Why I (Kinda, Sorta, Sometimes) Hate Calling Myself a Minimalist

Why I (Kinda, Sorta, Sometimes) Hate Calling Myself a Minimalist

A few weeks ago, I shared a list of my initial thoughts from the road. Some were silly (like noticing all the different license plate designs in Montana), some were fun (tallying up the presidential yard signs in every state) and some were about money (oh how I am missing your cheap gas prices, America). But fairly early on into the trip, I also came face-to-face with a fact I couldn’t ignore: that minimalism is a privilege. And while I wasn’t ready to write about it then, I’ve since gathered my thoughts and had enough conversations with friends that I can finally share how I feel about it now.

Let’s start with a story…

When I was packing for the trip, I took pride in the fact that my entire life could fit into three bags: one for the stuff I needed daily, one for the stuff I would need in cooler weather and one for my laptop/wallet/books, etc. My goal was to fit everything into the trunk of my car, so anyone who walked past it would have no idea it was filled with all of my possessions. I was genuinely concerned that someone would break into my car and steal everything – so much so that I sometimes carried every one of those bags into a home or hotel where I was only staying for one night.

As time went on, I started to care less and less about the bag of stuff I would need in cooler weather. It stayed hidden in the trunk for the remainder of the trip, and I can only remember opening it once to pull out a flannel shirt. At one point on the trip, I realized that while I was glad all my belongings fit into the trunk of my car, if everything was stolen, I would be fine. I wasn’t attached to anything I owned. And while I wouldn’t love handing over the money to replace whatever I needed, I could afford to do so – and therein lies my privilege in the ability to embrace the typical definition of minimalism.

The Many Definitions of Minimalism

Before I continue that thought, let’s take a step back and talk about what minimalism is. Originally, the word “minimalist” was used to describe a style of art and design. More recently, it has morphed and is now used to describe a person who lives with a minimal amount of stuff. And in that, you might think a minimalist can only own 100 things, live in a tiny house and not have a single ounce of clutter in that house. Some people also use the terms “minimalism” and “simple living” interchangeably, while others (myself included) think there is a difference between the two.

There are pros and cons to the fact that a single word can have so many definitions. When it comes to the word “minimalism”, one con is that you could get confused about what it actually means. To go along with that, another con is that you could feel like none of the definitions you’ve read about align with what it means to you. And some definitions could even make it feel like minimalism is an impossible standard to live up to. Conversely, one pro of having the word mean so many different things is that it gives you the opportunity to define it for yourself.

Define Minimalism on Your Own Terms

My definition of the word minimalism has changed over the years. At first, I subscribed to The Minimalists definition, which is to “rid yourself of life’s excess”. I thought of this when I was decluttering, and there is no doubt it helped me get rid of 75% of my belongings. But even though I kept track of my progress, I quickly learned that minimalism isn’t a numbers game. You don’t have to get rid of a huge percentage of your belongings, own 100 things or even live in a tiny house, to be a minimalist. If you want to do any or all of those things, great! But you don’t have to.

Now, I believe it’s all about being intentional. Personally, I define minimalism as: the mindset that helps you recognize what adds value to your life, so you can let go of what doesn’t. And that doesn’t just apply to physical items, but to all areas of your life: health, habits, beliefs, relationships, work, hobbies, etc. There are no rules for how much or how little you can have. It’s not about more or less. And there is certainly no such thing as being “minimalist enough”. The more you can recognize what adds value to your life, the easier it is to appreciate what you have and decide what to let go of, and the happier you’ll be overall – that’s what minimalism means to me.

Side rant: I will also admit I have a serious aversion to minimalism being sold as a lifestyle where you need to own almost nothing and everything must be white. White walls, white tile, white furniture and decor. Again, if that’s part of your definition of the word, great! But I don’t like seeing the Instagram accounts or magazines or websites that curate and sell products or brands that are so-called “minimalist”.

No Matter How You Define It, Minimalism is a Privilege

If you consider the newer definition, where a minimalist is a person who intentionally chooses to live with a minimal amount of stuff, you can physically see the role privilege plays in that. Curating a life and a home filled with things you love is a privilege. Decluttering is a privilege. Heck, having clutter in general is a privilege. But being able to get rid of 75% of your belongings after realizing you never needed any of it? Or not worrying about how you’d replace all of your possessions if your car was broken into? Hi, my name is Cait, and I am so incredibly privileged.

Even my personal definition of what minimalism means to me is a privilege. Being able to decide what adds value to your life and letting go of what doesn’t – how fortunate am I to be in the position to apply that to any area of my life!? If my diet is making me feel bad, I can walk into a grocery store and buy better food. If the work I do is leaving me unfulfilled, I can find other work. If I need/want to learn a new skill, I can take a class. The list goes on and on.

I had a lot of time to think about my privilege on the road, and I’ll be honest and say it made me question everything I’ve been writing about for the past two years. I know people who only ever buy what they value because that’s all they can afford. And I know people who can’t even do that. When there are so many people who don’t have enough to begin with, how can I wear the “minimalist” badge proudly? I can’t. At least, I can’t if it means identifying as the typical definition of the word, and writing posts about what items to declutter or what’s included in my minimalist beauty routine.

But here’s what I can do: I can recognize both my current privilege and my experiences growing up in a middle class household in western society. I can practice being content and grateful for the life I lead today, knowing circumstances can change and this may not last forever. I can share the personal lessons I’ve learned since embracing this lifestyle, changing my mindset and figuring out what matters most to me. And I can accept that I’ll never be the voice for everyone, but that I am still a voice in this space and I take that seriously.

Finally, the one thing I will always do is talk about this subject as it relates to our consumption tendencies and habits. The most important lesson I’ve learned in the past two years is that whenever I thought about consuming a lot of something (stuff, alcohol, food, etc.), it’s because another part of my life was lacking – and it seemed easier to fill that void with something else, rather than deal with whatever was really going on. Learning how to recognize and change those habits doesn’t make me a minimalist. All I’m trying to do is be a little bit better than the person I was yesterday. And isn’t that the only person you should try to be?

Extra Reading

  • I so much appreciate this post! I am very interested in the general idea of minimalism, but to be perfectly honest- I have really struggled to read and listen to most of the bloggers and speakers out there who love to talk about it. I lived for 8 years homeless, and since then am still living far below poverty level. Its a long story…. but my lifestyle has been completely outside of my control and through absolutely no fault of my own. Trust me!!
    You are so right when you say that minimalism is a privilege!! There are many of us who cannot go out and buy what we need, but must rely on “found items” to keep ourselves dressed etc. I am chronically underweight and sick because I cannot afford to buy enough food and medicine. In such a life…. we are forced to hang onto whatever possessions we might accumulate because it would be impossible to go out and buy things that we needed. I have found the ideas of minimalism help me to feel more content with “less” than everyone around me, it helps me to focus on what truly matters so that I can live happy and free in spite of very undesirable life circumstances. I am deeply grateful to have discovered the ideas of minimalism, but I also feel that the issue of the privileged few needs to be brought along into the conversations. There are many people who could never afford to live the “posh” minimalist lifestyle that is talked about on the internet. Thank you for being willing and brave enough to talk about this!!

    • Well it’s nice to hear that even in your circumstances you find the philosophy helpful, Jessica! That opens my eyes to the fact that people DO, in fact, see it as a philosophy and not just the posh lifestyle splashed across accounts, magazines and websites. Thank you for sharing a little piece of your life here with us. <3

  • Hi Cait!

    As always, your words carry a strong message. As I was reading them the thought occurred to me as to how much our 1st World Society is abundantly blessed, often to excess. How often do we see people (often ourselves) who are over weight, addicted to recreational pleasures, trying to keep up with The Joneses, on power trips. Yes, to be a minimalist certainly is a privilege but wouldn’t it be even better if the things that we can easily discard could then be channelled to those in life who could desperately use them. Case in point is the extreme wastage in food. Fortunately more and more enlightened companies and groups are taking action to set up food bank re-distribution programs from the “discards” from grocery stores, restaurants, organised public and company-sponsored food drives, etc. And so it goes, eh? A work in progress.

    • You’re right that it’s a first world problem because of the abundance that is around us at all times, Rob. And food waste is one of the best examples I can imagine. Forget about stuff we fill our homes with, let’s talk more about the things we buy and literally throw out a few days later. Huh. That could be a future post. Thanks for always adding to the convo, friend. :)

  • I think it’s a powerful thing to recognize the privilege involved with anything in your life. As you said, minimalism at it’s heart is about choice and freedom and many people in the world do not have much of either.

    I’m impressed and slightly jealous of your ability to let go of almost everything most people would consider essential.

    Thanks for sharing!

    • Nothing to be jealous about! I still have the same modern conveniences we all want: computers, a smartphone, car, etc. See? There’s more of that privilege. My life is full and I just don’t see how anything more could possibly help, at this point.

  • Thank you so much for not only recognizing the role privilege plays, but for writing about it. Sometimes, we need gentle reminders to remember our privilege, or it needs to be pointed out to us in the first place. If I may add another, I consider physical location to also be a privilege. I grew up on a farm where being too poor to get new things curbed consumption but encouraged keeping everything that might someday be useful. Now that my parents can afford to replace their essentials, it will still be difficult simply because they live so far away from stores where they can get them. Even Amazon can’t do everything.

    • That’s an excellent point, Aimee – and I appreciate that it was a “local” (North American) issue. I wasn’t sure how deep to dive into the fact that we are in developed countries vs. the irrelevance of “white wall minimalism” in developing countries. But that’s why I also said I know I can’t be a voice for everyone. There are still so many examples of how minimalism/location are privileges in our homelands. Thanks for adding your story!

  • I 100% know what you’re talking about here Cait, particularly the privilege part. It’s been something that has been concerning to me for several months now, that this ‘simple living/minimalist lifestyle’ thing – while fulfilling and and great for some – could seem quite insensitive to others.
    There was a great quote I read on The Financial Diet blog the other day that read “Your ‘optional minimalism’ might well be somebody else’s ‘absolute necessary'” and I think that sums it up.

  • Good points. I think it’s important that we recognize how privileged we are in most aspects of our lives. I feel like that is an important aspect of both living intentionally and practicing gratitude.

    I had never really considered myself a minimalist before, but I try to live my life in accordance with the definition that you used in this post. I think I had been stuck on the commercialized version of minimalism and didn’t really connect with that. Your version of minimalism seems (to me, at least) to be much more powerful in helping people improve their lives and be better people.

    • All I can do is hope that’s true, Matt! I still think my definition will likely change shape, as time goes on. Maybe I’ll come up with a new word we can call ourselves, instead, so it’s not associated with the commercialized version whatsoever. *puts thinking cap on*

  • I’m so inspired by your words, as always. I do think that there is a lot of privilege in my own life; some of it earned, most of it born into. I try to reckon with my own privilege all the time, but it wasn’t until I started talking about it that I actually stopped feeling really guilty over it. I’m in a situation where I see kiddos every day who have far more privilege than I ever had…and far, far, far less. I now realize that I don’t owe anyone–including myself–an apology for the position I’m in. But I do feel like I understand myself and others much better when I acknowledge all the different reasons why I am where I am today.

    • Ooo and I think that’s a great point to add, Penny: that we shouldn’t feel guilty about it. I saw Craig Kielburger (of Free the Children and Me to We) speak many years ago and he said we shouldn’t feel bad for being born into developed countries or having the privileges we do – but that we should acknowledge it and give back however we can. I think there’s a lot to chew off and digest in that sentence. But it gives me even more to think about. :)

  • Hi Cait! By the mere fact that you acknowledge and realize how privileged you are, you have no reason to feel guilty at all. I’m beginning to realize that I am so privileged that I am essentially a spoiled rich kid. I agree with your statement that minimalism is different to everyone. There are differing ends of the extreme. Some people may not even realize that they are “minimalists.” I wouldn’t mind being in the middle. I have already started my Christmas shopping and when I see something that may be suitable for a certain person, first I think, “Is that going to serve a purpose for them, or just be clutter?” I’m also in favour of giving gift cards. Why give someone more “stuff” that they may or may not use, when you can give them the choice. Hope you have a great week!

  • Hi Cait, Long time reader but rarely comment (anywhere). But I have to say this is one of the most insightful posts on the subject I’ve ever read. I’ve recently pruned my social media connections (including The Minimalists) as I feel I’ve learnt enough and am comfortable with my personal strategy. But I am going to print out your definition and stick it on my noticeboard, particularly bearing in mind that it’s not just the stuff but all other aspects of ones life. Keep up the good work.

    • I’m with you, Geoff – don’t comment on posts often enough myself either (instead try to share them here or on social media). But I’m glad you said hi today! And so glad my definition resonated with you. :)

  • I am one of those people who has been guilty of using minimalism and simplicity interchangeably. Oops! Haha.

    I think minimalism is a perfectly fine idea that has been unfortunately tainted by our culture of perfectionism. Personally, I never call myself “a minimalist”, but rather, I say that I “practice minimalism”. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I feel that making minimalism into a title implies that it is something you can achieve and master, like “doctor” or “Olympian”. I think minimalism is a practice – something you just continue to do, a journey that never culminates in any one thing but is worthwhile in and of itself. I’m trying, I’m learning, and that’s enough to add value to my life.

    But thanks for the reminder that we’re privileged to even be able to consider these things. While it’s great that we are finally starting to have the conversation about privilege, the frustrating thing about it is that it is leading to more guilt and denial than anything, when really I think the best way to deal with the reality of privilege is just like you say – to acknowledge it, own it, and try to make the best of it when we have it.

    • Hey, that’s not a bad thing! I think all the terms have created a bit of a branding problem, in that no one really knows how to use them. I think minimalism is a mindset, whereas I think simple living is more about slowing down, becoming a conscious consumer, being more sustainable, etc. But again, those are just my personal thoughts! I’m really starting to think we need a new word soon, haha.

      As for this part of your comment: “I think minimalism is a perfectly fine idea that has been unfortunately tainted by our culture of perfectionism. Personally, I never call myself ‘a minimalist’, but rather, I say that I ‘practice minimalism’. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I feel that making minimalism into a title implies that it is something you can achieve and master, like ‘doctor’ or ‘Olympian’.”

      *mic drop*

  • Most of us reading this blog were born in to all sorts of privileges, and it’s good to remember and appreciate them. Perhaps the most important privilege is the knowledge that we can make choices and take action to change our lives if we don’t like where we’re heading. No, we can’t change some things, but there’s a remarkable amount we can change.
    Simplicity, frugality, minimalism, and other words to this effect are a way of paying homage to this privilege–appreciating that we do have choices in what we include in our lives.
    By living in this manner, whether on the fringes or hard-core, we leave more resources for others and more time for us to do good in the world.

  • I really like Julie’s take above:
    “Simplicity, frugality, minimalism, and other words to this effect are a way of paying homage to this privilege–appreciating that we do have choices in what we include in our lives.
    By living in this manner, whether on the fringes or hard-core, we leave more resources for others and more time for us to do good in the world.”

    I look inside my closet or my credit card wallet and I can’t realistically call myself a minimalist. But I’ve never particularly liked labels anyway.

    I had a very interesting conversation yesterday with my Australian travel blogger friend who was in town and she told me that a very popular thing right now is for travel bloggers to acknowledge their privilege, and that a lot of people aren’t fans of that meme. My friend in particular is able to do so much travel because her parents let her live at home in between all of travel adventures. Why should it feel uncomfortable to acknowledge that?

    She had a very unusual perspective on privilege though…she believes there is actually a privilege of being blatantly privileged in the first place. That is, if you grew up in a wealthy area, society expects you to continue to lvie the wealthy life. Live in an expensive area, Have an expensive house or an luxury car because that’s where you came from. It’s “normal”. But if you came from something more normal, there’s far more jealousy and envy and hateful thoughts. We definitely see that in our segment of the blogosphere too, when an early retiree goes viral, there’s a whole lot of hate. Where’s the hate for the professional athlete or celebrity who has 100x the assets of the early retiree blogger?

    I might suggest she read The Millionaire Next Door or something similar, because I don’t agree, but it’s definitely a perspective I’ve never considered, and I have to ask myself if I’m alienating some of my “wealthy” friends by intentionally downsizing my lifestyle to spend less money in lower cost of living areas, because I’m deviating from the status quo in the opposite direction. ;-)

    • Wow, that IS an interesting perspective. I guess I wouldn’t feel comfortable disagreeing with her, because I don’t actually have any experience with that. But it DOES make sense if you consider things like: parents/family members don’t always like if you do things differently than they have done before. Change (or doing something countercultural) can stir up a lot of feelings for people who continue to do whatever you are choosing NOT to do (that was a mouthful, hope it made sense). Anyway… more for us all to think about!

  • Thank you for writing this. I’ve had several friends read things about minimalism and comment on the privilege involved in it.

    These are thoughts I’ve been mulling over too. You just managed to articulate them. :)

  • I love this, Cait. The goal is not to just be minimalist and it is definitely a privilege. I totally relate to this as it’s something I’ve struggled with for a while as well. I think my idea is to find a balanced and healthy life. A balance of health, consumption and creation, work and play and many other things. I love the last bit, that we should be trying to be a better person than we were yesterday.

  • I loved this post Cait, thanks for sharing and for being an inspiration!

    Minimalism is so very personal. I am by no means a “minimalist” but I have been incorporating the idea a lot more in to my daily life, particularly with my consumption (spending, food, wine, tv, you name it!).

    It makes me feel LIGHTER. Minimalism to me is primarily eliminating the daily minutiae of life to enjoy more the things that makes me happy. But its also recognizing when I’ve consumed enough of what I do love, so to savor these things more (and stretch them out longer!).

    I just simply feel better, and I don’t think I’ve drastically changed my life…. aside from knocking out my credit card balances, which I can proudly say will be all gone on new years eve :)

    • Ahhhh, I just did a little happy dance in my chair for you, Jenny! What a great goal to knock off in 2016 – and it’s cool to hear you feel that being a more conscious consumer has helped you make it happen. :)

  • Thank you for this bog post. I think you kind of hit on it but I think some humans, hopefully a very small percentage, have some mental health issues where they can take ideas like minimalism and the “opposite” to extremes. Setting rigid definitions/goals can be unhealthy for some and getting to the bottom of what we really want to accomplish makes a lot of sense.

    Thanks for this liberating–give yourself grace kind of post. And yes, many of us are so fortunate to have the freedom to live these types of lives.

    • I’m not a huge fan of rigid goals in general, Kelly, so totally get what you’re saying! The extreme of anything can lead to all kinds of trouble.

  • I agree that minimalism is inherently linked to privilege – but to me, it is also a way of dealing with privilege constructively. By choosing to live with less, I question my unearned privilege, and am able to share more of my resources with those who truly need them. I also live more sustainably and protect the environment, thus helping future generations that didn’t have the privilege of being born before whatever will happen due to climate change. So I wouldn’t criticize minimalists for being privileged, but rather the “other” privileged for not trying to be more minimalist.

    • “It is also a way of dealing with privilege constructively.” Cue the mic drop, and yes yes yes, I agree with this. I realize maybe I didn’t explain that I don’t always love being called a “minimalist” because many people feel like it’s a goal that can’t be achieved (few belongings, white walls, all of that) and I don’t want to make anyone feel like they have a new and impossible standard to live up to. That definition of minimalism, to me, is exactly what this movement is NOT about. So I don’t like adding to the confusion or idealism, in that sense. But what you described? Yes, sign me up for all of that. And seriously, the more I read comments and reply to them, I just think we need a new word.

  • This weekend the reality of my friends poverty seemed overwhelming. We have a few sets of friends who live far below the poverty line. So it’s something that I see up close every week. But this weekend the pain and challenges they are going through brought me to tears. I tossed and turned in bed wishing I had better answers for them.
    Minimalism for us is letting go of things that don’t add value so we have more space, time and money for things that do. The teenager I have mentored for the last 3 years ended up homeless last week. I honestly have no idea how we could add another child to our house right now. But because we have pared down so many things, maybe, maybe there is space.

    • There are so many things I want to say here, Ms. M, but for now I would just like to say I can feel the emotion and love in your heart from all the way over here. <3

  • This is a great post and I agree with … most of it ;)

    I personally use the terms minimalist, simple living, and intentional living almost interchangeably because in my life, they really do mean the same things. I’ve always defined minimalism as “being intentional about the things (stuff, people, even ideas) you allow into your life”.

    So with this definition in mind … I’m not really comfortable saying it is for the privileged.

    For background, I grew up in an immigrant, working poor family. We never had much money but in fairness we weren’t truly poor (meaning our phone was often disconnected and there were often eviction notices on my front door, but we usually managed to get the phone back on and to pay the rent in time).

    I’ve also spent a lot of time in developing countries and had close, personal relationships with people who would not be considered privileged in the sense that we’re discussing (although of course, privilege is relevant).

    To say minimalism is not for them – with my definition in mind – feels like stripping their ability to make intentional decisions. It’s like saying “I can make mindful decisions about my life because of my privilege, but you obviously can’t because of your circumstance.”

    And even with the more generally accepted, ‘stuff-centred’ definition of minimalism – well … let’s just say consumerism is a problem everywhere, not just among the middle class. I think the poor are more aware than anyone how much owning ‘stuff’ defines them – so when they embrace minimalism, it frees them. For me, minimalism is saying “I’m not my stuff” so when someone who can’t afford things embraces minimalism, I feel like it can be a powerful statement. (“I’m not letting marketing execs tell me I’m less of a person because I can’t afford nice things.”)

    Hopefully this makes sense (as I’m writing this very late here!!) Having said everything, I think there are definitely (very prevalent) minimalist attitudes which are privileged and I understand where your feelings come from. There is definitely a lot out there that makes me feel uncomfortable.

    • Based on your definition, I wouldn’t think it’s only for the privileged either! And I said this above in another comment, but maybe I didn’t explain that I don’t always love being called a “minimalist” because many people feel like it’s a goal that can’t be achieved (few belongings, white walls, all of that) and I don’t want to make anyone feel like they have a new and impossible standard to live up to. That definition of minimalism, to me, is exactly what this movement is NOT about. So I don’t like adding to the confusion, in that sense. Everything you wrote makes perfect sense! Honestly, at this point, I just think we need a new word. There’s something about the word “minimalist” that just feels so… idealist.

      • Oooh yes … sorry, I think I got a bit caught up playing the devils advocate – and I totally agree about the white walls, few belongings side of things!! (I live in a very small home, but it’s definitely not a showcase!) I think I get so passionate because minimalism changed my life so much, it’s almost like it was a gateway drug to intentional living (if that makes sense!) But maybe a new word would be better, to sort of elevate it beyond the “How many bath towels should I own?” type conversation. But then I try to remember that was me at the start and it took a while to retrain my brain to think in a new way … it gets confusing ;)

  • Mostly I’m nodding as I read this – we are incredibly privileged to be able to CHOOSE to not have things. I know that I have some small hangups developed over years of growing up without money and they are directly related to not having a choice when I was younger. I paid bills early because I hated that we never had the money to pay on time when I was a kid, I keep a stash of wrapping paper and tissue paper because we simply couldn’t afford to buy decorative paper to wrap non-existent gifts. They’re little things, but they remind me why I don’t see choosing minimalism as a badge of honor.

    It’s a choice only when you have enough that you can easily replace anything you lose or break, it’s a choice when you don’t have to protect what little you have. It’s a wise choice, I think, but it’s still a choice and having choices is the privilege of the wealthy.

    • “It’s a choice only when you have enough that you can easily replace anything you lose or break, it’s a choice when you don’t have to protect what little you have. It’s a wise choice, I think, but it’s still a choice and having choices is the privilege of the wealthy.” – I hope everyone reads this comment, Revanche. Thanks for keeping it real. <3

  • Thank you, Cait, for taking the words out of my head. I too have struggled with this clash between privilege and the chosen lifestyle we call minimalism. I grew up with stints of great financial difficulty, and I can say that it was neither purposeful nor enlightening, but incredibly stressful. Now I have the glorious ability to chose a life of less in those areas where doing so makes sense, both for my finances and for the health of the environment. Not less food or health care, not less money for housing, but fewer plastic doodads and other random bits of consumer detritus. I maintain that there is a lot of value in this philosophy, and so much the better to be free of the stress and anxiety that comes from not having the choice. My ultimate goal is to use some of what I’m saving to help those who do not have the luxury of choice as I do now.

  • The best advice I can give is my own credo ” I don’t give a f*&# what anyone else thinks”. Are they going to be there for me when things go wrong? Are they going to pay my bills or support my lifestyle? Then F&%# and live long and prosper! I also want you to know that I enjoy your writing. Keep on keeping on!

  • (2 Geoff’s in the UK both commenting???)

    Fantastic post, Cait, and perhaps shows the perspective that comes from travelling to new horizons. This has been troubling me for a while (the “privilege problem”) and you’ve expressed it so well. How many starving Africans will minimalism help if it just leads to a spot of de-cluttering, how many homeless people, how many kids living in an abusive family setting? But if we aim instead to be more intentional in every aspect of our lives, then perhaps we really can turn our privilege into something bigger than ourselves.

    • Two Geoff’s from the UK! And both with such thoughtful comments. I definitely believe we can turn our privilege into something bigger than ourselves, Geoff (2). I’ve recently noticed a shift in my time/priorities, where I’m looking for ways to give back and be more generous, even in the simplest of ways. I’m sure the trip did help me change my perspective, in that sense. :)

  • Wow, great post Cait! And thanks for the mention–we are honored. I appreciate hearing this message, especially that minimalism is a privilege, from someone so influential in the intentional living movement. I believe minimalism, simple living, intentional living, or whatever approach we choose should have a larger purpose of generosity and improving the world around us. If it’s just about having less stuff, that’s hardly a noble cause. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this movement!

    • And thank YOU for sharing your thoughts! I remember reading your post last year and realizing I’d have to give the topic some more thought. Took me a while… ;)

  • A very important post, thank you. Having to come to terms with our own privileges is sometimes painful. However I do feel that living with less has helped me to see my privileges in a new way and that in itself is powerful. Knowledge is power, and so is insight.

  • Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I followed minimalism blogs for a few years, while enjoying my cushy corporate job and all the privileges associated with it. I thought I was doing something almost “noble” by de-cluttering and being more mindful when making purchases. Then I lost my job – several years before I planned to retire. And I realized I had enough money saved to carry me for a year or two, with very simple living. But then what? And I realized, which I could not articulate at the time, that – even though you may be spending the same amount of money – there is a huge difference in mindset between “minimalism / simple living” and “poverty”.

    • Yes, exactly. And I don’t think we should feel bad for being in these situations, but that it’s important for us to at least recognize the advantages that helped us get there.

  • That’s one of the reasons I like Joshua Becker’s blog title: Becoming Minimalist. After eight years of this I am still becoming. Yesterday I worked at clearing out my backlog of blogs to read someday. Several of the links were so old they no longer worked. And I had four links to one blog I had already decided not to follow. What a relief to not have that list nagging at me anymore; everything is now either on my active list or in the trash. I suspect this minimalist thing has areas I have not even considered yet.

    • I’m certain it does, Linda! And they will show themselves, as you continue “becoming”. :)

  • Cait, totally agree with this. I always think that minimalism is a journey and it is different for everyone. You don’t need to own 100 pieces to be a minimalist. And yes, it is indeed a privilege as it is a choice to live with less. I think we are all minimalists in our own way. And there is no one fix definition of what minimalism is. We all define it for ourselves.

    • I think two things you said could be combined into one, Kate: it is a privilege to be able to choose to live with less. 100% agree.

  • Hi Cait! I agree that absolutely there is privilege in being able to intentionally minimalize or simply one’s life. But I for on hope you continue to share posts about your journey to simplify and find what adds value to your life because. While everyone may not be able to identify, I think its valuable to share personal experiences, especially those that encourage others to question the so-called norms. It definitely has been to me. Anyway, your post made me thing and inspired my own blog post at http://minhus.blogspot.com/2016/10/minimalism-and-privilege.html.

    • I will definitely keep sharing my story, Candi. I’ve just realized that it’s not a story that can help EVERYONE and that has to be ok. Thank you for writing this post in reply to mine! I especially needed to read this paragraph: “I can summarize my definition of minimalism in two words: question everything. Experiment and re-examine what you do, buy, keep to make sure it’s really important to you and adds value to your life. And then let go of the stuff that doesn’t. It’s not complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s always easy. And share your experiences. Some of it may resonate and some may not, but I think there’s more good than bad to be had by sharing and encouraging others to question things for themselves.”

  • Hi Cait! For some of us, minimalism is a tool we’re using because it makes sense in our lives right now.

    My husband and I are just a few years from retirement, looking at what we want to do next, and have settled on moving to a smaller place in a warm climate and traveling. Right now, we live in a house that is ridiculously large for two people, and because we’ve lived here for 13 years and have been unthinking, it was filled with far too much stuff. We are not willing to move anywhere near all of it. If we’re smart, we will get rid of 75% of it.

    I’m not one to wait until the last minute to do anything, so we started paring down our possessions nearly two years ago. We probably own about 40% less than we started with. We’ve still got a ways to go, but we have time and are learning as we go, making some progress every week, but no changes have felt very drastic, livability-wise A bonus is that we have more money and less upkeep, so it’s given us immediate benefits above and beyond the value of advance preparation.

    Our minimalism is a way to prep for big lifestyle changes coming soon.

  • I love this post, Cait! This is a random analogy, but I promise it all ties together. ;-) I remember when, in high school, I told my grandparents that I had become a vegetarian. They had lived through the Depression and were very much of the “waste not, want not” school of thinking. Their reaction, though supportive and loving, was definitely along the lines of “How could you not eat good food put in front of you?! You would turn that down?!” That definitely made a big impression on me, and made me realize how making an exclusionary choice could be perceived by those with less. (It’s like how eating disorders are extremely uncommon in poor countries — you’d only choose not to eat if you had always had the privilege of having more than enough. And I imagine those living in poverty must view people with eating disorders with similar bewilderment.) So I think the minimalism idea could definitely fall into the same category — a choice that makes total sense in a world of privilege, but which makes zero sense to those who’ve come up with a scarcity mentality. Of course it makes sense to stop thinking with artificial scarcity (holding onto things for no good reason), but I love that you acknowledge the problems with it. I’m sure if my grandparents were still around today and I tried to explain minimalism to them, they’d find it hard to relate to! Not that that’s a reason NOT to do something — they also kept every reusable container they ever bought , “just in case.” ;-)

  • A very interesting and thought-provoking post. Just discovered your blog and you bet I’ll be back.
    I am not a minimalist yet but I am a person who feels burdened by too many things and I have been purging for what seems like years (probably about 2). I’ve noticed in our town and even nearby cities that thrift stores don’t want our stuff – they have too much already. Even “the poor” have too much stuff it seems.
    But that’s not what I wanted to write about really. I live in southern Ontario, Canada. We are incredibly privileged because we don’t have to worry about hurricanes, tidal waves, volcanos etc. destroying our homes and eliminating our belongings. When we were talking about it the other day (in view Hurricane Mathew) I used the word ‘sheltered’ (meaning protected) but privilege works too.
    Thanks for the insight.

  • Cait, first off WOW. This is an awesome article. I have been looking into minimalism for sometime now but get terrified about how much “stuff” I’m going to have to get rid of. I have always had clutter in my life, and I’m seeing that the more I get rid of the easier my life seems. At work I’m known as the one that has to have everything perfect, in order. At home my wife is yelling at my because my business cards from FinCon are all over the coffee table and have been since we got back. I know that I need to make changes but some things I just don’t know if I completely agree with them. I like books and have got a ton of them for free over the years, I could get rid of them and probably should but I still read them I get use out of them and I have them on a bookshelf in their place.

  • Cait – spot on. I’ve talked about this before: the ability to freely give things away is made possible when you already live a privileged life and have things like income and housing security. My mom raised six kids on her own and we were a low income, pay check to pay check, family. Some areas of our life were minimalist just due to lack of funds – one, or no winter jacket, one pair of shoes per kid – but we couldn’t afford to just give things away that we weren’t using at that moment because there was no money to replace them if we did need them down the road.
    Thank you for talking about the privilege of minimalism in a real and respectful to all way.

  • Love it! I wrote about something very, very similar to this in my “Why minimalism sucks” post. It’s not supposed to be a status symbol or only living with the bare minimum. Excellent observations!

    This one is definitely going into my Friday Feast this week!

  • When I went away to university, I was footing the bill for all of my education costs and most of my living expenses. This was a stark contrast to many of the people I saw who had their parents pay for most of their living expenses and even giving them monthly allowances.

    Due to being tight with money, I didn’t rent a u-haul to move into my college apartment like most did. I keep my possessions to the bare minimum. I continued this after college when I didn’t buy any furniture, bed, etc when moving into an apartment.

    People kept calling me a minimalist because they saw how I kept my stuff down to essentials. It felt weird hearing it cause I had never intentionally set out to be a minimalist, I had to do it because it made financial sense.

    I wrote a post about it, the unintentional minimalist, haha.

    Great article!

  • You are so right that minimalism is a privilege. I could lose everything I have right now and financially replace it, no problem. For that reason, I have almost zero attachment to my stuff.

    I live in 320 SF with my husband and I got rid of my car. For me, minimalism is just a word that is helpful for me to explain to people that I’m not poor or in financial struggles, but that I choose this life. It seems that the less physical things I have, the less emotional and mental clutter I have also.

    I think this is because I still have hunter genes. We evolved over millions of years as hunters/gatherers, and then agriculture only came about in the last 10,000 years. As hunters/gatherers, we had to be minimal so that we could move around to find food. Some people assimilated just fine into the agricultural modern world and like having a steady home base, with lots of stuff. But others, are still nomadic and ‘wild’ deep down inside, and stuff, not only can’t tame us, but can make us feel trapped. So, sometimes I hear each side saying that the other side is wrong, but really, it is just two different personality types, with a whole slew of hybrids in between. So, if we understood our genetic tendencies, I think that we could improve learning for children, increase productivity at work, and cut down on failed marriages. :)

  • It’s so nice to see people recognizing the privilege in the trend. I think you are spot on. It is wonderful and rare to be able to focus on what brings you joy and makes your life better.

  • I’m personally drawn toward this lifestyle because it teaches assertiveness (a life skill to know, communicate, and act on what you want, while respecting the rights of others). Assertiveness makes for more effective people and resolves a lot of issues like low self esteem, conflicts, and anger. But minimalism goes beyond assertiveness, in that it addresses our collective efforts to be conscious about the environment. There is a moral imperative aspect to it that was not present in previous ascetic movements. I’d highly recommend the classic book “When I say no, I feel guilty”. It’s very much like Marie Kondo but broader, in depth, and focused on social situations.

  • I haven’t read all the comments, so sorry if this was covered… seems like intentionalism is a better word. And those with 100 items or less/tiny homes are covered under essentialism. Should we leave minimalism back in the art/design world?

  • Thank you for recognizing the privilege that you have when embracing the minimalist/simple living lifestyle. It is refreshing to see that you are going past the surface and to the very core of this mentality. It’s good to question our place in life and society, and not be blind to the fact that some of us aren’t in a position to make those kinds of choices. More people need to do this. I appreciate your honesty and insight.

  • Oh goodness! Late finding this. Need to get back on top of my Google Analytics game!

    I never know how to feel when my work is being called out in a negative way but I guess I’m in good company being placed alongside Kinfolk ;)

    Cait so understand your point and respect your opinion. It’s true that minimalism is an ubiquitous term and there’s a lot of confusion and tension around the term as a result.

    If you perused my site at all, I’m sure you saw that I talk extensively about this exact issue. You will also realize that I have exactly 50 items in my closet, a fairly sparse living space, and some pretty strong views on consumerism.

    I reference and sometimes sell products because I have a deep appreciation for how certain brands, objects, and ideas have uplifted my life and want to share them with others. Minimalism allows me to make smart decisions about what I allow in my life and what I don’t … but (at least to me) minimalism is not asceticism.

    Thanks for the link share (even if it it was from a place of disagreement).


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