minimalism is bad (but only if you do it wrong)

Note: This essay has been edited from its original format as an academic assignment. I thought it fit for my blog. All citations are below – because this was written for a class, they are in MLA.

Imagine for a moment that you make a six figure salary. You can afford five-dollar lattes, designer clothes, and a half-a-million dollar home. Do you feel happy? Maybe not. Keeping up with material demands creates guilt, shame, and anger. You join a machine you didn’t design, and you wake up regretting it. With no other option, you choose minimalism. You give up the
pursuit of stuff and accept the pursuit of life. This shows why people find minimalism so attractive. Creator of “The Minimalists” Joshua Fields Millburn decided not to take part in a corporate setting. “I realized working 60–80 hours a week to make the money to buy more superfluous stuff didn’t fill the void I felt inside. It only brought more debt and anxiety and fear
and loneliness and guilt and stress and paranoia and depression” (Millburn). A minimalist lifestyle improves financial stability, increases emotional well-being, and contributes to healthy habits.

Picture it: you can’t deal with the mess in the house. You break down and decide to go through the closets, kitchen cabinets, couch cushions, and basement shelves. You might get tired, but the reward of decluttering goes beyond having a clean house. When decluttering, you can find lost things, save money by not needing to re-purchase found items, and make money by renting extra space or selling items you don’t need (“The Psychological”). You can sell found items or bring them to second-hand stores. Selling items like furniture or baby gear takes time, but it blesses someone else (“The Psychological”). Not only does living with less reward you, but for many, it offers a sense of financial freedom.

One blogger who desires to reach financial independence asked an intriguing question. “What if you had nothing? How much simpler would life be? Nothing to clean, nothing to fix, nothing to solve. Just you and your time to do whatever you want. How much more time would you have to pursue your dreams?” (route2fi). Some might gasp at eliminating responsibility and ownership. Have you ever heard a homeless person say they like homelessness? Someone in a comfortable $300,000 home might not fathom that. It may seem far-fetched to live with nothing, but people do it. Imagine what could happen if all your belongings sat secured in one backpack. With fewer bills to pay and less worry about debt, you might find more time to focus on the things that matter.

The possibility of feeling fulfilled while living with less may surprise some, but route2fi agrees. He said he traveled to places where the villagers seemed happy, even while living on $3 a day (route2fi). People below the poverty line often feel more joy than a person making six figures. These people live happy lives because they get what they need. That makes common American complaints like your McDonald’s order taking too long seem ridiculous. If someone with so little can experience joy, why can’t we?

When trying to see this joyful quality of minimalism, some try to create it by purchasing new items. Buying more to look like you own less doesn’t make sense. New minimalists make this huge mistake often — they throw out all their clothes and go out and buy a whole new set that looks more minimal. How about wearing clothes that make you feel confident and comfortable, which you already own? “Reducing a wardrobe down to a few painfully elegant cashmere-cotton blend tops is only really possible if you can put down at least $1,000 in one go for the creation of your ‘capsule wardrobe’” (Fagan). Americans started 2019 with over $1 trillion in debt, and the average American household in 2020 carries $9,000 in credit card debt (Comoreanu). Our culture perpetuates wasting money. To see how, visit this infographic to see how a person could spend 8 ½ years of their lives shopping (“Why We Need”).

Not only does materialism damage your wallet, but “people scoring high on materialism are more prone to compare themselves to wealthier others, this may lead to envy and a sense of inequity and anger, which also leads to diminished life satisfaction and happiness” (Lee, Michael S. W., and Christie Seo Youn Ahn). Retail therapy? It doesn’t work, at least not for long. The
idea of purchasing something seems more attractive than the purchase. Buying stuff doesn’t make us happy. Often, we buy things because someone else did. Keeping up with the Joneses never ends — consumerism makes us insatiable.

Only the rich can afford this much nothing.
“Only the rich can afford this much nothing.” Cartoon by Mick Stevens.

As human beings, most of us want to stay in a positive emotional state. That desire to achieve true happiness can become entangled with the desire to compare. In his New Yorker cartoon, “Only the rich can afford this much nothing,” artist Mick Stevens illustrates that desire well. You don’t need to buy minimalism: how counter-intuitive. Minimalism encourages contentment with current possessions. People will get rid of their stuff to buy designer stuff, replacing it and showing Instagram. Even if they feel like minimalists, they take part in hidden consumerism. They still keep up with the next guy. The minimalism decor trend became so pricey and fancy that people with low income think they can’t participate— but minimalist
Sophie Handy said in an interview that she sees this in a different light.

On her minimalist journey, “I realized that material goods just made me worry more. I have learnt to let things go. Things are to be used, and if they break, it’s okay, you can let go” (Handy). Letting go of objects clears the mind of clutter and lets you breathe easier. Think of commitments to clubs, events, responsibilities… Now imagine that every time you decide to own
an object, you make a similar commitment with your mental and physical space. Letting go of useless things alleviates stress and commitment, leaving space for more important things.

Now, anyone new to this lifestyle might make a few common mistakes. Youheum of Heal Your Living said (in this podcast episode) to focus on emotional as well as physical clutter — she believes that emotional change makes minimalism valuable (Heal Your Living). Our mental health declines when we do anything for the wrong reason, and that includes throwing out
everything you own because you feel like you should. If you want to become a minimalist for the right reasons, then make sure you aren’t throwing out the wrong pieces of yourself for the sake of
looking good.

So, is minimalism anti-materialism? In my interview with Sophie Handy, she said, “Minimalism is an anti-capitalistic way of life. It’s about making good with what you’ve got, not buying more, hoarding more just because this is today’s norm” (Handy). Handy chooses to avoid the status quo because minimalism helps you appreciate the things you own without adding more. Buying something because it makes us look better has nothing to do with our desire to own it and everything to do with our desire to appear put together. However, no one with incessant desire feels put together. Minimalism teaches you to practice joy, not hunt for it, because consumerism causes an addiction to discontentment.

Like any addiction, quitting consumerism requires a replacement. Quitting alcohol cold turkey without a replacement habit might lead an alcoholic back to the bottle. Replacing time spent drinking with an evening workout or a good book helps curb the habit. Joshua Fields Millburn, for example, “developed new habits I love, habits I look forward to each day, habits that make me happy: exercise, writing, reading, establishing new connections with people, and building upon existing relationships” (Millburn).

As with any lifestyle, minimalism receives misconceptions. Chelsea Fagan of The Guardian complains, “The hyper-curated minimalism really only conveys one thing: ‘I wanted to take the very safest route to chic, cut away every possible misstep or risk . . . Time to reduce my look even further until literally every item I purchase tells people I could get something more
interesting, but I have enough money to choose not to’” (Fagan). The author overlooks the key point: mindset, not glamour. A marble kitchen counter with one container of the finest bamboo utensils and a Bath & Body Works candle doesn’t define minimalism. It describes a decor choice. Home decor stores capitalized off of a movement that wanted to refuse capitalism. They’ve said, “Oh, the public wants crisp white walls and a single plant for decoration? We’ll sell it to them. Make the white paint expensive. Make the plants hard to find.”

Back to Fagan’s criticism — the media provides only a brief expectation on how minimalism should look. “The premise of minimalism in this way is very vague, and ever-shifting to accommodate the tastes and stomach for consistency of the individual practitioner, but the overall theory is the same: by paring your life down as actively as possible, you are almost
guaranteed to appreciate what remains more” (Fagan). Fagan gets it right here. Minimalism doesn’t need rules. You don’t need a fancy magazine or influencer to tell you that, although it might help to poke around those resources. No one expects that you’ll uncover a magical life change after “converting” or whatever. It’s a lifestyle, the way some people drive a Jeep and some drive a Honda.

Minimalists fall into different categories, but there sits a fine line between avoiding wasteful consumerism and appearing on Survivor (Lee, Michael S. W., and Christie Seo Youn Ahn). When people first hear about minimalism, they assume it means maintaining a set number of items. A true minimalist doesn’t necessarily maintain a set number of objects . . . at least, no one made a Minimalism Bible. So many discrepancies exist about what defines “minimalist enough” that many try not to define it. You may not want furniture — some appreciate a dining room table or a bed or a chair. Forget the right and wrong here: focus on intentionality.

At its heart, minimalist design does not equate to a minimalist lifestyle (Heal Your Living). What a silly way to look at something! If you look at photos of a courtroom, does that make you want to practice law? No. If you look at a veggie dog, does that make you want to eat vegetarian? No — and frankly, as a vegetarian, I don’t want to eat a veggie dog. To know if you
want something, you can’t just look at a few sparse living rooms. You must ask yourself what makes the most sense for you.

Focusing on feeling rich rather than being rich may seem hard for some, but it can happen (route2fi). Joshua Fields Millburn said that although his life may appear more fulfilling, “We all have the same 24 hours in a day. We all have one life to live, and that life is passing by one day at a time. The only real difference lies within the decisions we make and the actions we take” (Millburn). We owe it to ourselves to look at our lives, decide what we want, and decide our priorities. Minimalism can decrease financial troubles and help the world feel a little bit healthier… and a whole lot happier. So do you want stuff? Or life?


Comoreanu, Alina. “Credit Card Debt Study: Trends & Insights.” WalletHub, 9 Mar. 2020,

Fagan, Chelsea. “Minimalism: Another Boring Product Wealthy People Can Buy.” The
Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Mar. 2017,

Handy, Sophie. Email interview. 7 Mar. 2020.

Heal Your Living, producer. “Why You Struggle with Minimalism and How to Move Forward.” Heal Your Living Podcast | Mindfulness, Sustainability, Minimalism & Wellness, episode 001, Spotify, 26 Jan. 2019, Accessed 6 Mar. 2020.

Lee, Michael S. W., and Christie Seo Youn Ahn. “Anti-Consumption, Materialism, and Consumer Well-Being.” Journal of Consumer Affairs, vol. 50, no. 1, Spring 2016, pp. 18–47. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1111/joca.12089.

Millburn, Joshua Fields. “A Day in the Life of a Minimalist.” The Minimalists, The Minimalists, 24 Sept. 2019,

route2fi. “How Minimalism Changed My Life And Saved Me Tons Of Money.” Route 2 FI, 14 July 2019,

Stevens, Mick. “Only the rich can afford this much nothing.” New Yorker, Condé Nast, Accessed 6 Mar. 2020. Cartoon.

“The Psychological Benefits behind an Organized Space.” YouTube, uploaded by Cityline, 15
Mar. 2009, Accessed 6 Mar. 2020.

“Why We Need to Live with Less [Infographic].”, NARRATIVE CONTENT GROUP, 8 Nov. 2013, Accessed 15 Apr. 2020. Infographic.

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