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What Minimalism Is and What Minimalism Is Not

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

What is minimalism?

I’ve been asked recently if minimalism is the same as frugality. Frugality is the quality of being careful with spending—being a conservative consumer. “You’re saying I’m cheap?!” No, I'm not, but I will set the record straight: Minimalism is not frugality. It isn’t about simplifying life due to financial necessity or in order to curb our excessive spending. Many minimalists do exercise frugality by choice or necessity. Our family is frugal, and I personally think more people really need to exercise some frugality. But frugality isn’t the same as minimalism.

I’ve also heard some say that minimalism is a lifestyle that is only possible for the wealthy or at least the financially “comfortable”. Minimalism is not just for the rich. It isn’t just for those who have more than enough—those who can easily dispose of all their excess and keep a handful of very nice things.

A person does not become a minimalist by... owning a limited number of items, or by practicing minimalism for a certain number of years, or by starting to refer to himself or herself as a minimalist!

A person does become a minimalist... the moment they begin to take action, as little as it might be, to align their life with their values.

And a person remains a minimalist when they keep coming back to those values, keep reassessing those values, and continue making intentional adjustments in the midst of life’s changing circumstances in order to live a more complete, more purposeful, more fruitful life.

Minimalism doesn’t, and shouldn’t, look the same from one person to the next. For example:

Derek is a minimalist.

He is a 42 year old single guy who just celebrated his 20th year at a growing engineering company. After making 6-figures for most of his career and proactively paying off debt and saving for retirement, he’s about to reach financial independence in just 6 more months! He drives a BMW and is a classy dresser. He doesn’t own many things, but what he has is of higher quality. Derek generally buys more expensive items than the average person, but he doesn’t buy a lot and he isn’t wasteful with the excess he gets rid of. He maintains great simplicity in his small, one-bedroom rental. Derek is a minimalist.  

Abby and Jake are a minimalists.

Abby is a 24 year-old mother and wife. She stays at home except for working a few evenings during the week to help pay the bills. Abby’s husband, Jake, is a social worker. He’s on salary but gets paid very little and is slowly paying back his college loans. Abby plans meals around the deals she finds in the sale papers. She buys many used items and only gets new clothing when it’s truly necessary. Abby and Jake have never had cable tv in their house, and they recently decided to get rid of their internet service for a while because it was preventing them from growing an emergency fund, let alone starting to fund their retirement. They will go to the library to check out books to read and to use the internet. They’re frugal by necessity, but these intentional cuts have given some added peace by supporting their most important values rather than giving in to all the immediate comforts of life. Abby and Jake are minimalists.

The Walkers are minimalists.

Mr. and Mrs. Walker are in their mid-30s, they both work full time, and love traveling with their two kids to new places each year. They’re still paying off student loans and have a high but manageable mortgage payment for their 1700 sq. ft. house. They’ve just begun to purge the clutter in their basement. Little by little, the couple continues a conversation around what they truly value in life—examining what they own, how they spend their free time, and some of the habits they’ve acquired individually and as a family. The kids just joined in the process, too, choosing many toys and clothes to donate after Christmas. Not much else has noticeably changed over the past few weeks, but a fire has been lit. The Walkers are a minimalist family.

Minimalism can be practiced and embraced by anyone in any circumstance.

It will look different for each person, for each couple, for each family. It does not require a certain level of income, a tiny house, or a specific number of possessions. Even the poorest of the poor can find something in their life—a habit, an attitude, even a recurring thought to which they can apply the underlying philosophy of minimalism:

Minimalism - the mindful and intentional removal of what devalues our life and the lives around us, and addition of what brings value to our life and the lives around us.

And if you’ve read this and still don’t think you’re a minimalist, that’s OK. You don’t have to call yourself a minimalist at all. But I promise that when you begin to incorporate minimalism into your lifestyle—begin to assess and prioritize your values, begin to take control over what is supporting or hurting those values—it won't matter what you call yourself. You will simply be (and more fully be) you.