minimalism and moneyOver the Christmas break, I watched the documentary The Minimalists. As someone who has embraced minimalism since childhood (I was a weird kid with a very clean room), I found myself nodding like crazy throughout the first quarter of the movie. “YES! It’s so true! We consume way too much crap and don’t value quality!” I was all for it. But when they started talking money, I stopped in my tracks.

“I wish everyone could be rich and famous so they can see that it’s not the answer.”

Quoting Jim Carrey, the documentary argued that there’s too much emphasis on money in our society. We think money will buy us happiness and, well, it just won’t. Wealth is not the answer, people. A big part of me agrees with this. However, another part of me is uncomfortable with this message.

The Trend Toward Less

I have always been a fan of frugality in the truest sense of the word. I like efficiency, not only with spending, but also with time, energy, and even material goods. I don’t like clutter or waste. I hate keeping things I don’t use. It’s never been a moral thing as much as a personal preference, most likely rooted in the fact that my mind is always cluttered and simplifying my environment seems to help me feel a little less anxious, confused, and distracted. For me, less is good.

There’s been a huge movement toward minimalism, efficiency, and frugality lately. You see it everywhere, not just documentaries and books. You see it in the mid-century modern coffee shop that opened up down the street. Or on the hottest HGTV show about tiny houses.

While I relate to minimalism on an aesthetic level (and even on a Buddhist level to some extent), something about the trend toward minimalism is unsettling. It seems problematic, at least in the current state of our economy, to push the virtue of minimalism in terms of wealth. Despite being overshadowed by more pressing headlines, income inequality hasn’t gotten any better. The average income of the top 10% of Americans is upwards of $200k and the top 1% earn over six million a year. But the vast majority–90% of people–make an average of $33,000 a year. 

I can’t help but feel like this trend toward “less is better” is surrendering to a problem we should be fixing. I like the idea of less is more, just not when it comes to my earning potential. 

For 90% of People, Less Money Is Not the Solution

The story of the six-figure corporate mogul who left his soul-sucking job to embrace a life of minimalism is great. Noble, even. But considering the current state of our economy, that’s not most people’s story. Most people are struggling to adapt. Minimalism and frugality as a moral code tell people that having stuff is bad. And this message suggests, especially when coupled with the “I left my job for a life of less” story, that money, too, is bad.

Like it or not, money represents flexibility, freedom, choices, value and, ultimately, power. When you have money, you don’t have to make desperate decisions that spiral you into a lifetime of debt. When you have money, you don’t have to depend on someone else to support you. When you have money, you have more flexibility to leave your shit job. These cliches about money being the root of all evil tell people that money doesn’t matter, but it does. 

No, money doesn’t equal happiness, but here’s the problem: we’re telling people who already don’t have enough that having less is a good thing. For ten years of my professional life, I rarely asked for a raise, often worked for free, and was sorely underpaid. To cope with this, I repeated the same mantra: money doesn’t matter. It did not serve me well.

When people say money shouldn’t matter, all it does is give more power to those who already have it. Phrases like, “I wish everyone could be rich and famous so they can see that it’s not the answer” completely disregard the fact that for a lot of people, money is the answer. If you can’t pay rent and you’re about to get evicted, money is the answer. If you can barely afford to put food on the table for your family, money will solve that, too. It might be a good message for the top 10% of earners, but for the vast majority of the population, less money is not the solution. For most of us, money matters. 

The Problem With Encouraging People to Want Less

As a minimalist and a frugal person, I’m not knocking the concepts of minimalism or frugality. It just seems like a really bad time to sell the general population an idea that less is more. It seems like a bad time to sell them the idea that money is problematic. It’s like saying, “Hey, you only make $33,000 and can barely make ends meet, but that’s okay, because tiny houses are cool!” When we buy into this idea that money is superficial are we embracing a philosophy or just surrendering to injustice? 

But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’m off base and maybe I’m throwing out the baby with the bathwater. I don’t like consumerism, and I do think there’s too much emphasis on it in our culture. I can attest there is a freedom in not being tied down to your stuff. But there’ss also freedom in knowing you have enough money in the bank. Money is not the goal, but it’s not an enemy, either.  It’s okay to strive for more of it. At least now, in an economy where wealth is outrageously imbalanced, it seems problematic to sell the general, underpaid population the idea that they don’t need more money.

Aside from this point of view, though, I did enjoy the documentary and I’m still a fan of minimalism. What do you guys think? Am I missing something or do you feel this way, too? 

Photo: thecolourgrey

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Kristin writes and makes videos about money, the economy, freelancing, and travel. She's written for Lifehacker, NBC News, Mentalfloss and more. Learn more about her here.