A constant criticism of Minimalism is that it is a philosophy that is only for the privileged and is anti-poor. This is a criticism The Minimalists, Josh and Ryan, respond to regularly. As someone who has volunteered in Legal Aid’s intake department and the Guardian ad Litem program in my short legal career, I have immense sympathy for those of lower socioeconomic status and have used my position of relative privilege for their benefit. It truly hurts for people to suggest I identify with a group that doesn’t.
I’m willing to accept the constructive criticism and admit that there are aspects that may seem quite privileged and many of the practitioners of minimalism tend to be quite privileged people. Indeed, I admit that I am a relatively privileged person. All the discussion by minimalists of cars and vacations might make it seem like minimalism doesn’t have any application to the lives of lower-income people. With many minimalist commentators (and minimalism’s adherents) maintaining such a focus on the decluttering process, those that don’t have much in the first place might tune out the larger message. I explained that most of the things I got rid of during the decluttering process were not things I purchased in the first place, due in large part to my mom’s job working closely with people in their homes who give her things they no longer want. Most of the things I got rid of that I purchased for myself were old enough I felt like I “got my money’s worth.” It would have been much harder for me to get rid of so much had I actually paid my hard-earned money to purchase all of it. As it is, it was hard not to mentally tally up the dollar figures as I made trip after trip to the thrift store with a car full of items, many of which I had paid for myself, some of which I had not.
That’s not to say I agree with everything anyone who identifies as a minimalist says. The Becoming Minimalist Facebook page posted the following article. The article, about overcoming embarrassment about old cars/small houses, etc. was very similar in tone to my previous article that discussed how avoiding the pressures from others was an important part of the minimalist journey for me. The comment section of the Becoming Minimalist article revealed some disgusting, unchecked privilege that made me uncomfortable.
Many of the commenters felt the need to point out that they were able to afford better than what they had. This misses the point because they are still in the toxic mindset of competing with others—only now they are competing to see who has the least stuff/oldest car/oldest clothes/etc. It just changes who they look down their nose at and why. One of the reasons I find minimalism so freeing is that it releases us from the expectations of others. I don’t have to worry about the boy who said my car was too old, or those who said my ring was too small. My car is good enough for me. My ring is good enough for me. Their opinions don’t matter. It is my life and, at the end of the day, I am the only one (besides arguably my husband) who must live with and approve of my financial and other life decisions.
It also buys into the cultural narrative that there is some virtue inherent in being “able to afford” expensive things. These commenters feel the need to draw a distinction between themselves, who obviously has an older car because they are way more enlightened than everyone else and the person who has an older car because they *gasp* have no job/bad credit/can’t afford a car payment right now/etc., lest anyone think they are the latter.
Having lots of money is not a virtue and not having much money is not a moral failing. Many people, especially in America, believe differently, as evidenced by the many Trump supporters that state in interviews some permutation of the following: “He’s worth a billion dollars. He must be pretty smart.” Regardless of my personal political views, I don’t believe there is any correlation between a person’s net worth and their intelligence or morality. If you don’t believe me, consider the example of such miserable, morally repugnant people as Mother Teresa and Gandhi. (Obvious sarcasm here).
That doesn’t mean rich people are inherently evil, either. Consider people like Bill and Melinda Gates, who used their wealth and fame to create a charity that, among other things, tackles global health issues like malaria and HIV. It’s not their wealth that makes Bill and Melinda Gates morally admirable people, it’s what they choose to do with it. On the other hand, living some sort of extreme minimalist lifestyle, depriving myself and my family for the sake of deprivation does not make me happier or morally superior, either. But if my minimalist lifestyle allows me to donate money to worthy causes, take a lower paying public interest job, or volunteer time to those less fortunate, that’s what counts.
I don’t have to get a new car (and a new car payment) every 2 years because I don’t care if you think my car is old or whether you think I can’t afford a newer one. Having a newer car doesn’t make me a happier or morally superior person. The main benefit of minimalism is realizing there’s no correlation one way or the other. You will cease to be impressed by the things people have and will be more impressed by the things people do.