A Curated Life

“Great artists know that it isn’t just about what you add, sometimes the most important work is knowing what to take away.
Removing clutter, excess, all the superfluous elements – and finding out in the process what’s been in there the whole time.”

Rob Bell, Drops Like Stars

What do you think of when you hear the word ‘budget’? Or ‘frugal’? Take a moment to jot down your reaction.

Most of us cringe when we hear words like these. Like the word ‘diet’, ‘budget’ calls to mind images of Spartan deprivation. Meager portions. Drabness and boredom.

But living frugally – or living a curated life – can be freeing.

There’s a paradoxical tension between freedom and constraint when it comes to creativity. We often imagine the ideal creative process as unstructured. Open-ended. Free of limitations. But research has found creative individuals actually benefit from constraints.

In this article, we’ll explore how living frugally can give you greater financial independence as a creative. And, how it can get your creative juices flowing!

Negative space

“If it’s possible to cut a word out, cut it out.”

George Orwell

All artists need to consider negative space. To know when to stop applying paint to the canvas. How to frame an image. How long to pause for. Which words to cut.

Successful creatives know the value of simplicity. They exemplify it in their art, and in their lives.

They have sustainable creative practices instead of working jobs they don’t enjoy, or dying of unhealthy lifestyles.

Steve Jobs, for example, not only applied his creative skills to overseeing the design of elegant products at Apple. He also reduced his wardrobe to a single basic choice for each day so he could devote his time to more important matters.

Wannabes waste time trying to emulate the perceived lifestyle of ‘success’. They spend $2,000 on an ‘instagrammable’ typewriter converted into a wireless keyboard, or $6,000 on an artistic retreat, but produce nothing. They invest more time dressing in a ‘writerly’ or ‘painterly’ way, than in honing their craft.

Constraints and inspiration

“a true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention”

Plato, Republic

Some of the most beautiful creative works are born of constraints. Think of haiku poetry, with its 5-7-5 pattern of syllables. Or other constrained writing (the novel Ella Minnow Pea is a great example, as is the classic Gadsby). Or consider religious art, with its endless variations on the same theme. Or ikebana. The art of arranging flowers according to a scalene triangle symbolising heaven, earth, and humanity.

We need boundaries

Research in psychology shows we’re often more creative within boundaries. Where people have no constraints, they tend to focus on what has worked well in the past. This leads to coming up with derivative works. According to Creativity from Constraints, such unrestrained freedom hinders creativity.

Consider cooking. If you live in a developed country with a moderate income, chances are, you have few constraints when it comes to deciding what to cook for dinner. Overwhelmed by choice, many of us fall back on the same tried and tested recipes, night after night.

But imagine how creative you’d have to be if you had to deal with local availability and seasonality. If you didn’t have access to a freezer, or the imports that allow us to eat seasonal fruits/vegetables year-round.

Treat your life as an experiment

Saving money allows us to work less and devote more time to our art. But sticking to a budget has the added advantage of encouraging experimentation. Cooking with new ingredients. Discovering new places by walking instead of driving. Even finding more creative hobbies, instead of passive activities like watching Netflix.

The elegance of simplicity

‘Simplicity is elegance’

Coco Chanel

Many of us believe complexity of expression equals complexity of thought. But the best writers write at a level comprehensible by sixth graders.

Most amateur stuff comes out at high school or postgraduate level.

Complex prose may be a symptom of muddled or not yet fully-formed thought.

When something isn’t clear in our own minds, we struggle to communicate it to someone else.

Writers with a clear purpose can express the most complex concepts through short words and phrases. This doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, often these simple words and phrases pack the most punch. Hemingway was a master of this. Much of his work was comprehensible to a fourth grader, but few people would consider it juvenile or unsophisticated.

Clutter – of space and time – in our lives is similar. It results from us not having totally worked out what we want.

The poverty mindset

Sometimes, we’re reluctant to let go of things. Words in a novel. Characters in a screenplay. Or a broken chair or clothes that no longer fit. I blame a poverty mindset.

Those who lived through the depression were great examples of this thinking. They could be frugal, but they also hoarded useless things “just in case”. Having had so little, they clung to everything they could get.

Trying to live frugally, it’s tempting to accept almost any offer, without fully assessing whether you want or need it. You might buy anything on sale, simply because you have a coupon, or there’s a big discount. But that’s being ‘cheap’, not being ‘frugal’. If you know where you’re going in life, you can make better decisions about what you need, rather than burdening yourself with clutter.

Why less is more

Having more things costs us more to look after them. Consider, how many rooms are you paying to heat or cool, to keep clean and to maintain, that you rarely use?

And having more things does not make us enjoy them more. In fact, things can distract us from our creative goals. The second TV needs fixing. I have to clean the spare room. The lawn needs mowing. I have to take the car in for a service. The dog needs to go to the vet. We have to up our insurance. We need to find someone to look after the cat before we go away. Did I remember to cover up the barbecue?

Frugal and cheap aren’t the same

Being frugal is not about being cheap. It’s about valuing what we have.

A frugal person doesn’t buy a pair of shoes because they’re the cheapest. They buy the best pair for the best price, then take care of them. Because they value their feet, their time, the person who made them, and the earth.

We often enjoy and value what we have more when there is less of it.

Imagine living a life in which the only art on your walls is that which sparks joy. The only books on your shelf are those that reflect who you are, and that you’re excited to re-read and to lend to others. The only food in your cupboards is that which will nourish your body. The only clothes in your wardrobe are those that fit you well, are comfortable, and look good on you.

A frugal life is a well-curated life. And a well-curated life is a life of true luxury.

What about investing in our craft?

Spending on equipment, courses, outfits and meetings has a low or even zero return for most creative pursuits.

Investing more time in our craft is the only thing proven to improve our skills. This is something a curated life helps us achieve.

Curate your life

Often, the effort to hold on to everything results in us seeing and appreciating nothing.

Art galleries collect and organise the best pieces of an artist to showcase them. They don’t cram every single piece, half-finished attempt, and juvenile scribble, into a cramped space.

Look around your home through the eyes of a curator. Start with a single category. Your wardrobe, or bookshelf. Whatever you identify as a problem area. Are your clothes in alignment with your purpose in life? Or are you harbouring clothes you could sell or donate? Doing so might help you get on top of your laundry, and devote more time to your passions.

Is your bookshelf in alignment with your purpose in life? Or are you giving shelter to books that don’t match your interests and ambitions? You could cut down on the clutter in your home and reduce your cleaning, making space for library loans that will further your ambitions.

After you’ve moved through each room in this manner, consider: Is your home aligned with your purpose in life? Do you have enough space to do your creative work? Or are you paying for space you don’t need? Could you downsize your belongings – and along with them, your home, and the size of your housing debt?


If you’re stuck in a rut, why not curated your life with a financially-inspired creative challenge?

  • Food: Complete a $21 Challenge. Pick a new ingredient next time you shop and find some recipes.
  • Fashion: ‘Shop’ from your own racks at home, or put together a capsule wardrobe.
  • Travel: Check out what quirky free attractions are available in your hometown on TripAdvisor.
  • Home: Redecorate using items you already have in your home or find DIY ideas on Pinterest.

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