How The Minimal Mom Decluttered Her Home and Paid off Debt

A woman holds a box of stuff to donate.
Dawn Madsen decided to embrace a minimalist lifestyle when her kids were young. “There was stuff everywhere, and I couldn't stay on top of it,” she said. Photo courtesy of Dawn Madsen

Minimalism is a lifestyle that embraces living with less. It runs counter to the consumerist culture that encourages buying more and more.

Yet for Dawn Madsen, a Minnesota wife and mother of four, becoming a minimalist family seven years ago has been nothing but a blessing.

“[The] stuff — once it’s gone, you don’t miss any of it,” said Madsen, who goes by the moniker The Minimal Mom on YouTube. “And what’s underneath is just so awesome. So worthwhile.”

It even helped her family become debt free.

We talked to Madsen about how she cleared the clutter and embraced minimalism.

The Path to Minimalism

Madsen first became interested in minimalism when her kids were all 4 and under and she was finding herself overwhelmed keeping the house tidy.

“There was stuff everywhere, and I couldn’t stay on top of it,” she said.

She came across a podcast with Joshua Becker — a pioneer of the modern minimalism movement and author of “The More of Less” — and was hooked. Once she realized other people were getting by fine without having a bunch of stuff, she decided her family could do it too.

“I didn’t really have anything to lose,” Madsen said.

So she started getting rid of items around the house that her family wasn’t currently using or wasn’t likely to use within the next six months. Most of the toys and clothes she was always telling her kids to pick up — she decluttered them in secret.

“Now as they’ve gotten older, I think they appreciate it,” Madsen said. “There was too much for them to manage.”

Minimalism’s Big Financial Effect

While saving money was not a driving force in adopting minimalism, Madsen said it was an awesome byproduct.

I don’t know which was more life-changing — simplifying our house or getting out of debt.

About a year after beginning their journey with minimalism, Madsen and her husband Tom decided to get serious about getting out of debt. While Madsen always considered herself pretty frugal — shopping at the dollar store, thrift shops and garage sales — she estimates her family has been able to save a couple hundred dollars a month since going minimalist.

Embracing minimalism removed the claws of consumerism in her life, she said.

“When you get rid of, like, 80% of your possessions in one year, you kind of have an aversion to reaccumulating [things],” Madsen said.

That made it easy to buckle down on paying off debt and avoiding taking on new debt. Madsen and her husband were able to pay off $130,000 in consumer debt in about two years following Dave Ramsey’s system, which advocates the debt snowball method.

“I don’t know which was more life-changing — simplifying our house or getting out of debt,” she said. “I didn’t realize how much stress we were carrying when we were in debt. And I didn’t realize how much stress all of this stuff in our house caused me.”

After paying off all their consumer debt, the Madsens were able to pay off their mortgage earlier this year. Becoming debt free has empowered their family to pursue what really matters to them.

“Our focus is so different now,” Madsen said. “We don’t look at this stuff to try and make us happy. We find contentment in helping others and having time to spend with our family and to be able to travel. It’s just not about the stuff anymore.”

Advice for Families Interested in Minimalism

Whether you’re interested in embracing minimalism to cut out clutter or reduce your spending, Madsen suggests first becoming a student of the minimalism movement.

“Start watching YouTube videos or reading articles or reading books about it and try it out,” she said.

If you have young kids, like she did, she recommends you start decluttering their belongings without them.

“I do think kids are minimalists at heart,” Madsen said. “I think we all thrive in simplified spaces without a lot of stuff to manage, and kids are really no different.”

Another key tip to keep in mind: Minimalism doesn’t have to mean getting rid of all nonessentials.

“We still want our house to feel cozy,” she said. And so, we still keep decorations and pillows and throw blankets and that kind of stuff.”

It’s also perfectly fine to make the transition in stages. When it comes to holidays and birthdays, Madsen said it took a couple of years to train her family to rethink gift giving. They now lean into giving experiences as gifts or sticking to practical gifts.

“[My kids] love getting new clothes because most of the stuff they get otherwise is secondhand,” she said.

She and her husband are also pretty intentional about telling family and friends what their kids need.

It’s not always easy. Kids get so much stuff and are exposed to a bunch of consumerism these days, Madsen said. However, her children have grown to appreciate living more simply and they’re good at paring their belongings to get rid of stuff they no longer use.

While she wishes decluttering was just a one-time thing, she understands it’s more of an ongoing process as stuff fluctuates in and out of their house.

This time around, she’s no longer that frazzled mom constantly reminding her kids to pick up all their toys.

“[Our house is] enjoyable to be at. It’s easy to keep clean,” Madsen said. “Even though our house is small — it’s only 1,500 square feet — we just love it. We love being here.”

Nicole Dow is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder.