what we aren’t saying: minimalism and class privilege

I have been following minimalist blogs for a couple months now, and I so appreciate this online community. I would not be where I am in changing my thinking about consumption without the support of many down-to-earth simplify-ers and aspiring minimalists.

Still, I feel somewhat out of place here. Many of the most popular blogs that I read are written from the perspective of people who left high-powered, well-paid and benefited corporate careers for a simpler life and now have plenty of savings to show for it. I can see how that would feel great. It is in fact a very privileged position to be in.

I know privilege well because I, too, have a good education, despite loads of debt. I realize this was a choice. For me it was a choice to improve my life and others’. My income is modest because I work in social services with primarily poor people, and though my husband and I are practicing many of the same methods of frugality as others, we are basically getting by month to month, not saving a large percent of our income, which has worked out fine for us.

Still, because of my work, I am very aware that many people do without and receive stigma rather than praise. To them it is not called “minimalism.” They live on very little, but it is not called anything because it is mostly unacknowledged, and when it does come up they are looked down upon as “lazy” or “irresponsible” (a feeling conveyed in even many minimalists’ posts). So I want to say what most minimalists are not saying: the benefits of minimalism depend in large part on where you start. It is not a financial solve-all, especially for the incredible number of people who are working full-time and still living in debt and poverty because they can’t afford necessities. It is ignorant to assume that all of these people are spending frivolously. It is hard to save when rent and heat and healthcare and food costs go up and your income does not.

Minimalism does, of course, help, and that’s where I find it hopeful. We can take back some control. But as I reflect on this nagging class consciousness, I want to challenge us, myself included, to do more than declutter- to also demystify our privilege when and where it exists and acknowledge the reality that, minimalist or not, class shapes our lives in major ways. Even if we all do what we can individually to live simply and save, it is going to take much more change than that before we and our neighbors can all live debt-free.

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14 thoughts on “what we aren’t saying: minimalism and class privilege

    • Thanks for following my blog. Your post is interesting and a criticism I’ve seen all over the internet. I believe that one must approach minimalism with an abundance mentality and not confuse it was voluntary poverty. There is an area between too much and too little. I was raised in poverty, was educated at a posh school, worked my way up to a large salary and realized that always striving for more-more-more isn’t what brings joy. I feel much happier when I’m not excessively consuming. Everyone needs to define minimalism there own way but being in a place of lacking isn’t it.

  1. I tend to gravitate away from the big bloggers, mostly because they ate selling what they are preaching against. It annoys me that the message is often, buy my stuff that tells you how not to buy stuff. I enjoy coming across blogs such as yours that are thoughts and musings that are helpful but not selling anything.

    I agree with your sentiment that it depends on when you get the message, and this is why I crusade(mostly by example) against he television. I’ll copy and paste from my blog post the other day

    Really rich people are smart. They said
    “How can we make more money and how can we keep it rolling in?”

    There are a limited amount of super wealthy people so we can’t really focus on them and besides super wealthy people aren’t easy to fool.

    The middle class has some money but not enough to buy a bunch of stuff from us.

    I know! We will make owning a lot of stuff, and fancy stuff and useless stuff status symbols! They can’t afford all this of course, but we can get around that by giving them credit! It will give them a way to look rich to their friends! Then we can make money off them being in debt AND we can make money by selling them a bunch of silly garbage, and they will have to keep paying their entire life!!

    BUT! We have to keep the message coming that they will be somebody with all this stuff, that they will be happy and fulfilled with this stuff even when they become so stressed out that they have to resort to pharmaceuticals, drugs and alcohol to cope with living this lifestyle. WAIT! We can make money selling these too!!!

    We can even make money from the message!! Let’s charge them to put a device in their house that constantly pounds this message into their brains and more importantly the brains of their children!! The parents will be so weary from the stress of the lifestyle we impose on them, they will plant their kids in front of the television and we can raise our own little consumers!! Its like a money garden and the kids are the crops!!

    We aren’t making enough money! Let’s create devices that they can carry with them so they never leave our influence! They can buy all kinds of things wherever they are with just a few finger strokes!!!

    We have it all figured out! Now we can keep making more and more and eventually even we will be happy when we finally have enough money!

    The change needed is getting the anticonsumer message to kids as soon as possible.

    It is possible to be very financially secure without having a huge income job. I’m proof- but I started early in life. I think that anyone can start reaping benefits by starting at any time though. I would also argue that the financial aspect and benefit is second to the mental freedom.
    Enjoyed your writings so far!

  2. I agree. From where you start greatly influences the perspective. The education required to make it easier to live is expensive and also watered down with consumerism overtones rather than an intelligent livelihood. I for one wish the perspective of less equals poverty would change. All of our quality of life would increase.

  3. I think everyone has different motives for downsizing or adopting a minimalist life. For me, it’s more about saving time and energy and having those things to do more important things (like spend time with people, travel or write). It will save you money regardless of your starting situation if you downsize your home (energy and maintenance costs, rent/mortgage, property taxes) and if you buy less. So that’s a benefit to minimalism for anyone. For me, minimalist living actually means I’ll make less money because I work less and at a less demanding job than I had before (to have time and energy for other things). Most of us will always be in this bind where we either have time or we have money. We can rarely have both unless we are privileged. It’s all about our priorities. For me, time is more important so my choices align with that.

  4. This is true. Frugal by choice is seen as a victory, frugal by necessity is seen a a failure in some ways. I, personally, admire anyone that’s able to a live minimalistic lifestyle, no matter how much income they’re bringing in.

  5. No one seems to talk about this, but its very true. There is so much stigma attached to people who can fit all their earthly belongings in a shopping cart, versus those that can fit them in a prada bag. Its all a bunch of class privilege. I don’t care for minimalism, just curation. I appreciate those qualities in the poor and rich alike.

  6. I think a main component of minimalism is that is must be voluntary. It is a conscious choice, usually made with the intention of simplifying one’s life and by extensions, you must have had an abundance of *something* before that. Those who do not choose to live with less, but do so because they have no other choice – they are hardly starting from a place of abundance.

  7. “Many of the most popular blogs that I read are written from the perspective of people who left high-powered, well-paid and benefited corporate careers for a simpler life and now have plenty of savings to show for it.”

    I understand where you’re coming from. Although mine might not be popular, I can certainly attest that I’m not in that realm. I think we’re a fairly average family, with student loans debt, and in the early stages toward our minimalism transformation.

    Still, I’d have to agree: the problem with consumption seems to be largely an issue with the affluent (to varying degrees), than with the poor.

  8. So true. As someone struggling to make ends meet most of the time, I can totally relate to your post and this is something I have already thought of myself. How can you possibly save up money if you’re getting a very low salary if any? Something that strikes me is that minimalists often critize cheap fashion and say we should invest in high quality items that will last a long time. I see their point but I can’t afford it. I wanted to think that minimalism was a choice for me, but now I’m not so sure. Having lots of stuff feels overwhelming but perhaps I’d make difference choices if I had more money. Would you?

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