Needing money to be a minimalist may sound like a false dichotomy. The entire minimalist movement is based around making smart consumption choices – buying things that last and using them to their fullest. While making smart choices can be done regardless of your income, there are parts of living in a minimalist house that have a degree of privilege to them.
To me there are (at least) two things at play here:
- The minimalist aesthetic
- Having what you need
An example of the minimalist aesthetic is the beautiful picture you see above. The white, clean, functional spaces that welcome creativity and invite you in to use them have become the default (no really, do a search for minimalist and it’s what shows up). This can look like what you want, but Scandinavian design has taken over as the face of minimalism.
The other aspect is having only what you need, and removing the rest. This is the more core idea that most people – minimalist or not – would like to strive for. There are very few people who want to intentionally fill their lives with things they don’t need. This is exactly what most people do (something I’m guilty of as well). This is a learned behavior from a very early age.
The “Ideal” Minimalist House
We’ve all seen it. Clean white lines, inviting spaces, lots of green plants that are thriving. While your minimalist house can look however you want, this look has overtaken Pinterest and spread to Black Mirror episodes. I honestly love the look, even if my personal space is quite a bit different – partially because we’ve been having trouble keeping our plants alive since the move from Orlando to Salt Lake City.
For me, this look is more of an aspirational feel. What I want isn’t the look of these houses, it’s the productivity of them. I want to earn back time that I can spend however I want. These stunning photos offer a glimpse into a world without our problems, filled with opportunity. Chances are this is far different from your upbringing.
Growing Up With Stuff
After my parents divorced, I lived part-time with both of them from 3rd grade on. My mom and dad had very different relationships with stuff.
My dad would scour garage sales, find the best deals and (very occasionally) buy something to bring home. Our modest sized house was filled with things that were used. Even though the garage was packed, it was packed with yard tools, camping supplies, and holiday decorations. Two marble-top coffee tables he picked up at a garage sale one day stood the test of time and one of them made it all the way out here to Salt Lake City.
My room at my dad’s house was minimalist and I loved it. I had a futon on the floor, this marble-top coffee table, a dresser, a desk and that was it. Much of the room was empty (unless you count it as a basketball court for my foam hoop).
My mom had a more complex relationship with stuff. Our house was big. It was a 5 bedroom, 2 bath 1920s house with a 2 car garage and a 2-bedroom apartment on top of it. For most of my youth, every room was somehow filled with things. The garage was bursting at the seems and we very rarely threw things out.
It didn’t help that my grandma also had a similar relationship with stuff. When she passed away (when I was in college), my mom inherited another lifetime of things on top of an otherwise full house. Just as my moms passing was the trigger for my minimalist tendencies, her mom passing triggered her to downsize. In the years that followed, many rooms were cleared out the house started feeling airier every time I went home.
I’ll Use It Someday vs I’ll Use It Now
The big difference between the way my parents behaved was the mindset difference between “I’ll use it someday” and “I’ll use it now”. When my dad picked up something at a garage sale, it was immediately put to use when we got home.
For my mom, things would be stored for use when they were needed. If there was an opportunity to get something at a deal (or free) that we might use someday she seized it. For much of my childhood, she had no income coming in (other than alimony) and was in law school – a seriously expensive combination. Because of this, she had no choice but to stretch every dollar that came in, and taking advantage of anything free was one way to do that.
If you’re fortunate enough to reach the point where money isn’t a primary limiting factor in your life, this is a tough pattern to break out of. For years I would follow the same pattern. I looked at things and asked: “Is there a chance I might use this someday?” For nearly everything, the answer is yes – there was an initial thought that mirrored that as well.
Jack The Dreamer mentioned this difference between scarcity mindset and abundance mindset. In a scarcity mindset, you’ll more likely take whatever you can now – justified or not. The trouble I’ve personally gotten into is being in a scarcity mindset when there is absolutely no need to be.
Doing a Cable Audit
Going through our house recently when we moved, there was no shortage of things that we ended up never using. One example was cables. Somehow I decided to never through away electronics cables for the last 20 years. This was handy because whenever I needed anything I always had it. Oh, I need an HDMI cable? Great! I have 20! Need a USB cable? Pick a flavor: mini, micro, C, 2, 3, 3b, 3-micro. What are these power adapters to? I have no idea, but maybe I have the device for them somewhere. I wouldn’t want to throw them out and not be able to use the associated device, right?
I decided it was time for a cable audit. I organized every cable into piles of like connectors. Mrs. Minafi navigated around my chaos as our entire downstairs started to look like a scene out of Captain EO. Next, I started bagging up cables with their associated devices (if one existed) in large ziplock bags and labeled them with the contents. This made it drastically easier to pile these items into a box for the move, and now that we’re here I like the easy organization.
For instance, rather than having a loose Amazon Echo dot with a cable, I would put them both in a small bag to group them together. Repeat for every hard drive, USB hub, Nest Cam, external drive or anything else.
After the first round was complete, I still had a bunch of cables. USB cables that came with monitors that broke long ago. Audio/video cables for entertainment setups I’d long upgraded. Power adapters for computer that I stopped using a decade before.
I had a huge case of asking myself the wrong question. Asking “Does this spark joy?” won’t work, just as “Might I use this someday?” won’t either.
For these “just in case” items, The Minimalists recommend asking a different question:
Can I buy this within 20 minutes for $20?
For my cable clutter, this dramatically helped ease a difficult decision. I still tried to find which cables I would immediately need when we moved and put those aside, but for the bulk of cables I wasn’t so sure about I knew I could get rid of them and find replacements if the time came.
Just a note: Mrs. Minafi did a pass at these as well, grabbing all cables she wanted too.
Buy It For Life
Take buy it for life as an example. A construction worker needs boots for his job. He can buy a cheap pair at Walmart for $20 that need replacing every few months that will do the job. With many other responsibilities in life – family, car, house, debt – spending $20 doesn’t completely throw off his budget, so he decides to buy new ones when his break down. He knows he could spend $200 and buy a pair of metal soled boots that will last years if not decades, but saving up $200 on a pair of boots is unrealistic.
I’m not buying boots, but the same is true for anything I do buy.
When looking for new pots and pans recently, we’ve scoured research and learned what will last, rather than picking up a cheap set at Big Lots. The price will no doubt be far higher.
When we needed kitchen knives, we scoured the price/cost of dozens of pieces before buying the exact knives we needed (which were all Victorinox if you’re curious).
When shopping for a car, rather than looking for anything that’ll get me from place to place, I’m dutifully looking at cars with the lowest maintenance cost as a starting point.
When buying clothes (which I do rarely enough), I steer clear of fast fashion which will break down in a few washes and pick garments that will last years.
All of these aren’t because I’m a minimalist, they’re because I have the time to do the research and the funds to make these choices. If I had less money to invest in these decisions, needed a car tomorrow to get to work, or if my family needed dinner cooked tomorrow, my choices would be wildly different.
There’s another side to BIFL – maintenance. Having the luxury of time (and money) allows for keeping these items running much longer as well.
Making Enough Money to Be A Minimalist
For both these examples, frugality wasn’t the key factor. Buy it for life, and 20-minutes-$20 both involve spending more money to buy something. There is no shortage of times when spending money can lead to feeling more “minimalist”.
- Finding a smaller apartment/house that’s in a more walkable neighborhood so you don’t need a car.
- Eating out so you don’t need to have a fully stocked pantry or refrigerator.
- Buying Kindle or Audible versions of books for convenience that could be picked up at a library or used bookstore.
- Buying furniture or decorations that fit with your aesthetic rather than whatever you find on Craigslist.
All of these involve spending more money to own fewer things.
Can you think of other examples where you spend more money to own less?