Minimalism is Not a Virtue

Minimalism is not a virtue and is not necessary for a fulfilling life

“He who buys something he doesn’t need steals from himself” - a Swedish proverb

Ok kiddies. As y’all know, I’m not frugal. I’m not interested in minimizing; I’m interested in optimizing. Recently I’ve seen a lot of posts proclaiming the benefits of minimalism. One couple literally got rid of the side tables in their bedroom and removed everything from the walls. A bare room with a bed, 2 pillows and a plain white comforter. The poster proclaimed her pride in her minimalism. “Nothing we don’t need!” she said. Why not just get rid of the bed altogether and sleep on the mattress/box springs in the floor? #minimalism!!!

I don’t know about you guys, but I like a warm, inviting home. An empty bedroom with a plain bed and bare walls is not my idea of “inviting.”

This is an extreme version of minimalism, sure. But the concept of “less is more” and “minimalism is the way to be” has become the party line for many personal finance and lifestyle bloggers (and readers). Today, I’m here to tell you that striving for minimalism as the ideal lifestyle is bullshit. At least for most of you. You don’t have to be a minimalist to live a calm life.

Capsule wardrobes.

Throw away any item of clothing you haven’t used in 3 months (seasons be damned!).

If you don’t NEED it, get rid of it.

Only keep what gives you *JoY*

Pack in one tiny suitcase for a 12-day vacation! It builds character.

“What’s stopping you from being a minimalist?”

You’ll feel lighter.

You’ll feel better.

Until you have guests over and you don’t have enough plates because “two people live here, so we only need two” - or you don’t have an extra set of sheets for the couch when your friend visits because “we only need one pair.” That, you guys, is a lie. Nothing is better than having two pairs of sheets, if for no other reason than you can change your dirty sheets without having to wait for them to become clean again. Never fall victim to the “my sheets aren’t dry and it’s bedtime” issue.

Until you only have one blanket in the living room and your friends come over to hang out in the middle of winter (and obviously your house is chilly because you are also probably trying to be #frugal)

Until you have literally no winter clothes because Poshmark told you to sell them in August when you hadn’t worn them since March!

Until you need to wrap a gift at the last minute and you no longer have your wrapping paper drawer because “wrapping paper doesn’t give me joy, clutters my space, and I can just buy it when I need it!” - and it’s 30 minutes before a Dirty Santa party you forgot about and you have to stop at Target at the last minute to purchase an overpriced gift bag and tissue paper, of which there will be extra because of course there will be, and then what? You either throw it away because minimalism or save it for later, aka RESTART YOUR WRAPPING PAPER DRAWER. You see where this is going.

All the minimalism-is-best hype is just that: hype. The shaming over purchasing or keeping things you don’t “need” (or that doesn’t bring you joy) can feel overwhelming sometimes.

I’ve fallen victim to this shame. To the embarrassment that I just...can’t...pack...light. Why do I have so many things? Things don’t make a home, they say. But don’t they?

The only thing more exhausting than having too much stuff is feeling shitty for having too much stuff and then whipping yourself into a lather to constantly get rid of items so that you meet some ethereal definition of “Minimalism.”

You start to dream about Scandinavian design blogs. White and Natural Wood are your middle names. You’re selling everything but the shirt on your back and your kitchen appliances to achieve some form of Minimalist Nirvana. Your trash collector thinks you’re getting rid of dead bodies. You accidentally throw away your cat. You retrieve the cat before it becomes a dead body (Side story: My mom once tried to - wait for it - throw away our cat who had tragically died, and it gave the trash collectors quite a fright. They also made her call animal control because duh.)

photo credit: yarn (from The Parent Trap, © 1998 Walt Disney Pictures)


Who else feels whipped up?


Now let's pause to talk to the Minimalists:

It is absolutely okay to be a minimalist! In fact, it can be wonderful! I’m a tiny bit jealous, tbh. If it brings you hygge or whatever, more power to you. It’s certainly better than some of the alternatives (hoarders, what. is. up?!*). But I contend that for most people, having a home stocked with all the gizmos and gadgets you need to live and entertain is actually less stressful than getting rid of everything and eating dinner in a round circle of yoga mats and having exactly one coffee mug or whatever.

Ok, so maybe they’re not minimalists, but they DO eat dinner on yoga mats...(Bachelorette, copyright: ABC)

Ok, so maybe they’re not minimalists, but they DO eat dinner on yoga mats...(Bachelorette, copyright: ABC)

With that, here’s the biggest thing I think everyone can take from Minimalism:

Unclutter your space; unclutter your mind.

This is true. I’m not telling you it’s okay to hoard. It’s not. You should regularly cull your belongings for things you legitimately don’t use (to sell or give away) or for things that are in disrepair and can’t be fix or haven’t been repaired in long enough that you probably won’t get to it. True clutter is mentally exhausting. My anxiety level is so much lower when my house is clean, and not having an absurd amount of stuff makes it easier to keep your house clean.

There’s nothing wrong with being ruthless, even. I don’t think Marie Kondo is completely wrong about getting rid of things that don’t bring you joy. I tend to have emotional reactions to getting rid of clothing, even if I LITERALLY never wear it or don’t like the way it makes me feel when I do wear it. Her philosophy truly is useful for trying to create keep vs. sell vs. trash piles of certain household items. But you will know I’ve really jumped the shark if I ever roll onto your Instagram feed with shots of my new capsule wardrobe.  

So yes, elements of minimalism are universally useful, and I still encourage you to take care of what you have, make mindful purchases, and get rid of things you don’t want or need. But that doesn't mean you should go full-on convert.

I want to remind you all that it is not particularly virtuous to be a minimalist, and there is absolutely no shame in living your life another way.

Now for the reasons I don’t personally embrace minimalism:

Having Extras Calms Me Down

Spode Christmas mugs and wine glasses. Enough champagne flutes for a small toast. My wrapping paper drawer. My book collection. Extra towels. Blankets for allll the friends. My cake plate. Multiple cookie trays so I can bake more efficiently. A chapstick for every bag. Extra toilet paper. Enough underwear and socks to get me through a few weeks because Lord knows I don’t have time for that much laundry (plus, hello! water/energy waste). And so on.

Story time. I considered discarding my extra towels earlier this year. These residual college towels had become dingy, and I used them mostly for moving and bathing the dog (which I rarely do myself, eek). So they were on the chopping block. apartment flooded. I needed every. Last. One. of those towels, and water still flooded my living room. I even used my bath mats to clean up water. It wasn’t enough.

I’m grateful I kept those towels. After the flood, I donated the towels that got stained from the wet hardwood floors to my dog’s daycare, as they always need extra towels and don’t care if they’re pretty. The ones that were salvageable went right back in their spot in my linen cabinet. I have the space for them and they’ll come in handy when I move again in a few months (#prayforme). Having extra towels is a good thing for me. And I won't be bullied into tossing things that don't fit someone else's idea of what I should own.

Minimalism is a Privilege and Can Cost You Money

I recently saw someone Tweet about how hard it is for people who grew up poor to get rid of anything, even if they aren’t poor anymore. “Extra” wasn’t in their vocabulary. You keep things for a rainy day. You can use, reuse, repurpose. If you constantly trash everything that isn’t immediately and constantly useful, you may not have it when you do need it.

Buying things as you go because you eliminate all belongings that aren’t immediately useful can be expensive, not to mention wasteful of resources and costly to the environment. My wrapping paper story above is a good example. When you’re in a hurry and don’t keep certain items stocked at home, you may end up spending a lot more to get the thing you need right away. You may also spend a lot of extra time you don’t have in that particular moment, which will really cramp your calm.

Not keeping at least certain items stockpiled based on sales, rather than immediate need, of those items can also cost you money. While stockpiling can be a privilege of people with basic financial stability (as compared with those who are truly living in or close to poverty), people with middling incomes will probably find minimalism to be a similar privilege. For families with enough money but who have tight budgets, buying things on sale and in bulk is the only way to make room for debt repayment, savings, etc. Having to pay for convenience to replace things as you go or to buy things at the moment you need them is frankly not an option for a family of 6 with a $500/mo grocery budget.

Again, none of this is meant to hate on people who choose to be minimalists, but it’s definitely a lifestyle that replaces certain types of efficiencies with others. And that’s my whole point. Minimalism as a rule is not only not feasible to most people, it can be expensive.

So if you grew up poor (or if you you didn’t) and you like or feel the need to keep things you know will or might be useful later, DO. NOT. FEEL. ASHAMED. It’s smart to reuse and repurpose. This is NOT a bad instinct as long as you aren’t hoarding and can keep your belongings organized.

Minimalism Just Isn’t for Everyone, and That’s Okay

A Tale of Two International Trips

Storytime again.

It’s impossibly stressful for me to pack light. I literally DRIVE HOME (9-10 hours) for holidays because the thought of trying to organize myself pack for a holiday week in a suitcase for a flight makes me want to cry. Where do the presents go? There's also the dog, and the cost of flights, but my strongest underlying motivation is being able to just throw everything I need or want or may need in my car and hit the road. 

People used to give me a hard time about how much I pack for things and how long I take to get ready. It used to bother me.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to embrace these things: I’m high-maintenance. I just am.

“You’re the worst kind. You’re high maintenance but you think you’re low maintenance” (video credit: When Harry Met Sally, Columbia Pictures, 1989)

Last autumn, I went to Paris and Norway. I only owned one suitcase, a large carryon, and I was determined to “pack light,” which for me ended up meaning “cramming every item I possibly could into the suitcase by any means necessary.” There were ziploc bags to compress things. There was rolling. There was sitting on the suitcase. I didn’t get to bring a few things I wanted, repacking was a nightmare, and I had no room for souvenirs. Even my smaller travel bag was crammed, because I had to put my purse into it while boarding to keep my bag count to only two. Instead of letting myself pack in the way that works for me, I tried to fit myself into a minimalist packing situation and it only added avoidable stress to my life.

After that trip, I resolved to be myself with my packing, even when flying, and my life has been better for it.

This past year my friends and I took a trip to Mexico City and everyone else packed for the entire trip in one carryon-sized bag. I checked two bags.

I packed that same large carryon suitcase and also brought along a duffel bag, which was only about half full. I checked both bags (my status with American gives me 2 checked bags free. Woohoo!). In the smaller bag, I threw a bunch of stuff that I knew other people might need but forget. I had space to bring home any souvenirs. There was no stress about trying to “pick a color scheme” for my outfits or trying to anticipate exactly which 4 outfits I would want to wear, with no leeway for the inevitable feeling that an outfit just isn’t right in the moment.

And you know what guys, it was awesome. Everyone who packed their tiny bags ended up needing something I packed in my non-minimalist luggage. Frankly, I think most minimalists are able to be so through reliance on non-minimalists, particularly when traveling. My friends were grateful I’d remembered everything.

Overpacking is a theme in my life, not just on the CDMX trip - my purse is the purse with all the things for all the situations. I’ll always have almost anything anyone might need. People know this about me. And now that I’ve embraced that I’m high-maintenance and pack too much, life is so much more relaxing. This non-minimalism is a gift I can share with others! Why would I ever be different?

If this is you too, BE CONFIDENT in your non-minimalism. It doesn’t work for everyone and it is not a worthy goal in and of itself.

Frankly, I think most minimalists are able to be so through reliance on non-minimalists, particularly when traveling. My friends were grateful I’d remembered everything.

If you’re ready to ditch the minimalism obsession, a couple of things:

Everyone Needs a Monica Closet

Chandler, snickering: “You’re messy!”

Not being a minimalist does mean you’ll be more prone to clutter, but that’s where A MONICA CLOSET can help! (This isn’t, like, a serious suggestion; it’s just a funny moment on Friends...but...maybe it is a serious suggestion...)

I actually DO have a Monica Closet. My storage closet on my back porch holds all kinds of random crap I rarely use, moving boxes I didn’t want to throw away (using them next month for my move), stuff I have listed for sale, Christmas decorations, etc. I just sold a rug that’s been in that closet. Getting rid of stuff that holds no value is always an excellent idea, but some things that aren’t in constant use or are on the chopping block need a place to hang out in the interim that doesn’t add to clutter in your living space.

So just find an old closet, fill ‘er up, and pray no one ever goes looking for a bathroom and opens the wrong door…

You Do You, Boo Boo

As a dedicated non-minimalist, I wanted to highlight for you some of the advantages of choosing to ignore some common, "necessary" “get your life together” advice, and some of the disadvantages of following that advice. More importantly, I want to remind you all that it is not particularly virtuous to be a minimalist, and there is absolutely no shame in living your life another way. Becoming a minimalist is not a necessary step on the path of self-improvement or even financial freedom. In fact, I believe the tendency to be a minimalist is somewhat of a personality trait, not a philosophy that everyone can or should embrace.

So if you’re struggling because you feel like you can’t reach debt freedom, financial freedom, or simply live a good life without turning your living space into a secular monastery or going all Rick Steves' backpack for your next vacation,

...ask yourself these questions about minimalism:

  1. Why do I feel like I need to implement minimalism? Is it pressure or shame? Is it an ideal that you’re striving to reach because others hype it up, or is it something you really think would benefit you?

  2. Will this work well for me in my life?

  3. What parts of minimalism can I implement while staying true to my inner overpacker (or whatever your equivalent is)?

Whatever you choose to do as you work for your life goals, I want you to have the confidence to embrace something that isn’t The Thing You Should Do™ if it doesn’t serve you.

Now go forth and host parties with all that fine china you have in your garage, you successful non-minimalists, you!

Has anyone else struggled with the feeling that they “should” become a minimalist? What did you end up doing? Who are my successful or natural minimalists in the crowd? I’d love to hear from you guys too!

P.S. This post is ~2500 words. I’m really, really not a minimalist. *kisses*

**Note: Hoarders, you don’t need to feel ashamed either. A lot of stuff contributes to hoarding behaviors. That said, it is not a viable way of keeping a home and I strongly encourage you to work on not hoarding, which may including finding a professional to help you declutter your home and/or discuss the psychological motivations you may have for hoarding. You can do it! Especially when the goal isn’t Being A Minimalist.