Is Minimalism the New Materialism?
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:
- Less to clean up.
- Less to store and maintain.
- Less to lose.
- Makes stuff you need easier to find.
- Better-behaved children (according to Super Nanny).
- More creative children (according to our moms).
- More useful space (i.e. guest room!)
- Looks nicer—I love uncluttered space.
- Allows unused items to be used by someone else–and may generate income if sold.
- 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.
- Helps you enjoy and value the possessions you actually use.
- 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?