The Minimalists Break Down Getting Rid of Stuff and Simplifying Your Life

Ryan Nicodemus, left, and Joshua Fields Milburn work in Bandit Coffee Co., their St. Petersburg, Fla., coffee shop.
Ryan Nicodemus, left, and Joshua Fields Milburn work in Bandit Coffee Co., their St. Petersburg, Fla., coffee shop. Photo by Joshua Weaver
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They call themselves The Minimalists. It’s a nice, simple name.

Eight years ago, childhood friends Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus were making lots of money, working 60-80 hours a week in corporate jobs. They had luxury cars, big houses, designer clothes.

And they were miserable.

Stressed, depressed and in debt.

So they quit their jobs and sold or donated most of their stuff. They embraced a minimalist lifestyle, preaching the benefits of living simple, meaningful lives with less.

They own less, buy less, and spend their time with a close-knit group of peers, friends and family who motivate them.

They’ve written three books, launched a website and produced a documentary. They’re probably best-known for their chart-topping podcast.

All in all, they’ve built an audience of some 20 million people.

Here’s what happened when The Penny Hoarder talked with Milburn, 36, about what’s really important in life.

The Penny Hoarder: Let’s start with the basics. What is minimalism?

Joshua Fields Milburn: Minimalism allows us to identify what is essential in our lives and what is non-essential. It helps us get rid of what’s non-essential so we can focus on life’s most important things — which aren’t things at all.

TPH: Tell us more about how you got started down this path.

JFM: When I was 28, I was living the American dream. I had a six-figure salary and a big suburban house with more toilets than people. Then in the same month, my marriage ended and my mom died. I had to deal with all her stuff.

(It was 65 years worth of stuff. At first Milburn was going to box it all up and put it in storage, probably forever. Then he realized his memories of his mother weren’t in her stuff. He photographed the things that mattered to him, then got rid of everything. That got him started doing the same in his own life.)

JFM: This one-two punch happened in my life and forced me to look around at what had become my life’s focus — the accumulation of stuff. I might have been living the American Dream, but it wasn’t my dream. Maybe what I thought I wanted actually wasn’t what I wanted at all.

Over eight months, I got rid of 90% of my material possessions. I felt freer and happier and lighter. Now every possession serves a purpose.

TPH: That’s going to sound extreme to some people. What’s a simple first step that someone could try out?

JFM: Ryan and I aren’t trying to proselytize. We’re just sharing a recipe that’s worked for us. Minimalism is a tool that has allowed me to live more deliberately.

Get rid of the stuff you don’t like very much or that you’re holding onto “just in case.” But it’s more than just decluttering. First, ask yourself: How might your life be better with less? The answer is different for everyone.

How might my life be better with less? Maybe I’ll be able to regain control of my finances. Maybe I’ll focus more on my health. Maybe my relationships will improve. Maybe I’ll reclaim my time and my creativity, and work on that passion project. Or maybe I’ll just have a cleaner house.

TPH: People sometimes latch onto an idea like this, but then fail to follow through. How do you suggest they keep it up?

JFM: The cool thing about letting go is that, once you gain momentum in embracing minimalism, it gets easier by the day. The more you do, the better you feel.

For me, getting rid of a few shirts led to half a closet. A few DVDs led to getting rid of my entire library.

But all the clothes I have now are my favorite clothes. And it’s not like I got rid of everything. If you walked into my home right now, you would probably just think: “Whoa, this family is tidy.”

The average American household has more than 300,000 items in it. But for me, every possession serves a purpose or brings me joy. I get far more value from the few items I own now than if they were watered down with 300,000 other items.

High-Tech Help Getting Started

Joshua Fields Milburn, left, and Ryan Nicodemus Joshua Fields pose in front of mountains.
Joshua Fields Milburn, left, and Ryan Nicodemus reach 20 million through their website, books, podcast, and documentary with tips on how to live well with less. Photo by Joshua Weaver

So, how do you get started getting rid of your old stuff?

Once upon a time, your best bet would have been to have a garage sale. Nowadays, apps make it easy to sell your stuff.

We like Decluttr — which sells your old CDs, DVDs, Blu-Rays, cell phones, tablets, video games and gaming consoles.

You scan your media with your phone, and Decluttr sends you a free shipping label.

One user, Gil Flores, sold about 100 DVDs and 75 CDs — he had so many, he said, that he’s not certain of the exact number anymore — and made $275, an average of $1.57 each.

Another simple app is Letgo, which lets you sell just about anything. Just snap a photo of your item, and set up a listing in about 30 seconds.

Hoarding old textbooks? Someone will probably pay you for them! Just search the book’s ISBN on Bookscouter, and the site will connect you with more than 25 of the best-paying and most reputable online buyback companies.

As for The Minimalists, there’s one more cool thing we’d like to mention.

They’ve had tens of thousands of people play something they call the 30-day minimalism game, where you compete with a partner to start jettisoning items each day.

Take the challenge with a friend, relative or roommate. On the first day, each of you gets rid of one thing. On the second day, two things. Three items on the third. And so forth and so on.

Donate, throw away or sell your electronics, clothes, furniture, knickknacks, decorations, etc. They need to be gone by midnight.

It’s easy at first.

After a couple of weeks, it starts getting harder.

But if you both make it to 30 days, everybody wins.

Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. This is the first of two posts about The Minimalists, with the second part coming soon.