If you’ve spent any time online or in a bookstore in the past year, you’ve probably come across the Minimalism movement.
Whether it’s the global phenomenon of Marie Kondo’s “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering,” the rise of the tiny home aesthetic, or any of the hundreds of bloggers around the world who have embraced the concept, minimalism is clearly having its moment.
So what, exactly, is minimalism? And what does it have to say about personal finance?
That’s actually not so easy to explain.
What is Minimalism?
Minimalism is a collection of beliefs and practices united by a belief that less can be more. There are no hard and fast rules to it. Rather, minimalism can be best explained in the same way that Justice Potter Stewart described hardcore pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
Or, perhaps, more clearly, minimalism can be described by what you don’t see when you practice it, i.e. debt, consumerism and a home full of clutter. Minimalists generally support eliminating the superfluous parts of life in order to concentrate on the more important parts.
Having too much stuff, minimalists argue, destroys us. It’s better to get rid of much of it. Debt, minimalists suggest, ties us to jobs we hate and fill us with anxiety. Clutter forces us to clean up constantly. Fashion drives us to spend money we don’t have on things we don’t need. When we allow consumerism to turn us into people obsessed with things, we are no longer the people we are meant to be.
But within that overarching philosophy, there are as many approaches to minimalism as there are minimalists.
“Minimalism isn’t a set of rules, a specific number of material possessions, or trying to organize your home so it’s tidy,” Sam Farrington, a minimalist who runs the Add by Subtraction blog, says. “Minimalism is getting rid of the excess and unnecessary in your life so you have more time and resources to focus on your purpose and passions. This means minimalism will look different for everybody. The same is true for how a minimalist approaches personal finance, it’s personal to that individual.”
Minimalism and money
Farrington is also a certified financial planner. And his blog promotes an approach to money that, while minimalist in nature, can be used by anyone.
Here are four steps that Farrington recommends.
- Avoid debt. If you’re already in debt (as most of America is), get on a plan to eliminate debt as fast as you can. This takes time and patience, but it is the best way to have a solid financial foundation for you and your family. This gives you more resources to reallocate to what’s important to you.
- Automate as much as you possibly can when it comes to your finances. Utility payments, mortgage/rent payments, saving, and investing. Take yourself out of the equation to not only get compound interest working in your favor, but to give you more time to focus on what’s important to you. If you want an emergency fund, have your bank automatically transfer money over to your safety net fund on set intervals. If you have to start small, start small. The important thing is to start and automate it.
- When it comes to investing, keep it simple and minimize investment fees. Most people do not have the time, and more importantly, the expertise to research the thousands of investment options that are available to all of us. There are awesome companies, like Betterment, that do all the heavy lifting for you at an extremely reasonable cost.
- Minimize the cost of The Big 3: homes, cars, and student loans. Mortgages, car loans, and student loans are consistently the three largest line items on a family budget. Evaluating and potentially downsizing (or not upsizing) your home, purchasing used cars (preferably with cash savings), and doing everything in your power to not have student loans in the first place are three of the quickest ways to positively impact your family’s finances.
Why try the bare minimum?
A leading voice in the minimalism movement is Fumio Sasaki, who reduced his material possessions to a roll-up mattress; three shirts; four pairs of socks; a box that serves as a table, chair and desk; and a computer. In his book, “Goodbye, Things,” Sasaki argues that his old life was one of depression, too much alcohol, jealousy of his friend’s material success, and a sense of failure.
But by embracing minimalism and purging his life of possessions, he replaced despair with joy.
“By having fewer things around, I’ve started feeling happier each day. I’m slowly beginning to understand what happiness is,” he wrote.
Sasaki’s beliefs echo those seen on the Becoming Minimalist website, one of the most influential of the movement’s outposts in the West. With a Facebook community of 750,000 and an email list of 100,000, Becoming Minimalist has become one of the leading voices of American minimalism — a strain of the philosophy with echoes of Yankee ingenuity, Quaker simplicity and Depression-era frugality.
With an emphasis on selling or recycling unneeded items, eliminating debt, and limiting your time commitments, the Becoming Minimalist community urges people to embrace the parts of life with true value.
Or as co-founder Joshua Becker puts it: “Possessions do not make us happy. Even worse, too often, they keep us from the very things that do bring happiness and purpose and fulfillment into our lives. This is the very foundation of minimalism. Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value by the removal of anything that distracts us from it.”
Or, as Sam Farrington told us, “Wealth is not about how much you have, but rather how little you need.”
Interested in trying minimalism?
You can learn more about minimalism on my blog abigfishinasmallpond.com, but here’s a simple way to start: Grab a large bag and walk through your home. Find items that you don’t need. They can be big, small, old, new, whatever. Marie Kondo would suggest you look at them and ask if they “spark joy.” Anything that doesn’t meet that simple test gets thrown in the bag. When you have 10 items in the bag, stop. Then throw away, recycle or give away all 10.
Then take note how you feel.
It’s nice, isn’t it? That feeling of freedom, that sense of accomplishment, that simple and clean sensation of having less to deal with and less to worry about is the path toward a completely new way of thinking about stuff, money and life.
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