Minimalism 101: Habit-building strategies to minimize desire and consumption


Many people who call themselves minimalists begin their journey into owning less (and consuming less!) through a massive decluttering purge or a drastic lifestyle change such as moving into a tiny home. But for me, purging my closet every couple years and keeping the house organized was never the issue. My parents were neat freaks and I was accustomed to selling my belongings at garage sales, a family affair that involved an entire weekend of sitting on the driveway and selling lemonade.

For someone who is notoriously neat and tidy, my journey to minimalism couldn’t have been that much of a stretch, right?

Wrong. My journey toward minimalism took years, and it is still a work in progress. I love the idea of owning less, but it was my consumption habits that needed a kick in the pants. I had to learn to not only own less but to want less.

At its core, this is the essence of minimalism. Eliminating desire.

Which is, interestingly enough, also a teaching of Buddhism and Stoicism.

Eliminating desire seems to go against every natural human inclination, but with practice and through mindful habit-building, it is possible. And once small milestones are achieved, it is also deeply gratifying. But how do we start making the small steps toward wanting less?

Here is the formula that worked for me. I use a personal example to illustrate how I was able to become more mindful about my purchases, especially concerning non-essential purchases like skincare and clothing (my weaknesses!). I encourage you to use your biggest consumption weakness and tackle it using some of the strategies I discuss. It may be a clothing addiction, spending too much time on social media, or buying drinks for everyone at the bar.

All it takes is a couple minutes of mindful reflection and a commitment to change your environment to set yourself up for success.

Step 1 — Recognize the habit

When do you feel the strongest urge to go shopping? After receiving a paycheck? Is it an online habit? Nail down the times and context when you are most vulnerable.

For me, I used to spend the most money the weekend after receiving my bi-monthly paycheck. While I always set aside the necessary amounts for rent, bills, and savings, I still found myself blowing a lot of cash on makeup and skincare products, new clothes, food, drinks, and music events the Saturday and Sunday after I got paid. For the next two weeks, I found myself on a super tight budget.

I also noticed myself wanting to purchase more whenever I scrolled Instagram or read email newsletters advertising new clothes from my favorite brands.

Action items and systems to set myself up for success:

  1. Set a reasonable budget for each weekend and take out that amount in cash. Yes, actually visit an ATM or get cash back at the grocery store.
  2. Delete Instagram off my phone.
  3. Unsubscribe from email newsletters that sell products, especially clothing and skincare products. I love certain brands, but I don’t need to receive emails from them. I’ll buy my favorite products when I’ve used up the old ones and I actually need new ones.

Step 2 — Look closer into where your consuming habit originated and the emotions/behaviors surrounding it

Did you start consuming more when you got a raise at work? Has this habit been around since adolescence? Did your family instill your consumption habits?

Oftentimes, it is our childhood that forms our consumption habits that carry on into adulthood. Recognizing these patterns is imperative to making the necessary behavioral changes.

My shopping habit started when I was in high school after I landed my first job. I would take my entire paycheck and spend hundreds of dollars on cheap makeup and swimsuits that got worn once or twice. Going deeper, I recognize that shopping helped me de-stress and spend time alone. As a high-achieving student, I needed time to relax and space away from my friends and family. Shopping was my escape. I also had acne and lots of it; it was a huge bummer for my self-esteem. Shopping made me feel better about myself because I could focus on dressing my body in cute clothes (a distraction from my face) and try new skin creams and concealers that would hide my red, irritated skin.

I also recognize that this habit probably originated from childhood, when my mom would take my sister and me on all sorts of “errands” which sometimes meant buying a lot of things. For example, my mom would usually buy us new clothes and school supplies during the start of a new term. There wasn’t anything inherently wrong with my mom’s shopping behaviors. She wanted my sister and I to look nice at school and have fresh supplies. In general, my family has always been pretty frugal. But I recognize that shopping was a regular part of my routine growing up, and it translated into a more damaging habit as I got older.

Action items and systems to set myself up for success:

  1. Before I make a purchase, take a deep breath, and tell myself I love myself. Then see if I still actually NEED IT. Cheesy, yes. But helpful for someone who tends to make ego-fueled purchases.
  2. Before making a purchase, write it down in my ongoing “Things I Want To Buy” notepad. “Priority Purchases” are listed at the top of this note, and everything else goes below it into the “non-essentials” category. For me, saving £3,000 before December 31 is my no. 1 priority, so this is at the top of the list. When I add an item to the list, my priorities are always the first thing I see. I only purchase things off the “non-essentials” category once I have reached my goals for the priority section. And I never buy anything off the non-essentials section unless it has been sitting there for 2 weeks or more. I’ve virtually eliminated impulse purchases with this method. The “non-essentials” list also serves as a great gift-buying list, so when friends and family ask what I want for Christmas, I know exactly what I’m looking for.

Step 3 — Be nice to yourself

Last weekend, I went shopping with a friend and bought a shiny gold dress that was on sale for £12 (reduced from £60?!). Despite the low price, this was still an impulse buy and totally unnecessary. I actually needed professional shirts and a pair of shoes. Mindful minimalist fail! I’m not perfect, and I still make silly purchases like this sometimes. But there is no point in beating myself up about the purchase. I wore the dress that evening and I’ll wear it often, so at least it will get some use.

Action items and systems to set myself up for success:

  1. Write down a detailed description of everything that I am truly grateful for, the things that make my heart sing, and the small everyday joys. This usually includes waking up next to a kind and supportive partner, traveling to new places, having a college degree, and cuddling my cat every morning.

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