How Living in Italy Changed my Idea of Minimalism

I’ve always been a minimalist per se. I’ve enjoyed scaling down to exactly what I need to make my life calmer and more aesthetically pleasing. Then we lived in Vicenza for three years and even had a baby there! Living in Italy was a perfect chance to observe how the quintessential Europeans live versus consumerist Americans. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Europeans don’t know they are minimalists.

Europeans don’t really know that they are, what American’s consider, minimalist. They have lived this way their entire lives, making it much easier to continue on the same path of simplicity. Even the gear happy, Germans don’t purchase half the amount of stuff that we, middle-class, Americans do. Their homes are simple and they buy the highest quality items of what they use every day.

They also don’t have a problem living in closer proximity to each other. Even single family homes are much closer together than our ever-sprawling lawns that separate homes in the American suburbs. In Italy, we lived in a townhouse and almost everyone I knew also lived in a townhome, apartment or home that was less than 20 feet from the home next to it.

Household items are also limited, compared to American standards. Good friends of ours, in Germany, have a very fancy espresso/coffee maker. I know this to be a prized possession because it is literally the only thing on their kitchen counter – except for fresh fruit. It is used every day to make high-quality coffee at home, arguably better than any Starbucks I’ve ever had.

There are NO closets!

You read that right…there. are. no. closets. The government actually supplied us with wardrobes when we moved in. Think IKEA wardrobes that you build yourself. If you need a way to downsize your clothes, this will do it. We also each had a dresser but it was still very limiting and I learned to dress with less pretty quickly.

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2. There are fewer advertisements and options.

Billboards stamped over every last square inch of the highway just isn’t seen in Italy, or Germany or Europe for that matter. There are small ads here and there, but the majority of them I saw in cities. However, even the cities have about half as many adverts as we have in the U.S. I’m not sure if there are laws about billboards (like in Vermont) or if it’s just not culturally acceptable to have flashing lights in your face, everywhere you turn? I’d prefer if it was the latter.

Options are far, far less! There are a limited amount of stores that are selling what you want. In Italy, the largest number of stores I saw were bicycle shops, I kid you not. There are about two-three bicycle shops for every small town. Suffice it to say, Italians are big into biking, as are most Euro countries. But options are limited, only two types of children’s fever medications at the pharmacy, only seasonal fruits and veggies in the markets, and only two stores that carried clothing I would actually wear (although that may have been a personal problem).

Lake Garda, 2014

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3. Everything is not open, all the time.

The most difficult adjustment to shopping habits: stores not being open all of the time. Most stores are closed on Sundays in Italy and this includes many stores in the mall. Malls are not everywhere in Italy and you usually have to drive a good distance to find one, when you do finally arrive, you learn that they are closed on Sundays. It brings a whole new meaning to the Sabbath if you know what I mean. When you are forced into a day of rest you take it.

Photo by Narumi Nuber

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4. Their culture is not built on speed (except the Autostrada!)

There is a well-known fact about Italians if you live in Italy; Italians do nothing fast except drive. They do just about everything slow, it took me over a month to order a baby bike seat from one of the many bike shops in my town (this was a normal time frame apparently). Furthermore, it can take over 30 minutes from the time you order your meal until you actually start eating – they are probably cooking it from scratch so it’s usually worth the wait and you can drink plenty of wine during this time.

Italians are built to be slow.  They practice ‘reposo’ – afternoon time to relax or take a nap – the equivalent of siesta. Espresso, although sometimes drank quickly, is never taken ‘to-go’. I tried for months to figure out the word ‘to-go’, in Italian and it never seemed to work. I’m not sure if the Italians didn’t understand me or they just refused to allow me to take my coffee out the door. Even McDonald’s does not have to-go coffee cups in Italy, you can have your Big Mac in a bag to go but definitely not your cafe.

Agriturismo near Lake Garda: Please research agriturismos before visiting Italy, your trip won’t be complete without one.

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Basically, Europeans are forced into a life of simplicity and slowness. Europe is not perfect, they have their own political issues and economic problems, but I don’t think most would argue that their lifestyle is better for the soul. Italians live some of the longest and healthiest lives on the planet (see Blue Zones and Mediterranean Diet) and other European countries live some of the happiest lives on the planet (see Denmark).

Maybe you’ll see another post on how to apply these principles while living in America – but I’ll have to figure that out for myself first!

Why I Don’t Rotate Toys

As parents, we have lofty goals of giving our kids the best of everything. Most times, this equates to a complete excess of everything! In truth, it’s unhealthy for kids to have 200+ toys, even if they are the best quality. If you haven’t read the book Simplicity Parenting, by Kim John Payne, then rent a copy because it will change the way you look at toys, activities, and media for your kiddos.

If you want to do what is BEST for your kids, have less toys, less clothes, less commitments and less noise around them!

I often get asked which toys should be kept, which should be donated and what can be ‘rotated’?

First off, you’re the parent, and you know what your kid’s favorite toys are. They are the ones that they drag around the house and ask you to play with ALL. THE. TIME. So box up the rest! Secondly, I don’t rotate toys. I tried to rotate toys and you know what happened? I boxed up all the ‘rotatable’ toys and put them in the attic and they never came down again, except one stuffed animal.

Reasons those toys didn’t come down:

  1. They weren’t asked for.
  2. They don’t require creativity or imagination.
  3. They are, in reality, junk.

It’s hard to be honest with ourselves when toys are really just junk. Here are some questions to help decide if it’s junk or not. How much plastic is involved? Can your child engage their imagination with the toy? Do you already have multiple of the same toy? Was it a gift that they never really asked for in the first place?

Want to know what made the list of toys we keep?

  • Dress up clothes (limited to three dresses each and a small basket of accessories)
  • Blankets (used for forts, baby dolls, capes, etc. – Montessori practitioners use play silks for the same thing)
  • Play kitchen and play food
  • Baby dolls and baby doll bed
  • Art supplies
  • A few board games
  • Favorite Stuffed Animals (stays in their bedrooms)

I have two girls, and so we don’t have trains or cars. But if I had a boy we would have his favorites, which would be more boy oriented.

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(although this is plastic, ‘pretend play’ toys tend to stick around!)

Sometimes I worry when friends come to visit that we won’t have enough toys for everyone to play with. However, I’ve never had a problem and not one child has ever said they are bored when they come over. Since all the toys are new to the visiting child they always find something exciting.

My favorite article on why kids need less stuff is by Denaye Barahona over at Becoming Minimalist: Why Kids Need Minimalism

Personally, I have a goal, similar to The Minimal Mom, to buy one toy organizer from IKEA and anything that doesn’t fit in that goes. It works for her and her 4 kids actually thrive using the system. The Minimal Mom – Toy Storage

A Guide to Saying ‘No’

Saying ‘no’ is so hard to do. I haven’t perfected it but in the past few years I’ve really learned some tactics that help limit my use of ‘yes’.

  • When someone asks you to do something, no matter how tempting it is, give yourself some time to think about it.
  • Use responses like: ‘I have to check my calendar’, ‘I’ll get back to you when I know’, or ‘Let me talk to my husband(partner) first’.
  • These phrases aren’t giving a direct ‘no’, but they are allowing you time to decide what’s right before committing to anything.

These tactics allow you to truly check your schedule and check in with yourself! Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this something I truly want to do?
  • Do I have the money to do this?
  • Will this enrich my life or someone else’s?
  • Does this align with my goals?
  • What will I be giving up in order to say ‘yes’ to this?

Everything is a trade off. You may be saying yes to an opportunity but at the expense of making dinner for your family that night, spending time with your kids, or even something enjoyable that you like to do – like reading, running, or painting.

I even try to teach my children this trade off. For example, my oldest girl may say, ‘I want to go to Target and buy Pokemon cards with my birthday money’. My response is usually, ‘If we go buy those Pokemon cards we won’t be able to go to the jump zone on a rainy afternoon or go to the movies next weekend because you don’t have enough money to do both’. They get to decide and whatever they decide is met with positivity but when the weekend rolls around and they don’t have money for something fun then they learn a good lesson. It’s not cruel, it’s realistic, they are learning the trade off and frankly, so am I. Sometimes I regret my decision and have to live with it, but the next time I definitely make a better choice!

What would you rather be doing than going to an ‘opportunity’ that you could have said ‘no’ to?

Put on your Best Face

I’m old enough to know what make-up I like by now. I’ve had plenty of experimenting over the years. But I’ve settled on a very selective few products that I love and use every day.

My favorite room to declutter with my clients (I’m a professional organizer) is their bathroom. I ask them to put their daily make-up on, that they wear every day to work. Then, I ask them to add the products they would wear for a night on the town or for a wedding or special event. They look beautiful and sexy and ready to go, even though we are still in our cleaning clothes! But it’s really fun to see what people choose.

Then we get rid of the rest!!! Even if they just love this one item, if it’s never used, it goes. Sometimes we love certain make-up just because we love to look at the colors but it doesn’t actually look good with our skin tone or eye color. Sometimes we feel guilty because we spent too much money on something that just isn’t right for us. Same goes for clothes. Let go of that guilt.

Here’s a sneak peek into my make-up (and yes this is ALL of it).

 

The first photo is my daily make-up. It all goes into the striped bag you see in the photo. I use almost all of this every day. Included are concealer, face powder, blush, eyebrow powder, mascara, eyeliner, and Burt’s Bee’s lipstick and chapstick. Plus the brushes that go with each item. I planning on converting the eyebrow powder to a pencil, which will eliminate the small brush.

My special event makeup is everything in the striped bag plus an extra foundation, a shinier eyeliner, and an eye palette. I keep this all in my special event clutch. I know where it is and I keep it out of my everyday wear (put away in my closet) so I don’t have to think about it until I actually have a special event!

I’d love to see your pared-down make-up. What are your favorites and where do you keep your dressy make-up?

Time to Get Dirty

Photo Credit: Clean and Scentsible (www.cleanandscentsible.com)

Do you want to know my decluttering secret? Clean, and I mean deep clean. It’s not glamorous,  and I don’t get all sentimental and ask questions about how things make me feel. I just get down on my hands and knees and clean, it’s hard labor and I try to do it more often than just during spring cleaning. Instead of once a year, my suggestion is to do it once a month, choosing a different room in your house each month.

The key to deep cleaning is to remove everything first. This is seriously so important, otherwise, it will never be clean and it will never be uncluttered and you will always feel swallowed by your stuff. Get some boxes from the grocery store, old amazon boxes, etc. Put everything in those! I mean everything but the kitchen sink.

I chose the kitchen for January. The kitchen is probably the most difficult in terms of numbers of things. However, very little, if anything holds sentimental value so there will be no big decisions to make.

With everything boxed up, even the refrigerator items, I clean. There is no magic to this. I clean just like everyone else but if you need help see the link at the bottom of this post. I have Windex, vinegar, and baking soda to scrub stuck on messes and a wood cleaning solution to clean the cabinets. Bleach for the sink!

I’ll give you a little sneak peak of what’s going on with the fridge:

As you can see, I removed all the papers, pictures and calendar from the outside as well. I have a different plan for it all. I have a secretary that holds all our papers, calendars, bills, etc., right outside the kitchen. From now on that will be the home of all paperwork, I call it the Command Center. As for the photos: I have a digital picture frame, where I will scan the photos on the fridge of friends and family and load them onto my digital frame. If you don’t have a digital frame, you could make a pinboard and add all photos and postcards to that.

After it’s all scrubbed down, only replace those things you’ve used in the last 6 months. If you have items you use once a year for Christmas, make an entertaining box and put that labeled in the garage, basement or attic. No need to fill up our daily space with items you use only one time a year. I’ve had clients who entertain so many people that we make a ‘catering corner’ in their basement or storage space, all organized and ready for the next event.

All those items you haven’t used in 6 months and won’t use for holidays, leave them in a box and donate it! Can’t bare to donate it yet? Leave them in the boxed labeled, ‘kitchen extras’, and today’s date. If one year from now you haven’t touched that box, DONATE IT!

I can’t stress enough how having an organized and clean kitchen will make you feel way more relaxed. Like most moms, I spend about 95% of my time in the kitchen when I am home, and I’ve noticed most other people do too. It’s important not to have anything in the kitchen that doesn’t need to be there. You’ll feel like you can breathe again as you drink your morning coffee, instead of stressing about everything last thing you need to do this month.

If you need info on how to clean read: http://www.cleanandscentsible.com/2015/02/deep-clean-kitchen.html

Buying Ban

Photo credit: cafeluna.net (secret: you can make that meal at home for about $3.50 instead of spending $20 at a cafe…I know, that’s no fun, it’s just for one month)

Before you start throwing away those knick-knacks throw away that credit card. Just kidding…sort of…but do put it away for the month. Here’s the plan: you need to put yourself on a buying ban. For the next 30 days do not buy anything that is not a necessity. Trust me you can do this for one month.

The lesson to be learned is what you are buying on impulse, what you are buying out of convenience, and to learn how much you can save your wallet and your house from all the unnecessary stuff.

Join me in my 30-day buying ban. Nothing but bills, groceries, and toiletries are being bought. It’s hard, it takes thought but like anything that first seems difficult it has turned into a huge lesson for us. I’ve even had some great conversations with our oldest girl about the cost of stuff.

First, decide what you consider a necessity and make a written list to be hung on the fridge. Cait Flanders writes a beautiful blog about her experience with going on a 2-year buying ban! It’s also quite inspirational when you need words of encouragement in the middle of your buying ban. When you hear how much she saved you’ll be sure to sign yourself up for the challenge.

Here’s what are our necessities:

  1. groceries
  2. toiletries – only as needed, no stocking up
  3. new shoes for our kiddos – those little feet grow way too fast
  4. house maintenance – only if something breaks

Here is what specifically is not allowed:

  1. eating out
  2. coffee to go
  3. new clothes, new shoes, etc.
  4. all that extra junk I buy at the grocery store that’s not on the list.
  5. household items – even those that seem necessary today are not, put it on a list and see if you still ‘need’ it 30 days from now

It’s important to set parameters on your shopping ban. Add or subtract as you wish but set yourself definitive boundaries. Post that list to the fridge, the bathroom mirror, where ever. Text it to your spouse on the day you think they might cheat or when you might cheat. Post a picture of what you will do with your saved money.

Our downfall is food. I buy extra goodies at the grocery store and eat out way too much. I didn’t think it was really that much, only a few times a week, but after I added up our restaurant bills – including coffee to go – we spent over $500 last month! I mean seriously, that’s ridiculous. I dare you to add up your coffee, convenience store stops, and restaurant bills.

In the future, we plan to set a restaurant and coffee budget per month. I have plans to get back onto Dave Ramsey’s plan, we fell off the bandwagon a few years ago.

Please share what you overspend on, the hardest thing for you to give up, and what you plan to do with your saved cash.

Start with You

I find advice that begins with ‘start with yourself’ to be the best. I love Dave Ramsey and when my husband and I took Financial Peace University together I used to lay in the bath at night and watch his success story videos. Dave Ramsey has always recommended to ‘Pay Yourself First’. And it’s great advice. It’s worked for me and it’s worked for other people I know. Airplane stewards always direct you to place your oxygen mask on yourself before helping others around you, even including your children. It’s not just good advice it is life or death, even though in an emergency I imagine I’ll hold my breath to help my kid. But I know it’s not the right choice when I really think about it because who will help my kid when I’ve passed out from no oxygen!?! So basically pay yourself first, take care of yourself first because I bet no one else is going to do it for you.

My advice regarding minimalism is to focus on yourself first. There are many minimalist writers and bloggers out there and most of them recommend cleaning out that garage or basement first or even going for the easy trash in the living room method. I don’t recommend that. What you will get is trash removed from the living room and nothing else. I know this from experience and I’m sure a lot of people out there are just as overwhelmed as myself. So instead, pay yourself first!

Take some time and talk to a couple friends about ways they have simplified their lives. A great friend gives you energy. Find them, keep them, use them and support them in return. Don’t bring those people into your life that use, use, use and never give anything back, this person is NOT a friend! Your life will be so much better. You will have a support group, your own little cheerleaders leading you through life. Talk to your friends about what drives you crazy, what fills you with the most dread, what you miss doing the most and what you wish you could change, and what works for them. I bet you’ll learn a lot about your friends and how they keep a home, manage homework, pick-ups and drop-offs and so many other great things that could make your life easier that you never thought about. Plus, coffee and brioche with a friend is always a good thing.

Some great advice I’ve come across from books and my own friends and family are:

  • Drop perfectionism and the guilt it produces.
  • Get a relaxing hobby, like yoga. Or any other hobby you thoroughly enjoy just for you.
  • Learn to say “No” when you really don’t want to do something.
  • Treat negative people like the plague. They will only take your energy and give you none in return.
  • Find something to fill the shopping void. Do you shop when you are bored, stressed? Fill that gap with something you love…that isn’t shopping.

My favorite book on minimalism (“30 Days to a Simpler Life”) is quite outdated but has some great tips:

  1. Make forms for everything you do repeatedly (i.e. grocery shopping, chores, parties, volunteering). You can keep all these forms in a binder or in a family command center.
  2. Teach your kids to be responsible for their things. This one will save you more time than any other advice. Teach them young and save yourself time later.
  3. Make lists of all the things you need to do and create a management center on the fridge or open wall. Make sure your husband and children know these lists and are involved in helping you cross things off. Lists can include menus, shopping lists, activity lists.
  4. Pick one night a week to catch up on calls, emails, bills and forms. Sunday night is a good night, right before the next week starts. Forget about these tasks the rest of the week.
  5. Buy clothes that do not need dry cleaning, sheets that do no need ironing, an easy to manage hairstyle and other things you think will make your life easier. Life can be easier when we choose things that simplify our lives.
  6. Install a stacking washer and dryer in a closet near a teenagers room. You’ll never talk about wash again when it’s their own responsibility.
  7. My favorite advice from the book! “My major strategy for simplifying is to get as much exercise as possible, eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, look for the best in everyone, and have a regular and exciting sex life. The rest falls into place.”