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Julian Power

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My minimalism challenge for 2019: Three purchases only

framed piece of minimal art

The year 2018 has been a tremendous success for me all around except for one small but significant detail. My company didn’t turn a profit and I lost a couple of grand with my previous editing business, which I shut down after a couple of months.

When you start a company, you can’t expect to make money from day one, especially when you are building a personal brand from scratch. You would think that the expenses of a writer are marginal, but I still have to pay for a bunch of service providers for my blog (hosting, domain, stock photos, Grammarly, WordPress theme, G-Suite, etc.) and much more for business administration (tax guy, incorporation, random German bureaucracy fees, etc.).

All these small bills add up to a big bill at the end of the year. As a solo-entrepreneur, my biggest expenses are my living costs. In the short term, it’s easier to decrease your expenses than to increase your income because you can almost always cut costs immediately (rent, food, subscriptions, purchases, etc.). Having said that, your end goal is still to make bank.

My business is already lean, so I have the most saving potential for my personal spending. I have been interested in minimalism for a couple of years, but it was more of an intellectual exercise than a lifestyle choice. I read the minimalists blog, but I didn’t take action and change my spending habit because I rationalized that I am already reasonably frugal. That may be true, but I still have a couple of major blind spots I have to fix. The biggest one is my e-book library. I have around 100 unread e-books on my kindle, which is ludacris.

Obviously, I don’t have unlimited resources and therefore I have to cut down my current burn rate or I will run out of money eventually. 2018 was a much-needed wake-up call for me to get my personal finances in order. Minimalism is the answer to my problem.

Minimalism

Most people think of minimalism as owning little stuff, but that view is simplistic. Minimalism is a life philosophy and goes much farther than that. Reducing your belongings is just the beginning. The beauty of minimalism is that it’s a practical and simple philosophy. It’s about finding out what’s essential (belongings, relationships, purpose, work, hobbies, etc.) and whats’s healthy (thoughts, emotions, habits, etc.) for you and eliminating the rest from your life. You have to say no to a lot of stuff to be able to say yes to the things that matter.

The idea is that your belongings are dragging you down and that decluttering enriches your life. Minimalism is simple, but it’s not easy. It takes a lot of effort and time to find out your priorities in life and that’s why most people don’t even bother. For example, it took me 26 years to realize that I love writing and now I am going all-in. My number one priority is becoming a successful writer and this lens drives the decisions in all aspects of my life. I am always asking myself: Is this going to help me to become a successful writer?

Minimalism challenge

The premise is simple: I am allowed to buy maximal three products in 2019. That sounds straightforward, but as always the devil is in the details. I settled on a few exceptions:

  1. Food, transportation, shower gel and other consumables don’t count.
  2. Business expenses (e.g., Grammarly) don’t count.
  3. Digital subscriptions (e.g., New York Times) don’t count, but digital products like movies, courses and e-books do count.
  4. Gifts for other people don’t count.

At first, I wanted to be more hardcore and buy zero new products in 2019, but then I realized that I need some wiggle room if I have to replace essential items like my MacBook Air.

The minimalism challenge is an easy way for me to simplify the daily buying process. Instead of a binary yes/no decision, the answer is always no. When I go into a shop with friends, I know beforehand that I am not going to buy anything, which is a great feeling to have. Now, I don’t waste any mental energy on purchasing decisions, and I can use the energy on more important decisions instead.

„No“ works fine for 99% of the daily buying decisions, but there is a small subset of buying decisions where you actually need an item. A wedding invitation is a good example. If you don’t own a suit, your first impulse is most likely to buy one. I have only two use cases for a suite: weddings and funerals. Therefore, it makes more sense for me to borrow or rent a suit (buzz word: sharing economy) for a wedding. These options are rarely considered in the buying process because buying stuff is a form of mental laziness. Throwing money at a problem is a quick fix. It takes much more mental energy to find an alternative.

Personal finances

As an entrepreneur, it’s almost impossible to separate your personal life from your business. I need money to cover my living costs to be able to work on my business. When I run out of money, I have to find a job to make ends meet. Most people prioritize financial security and avoid this problem by working for someone else their whole life, which isn’t an option for me. Frugality is a small price I am willing to pay along the way to financial independence.

Recurring costs (rent, insurances, subscriptions, etc.) have the biggest saving potential. With a cheaper apartment or shared flat you can save 1200€ per year easily. Saving money spend on insurances is also a straightforward process. You need a weekend to research if you can find a cheaper provider and you can cut out some insurances altogether.

Subscriptions are cheaper, but also less complex. I have canceled a bunch of subscriptions before going to Colombia. Among other things, I canceled Spotify and my Amazon Prime subscription. Canceling Amazon Prime was huge because I buy almost exclusively on Amazon and Prime removes all the friction from the buying process. Without Prime, shipping is more expensive and takes longer, which makes you think twice before you buy something. I also thought about canceling my NY Times subscription, but I get so much value out of reading high-quality journalism that it’s worth the money for me.

Cutting out unnecessary big-ticket items (products, which don’t add value to your life) is an even easier way to save money. A good example would be the 1200€ DSLR Camera I bought with my first start-up salary and never used. I liked the idea of taking high-quality pictures, but I wasn’t interested in learning the technical stuff. After two years I finally had enough and sold the camera on eBay to at least recoup half of the money.

Unnecessary big-ticket items are much easier to identify than small day-to-day purchases like coffee. I have been a hardcore coffee drinker for years and I must have spent a couple of grant on coffee over the years (six years of university and one year as a writer). I could have avoided these costs by cutting down my coffee consumption and carrying a thermos flask around. If you have developed a bad spending habit, you have to take a step back to reevaluate and change it. It’s the only way to get a handle on your personal finances.

Spending habit

Most people don’t think about spending money on little stuff like an e-book because there are no short term consequences. You only see the consequences in aggregate over time. Small unnecessary expenses (coffee, e-books, etc.) add up to 200€ per months easily, which is 2400€ per year. That’s roughly two months of lost runway in my case.

To know your monthly living costs (runway) and your saving potential, you have to track your expenses. For 2019, I got a free money tracking app called Money Manager, which is a game changer. After buying something, I immediately get out my smartphone and write down the purchase (date; category; amount; description). Now, I am much more aware of my expenses because I have an accountability system in place. That means I not only can identify saving potential, but I am less likely to waste money on bullshit in the first place. The app forces you to replace your automatic spending habit with a conscious one. I am using the app for only a week and I already see the positive effects. Saving money has become a fun game and now I finally have hard data to work with.

It takes a little effort to put an accountability system into place and most people don’t see the need as long as their monthly income exceeds their expenses. They don’t see the upside potential of the potential extra money (shorter working hours, traveling, side business, etc.) and the costs aren’t tracked and therefore hidden.

Conclusion

Personal finances is a somewhat dry topic. It’s much more exciting to talk about making money than it is about saving money, but they are two sides of the same coin. That’s where minimalism comes into play. It not only sounds cool, but it also gives you a framework and a new perspective on your belongings. Decluttering doesn’t take away anything from your life, but it gives you more freedom and clarity.

I want to downsize my belongings and get a handle on my personal finances in 2019. The minimalism challenge is an integral part of my strategy to achieve this goal. I am going to write a follow-up article how it worked out next year.

The rest is up to you,




Recommended books:

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
Goodbye, Things: The New Japanese Minimalism
Minimalism: Live a Meaningful Life