The Privilege Of Minimalism

This month I, along with friends, have culled through excess belongings and started the process of decluttering. Having watched the new documentary from The Minimalists: Less Is Now, we all embarked on the game during January. Some of us want to continue through February, and I say, “Go for it.” I do this kind of thing regularly, so I’ve got a couple of stops to make before I’m in a place where I feel free of the clutter:

  • Another round through my son’s bedroom
  • Another trip through my closet
  • The ever-present crap in the garage

And while I know this was a needed task, something was nagging at me from day one.

I’ll dive right in and ask: Is Minimalism classist? Right now, the buzzword is privileged – rightly so – and it struck me, during a conversation at work (I serve on the DE&I Council), that one of the ways my privilege as an educated white female manifests is in the choices I have. I don’t have to keep that coffee cup because I can simply go buy another one if the one I did keep breaks. I can get rid of those clothes that don’t fit or are outdated because I have the money to buy a dress should I need one.

Stephanie Ladd, a writer, and social justice advocate writes about the documentary on her blog. 

In one scene, Joshua Fields Millburn reads a poem he wrote, talking about the things he needed to buy when he moved. He listed off things that I would never have dreamed of affording. Things that seemed ridiculous, as a poor person, to even consider purchasing. I’d never stepped foot into an IKEA. I’d never known rugs for decoration. Rugs were to keep feet warm if I was lucky enough to find someone who could give me one they no longer used. But there he stood, complaining about the ability, the privilege, to buy these things.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re confused by my sudden turn on minimalism. Rest assured, my life is less about minimalism and more about simplicity. I get that I’m not always frugal, and I spend money on completely unnecessary things. But these things (my Freshly subscription, my express delivery membership on Instacart, my access to Amazon Prime two day shipping) are not about frugality – they are about freeing up something more valuable to me than money: Time.

Wow. As I re-read that last sentence I’m ashamed. What a fucking elitist thing to say. Right? I’m not proud of this revelation. I am, however, more cognisant of it.

I know. I’m struggling with this because there was a time – not so long ago – that I was on food stamps. Here I sat with two graduate degrees in a situation where I couldn’t find a job in my hometown that paid a living wage. There were just more candidates than positions available. When I finally landed a full-time job with a local non-profit, it was still less than half what I was making when I moved from Michigan. I was grateful for the job I had, but I also needed a second job to make ends meet. I had separated from my husband and was juggling childcare expenses and basic needs while he decided when, and if, he’d provide any support. To say I was living paycheck to paycheck was generous. I was usually behind on some bill. It was a tough time mentally and emotionally for me. I was a single mom with most of the responsibility (my ex sees his son four days a month), and while I would not trade that for anything, the stress was overwhelming.

I say this because, yes, I agree with Ladd. Minimalism is classist. Consumerism preys on the poor (in spirit and in the pocketbook sense), and while none of my friends are hoarders by any stretch, I think we could all agree that we buy shit we don’t need, but want, all the time. And I’m not sure that’s bad – I buy things I want, too – I just wonder if it could be considerably different.¬†

I think it can be considerably different. And I want to share my thoughts on this:

1) Buy stuff you want. Seriously. I just ask you to consider this: How much is enough? I have petty discussions with my guy all the time because he takes in pyrex dishes like an old lady takes in stray cats. I simply do not understand it (because I don’t like to cook), and I don’t have to understand it. I have an affinity for glass storage containers and colored pencils. What can I say? But, I am more mindful of this now since January is coming to a close, and I plan to make better choices. For example, my employer loves their brand (and I do, too!), but there are just so many ‘free t-shirts’ I want the responsibility of washing. I have declined ‘swag’ before, and I have the choice to do it again.

2) Consider the ‘energy-exchange’ ratio for items you want. Every purchase you make – whether on Fakebook Marketplace, thrift stores, or brand-spankin’ new from Amazon equates to TIME. When you see that new television with all the bells and whistles, do the math. How many hours of your life will you have to work to pay for that tv? I did this recently and decided that energy was better spent taking a much-needed vacation. In fact, the television costs more than the lodging for the week. And I hardly ever watch tv, so why do I need a bigger one? I don’t. No one ever needs a bigger television, in my opinion.

3) Ask yourself how your money can be better invested. What else can I afford if I don’t buy that thing? Turns out when you stop spending money on stuff that will eventually end up at Goodwill or in an estate sale you have money to support a local school, provide food for those facing food insecurity, taking a short vacation, learning a new skill, or building an emergency fund. I’m not telling you to stop your latte habit. No one ever stops their latte habit. I’m asking you to stop your mindless spending. There’s a difference.

So, essentially, I agree with Ladd. Minimalism is elitist. The movement assumes people have choices. And yet, I support it. I support it because I want quality over quantity. I want to help my neighbors. I want to support my kid’s school. I want to spend my weekends blogging and figuring out Jake and Delany’s fate as my novel unfolds instead of organizing and cleaning. I want to take vacations that include sun and sand with my child instead of planting my ass on a sofa in front of a 60-inch smart tv. I’m a contradiction – I get it. I never claimed to have all the answers.

I guess, in closing, I never really considered (sadly, until I was throwing food away) I support a movement that may be a tad bit snooty. I promise you…people on food stamps don’t throw food away. I know because I was one of them. My brief three-month dive into the world of public assistance was enough for me to understand the lack of choices many face in our country. I don’t want to embrace minimalism to save money for a higher quality rug for my floor. I want to embrace minimalism to build my emergency fund without having to get a second job to do so and to help my community when I feel led to do it.

I wish I had the answers. I don’t. All I can do is live by example. I am not responsible for how many pyrex dishes someone owns or the collection of craft supplies owned by another. I am only accountable for myself and the choices I make. And I make bad choices sometimes, as does everyone. Whisky, anyone?

So – what do you think? If you accepted my challenge back on January 1st, did you learn anything along the journey? As you were discarding stuff without lids and expired OTC medicines and paperwork and broken toys and…and…and…(fill in the blanks)…did you ask yourself why you had been holding on to all of this? I did, and I realized my brief stint in poverty was enough to get me there. It wasn’t pretty to come to this conclusion, but I arrived. And I’m better for it.

As always, here’s your song. I’m a huge fan of Jason Isbell and this is one of many I listen to over and over again. Have a great week, dear reader, and consider yourself hugged.