Renter Nomads: On Minimalism

Minimalism is one of THE Big Ideas (rather paradoxical, that) in lifestyle and domestic economy, and one every Renter Nomad in particular should think about, although there are arguments against it, so don’t fear a bullying list from me!

Pros

Minimalism addresses, and has the potential to solve, the inventory question, which I think is one of the biggest non-legal and non-financial problems of the Renter Nomad household. In suitably minimalistic bullet-points, here is why:

  • If you buy and maintain a smaller household inventory, you are not tying up loads of capital in Things you can only use in occasional years, say, when you have a balcony/conservatory in your rented place, or when you need long curtains, as opposed to short. If you are careful, you can spend more on better-quality things, and this cannot be bad!
  • The fewer things you have, the more multi-functional furniture (e.g. chest instead of coffee table) you use, the less space and time it all takes up when it comes to Moving Day(s). You may be able to hire a smaller van, or keep the van and “help” for just one day rather than two.
  • Not having an inventory in storage means that you are always surrounded by the same (hopefully good-quality and belovèd) items, which is, after all, being “at home,” no matter what permutations you have had to adopt because of yet another move.
  • One of the classic pieces of advice for managing a household is: “Have plenty of storage.” However, as every Renter Nomad knows, you don’t always have space for the storage. What happens if the ceiling is too low for your grand, over-topped Billy Bookcase, or the cupboard space has already been fitted, leaving you with unplaceable wadrobes, which, in the worst scenario, will add to your monthly rent by requiring their own residence somewhere else?
  • For families, there are persuasive arguments, along the lines of Simplicity Parenting, that a more limited inventory of toys allows children not only the time to play more intensively, but also the space. According to this argument, a few, simpler toys, which don’t “do” anything, take the place of many single-function toys. Moreover, it’s important that toys be not too closely identified with a particular play-universe, in order that they might be used in many worlds and play-scenarios, including ones generated entirely by your children.
  • Following on from the previous point, minimalism applies to schedules as well. Applied to the physical environment for the purpose of the Renter Nomad ‘blog, Minimalism could mean possessing a tent or share in a static caravan, or being a member of the National Trust or local library, all so you can spend time out of your rented home, if it is too small or un-homely.

Cons

In contrast to the previous bullet-pointed list, my arguments against minimalism require more substantial paragraphs and more explanation, not only because non-minimalism is bulkier and more complex, but because it requires subtlety to argue against such a seductive idea as a clutter-free life.

My biggest problem with minimalism, whether for the Renter Nomad or for more settled folk, is the sheer vigilance required for minimalist living. In the UK, where I live, the economy, lifestyle and seasons are not at all regular. In the economy, flexible working, very long or very short working hours, and insecurity are all widespread, so what hope of a daily regime of shopping, cleaning and leisure, which would lend itself to keeping-on-top-of-things minimalism? We’re more likely to have to live between “blitzes”, both of entropy and of energy. Likewise, our climate is chaotic, with both freezes and heatwaves likely at any time of year. This makes “spring-cleaning”, periods of renewing and repairing our shoes and wardrobes, changes of bedding and seasonal cooking all a big headache. I would absolutely love to clean, vacuum-pack and correctly store our winter clothes and bedding, and use up all the winter-warmer dry foods, such as pearl barley, risotto, chicken stock which I made myself, etc. However, with “summer” lasting just two weeks sometimes, and over by the end of July, I need to have cardigans and tights filling my drawers, alongside the liner-socks I wear in the warm weather.

Another capital concern about minimalist living, this one particularly for the Renter Nomad, is that, without enough of my possessions around, a place doesn’t really feel like home to me, and there’s even a danger that my things will be simply “lost” in a rented environment, which is terribly sad. In an earlier article, I referenced the lifestyle of tribal nomads, and tried to evoke the elegance and cosiness of a tent lined, floored and covered by the family’s own carpets and hangings. There simply must be some element of this in a Renter Nomad’s life if s/he is not to live in alienation. Even a favourite poster, which will cover the damp spot on the wall, marks a place as not belonging to a landlord or landlady.

Children can be particularly sensitive to being in alien and alienating environments, so I do think there is such a thing as too much minimalism or Simplicity Parenting as far as their possessions are concerned. For one thing, toys do stimulate the senses, the imagination and a combination of gross and fine motor skills, which digitally delivered toys and games find hard to deliver (remember the oral stage, when children put everything in their mouth?I’ve found that it extends quite far through childhood, meaning tactile toys are always needed). Yes, children do collect lots of clutter, and are often indifferent to that clutter, particularly disposable Happy-Meal/CBeebies magazine style toys, or tat generated for them by birthdays and birthday parties, or by not-very-close-grownups who feel obliged to give presents. Therefore, culls are inevitable, and very desirable! Possessiveness and guilt about getting rid of toys – the Toy Story philosophy, carried to extremes – are a real hindrance if comfort-clutter becomes hoarding, especially when there is another house-move to be faced. However, there is also truth in the Toy Story philosophy, and it would be inhumane to strip our children of all the items which make up a familiar environment, even if we hate the naff teddies and twee little dolls and ugly Happy-Meal toys made (badly) of sun-faded plastic – which somehow have gained the love and trust of our credulous little people! My son will have moved house five times by the time he is six years old, and I really do feel sorry for him, so I have relaxed some of my hard-line anti-clutter attitudes for his sake. How could I not, after I was plaintively asked, “Mummy, are we going to bring [his cuddly tractor, stuffed car and carrot, which he sleeps with] with us when we move house?”

Now that I have been thoroughly manipulative, with that reference to my little boy’s sad brown eyes, I do have a final argument against minimalism, and it’s a sensible one, with no parental guilt and no other kind of emotional blackmail (though maybe just a bit of scare-mongering): minimalism leaves you vulnerable to unexpected situations and to emergencies.

As I indicated above, many of us, particularly Renter Nomads, live hectic, even chaotic lives, and this means as a minimum that we don’t always have the laundry up to date. I’ve seen some minimalist discussions lauding capsule wardrobes and capsule sheet-and-towel inventories. This, to my mind is several steps too far, since it leaves one unable to respond calmly and practically in the case of midnight vomiting, to the other effects of Norovirus, and to having guests to stay on a blowup bed that one simply hasn’t got the sheets or towels for because there normally aren’t that number of beds and bodies in the house. Meanwhile, stockpiled “emergency gifts” are likely to be less expensive, and nicer, than the handcream bought at the petrol station at midnight, or the bottle of plonk or child’s puzzle from the corner shop. Packs of blank cards, bought at a museum gift shop, represent good value for money, and are likely to be more attractive than what your local Post Office has in stock. Is it really a problem to personalise a card rather than having to locate one specifically for your neighbour’s daughter, on having passed her driving test?! I also keep a stock of toothbrushes, which is nice for guests, as well as good for the oral hygiene of my own family (the children chew their brushes).

This essay hasn’t been very minimalist, has it? Minimalism has many things to teach us, and it is good for any Renter Nomad to have a sceptical attitude to excessive possessions – that is, after all, the problem which drove me to start this ‘blog – since so much domestic stuff is “wasted” if one is moving house every year or so (or even more frequently). Yet we shouldn’t be too hard-line with our minimalism, or else we as serial tenants not only don’t own our own homes, but don’t own even the “households” we carry about with us.

In Agatha Christie’s They Came to Baghdad, the heroine goes on an archaeological dig and is entranced to find a world like hers, domestic cosiness preserved through centuries because those cosy domestic items were preserved through years by the owners themselves:

“Kings of Babylon,” she added, with a strange little smile. “But what I like so much about all this is that it’s the ordinary everyday people – people like me. My St Anthony who finds things for me when I lose them – and a lucky china pig I’ve got – and an awfully nice mixing bowl, blue inside and white out, that I used to make cakes in. It got broken, and the new one I bought wasn’t a bit the same. I can understand why these people mended up their favourite bowls or dishes so carefully with bitumen.”

I’m really not sure what archaeologists would or could make of a large-scale Renter Nomad population….

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About renternomads

Despite an Oxbridge degree and a background in writing, event management and business journalism, I've rented in the private sector for 12 years. Shame on me: what a betrayal of my class background! So the rhetoric goes... However, in the UK, now, the average age of a first time buyer without parental support has risen to 37. Moreover, new kinds of renters are entering the market: the housing market is so illiquid that sellers are increasingly talking of "going into rented" while they seek to buy another property. Whether you're a long-term renter or a "temporary nomad", I hope you'll find it useful and interesting as I blog about the domestic solutions which you can take with you, so you don't "have" to buy again and again.
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