Minimalism is a theme that gets recurring attention in the personal finance blogosphere. It’s a fun idea, isn’t it? By limiting your possessions, you can afford a smaller, cheaper home. Fewer items means fewer things that require maintenance and repair, saving you more money. And of course, there is that much more money in your pocket for not having bought it in the first place. And the stuff you have can be converted to cash when you sell it in your embrace of minimalism. Who wouldn’t want to become a minimalist in the face of all that savings and extra income?
Well, me for one.
I’m not claiming that all of the advantages claimed by the minimalists don’t exist. If you can stomach minimalism, those advantages are real. Except for when they aren’t. Besides, it takes a certain kind of person to be a minimalist, and I am simply not one. Minimalism has a financial and emotional cost that few realize. So before you consider minimalism for yourself, read this monster 2000 word post first. 🙂
When minimalism costs more money
There have been bouts of my life when I have been a forced minimalist. Living in the motel, my wife and I had a week’s worth of clothing each, toiletries, my e-reader, the laptop and a George Foreman grill. Everything else was packed away in storage.
Everything. All of the DVDs, all the books, the gaming consoles, the charger for my reader (oops), all of my kitchenwares, and all of my tools. When the weather got unexpectedly warm for January, I was stuck in my heavy winter coat.
Minimalism vs Entertainment
Not having all of my usual entertainment options made going out to the movies very tempting. If were weren’t pretty much flat broke at the time, we probably would have seen a couple first-run movies at the local theater. Two tickets, popcorn, and a soda comes up to nearly $20. With all the spare time on our hands and cool movies coming out in that two-week period, we probably would have seen three.
Meanwhile a new DVD costs $20 or even less depending on where you get it and when. And unlike that first release movie, you can watch it again and again for free.
For a more apples-to-apples comparison, minimalists argue that you should simply rent movies from Redbox or Netflix instead of buying them. Unlike a rental, you can watch a DVD you own at a moment’s notice. Last week, I popped in the Robin Williams movie, RV. It had come up in conversation a few days earlier and I was thinking about it. I can’t even guess where I could have rented a 5-year-old release these days.
There is a service called GameFly which is the Netflix of video games. The idea is that you rent games instead of buy them, return them when you are done and not worry about low buy-back prices. I see this as the more expensive option. Ever take so long to return a rented DVD that you could have bought it with the late fees? I once let a Netflix disk sit on my desk for two months. Oops.
Modern video games are long. I mean, really long. Dragon Age: Origins has over 100 hours of game play. When I played through it the first time, only had about 5 hours per week to devote to it. It took me nearly 5 months to complete. At rental prices, I would have spent more on the game then I did buying it.
Minimalism vs Food
My kitchen is packed with pots, pans, plates, bowls, cups, bakeware, glassware, stoneware, flatware, mixers, blenders, and choppers. There are very few kitchen tools that I want to own but don’t already. Mostly, I would really like more of stuff I already own. Especially the flatware; a 40 piece set doesn’t last very long in a house with 4 people!
In the motel room, I could make grilled cheese sandwiches. That was about it. In 13 days, we ate out 6 times. That is one of the reasons we were broke, because I couldn’t make actual meals.
What about minimalism in a real kitchen? Here’s the thing, there isn’t much in my kitchen that doesn’t get used pretty frequently. Do I really need 3 sauté pans? Probably not, but then it would take me 2 hours to make my Mexican Medley breakfast skillet meal. Less flatware or cups? Well what that really means is more washing dishes. As it is, I’m averaging about 4 loads every 3 days. If I had less stuff, I’m sure there would be days I was washing the same pan three times in a 24 hour period. I don’t think all that extra hot water, dish soap, and electricity when using the dishwasher is frugal.
Minimalism vs Tools
There are some people who don’t own any tools. When driving to Colorado, I met a woman with a flat tire and no jack. I actually crossed 4 lanes of interstate highway to help her. I’m glad I could help her because we were in the middle of no-where. It would have taken hours for someone she called to reach her.
I really don’t understand how people survive without tools. I certainly can’t live that way. I own three tool boxes with an assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers, hammers, and other gear. When something breaks, I probably have the tool to fix it. And now, thanks to the events of that motel stay, I have another set of some of the more common tools in the trunk of my car as well.
The car repair
About a week into our temporary homelessness, the EGR valve decided it wasn’t going to wait another week for me to have access to my tools and a garage. For those who are unaware, the EGR valve recirculates car exhaust into the engine to increase fuel efficiency. It operates via a vacuum hose to open and close the valve. If that valve doesn’t close when the engine speed drops to an idle, you are going to stall out. In 3 miles that day, I stalled out 12 times.
So, I replaced the EGR valve in the motel parking lot. Which required me to buy the tools so I could do it. And when I realized that I needed a socket extension after I had the thing half apart? I had to walk 3 miles to Walmart to get another one. I finished by street-light that night.
Because I didn’t have access to my tool kit, that car repair took me an extra 2 1/2 hours. Of course, I could have taken the car to the mechanic and paid $90 for labor.
One tool I don’t have is a ladder. I really do need to remedy that. I had to borrow a ladder to climb on top of the mobile home to retrieve the satellite dish. Then I had to rent one from Home Depot to get onto the higher roof of this place to install it. Renting a ladder was certainly a lot cheaper than paying DirecTV’s moving fees.
I’ll be borrowing the ladder again to mount the bike hook in the garage so my roommate can finally park his car inside. Eventually the smoke detector mounted at the peak of the vaulted ceiling in the living room is going to need a new battery. I really hope I have my own ladder by then, because if that sucker starts beeping at 3am, I’m not going to be able to find a ladder at that hour.
If renting a ladder costs $14 for 4 hours, and buying one costs $100, the purchase has paid for itself by the 8th time you use it. Meanwhile, constantly borrowing a ladder costs relationship capital. Every time I borrow it, I drain that capital a little more until I become the guy who is too cheap to buy his own stuff and constantly has to borrow yours.
Not having something is only cheaper until you need it.
The emotional cost of minimalism
Minimalists argue that you should pack stuff away and if you don’t get it out again within a month, you should get rid of it. Of course, this ignores problems like the fact that I don’t wear shorts in February or long-johns in August.
But ignoring seasonality, not everything that is important to me requires constant attention. When was the last time you flipped through your photo album. It was actually 2 months ago when I was packing, but before that, probably about a year. But I wouldn’t part with those photos. Likewise, I have shirts that I haven’t worn in years. But each one bears a significant memory. I have thought about getting rid of them from time to time, but I just can’t bring myself to it. Each time I pull out a shirt to put in the Good Will bag, I am transported back to college, high school, middle school and the emotional highs and lows I experienced wearing that shirt.
Should you be emotional about your processions?
I belong to a group called Under 30 Professionals. I’m not under 30 anymore, but I’m grandfathered in. 🙂 One of the founders, David Spinks, can usually be trusted to say some insightful things in the discussion. When the topic of minimalism came up, he had this to say:
Things are only bad for you if you feel an emotional connection to them or they take a big time commitment to maintain compared to their value to your life/happiness. If you can part with that stuff easily, then it’s not a huge deal.
This goes to the heart of my problem with minimalism. I disagree that things are bad for you if you feel an emotional connection to them. I would say that they are bad for you if you don’t. Of course, David lost most of his stuff to Hurricane Sandy last year, so he may be coming at it from the perspective of a forced minimalist.
But later in the discussion, other pro-minimalism comments echoed the idea that emotional attachment is antithetical to minimalism. It seems that the core of minimalism is having a zen-like disengagement from the material world. They believe that we shouldn’t have emotions for items, and anything with no emotional or practical purpose is unnecessary.
I guess that is where minimalists and I agree. Possessions with no purpose in your life have no purpose being in your life. I just disagree with the definition of “necessary.”
I believe that emotions are necessary. And I see nothing wrong to having feelings for certain items.
On the importance of memories
Martin, from Studenomics, likes to say YOLO, you only live once. That phrase means different things for different people, but to me it means you only have a finite amount of time on this Earth. Lifestyle designers and minimalists would say that you should eschew everything that limits you from forming a relentless march of new memories.
I want a quality over quantity for my memories. A few strong, life-altering memories are more important to me than a torrent of lesser experiences. Which is the prouder accomplishment, the greater memory, the person who has hiked a fourteener, or the person who has hiked so many that he can’t remember them all? I say the former. And to encourage the retention and strength of those memories, physical triggers are important.
I remember a comedian once talking about breakups. She commented that when you first break up, everything reminds you of that person. Go to the grocery store, “Lettuce! We used to eat lettuce!”
That is the strength of triggers.Shortly after an experience, anything and everything can be a trigger, but after years pass, only certain, poignant items will trigger a memory.
I used to have an image of a rubber chicken as my blog header. That rubber chicken is a totem representing all of my summers at boy scout camp. 17 years later, what would remind me in “300 days of sunshine” northern Colorado of the trip where it rained the entire week and I formed the “Order of the Webbed Foot” to raise the spirits of the younger scouts if not a little rubber bird? What would recall the week where we stole the emblem of the waterfront, a larger rubber chicken, every single night?
I say, hold onto and cherish your memories. And hold onto the stuff that triggers them.
How do you feel about minimalism? Do you think that minimalism can wind up costing you more money? Does having an emotional attachment to your processions a hindrance or worthwhile?