Minimalism Is Not Just For The Wealthy

Even The Poor Need To Tidy Up

Marie Kondo, the current patron saint of minimalism, although she doesn’t put it as such

I’ve been an amateur minimalist for a few years now. I only own six or so pairs of shoes, all my clothes can fit in a large suitcase, and with the exception of furniture, all of my worldly possessions have always fit in a minivan. (In 2017, me and all my possessions called a 1997 GMC van home while I drove up and down the east coast).

Since reading Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, my minimalism has gotten even more extreme. All my clothes probably fit in a small suitcase now, and all my possessions into the trunk of a sedan.

In all these years of minimalism, I have heard only one objection to minimalism, but I’ve heard it over and over.

“Minimalism is for the wealthy, but poor people can’t afford it.”

In the past, I’ve just nodded along and agreed even though I don’t agree, but I’m done with that. As an experienced minimalist, here is what I have to say:

Myth: Minimalists can afford to buy replacements for what they get rid of. Poor people can’t.

Fact: Minimalists aren’t buying replacements at all.

Everyone familiar with minimalism has heard the minimalist mantra ‘if you need it, you can buy it again’ Consequently, the first objection to minimalism poor people have is that they don’t have the money to buy things again.

In fact, my best friend said it to me just the other day.

You can’t really be minimalist when you’re poor because you need to keep stuff in case you need it because you can’t afford to buy another.

Minimalists always say “You can always buy another” but in truth, we almost never need another.

Humans have a cognitive bias called Loss Aversion. Loss Aversion causes us to feel afraid when we let go of the things we own. When we suddenly think “what if we need another,” it’s due to Loss Aversion.

Loss Aversion is not rational. It’s an instinct leftover from more primitive times. When all you owned was some leather pelts and a spear, it was essential you didn’t lose those items. We evolved loss aversion as a way to make sure we wouldn’t. But we’re not in primitive times anymore, and this instinct has gone from helpful aid to self-destructive impulse.

“You can always buy another” is a way to soothe that ancient impulse. That’s why minimalists say it to each other all the time. Ask a minimalist if they’ve ever actually replaced anything, and they’ll tell you they can count the number of replacements they’ve bought on one hand.

The reality is that once you get rid of an item, you feel regret for two or three days and then you never think about it ever again.

We need far, far less than what we imagine.

If you’re trying minimalism and are worried about replacement cost, set aside some money ($50) as a ‘replacement fund.’ Put it in a jar if possible to prevent you from spending it on other things. If you don’t have the money for this replacement fund, take the items you’re disposing of to consignment shops and make the proceeds your ‘replacement fund.’
I’ll bet you won’t even spend it.

Myth: Minimalism is more expensive.

Fact: Minimalism costs less because you buy less.

Minimalism costs less because duh, you buy less. It boggles my mind that anyone thinks otherwise

People assume that poor people already buy less because they have less money, but this is just not true. America is a wealthy enough nation that only the poorest of the poor don’t have enough disposable income to go to the dollar store to shop. Even people in the lowest financial class of Americans still take their paycheck to Walmart to joy shop sometimes.

Before you say “poor people wouldn’t spend like that, they’d save their money,” know that we are not the rational people we like to think we are. There’s a whole field called behavioral economics devoted to the study of how seemingly rational people make irrational financial decisions. In other words: people wealthy and poor make the decision to spend their paycheck when they get it instead of saving all the time.

This isn’t just theory. I myself once knew someone with a low income who owned so many clothes that they burst out of the closet and onto the floor in piles multiple feet high. Books were piled on all the bookshelves and stacked along the entire length of the wall, and then some more stacked on the floor as well. What Marie Kondo would call komono was strewn across the floor in bags that were set down and remained where they were set forever after. They had to be on the floor, as there was no real furniture in the main area except for the bookshelves.

I knew this person well, well enough to know where they’d gotten most of this stuff. It was a combination of gifts, purchases from thrift stores, and purchases made at retail price. Let’s conservatively assume the value of everything using consignment store prices. Two hundred clothing items at $7 an item (local consignment store price) is $1,400 and two hundred books at $3 (local used bookstore price) is $600, giving us a grand total of $2000 worth of books and clothes alone.

Why is this significant? The stated reason they didn’t have a couch was that they ‘couldn’t afford it.’

my face when I heard that

If you prefer broad examples over anecdotes, consider that hoarders (at least as popularized by the TV show Hoarders) are almost always poor.

Poor people are not excluded from the dangers of consumerism simply by virtue of being poor. If even the poor in this country can afford to become hoarders, then we absolutely do not suffer a shortage of stuff.

Myth: Minimalists always buy luxury goods like on Instagram

Fact: Minimalism has nothing to do with luxury goods

Many minimalists own luxury goods. Many people who practice minimalism end up purchasing more expensive products when they do purchase things. If you’re buying fewer things, you have more disposable income. You also have fewer purchases to spread that disposable income between. Your budget-per-item goes way up. Since you own fewer things, that which you do own gets more use, meaning they have to be of higher quality. Because of that, it makes sense to spend more per item.

Take the humble t-shirt. Many non-minimalists own so many clothes that most only get worn two or three times. A minimalist’s t-shirt, by contrast, will be worn hundreds of times. It makes sense to purchase a t-shirt which will stand up to the abuse.

If a minimalist has a large income, these things are likely to be even more expensive, because they have a lot of money and they can afford it.

Before you judge wealthy minimalists — are you really telling me that if you made $100,000 a year and only had one pair of shoes, that you wouldn’t spend big on them? Please.

That’s how you end up with photos like this.

This is what happens when you combine minimalism with wealth.

These photos are beautiful… and misleading.

Minimalism is not an expensive interior design philosophy where you buy white tables, bamboo bookshelves, and black dishes. Minimalism is not an interior design philosophy at all. Minimalism is a philosophy of ownership. You can own nothing except $10 furniture from goodwill and stained ratty clothes and still be a minimalist.

It boggles my mind that people even need to be told this. Yes, of course, you can practice a philosophy of buying and owning less on a budget! This is a philosophical match made in heaven. What better way is there to save money than not buying things?

Rich minimalists spend three hundred dollars on their backpacks. You don’t have to. All it takes to be a minimalist is the decision to use only one backpack, whether it cost $300 or $30.

I’ll grant that low-income minimalism isn’t as attractive as the Instagram photos make it out to be. An apartment with nothing but $10 furniture from goodwill and stained, ratty clothes isn’t aesthetically appealing — but it is still minimalist.

This ugly room is just as minimalist as the one pictured above, but no one is putting this on Instagram.

People make the assumption that since the poor have less money, they buy fewer things. They also assume they cannot afford to dispose of what they do own, so they cannot be minimalist. I’ve demonstrated by now why that’s not true, but in my observation, the opposite is true: it is often the poor who buy more.

Wait, what?

I have rich friends and poor friends, but time and time again it is my poor friends who walk out of the store with a dozen cheap items they don’t need. It’s my poor friends who fall prey to sales. If the sale is steep enough, they can’t seem to stop themselves. I’ve seen my poor friends spend money they absolutely don’t have to get a TV on sale that yesterday they didn’t even want because it’s never going to be this cheap again.

My wealthy friends, on the other hand, are able to pass it up. They feel that if they want a new TV later, they will have the money later, so they can easily say no.

The difference is their level of emotional security around money. My poor friends seem to feel that they won’t have the money later, so they need to get things now while they can. My wealthy friends, on the other hand, seem to believe that they will have money later if they want it, so they can wait to purchase things.

If my poor friends truly needed everything they bought, their assessment would be the right one. It is always wiser to buy something on sale instead of buying it at full retail price. But they don’t need everything they buy. They don’t need cheap tchotchkes from Walmart. They don’t need a new TV on steep sale. Instead of saving money, their purchases dig them deeper into their hole of poverty.

Meanwhile, my wealthy friends save the money they didn’t spend on a new TV, and when the even better TV comes out six months later, they have plenty of money for it in their savings account, reinforcing the cycle of wealth. But of course, they still don’t need a new TV, so they still aren’t too tempted by it.

And for the coup de grâce: My wealthy friends are not that much wealthier than my poor friends. They fall somewhere in the lower-middle to middle class. What separates my poor friends and my wealthy friends is not the amount of money they have as much as their attitude about money.

(I’d like to take the time to remind everyone again that I’m not speaking of people at the bottom of the income spectrum. I am speaking of anyone who’s bought anything for pleasure in the last calendar year, which is the vast majority of the income spectrum).

Poor people seem to think that the reason rich kids grow up to be rich adults is that the money rolls down through the generations, but it’s not that simple. Economists go back and forth about what causes intergenerational poverty, but they’re certain that part of it is education. Kids raised by rich parents are taught how to be rich, and kids raised by poor parents aren’t. Poor parents have what Rich Dad, Poor Dad author Robert Kiyosaki would call a poor man’s attitude. Others call it a scarcity mindset.

What, exactly, is a scarcity mindset?

People with scarcity mindsets are afraid of the future.

They don’t think they’ll have money in the future. The money they have now is all the money they can count on.

This leads to an array of bizarre and self-destructive behavior:

  1. People with a scarcity mindset believe you can’t ever save or invest because you need all the money you have now.
  2. Because they don’t think the future has money, they develop a sense of emergency about getting money. Instead of applying for long-term jobs and waiting a few weeks for interviews, they start applying to short-term jobs you can get hired at tomorrow.
  3. When they get that short-term job, they don’t apply for long-term jobs while working it.
  4. When that job is up, they are back to their sense of emergency and scramble for the next short-term job.
  5. Because they are always moving from temp job to temp job, they lose the ability to get more secure work, thus pushing wealth farther out of reach.
  6. Because they don’t believe in the future, they try to stretch money — at the expense of the future. They buy cars that are about to break down because they’re only $700 now. When they break down in two or three months, they spend $700 again. And again, and again, and again.
  7. Because they are always scrambling from low-paid temp job to low-paid temp job and they are always stretching money now at the expense of the future, they are never able to invest in any sense of the word.
  8. Because they didn’t invest and do not have stable jobs, they continue to encounter a future where they don’t have dependable money, which reinforces their scarcity mindset. Their life degenerates into an endless scramble.
  9. Because their life is an endless scramble, they get good things where they can, when they can. If they have a spare $100 for once in their life, they spend it on new clothes. If they have a spare $300, it’s time for a new TV. After all, when will they get another chance for these nice things? This, of course, leaves even less money.

Obviously, not every example of poverty is this extreme. But, every example of poverty has one or more of these dynamics at play.

I remember reading that cash transfers do not typically alleviate poverty. For those who don’t speak economics, ‘cash transfers’ means giving poor people money, and it doesn’t make them rich. They are quickly poor again, thanks to the scarcity mindset. (see: anyone who has won the lottery and gone broke again).

The scarcity mindset is what makes minimalism so hard for the poor. Every time someone with a scarcity mindset donates something, their scarcity mindset says ‘you’ll never get to have this again.’ It says ‘you’re throwing money down the drain.’ When a person with a scarcity mindset tries to discard something, loss aversion grips them tight and tells them never to let that item go. People who don’t have the scarcity mindset (i.e. rich people) don’t feel this fear when adopting minimalism, so adopting minimalism is no more than an organizational exercise.

You can’t be minimalist and have a scarcity mindset. The scarcity mindset is characterized by chronic fear of the future. Minimalism depends on faith in the future. Faith, here, is not a religious term. It means knowing that what you need in the future will be available in the future. Minimalists have an abundance mindset, as opposed to a scarcity mindset. As a minimalist, I know the future will have what I (materially) need. I know the future will have what poor people need, too.

Poor people tend not to believe this because they are, well, poor. Their internal narratives, the stories they tell themselves about the world, are ones of lack.

I don’t need religious faith to believe the future has the material items I need because, in America, it is observable fact. As we established earlier, the poor of America are quite capable of clogging their house with possessions. Clearly, the past of these poor people had plenty of stuff. There is no reason to believe that the future will not continue to hold stuff for them. It isn’t expensive fancy stuff, but it is stuff all the same.

I don’t mean to say the poor don’t suffer. They certainly suffer plenty. Lack of health insurance, only being able to afford a ten-year-old beater car, living on a bad side of town and getting attacked on the way home, drug addiction, and other negatives of being poor are very real. I merely mean to demonstrate that the challenges of poverty (in America, at least) have no bearing on whether you can be minimalist or not.

Ultimately, the scarcity/abundance mindset dichotomy is why people who convert to minimalism typically start out rich. Rich people typically already have an abundance mindset. For someone with an abundance mindset, minimalism is just an organizational exercise. It’s a big change, sure, but it’s nothing to be scared of.

When poor people convert to minimalism, on the other hand, they have to confront all their fear of loss and their fear of the future. They have to, somehow, find a way to believe the future has what they need (even though they feel it never has before). This is an emotional transformation ten times more challenging than the mere act of discarding.

A poor person who tries to be minimalist is, therefore, to me, ten times more impressive as well. Minimalism is already challenging enough without having to confront fear on top of it.

Here’s what an abundance mindset looks like for us minimalists:

  1. We know we’ll be able to get what we need when we need it.
  2. Because we know this, we are able to say no to spending our money on things now. We know whatever we are considering buying now will be still there later if we really want or need it.
  3. Inevitably, we don’t really want or need it.
  4. Because that money stays in our pocket, we have more money in our pockets!
  5. Because we have faith in the future, we feel secure enough to do responsible things with that money, like pay off debt/save up for education/use it to switch careers.
  6. Because we invested, we move forward into a future where things are better than they are worse — reinforcing our abundance mindset.

When people say minimalism turned their financial life around, this is how that happened.

What’s truly ironic about this is that, as I covered earlier, minimalism doesn’t actually cost any more than non-minimalism! You don’t need more money to be minimalist, you just need to believe you already have enough. Even more ironically, it is through that belief that you can begin to actually have more.

Minimalism can improve anyone’s life. But I would say it can improve the life of someone who’s poor more than it can the life of someone who is rich because it can change a few of the attitudes that lead to poverty itself.

I’d like to close with a vignette about a desperately poor minimalist. This particular person is fictional but is based on real-life encounters I’ve had with real-life people.

He drives a van. It’s not a nice van; it was made sometime in the late-2000’s. In the back is a mattress and a couple jugs. One jug has clean water, one has gray water. To the other side, a plastic bin holds nothing but food. Canned food, dry pasta, and anything else that fits in well with a lifestyle cooking food at the side of the road. There’s a duffel bag with some clothes, and a camp stove with butane in the back corner.
His work boots are in the front. When he needs money, he picks up temporary farm work. The American south is great for work picking fruits during the harvest, and the 12 hour days are grueling but they pay well. Well, that is, for someone who’s only costs are the gas that get the van down the road to the next farm.
Sometimes he splurges on a campground with a heated shower. These are his ‘spa days,’ and they’re when he shaves his bristly beard and takes general stock of his health. When he has a job on a farm, sometimes the farm owners will let him shower there, too. Otherwise, he uses a solar shower out behind the van.
If it doesn’t fit in the van, it doesn’t go with him. He’s as minimalist as it gets. He lives this lifestyle on about $12,000 a year. The only time he feels poor is when his van breaks down and he has no money to repair it with.
And he’s happy.

If he can make it work, so can you.

My own not-nice van made not in the late aughts, but in the late 90's!