Over the last four years, my wife and I have drastically reduced our consumption and material possessions. We weren’t trying to move towards some goal of a better life; it was more of an escape from a consumer lifestyle that we didn’t find fulfilling. I’ve recently been exploring the philosophy of minimalism and trying to contrast it with other related ideas like voluntary simplicity, simple living and frugality. This article is covers what I think is good and bad about those labels as well as how and why I’ve become a minimalist over the last four or five years.
Why I Don’t Like the Term ‘Minimalism’.
Although, I’m definitely not a big fan of labels, questions like “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?” are often easier to explain with the right terminology. I call myself a ‘digital nomad,’ and sometimes even, ‘location independent’ because those are probably the most efficient terms to describe my lifestyle.
Call yourself a ‘traveller’ and the inevitable question that gets asked is “How many countries have you been to?” Travel to me is not a contest of who has the most stamps in their passports or who has had the most authentic travel experiences. I actually hate travel, but I love living abroad. Again, it can be hard to explain.
The word ‘minimalism’ often conjures up that same level of adolescent competition. The contest becomes how little stuff you own. Or whether or not you can get all your belongings into a carry-on bag on an airplane. Those ideas of minimalism don’t really impress me.
Many of the ‘minimalists’ I’ve encountered on my travels seem to be young single males on their first trip abroad. It pretty easy to minimize the possessions you own when you don’t have much money and are backpacking in foreign countries. I suspect most of these ‘rebels’, will get back into full consumption mode once they run out of money and are forced to return home and get regular jobs. They’re not minimalists, they’re gap year travellers.
Initial Experiments in Minimalism
In many ways, that is my story as well. When I first moved to Japan some 17 odd years ago, all my important possessions had to be carried with me on a plane. I brought a bicycle and a guitar, so I wasn’t exactly travelling light, but it did force me to abandon the vast majority of my belongings.
For my first couple of years in Japan, I rented rooms in shared apartments or had my own tiny one room flat. It was pointless, if not impossible, to collect any physical possessions.
I wasn’t a minimalist, I was a traveller. If I had the money and the space, I certainly would have bought more. I lived very simply out of necessity, not choice. That’s a very important distinction.
Falling off the Minimalist Wagon
Even after I had gotten married and my wife and I opened our English school, we still lived very frugally. We didn’t purchase luxuries like a TV for a couple of years and had very inexpensive furniture and appliances. We lived a very minimalistic lifestyle, but we were still not minimalists.
Our business grew very quickly. We worked hard, expanded locations and were able to earn a very comfortable income. We worked 60 plus hours per week so we didn’t have time to spend much money. For several years, we were saving as much as 80% of our income.
Life was good. We were saving money and enjoyed the challenge of growing a business. It was fun and hugely rewarding when everything was uncertain, new and challenging, but after the business became more established, work became more tedious and boring.
This is when we started really spending money. We thought the malaise in our lives could be fixed by consumption. Instead of cooking simple meals at home, we ate out once or twice a day. Instead of the occasional beer, we started drinking nicer wines and expensive whiskey every day. We bought everything we wanted; new stereos, computers, TVs, appliances, cars and then a house.
It didn’t take long until our weekends were spent on trips to Costco to fill up our new freezer or to home centers to buy stuff we always seem to need for the house and yard.
If never ended. No matter how much we bought, there was always something newer, better or cooler that we wanted.
It was fun to buy new stuff. Taking a new computer out of the box, getting a new gadget for the kitchen, or buying a new planter for the yard all felt exciting, at least for a little while. Then the novelty wore off and we discovered that we needed to buy something else to get that excitement back.
This continued for several years. The lack of challenge and dissatisfaction with our business didn’t go away with new consumption. It felt good to buy new shiny objects, but that feeling never lasted. In fact, the opposite was true. A bigger house, more stuff and a new car only created more work, expenses and worries.
There was more to clean, more to maintain, more to repair, more to replace. Too much of our free time was spent on household chores and shopping.
After years of talking about doing something different with our lives, we finally had enough and we made the one year plan to change countries and careers.
Becoming True Minimalists
The decision to sell our business, house, car and get rid of the rest of our stuff was our first true step towards minimalism. This time it was a conscious choice to get rid of possessions and curtail consumption to live a much simpler life.
Our lifestyle was drastically altered after we made the one year decision to leave Japan back in early 2009. With a definitive goal set, we managed to drastically cut back on frivolous expenditures in all areas in our life. Almost everything was frivolous at that point.
It wasn’t until we’d left Japan and were travelling with a bare minimum of possessions that we fully realized how constraining and destructive our old lifestyle was. We were physically out of shape because we drove everywhere. We drank much too much alcohol and ate unhealthy, rich foods. We watched too much TV and therefore spent less time reading or on our hobbies.
The biggest surprise came from the realization of how much of time was spent thinking about stuff. So much cognitive energy is required to always be acquiring, maintaining or protecting possessions. I never anticipated how valuable and liberating this extra time and mental energy would be to the quality of my life.
I don’t think that minimalism is focused on curtailing consumption, that is a byproduct. The real goal is to maximize what matters most in life.
Maybe I’m a maximalist, because my goal is to maximize my personal health, time spent with people I care about, my contribution to the world and my own growth as an individual.
Our New Life
My wife and I have very different lives now. All of our time is spent on projects or interests of our own choosing. We don’t have deadlines or schedules to maintain. We exercise regularly and spend hours cooking homemade meals every day. We no longer own a car, so we walk or cycle much more often. Most importantly, we rarely go shopping. Other than food, there is nothing we really need.
We still buy things like clothing and we’ve been thinking of getting our first DSLR camera, but we’ve become more conscious of how we spend money.
I’d love to get a new MacBook Air laptop computer, but my current computer still works great, despite the fact that it is more than four years old. I try to justify the newer computer because it’s faster and lighter. I tell myself that I would get more work done or it would be lighter to carry, but deep down I know I don’t really need it. Some day I will get it, but I’m definitely don’t need it now. I’ve learned that I want many things, but there is nothing I need.
The Dark Side of Minimalism
I’m very reluctant to follow new trends and fads or create labels for myself or others. It’s dangerous to narrowly pigeon-hole our thinking or to stereotype others. I still have some hesitation with the ‘minimalist’ label because I don’t want to be associated with destructive implementations of the philosophy.
I’ve found far too many people justify the purchase of the latest, greatest gadgets, backpacks or other products on the basis that they don’t have many possessions, so they want the best of each. Getting rid of perfectly functioning goods, in order to purchase newer, better or multi-use products may help reduce the number of possessions owned, but it is still leads to more consumption and waste.
That doesn’t work for my definition of minimalism. There are massive environmental costs with everything we purchase. There are many things that I want and can afford, but choose not to buy or at least delay, to minimize my environmental footprint.
The second problem is that many minimalists seem to advocate getting rid of stuff because you can always buy new if the need arises. Again, this advocates more needless consumption and waste. While I understand the point of getting rid of clutter to simplify, discarding perfectly good belongings that you may need in the future, is wasteful and a luxury of the affluent.
There is one more issue, related to the first point, many companies and even individual bloggers, advocate the consumption of products and even online courses or ebooks as an investment in the future. The message is that it’s okay to consume if it makes us more productive. Well, I don’t disagree with that completely, I do find this to be a convenient excuse for people to buy stuff they don’t really need.
For example, there is little reason to upgrade to the latest smart phones or computers every year or two. I once read that for every pound of laptop produced, there is more than 1000 pounds of waste created. There is also the issue of the blood or conflict minerals that are used to produce the goods we covet so much.
As consumers, we can vote with our dollars and choose to purchase less or completely avoid products that are not up to our standards. In fact, as citizens of the wealthiest, most polluting countries in the world, it is our duty to make more responsible consumption decisions.
Despite these objections, I still consider myself a minimalist. I just think it’s important to deeply contemplate why we act the way we do, rather than blindly following the latest trendy buzzwords.
What is Minimalism?
While there is a broad range of terminology to describe different elements of simple living, and even more interpretations and implementations of those philosophies, I think it’s helpful to cover some of the common definitions.
Decluttering seems to be more focused on getting rid of excess stuff and often creating or buying systems to better organize your belongings. Getting rid of stuff or becoming more organized may be a component of minimalism but it’s not the primary purpose.
Personally, I don’t have any interest or need for closet organizing equipment or stackable storage containers. Buying more stuff to help organize our stuff seems to defeat the purpose. Minimalism to me is more a life philosophy focused on making deliberate choices to purchase and consume much less in the first place. The reasons why we avoid consumption and make conscious choices to rid our lives of unnecessary goods and activities is more important than the act of decluttering.
I think simple living is perhaps the most common sense definition. Modern life has become incredibly complex, so simplification is a very effective remedy for the overwhelm.
Henry David Thoreau’s Walden; Or Life in the Woods is undoubtedly the most famous story of simple living and self-sufficiency. The book is a detailed account of Thoreau’s two plus years spent in a small cabin that he built himself. Self-sufficiency was a large component of his philosophy.
A simple lifestyle is perhaps what I value most about my location independence. I no longer have a big house to clean and maintain. I don’t have a car to wash, or take to a mechanic. I don’t have to buy nice clothes to go to work in an office. I would say that 75% of the expenses, hassles and stress of my life have been completely eliminated.
I even recently gave up my telephone. Paying $50 plus per month for a smart phone seems such a waste. I spend so much of my time in front of a computer as it is, that I don’t need to check in with a portable device everywhere I go. When I meet people, I want to give them my full attention, not check updates on what else is happening online.
Simple living becomes particularly evident when travelling to countries in the developing world. People seem happier, healthier and more connected to their communities when they own fewer material possessions. It’s great to see people out on the streets talking to friends and family for hours. That doesn’t happen much in the west any longer. Possessions form a barrier with neighbours and our communities.
Spending less money is undoubtedly a benefit of a minimalist lifestyle, but being frugal doesn’t necessarily make you a minimalist.
When I was in university, I was very frugal, mostly because I didn’t have much money. However, it certainly wasn’t my objective. If I had the money I would have purchased more things. In fact, I spent more money than I could afford as it was.
This is not meant to glorify poverty in anyway either. The inability to afford food, water, education, or other necessities like health care, is definitely not minimalism. Material goods and a certain degree of wealth are essential to our health and well-being. The problem is that in many societies, we have gone too far. We over-consume, over-eat and over-work to the detriment of what we value most.
Voluntarily choosing a simple life is becoming a larger movement in materialistic countries. The end goal is a simpler life focused on priorities like good health and time for family and community activities.
The distinction with ‘simple living’ above, is that many people have realized that our modern societies have gone too far and they want to reign in that complexity. This is important, because the poorest half of the planet live simple lives because that’s all they know or have opportunities for. We in the developed world have choices.
The scary fact is that in Hollywood movies, TV programs and advertising, western consumer culture is too often portrayed as the ideal that all countries should strive for. I think we have a lot more to learn from lessor developed countries, than we have to teach.
Our economies are very effective in getting mass amounts of goods and food from around the world to stores and in our homes. When the system works, it’s incredibly efficient. The problem is that our global economies have become so complex that it would be extremely difficult if not impossible for any of us to function if there were any major disruption.
How many of us could grow our own food or have access to clean water supplies if our cities were shut down due to a natural or man-made disaster? Our everyday lives are so divorced from basic survival skills that most people would have no idea how to cope. How long could you survive without supermarkets, electricity and access to clean water?
A future without adequate food and water is not just some science fiction fantasy. In rich countries, we still have abundant access to food, water and material goods, however, there are major shortages in other parts of the planet. Population growth, industrial waste, factory farming, desertification, declining insect populations, depletion of wild fish stocks and a whole host of other problems don’t bode well for our future food supplies. Natural, healthy food is going to get a lot more expensive.
My 93 year-old grandmother still plants a large garden every year, just as she as done her whole life. It eating nutrient rich, pesticide free food is important, I suspect more of us will need to become more self-sufficient.
Closely related to the idea of self-sufficiency is the movement to source organic food locally. I find it somewhat disappointing that the word ‘organic’ even exists. My grandmother certainly doesn’t understand the concept.
All of her vegetables are grown naturally without pesticides and hand watered with rain water she collects. I think it’s a sad reflection on modern society that we have to coin a word to describe real food free of pesticides, chemicals, antibiotics and growth hormones.
We make farmers prove they are organic with cumbersome paperwork and procedures, while the flavourless, nutrient less, pesticide laden produce, often shipped thousands of miles, is the new normal.
Factory farms should be forced to detail the hormones, antibiotics and chemicals regularly used in the production of our food. We should know exactly how far it’s been shipped. We should be told what the conditions on the farm are like. Why is real food forced to bear the burden of proof?
I’m only talking about supermarket food here. Consider the economic and social devastation the fast food, junk food and soft drink industries have wrecked on the world. Diabetes, tooth decay, heart diseases and all the related maladies are costing the planet billions, maybe trillions of dollars in increased health care costs and reduced quality of life around the globe.
It’s not just that that fast food is unhealthy; it’s the perversity of the entire system. It’s the corruption of politics through corporate lobbyists. Advertising, largely directed at children, makes fast food fun and glamorous. It’s a system that subsidizes and promotes the use of unhealthy corn syrup derivatives in the production of all our food. Animals are fed unnatural and unhealthy feeds requiring the heavy use of antibiotics. We are just beginning to see the long term consequences of our corporate food supply.
It’s led to the destruction of old growth forests, the polluting of fresh and ocean water, the elimination of virtually all independent family owned farms, the abuse of migrant workers, the environmental costs of shipping goods vast distances, the extinction of wild animals and fish populations.
We have gotten hyper-efficient in a race to the bottom. Make no mistake, this is a race we are likely to win, whether we like what we see at the finish line or not.
If minimalism is about maximizing our health and well-being, then food production has to be a prime consideration.
According to Wikipedia, “Minimalism is any design or style in which the simplest and fewest elements are used to create the maximum effect.” While this definition is meant for art and architecture, I think it also works well for the lifestyle use of the word. I’m sure that most would agree that the goal of life is to maximize happiness or well-being, as opposed to personal assets, or other accomplishments.
I’ve generally described my lifestyle as ‘voluntary simplicity’ because my wife and I have deliberately chosen to live this way, however, I’m starting to see that ‘minimalism’ might be a better term.
My favourite art and architecture are the modern styles of the 50s and 60s, which are heavily influenced by minimalism. In our house in Japan, we had virtually no pictures, decorations or other superfluous decorations. It was very simple, clean and modern.
Minimalism to me, encompasses elements of modernity more so than that of simple living. I don’t want to live in a cabin in the woods without electricity and running water. While I can see the value in that level of self-sufficiency, I still get great pleasure and purpose from my access to the Internet and technology. I don’t need much, but I do highly value my connections to the world.
My interpretation of minimalism is:
Minimalism is the philosophy of removing non-essential possessions and activities from our lives to focus on what is most important. The goal is to maximize health, relationships, contribution and personal development for ourselves and others in a way that is sustainable and enriching for the planet.
Minimalism Explained on ExileLifestyle.com
Colin Wright is one of the first people I connected with as I began my journey to location independence and minimalism. In the article, Colin provides this definition,
What Minimalism is really all about is reassessment of your priorities so that you can strip away the excess stuff – the possessions and ideas and relationships and activities – that don’t bring value to your life.
What is Minimalism by TheMinimalists
In the last couple of years, TheMinimalists.com, by Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, has become the preeminent minimalist resource.
Here is their definition of minimalism,
Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.
Minimalist FAQs on Mnmlist.com
Leo Babauta of ZenHabits.net, one of the most popular bloggers online, also runs mnmlist.com. In this article, Leo answers some frequently asked questions.
Q: Why be a minimalist?
A: It’s a way to escape the excesses of the world around us — the excesses of consumerism, material possessions, clutter, having too much to do, too much debt, too many distractions, too much noise. But too little meaning. Minimalism is a way of eschewing the non-essential in order to focus on what’s truly important, what gives our lives meaning, what gives us joy and value.
10 Reasons Minimalism May Be Right For You on BecomingMinimalist.com
Joshua Becker of BecomingMinimalist.com also runs a hugely popular minimalist focused blog. Here is his definition of minimalism,
Minimalism as a lifestyle is a movement that seeks to pare down possessions to only the essential. Because life can be lived richer and fuller when unnecessary possessions have been removed, it is a growing trend that includes more than just young, single, 20-somethings. Many families are embracing the lifestyle as well.
Choosing Minimalism on MinimalistWoman.com
Meg Wolfe has a great article about the diversity and common misunderstandings of minimalist lifestyles.
I was struck by the number of people who did not understand the most fundamental element of minimalism: it’s a choice. Minimalists choose minimal consumption, possession, footprint, waste, and stress. Their motivations include ethics, green living, finances, pessimism, optimism, aesthetics, being married to a minimalist, boredom, creativity, disgust at consumer gluttony and waste, or any combination of these.
Some Thoughts About Voluntary Simplicity on ChoosingVoluntarySimplicity.com
Some people think that voluntary simplicity means frugality, but voluntary simplicity and frugality are actually two different things. Although frugality is an important part of voluntary simplicity, frugality is a tool that makes the simpler lifestyle possible… not the goal. Voluntary simplicity does not mean you have to live in poverty or practice a lifestyle of self-denial. It means quite the opposite, in fact, because once you develop the habit of being frugal where it really counts, you will be able to enjoy a happier and more meaningful lifestyle, with more discretionary money and time, plus the freedom of being able to decide what to do with both.
What is Voluntary Simplicity? on SimplicityCollective.com
Travelling has exposed me to some of the extreme poverty and social injustices in the world. These experiences have had a profound influence on my life. Therefore, I feel that minimalism should also incorporate a morality component. How can we consume to such excess when billions don’t have access to such basic human rights as clean water and adequate food?
This definition on SimplicityCollective.com incorporates some of those ethical considerations.
Voluntary simplicity, or simple living, is a way of life that rejects the high-consumption, materialistic lifestyles of consumer cultures and affirms what is often just called ‘the simple life’ or ‘downshifting.’The rejection of consumerism arises from the recognition that ordinary Western-style consumption habits are degrading the planet; that lives of high consumption are unethical in a world of great human need; and that the meaning of life does not and cannot consist in the consumption or accumulation of material things. Extravagance and acquisitiveness are accordingly considered an unfortunate waste of life, certainly not deserving of the social status and admiration they seem to attract today. The affirmation of simplicity arises from the recognition that very little is needed to live well – that abundance is a state of mind, not a quantity of consumer products or attainable through them.
4 Misconceptions About the Simple Life by Duane Elgin on HuffingtonPost.com
It is important to recognize inaccurate stereotypes about the simple life because they make it seem impractical and ill suited for responding to increasingly critical breakdowns in world systems. Four misconceptions about the simple life are so common they deserve special attention. These are equating simplicity with: poverty, moving back to the land, living without beauty and economic stagnation.
Not Really Simple on InCharacter.org
Here is a good critique of the simplicity movement. Charlotte Allen writes about how simple living has become more of a consumer trend for the affluent.
Simplicity movement people always seem to shell out more money than the not-so-simple, usually because the simple things they love always seem to cost more than the mass-produced versions. On a website called Passionate Homemaking that’s dedicated to making, among other things, your own cheese, your own beeswax candles, and your own underarm deodorant, you are also advised to cook with nothing but raw cultured butter from a mail-order outfit called Organic Pastures. The butter probably tastes great. It also costs $10.75 a pound – plus UPS shipping. At farmer’s markets, where those striving for simplicity like to browse with their cloth shopping bags, the organic, the locally grown, and the humanely raised come at a price: tomatoes at $4 a pound, bread at $8 a loaf, and $6 for a cup of “artisanal” gelato.