Crew Spence was late.
The professional dating coach (he runs Zenpickupartist.com) and personal trainer was supposed to meet me for an interview to talk about minimalism, a philosophy which I assumed meant living life as simply and stripped-down as possible.
I don’t mean to imply that I expected Spence to show up in his underwear (although I would later learn that as a zealous, beginning minimalist, he once owned only two pairs). But I wasn’t surprised that he was late — he doesn’t own a watch or even a smartphone.
I met Spence through authors Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, corporate drop-outs who will appear on a South by Southwest Interactive panel Monday called “How Minimalism Is Changing Entrepreneurship” (they’re also hosting a free meet-up at 7 p.m. March 12 at Farewell Books, 913 E. Cesar Chavez St.). The pair founded TheMinimalists.com, a naturally stark and tasteful website that attracts more than 100,000 readers a month. It offers pages of free advice for those looking to pare down excessive lifestyles and acts as a storefront for the authors’ books (seven and counting) and services, which include writing classes, mentoring and speaking engagements.
Spence has been a fan of the website and its founders since its inception. He met Millburn through Twitter and hung with the pair at SXSW 2012. They’ve become close enough that Spence is putting them up during this year’s festival.
Not realizing he didn’t have a smartphone, I fired off an e-mail to let Spence know I had arrived, and then I took advantage of the time to examine mine. There are 107 apps on it, which says a lot about me. After all, my garage is so full of boxes that I can’t fit my car in there and the closet in our home office is so full of stuff that I can’t step inside. I’m not a hoarder, but I do understand them.
“I think the problem with hoarders is that they have this just-in-case syndrome,” Nicodemus said during a phone interview. “They hold onto everything just in case one day they need it. That was something hard for me to let go of.”
Around 2009, Millburn and Nicodemus — best friends since fifth grade — began to question why they had everything they’d ever thought they wanted but felt so discontented.
Millburn discovered minimalism first. “I noticed this change in him,” his friend recalls. “He seemed more relaxed and at peace.” When Millburn turned him onto minimalism, Nicodemus — 25 years old, making a ton of money, the owner of a 2,000-square-foot condo with a big garage, a new car, a four-wheeler and a truck — tried something drastic.
“We packed up my entire condo as if I was moving. If you walked in, you would see all these boxes stacked to the ceiling that were marked really well: kitchen; junk drawer No. 1; toiletries; junk drawer No. 7.”
The idea was to unpack things as he needed them — sheets for the bed, a suit for work, a pair of shoes. Three weeks later, Nicodemus discovered that 75 percent to 80 percent of his possessions were still packed away.
“It was a pretty big moment for me,” he says. “Here I was with all this stuff that I had purchased to get fulfilled — to make me happy — and it wasn’t doing its job.” He wondered why he was working 60 to 80 hours per week to support his lavish lifestyle.
Nicodemus kept a few seasonal items but sold, threw out or gave away everything else in those boxes as well as the condo, and the four-wheeler. He traded in his car to get something that was paid off. Losing all that superfluous stuff, he says, allowed him to see what was really important.
Spence’s own epiphany came five years ago in the wake of his stepmother’s death and his wife’s request for a divorce.
“I basically just packed a bag and left and told my wife, ‘You can have everything.’ I didn’t want to spend the time to figure out how to get this stuff up to Cleveland and fight with her over these things when my family was in a really bad way. It hit home with me that possessions really weren’t that important.”
Not that minimalists become monks.
“It’s never been about deprivation for us,” Nicodemus says. “It’s never been about withdrawing or stark, white walls. It’s about really examining what adds value to our lives.
“The idea is that … if it’s superfluous, then you don’t need to have it,” Spence explains. “But it’s not about having nothing.” For example, he brought a camera to our interview. Spence loves photography, so it adds value to his life. But if he ever loses that passion, it would make no sense to keep it.
Still, he has just eight shirts, a week’s worth of underwear and six pairs of socks. He doesn’t own dress shoes or a belt — if he needs a suit, he’ll borrow one from a friend with a similar build in exchange for a six-pack.
The minimalist approach goes beyond possessions. Spence politely declines to engage in events and activities that fail to add value to his life. That way, he has more time for the stuff he actually enjoys. “It’s all about prioritizing and that’s why (minimalism) looks different for different people,” he says.
There are other benefits to minimalism.
“The only debt I have now is a few thousand dollars’ worth of student loan debt. My expenses are so low now that I am able to pay debt off quickly. I feel much more financially secure,” he says.
“I’m a fitness trainer who doesn’t have a gym membership. Somebody might be spending $50 a month at a gym — I spend $0 a month and $0 a month on a phone. Things like that (and not having a car) are just not a part of my reality.”
Spence usually bikes to get around, but he hitched a ride to our interview with his girlfriend of two years, Kate Trumpower, who manages a salon and cosmetics store (“People might think that’s cheating,” Spence admits, “but it’s not about cheating. It’s doing what works for you.”)
Here’s something interesting about Trumpower: She’s not a minimalist. If you looked into the couple’s closet, you’d find that Spence’s belongings take up only a fraction of a fraction of the space used by Trumpower. The two deny friction.
“He doesn’t make me get rid of things or make me not buy things,” Trumpower says. “That’s the way he prefers to live and I live my way.”
“She’s done a great job putting up with me,” Spence says, laughing. “I’ll occasionally be going through stuff and she’ll say, ‘What are you doing? Are you getting rid of things?’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t really use this.’ I usually give that stuff to my friends.”
Those friends? — also not minimalists. Spence doesn’t proselytize.
But Millburn and Nicodemus sure do. They’ve been featured on the major television networks and NPR in addition to appearing in the national newspapers and magazines. They tour the country and host meet-ups where they chat, joke with and hug the like-minded. At SXSW, they’ll explain how they were able to build a business and make a living by using minimalist principles.