Q&A: Joshua Becker on keeping a minimalist home

Joshua Becker
Jan 24, 2019

The practical philosophies of Joshua Becker led him to found Becoming Minimalist, a website that inspires others to own less so they can live better. He is convinced that owning fewer possessions leads to fuller life. His new book "The Minimalist Home: A room-by-room guide to a decluttered, refocused life" shows ways to figure out what things are of value to you and which are not. Joshua and his family live in Peoria, Az. .

Every week, Jura Koncius helps you in your quest to achieve domestic bliss. She and weekly guests, whether Martha Stewart, the Property Brothers, Marie Kondo or Nate Berkus, answer your decorating, design and decluttering questions. Jura is always happy to whip out her paint chips, track down a hard-to-find piece of furniture or offer her seasoned advice on practical living and organizing. For more than 20 years, our Thursday Q&A has been an online conversation about the best way to make your home comfortable, stylish and fun. We invite you to submit questions and share your own great tips, ideas and gripes. No problem is too big or too small.

Joshua Becker founded "Becoming Minimalist", a website that inspires others to own less so they can live better. Joshua has developed methods to educate people on what to keep and what to get rid of. His new book "The Minimalist Home: A room-by-room guide to a decluttered, refocused life" shows ways to figure out what things are of value to you. Joshua and his family live in Peoria, Az. .

Hello Everybody! I am very excited to be here this morning. Thanks ou for joining us. My name is Joshua Becker. I am the Founder and Editor of Becoming Minimalist—a website visited by 1M+ readers every month that inspires others to live more by owning less. My new book, The Minimalist Home: A Room-by-Room Guide to a Decluttered, Refocused Life is available everywhere. I look forward to answering any questions you have about decluttering and/or minimalist living.

I really like the idea of a more minimalist life, and we have less stuff than many others we know, but our big problem is kids items. We have a preschooler and an infant, and our preschooler refuses to part with any of her toys and books. I periodically cull the toys when she is at school, Any tips on decluttering children's items?

First and foremost, make sure you are offering a good example for your kids by routinely removing your own items from the home. Second, I would work hard to include them in the process—rather than making toys disappear when they're not looking (learning to live within boundaries is an important life skill for kids and adults). Set a physical boundary for your child ("Toys must fit in this closet, against this wall, in this toy chest, etc.") and then empower them to make decisions about what to keep and what to remove.

I live in a family of book lovers, myself included. What is your view on books?

Reading is important. It's one of the keys way we develop into the best versions of ourselves. But I do not believe every book should be kept—some, but not all. In my opinion, if you found joy or help in a specific book, the best thing you can do with that book is spread around the joy or inspiration by allowing someone else to read it too! Keep a few, for sure (especially if you refer to it often). But giving them away to a local library or friends who can experience the same joy in the story that you experienced is a beautiful expression of generosity. 

How can I access this live?

It is live online as text answers to questions. It's not a video.

What is the best way to store old family documents, pictures, etc. Some date back to the Civil War and I would hate to get rid of them.

The ABSOLUTE best way to store old documents, pictures, etc. is to scan them into a digital format. The reality is that physical documents and photos will always fade eventually and are more susceptible to fire, flood, theft, etc. There are many services online (or probably even in your local community) who can help you with this. It's an important step is the only way to guarantee that your grandkids and great-grandkids will be able to enjoy them as well. 

Hi, so glad you could join us today--. My question is: how do you go about going through a parent's possessions after they've died? My dad had an extensive book collection, and I'm not even sure how best to keep/sell them. Thank you for any suggestions!

"Only the best" is the mantra that you should repeat over and over again. Keep "only the best, most representative" pieces of your parents' lives and the values they sought to pass down to you.  Also, remember, the way you most honor your parents is living your best life going forward. I don't know a single person who wants to burden their child or grandchild with their possessions when they die. Most people say, "Yes, sure, keep a few things to remember me. But I don't want my possessions to be a burden to you or your home. If you can't use it, find someone who can." That's how I view my things... and probably how your parents' viewed theirs as well. So keep a few books, but find a place to donate the rest (or look for places to sell as a collection if you think they are valuable).

Although I have no desire for a bare-bones look to my house or a bare-bones approach to my possessions, I took a look at your book and blog--and lo and behold, I discovered that you don't in fact advocate for the bare-bones attitude. Do you ever regret choosing the term "minimalist" with its connotations, rather than something like "optimalist"?

Haha, you have no idea! My proposed title for my first book (The More of Less) was "Optimal." But nobody other than me liked it... so it was quickly changed. For the record, I do like The More of Less as a title as well.

But to your question, No, I don't regret using the word minimalism. In reality, I don't want my possessions to be a burden—whether in too many or too few. But the reality is most people today are burdened (time, money, energy, stress) with having too many possessions. So "minimizing" their possessions is the best step forward for them.

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Loved your description of how you came to be a minimalist, and thank you for taking questions. How soon in advance do you recommend trying to rid yourself of excess before moving house? We'd like to retire in five years or so, and move to an even smaller place than our small townhouse. Any tips? Thanks!

I would start right away for two reasons. 1) Owning fewer possessions will improve your life right now! When you own less stuff, you'll find that you have more time, money, energy, focus, and less stress in your life. You'll be amazed at how much of your life is returned to you as you begin owning less. There's no need waiting to wait five years... you can experience that today, as soon as you get started. 2) You'll be surprised how little you need to live a happy life. Minimizing your possessions today will change your life in many unforeseen ways. And you'll be in a better place to make decisions about how much space you actually need in your new place—because it's probably less than you assume right now. Minimalism challenges our presumptions in these things. 

What is minimalism vs. decluttering? Simply different terms meant to appeal to different personalities? My mother hated - hated - clutter, but the concept of minimalism would have had no appeal to her. She had a low attachment to her possessions and no compunction in tossing them. The idea that an object had to "spark joy" would have been foreign to her. An ironing board? But she kept a completely lean (and very clean) house. I recently retired and now have the time for what I'm calling, "Discard of the Day." I follow her precept that it's easier to just discard rather than "find a new home." Yes, I know it goes to landfills, but I'm not just replacing everything.

"Spark joy" is a phrase used by Marie Kondo in her book, "The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying-Up." I do not believe she ever associated it specifically with the minimalist movement. 

To me, the difference between the two words is subtle. Most of the time, I use them interchangeably. But there is a difference. "Decluttering" is about removing things from your home that you no longer want/need. "Minimalism" is about challenging your assumptions on how much you actually need and how life might significantly improve by intentionally owning fewer and fewer possessions. 

I admit it... I am addicted to kitchen gadgets. In simplifying the rest of my house, I have tried the "haven't used it in a year... into the basement. Two years and it gets donated." Problem in the kitchen is that I use most things at least once a year! Help... how do I decide what to keep and what to let go?

Many of the kitchen gadgets that you have serve purposes that can be accomplished with other tools. Mark Bittman, in the NYT, wrote an important article called, "A No-Frills Kitchen Still Cooks." I'll include a link. Take a look at it. His point is that almost everything can be created by using this small list of tools. I found it very helpful in minimizing my own kitchen. I used it as a starting point and kept a few things beyond his list. But it definitely challenged my assumptions on how much I actually need to keep.

I have my father’s WWI Mavy uniform and clothes from the 60’s made from Vogue patterns. I can take pictures but would anyone actually benefit from these!

Oh gosh, I would definitely call up a museum (local or national) and see if this is something they would enjoy receiving and putting on display. That's an important part of history and it could benefit any number of people. I imagine somebody who had a grandfather serve in WWI being incredibly blessed at the opportunity to see a uniform like that on display.

To what extent is clutter a problem of disorder rather than of quantity? I own thousands of books, but they're in neat rows on shelves and I don't consider them clutter. I only have a couple of suitcases' worth of clothes, but they're in piles and heaps around my room. Now there's clutter!

Clutter is mostly defined by the effect it has on us, rather than the root cause of it. The dictionary defines clutter as "to fill or cover with scattered or disordered things that impede movement or reduce effectiveness.” Notice that "clutter" is anything that impedes movement or effectiveness. 

Clutter is anything that is disorganized. Clutter is anything you don’t need or love. And clutter is too much stuff in too small a space. 

It is getting harder and harder to donate clothes and books for instance and I absolutely hate throwing them away. Any suggestions? As I write this question, I think I am beginning to answer my own questions. I enjoy and find it fun to give away things to people I know, for causes I particularly care about, and on occasions that make other people happy. I had so much fun at my yard sale when I used some old vases, filled them with flowers and greens from my garden and sold them for a few dollars. Recently, I contacted the lovely young lady who cared for my mother in her last years and asked if she would be interested in my mother’s winter clothes. I also had an attic and basement treasure hunt for my nieces and nephew at Christmas last year and had happily passed on some things, but found myself saying no sometimes.

I find that generosity is both the by-product and the life-blood of minimalism. Owning less frees us to become more generous (with our money, our time, even the excess possessions we have allowed to collect in our homes). But generosity can also spur us on and motivate us to declutter and own less. 

If you are looking to declutter, research the local charities in your community. Find a cause that you believe in and donate your unneeded items there: the homeless shelter, the crisis pregnancy center, the battered woman's shelter, the refugee resettlement program, the foster care system, etc.. Many of the things collecting in your dust in your closet and drawer are legitimately needed by a family in your community! For almost everyone, once they recognize the need, they are motivated to remove more and more possessions from their home and life.

I've been decluttering/minimalizing for 2 years, we are getting ready to move and goodness, didnt know I had so much more to do. My husband has WATCHED me, but will not get rid of things, even ugly paintings that were kept in a closed room for over 15 years - HELP!

There are, unfortunately, no easy answers to this question. I spoke with a woman one time who said it took 5 YEARS for her husband to finally understand why she was minimizing possessions. I do believe the benefits of owning less win out in the end and people eventually come around, but sometimes it takes A LOT of patience... of course, any time we want our spouses to change it takes a lot of patience :)

My suggestion is this, try to reframe the conversation. Whatever attracted you to minimalism may be different than what would resonate with him. So give it some thought. What might draw him to the idea? More money for "x," more time for "x," more space for "x," more opportunity for "x"? Help him see that as best you can.

And then, love him and cherish him and appreciate all the good things he brings into your relationship. At some point, hopefully soon, he'll understand why this is so important to you. 

Our neighbor just bought a shed to store extra stuff (we're all in sub-1,500' houses here). He pointed out that he now has a $5,000 shed to store $1,000 worth of stuff. Since then we're clearing the closets of our place...

The numbers really are quite incredible. The average American home has tripled in size in the last 50 years, yet 10% of Americans still rent offsite storage. 

As my friend Courtney Carver once said, "If you need to buy stuff just to store your stuff, maybe you have too much stuff." That sums it up pretty well. 

You'll love owning less. Nice to have you in the movement. 

Hey!!! So glad I found this chat with you!!! I'm just wondering how to handle sentimental items I am choosing to let go of, but want to make sure none of our adult children want them?...but asking them without making them feel obligated to keep it just because I once loved it, or simply owned it? ...they are sentimental and loving human beans...but I don't want them burdened with things THEY don't love, just because it was in the home they grew up in! <3 ...help... ~sue :)

I think you phrased the question perfectly right here. Copy it down so you don't lose it. If possible, invite them over at the same time and tell them the exact thing you just told me. Even use the opportunity to remind them that you NEVER want them to feel burdened holding on to the items in your current possession. "Keep a few items, sure. But I don't want my old things to keep you from living your best life in the future." People need to hear that, they really do. At that time, you can show them the things you are getting rid of and if they want to take 1-2 things from the pile, they are welcome to do so. 

Seriously authentic period clothing might be valuable to a theatre costume department. A vintage resale store would know whether it would be worth consigning.

Thanks for this.

The cards from my family always make me cry - Birthday, holiday etc. They are so very sweet and I know they took a long time to pick it out for so it’s almost impossible for me to put them in the trash .... But - drawers in my home are filling up What do you do with greeting cards ?

Drawers, huh? That does seem like a lot. I think you should find a box (smaller than your current stash) and use it as a physical boundary. The physical boundary will help you identify the difference between "the very most important cards" and "the just kinda important cards." For starters, I'd look to remove any of the cards that don't have a hand-written note inside. Hope that helps.

There is still so much to learn about how to live with less stuff. Joshua has given us so many smart things to think about - thank you. Next week we will have Lauren Urbanek of the Natural Resources Defense Council talking about energy audits and heating bills and reducing energy consumption. Until then...

My home is full of displayed items we either purchased on travels or items gifted to my husband in his work life. I am now a widow who derives pleasure from remembering the life I once shared when I look around my home. Is there a way to declutter with this background?

Yes, of course. First of all, decluttering does not mean you need to remove every item. So keep that in mind, less is different than none. Second, I would look for displayed items in your home that do not share your story—removing an item that you bought because it was on-sale as a garage will provide more opportunity to display the items that do hold meaning. Third, remember, remember, the memory is not in the item, the memory is in your mind. Just because you remove the item, doesn't mean you remove the memory from your mind or the experience from your life. And lastly, always remember that your husband wants nothing more than for you to go out and live your best life today and making more memories and having more incredible experiences. I'm sure that's what you would for him, isn't it? So definitely, keep some things that remind you of those precious moments. But also, honor your husband by looking forward and living your best life tomorrow clutterfree!

What does your home look like and how to you keep clutter from forming with children?

It's important to remember that things always seem to enter our homes. It is very difficult (especially with kids) to stop things from entering. School, church, activities, sports, holidays, birthdays... the accumulation continues. Because of that, it's essential to have routines or habits to remove the stuff that enters our home. Set physical boundaries for your children's things (toys, clothes, collections, crafts, stuffed animals, sporting goods, etc.). Whenever items begin spilling out beyond those physical boundaries, take time to remove the excess. Also, consider 3 months a good timeline to go back through toys after Christmas and birthdays. By then, you can usually determine which toys are being used and which ones can be removed. 

This has been an amazing time together with each of you! Thank you for the wonderful questions—sorry that I was unable to get to all of them. I wrote The Minimalist Home specifically to help people declutter their home and refocus their life. If you're looking to make that change in your home and life, you'll find it to be a valuable resource. Hope we can do this again sometime.

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Jura Koncius
Jura Koncius is a Washington Post staff writer who specializes in home and design. Read her daily Twitter feed @jurakoncius for the latest in decorating trends, shopping, decluttering and organizing.

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