It’s been just under eight years since Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Mulburn, two childhood friends from Dayton, Ohio, began blogging as the Minimalists. The duo are advocates for a pared-down, non-consumerist philosophy, built around removing excess from one’s life.
Initially, Nicodemus and Mulburn started by paring down their material possessions — but their successful podcast also features tips on how to apply their philosophy to social media activity, traveling, and relationships.
Along the way, they’ve carved out a successful lifestyle brand — a podcast that’s one of the most-downloaded health-focused programs on Apple Podcasts; a documentary, titled Minimalism, that’s available on Netflix and Amazon Prime; a handful of bestselling books; and a series of worldwide tours, one of which will bring them to Birmingham’s Iron City on Friday, July 20.
Their latest tour, titled “Simply Southern,” focuses on the financial side of minimalism, providing advice for families and young adults looking to make sure their money is adding value to their lives, not becoming a burden. (Here’s a tweet that gives a sample of their financial philosophy: “What are the alternatives? In other words, is this the best use of this money? If not, then use the money elsewhere.”)
Recently, Ryan Nicodemus spoke with Jefferson County Journal about how he found minimalism, why people are attracted to it, and what audiences can expect when the duo come to Birmingham next week.
Jefferson County Journal: Let’s start at the beginning, before you even started the podcast. How did you initially find out about minimalism, and what drew you into adopting it as your own philosophy?
Ryan Nicodemus: I guess it started when I was 28 years old. I was living the American dream. I had a very nice job title. I was responsible for hundreds of employees and was earning a six-figure income. I had everything I was supposed to have. [But] it was miserable for me. I may have been living the American dream, but it wasn’t really my dream. Instead of happiness, my life was filled with debt, with discontent. It was filled with a lot of unhappiness, and something for me had to change.
My best friend, Joshua Fields Milburn, introduced me to this idea of minimalism. We’ve been best friends since we were fat little fifth-graders. He told me about how he was changing his life, and told me about this thing called minimalism. Right away, I thought to myself, “Here’s some really common-sense philosophy that I can apply to my life that can help me maybe get control my debt and my time.”
Jefferson County Journal: So at what point did you and Joshua decide to turn this lifestyle choice into a podcast?
Nicodemus: When Josh introduced me to the term “minimalism” and I saw this opening, all of a sudden it became a light at the end of the tunnel. I was like, “Awesome, man. I’m in. I want to be a minimalist! Now what do I do?” [Laughs] I didn’t really know where to start.
Josh had simplified his life over the [previous] seven or eight months, but I didn’t want take that long, because I’m a typical, impatient American. So Josh and I came up with this crazy idea called a “packing party,” where we decided to pack up all my belongings as if I were moving, and then I would unpack only the items I needed over the next three weeks to really just get an idea of what I was using and what was actually bringing value to my life.
“We all know how to declutter. We all know to throw out stuff and donate stuff to goodwill. We all know how to save money here or there. But the how-to is not nearly as important as the why-to.”
So you can imagine, over those three weeks, I unpacked some clothes for work, some kitchenware, a tool set — just the things that added value to my life. And after that experiment, about a month later, my entire perspective had changed. I thought to myself, “Man, this is a really inspiring story.” Not only had it changed my perspective, but I felt like this was a really cool experiment that I could share with other people who might also need help with their perspectives.
I went to Josh and said, “We’ve got to write about this, man.” So Josh and I did what any two 30-year-olds would do, and we started a blog. That was December 2010.
But that packing party really was the precipice of the Minimalists… It totally took off from that.
Jefferson County Journal: What do you think it was about that message that drew people in and built such a large following for the Minimalists?
Nicodemus: We were in Australia on this last podcast tour, and the road manager with us, he said, “It’s crazy to see all these thousands of people showing up to see you!” And I said, “Dude, they don’t come to see us. They come to see themselves.” And I think that is really where people find value in Josh and me. We don’t put ourselves on a pedestal. We show this very natural approach to living a simple life. Don’t get me wrong, I think Josh and I are awesome, but it’s not about us. [Laughs] It’s really about the message of living a meaningful life with less.
That message is so important to people, because right now we are steeped in a crazy, consumerist culture where we are told that if we buy the right car, we’ll be happy. If we go to the right vacation, if we have the right house, if we invest in the right stock portfolio — I mean, we are inundated with over 5,000 advertisements a day. If you do the math, that’s over a million a year.
So with all of this noise, it brings a lot of different things. It brings a little bit of chaos, it brings a little bit of discomfort, and it brings a little bit of a paradox of choice. It seeds discontent, being steeped in such a consumerist culture. So I think the Minimalists, the idea of living a meaningful life with less is so appealing because it helps people control that noise that’s being targeted at them on a daily basis.
Jefferson County Journal: What is the way, in your opinion, for people to break out of that discontent? Should they just throw themselves into minimalism, or is there a mental shift that needs to happen first?
Nicodemus: Here’s what I encourage people to do: To start to make a shift, I encourage every single person to ask themselves, “How might my life be better with less?” Because that answer, it is really going to get to the heart of “Why?”
We all know how to declutter. We all know to throw out stuff and donate stuff to goodwill. We all know how to save money here or there. But the how-to is not nearly as important as the why-to.
“I have found that, when I am my most genuine self, my relationships are 10 times better.”
When I asked myself that question, for me it was, “Oh, I want to regain control of my finances and time.” And that is what really gave me the leverage to really take this approach with simple living. There is no magic bullet answer that’s going to make you want to stop buying stuff. I still have those cravings. What minimalism does; it helps me to filter through the noise to where I can make practical decisions.
Jefferson County Journal: Now that you’ve lived as a minimalist for a while, what are some unexpected or surprising results that you’ve found?
Nicodemus: Oh, man! Yeah! That packing party, for example? I remember not thinking about anything having to do with feng shui or how a room looks. … But just the aesthetics alone, I realized, “Wow, if I don’t have a bunch of knick-knacks and clutter in a room, I can focus a lot more in that room.”
My relationships have significantly improved. The reason why I say that is because, I don’t live a fake life anymore. I live a very genuine life, and I approach it in a very simply way, and I don’t bulls— anyone, for lack of a better word. I have found that, when I am my most genuine self, my relationships are 10 times better. That’s something I didn’t expect to be so much better.
Jefferson County Journal: What can people expect from the live show?
Nicodemus: We are on the “Simply Southern” tour this month, and what people can expect is a live podcast with special guests from [Total Money Makeover author] Dave Ramsey’s financial team.… This tour specifically will be about a 90-minute live podcast where the Minimalists answer questions, mainly about finances. We’ll answer any questions, but specifically this tour is about helping people regain control of their finances.
Jefferson County Journal: All of the proceeds from this show are going to Gem City Market, which aims to build a co-op grocery store in Dayton, Ohio. Why is that an important organization to you?
Nicodemus: Ultimately, man, we are minimalists, because once someone understands and feels like they have enough, that’s when they are able to give beyond themselves in a meaningful way. Contribution, by far, is the most important thing when it comes to minimalism. I would say that minimalism is kind of a secret Trojan horse to bring the community closer together. It’s how people realize that they can contribute beyond themselves.
Dayton, Ohio, is such a special place for us. That’s where we grew up. It’s where Josh and I first became friends; we graduated high school together there. But that city has one of the largest food deserts in the country, meaning they have access to food, but it’s fast food or gas-station food. So it’s calories, but it’s not really good calories. Josh and I saw a really nice opportunity for us to contribute to this cause, and we are so grateful that we’re able to do this. Giving is living. I know that’s cliché, but clichés are cliché for a reason, right?
The Minimalists will be at Iron City on Friday, July 20. Doors open at 6 p.m.; the show begins at 7 p.m. The show will feature special guest Anthony ONeal and musical guests Canyon City. For more information, visit ironcitybham.com.