A Physician Takes a Step Towards Minimalism

LeverageRxOn a recent vacation, my wife and I stopped at a thrift store in Franklin, Tennessee. Thrift stores are a good place to pick up kitschy shirts, broken in jeans, and if we’re lucky, a nice Columbia jacket for the kids that someone else’s kid grew out of after one season.

Thrift stores are only one of several sources of new or new-to-us clothing. We receive clothing as gifts. We might pick up a shirt as a souvenir. We pick things up from Amazon Fashion. We even shop at actual retail stores on occasion. We hit the clearance racks, of course. I am a frugal physician, you know.

Our little walk-in closet has been feeling a bit overstuffed. A while back, my wife told me about the “one in, one out” principle. When you add a piece to the wardrobe, something’s got to go to make room. The math makes sense, but it’s hard to get rid of something that’s still good. Something you might wear. Something you might miss if it’s no longer yours.

The Tennessee thrift store was one of the best organized I’d ever seen, and I’ve seen a few thrift stores. I looked past the clothing aisles. As a non-adopter of the “one in, one out” rule, I’ve pretty much run out of room for more clothing, so I hit up the bookshelves instead (not that there’s much room on our bookshelves, either).

For forty-nine cents, I picked up a gem of a paperback that spoke to me: Scaling Down. Living Large in a Smaller Space by Culbertson & Decker. What did this book say when it spoke? On Page 3, it said “…people spend the first 40 years of their life enthusiastically accumulating and the next 40 years trying to get rid of the excess.” As a forty-year old lifelong accumulator, I’d say that sounds about right.


We Have Excess


The Scaling Down book was published in 2005, before there was a Minimalism film and minimalist blogs such as Break the Twitch, Becoming Minimalist, and The Minimalists. While I’m not sure if any form of the word minimalism appears in the book I picked up, it really is an excellent manual explaining how and why we should start to get rid of the excess stuff in our lives. A minimalist book before minimalist was a cool thing to be.

“…people spend the first 40 years of their life enthusiastically accumulating and the next 40 years trying to get rid of the excess.”


The point of the book, and the minimalist movement, is that you can and will live better with less. Physical clutter becomes mental clutter. The state of the junk drawer and storage closet can affect our state of mind. We spend too much time and energy storing, maintaining, and organizing so much stuff, and when we might actually want or need that one thing, remembering where it is and finding it can be a challenge.

This was the case with our closet. I’m not sure which shorts fit best, but I know it’s in that pile somewhere. Probably needs to be ironed. I’ll just wear what’s on top this week. I’ve got a few polo shirts that fit nicely, but the collars are permacreased from being squeezed amongst so many other polo, cocktail, athletic, and Hawaiian shirts.

The book’s authors state that they are often asked for a magic bullet. While they don’t have one, the closest approximation they can offer is to start by getting rid of half your stuff. Rip it off like a Band-Aid. I like it. I decided to do that with the closet.

Another minimalism book that has been quite popular, and mentioned in the blog before, is The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Kondo. While I haven’t read it, my wife has, and half of the closet is hers. The author of this book recommends taking everything out and putting it in a big pile in the middle of the room, a tactic employed by the good doctor known as the Happy Philosopher. Since my wife and I are attacking the closet together, we decide to use this strategy, too.


Dealing with the Excess


On a recent post-call Monday, we approached the undersized, yet bloated closet. On my side, hangers weren’t really needed. Force clothes apart, squeeze shirt in, let go, and it all compresses once again nicely. My closet is an anti-gravity chamber. I still used hangers to keep up appearances, but they were decorative hangers. Here’s the Before pictures.




Step 1: Empty the closet


While we didn’t exactly toss it all into one big pile, it didn’t take long to empty out. I hadn’t seen the closet look like this since we moved in nearly three years ago. The rest of the room didn’t look so good.


empty closet


Step 2: Inventory


I counted 88 tee shirts, 94 hanging shirts, 20 hats, 8 belts, 6 sweaters, and 4 jerseys. I had verbally committed to parting with half.



Step 3: Decision Time


I thought this would be the hardest part. Many items were gifts. Some have a story or hold sentimental value. I’ve made memories in these clothes, some of which were vividly recollected as I sorted through the cotton and polyester mountain.


Bob Dylan European Tour 2002

see ya later, bob


Like the time I saw Bob Dylan kick off his European tour in Stockholm’s Epcot-esque hockey arena formerly known as Globen as a medical exchange student. Or the time I presented research as an undergrad at the Society of Transplant Surgeons meeting in Chicago. I’ve had the red #23 jersey from the surgeons’ hockey game for nearly twenty years, and I probably haven’t worn it since that night.


American Society of Transplant Surgeons Hockey Jersey


It wasn’t tough at all. Not only had I verbally committed to parting with half, but I had also mentioned it on this blog. I wasn’t about to tell you all how I failed. While I did send quite a few items to the donation box that I felt I might miss, I know deep down that I wouldn’t. The Scaling Down book has an answer to every imaginable excuse we tell ourselves for hanging on to things we don’t really need. When all was said and done, I had jettisoned 44 tee shirts, 47 hanging shirts, 10 hats, 3 sweaters, and 2 jerseys.


Step 4: Reassemble


The closet came back together nicely. Hangers are once again required, and I can slide garments back and forth with ease. We have a couple empty shelves, and I haven’t had any inclination to fill them up with anything new. The empty shelves are badges of successful minimalizing, and I wear them with pride.





Step 5: Donate


My wife and I went through the gargantuan garment pile piece by piece, logging what we were giving away with enough detail to assign a reasonable value to the Himalayan clothes heap. I like to use the Salvation Army’s Donation Value Guide to assign a dollar amount. We boxed everything up into three decent sized moving boxes, and dropped them off at our neighborhood Salvation Army.



Step 6: Reflect


It’s been over a week, and I haven’t fished out a single article of clothing from the box pile. I haven’t felt even one iota of regret. I managed to say sayonara to over one hundred items, but that means I still have over a hundred left, including this 100% polyester bad boy that over the last two decades has survived many themed and non-themed parties, and two spring breaks in Acapulco.


i’ve got a fever. saturday night fever.


My first step towards being more minimalist was a good one for this recovering maximalist. It worked! It felt right. It was cathartic.

We’ve got many more rooms and areas to cover, but if we can approach them with the same no-holds-barred, this-might-hurt-a-bit attitude, I believe we will achieve our goals of lightening our load, simplifying our lives, and actually knowing what we have and where to find it. I wish we would have done this three moves ago.

Ikea hangers

hangers without a cause

Have you attempted a similar undertaking? Do you tend to be minimalist, or are you a maximalist who sees empty storage as a vacuum waiting to be filled? Most likely you fall somewhere in between.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post where I delve further into my thoughts on minimalism, and how it can be at odds with a frugality mindset.



  • The Green Swan

    Nice post, PoF, and good work on the closet! I’ve known for a while I need to do a serious declutter around the house and especially in my closet. I have a tendency to hold onto everything, even if it’s a gift I’ve never used or worn. I look forward to the next post, I need the motivation!

  • Great post PoF. As luck would have it, my wife texted me a picture at the office last week of her closet shelf which had come crashing down to the ground under the weight of god knows how many jeans in the middle of the day. Many of which she never wears. I have been bugging her about de-cluttering for YEARS. She had hit rock bottom and knew something had to be done.

    As I repaired and upgraded our closet this weekend, she went through a similar exercise as you and eliminated 23 jeans plus assorted other articles to be donated. To be honest, she still has so many that I can’t tell the difference, but I have the garbage bags full of clothing as proof that a dent has been made. Progress is progress.

    There’s something strangely satisfying about decluttering. I’m usually pretty good about it myself, but seeing my wife go through the exercise this weekend reminded me that it’s time to take another look at my own clothes too before the donation guys come by to pick up her stuff.

    Something strangely satisfying about sweeping out the garage too, but that’ a topic for another day…

    Love the saturday night fever shirt – that’s a keeper!

  • I think I can actually forward this to my husband because of your sense of humor and he won’t be too ticked off at me! We have no choice but to de-clutter in the next few months as our plan is to downsize into a much smaller house. It will be a good exercise in deciding what really is important to us and what we can live without. “Lightening our load and simplifying our life” is a great motto for us too. I think we have a few Saturday night fever shirts in the closet, along with a leisure suit or two (I think your probably too young to remember those) and about 100 goofy ties that need a new home too. Great post!

  • Mr Crazy Kicks

    Nice work! I might have to do something like that with my closet.

    I just wrote about selling a moped I had since high school. It was taking up too much space in my garage and in my mind. And even though I don’t have the bike anymore, I still have the good stories and memories made with it.

  • Nice one.
    Clear the stuff. Clear the mind.

    We have a rule that if it has not been used in last six to nine months, toss it out. Thus generally minimalism rules in the house of PIE.

    However, this does not apply to the growing tower of mixing bowls in our kitchen. We ( editorial mote – Mrs. PIE) has enough bowls to bake cake for a large army of bloggers. I have to say the cakes are 100% yummy scrummy and the small PIEs would agree. It is one area where minimalism is not necessary although my expanding waist line would probably argue for a tad more minimalism…..

    • If I got rid of everything I didn’t use for 6 or 9 months, I’d have no rakes, no Christmas decorations, or any holiday decorations, no kilts, and no leiderhosen.

      I’d still have the snowblower, though. It’s lucky to get 7 months off.

      p.s. I don’t actually have a kilt or leiderhosen, but I kinda want both, even if I’d only wear them once a year.

  • I did this when I moved out of Manhattan in the Spring. Took about 4 bags of clothes to Goodwill. Stuff I hadn’t worn in years. Why did I have it in the first place??? Felt great!

  • Love this post – thank you for inviting us into your closet! For all the declutter-bugs reading this, Deduct It! Deduct It! http://amzn.to/2dgxlC3 is the record-keeping book we use for clients (we buy a box of them every year to hand out to those who are moving). It is much more detailed than the SA’s guide and will easily repay the $10 cost.

    Mr. PIE – one can never have too many bowls or knives in their kitchen.

  • It’s taken us a few months, but we have managed to work through our whole house. Sometimes it is painful to start, but it’s been amazing after the fact. Mr. Mt was fully convinced that we needed a $6000 shed before we started decluttering. But now all our tools and remodel supplies fit quite nicely on our shelves. There are still a few nooks to go through. And a life time of maintenance. It was hours or work for sure. But I am so much more mindful about buying any new items now.

    • A few months to get through the whole house sounds to me like a heck of an accomplishment. I’m thinking it could take us a year or more. If we focus, we could probably get it done in a few painful months, I suppose. Winter is a good time to do so.


  • Good for you, Doc! We took a slightly, um, more aggressive approach when we sold our 4,000 sq ft house in March. In 30 days, we had to be out. The cabin we moved to was already furnished, so we needed essentially none of the STUFF we’d accumulated over 30 years. Wow, what a rush. The feeling of pulling an anchor out of 30 year old mud was worth the effort. Force yourself to downsize, you’ll be rewarded in the end.

  • We usually do a 70 in 7 challenge ~once a quarter where we find 10 things a day for 7 days to get rid of/sell/donate. Although, it has been getting harder and we haven’t done one in a while. I can already think of about ~15 hats that could go into the get rid of pile. I guess it’s time to start a new round and get some stuff cleaned out. 🙂
    Thanks for the inspiration!

  • Nice job PoF. The fiance and I have typically done a decent (not great) job of keeping the junk moving out of the house, but we have problems with family storing their stuff in our basement. It’s all out of sight, out of mind, but still – I’m sure it clutters the mind. Might need to make a rule about how long people can store things in our house.

    At least we did recently manage to sell an old dresser and desk that had traveled from the fiancé’s family home into our house and had stuck around for 4 years!

    • Thanks, Financial Panther. I’ve moved stuff about six times. “We’ll sort it out before the next move,” I’ll say. Then life is hectic when it’s time for the next move. And the “what if” scenarios. I’ve said / wondered that too many times.


  • Arrgo

    That quote about accumulating for 40 years is right on. Now in my mid 40’s I’ve got way too much stuff and its going to be such a chore to try and sort it all out and get rid of it. Some things have value and just trying to sell it is going to be a job. I agree with the point of it also being mental clutter too as it is a distraction and something else on the “to-do” list when I could be doing something better with my time than spending a whole day sorting out a closet. A few years ago I really started cutting back on buying things as I realized how much stuff I have that I hardly even use or had time to use. Tools. electronics, etc that were “nice to have” but mostly just sat there collecting dust and hundreds (thousands) of dollars basically out the window. I’m much more selective now on any purchases I make and saving that extra money is a good thing too.

  • I’m am enjoying your website immensely, and I love your humor. I almost fell over laughing at the shirt staying up without a hanger story. I jumped into the minimalism movement years ago. I have a habit of all or nothing: I over did it and gave up too much. If I could go back, I would reduce how far I went with this, but what’s done is done. It can be addictive, almost cult like, except a good cult. I do suggest though, go slow, maybe set some of it aside for awhile to be sure, but still progress. It is a great movement, and it taught me a lot about myself. I still hold fast to the principals I learned with it, and even those keep evolving. Wishing you the best in your progression as you lighten “the load.”

    • Thanks, Melinda. It’s rare to hear someone regret downsizing their lives. I guess if you went to an extreme, I can imagine having some second guesses. That’s kind of what I was referring to at the end. Minimalism can be at odds with frugality. It can be challenging and costly to part with something, only to need it and have to buy a replacement later on.


  • ChooseBetterLife

    I found Marie Kondo’s books last year and we took several carloads to the donation center. You’re so right that it’s refreshing and it makes finding and using what you have left sooooo much more pleasant. I haven’t missed anything yet, and every now and then we do another mini-purge. It’s another form of freedom!

  • One way to preserve things that are memorable is to take photos of them. Lot easier to store. Now, if I can only take my own medicine. Hoarding unfortunately runs in my jeans. My wife helps keep a lid on it, but I do see way too many piles, especially in my closet.

    Gret job on your successful effort.
    cd :O)

  • It’s good to know I’m not the only multi-millionaire that shops for clothes at thrift stores!

    Haha! The Saturday Night Fever pic made me laugh!

  • Excellent! I found that the things that were left after the decluttering process just made me feel happier. I has less but it felt like I had more. Also there was almost nothing I got rid of that I missed. My biggest challenge is keeping more ‘stuff’ out of my life. It just creeps back in if you are not careful.

  • PEMDoc

    I am trying to embrace this approach, though getting myself fully on board is hard, it’s also something that requires buy-in from the family to work properly in the short term and long term (just like losing weight).

    Any advice for those with kids? That’s where a good chunk of our clutter comes from. My wife and I regularly purge our clothes (though we have room to do better), but our kids keep accumulating toys (usually holiday gifts or from family — they rarely get toys otherwise).

    • For the kids? We talk a lot about how we have more than we need, and it’s nice to give away toys you don’t play with much so that kids that don’t have a lot can have toys to play with. They’ve become accustomed to some regular donation at a young age.

      Thanks for the comments and question, PEMDoc.


  • Nice work! Managing stuff is such a hassle, so in recent years I’ve become very conscious of what I bring into my home. Decluttering and scaling down my closet was a process that took place over several years in various phases. I hated getting rid of stuff that was still good and I had a little bit of a scarcity mentality leftover from my dirt poor college/recession days. Having less stuff though feels soooo much better than having a house stuffed to the brim.

    The first minimalist blog I read was MNMLIST which has since become just an archive of posts, but I think the archives are worth delving into for a nice, minimal look at a minimalist’s life.


    • Thank you, DaFL.

      My scarcity mentality comes from having grandparents who lived through the Great Depression. They couldn’t part with anything, and my parents grew up in those households. Guess what my childhood was like? It was great, but it was okay to keep everything forever. It takes a lot to unlearn that mentality.


  • financialibre

    Bravo! Ain’t easy to do! But those before and after pics are a big-time endorsement for the minimalism thing – I can almost hear my blood pressure falling when I go from the pre to post images. That makes decluttering pretty much a medical emergency, right?!? Is this procedure covered by Obamacare?

    Nice post. We pretty much went to near-zero belongings in prep for our move back to Europe. And then something like minimalism just sorta stuck around after. But it’s still a constant battle…

    Thanks for the great read!

  • I usually do the de-cluttering when I move. Having lived in the same place for 8 years now, stuff piles up. Some of it literally. I will definitely check out some of the techniques mentioned here.
    The one complication I have is that due to space constraints in our small condo I share one single walk-in closet with Mrs. ERN. Unless we do the decluttering together I am afraid that my wife’s stuff will just take over my half. I think the scientific name for the process at work is osmosis. I will show her this post and try to get her on board!

    • A small condo complicates things in a way, but it also limits how much you can comfortably keep. When you own 3000+ square foot homes, and the hospitals have paid for your last two moves, it’s easy to not worry about all the excess.

      I plan a major downsizing before we actually FIRE. An actual fire would make it easier, now that I think about it.


  • S.G.

    I admit that I am a natural accumulator of stuff, but I did okay controlling it until I had kids. It isn’t so much the lack of time and energy…okay that’s part of it, but the toys and clothes have been packed up and unpacked a couple times as my kids outgrow, then the next kid is big enough. And my closet is depressing as I inflated and deflated repeatedly over the last decade. My closet is bursting at the seams with piles in the bedroom, but those 4 jeans are now, those 6 are second trimester, those 5 are third trimester, and those 3 are where I hope to get back to…multiply by shirts, underwear, belts, etc and it’s unmanageable. But I’m not going to repurchase everything if I have another baby. Even if I could afford it, I wouldn’t be able to find it (I’m an odd size). So I turn a blind eyeye and promise myself one day we’ll be done with babies and then take it on.

    • I totally understand how that goes, S.G. Our boys are two years apart. One wears it, when he grows out of it, the article moves down the hall to the next boy’s room. After that, it goes to friends or the donation box.

      If we had an “oops” baby, we’d be in trouble! But that’s not likely.


  • When my mother in law passed away she left behind TONS of clothes. It literally took my wife almost a year to separate out the things that she would save, donate or pass on to her sisters. After that my wife has said she will never acquire that much. Since then I am on a one in one out with clothes and my wife at times does one in two out for her clothes. She says she doesn’t ever want to be a burden on our child with STUFF.

  • When Mr PoP was at Burning Man earlier this month, I went through my hanging items and our linens, which were spread across our every day closet, the guest closet, and our hope chest. All told, I got rid of a couple of trunk loads of items. It felt great, especially dropping off some of my nicer giveaways to the Dress For Succcess organization that does a lot of good work in our area helping women who can’t afford to “outfit” themselves for professional jobs and interviews.
    There’s definitely still more to be given away (didn’t even start in the drawers!), but the first pass felt good enough that I’m sure I’ll get to it when I’m back on my feet and things are a bit less crazy.

  • Man, I really enjoyed this post. I did the same thing last year and my closet looked so bare. The funny thing is, a year later, it’s packed again. How does that happen? I don’t even enjoy shopping for clothes. You motivated me, gonna “Kondo” my closet and paperwork stash this weekend…

  • Jacq

    I have too many tshirts. Like you, I have sentimental attachments, which has me stalled on getting rid of some. Then, I have the girl tshirt problem, when I wear the square-ish fits anyone shirts my mom tells me it does nothing for my figure, but the girl shirts that show off that I am thin and not tshirt shaped, tend to have cap sleeves, which gives me more arm to sunscreen or risk sunburn. I have done well at not buying any until my recent vacation where I got a souvenir t shirt. I need to pick a 1 (or more) out. *sigh* I also don’t wear tshirts to work, between professional dress, and it’s cold in the summer on casual Fridays. Then for vacations I need 7-14. I don’t know if I can pare down to 14, but I guess that’s a goal.
    Great job on getting to 1/2!

    • That is a great goal. I’m starting to realize that sentimentality is all in your head. Have you heard that parting is such sweet sorrow? It’s kinda sad in the short term, but sweet in the long term.


  • Awesome post. We are getting hardwood floors in our master bedroom and bathroom soon. It will be a great opportunity since we will have to completely empty our closet. We will look at it all with fresh eyes when putting some (but not all) back in.

    • Great, WealthyDoc! Be committed if you really want to trim down. We moved several times, and with each move, I had the wrong mindset. “We might need that later on, we’ll have more time to sort through when we unpack, etc…” Unless you’re determined to downsize significantly, you probably won’t. At least that’s been my experience.


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