Monthly Archives: June 2013

The rogue urge for ownership

A challenge to minimalism is that rogue compulsion still seeking to buy things, when the rest of me is not looking.

Vacation home, boat, airplane:  the rogue compulsion would love to own all of these, even though it can be shown in seconds, on a spreadsheet, that renting is vastly cheaper.

Forget for a moment whether you or I can afford those — that’s not the point. In fact, the rogue is hardest to control with the most affordable things. Low price (or high income) makes it even easier to momentarily forget the various non-cash costs of ownership, the mental bandwidth, the maintenance time, the clutter, the loss of aesthetics.

There is no doubt Darwinian logic here.  We are clearly evolved from apes that survived jungle privation by saving torn t-shirts and yellowed newspapers.

Yet though I know this, the rogue persists, an evolutionary leftover, a mental appendix, uselessly urging me to accumulate junk, a squirrel gathering inedible nuts for a winter that will never come.

I let my guard down for just a moment, and suddenly find I’ve acquired yet another  free t-shirt, when I hardly ever wear t-shirts.  Or bought another physical book, after pledging years ago to use Kindle whenever possible.

I resort to desperate mental aikido to trick the rogue compulsion into acquiescence.  “If you buy something, you must sell something similar.”  Or, “just to be sure, let’s wait till tomorrow before buying.”  Or, “maybe there is something better you haven’t found yet.”

These keep my rogue at bay, but it persists, waiting for the next opportunity.

Capping my possessions

Every time I acquire an item, I try to get rid of a similar item.  Buy a shirt, give away or sell a shirt.

The idea is that ownership has costs.  Owning fewer things means less depreciation, storage, organization time, and more intense focus on the quality of the few things I still own.

The minimal family

In the previous post, I pointed out the connection between decentralization and minimalism.  This applies well to families.

By using simple signaling, simple rules and shared goals, you can massively simplify the organizational details of family life, freeing time for actual family life.  Here’s how we do it.

  • Divide financial responsibilities.  Agree in advance which spouse is responsible for which bills (including savings).  Set up separate bank accounts, and then just work independently.  Unless someone runs out of money (meaning the original agreement was flawed), then there is no need to argue or even talk about money.  It just takes care of itself.
  • “I spent more than 50 dollars today.”  Unexpected expenses do come up.  Agree on a daily trigger amount, above which each spouse must tell the other of an unusually high-cost day. This limits communication and/or conflict to things that matter.
  • Use shared e-calendars. Never verbally plan an event. Use Gmail, iCloud or similar shared calendars. Make one spouse the manager of the family schedule, and leave the other on a personal schedule. The family manager checks the spouse’s calendar, and if free, sends an invite to a new event. The non-managing spouse accepts, and then his/her phone or computer rings when it’s time to go. Pointless planning discussions vanish.
  • Teach your kids to do as many things as possible.  I’m not talking about chores, but just about knowing how to do things, so the kids can step in in a pinch.  I’m shocked at how many kids can’t wash clothes, cook a meal, walk or ride a bike to a friend’s house, change a flat bike tire, babysit a sibling, and so on.  The more they know, the more they can handle, and the less things will bottleneck on a frantic parent.
  • Everyone should have a phone.  Think of your family as a colony of ants.  Just as ants maintain an organized trail by signaling to each other by smell, humans now signal each other by phone.  Without a phone, there is no efficient signaling.  I used to think this was a huge waste of money, because smartphones are insanely expensive.  But then I realized that prepaid dumb phones are totally cheap.  You can buy your elementary-school kid a year of Tracfone minutes in advance, and it works out to under $10 a month — and you get the phone for free.  This may make it easier for some parents to get comfortable letting kids manage themselves.

That’s how we do it.  Well, OK, 80% of this is how we actually do it, while 20% (namely cellphones for all and learning to change a bike tire) is how I wish we did it.  But you get the idea.

This idea of decentralization, encapsulation and signaling is referred to in engineering as modularity.  It is the reason that object-oriented software is so much simpler than non-OO software.

Decentralization, signaling and minimalism

You can think of our giant human brains as an evolutionary cost of overcentralization.

To see why, compare us to ants and bees.  Those tiny brains accomplish highly organized group behaviors through extreme decentralization.  Individuals signal one other in simple ways — a scent, a dance — and peers respond robotically to those signals, resulting in amazing aggregate accomplishments.

Individual humans act with less coordination, and a cost of this is that we must be more flexibly intelligent, which requires carrying around a giant brain, which requires a giant body, which requires tons of food.  I’m not complaining, mind you.  Very glad I’m not an ant.  But this is an interesting way to look at the two forms of organization.

Decentralized decision-making, with simple communication signals, allows amazingly organized and economical group behavior, requiring little wasted effort, and little intelligence.

This idea — decentralization + signaling = minimalism — can be applied broadly.  It works in one’s personal life, in organizations, and even nation-states.  The more decentralized, the better, until you reach a point of diminishing returns (where the cost of signaling among all the independent actors is greater than the benefit).

One could argue that communism failed in the 20th century mainly because centralized supply forecasting was hopelessly complicated.  Without private ownership, independent buyers and sellers could not rely on price to signal supply and demand.  Instead, a huge government staff was needed to estimate — very badly — the supply requirements of a modern economy.  Computers would have helped, but still could not have kept up with the exponential increase in economic complexity over the past century.

Many of the most successful U.S. companies of the past 50 years — those that have built the most share value — have tended to run extremely lean, decentralized operations, except for a highly centralized capital allocation (investment) function.  The most extreme example:  Berkshire Hathaway owns over a hundred companies, employes over a hundred thousand Americans, pays about 2% of all U.S. corporate tax — yet it has only about 20 people in the head office, who are focused almost exclusively on investing.

This general idea suggests ways to manage the often pointlessly frantic suburban American family life.  See next post.

Free Fridge!

One barrier to minimalism is large, heavy possessions — too big to easily move or ship.  And since you’re a minimalist, you just sold your truck.  Doh.

Craigslist is spectacularly effective at quickly eliminating these white elephants — if you’re willing to take a haircut on price.

I didn’t bother to post this before, because I thought it too obvious. Not so: when I eliminated several large items yesterday — in less than 4 hours, with only a few minutes’ effort, and no heavy lifting — amazed friends and onlookers wanted instructions. So here they are.

  • Find out what your item is worth: visit eBay, find similar items, and click “show completed items” to see final selling prices. In seconds, you’ll know what the market will bear.
  • Post your item on Craigslist, with photos.
  • Set your Craigslist price at half the eBay market price.
  • If less than $25, just price it at zero, and post it in the “free stuff” section.
  • In your item description, write, “This is cheap because I need it gone. I will not hold this item for anyone. The first person here with the purchase price gets it.”

You may not be aware that bargain-hunters are constantly trolling Craigslist, looking for situations like this. They are waiting in their trucks, motors running. If you set the price and description as shown above, the resulting feeding frenzy will move just about anything within a few hours. Or even minutes.

Last year, I got rid of a truly decrepit refrigerator in 40 minutes with this post:

“Free working fridge. It’s old, makes a loud buzzing noise, ices up easily, and the door doesn’t seal well. But it works, and I’ll give it free to the first person who can get over here.”

Yes, I might have sold it for $50 with more effort. But such optimizations take time. Consider the value of that time.

The best, and maybe most unexpected part of this gambit is that it makes everyone so happy. The buyer/recipient is ecstatic at getting a great deal. The seller/giver is relieved to be rid of the white elephant. Everyone walks away literally grinning. There is not just efficiency, but shared joy.  This is the essence of Fewer Nicer.