Meet the Minimalist: Judy Michael

I met Judy last year through our mutual friend and fellow simple-living advocate, Alexandra Perwin. We hit it off immediately - she understood what I was going through as a new entrepreneur trying to figure things out. She gave me lots of great advice and was embarking on her own adventure, having just left an operations role to take a break and explore a different way of working.

Over the last year, we would meet up, share ideas, see what’s working and what wasn’t with our businesses, and just catch up in general. In the last few months, she experienced some major changes which prompted this interview.

Read on to learn more about Judy’s experience with right-sizing her space and subscribing to a minimalist approach.

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What sparked your interest in simplifying?

It started last summer when I found myself at home after leaving a job and I needed productive things to do. That’s how I work things out emotionally - I like to do physical work and feel like I accomplished something. Many years ago after I got divorced, I was living with a friend. I was angry about some dealings with my ex, so I came home and cleaned my friend's house!

This time around, it was emotional purging as I was ending a big chapter in my life.  I cleaned out closets, steam cleaned the carpets, and cleaned out the garage. I even stained the fence in 95 degree weather! I like the physical work and having a result at the end. A cleaner physical space feels like a cleaner emotional space.

I saw the documentary Minimalism and there was something about their story that prompted me to do an even deeper emotional dive, therefore clearing out even more stuff than I had in the past. I even got up and cleaned out my kitchen drawers during the movie because I was excited about the concept.

A couple months later, I realized I needed to sell my house. What started out as a little bit of cleaning led to letting go of the house and ending that chapter of my life.

 

That’s a big change - had you thought about selling before?

I had tried to sell my house in 2011 and thought about moving to Edmonds. It wasn’t quite far enough past the recession to sell it because the market up here in the northern Seattle suburbs was still a bit soft.  In 2014, I was looking to sell it to move to the Midwest to be closer to my dad who is in his 90’s and had some health issues.  I figured it was a message from the universe because all the homes were selling in the area except mine. The third time - this spring -  really was a charm.

I was ready to be out of the house. I had minimized so much and was just ready to leave. Once I made the decision to move, it was a pretty fast turnaround.  I met with a realtor, listed it, had an offer in 48 hours.  The whole process was over within about six weeks.

 

Was preparing to sell the house the true start to minimizing and clutter-clearing?

Initial clutter-clearing began after leaving my last job.  My decluttering started as a way for me to detox from what I would call Incremental Stress. I had lost a few people, had my own health issues, and experienced the general ups and downs we have in life. Things pile up. You reach a breaking point and have to decide “am I going to carry this stress with me to the future?”

The house had a lot of symbolism; it was the “big girl” house that I bought on my own which was a great achievement. Then I filled up the space by buying things. I had three bedrooms, a huge kitchen, a walk-in closet, a garage. I just started filling up those spaces. It was time to let go of that chapter and scale down.

 

How do these changes inform your decision-making today?

It was little things I hadn’t anticipated because I hadn’t been living in a simplistic space.

For instance, my current fridge is half the size so I buy half as much food. I don’t do mindless shopping because I don’t have the space for excess things. I don’t have more than ten steps to walk to be in reach of everything I own. It saves time, effort, and having to think about it.

A friend and I were just talking about gifts. I don’t need another tchotchke, give me a gift card, or cook a meal for me. Simplicity results in fewer choices and a clearer head which is not a bad thing.

I am a bit of a numbers wonk and I think in terms of metrics. I timed it and it took less than 40 minutes to clean my apartment.  My house took over three hours to clean. I saved an hour a week in drive time because I live closer to people and stores I frequent.  Financially, I’ve reduced my cost of living by more than 30%!

 

Do you think if these events hadn’t happened, you would have discovered minimalism at some point on your own?

In 2001, I went from a 1,500 square foot home to living in a one bedroom in a friend’s basement after getting divorced and moving from California to Washington. I had to make a conscious decision on what I valued and what I didn’t. I left furniture behind. I had my clothes, dog, grandma’s china, some gifts from my parents. I’ve had several life events where I’ve had to leave stuff and a life chapter behind.

This is like the third round for me. It’s about getting back to what I value. I think I made more of a conscious decision this time around of what to keep and leave behind.

I knew I could scale down. Back in the fall of 2015, I had to go take care of my dad and slept on his couch in a one bedroom apartment in a retirement center. I lived off of four shirts, three pairs of pants, two pairs of shoes, and a borrowed jacket.  I didn’t feel deprived.  If I could live on less than 20 articles of clothing in ten weeks, I can definitely live on less longer-term.

 

 
 

Do you consider a minimalist?

I feel like a minimalist for me. I think it’s a self-defining term. I’m not the 29-year-old bro who can live with a backpack and no forks. I believe in consciously having the things that support you in your space.

If it’s taking too much of your time, money, or mental energy to support it, then it needs go.

 

What have been people’s reactions to these big changes?

The key reaction to selling my home has been the involuntary sucking in of their breath followed by “you’re selling your house?” with a panicked face.

They were either concerned for me or they may be concerned for themselves because we’re all in the same boat. I think some people were fearful of selling a house because if you own a house, you have a different level in society. “Homeowner” vs. “Renter” has a different connotation. At my age, there aren’t a whole lot of people who are on board with moving into an apartment because it can be perceived as a step down.

But it’s also a difficult decision to make here in Seattle,  It’s easy to sell a house, but buying a home can be a nightmare because of the expense and multiple bids that are required.  If you sell your house, you really have to be sure of where you are living next.  It’s a great investment, but a great expense at the same time.  It’s not an easy decision to make with many trade-offs.

 

Moving into less than half the space, were there any items that were still tricky to let go of?

I knew I was going to need a storage unit. A 10’ x 20’ was close to $200/month. Was the stuff going into that space worth $2,400/year?  No, it was not. I got a smaller unit, a 5’ x 10’ with the intent to sell some more things and eventually get rid of it all together.

I had all these kitchen appliances that I would use sporadically that could all be replaced by a really good knife or a blender! Scaling down the kitchen was tough because it was a creative space of rarely used items. They were too expensive to store so I got rid of them.

There is only one thing that I miss and it’s a workout shirt that I cannot find anywhere! I gave away close to 400 pieces of clothing and this is the one thing I wish I could find.

 

What is your advice to someone who wants to start minimizing?

Ponder the question as you look at things “what is of value to me?” Just ask yourself if you even like it anymore. If you are conflicted about it, that’s likely an indicator that you should let it go.

If you are still asking the questions but/if/when/can’t … you are likely not ready to let go of it.  If you’re going to have a sleepless night because you gave away your favorite books, then don’t bother.  But find your leverage point - is it emotional, financial, or logical?

For me, it was financial leverage point which was paying $2,400 to store stuff I wasn’t really using. There were also silly emotional reasons. Did I really need to keep all those pants I could no longer wear, but just hung there, mocking me, knowing I would never fit in them again? Did I really need to have two guest bedrooms just in case someone came to visit?  Not any more.  I will happily pay for someone to stay in a hotel - it’s much cheaper!

I generally have the rule that if I can’t lift it, I’m not taking it with me. There are only two things I would need help moving - the couch and bed frame. Financial costs and ease of use are the critical points for me. For others, it might be emotional.


 

What have been the other benefits of living simply?

I’m starting up my own business of writing, coaching, and training around retirement and cash flow, how to prepare now for the future. When I approached business in the past, I was looking for the latest tools, what’s the best coach, platform, what’s cutting edge. Now, the question is “how can I simply get this done with the best effort for the least cost.” I want to provide the best product with minimal effort and cost. I spent too much time and energy doing things in a complex way before. I discovered people would rather you be authentic in your approach versus having the most exciting tools.

I enjoy thinking more clearly and having fewer choices on a daily basis. I say “no” more frequently to perceived obligations.

 

Is there anything else you want people to know about you?

Yes!  I will be publishing two books this summer.  I first wrote a book about calculating how much you need for retirement, and presented facts and figures that would incent people to take action.  I also identified what I call the “10 Retiremyths” of what we are told about preparing for retirement, and what the reality is.

For instance, most financial advisors quote a rule that you need $1 million to retire at age 65.  Seriously?  If fewer than 10% of US households are millionaires, but everyone needs to be a millionaire to retire, then why is it a rule?  Is it even achievable?

I had all these nice facts and figures about retirement, and then I started to live many of the retirement issues that I was writing about. Caring for my dad when he was ill, saving for retirement, and even facing some age discrimination issues was an eye opener.

Now, I have a story to share on a personal and emotional level that goes beyond the facts and figures.  What’s it like to live your future in a retirement home?  What’s it like to downsize?  How do you look at your outdated beliefs and institute new ones?  I was able to face my challenges, simplify, and tell a story about it.  So now I have the “before” and “after” books to publish. I am using them both to put together programs to help people look at their future and what they spend, what they bring in, and the kind of mindset they need to balance it all.

My goal is to have people take responsibility for their future financial decisions through understanding their cash and living the life that they want to create.  “Managing your cash” is a bit overwhelming for people at times, but there’s such an emotional component of having the right mental framework to use your cash where you most value it.

I can still help people and it’s from a truly experiential place. All the retirement commercials aren’t really getting people to change, but when you connect with someone else’s experience of having scaled down, dealing with health issues, caring for aging parents, that’s what will help people to change.   Your story needs to help them live their story.  It’s much like what you do with your work, Rachel.  What you’ve experienced personally and with clients helps them get through their challenges more easily!

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I knew Judy had seriously right-sized her space and minimized her belongings over the last year, but I didn’t know how this has been a common theme throughout her life. There were so many great nuggets of wisdom in our conversation, namely:

“If it’s taking too much of your time, money, or mental energy to support it, then it needs go.”

If you want to learn more about Judy’s books and programs, you can visit her website here. (Note: she’s going through some website changes, which should be completed in June 2017!)