Is Minimalism the New Materialism?

Organizing our basement made way for a guest room.

A new movement toward minimalism is emerging. People are building tiny homes, skipping Black Friday, turning their hangers around, and holding all their possessions in their hands to determine which items bring them joy. People are selling, donating, and trashing the not-joy stuff. And we are picking it out of the trash.

Reclaiming Our Basement

The Pretend to Be Poor household hasn’t been impervious to all the Joy of Less Junk hype. We’ve been wanting to increase our basement’s usefulness by creating a guest room with a bed my mom gave us. Our summer free time was consumed with a massive home repair and my India trip, so the project got delayed. But when we had to turn down a friend looking for a temporary place to stay due to our basement’s disarray, we knew we should prioritize the project.

Thus we embarked on our mission to 1.) increase usefulness while 2.) decluttering. My husband finally tackled several boxes of God Knows What that have been collecting dust since we got married almost 10 years ago. While untangling his fourth box full of cables and cords, he admitted he has a problem.

“I had no idea it was this bad,” he said, extricating a SuperNintendo controller from 100 yards of Ethernet cable. We do not own a SuperNintendo. Or a football field. He was allowed to keep one pager and a walkman in his box of ’90s artifacts. It all comes of marrying an electrical engineer, I suppose. At least he keeps a tidy budget spreadsheet.

After devoting several 1-hour increments to rearranging furniture, divesting ourselves of antiquated electronics, and unwinding furlongs of cords, we were riding a decluttering high. We felt very pleased with our progress and proud of the more useful, open space in our home. I started showing it off to unfortunate guests, who probably thought, “Um, still lots of cords.”

For my friends who did not have the awesome privilege of witnessing firsthand the 10% less cords, my decluttering high led me to brag about how much stuff we got rid of (3 old computers!), and how I even got Neil to undertake the cords. I probably made more than one wife jealous over that one. Sorry.

And then I realized—I’m obsessing about stuff. And that’s materialism. My de-owning high was almost identical to the thrill of consumerism. A new purchase feels exciting and important at first. You want to show it off and tell people about it and what a great deal it was, and why it was the perfect choice. You might even make someone jealous. And if you have too much stuff, all your friends are probably thinking, those look just like the boots you already have.

When Minimalism Turns Materialistic

I’m glad we got more organized, found stuff to donate and sell, made our basement more usable. I’m glad many Americans seem to be replacing insatiable materialism with a more contented minimalism. But I have to confess from experience that an inordinate focus on minimizing, at least in the short term, can end up being rather materialistic. We’re most at risk of minimalism going wrong when we absorb its practical pointers without embracing the philosophy of simplicity behind it.

Let me qualify such an irreverent proposition. I’m a bit of a minimalist at heart. When I was a kid I used to go through the old crayons to find all the colors I needed before the beginning of school, rather than asking my mom to buy new ones. I used to build tiny homes with my LEGOs. I used to say that when I had kids, I’d give them one teddy bear and a library card, because that’s all you really need. (Read here why I still believe the library is a secret weapon to a less-clutter home.)

But then I married a cord-hoarder, bought a house, had two kids, and didn’t have time to keep my possessions streamlined. Our frugal reputation must precede us, because we’re constantly being offered whatever others are jettisoning. I am extremely grateful to be part of a community of friends and family that shares goods. And to be fair to my cord-loving lover, I’ll confess I’m over-stocked on books, clothing, and kid’s toys. But at some point recently I shifted my default response to Free from “Sure!” to “Thanks, but no thanks. I have enough stuff!” If it’s something I currently need or want, or will need in the near future, I’ll gladly accept. But I’m trying to pass on more than I receive now.

There certainly are lots of benefits to owning less, including:

  1. Less to clean up.
  2. Less to store and maintain.
  3. Less to lose.
  4. Makes stuff you need easier to find.
  5. Better-behaved children (according to Super Nanny).
  6. More creative children (according to our moms).
  7. More useful space (i.e. guest room!)
  8. Looks nicer—I love uncluttered space.
  9. Allows unused items to be used by someone else–and may generate income if sold.
  10. Helps set a limit on lifestyle—you realize you don’t need to keep buying stuff. And you don’t need a bigger home or more storage space.
  11. Helps you enjoy and value the possessions you actually use.
  12. Reduces decision fatigue/simplifies everyday life.

Clearly it’s better not to be drowning in jetsam. But isn’t there a danger of minimalists’ thoughts being equally consumed with Not Stuff as the materialist is with Stuff? Just as a person with an under-eating disorder may have a view of food that is as unhealthy as a gluttonous person. I believe many minimalists avoid extremes and are focused on living the good life, but sometimes people glean nothing more than a reverse materialism from a more transcendent message. Minimalism gone wrong can be a life equally centered on material possessions, and this is what I’m calling us all to avoid.

A Pragmatist’s Solution

So for prospective minimalist converts, the de-owning process might involve a whole lot of thinking and dealing with stuff. I suppose that’s fine, but if I’m forced to choose between sorting through my junk or doing activities in line with my larger goals in life—like spending quality time with a friend, studying for a Bible teaching, or playing LEGOs with my kids—the junk can wait. Isn’t that what junk drawers are for?

People have proposed asking yourself “Would I keep this if I was moving in two weeks?” to determine which possessions you really need. If I’m choosing to spend time organizing a particular area of my home, this hypothetical is super helpful. But sometimes I can barely get the dishes done, and since I’m not moving in two weeks, I don’t need to angst over my unread copy of 17th Century Verse or a basement box of old video games.

It amuses me that some of my friends view me as a minimalist, while others are almost appalled at how much I own. It’s all relative, and if we’re honest, we all struggle against materialism in one form or another. I strive not to be a minimalist or a materialist, but hope to be a pragmatist. I’ll gladly own more stuff if it serves my over-arching purposes, such as hosting, being generous, occupying my kids so I don’t have to entertain them 24/7, making my life easier to a point (can you say microwave?), or if it may save me money in the long run. For example, I’m hanging on to my professional wardrobe in hopes that it’s not too ill-fighting or outdated when I return to the workforce in a future life when my kids are in school.

So what’s the practical take-away?

Declutter for a purpose–making better use of your space, selling or donating unused items, or making your life and home way more functional. (How about donating money you get from selling old stuff?)

Don’t declutter to keep up with the minimalists or strive for a magazine-perfect home. You have better things to do with your time. Focus on your bigger purpose, rather than Stuff or Not Stuff.

Release the guilt about those shoes that only match one dress, or that box of old wedding cards in your basement. If you have time and want to tackle it, by all means do. Provided you wouldn’t qualify to be on Hoarders, your possessions of questionable usefulness probably aren’t hurting anything. With excessive cord and cable collections as a notable exception, since they are almost certainly driving your wife crazy.

Have you ever found yourself consumed by minimalism? Do you have other tips for striking a healthy balance?

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55 Responses to “Is Minimalism the New Materialism?”

  1. Holly says :

    I like the reasons you’ve mentioned for being minimalist – less to clean up, less to keep track of. This is why my house is barely decorated. I don’t like to change decor in and out all the time so I keep it really basic! Definitely saves money, stress, and time dusting.

  2. Hannah says :

    We’ve moved a lot, and we still have furlongs of cords, and one computer from 2002. Neither Rob nor I is a minimalist, but clutter drives me crazy, so I go on these purges that drive Rob nuts. I finally realized that part of the problem is that we live in a house that has next to no built in storage except in the kitchen. It means that all our stuff is always “out” even when its put away. The other problem is that my son takes everything out of its place because he is a child instead of a small adult.

    • Kalie says :

      If we didn’t have storage space in our basement our living space would be so much more cluttered. And my kids are constantly pulling out things that I’ve tried to tuck away!

  3. Scott says :

    I love how you flip the concept of minimalism and show how it can be materialistic in a way. We can turn a lot of good concepts bad. I like to try to be minimalist, but I find that this can then turn into judging and looking down on people for being “too materialistic” in my eyes. Good article, and a very good perspective on how to look at things.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree that humans can find just about any reason to judge one another, and it’s unfortunate when our attempts to be less materialistic turn into this.

  4. Our Next Life says :

    What an important question! Sometimes the process of striving for something aspirational can lead to extremes. It makes me think about some of the folks in the zero waste world — it’s a wonderful aspiration, but some folks get so extreme with it that it becomes almost a fetish, and certainly a platform for judging others. Never helpful.

    I love the balance you’ve found, and seeking pragmatism instead. Perfect.

    • Kalie says :

      I agree with your example about the zero waste movement. It’s well-intentioned but usually extremes are not a good way to balance your lifestyle with other purposes and values.

  5. Abigail says :

    I love this perspective, especially when you’re giving yourself room to be human. And yes, the rat race of minimalism has always seemed a little off-track to me.

    Real minimalists determine not necessarily how little they can live with, but instead what their own personal comfort zone is. Then they try to avoid cluttering their lives back up.

    At least that’s how I, as a non-minimalist, see it.

    • Kalie says :

      I believe many minimalists are right on track. I just don’t want the rest of us feeling guilty over something we’re not sold on, as if it was the only right way to live.

  6. kay ~ the barefoot minimalist says :

    I’m a minimalist, but I was born that way, and I think that makes a difference. People who aspire to be a minimalist really need to take stock of why they’re doing it, because a lot of them regret their decisions after the “fad” is over. I really don’t want to recommend minimalism to anyone, but what I would recommend is organization and to resist hoarding. Hoarding can be a very dangerous lifestyle and/or land you on one of those shows, thereby embarrassing your entire family. 😛

    • Kalie says :

      It’s great to hear from a self-described minimalist on this topic. As with any change, the motivation behind it is often more important than the specific actions. I do agree that staying organized and relatively clutter-free helps me function everyday.

  7. DC YAM says :

    I sometimes feel guilty about holding on to things too long, but I am good at purging once things start to get too cluttered. Minimalism is great, but I agree that it can become a competition and way too much time/energy spent on making sure you don’t accumulate stuff.

    • Kalie says :

      That’s great that you are good at purging when you decide to. I think that’s more important than worrying over each item you own.

  8. Prudence Debtfree says :

    OK, you had me laughing out loud. That doesn’t happen often, so well done : )
    I find that as I transition from one mode of being (eg. bad with money management) to another (eg. good money management), I go through a temporary obsessive phase. I think that’s OK, and it applies to people in general when they adjust their diets or exercise routines – or their management of stuff. If you have been preoccupied with minimalizing (definitely not a word), I say it’s OK. It’s that temporary obsessing thing. And it will subside as you sink into your new normal.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks, Prudence. It’s true that a new initiative or mindset will take over for a period, and that’s okay so long as it is a phase.

  9. Mark says :

    Decluttering to keep up with the minimalists. I love the irony there!

  10. Cat says :

    Excellent post! Similarly, we try not to keep up with those more frugal than us. We try to spend money on what makes us happy rather than trying to make our budget as small as those around us. Great post!

    • Kalie says :

      Good example. Frugality or minimalism is not a competition, it’s about taking control of your money in a way that works for your family.

  11. Sofia at Currentlylovingsimplicity says :

    What a great post! I’ve never come across the minimalism as reverse materialism idea, but you are right, it is a trap one should be careful not to fall into. That’s why everyone needs to find their personal version of minimalism, the point is to stop keeping up with the Jonses, not to start keeping up with the minimalists. Which means that you can be a minimalist who as not gotten around to decluttering a few boxes in the basement yet. One of the most important benefits you mention is that it sets a limit on your lifestyle. That, I believe, is also a very important lesson to pass on to future generation, because then we can combine minimalism and sustainability.

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts! It’s true that frugality or minimalism is more about the mindset and motivation than any particular action. I’m all about the philosophy of deflating our lifestyle to make room for our bigger purpose.

  12. Emily says :

    I’ve become more of a minimalist in the last couple years. I agree that the lifestyle can become a bit obsessive, but overall it has helped me a lot with anxiety. In addition, I love that my purged items are being used by someone, not just rotting in a basement. It makes me want to use less and be more generous.

  13. Melanie says :

    This is such a clever and timely post. It’s so true, the idea that at both extremes one can be ruled by their possessions. I grew up with a hoarder and ended up a minimalist. While I learned many important values, such as avoiding wastefulness and seeing value in what you already have, I watched my Grandmother live a life riddled with anxiety, anticipating future disaster and fearing she’d never have enough. On the flip side, I sometimes get anxious when too much clutter enters my world. It’s still a form of letting stuff rule my life. Over the years I’ve learned how to have my little pockets of organized chaos, while still keeping a clean and comfortable home environment. It’s an ongoing process.

  14. Luke Fitzgerald says :

    I love this idea! The minimalism movement was such a success because people saw the benefits of moving away from materialism. But now much of the minimalism is moving towards minimalism for minimalism’s sake. In other words: “I’m not a minimalism bc I dont want to be materialistic. I’m a minimalism bc I want other people to know I’m a minimalist.” Which, by definition, is materialistic.

    Thanks for sharing your awareness! I touched on something similar last week: How doing something “good” actually backfires more often than we realize and causes us to do even more “bad”.

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, the pendulum swings back & forth, and it can be hard to find balance in the midst of such trends.

      Your post about over-rationalizing is similar for sure!

  15. Jaime says :

    I quit following minimalists blogs. There was a lot of judgement toward non-minimalists. I can’t live with 30 things. I need stuff like first aid kits, carbon monoxide detectors, books, snow brushes, etc.

    I don’t believe in excess or hoarding. I just want enough stuff for my lifestyle. I do kind of wonder if once the U.S. economy starts booming, will people be back to their spendthrift ways? I’m pretty sure that there will be people out there that will go back to spending.

  16. Tarynkay says :

    Oh my goodness, my husband has the same box of obsolete cords that go to nothing! It makes me similarly insane and after years of coaxing him to get rid of these, I finally just gave up. And the toys- we never buy toys. We still own enough toys to outfit a daycare. How???

    I’ve noticed that minimalist blogs often focus on owning very few things of extremely high quality. In theory, it is nice to say that I would prefer one $300 sweater to ten $30 sweaters. But in reality, the baby is going to spit up on me no matter how much my sweater costs, so I can’t really consider clothing an investment. I do think it’s interesting how minimalism has become yet another marketing strategy. I am duly impressed, marketing geniuses.

    That said, I love getting rid of stuff. This is a direct and obvious reaction to growing up in a family of borderline hoarders. I don’t want my sons to grow up to be hoarders, so I don’t want to throw out most of their toys- even though I REALLY want to throw out most of their toys.

    • Kalie says :

      You have expressed my feelings exactly about the toys and the baby spitting up on clothing! I can focus on paring down my possessions, but I don’t want to go overboard getting rid of my husbands’ things, or my kids’ toys, within reason.

  17. Robin says :

    This is great! Thanks for giving me a different perspective about minimalism that I hadn’t thought about before. Definitely some food for thought…

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks for checking out this post. I hadn’t thought of minimalism in terms of being a first world problem, so I enjoyed your post, too.

  18. Chuck says :

    I found the bit about the boxes of cables and antique electronics to be particularly relevant. I chuckled as I realized that I probably have exactly the same situation going on in the garage. Next weekend I have a new challenge to tackle that!

  19. Kurt says :

    Though my wife may differ, I wouldn’t say I’ve been consumed by minimalism. For as long as I can remember, I’ve simply preferred to have few belongings. I’m confused and overwhelmed by ‘stuff.’ Little frustrates me more than not being able to find the thing I need because it’s effectively buried (in my mind, not literally) in a mountain of stuff I never use. This feels genetic to me–comes easily and naturally.

    • Kalie says :

      I think if minimalism is coming from the right place, such as your personality or over-arching philosophy, then it makes perfect sense. I also hate sifting through a bunch of junk to find what I need!

  20. Karen says :

    I’m all about the minimalism. It just makes life easier overall. I’ve heard so many people complain about so much stuff they have, yet I never hear them say they actually got rid of it. It’s really therapeutic for me when I get rid of things I don’t need or haven’t used in years.

  21. Thehappyphilosopher says :

    This post made me smile. Nicely written 🙂

    I think the essence of your question is why do we minimize and declutter? And for that matter why do we hoard and consume? I think the why of it matters. If we are becoming more minimalist to feed our ego and impress our minimalist circle of friends, then it is not different than consuming to ‘keep up with the Jonses’. If we are simplifying because it will bring us happiness then I feel it is fundamentally different than materialism.

    I am by no means hard core minimalist, but having less stuff creates freedom and happiness in so many ways.

    By the way: If you need any extra cords send me a message and I can send some your way 😉

  22. Sunshine says :

    Just found you because of your Frugalwoods post. Wow… I can’t stop reading! I know this is an older post, but it really spoke to me. Over Christmas I was feeling pretty prideful and when my Mother-in-law confessed that she gets a “high” purchasing stuff and how much she loves buying things, I acting all superior said I like getting rid of things. Thanks for getting me off my “high horse”. Pride goes before a fall. Love the fact that you are taking this way of life from a Christian perspective! God Bless!

    • Kalie says :

      Thanks, I’m glad you are tracking with our values! Honestly, we humans will always find something to feel proud about, but it’s good to be aware of its dangers.

  23. Lisa says :

    Just came across this through Blonde on a Budget. Love the name of the blog!! I have been minimizing for two years since we downsized from a 2700 sf to 1300 sf home. Since January came in, I have once again gone through every room in the house with the hopes of being able to get rid of something / anything! I find that sometimes I am too emotionally attached to certain things and it may take a few months before giving in and letting it go. I believe to be minimalist requires a constant effort. I do have one challenge with being a minimalist – my husband isn’t. As a result, there is only so much that I can get rid of. Just wondering if there is anyone else out there that maybe facing the same challenge?

    • Lisa says :

      Sorry, I made an error. I came across this blog through Rockstar Finance!

    • Kalie says :

      Yes, that is a very common problem! I think marital peace is worth more than clearing your space, unless it’s reached a harmful hoarding level. Even with my kids, though I know I’m ultimately the one in control, I’m willing to keep some extra toys around for a while just because they are attached to them.

  24. Jamie says :

    I have thought the same thing–that minimalism can be very selfish–until I read the book Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger. It was an epiphany–it gives purpose to decluttering. There is more to minimalism than just owning less. We should own less so that we can share our excess with those who have nothing. I highly recommend it!

    • Kalie says :

      I love that book, Jamie. Thanks for bringing it up. It truly has changed my life and approach to money, and I’m glad I read it at age 18 before I made any major financial decisions. I think the new brand of minimalism sometimes focuses on finding the perfect, high quality, often expensive items that allow you to own less. That’s fine, but as an end goal, generosity is much more significant.

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