The Case Against Minimalism


Minimalism (Photo credit: Holtsman)

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.

Video Games

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.

The ladder

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?


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38 thoughts on “The Case Against Minimalism

  1. I think the idea of minimalism is at the extreme and opposite end of consumerism. For myself, I’ve always been a person that sways toward the middle, sometimes leaning towards one or the other depending on the situation, item, or time. For example, I write a lot of articles about little houses. I love the idea of them – and in some ways they’re minimalist. Yet, truthfully, I probably won’t end up living in a house under 1000 square feet. At the same time, I also don’t want to live in a McMansion – that to me is just too consumerist. And as for emotional attachment to things, I think most people would agree that at some point in their life they were attached to something. Like right now I love my bike. 😉

    • For now, my bike is just a tool, I’m not that attached to it and would replace it in an instant if somebody gave me one that was in better shape. There is a reason I call it the USS Spare Parts. 🙂

      I couldn’t see myself living in a McMansion either, but I wouldn’t mind a couple hundred square feet more in this space… or this space redesigned so there was less wasted space.

  2. Interesting take Edward. I would agree to a certain extent and think ultimately there’s a balance to be had. I am certainly not going to move into a smaller house so I can have less stuff and feel all nice and cozy. But, I am also not going to have more stuff because I have a bigger house. I understand that having less stuff means less repairs and money spent, etc but there’s only so far you can really go.
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  3. Count me in the anti-minimalist camp. I’m all about saving money and not buying useless crap, but I don’t feel that having as little as possible is going to make me happy. I see most minimalists as modern day ascetics. If this was the 13th century they would be Franciscan monks.

  4. I’m a minimalist in the sense I don’t buy new things, don’t like shopping and don’t have a lot of “stuff” (see useless things). I do have a blender, a bike, a few books….those things I do need and save me a lot of money. I think people should take necessary measures to save money and increase/maintain happiness. If minimalism doesn’t do it for you, find what will!
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  5. I use my own definition of minimalism. I have always said I live a low profile lifestyle. I used to own 2 seventeen year old cars, although I replace one of them with a new one. The other will be replaced within the year. I will retire in less than 5 years so I want them both paid off. I am what some would call a value buyer. I have to see value in my purchase to do it. My wife and I travel overseas every other year, although I use miles for the airfare. Since I already achieved financial freedom, I can live my life my way.
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    • Before I wrecked it, my Camry was 20 years old and had a few good years left on it yet. I think you hit the nail on the head with value. It is a subjective thing, and it is important to surround yourself with things that have value to you.

  6. I guess a true minimalist would live in a 400sqft home and the smaller rent/mortgage would make up for some of the extra costs. I enjoy having useful items at my disposal and more than a few in the case of clothes of dishes, but wouldn’t know what to do with 50 t-shirts, my balance is somewhere towards the minimal number of belongings that don’t make my life impractical.
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    • I was going to say that I don’t have 50 t-shirts, but it is entirely possible that I do. They fit into 4 categories: 1)Shirts I don’t wear anymore but keep for sentimental reasons. There are four. 2)Shirts that are seasonal, like displaying a sports team or a Christmas theme. Six of these. 3)T-shirts for day to day where. Usually a graphic tee with some sort of ironic message. Not sure how many I have, a dozen or so. 4)Shirts I wear for work. I get plenty sweaty and dirty and sometimes stained up, so nothing nice. Usually shirts that have gotten too raggedy to stay in category 3. I think around another dozen. So, in reality, I don’t have 40, just around 3 dozen.

  7. As others have said, finding a balance is what I do as well. I hate having stuff just for the sake of having it, so I try to minimize the “useless” stuff I have around. But I could never be the type that lives in a tiny apartment and rides a bike everywhere in the name of saving as much money as possible.

    • What is your opinion on decorations? The serve no functional and often no emotional purpose other than simply making the room look nicer.

  8. I would say I’m a minimalist, although the hard core live out of a suitcase people would probably disagree with me. I also don’t think that any of the situations you describe above have anything to do with minimalism.

    To me, minimalism is about having the things around you that are important to you, which in your case seem to be having entertainment on hand at a moment’s notice, cooking, and being able to fix stuff. If you felt ok waiting 2 days instead of 5 minutes, you could have gotten RV from Netflix and kept it for as long as you wanted.

    Me? I hate watching stuff over and over again (or even twice) so the appeal of a DVD collection is zilch. But I have probably 75 tubes of oil paint, and I’m betting you don’t have any of those.

    Minimalism isn’t a contest about who can have the least amount of stuff, or spend the least amount of money. It’s about being free from the burden of unwanted stuff that weighs you down.

    • You are right that I don’t have any paint, since I have almost no artistic ability, but I do own more than a few skeins of yarn.
      I wouldn’t call what you describe minimalism but rather deliberate consumption. You buy and use what is important to you and not what isn’t. What that doesn’t describe its how much stuff is important to you. For me, that is actually a lot of stuff

  9. A true thief……a man who spends money on things he does not need, steals from himself….

  10. I hate the fact of buying things just because you thing you’re supposed to have them. Those often are purchased with credit, and I would do whatever I could not not make that type of purchase anymore. That being said, I enjoy my big house and the stuff we decided to keep when we were having the great sell off. I also don’t know how anyone with children can be a minimalist. The amount of stuff they bring home from school every day can fill a box a week. I think we get use out of the things we have, even if we only use the cake plate once a year at Chirstmas, or the whole Christmas tree for that matter. I’d be sad without them.
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  11. These are some awesome points that I never considered about minimalism. I understand your desire for more in the kitchen. It is hardly the place to be and have less. That said, it doesn’t really make sense to have some of those gizmos seen on late night television, that a chefs knife could easily accomplish. Buying higher end, higher quality kitchen gear has paid dividends. When my friends are consistently breaking things and replacing them, I’m showing off the knife I bought ten years ago.
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  12. I never realized there were so many categories of savers/spenders. I know I am not a minimalist. I just want the best deal for anything I think I need.

    I definitely agree about the tools. Bottom line, anything you are able to do yourself and not hire someone for, the tool you purchase to accomplish it has paid for itself. And when you need it again for the next project, it is saving you more money. To that point, you should definitely buy a ladder though :).
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  13. Pingback: Beauty Minimalism….is it possible? | myprettyplace

  14. A good 6′ ladder should cost about $34. Just so you know. 🙂

    I don’t like having more than I need, but I don’t like having less than I need, either. I’ll NEVER be a minimalist. I have several hundred “things” in my toolbox alone. Because I use them.

    On the other hand, I have almost no clutter. There’s a challenge going around this year to throw out 1000 in 2013. There’s no way I could do that without impacting my family’s lifestyle negatively, costing us time, money, or aggravation.
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  15. I think that you completely misunderstand minimalism here. You’re picking on all the wrong targets. We don’t recommend that you get rid of all of your tools – in fact, tools are some of the main possessions that I own. Netflix and other online streaming services are much better than those pieces of plastic that are distributed everywhere.

    If you forgot to return rentals or want to play games for far too long then that’s your problem, although part of minimalism is often about cutting out exercises that we deem as unhealthy, like computer gaming. You don’t seem to be interested in reading books or articles or entertainment like that, and part of minimalism is cutting out over-stimulating activities to be able to focus on productive pursuits like reading and exercise.

    Similarly, it’s treating us like robots or greek philosophers to suggest that we’re trying to get away from attachment to any object. I still have my photo album too. I’ve just removed all the pointless photos from it, rather than keeing everything like most people.


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    • My point on the tools is that I have a lot of tools and a lot of different kinds of tools. Some are for fixing things, some are for cooking, some are for gardening, and some are for office work. Because, similar to your criticism of my treatment of minimalists, I am a very multi-dimensional person with quite a varied skillset and interests. And I do read quite a bit. I’m currently reading about 30 books per year, which works out to a new book every 12 days, on top of reading half a dozen or more blog posts each day and the Sunday paper cover to cover.

      As far as Netflix and other streaming services is that their selection doesn’t fit well with the titles that I actually want to watch.

  16. I have also noticed some minimalists tend to go too far and have to borrow almost everything because they gave up too much. I would rather be a practicalist. I also feel it is okay for a few items to have no other purpose then you enjoy it, I like art which goes on the wall and serves a purpose. It may not have dozens of items like that yet if I do I wish to keep them.

    I tend to like more practical items like tools or the like. Something breaks I want to fix it, same for cooking, need enough pans as I can’t eat out all that often. Computer cables, adapters etc.. all that type of stuff I like to have and does not take up much space.

    I remember seeing this one video where they took everything out of a kitchen drawer and said put stuff back when you use it and after a month you don’t need the rest. Going to disagree with that. I don’t use the meat thermometer each month nor the candy based one yet when I need it I need it. The same could be said for tools, I may not need that small wire stripper very often yet it is handy when I do.

    I like the idea of minimalism more then I would ever be able to adapt to. There are just items that are required in life. There are also items for when the power goes out, lawn tools, items for the car and so forth. I like to be ready for such things.

    I tend to find it out when these de-clutter people talk about items they also bring up something personal like a child’s artwork. Really? Out of all the junk they likely have they are worried about a small box of their child’s artwork? That would be one of the personal items to keep. Could even be in photo album format.

    Digital photo’s are great for new pictures (with backups!!!) and I have all photo albums backed up yet that does not mean I am going to get rid of my albums, I am sure someone out there has said that.

    Being practical works out best overall, at least for me.

    • I’ve always hated the “anything you haven’t used in a month, toss” argument. I have a lot of seasonal items, especially clothing. When it’s 90 outside, I don’t even want to think about wearing my thermal underwear and my winter coat, but I wouldn’t be caught dead working in January without them!

      • Very true. I will even go as far as saying the one a year rule does not apply to everything. Like my wire stripper example, it is small, in a tool box and takes up no room yet handy if I want it. I think that can apply to a few tools that one may not use often yet if you need or want it one can just grab it.

        The year rule for clothes is likely okay, going though all the seasons would let one know what they may want or use.

        Thought of another one, one people are really close to all their books, I doubt they use those every year yet the same idea applies, they are there if they want them.

        One of the biggest jokes are item counting to extremes as most people cheat with how they count and that just makes it seem like some contest or to brag about how few items they have. (While borrowing everything else)

  17. I would say that it’s an “as needed” philosophy.

    My kitchen, tool shed, and backpacking/camping/mountaineering gear are most definitely not minimalist. The key, as some of the “guru” types have said in reference to minimalism, is if said item adds value to your life.

    For me I love a well equipped kitchen, I like to have the tools and parts to fix things that get buggered, I always keep my previous phone around in case the new one dies so I won’t have to rush out and spend way too much buying a replacement. My outdoor gear, while minimal in its niche, adds up because we have very distinct seasons here and I need different equipment for the summer/winter/torrential downpour seasons.

    I also rip my CDs and DVDs so they’re easily accessed. Now I’m not sure if you’d call it minimalism, I do have the originals boxed up instead of disposing of them, but it’s definitely good for clutter busting. Games for the PC are bought from GOG so I don’t need discs. With the exception of Ultimate Editions, like my Dragon Age: Origins (EA rips you off on DLC) and Fallout games + Skyrim (Bethesda doesn’t do digital releases on console), my PlayStation games came from PSN and sit invisibly on the 1TB HDD in the console.

    Memories are a different matter. I find that, for me, they’re attached to things that can be digitized so I always have a copy handy. Still, even with those, I keep hard copies boxed away with my music and movies. I’ve seen way too much apocalyptic Sci-Fi to trust irreplaceable things to electronic mediums alone.

  18. There are varying degrees of minimalism. I look at it more like minimalism vs. a simplified life. With a simplified life you aren’t shedding everything for the sake of just getting to the bare bones of existence. You are only keeping the thing that are absolutely necessary for a happy, simple life.

    Wanna keep your video games? Go ahead, but if there’s one title you haven’t played in a while, get rid of it. The reduced clutter is liberating!

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