Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Confronting Sunk Cost Fallacy

One of the biggest obstacles to starting in on minimalism is sunk cost--not wanting to get rid of something solely because we've spent money on it, even if it's something we don't like. Sunk cost fallacy is the financial equivalent to emotional sentimentality, and can hold new minimalists back from discarding the right items.

How can I identify sunk cost fallacy?

The phenomenon of sunk cost fallacy is a set of behaviors where we keep trudging along with an object long past its use or our interest in it, and we do so only because it cost us money. It's a trap where we artificially attach ourselves to items just because we had to pay for them. A good example is when you move to a new apartment or house and you take along the same box of assorted phone chargers, power adapters for other devices, etc., over and over again with each move. Those items cost money to buy, cost money to replace, and prompt a lot of "what if I need them one day?" questions. But in the end, the items are ultimately just stuff taking up space. They have no real bearing on your future plans, short- or long-term.

How can I combat this sunk cost fallacy?

Well, it comes down to common questions I pose to new minimalists:

  • Do you want this item to come with you into the future?
  • Does the item represent some crucial part of your personality and lifestyle?
  • Do you enjoy using the item?
  • Are you happy about the financial the cost of the item?
  • Are you happy about the emotional cost of the item?

If the answers are all a resounding "no", then it's likely you've kept the item in question due to the sunk cost trap. If you did indeed answer "no" to all of those questions, congratulations! You've identified one of your own sunk cost items and can now discard it, and take note of how it felt to get rid of it.

Discarding sunk cost items might sting at first, especially if you're dealing with (or have dealt with) financial insecurity. In that case, it might help to resell the item or donate it to a charity that can use it, if possible. Once you discard a few sunk cost items without concerning yourself with recouping some of the cost, it will only get easier to discard more.

My own sunk cost items

I'm no different from anyone else when it comes to sunk cost. Or at least, that's how I started my minimalist journey. Before I dove into minimalism, I had spent the previous six years doing my best to survive financial instability--inconsistent hours at my job combined with the cost of state college tuition made it very hard to get by even with the help of student loans. It was very difficult for me to part with my massive piles of stuff. Even the $4 dresses I bought at thrift stores were hard to discard, because I knew I wasn't going to get that $4 back.

Eventually I realized that so much of that stuff was costing me a lot of emotional energy, and my desire to hold onto it actually cost me a good chunk of change. It took about eight car trips back and forth from my college town rental to finally get all of the stuff I wanted to keep to my new home once I got a better job and had to move. I started to think of it all differently: was a moving box full of $4 dresses worth the gas money of a 250 mile round trip (about $22 in gas back then)? No, they weren't. I ended up parting with a whopping thirtyish 13-gallon trash bags of stuff to donate over the first six months of my minimalist adventure... stuff that I had decided was so damned important that it had to make a 125 mile trip to get from the college town to the work town. It wasn't just clothes--it was art supplies I'd bought hoping to distract myself from the rigors of grad school; it was shoes I'd bought and worn through because I never just bought one nice pair of boots, I "needed" many bad pairs; it was an expensive bottle of perfume here and there that I'd gotten for myself when I needed a pick-me-up.

None of what I discarded those first six months needed to follow me into the future. I can't even remember the specifics of what I discarded--just the general categories and how much a few things would have cost. It's been years now since those items all left my possession, and in those years I haven't felt the urge to go out and acquire nearly as much as I discarded (partly because I finally started buying better-made clothes and boots).

Once I reframed "How much did this cost me?" to "How much will this keep costing me?", it got a lot easier to discard all sorts of things. It's also helpful to include the emotional cost of items, which can absolutely be a huge expenditure. 

Items that don't reflect you or your lifestyle should find their way to a new home, no matter how much money they cost to buy. They might just end up costing more money, time, and energy to keep. If a costly item doesn't bring you joy, accept the sunk cost... and sink the item into your discard pile!

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Digital Decluttering Part 2: Old Accounts and Saved Passwords

With my social media presence reduced as part of my digital decluttering effort, I decided that old accounts and saved passwords would be the next leg of this journey. This has turned out to be a fairly time-consuming project, but it is one that can be worked on whenever a few minutes present themselves. Cleaning up online presence overall has a lot of benefits, from not needing to remember and store to many passwords to reducing the likelihood of becoming the victim of a data breach. And of course from the minimalist perspective, less stuff to worry about means more time for the important things. I'll take a different tack from my usual style and list this post out in steps so it's easier to follow along at home.

Step 1: Sign up for a new (second) password manager
I know I essentially said that less is more in the intro paragraph, but using multiple password managers is only a temporary step. I started off with all of my accounts saved in Google Password Manager and chose Bitwarden to transfer all of my keep-worthy accounts. At the end of this process, every account I want to keep will be in Bitwarden. If you're a paper-and-pen kind of person, that's fine. Some IT folks do not like the idea of hardcopies of passwords, but I personally think it is a fine plan as long as the hardcopies are kept safe. 

Step 2: Transfer the obvious keepers into the new password manager
As I go through my long list of accounts, I see the bunch that I use every day. Those are important to transfer first, as they set the mood for what kind of accounts you'll likely keep, and which you will want to close. Once I have the keep-worthy accounts saved in the new password manager, I delete the entry from the old manager. The original password manager essentially becomes a graveyard for unwanted accounts, but I find it to be helpful to separate out accounts this way--useful accounts go into the new password manager, and anything else gets left behind until it is cancelled or closed.

Step 3: Close or cancel unwanted accounts
Sometimes this is as easy as going to the website on which the account is registered and finding a "cancel my membership" or "close my account" link and filling out a short form. However, I have found in too many cases for my liking that closing an account entails emailing support with an account cancellation request. Some sites have had a quick turnaround, but others have taken weeks to respond and close an account for me. Some of the easy "close my account" links and forms, such as for social media or email accounts, will keep an account open for up to two months before they are finally closed, and logging in will break the cancellation process. Closing down accounts can be annoying, but it's a much safer option than just leaving hundreds of useless accounts open and vulnerable to attack or breach. Anyway, once an account is cancelled or closed, it's safe to remove it from the password manager in which it was stored.

Step 4: Transfer, then generate strong passwords for unwanted accounts that can't be closed
I wish I could get rid of every last account that I never really use, but sadly that isn't the case. I have to keep some odds-and-ends accounts open for tax purposes, such as anything relating to my federal student loans. In cases such as these, I transfer the account details to my new password manager, then make it a point to go in and change the password to something as strong as possible. That will at least make the semi-abandoned account more secure.

Let minimalism help you stay safer online, and get rid of any accounts you no longer need. You'll have less to worry about, which means more mental real estate will be available for finding and keeping joy.

Minimalism is a process

Minimalism makes room in our lives for more of the parts of life that matter: hobbies, relationships, experiences. But minimalism isn't something to ultimately achieve and then stop as though it's complete. There is no contest to see who does minimalism the best (at least, there never should be). There are as many versions of minimalism as there are practitioners or followers.

And because minimalism is so variable and personal, I can't stress this enough: Minimalism is a process. It's an ongoing, mindful, and honest effort to remove clutter from life. It can silence the constant and seemingly inescapable piercing whistle of anxiety or the static buzz of feeling overworked. For my fellow Millennials and my Xennial and Zoomer compatriots, putting an end to anxiety and exhaustion is something we all chase but don't necessarily know how to achieve. Even achieving anything requires maintenance to uphold the achievement. But with minimalism, I never want the thought of the minimalist process to feel daunting.

The process of minimalism should be a process of introspection, honesty with the self, and finding joy. When we experience a moment of joy we never want it to end, right? Staying joyful is a process. Being honest with yourself is a process. And likewise, minimalism is a process.


Okay, so what are the steps of the minimalist process?

I have no interest in dictating which steps to take to achieve minimalism. Nothing I write is a rule, but all of what I write comes from personal experience that I hope resonates with others. For me, the process of minimalism is fairly simple:

  • Frequent assessments of where I am and where I want to be next
  • Honest internal critique of my belongings and my material wants
  • Check-ins with my needs physically, mentally, and emotionally 
  • Analysis of my activities and the time they fill
  • Inspection and joy-checking of my interpersonal relationships
  • Discarding any thing, any activity or experience, and anyone that gets in the way of where I want to be

There is a lot of liberation and power to be felt when embracing minimalism as a process of seeking joy and decluttering life of the negative objects and forces that try to hinder or suppress joy. 

How do I know that minimalism is a process? I live it. Other minimalists live it. The process of living life comes with no shortage of introductions of messes, frustrations, personal changes, and so on. Even as minimalists, we will always have things coming in and out of our lives, whether they're single-use and consumable like meals and wine, or durable and lasting like books and other people. The constant flowing-in of new things and people should not be a cause for stress for minimalists (whether newbie or "pro").

Finding balance, finding joy, and practicing minimalism are all processes. We can tailor every step and every facet of minimalism to our own needs--nothing about minimalism is set in stone or absolute. Just like making life better never ends, neither does the effort of being a minimalist... and because minimalism can bring us joy and give us back time, it's a process that can be worth more than anything we could ever discard.