Innovative Lifestyles

Unstuck: A Minimalism Story

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Los Angeles, California. 
February, 2010.
9:00am on a Monday morning.


My boss sauntered into my office and plopped his considerable bulk into the chair across from mine. He was a good old boy in a Walmart suit. The kind of guy who wore his sexism on his sleeve.      

“How was China? Bird Flu get ya?”

“Good morning. I was in Hong Kong for a couple days but I spent most of my time in Thailand.”

“We’ve been busy. Almost had to replace you!”

“Thanks again for letting me take the full two-weeks. I appreciate it.”

“No problem, bub. Whelp, get to it!”

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I’d always seen myself as apart from the whole corporate thing; piggybacking out of financial need. But as I watched his fat ass waddle out, khakis riding up, whole vibe askew; the truth hit hard. I wasn’t piggybacking. I was carrying the corporate load; inching toward a khaki future all askew.  

I can’t do this anymore, I thought.  I’m only 31. I’m already 31. This is where I get stuck. 

Eight months later I was teaching English in rural Thailand. I’d taken a 90% pay cut, all my worldly possessions fit into a backpack and I was more alive than I’d ever been.  

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Wildly Aggressive Minimalism Plan: Phase One

I was trapped and I knew it. Lingering student loan debt, credit cards that I was mostly paying interest on, and despite an enviable salary, next to nothing in the bank. I had lots of stuff; a new car, a sweet cruiser bike, a flat-screen TV (which was still impressive at the time) but none of that was going to break me out of the grind. I needed a plan—growth by subtraction. 

Gadgets and services were the bills that generated the most groans and thus the first cuts that came to mind. I promptly ditched my cable bill, downgraded to a burner phone and cancelled any internet based services. These simple cuts provided an immediate savings of $200 per month. 

Credit cards were the next to go. I had three cards for reasons unknown, probably t-shirt giveaways. Two of them had balances under a thousand dollars, so I paid them off and hid the remaining card in a junk drawer. My intention was to drop off the grid, I wasn’t worried about a dinged credit score. The savings were initially $100 a month and that increased as my remaining monthly minimum payment went down. 

I’m ashamed to admit it but I had a problem with Starbucks and blueberry muffins (mostly the muffins.) I’d stop by three or four times a week to load up on caffeine and carbs. The pit stops added a bit of joy to my commute but they had to go. It was a savings of $100 per month and as luck would have it, Starbucks soon changed muffin vendors and new ones were crap anyway.

And then there was my social life. I was single with lots of friends and money to burn; rounds at the bar, group dinners that never seemed to add up fairly, bachelor parties and Vegas ain’t far. I decided to limited myself to $40 per weekend. I got creative with my cooking, left my ATM card at home and did my best to organize cheap activities. I ended up consistently saving $300+ per month. 

  • Phase One in Review

My initial efforts were inspiring. Rather than watching TV every night, I spent more time hanging out with friends, reading, writing, mentally planning for the life shift ahead. The increased mental activity led to increased energy. I found myself doing more and wanting to do more. Not using credit cards was easy. To be honest, I was mad at myself for ever allowing them to become a reflex action. And the social aspect was a total shock. I was sure that I’d become a bored recluse, miss out on all the fun and drift away from friends. Nonsense. Total nonsense. Going out with forty-bucks in my pocket became a fun challenge. I drank less, spent less and didn’t miss out on a damn thing. 

Savings: $700 per month

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Wildly Aggressive Minimalism Plan: Phase Two

My efforts had been aggressive but not wildly so. I needed to do more. My two main expenses were rent and car/insurance/gas. I loved my apartment. It was steps from the ocean and cheap by local standards. The only way to cut rent was to move way inland and given that I planned to leave the country in six months, a move wasn’t worth it. 

My car seemed like an immovable bill. I had a 25 mile commute, I was mid-way through a three-year lease and public transportation in Los Angeles is notoriously difficult. But, the potential savings were huge so I got creative. 

I posted an ad on Craigslist looking for someone to takeover my car lease. I figured it was a long shot at best. Instead, I ended up with several viable options within the first week. Apparently, a lot of people takeover unfinished leases as a sort of extended test drive. Who knew? I transferred the contract to a nice lady with great credit and found myself without wheels for the first time since I was sixteen years old. 

There is a path along the beach in Los Angeles affectionately called The Strand. It runs the entire length of the Santa Monica Bay. The Strand became my new highway. I started riding my bike to work every morning. Sometimes I rode home, sometimes I attached my bike to the front of the bus and let someone else do the driving. “It’s too far,” they said. “Too many transfers, bad weather, flat tires. But how? But what if?” What do they know anyway.

  • Phase Two in Review

I absolutely LOVED this phase. It forever changed the way I view necessity. The car that I gave up was the nicest thing I’d ever owned and I didn’t miss it at all. I felt liberated. My new commute was a bike ride along the iconic beaches of Southern California. I sang out loud, let my thoughts drift and discovered new details about the beach cities and the characters who lived there. Every time I glanced up at the cars driving past, I broke into a huge smile because I didn’t have to be up there. I’d shed that. Even the bus was a pleasure. It took longer but I used the extra time to read and reflect without worrying about the road. The ultimate LA necessity, ended up being anything but. It was an empowering realization. Big change wasn’t scary anymore. It hasn’t been scary since.  

Savings: $750 per month

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The Tale of Salesman A

It didn’t take long for my bike & bus exploits to spread around the office. People had questions. I couldn’t tell them the big truth, so I sent them through a revolving door of little truths, “I was only using the car to commute. It’s great exercise and better for the environment. I want to save money and this helps a lot.”        

What happened next, I did not see coming. 

People got inspired. I had expected, “You’re crazy!” and instead got, “That could work!” Curious coworkers started experimenting with a sweet n' light version of my plan. They biked to work on sunny days or took the bus a few times a week. None of them intended to give up their cars permanently, they were just aiming for a lower gas bill and a lesser carbon footprint. 

Salesman A was a different story. 

He was one of my favorite people in the company; friendly, cool, an all-around good dude. In recent months he’d been stressed out and it was no secret that he was having problems keeping up with his mortgage. He saw the option of ditching his car as a gift dropped in his lap. 

I decided to confide in him. I didn't want a lack of info to lead to regret. I told him about my trip, the aha moment with the bossman and the wildly aggressive minimalism plan that ensued. I urged him to be cautious and think about the change in terms of the next couple years not the next couple months. 

“That’s what I’m doing,” he replied. “I’ve got kids. I can’t uproot my family, change schools, take them away from their friends. Even if I was willing to do that, the market is down, I’d take a loss on the house. My wife and I are arguing all the time. The kids are picking up on it. I’ve gotta do something. It’s not just a house I’m worried about, ya know?” 

He did it. He gave up his car and started taking the bus to work every day. The savings were significant, at least $500 per month. His wife kept her car and that was their family ride on the weekends. He was able to quickly sort out his mortgage and everyone could see how much it meant to him. His whole demeanor changed. The stress was gone and his jovial nature was back. His initial minimalism efforts inspired him to keep the momentum going. He converted the now empty garage into a studio apartment and rented it out to a college student, earning his family an extra $500-$600 a month.   

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Wildly Aggressive Minimalism Plan: Phase Three

I was saving an additional $1500 a month. Debt was coming down and savings were going up. I only had one thing left to do, get rid of all my stuff. I had mentally packed my backpack a thousand times. I knew what was coming with and what had to go. I should have started this phase in conjunction with phase one, sold everything off piece-by-piece online to maximize profits. Instead, I waited until the last minute and tried to sell it all during a weekend long garage sale. I got absolutely hosed on the prices but the truth is I didn’t care. At that point, I was itching to leave and my stuff was holding me back. A few beloved items hurt, my cruiser bike in particular, but for the most part I sat in the driveway wondering why I’d held onto unplayed games, unworn shoes and ancient electronics. I didn’t use or need any of it, none of it improved my day-to-day, and yet, it sat in my closet or under my bed because ya never know. 

Having sold all my fancy clothes, my last week at work was casual dress in the extreme; jeans, t-shirt, flip-flops. My boss was good natured about it. He took a look at my naked toes and shook his head. 

“You just had to make a statement, didn’t you?” 

“Yes, sir!” 


Minimize Your Way

You don’t need a wildly aggressive minimalism plan. Find simple ways to trim your expenses, sell or donate your dust covered stuff and give yourself a challenge; ride sharing, no credit cards for six months, budget socializing. You’ll quickly discover that minimalism is both rewarding and addicting. Imagine only cleaning half of your house. It would feel dirty, unfinished. That’s minimalism; it compels you to keep going until your life feels scrubbed clean. 

The effects of minimalism can be profound. I’ve traveled to more than forty countries, lived on four continents, and via my experiences, become a better human being. Minimalism gave me the freedom to be me. Maybe you’re close to who you want to be. Maybe you’re just looking for little tweaks and a few extra bucks. That’s fine. Chase that. But when limitations fall, new hopes and interests tend to rise, so enjoy the ride, and if the old worries resurface, just remind yourself that it always works out in the end—because when you’re living light, it usually does. 

Any other minimalism stories out there? Share your experiences with the Innovative Lifestyles community!

Photos by Austin Censor, AquaChara, Jeremiah Mott, Brooke Cagle, Nathan Dumlao

About the Author

Michael Bartolomei

Michael Bartolomei

Writing has always been my way of navigating the world. My ability with words has earned me quick promotions in the corporate world, the praise of literary publishers and the gratitude of my freelance clients. It has given me the means to live and the freedom to live passionately. This is not a job for me. It is a joy.

More posts by Michael Bartolomei >

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