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How many towels do you need?

How many towels do you need? This was the surprisingly life-changing question I faced on a Saturday afternoon in early 2012, as I scrutinized my linen cupboard. 

I had just started on a minimalist journey, inspired by my 1,500 square foot house that could no longer comfortably contain the possessions of me, my husband, and our three 2-year-olds (yes, you read that right… triplets). 

A few weeks earlier, we’d returned from visiting out-of-state relatives for Christmas with a van absolutely packed full of presents. (Hey, you try taking this cuteness to Christmas with both sets of grandparents and see what happens!)

Me and my trio, Christmas 2011

As I walked into my house and assessed our already stuffed surroundings, a slow, frightening realization came upon me…

We didn’t have room for the things we already owned. Where was I going to put this new stuff? 

I felt defeated and overwhelmed. I knew the gifts had been given in love. I knew they were supposed to make me and my children happy. But more than anything, they added stress to my already stressful full-time-working-mom-of-triplets life. 

Luckily, though, a change was coming. 

About a week after Christmas I had lunch with a good friend, and I explained my problem. I thought the solution was to either buy a bigger house or allow no one to buy my kids Christmas presents again, ever

But my friend looked at me between bites of soup and casually suggested another idea, 

“Or… you could just become a minimalist.”

I immediately thought of monks living in a cave or college students traversing Europe with all their possessions on their backs or black-clad hipsters lounging on white couches in apartments that doubled as art galleries. None of that sounded like my real life in the Ohio suburbs with three kids, two cars, and a mortgage. But my friend reassured me that minimalism was just a philosophy, a less-is-more approach to living, and that any modern American could adopt it. Skeptical but intrigued, I went home and started reading. I was hooked. 

Which brought me, a few weeks later, to January of 2012, when I went to put away some towels in my linen cupboard and asked myself the aforementioned life-changing question. 

If you’re curious, this was what my towel cupboard looked like that day:  

Now I want you to realize, this wasn’t the first time I’d asked myself questions about my stuff. Unbeknownst to me, I’d been asking myself questions about my stuff my entire life (and you probably have, too). 

But those questions sounded different. They sounded more like this…

“Rose, how much stuff could you AFFORD to buy?” 

I was a dedicated closeout, clearance, and coupon shopper, always scouring the racks for the best “deal” I could find. 

Another favorite: 

Rose, how much stuff could you FIT in here?” 

I used every spare inch in my snug home to cram in as much as possible, often resorting to space saver bags and bins stacked precariously high in my attic. 

And, finally, the Big Daddy of them all, the question I continually asked every night as I spent hours putting away toys, shoes, sippy cups, and errant paper: 

Rose, how could you better ORGANIZE this stuff?” 

I thought organizing was the answer, the Holy Grail, the thing that–if I could just master it and buy the right bins with the right labels–would solve my problem. I’d finally have the home in the magazines. I’d finally stop feeling like every day was a continual battle between me and the chaos. 

But that Saturday afternoon, I wasn’t asking myself any of those questions. That day, fresh in my nascent minimalist awakening, I was asking myself a very different question:  

Rose, how many towels do you NEED? 

That’s the kind of question that just might change your life. 

The answer was surprisingly clear: two per person. Which immediately felt wrong. Because if you passed third grade math you know that’s only 10 towels for a family of five, which certainly wasn’t the number of towels I’d registered for on my Bed, Bath, and Beyond wedding gift registry. It wasn’t the number of towels in my friend’s homes. And it certainly wasn’t the towel message I received from Better Homes and Gardens magazine. They were telling me I needed pink towels for spring and yellow towels for summer and towels with festive reindeer prancing across them for Christmas! Ten towels just didn’t feel right. 

So I did something I rarely do. I entered the sanctum of my husband’s man cave on a Saturday afternoon (aka prime sports-watching time) to ask him a very serious question, “Honey, is it okay if we have just 10 towels?” 

Josh paused. He looked at me for a long time. I’m certain that during this time he was deeply pondering the critical issue of the towel supply. He eventually responded with a somewhat confused, “Yeah, I guess. I mean, that sounds about right.” 

That settled it. Ten towels. 

Here’s what our cupboard looked like about 15 minutes later:

Goodbye, excess! Hello open spaces!

Now remember… that was TEN YEARS ago. In that time, I have not increased our number of towels and everyone in our family has been dry when they needed to be dry. 

This early venture into minimalism taught me two very clear things: 

  1. I can live with a lot less than I think I can. 
  2. I can definitely live with a lot less than society tells me I should. 

In case you’re wondering, this is what my towel cupboard looks like today:

I know you’re counting stuff in this picture, so let’s dig into the numbers. You see five bath towels on the top right, because the other five are in use. The towels on the bottom right are pool towels. So yes, technically we have three towels per person (no judging!): 2 bath towels + 1 pool towel. The most surprising thing about this is that my kids are on a swim team every summer and we’ve gotten by on this number of towels. 

The most interesting thing about minimalism is how it changes my mindset. Every June when I see the pool towels on sale at big box stores I think, “Maybe I should just buy a couple more.” But then we get through the swim season just fine and I’m reminded again of lessons #1 and #2. 

My towels are just one example of minimalist thinking. After I decluttered my towel cupboard, I went through the rest of my house, asking myself different variations of that original question:

Rose, how many coffee cups do you need? 
Rose, how many pairs of shoes do you need? 
Rose, how many boxes of holiday decorations do you really need? 

And slowly, over a period of almost one year, my home physically transformed. My cluttered corners turned into open spaces. My formerly crammed cupboards had room to breathe. My now unstuffed drawers opened and closed easily. So yes, my home looked neat and tidy, but that wasn’t the point. That wasn’t why I kept doing what I was doing. The reason I kept doing it was because of how I felt

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I felt free. I felt at peace. I started to find myself, at the ends of my long working + parenting days, relaxing on my couch instead of frantically picking up my stuff.

So today I want to encourage you… ask yourself a life-changing question. 

Insert any word you like (towels, sweaters, hammers, wine glasses, email subscriptions, volunteer commitments, etc.) into the blank space: 

How many _______________ do you need? 

My wish is that this simple question starts you on a journey toward a more peaceful life, full of the possibilities of open spaces. 

If you’d like to watch my TEDx talk about how decluttering my towels kickstarted my minimalism journey, click here and enjoy! 

Cheers to less stuff and more you!

PS: If you’re a busy working mom who wants to declutter your home, simplify your work-life, and calm your mind… Sign up for my FREE 30-Day Simplicity Challenge!