When I started to look into digital clutter I found the problem went far beyond files. I’ve categorised forms of digital clutter into several key areas:-

  • Files such as Word documents and PDF’s (work)
  • Files such as photos and videos (personal)
  • Photos & videos used for work
  • Music in the form of my MP3 collection
  • TV Shows & films
  • General trash such as saved memes and random junk files
  • Out of date or no longer used programs & apps
  • Duplicate content duplicated across devices
  • Digital services & accounts such as social media and website accounts
  • Email newsletter subscriptions
  • Smartphone apps & notifications

The list will vary for everyone. You may find some are more of an issue than others, but it’s important to identify your digital clutter. Start with one group & clear one at a time.

De-cluttering email inboxes

Perhaps the easiest one to deal with is your inbox. I know a lot of people advocate inbox zero, but I’ve found it doesn’t work for me. My inbox has business emails, personal emails, academic emails and promotional mail. Some are ongoing discussions, others are kept as a record of a conversation. If you only use a personal email account you can try inbox zero. If you use Gmail, you can try the Inbox app for that.

My first task was to go through each & every email in my inbox and delete any useless mail. I had mail going back as far as 2008, so I decided to purge anything before 2012 without even checking. I then started going through emails and deleting all old promotional emails, out of date or irrelevant email and junk mail.

I didn’t unsubscribe from anything at this point. When I had finished I had gone from 14,000 emails in my mailboxes to less than 200. Any emails that I was keeping where archived in a local folder on my iMac mail account to get them off the server.

Over the coming weeks I watched for promotional email coming in and unsubscribed from almost all of those emails. I also dealt with enquiries in batches and deleted completed email conversations which didn’t need archiving. This became a habit because I didn’t want to have to sort through bulk emails in the future.

My inbox is now much more manageable & the amount of email I receive is probably about 80% less since unsubscribing from promotions.

Files & folders

Having spent years in university my digital file clutter was quite bad. Being a computer geek I’ve always had a good naming & folder structure, but the sheer volume was crazy. I had work from 10 years ago which is well out of date & I haven’t re-read since it was first assessed. These files where all placed into a folder & zipped into a single archive just in case I ever need reference. This essentially turned thousands of files into a single archive. if I don’t access that archive within the next 12 months I’ll probably delete it altogether.

I also had lots of web development files & website/server backups, along with a lot of reading material in the form of PDFs which I’d forgotten I’d stored. I kept a few of the more useful ones but I probably deleted over 10,000 articles and files I had saved up. I only kept the most recent backups and deleted a load of in progress and unused web development files.

In total I probably deleted or archived over 20,000 files. Most of which I never access. My documents folder is now pretty empty and mostly consists of a few backups and current work. Most of my written work is saved on my various blogs for the world to see, so I really don’t need to hold onto the drafts and planning materials.

Photos & videos

My photo & video collection was vast. For years I’ve used iPhoto on OSX to manage my photos. We got a digital camera as soon as they came out. That camera was less than 1 megapixel & only held 16 photos. Before that we took a lot of photos on film & had huge tins of photographs. As cameras & storage progressed we took more & more photos & never felt the need to curate them.

With the introduction of smartphones, we started taking pictures of everything & saving random pictures from the internet to text or tweet to friends. The big issue came when Apple introduced photostream. Photostream essentially syncs all of our photos across all devices. We have two ipads, two desktops & two iPhones all syncing to the same photostream. Our photo collections ballooned & within a few years it was out of control.

When I started curating our photo collection in iPhoto, we had over 35,000 images. We also had around 300 videos of varying quality, mostly stupid quick films shot to share online.

To address our photo addiction I first downloaded an application called iPhoto Duplicate Cleaner. This app searches your library for duplicates & similar photos. After running the duplicate cleaner & automatically removing over 4000 duplicates it was time to start manually deleting photos. This meant deleting countless selfies, pictures of food & drink and general low quality images. Our photo collection is an ongoing project but it is now down to around 10,000 images. We keep returning to this to whittle them down even more.

Unused apps and programs

This one is fairly easy. Open up your smart phone, tablet or computer & take a look at the installed apps or programs. Start by deleting anything you haven’t used in a while or don’t remember installing. Next delete anything which is rarely used.

Finally, the hard one is to delete anything which takes up too much of your time & attention. For me, that meant deleting Pinterest, Tumblr, Facebook & a plethora of other social media apps. I was finding they took up too much of my time, so I now try to only use Instagram & Twitter on the go. By limiting myself to a single social media platform for photos and for discussion, I find I spend far less time looking down at my phone. I’m also less likely to flick between the apps refreshing feeds for no reason.

These distractions on your smart phone can kill productivity & can also make you miss out on large chunks of your day. I also found that smartphones give me major attention deficit. I flit between apps and don’t complete any meaningful tasks.

I will do a full post on Smartphones in a later post.

I reckon this one will be hard for most people today. Smartphones have become the norm, but with an infinite source of information in your pocket, sometimes you miss out on all the things your senses can pick up from your surroundings. I challenge you to slim down your installed apps & even turn off your phone next time you go out with a friend or loved one. It is life changing.

I have smart phone free time daily now. I leave it outside of the bedroom at night and always put it on charge in the kitchen when I’m at home. If I go out walking I leave it switched off at home or in the glove box of my car. If you want to take photos while you walk, take a camera. It saves you getting distracted by the rest of the online world when you should be in a world of your own. Don’t instagram a picture of your walk while you are doing it, save that for later & just enjoy that moment.

Finally, turn off notifications. The only notifications I have left active are those for texts & calls. I have disabled the vibrate function on my iPhone so now the silence switch truly does mean silent. By not having constant interruptions, you will regain so much more productivity & you will become more present & connected with those around you. I challenge you to try it.

Old social media accounts & website accounts

This one will need you to do some thinking. I decided to close down unused social media, forum & website accounts. The first accounts I closed where Deviant Art, Myspace, Google plus along with various old forum accounts, three old email accounts, my old dropbox account and various online shop accounts.

It may be hard to remember where you have accounts, so keep an eye out for emails from these companies. If you do get one, login & close the account. Some accounts are really easy to delete such as Dropbox & deviant art. Others, such as online shops, may need you to email them requesting account closure.

This is great from a clutter point of view. Less to worry about & one less username & password to remember. I’m in the process of streamlining my online presence. As mentioned earlier, I primarily use Twitter & Instagram now. My Google Plus account was deleted, my Facebook account has been wiped clean and other accounts have been closed.

A second benefit of closing accounts comes from a security standpoint. The less sites that save your details, the less chance of your details being leaked or released following a database hack. My Skype account was recently hacked & I suspect that happened because of the Talk Talk data breach. I had an old account with TalkTalk that hadn’t been deleted & I used the same email address & password for both, purely by accident. So cleaning up accounts can also save you headaches. Bonus!

I could write at great length about digital clutter. My journey into minimalism initially ignored digital clutter, but as soon as I started looking into my own clutter it was obvious that this area is important & often overlooked. Digital Clutter has the same effect on our brains as physical clutter. It can be overwhelming and can kill productivity & creativity. For most, digital de cluttering will be a massive undertaking, but I really do urge you to address it. Just do a little bit every day.

John Signature

Have you addressed your digital clutter? Share any tips or advice in the comments section below.

Kindle ebook reader vs. huge book collection

Minimalism – simplify & downsize your book collection with an ebook reader

Minimalism has become an important part of my life. As a young (ish) couple, my wife & I live in private rented accommodation which is by definition insecure. We generally have a 12 month guaranteed lease, but after that time we can choose to leave. On the other hand, a land lord can issue notice to ask us to vacate. We have lived in rented accommodation for many years. As yet, we haven’t decided where we would like to settle down. We aren’t even sure which country we will be living in when it comes to buying a house, so right now we are happy to rent.

Renting can be quite expensive, but it also has benefits. If we want to move, we just give notice. No need to wait until a house sells before we move. It also means we are not responsible for the building & maintenance of major things like plumbing, heating and electrical work.

One major downside is the insecurity. We tend to move every 18 months & the last few moves haven’t been local. We have gone from living in Manchester to Scotland and now we live in Cornwall. Moving so often definitely makes you appreciate minimalism. The ability to pack up easily and move great distances is definitely helped by living a more minimal life. However there is always room for improvement.

One item I have struggled to downsize is my book collection. Unfortunately, this is also one of the worst things to hold onto when you move house a lot. The sheer weight & bulk of my book collection has hindered our recent moves & on the last move 12 months ago I decided to address the book collection.

My wife switched to reading on a Kindle e reader around 5 years ago. Since we moved to Cornwall & I nearly ruined my back carrying boxes of books I have been slowly moving over to an E reader too. At first I didn’t want to invest in any new kit so I resorted to the Amazon Kindle app on my old iPad. This worked OK for the past 12 months & has allowed me to start digitising my bulkiest books, but the iPad is less than ideal for reading. I find the backlight hurts my eyes after reading for a long period & the screen isn’t the best resolution for text. I also find the weight of the iPad to be an issue. If you read for extended periods it does get heavy.

Another major issue with reading on the iPad is glare. Trying to read on the go was proving very difficult in any outdoor conditions. I couldn’t see the screen in the garden or on the beach.

Last month I treated myself to a Kindle for my birthday. Other e readers are available & I’ve heard great things about the Kobo, but my wife has been using a kindle for years & we use Calibre to manage our ebook collections so I decided to stick with what I know. Also, as the all new Kindle had just been released, I got a brand new kindle of the previous generation at a discount for only £49.99.

It’s only when comparing the kindle to a section of my book collection you can really understand the significance of minimising & space saving with an ebook reader. I’ve taken a few pictures of my new kindle next to a stack of my books. This is only a small segment of my collection, but most of the books present are now also on my kindle. The kindle in the picture has 62 books on it. All in that small form factor. Truly portable.

Tiny kindle & massive text books

Tiny kindle & massive text books

I probably have around 400 hard back and text books. I’m in the process of re-reading, sorting & donating the books I no longer need. I’ve also been buying books in digital formats for the past 12 months. I only expect to keep a few of my most treasured physical books & can’t really envisage a need to buy any more physical books with the exception of a few text books with diagrams. I may just use a lending library for those.

The kindle really is a great device. I find it comfortable to read on for extended periods & the fact that I can carry a whole collection of books on such a small device means I can really read anywhere I choose. I used to carry two or three books with me in my backpack. I would read them at coffee shops or whenever I had a few minutes to spare. I’ve found that switching to an ebook reader has encouraged me to read even more than I did before.

kindle or physical books. It was a tough choice

kindle or physical books. It was a tough choice

There are certain ethical issues with ebook readers. Some people feel that they are an invasion of privacy, some people like to buy certain books using cash for privacy reasons & I can 100% agree with that. But for the majority of reading they are very well suited for modern life. There is also the issue of DRM and being able to pass them on/sell them but I find the portability outweighs those issues for me & there are plenty of DRM free outlets & resources available. Also, selling books isn’t really feasible now due to the weight & cost of postage. I’ve only ever sold two of my text books.

There is also the issue of vanity. I used to feel as though my book collection somehow validated my intelligence. It was a physical display of my education & my culture for everyone to witness when they came to visit. Let’s just say that was a misplaced vanity & I’d rather recommend books to friends than display them year round in the hope that they spot one when they visit. I think vanity & sentimentality play a big part in all of the collections we keep. It applies to all forms of media.

Ebook reader - digitise your book shelves

Ebook reader – digitise your book shelves

I’ve already digitised my music collection & my movie collection. I have posts on both of these subjects coming up soon. The book collection was the next logical step for me and due to the bulk/weight of books I’m glad I committed to switching. If you travel a lot or move house often, this could be a great way for you to lighten the load & free yourself up. It may also allow you to take a smaller house or apartment as you won’t need loads of space to store you books.

Have you switched over to an ebook reader? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

John Signature

Train Station minimalism

Minimalism is Freedom of Movement

I’ve been thinking about the concept of belongings & their direct relationship to freedom. If we own a lot of stuff, we tend to need a large property to store them in, we may need storage lockers or overflow storage elsewhere, we may even find ourselves needing to move house just to accommodate our belongings.

For a long time I was following that pattern. The first few times I moved house as an adult I only needed the space in a car to transfer my belongings, as time went on that car became a few car trips, then small transit vans and finally large removal vans. At the same time, the size of my property was also increasing. We started out in a tiny 1 bedroom top floor apartment which was owned by family, sparsely furnished and housing only our most important possessions (which at the time where are only possessions).

Our next apartment was even smaller, it was essentially two rooms in a converted Victorian house in Manchester, which had both been split in two, giving us a small living room & galley kitchen downstairs, a small spiral staircase in the living room went up to a small bedroom and tiny bathroom. We physically couldn’t fit much into that space & as a result we had the bare essential items. We didn’t feel deprived & the rent was so cheap. Our bikes were locked in the communal hallway & as the rent was so cheap, we really did exactly what we wanted with our lives.

Fast forward a few years and we progressed to a bigger 1 bedroom apartment, then onwards to a 2 bedroom house, then to a 3 bedroom house before finally moving into a 4 bedroom town house with garage and driveway. We haven’t had children and our core belongings haven’t changed. We still value our computers, cooking equipment, books and media centre, but the space had allowed us to accrue a load of extras. We had extra seating in the living room in the form of massive armchairs & sofas (for guests). We had a huge dining table to seat 6 people (we are still a family of 2). A garage full of rarely used tools, a spare bedroom, another bedroom used as a dressing room. Another bedroom used as a study and 3 bathrooms. Things where completely out of control. We where earning more money than when we lived in that first 1 bedroom apartment but we had next to no disposable income, the rent was almost triple & we had run up debts.

At this time a very close friend of mine was emigrating to New Zealand. He had been travelling for around a year and had seen a lot of Europe and ended up over in Australia & NZ. While in New Zealand he had made some good contacts & did some voluntary work at a maker space. He had decided to take up an offer of employment at the maker space in Wellington & with a bit of planning was ready to go. I was really sad to see him go, we have been close friends forever but this move was a positive step for him & the lessons learned helped me inadvertently.

On the morning he was leaving, I offered to take him to the train station to start his long journey to a new life on the other side of the globe. When picking him up I was shocked & intrigued by the fact he only had his travelling backpack & a small hold all. I don’t know why, but I expected this move to be like all of my moves. Surely all of his stuff was being shipped over. That wasn’t the case, he was literally starting a new life with only the things he could carry.

For some reason that really resonated with me.

I guess we both had similar upbringings & we both seem to have an issue with being tied to anything for too long. Be that work, a location or a routine. We always seem to change things up & make drastic moves or changes. He has always been a bit of a minimalist. Never owning much stuff, never buying into the latest crap. He even held off buying a mobile phone for years & always seemed to have money. Probably, because while we were busy buying rubbish, he was saving.

Suddenly I realised that if he could start a new life with only his most important & personal items, I could slim down my life to a much more manageable level & start to downsize property & belongings. It didn’t take long.

Within a few months I’d given notice on our 4 bedroom house, sold my fancy car, sold off a ton of the extras we had acquired, donated most of my clothing & started culling every aspect of my life. Within a few months everything was sold, the house was gone & we filled a small 80sqft storage unit with our entire life. We moved in with family for a year to clear off the debts we had run up over 10 years of ‘maximum-ism’. Each day we paid off a bit of debt & regained some of our old spirit. After a year, we had paid off almost £18K & bought a tiny 11 year old Fiat Panda car. It was the start of a new chapter in our life.

The next step was to move to a new property. We found a lovely church conversion in Cornwall which was 350 miles away from where we lived. Within a month we had moved in. It’s a modest two bedroom property. One bedroom is our work office and the smaller room is our actual bedroom. It has one bathroom, one living room & a kitchen.

We are still on our Minimalism journey. Just last week I bought a kindle so I could start to give away my physical book collection & move to a much lighter digital library. All of my music is digitised & we only use streaming services for movies now so no DVD’s. I do most of my work (including writing these posts) on an old Thinkpad X200 laptop I got on eBay for £50. Before it would have been the latest & greatest Macbook. This U-turn was life changing & in part I need to thank my friend for showing me the true value of stuff in your life & how it can hold you back. If he could make a new life in a new country without all the trappings of his old life, so can I.

Minimalism is definitely something I would recommend if you have itchy feet & constantly like to be on the move. My boredom threshold is quite low & routine while useful, tends to stifle me. I like to change things up constantly. Becoming minimalist allows me to do this with much more ease. When we moved down to Cornwall I still felt like we had too many belongings. We filled a van & the panda to get down here. It’s definitely a work in progress & I would expect that most minimalists are in constant review of their belongings. We are still sorting & downsizing & we aim to pay off all remaining debts & move to Amsterdam in the next 12 months. Following in the footsteps of my friend, we may not move with just a backpack and hold all, but it certainly won’t be any more than what we can fit in the car. This prospect really excites me.

The friend in question is still one of my closest, we talk often on Skype & Whatsapp & I’m hoping as my downsizing & simple living continues, I’ll be able to afford the air fare to go & see him in his new surroundings. We haven’t seen each other since that morning at the Train Station & it would be great to see inside each others lives again. To meet his new friends & family. The day is fast approaching when that will become reality. He also currently works at a micro brewery in Wellington, so that can only mean good times, right?

If you are new to Minimalism, feel free to ask me any questions in the comments below. If you are experienced, why not share some of your best advice with new readers.

John Signature