Dear Frugal Catholic readers. I had the priviledge of interviewing Courtney Cotton regarding her minimalist lifestyle. Her mom, Kathy, is one of my oldest friends, and I was able to stay with Kathy and see Cortney and her husband in the month of October 2016 when I went to Nashville TN to help Kathy after her knee replacement surgery. What Courtney has to say about minimalism will fascinate and hopefully challenge you. Enjoy! If you have questions for Courtney, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Do you consider yourself a minimalist?
I’ll first explain what minimalism is. Minimalism isn’t simply living in a small space, setting a strict budget or embracing a contemporary design style. It’s truly a way of life and requires embracing a mindset that encompasses every facet of one’s day to day. This mindset necessitates thoughtful discrimination against the noise of the world and dedication to leaving less of a footprint than the average American counterpart. The practice of being mindful is the cause; the effects are such things as living in a small space, being sparing with a budget and preferring simplistic design styles that creates a refuge for thought. And yes, I am proud to call myself a minimalist.
Have you always been this way, or what was the impetus for starting this lifestyle?
I was in a nasty relationship and marriage for seven years, where I’d escape the emotional pain by being a consumer; whether that was mindlessly surfing the internet, purchasing the next gadget or new wardrobe, binge-watching the most popular tv show or filling the house with new furniture. When I finally decided to walk away from the relationship, I was able to stay at my sister’s condo while she traveled abroad for a few months. While I used to think her apartment was sparse and overly simplistic, there was something fascinatingly peaceful and inviting about her space. Everything always seemed clean and in order, and I was able to think clearly each time I was there. It was during those few months that I realized that no amount of excessive purchasing, surfing and binge-watching would add more value to my life, and that life is too short to spend on things that don’t matter.
Do you see this as a permanent lifestyle choice or a fad?
I’ve never turned back from those days at my sister’s condo. As I mentioned earlier, it’s absolutely a lifestyle choice and my husband and I could never see it any other way. As a side note, if you’ve ever watched tiny house shows on HGTV or DIY, there’s no doubt that these homeowners have adopted a minimalist lifestyle; however I’m not sure how long the tiny house movement will last due to increasingly strict regulations about dwellings and land usage.
What are the benefits and what are the downsides of this lifestyle choice?
I’ll start with benefits. Here’s one that everyone can identify with – less to clean! Less stuff means less to clean, less to maintain and less to organize. This in turn means more time, more money and more clarity.
A result of practicing minimalism is the ability to practice mindfulness. Mindfulness is focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting feelings, thoughts and your physical state. Because minimalism allows us to have clarity in our surroundings, it is easier to practice mindfulness. I believe the two are incredibly interrelated.
Downsides – not many! In previous years, I filled my closet with trend-focused pieces from stores like Target and Old Navy, leaving me with items that fell apart after one wash. I’ve now adopted what’s referred to as a “capsule wardrobe.” A capsule wardrobe is a term coined in 1970s London that refers to a collection of a few essential items of clothing that don’t go out of fashion – and are well made – such as skirts, trousers and coats, which can then be augmented with seasonal, trendy pieces. There are times when I am somewhat self conscious that I only own a few pairs of shoes, especially by other women for my “I-own-less-than-100-pairs-of-shoes” mentality, but I’m happy to report that because of this, I have money to spend on things that actually matter, like travel, experiences, education and living in a safe neighborhood.
Secondly, one might ask about living in a small space and having parties or many friends over. This isn’t really a downside, but a challenge to address. Thankfully there are so many retailers that provide modular furniture for a party of 2 or 20 – such as Resource Furniture, Expand Furniture and Structube. Additionally, outdoor heaters and fire pits allow us to have groups of people over in colder weather – who doesn’t love a good s’more?
How do you decide what material things will be in your life?
Generally speaking, we have a minimum 6-month plan for fairly large material purchases that are aside from basic necessities for our home. Purchases such as these could include travel, experiences or things that contribute to experiences, such as a camera, hammock or bicycle. It all comes down to being usable, memorable and well-made.
Read this staggering statistic: In 2009, the Self Storage Association reported that with more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child, it’s now physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self-storage roofing (New York Times). The most popular response I hear when discussing the absurdity of storage units (this goes for packed garages and attics too) is “But I might need it one day!” Stop kidding yourself. If you haven’t used it in 12 months, it needs to go. It’s selfish to hold on to items that we never use – especially clothing, blankets or basic necessities that could be donated to those in need.
Even now in our minimalist home, we have a designated Tupperware bin in which we deposit items that we haven’t used in a few months, such as items of clothing that may not fit well anymore or a kitchen tool we may no longer need. When the bin is full, we donate it. We’ve found that once something goes into the bin, we completely forget about its existence; further validation that the item truly isn’t needed or missed.
Challenge yourself by asking why you’re a consumer. Are you seeking approval from others by having new clothes, a new phone or new furniture? Are you obsessed with the hunt and pursuit of a particular item? Are you falsely filing a void with the constant noise of consumerism and the immediate gratification of buying? Overall, the benefit of embracing this lifestyle is being able to spend your time, energy, and resources on things that truly matter.
Do others judge you? What type of reaction do you get from friends and family?
Just recently I moved from a cubicle to an office at work and had the opportunity to recycle the heavy, broken furniture that was nearly four decades old. Rather than buying a new desk, I saved money by instead purchasing a discounted dining table to use as my workspace. To freshen up the space, I spent $25 on new paint, hung up some posters on the wall, recycled an old frame that a colleague had left behind and picked up a $12 orchid at my local grocery store along with a few other items.
My co-workers popped in to see my new space, some of whom were impressed by my clutter-free zone, and others who scoffed at how “sparse and stark” my space was. Yes, I agree – clutter doesn’t really do it for me! “Where is all of your stuff?” they asked. I am able to think clearly and therefore work more efficiently because I don’t have stacks of old papers, enough pens for a small army and dozens of tchotchkes stuffed into bookshelves that have nothing to do with work productivity.
Friends are encouraging of this lifestyle and often declare intentions of adopting similar habits. My mother is a different story (sorry Kathy). Surrounded by items in her home that haven’t been picked up or looked at – in some cases, in half a century – she claims that they are sentimental so therefore should be kept. I do not understand how something can be important to you yet hasn’t been interacted with in decades. We don’t have children, but if we did, we wouldn’t want them to be saddled with combing through excessive amounts of items after we passed on.
Socializing with friends in expensive settings, like a new restaurant or bar, can also be challenging. There hasn’t been a time we’ve gone out to dinner and my sweet husband hasn’t said, “This was fun, but we just spent four times what we would have had we stayed at home, and your cooking is a million times better anyway.” Eating meals at home or packing lunches is usually better than mass-cooked restaurant meals, always less expensive, always healthier and definitely more personable and intimate. If you can read, you can cook, and if you can’t read a recipe, there are literally millions of YouTube videos that demonstrate everything from how to boil water to how to prepare sea urchin. We love having people over to our house for meals – and we’re never rushed by a server.
Do you feel minimalism and frugality are the same? Explain.
Embracing a minimalist lifestyle allows one to be mindful of a budget. Spending less on unnecessary items frees up both time and resources; minimalism and frugality are clearly interrelated.
Please share your “put an egg on the top of it” recipe.
Eggs are an inexpensive and delicious source of high quality protein, vitamins B2, B6 and B12, selenium, vitamin D, zinc, iron and copper. In our house we’ve put eggs on just about everything – from wild-caught trout to macaroni and cheese to vegetable soup. Sounds crazy, but trust me!
As with any meal, it’s ideal to have a grain, vegetable or fruit and a protein source for breakfast. Most evenings I will end up cooking a little bit too much rice or pasta, and may have a little bit of leftover vegetables that we couldn’t quite finish. Depending on the leftovers, we either freeze them to use later in soups or stocks, or save them for breakfast – simply by reheating in the frying pan and cracking an egg over the top.
Last night I made chicken, rice pilaf and broccoli – and ended up making too much rice pilaf. I had some leftover tomatoes, so I just dumped it all together and threw a fried egg on top. A drizzle of good olive oil over the top adds even more flavor and sustenance – and it ends up being no more than $0.60 per serving!
Courtney Cotton lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband. They work together in downtown Nashville and enjoy cooking, spending time outdoors and traveling in their free time.