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How a dedicated shopper learned to let go

This simple black dress has been worn to many events.

This simple black dress has been worn to many events.

There’s no better way to learn how much stuff you have than to try to fit it all in a carry-on. I’m a college student, and I’ve moved to new cities three times since May — for school and for short-term jobs — so I’m becoming an expert at packing the three-month wardrobe.

In fact, I no longer own much of a wardrobe. I have essentials: a few staple shirts, one pair of jeans, one pair of flats, one purse, but not much excess. I’m beginning to loosely classify myself as a minimalist.

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But if you walked into my room or saw my desk right now, you probably wouldn’t guess it. You might actually guess the opposite. I’m messy and absent-minded with physical items (I’ve replaced my debit card three times this year). But that’s part of the reason I got into this whole thing. In my dirty little whirlwind of stuff-management, I found a breath of clean air in the word alone: minimalism.

Since I began exploring the idea, I’ve made a lot of Goodwill trips, but more importantly, I’ve learned that minimalism isn’t one-size-fits-all. It isn’t about living in a mostly empty room or astonishing people with how few things I own. Minimalism is a lifestyle and a worldview, the continual commitment to saying, “I will only invest my time and money in things that add value to my life.”

It’s a pretty new battle for me, one fought mostly in my closet.

Lug as little as you can; wallet, notebook, earbuds.

The journey begins

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I was trained in the fine art of clearance racks. My mom and I are quite the pair when it comes to schlepping home marked-down merchandise. And I learned firsthand the power of “retail therapy.”

When my first serious boyfriend and I broke up, I was the typical blubbering, ridiculous mess I’m assuming (hoping?) everyone is. My mom took me shopping to relieve some of the emotional weight. We scoured all day and triumphantly brought home my new self-esteem in department store bags. There’s something about the act of purchasing that brings me comfort. New stuff looks good. It smells good.

But less than a year later, that stuff didn’t feel so good. It was old and excessive and didn’t fit quite as well as it did when I was on the Emotional Breakdown Diet. I moved from my dorm to a house, and all the clothes were an annoying puzzle I was trying to piece together in my new closet. At the same time, I had a student design job where I was milking my underpaid hours, shuffling between formatting text boxes and reading the whole Internet. That’s when I stumbled onto some blogs that really struck me.

The writers seemed calm and happy. (Weird. This is America. Who are you people?) They examined the idea of simplicity and the freedom it provides. They didn’t own TVs, ate clean food, traveled freely, wore simple and beautiful wardrobes. They wrote about not having to organize anything another day in their lives. They had less debt and paper clutter in exchange for more time and peaceful attitudes. They called their lifestyle minimalism. I read about it as I chugged caffeine to stay awake; I thought about it as I dug through my piles of junk looking for my keys — again.

The whole idea struck me: What does stuff really solve? A year before, I wasn’t sad because I didn’t have enough great dresses. I was sad because I got dumped. It was a separate issue I tried to fix with a retail bandage, which was now wadded up in the bottom of my closet. Stuff didn’t solve anything, it only distracted me. So my journey to minimalism began.

Have a pair of skinny jeans; get rid of the rest.

Use it or . . . you know

The process was both thrilling and excruciating. What’s most notable is that it’s certainly a process. I had a few big easy purges, but I continually found myself staring at a sweater that I wore about 10 times, ever, and having a long existential dilemma about how much I needed it. I’d pack up clothes for a season, and if I didn’t ever miss them, force myself to donate them without even looking at the bag. But as difficult as some of those decisions seemed, they eased up with the liberation of a smaller and more useful wardrobe.

I slowly got down to a closet that was void of duplicates (why did I have seven pairs of jeans?) and in a very limited color palette that easily mixed and matched. I cut up almost every single one of my T-shirts and made them into a quilt, to keep the memories but stop myself from dressing like a bum every day. And then I just kept going. I pulled things out of cabinets and really examined them, realizing that “storage” is just a nice way of talking about the places you shove your useless junk. Why did I have so many hair products? Colors of nail polish? Office and art supplies? Trash. Donate. Go away.

It was difficult to get over the wastefulness and possible-lost-potential in my first few big pitches. I could feel the fashion and ecology gods shun me as I dragged bags of “trash” out to the curb and donation bins. To add to that, I’m an artist, so I see the potential for creative greatness in everything (“These scraps of my T-shirt quilt could totally be made into a rug!” — not making that one up). But the moment an item was gone, I’d already forgotten it. I’ve found there’s always more art to make, more outfits to put together with clothes you really love.

One pair of flats gets the job done.

When I went back to my parents’ house and started going through things, it got much harder. These weren’t breakup clothes; they were sentimental items full of memories that I’d been “saving” and “organizing” (a.k.a. hoarding) my whole life. But I reminded myself that my memories don’t live in objects; they live in my mind. And I could make much better, more meaningful memories without all this junk to deal with. So I took pictures of every sentimental thing that I didn’t use consistently and then threw the items into the trash/donate pile. I now treasure the memories, rather than the things.

Through the whole process, I kept coming back to my closet, watching it getting smaller and smaller, challenging myself to look more stylish with fewer clothing options. It became a game. And it was a game I couldn’t lose because my emotions no longer hid in the threads of the fabrics. These were just clothes.

Becoming a minimalist was a great way to trick myself into having a more classic style. In my new wardrobe there isn’t room for temporary, trendy pieces. Now, I purchase based on need, versatility, and stylistic perfection. (Warning: This translates into more time spent in dressing rooms deliberating and eventually walking out with nothing.)

But when I do finally find the right piece, I no longer feel guilty dropping a bunch of money on it because I know I will wear it until it dies a tattered death. I’ve found that my self-esteem is higher because all of my clothes actually fit how I want them to, and I don’t spend much mental energy on them. I no longer have “theoretical clothing” — pieces I loved in theory but ended up taking off every time I put them on because they didn’t feel great. As soon as I got those theoretical clothes out of my closet, I forgot about them and the issues they carried.

I realize that some of it is just about growing up — many people move from buying cheap things to buying things that will last. But on top of that, when I own so few things, they can all be coordinated, high-quality, beautiful, deeply sentimental — or often, all of the above.

Emily Theis for The Boston Globe

Hanging clothes by color palette prompts mixing pieces while rotating them.

It’s a process

The question of value that came with minimizing my wardrobe seeped into every area of my life: unsubscribing from e-mail lists, learning to say no to commitments, practicing meditation, switching to all-digital filing systems, even purging piles of books. (I know. Never thought I’d say that.) It’s an amazing world to fall into, because there are so many people who have fought the same battles and have wisdom and tips to share. Minimalism is a great conversation starter and the beginning of a real community.

On a more emotional side, I found that simplifying my physical space allows me to have more mental space. I’ve followed more adventures and made better art because my creative mind isn’t filled with physical clutter, and I can easily pack my bags and travel on a whim. Although the stuff I had before added some value to my life, that value was nothing compared to the freedom of not being chained to boxes of junk.

The process isn’t over. The shuffle of stuff in and out of life doesn’t ever end, and I go through phases of calling in a retail prescription (breakups, man) and reaping the messy consequences. But I don’t have a fancy minimalism blog, so there’s no audience to shamefully report to. I just try to be gentle with myself and slowly work my way back down to the things that I really use and really love.

The point isn’t the number of things I end up with. My house will never show up in a beautiful design book and I’ll probably always have a little too much stuff. My cluttered minimalism is about finding a balanced value in each thing that takes up space in my life. I’m finding out that Brad Pitt’s character in “Fight Club” had it right: The things you own end up owning you.

Emily Theis is freelance designer. She can be reached at emilyjtheis@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @the_is.
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