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For some millennials, minimalism is the path to happiness

Minimalist clothing

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For Jana Zaibak, having less stuff and not buying into the latest trend is a way of life: saving money is just a side benefit of being a minimalist.

"Less is more. I really do live by those words," says Ms. Zaibak, 28.

Take the Toronto apartment she rents, which has a couch and coffee table, a desk and stools under the kitchen counter, which also doubles as the dining table. Ms. Zaibak tried sleeping on the floor for a month, but ended up getting a bed for better sleep. She doesn't have a TV and the windowsills double as bookshelves.

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"My friends think I'm crazy. When they see my apartment they say, 'there's nothing in it.' And I keep thinking I want to get rid of some of the stuff," Ms. Zaibak says. "When I go home and there's less, I have more of a clear mind. I can focus on what's important. It's also easier to clean."

Her closets are also sparse. "My wardrobe is inspired by Steve Jobs. A black T-shirt and jeans is the way to go," she says. Ms. Zaibak also drives a fully electric Smart car, which by auto standards, is as minimal as you can get.

Even her business, the healthy-snack-food company Nomz, is based on the less-is-more principle. She makes and sells bite-sized energy snacks with minimal ingredients.

Ms. Zaibak's minimalist values were inspired by her mother, who kept the family home as clutter-free as possible. "The more things you have, it holds you back emotionally and physically," she says.

With the money she saves not buying the latest clothing or more stuff for her home, Ms. Zaibak can splurge on what she enjoys most, which is food and eating out. "I can justify that because I'm not spending my money on anything else," she says.

Minimalism is striking a chord among millennials, many of who have grown up watching their parents work hard to buy stuff that isn't making them happy, says Ryan Nicodemus, 35, the author, speaker, podcaster and filmmaker – along with childhood friend Joshua Fields Millburn – behind The Minimalists.

While millennials are sometimes stereotyped as being lazy and self-absorbed, many are simply rejecting societal norms around work and consumerism. Mr. Nicodemus says consumers have been sold "the American dream," through advertising – that they'll be happier with the right car, clothes and gadgets.

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"Advertisers have found a way to create this need," Mr. Nicodemus says. "People are starting to wake up and look at what those advertisements are feeding them and saying 'I'm not going to buy into that any more. I'm not going to assume that me working my butt off to buy this certain car or vacation … will make me happy.' That's why this whole idea of minimalism is really resonating with people. They're starting to realize there are other things in life you can't buy."

Mr. Nicodemus came to this realization himself after earning six figures working 60-to-80 hours a week in his 20s, racking up credit-card debt – and still feeling unsatisfied. He also owned a home, and even rented it out for a time, but found the upkeep and dealing with tenants was sucking up time and energy. He eventually sold it, for a loss.

Today, he rents an apartment with his partner in Missoula, Mont., works as a personal mentor, and promotes his work with The Minimalists. (You can see what his apartment looks like here and how his friend and colleague lives here.)

Mr. Nicodemus says minimalism isn't about frugality or buying cheaper things. It's about buying less to "slow down the tornado of life" that comes with consumerism. For instance, he'll pay $90 for a pair of jeans, but wears them for a couple of years before getting another pair.

He also says minimalism isn't solely focused on having less, but "making room for more," including time and experiences. "It's about is living your life deliberately. It's not living on impulse, but with a deliberate plan that revolves around peoples' values and beliefs."

Of course, saving money and getting out of debt helps, too. "For someone who is living in financial hell and they're still continuing to put things on their credit card and buying things that aren't making them happy, minimalism might be something they may want to bring into their lives to help regain control," he says.

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Mr. Nicodemus himself became debt-free at age 32, for the first time since he got his first credit card at age 18.

"I think that's the American dream," he says of having no debt. "That's true freedom."

Personal finance editor Roma Luciw tells you what you should be doing with your money if you're never going to be a homeowner.
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