can you marie kondo when you're poor?

I wasn’t seeking happiness or a peace of mind. I was looking for food.

by Keshia Naurana Badalge
17 January 2019, 5:25pm

Photo Gary Gershoff/WireImage

I didn’t find Marie in the self help aisle or in the minimalist living section. I found her late at night three years ago, when I was counting my money alongside my clothes, and it was obvious one stash had more value than the other. I asked Google how to decide what to sell in order to even out the difference. The Internet answered with Marie Kondo.

Her mantra, I learnt, was this: keep what sparks joy. But I had things that didn't spark joy, and I wasn’t sure if I could afford to replace them with things that would. Also, I wasn’t seeking happiness or a peace of mind. I was looking for food.

I had some things I wasn’t proud of: soy sauce packets, napkins, soaps given as gifts. I kept the small things because they took up little space. To have to part with them made me fearful. What if I have to buy soy sauce? Poverty necessitates a little bit of hoarding, sometimes.

This, I thought, was similar to my other habit of eating badly: I know about a balanced diet, but when I don’t know when my next meal is and am offered free food, I gorge — possession in the belly in lieu of future insecurity. It doesn’t spark joy. I shouldn’t do it. But somewhere in my mind is this thought: “You need this (food, possession or otherwise), don’t you remember how you felt when you didn’t have it?”

Unlike someone with a hundred toothbrushes or a garage full of toilet rolls, my possessions were limited. Moving from Singapore to America had curtailed my possessions down to three suitcases — just the right amount for me to carry onto the plane and across the Atlantic.

Another benefit of having little, I learnt from living in this foreign country before even discovering Kondo: I was oftentimes in need of a home in between school terms or subleases or over holidays. Having few belongings became a prerequisite to someone agreeing to help me move (“It’s just one car ride,” I’d promise.), or letting me stay with them (“I really won’t take up a lot of space in your living room.”).

KonMari When Poor and Hungry

I didn’t have the same need to downsize that some people with a sprawling apartment full of stuff might. The KonMari method wasn’t a process to revamp my life or hone my sensitivity to joy. I needed to whittle mine down for the sake of food. School had ended along with my full scholarship, which had supported me until then. It was a manual to part with things I loved when I didn’t know what else to do.

I had accumulated many books. I tackled this first because books took up the most space and I had the least need for them — meaning that I could survive without books, even if it broke my heart to see them go. I could not pay for storage.

I traded used books for cents; books I had annotated, tagged with colored post-its, and that once helped provide some semblance of order and morality around the fickle fundaments of my life.

Then I gave away wine openers I thought I didn't need ("When would I have money for wine?"); socks that were hanging by a string ("It makes me feel poor to put them on, not a spark joy!"); shoes with broken soles ("I'll surely feel great if I don't have that specter of smelly wet feet on a rainy day any more!").

I sold sweaters and coats that kept me warm because they didn’t spark joy as much as a potential meal did.

I agree with Marie Kondo’s philosophy of a clear space giving you a clear mind. But I was constantly hungry and looking for food, and this incessant worry about money is the biggest obstacle to a joyful life.

Marie Kondo also mentions to thank the objects you own that you don’t like, for they teach you about what you do like. My issue with this: What if one has little money to buy things they like?

I gave away or sold 90% of my clothes for a meager increase in my bread and butter fund. I also had to wear my roommates’ coats and shoes while I saved to get ones I actually liked. The trouble with having little income is that it is often easier to buy something of poor quality—one that does not fit the image of your confident, joyful self—because a $30 coat will keep you warm and you don’t have $60 for a comfortable waterproof hooded down jacket. So you deal with being wet. You also deal with bad shoes, scarves that fur all over your shirt, pants that droop. Sometimes you can’t afford to imagine joy if it’s not in stock at the thrift store that day.

Maybe she wasn’t directing the advice at me, someone with very little, to choose between one joy (food) and the other (having clothes); many of the people who find her advice useful are also those who can discard ten coats because they have ten others on hand, and they can buy more if necessary.

I keep my coat, even if I’m slightly self-conscious in it and it’s not that warm. I would love to construct a life where I’m bubbling with joy at the objects I am surrounded by, but it is a life I have yet to afford.

I never got to replacing some of my favorite books, like the hefty tome of Footnotes in Gaza by Joe Sacco, or The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich. I mourned the loss of photo albums I couldn’t carry. A blanket that I bought my first week in America, that I had on the bed of every room I lived in, was too large to keep carrying — I left it behind. I never replaced it; at first I just slept under my towel as a cover.

Adopting Gratitude, Organization, Sensitivity to Joy

Whether I had things to throw out or not, Marie Kondo’s ways have served as gentle guide to how I buy things, how I choose to live.

Clutter has two causes: disorganization and excess. If I can’t trim my possessions, I can still be organized with what I own. Finding a home for soy sauce, sambal, and ketchup packets means I know what I have and don’t buy extras.

I was raised Buddhist: one of the main tenets of our practice is “non-attachment.” Like KonMari, Buddhism encourages gratitude for possessions, without attaching to the idea that owning them would make life better. This comes in handy with sales, too — the confidence in knowing your life is already well counters the false allure of the discount.

I’m not advocating for non-consumerism either. Possessions can be comfort. My family was poor for most of my life; I watched my mother desire fancy jeans over the cheaper, faux denim kind she’d be wearing, or want porcelain plates instead of plastic ones. When she had money she’d spend it on these purchases. All I would do is ask, “Does this speak to you? Does it make you happy?”

I dress almost always in thrifted clothing, scarves, gloves, coat and all. I thank them; shabby or furballed they might be, they were discarded to make space in their previous owner’s life, and they are useful in mine now — it is double the pleasure. Whether they spark joy or not, some possessions I continue to carry, stubborn as a mule.

Marie Kondo