If you had met me six years ago, you would know that I was the antithesis of who I am today. I used to embark on projects without clear goals. I was a frenetic spender on frivolous things. I kept up appearances and spent money I did not have.   

I was a hot mess, though I did not know yet at the time. 

Soon, the hard reality of student loans and compound interest shook me to my core. I had never been in that much debt before, and a big chunk of whatever I would earn just goes straight to loan amortizations. Not much was left, and yet the trips to the spa continued. I attempted to sustain the same lifestyle despite the deep dearth in my finances. 

So I fell into a downward spiral and hit my nadir, for about three years. 

Such things do not self-correct and should be looked at from a different lens. With the help of some concerned friends, I got a stern warning. They too have seen this grim scenario play out before, in their own lives, which makes them a credible authority on the matter. 

What they merely suggested is to simplify my life. That is not as simple as it sounds, but here is how I had a go at it:

We only need to be ourselves.

Track expenses

I was formerly math-averse and avoided anything that requires any measuring, and that is what prompted me to quantify my problems, to do the exact opposite of what I had been doing (or in this case, what I had not done). 

I started collecting all my receipts, and I mean all: gas, coffee, grocery, phone, parking, electricity, etc. At the end of the month, I created an Excel spreadsheet and encoded amounts from the collected receipts to see how much I was spending in each category. At the end of each month, I would tally all expenses and compare that with the month before, and with the baseline, usually the month with reasonable totals. 

It was only through this arduous but essential monthly exercise that I was able to prove that I spent too much on coffee, that I could save so much on gas if I just filled the tank once a week, and that I could afford a massage if I just ate more at home.   

Discard the unnecessary

My friends in the fashion industry will not like this, but one that has truly liberated me from multiple decision-making is being an absolute minimalist when it comes to clothes. I love fashion. I still do. But dry-cleaning is expensive. Removing stains on whites is annoying and time-consuming. So I have decided to just wear blacks and blues, branded but high-quality pants and tops. I gave away stuff that required too much thought, like the ones with bling and other embellishments. I have stayed away from dresses for now because they look good in heels. I no longer wear heels. I wear flats and sneakers and own only eight active pairs of shoes (I have 2 pairs of boots I keep for autumn and winter travel).  

This is largely the reason why I have been avoiding weddings, except the exotic kinds like an Indian or Balinese wedding which is a complete cultural immersion. Weddings are costly for women. Buying a dress, which is already time-consuming to find, is only the first expense. You still need to buy the right shoes for it, and stockings. You would need the right purse, usually with pearls and fake rhinestones if it is a strictly formal gathering, which it usually is. Then you have to look for and buy a gift. On the day itself, you still have to spend money and a lot of time getting yourself made up: 1.5 hours for hair (if you want it up), 1.5 hours for makeup. Travel time to and from the salon and to the wedding venue costs time and gas money. This one-time event is a total waste of so many resources for many people. Thankfully, most of the people I know are already hitched. 

The amount of work it requires to achieve my personal goals is tremendous, and I will not be surprised if I have turned off many people. 

Eliminate negativity

I have long ago stopped interacting with people who yap about inconsequential things, like complaining about looking fat, their spouse, and politics. They include people in my own family who just rant and entrust everything that goes wrong in their lives to God. I know enough to confirm that the world does not work that way. One needs to physically work on their problems. They go away through action, not just prayer.  

I no longer read the news as much as I did in my past political life. What I do is use Google Alerts to keep me abreast of a few issues that matter to me and my consulting work. Browsing feeds on social media or reading articles on the Internet can easily lead to a rabbit hole that derails us from deep work. 

It helps to turn off all social media notifications on the phone. Not all reactions and comments are positive, so to be disturbed by those at each prompt seems counterproductive. As an alternative, I would batch checking mail and notifications, and just review them at a prescribed time of the day (11 AM and 4 PM) so there is time to address urgent matters when they come. I have also recently discovered the benefits of the “Do Not Disturb” function on my phone. It has been helpful in keeping away distractions during my block time for reading and writing which is from 7 AM to 11 AM daily, the time of day when, unless there is a real emergency, no one would need my attention.

Suspend luxuries except for a few

There are three things that genuinely make me happy and give my life meaning. These are travel, food, and books. Life would be a long, drawn-out march to perdition without them. 

To afford them, something has to give. Better yet, something more needs to be made. This is how I learned the art of turning myself into a business. Through the monthly expense report I mentioned earlier, I am able to manage my overhead, pare it down as much as I can, and learn to make more than what I currently earn. To do that requires sacrifice. A ton of it. I have stopped going to the movies and devoured business books instead (though I have learned to mix up my reading selection with some fiction and philosophy so it does not get boring). I do not go out unless I am performing with my band. I meet people at cafes, not restaurants, unless they insist. I only eat and pay really well to eat where the food is really good. 

I never thought that my ability to sell ideas as a professional communicator would have to evolve into actual selling of tangible products. But that is what happened. I learned to become an entrepreneur. I pushed myself out of my comfort zone because things were not working out for me. I am also grateful that most of the entrepreneurs I know are not lavish in their lifestyles. I saw them frequently and followed in their footsteps. They have the money, sure, but they do not flaunt it. There is no reason to. Instead, they take whatever they make and invest it. They buy property or stocks, not new cars which depreciate.

Pay attention to what matters

I know that I seem to live an insular existence, lacking in friends and not well-liked in her circles. You are probably right. The amount of work it requires to achieve my personal goals is tremendous, and I will not be surprised if I have turned off many people. 

But their opinion of me will not pay the bills. Being in debt disgusts me, and each day that I work on it makes me happy. It is a mean trade-off, but that which many of us may have to confront at some point. 

What I do pay attention to are the people who have stood by me during my ordeal. In fact, I cannot wait to finish this article so I can be with my nephew, who is 5 and always smiles when he sees me. I also like surrounding myself with people who know what they are doing. There are a lot of intelligent people around, but many of them just go with the flow. I like people with vision who are a little crazy, with ideas that are not fully embraced by society but are grounded in making lives better. These are people who stay away from the limelight and find the dignity in deep work far more fulfilling. Those are my people. 

The way minimalism is being talked about these days might seem like it is a fad, rather than a growing movement (as espoused by the supporters of FIRE – financial independence, retire early). Either way, it has worked for me. What I take away from the practice is the essence of being clear about our goals to set the direction, and then following through with the right values, so we lift other people as we achieve our dreams. Everything else is just gravy. When the goal is to help save the planet by say, minimizing food waste, and we follow through on that, we meet people who contribute to the same cause, are influenced positively by them, and together, we achieve something important. That does not require a lot of resources. It can even be done with a regular computer or an old smartphone. We do not need to keep up with the Joneses if we want to have a meaningful impact in this world. We just need to be ourselves.