This is How Minimalism Can Go Very, Very Wrong

Before you throw out all your stuff . . .
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Before you throw out all your stuff . . .

“I have nothing to wear,” I cried out one early morning before work. Unlike the hundreds of mornings I might have yelled at my closet before, now I was actually staring at rows of empty hangers.

Jason, my husband, chuckled. “Maybe if you hadn’t gotten rid of all your worldly belongings, you might have something to put on,” he snidely remarked.

He had a point. Weeks before, I had gone through what I like to refer to as “The Great Purge.” Inspired by the volumes of minimalism blogs and articles that I had skimmed over the years, I had finally come to the popular conclusion that giving away all my belongings that didn’t “spark joy,” as bestselling author and minimalist extraordinaire Marie Kondo suggests, would give me inner peace and a deep sense of control in this chaotic world. Apparently, my entire closet didn’t spark joy.

These past several years—notably since the recession hit in 2008—minimalism has garnered ubiquitous popularity. A counter-cultural movement in which people declare they feel increasingly trapped by owning so much stuff, it has been touted as the ultimate lifestyle. As Anna North wrote for the New York Times last year in her article “When It’s Cool to Have Nothing,” “Ditching your possessions is hip right now. The ‘tiny house’ is popular enough that it has its own conference.”

After the financial collapse, people started taking a harder look at the decisions that brought us such economic struggles. At the root of it, we were buying bigger and better things that we ultimately couldn’t afford—nor did we really need. Though money can’t buy happiness, it seemed that poorly invested money and resources can also trigger all kinds of unhappiness and stress.

Conversely, minimalism and simplistic living is seen as smart, sophisticated, and stress-free, and it has become very, very fashionable. And I get it. Like the true millennial I am, a part of me loves minimalism and the sentiments of calm, control, and prudence that it brings.

But as I scanned my scant closet that morning, I couldn’t help but realize how minimalism can backfire.

In my case, I had foolishly wiped the slate clean, not thinking about what was next. I got rid of the clothes that didn’t “spark joy,” but I didn’t have a grasp on the expense and effort of acquiring new minimalistic pieces—ones that would be multifunctional and high-quality. I began to rethink my decisions. Sure, I didn’t exactly love those pants—they didn’t quite fit perfectly—but they worked, and they were cute enough. Was it really necessary that I throw them out? Shouldn’t I have waited to replace them until I found a good deal?

Here, I realized that as I was trying to simplify my life, I had actually complicated it.

“Can the quest for minimalism also turn into a disguise for elitism?” my friend and fellow writer Julia Hogan probed me. Recently, she was listening to a podcast where a successful business owner explained how he rid himself of his possessions. But he now owns a thriving company that makes expensive furniture and installations that maximize space. “It just seemed like a double standard to me,” Hogan said.

Minimalism, just like materialism, can get expensive. With the way society talks about minimalism—whether consciously or not—it seems that one needs to be at some level of affluence to actually make it work well. The sentiment I felt before The Great Purge was, “Get rid of everything you don’t like or need, and keep only the things you love.”

The thing is, if you don’t have enough versatile pieces that you “love,” it inevitably means that you must buy more things to replace them. For many, this initial expense is worth it in the long run. After all, by investing in a high-quality versatile closet of classic items, you do end up saving money. You’ll also save some time as you choose what you want to wear for each occasion. I agree that one well-made versatile dress can easily replace twelve trendy cheap dresses that weren’t exactly built to survive the washing machine or the seasons.

However, the cost of this one dress is something that should be realized and acknowledged before you delve into a minimalist—dare I say curated—lifestyle. It’s not for those struggling to make ends meet.

Ultimately, I came to the humble realization that being capable of giving away my clothes was an incredible luxury—and it was a luxury that I did not even consider, or notice, until I realized what it would cost to create the minimalist closet of my dreams.

While describing the process of minimizing what you need, Kondo shares, “Have gratitude for the things you’re discarding. By giving gratitude you’re giving closure to the relationship with that object, and by doing so, it becomes a lot easier to let go.”

I think this is a phenomenal practice—one that, I admit, I did not do enough of as I piled bags and bags of my belongings for Goodwill (It was more relief. Goodbye, tattered Forever 21 dress from 2004!). Even so, I think our gratitude should go a step further. I think that if we’re considering a minimalist lifestyle, we need to realize what a privilege it is to have enough stuff to get rid of and the ability to invest in items that we feel we can treasure. And we should see minimalism not as a trend or a cool lifestyle but rather as a mindset. Striving to live simply and without excess is worthwhile, but it shouldn’t be done outside of your means.

For now, my quest for minimalism has been suspended in my closet. More importantly, there are other things at this juncture of my life that I’d rather spend my time and money on—such as growing an actual savings account.

As author Kahlil Gibran once wrote in his book, Sand and Foam, “Generosity is giving more than you can, and pride is taking less than you need.” Minimalism in and of itself is not a good—just like clothing in and of itself is not a good. We should be grateful and have respect for what we have, realizing that we are free enough to offer them in the service of others and to let go of them when they get in the way of that self-giving. The rest is excess.

Finding the right balance of the things that you need is an incredibly personal thing to do. It takes a deep understanding of yourself, your abilities, and your priorities. And while there seems to be a general understanding and consensus that we can go way too far in the number of possessions we accumulate—I think we have yet to acknowledge that we can also go too far in the opposite direction.

Photo Credit: Laurence Philomene