The Privilege of Minimalism

For the first time in my life, I have enough stuff that I want to get rid of some of it. In fact, I want to get rid of most of it.

It’s not that I have a lot of stuff. Everything that I own fits in my bedroom, a 10x10 room that I rent from my brother-in-law. I’ve lived in this bedroom off and on for almost seven years now, and it’s where I spend a significant portion of my time. Like 90% of my time even. My roommates joke that it’s my “hermit cave,” except it’s not really a joke, because I really am a hermit.

I have a bookshelf full of books. I have two storage totes full of Tarot and oracle decks. I have a dresser full of clothes. And I have craft supplies. Mostly yarn for knitting and crochet, but some paint and other supplies for attempts at art. I’m a fantastic knitter, and I don’t do nearly enough of it; I suck at painting, and I don’t do nearly enough of that, either.

I don’t have a car. I haven’t owned a car in a decade. The last car I owned died in 2007 and I scrapped it for $200, which I split with my neighbor who took it to the scrap yard for me. I haven’t been able to afford a car since. The house I lived in at the time has been demolished; so have the two neighboring houses. That happens a lot in the city I live in. You might have heard of it. It’s the one with the water crisis created by a governor who wanted to save money. Flint used to be a boomtown, until the 80s when corporations started taking their jobs overseas, which got worse in the 90s. Flint, which had depended almost entirely on the auto industry, never really bounced back from that. Then the water crisis hit and we were pretty much all fucked. New businesses don’t want to move into a city known for undrinkable water.

I’m what some would consider a minimalist, but not because of some trend that dudes make documentaries about.

I’m a minimalist because growing up poor, I never knew how to have stuff.

I’m a minimalist because having ADHD, and the Executive Function Disorder that goes with it, means keeping things neat and organized is a huge challenge for me, so it’s easier to just not have stuff.

I’m not just a stuff minimalist, I’m a financial minimalist, too. I spend only what I need to spend to have the things I absolutely love or need to run my business and live my life. Phone, rent (which includes all utilities and food), Netflix, web hosting, and a couple of other subscriptions that make running my business a bit easier. And I make just enough to cover that. I’m okay with that, because my goals are longer-term and growth over time is more important to me than being an overnight success (which is mostly a myth anyway).

My major expenditures are a new computer every couple of years. When my son was younger, and I got a tax refund every year, I’d buy each of us a computer in February, when the refund hit my bank. Now, my son is grown, and I’m self-employed, so I don’t get tax refunds. I usually owe. So buying a new computer means saving or hoping that I sign a client to a big package. The only reason I buy a new computer every couple of years is because my ability to make money as a self-employed individual requires me to have a computer that can keep up with my demands.

I also have a phone, because not having a phone isn’t really an option. It’s a prepaid phone, not contract, which means I had to pay full price for the phone, so I went as cheap as I could and still get a decent phone. Thank goodness for MetroPCS. Phone was $100 and my monthly bill for unlimited everything is $58/month. Metro used to suck. They’re still not the greatest, but since they were bought by TMobile, they’re better.

Minimalism, as a movement, seems to be a reaction to Capitalism and consumer culture. Studies have shown that happiness increases only up to $75,000 a year in income, and above that, money makes no measurable difference in happiness. Consumerism does little to help increase happiness once a person has met all their basic needs. Connection and purpose do more for happiness than having the newest iPhone.

But other than one fluke year 15 years ago when I was selling books on Amazon before the used book market crashed and was flooded with people who had warehouses of used books, I’ve never made more than $30,000 in a year.

I’m not a minimalist because I got fed up of consumer culture; I’ve never really been able to participate in consumer culture. As a single mom making less than poverty wages — and minimum wage is less than poverty wages — I’ve only ever really had enough money to meet my needs, and sometimes, not even then. A significant portion of the stuff I have is gifts from generous friends. Even the phone that I have now I’m only able to have because when I lost my last phone, I reached out to my group on Facebook and a bunch of them chipped in enough for me to buy a new phone. Without the phone, I’m limited — not all clients want to do Skype, and besides that, Skype sucks.

And compared to other people who have similar and even lower incomes than I do, my “minimalism” is luxury and excess. I know people who, not by choice but by circumstance, have only what they can carry in a duffle bag. If these people watched a documentary about a couple of hipsters who got tired of their six-figure jobs and got rid of all their stuff … well, honestly, they wouldn’t watch such a documentary because it wouldn’t make any sense to them. When you don’t have anything, it can be hard to understand why anyone would give up everything. What you do or don’t have doesn’t make you a better person. Neither does it make you happier.

Minimalism, the ability to choose whether or not to have stuff, is a privilege. It’s trendy. It goes in and out of style every few years. Poverty, however, is never in style, and it never really goes away. Even when a person escapes poverty, it haunts them. Even out of it, you know how easy it is to fall back into it. Minimalism is a choice. Poverty is not. When you’re getting rid of your stuff because it doesn’t “spark joy,” remember that some people don’t have anything at all that brings them any sort of joy.

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