Image by Pixource from Pixabay

This is part of my series on Decluttering Mental Models.

Your culture sets your expectation for what is “normal.” Surround yourself with people who have the habits you want to have yourself. You’ll rise together. ― “Atomic Habits” by James Clear

As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandparents and assimilated their patterns for frugal living. They lived modestly, driving used cars, cooking at home, bottling homegrown peaches/apricots/apples/cherries, and spurning debt. And now, as an adult, I think it’s normal to buy used cars, wear clothes until they wear out, and avoid debt.

In my old age, I now understand that growing up with a frugal family was an incredible gift. My upbringing shaped my worldview, and as a consequence, I spend less money, have more stability, and endure less stress.

In my old age, I’ve realized that we are products of our environments. I know we want to think we’re completely autonomous thinking machines. But we’re not. We imitate the people we regularly see. Monkey see, monkey do, as the old saying goes.

According to René Girard (1923—2015), we go beyond imitating others’ behaviors: we imitate their desires, too. Spend enough time with someone, and you’ll want what they want. You’ll want what they have. And there’s a fancy term for this: Mimetic Desire.

My grandparents were frugal because they desired independence, keeping a low profile, and being able to weather economic downturns. And because I lived with them for a period, I came to desire the same things.

As I reflected on this cause-and-effect relationship and our propensity for imitation, I realized that we could consciously change our environment, and in doing so, change our behavior. We can change our consumption habits by changing whom we imitate.

My friend named Joel did just this when he wanted to become a vegan and lose weight. He primed himself by watching every documentary he could find about veganism and animal cruelty. He created a schedule and watched 30 minutes every day for a month. Over time, Joel adopted not only vegans’ behaviors but also their attitudes and aspirational goals. As a result, meat and dairy lost their appeal, going vegan became easy, and Joel lost weight. He changed his environment, which changed his behavior.

Now, changing our environment might feel insurmountable. But we can start small by considering whom we imitate.

Three areas to consider:

1. The 5 people closest to us — We tend to spend and save at the same rates as the people closest to us. If they all drive Teslas, we internalize this as normal and want a Tesla. Or if they always order water at a restaurant, we’ll follow suit.

So to consume less, spend time with people who consume less. Maybe that’s a coworker who always brings their lunch to work. Or a relative who lives more modestly than the rest of the family. Spend more time with these people, and you’ll consume less.

2. Social media’s reality distortion — Social media showcases the highlights of expensive vacations from each of our 5,000 friends. And it’s tempting to think that everyone else lives some enchanted life. It’s tempting to feel left out.

What we don’t see is the 51 weeks of the year, where our friends weren’t having a blast in Fiji. We don’t see the credit card bills and their attendant stress. And we don’t see the many parts of vacations that involve bickering over schedules, standing in line, or sleeping in strange places.

Social media doesn’t chronicle people’s mundane existence. “Here’s Herbert washing dishes. Here’s a closeup of him scraping Rice Krispies off a pink cereal bowl. Look at those wrist muscles flex! Now he’s wrangling his third poopy diaper. Three cheers for Herbert!”

Social media creates a reality distortion where our friends are raptured into a paradisiacal glory, leaving us behind, trudging through our meaningless lives. Is it any wonder that we feel envious? Is it any wonder that we hunger for a fairytale life?

The antidote is to avoid this reality distortion. Get off social media. Or, at the very least, join groups focused on minimalism and anti-consumption.

3. Other media - Many bloggers and Youtubers have made careers by showing off their latest purchases. (Just search Youtube for ‘shopping haul’ or ‘shopping spree’) These folks glamorize consumption and should be avoided.

Instead, follow people who imitate the behaviors you want to assimilate. For example, Netflix has documentaries and TV series about minimalism and decluttering. Youtube has numerous anti-consumption channels. And there’s a ton of minimalist podcasts, books, and audiobooks. Spend 20 minutes each day with this type of content, and your consumption habits will change.

Take action

Do an inventory of your life and consider spending more time with people who consume less. Evaluate your social media habits and follow folks who consume less. And look for documentaries, books, videos, and podcasts that discuss the benefits of simpler living.

More Decluttering Mental Models:

Top 10 Favorites

  1. How I answer the question: “What if I need this later?”
  2. “The Container strategy” will simplify your decluttering
  3. Selling clothes is for suckers (unless you earn $15/hour)
  4. Wait 48 hours before buying stuff
  5. 21 questions to ask before you buy
  6. The radical way to measure wealth, part 1 and part 2
  7. We’re trained to be dissatisfied with what we have (and how to fix this)
  8. Clear clutter by zoning your home
  9. How screen time kills your motivation to declutter
  10. Dear car dealers: I don't want a "free" T-shirt with your logo

Get started

  1. Clear clutter by zoning your home
  2. How I answer the question: “What if I need this later?”
  3. “The Container strategy” will simplify your decluttering
  4. Hold each item and ask, “Does this spark joy?”
  5. When the “Does this Spark Joy?” fails you, ask these 6 questions
  6. Create your “Discard by Feb. 2022” box
  7. Decluttering yearbooks? Ask these 8 questions first


  1. 21 questions to ask before you buy
  2. Wait 48 hours before buying stuff - version 1 and version 2
  3. How a grocery shopping list saves me time, money, and pounds

Manage your clothes

  1. Selling clothes is for suckers (unless you can earn $15/hour)
  2. Dear Dude with too many T-shirts: no one wants to buy them—just recycle/trash them
  3. Don't be like my friend Giorgio with his 400 Hawaiian shirts
  4. None of my clothes "spark joy"—so what do i get rid of?

Happiness & satisfaction

  1. Limit pleasurable things so they don’t lose their novelty
  2. We’re trained to be dissatisfied with what we have (and how to fix this)
  3. Craving never stops and my potato chip addiction
  4. Reminder: happiness levels stay consistent

Get motivated

  1. Want to boost your motivation to declutter? Immerse yourself in decluttering videos, podcasts, & books!
  2. How screen time kills your motivation to declutter
  3. Imagine your ideal home… Imagine all the clutter is gone…
  4. Feeling unmotivated? Declutter with a 5-minute time box

Manage your money

  1. The radical way to measure wealth, part 1 and part 2
  2. Save money by controlling aspirational identities
  3. I wasted so much money starting projects (and how I fixed it)

Manage consumption spirals

  1. How consumption spirals work
  2. Buying a house led to an enormous consumption spiral
  3. How craving completeness drives my consumption

Shift your Paradigm

  1. Change your environment, change your consumption
  2. 3 thought experiments to adopt a decluttering mindset
  3. Your home is not a storage unit for other people's crap!
  4. Before you buy stuff, do this little mental exercise
  5. Less space, less stuff
  6. That’s right, you and I pay for the privilege of seeing viagra ads
  7. Your home is an expensive container for your stuff. What’s your cost per sqft?

Manage your emotions

  1. Can you tolerate boredom?
  2. Fill the void with a long term goal

Control the Clutter

  1. Dear car dealers: I don't want a "free" T-shirt with your logo