When does minimalism go too far?

This article was written by Katy Wolk-Stanley of The Non-Consumer Advocate, a blog about frugality, food waste, environmentalism, simple living and finding thrift-store bargains. She describes herself as a “mother, utility bill scholar, laundry hanger-upper, library patron, frequent napper, and Buffy enthusiast.” When not blogging (or napping) Katy works as a high-risk labor and delivery nurse. Katy's blog has been featured in many major media outlets, including The National Enquirer, which featured Whitney Houston suffering from “Cocaine and Booze Binges” on the cover. She couldn't be happier.

The subject of minimalism (and blogging about minimalism) is currently hotter than Megan Fox before her last round of plastic surgery. And if the plethora of minimalism blogs is any indication, it's just a matter of weeks until we all live in spartan homes surrounded by our 100 lovingly-chosen personal items. And as much as I joke, there's nothing wrong with being deliberate and thoughtful about the things we surround ourselves with, but I have to wonder: When is too little, too much?

I mull over the “is less more?” quandary on a regular basis, but I began over-thinking the subject when Naomi Seldin of Simpler Living posted a piece about the wit and wisdom of Nate Berkus. (Berkus is Oprah's protégé and personal decorating guru.) It included this quote:

For a long time I was hell-bent on clutter-free living. I was a ruthless editor when it came to my possessions, to the point where my homes were very sparse, very minimal. Then I realized that's not who I am. I wanted to be surrounded by things that moved me. I wanted to have tabletops piled with books and shells and candles. But it took me a while to let go of this very rigid idea I had, of what my space should look like. Once I started letting stuff in, I really started making a home for myself.

I live in a 96-year-old craftsman-style house and have garnered great pleasure fixing it up and filling it with appropriate period Stuff. At the same time, I've fought a constant battle with clutter and excessive belongings. It's not a monetary issue (as I am the thrift-store goddess), but apparently I lack an organized brain. That, plus I'm just one of four inhabitants in this house, all of whom possess differing ideas about what should stay and what should go.

I read a few of the minimalism blogs, specifically Rowdy Kittens, Simpler Living and occasionally Zen Habits. I also enjoyed reading Dave Bruno's 100 Thing Challenge: How I Got Rid of Almost Everything, Remade my Life and Regained my Soul. But even Bruno is not shy to admit that he's upped his belongings number now that his official yearlong experiment is completed.

Tammy Strobel of Rowdy Kittens and I are friends, and I've been to her apartment a number of times. (In November, Tammy wrote about pedaling toward financial freedom here at GRS.) She and her husband Logan both practice a 100 things challenge, and their home reflects this choice. There are no shelves crammed with books and knick-knacks. There's a dearth of rugs, extraneous furniture, collectibles, and the other ephemera that clutter typical American homes. It may sound impersonal, but it actually works perfectly for the space they've chosen for their home.

My 12-year-old son's room used to be filled with so many toys, games, stuffed animals, art supplies, books, pillows and Legos that it made keeping it tidy an impossibility — and often a hazard. But he and I have gone through a few rounds of decluttering that have transformed his room from war zone to peaceful meadow. I'm happy that my son now has a room where play and study can happen, but I worry that he was too ruthless in his quest for order, and that he will later regret his decisions.

I'm currently amassing a garage sale stash in my basement, and plan to recruit his services when it comes time to order the mayhem. I expect (and frankly, hope) that my son will re-appropriate a few of his personal possessions. Going from too many to not enough without a middle ground seems too fast, too soon, too much.

My older son's room is more typical of what one would expect from an American teenager, with strewn clothing, papers, knick-knacks and miscellaneous crap littering every horizontal surface. I let it go, as it's not my room.

I asked my Twitter followers if they had any thoughts about minimalism going too far, and this was the response:

  • DakotaGale: “re: minimalism, focusing on the # of possessions accomplishes little. Focus on the quality of the possessions – not <50!”
  • MarianneKthleen: “When you have given up so much you have lost the joy in some things.”
  • FeathrdFriendsy: “I think it's a great topic. Taking any behavior to the extreme can be damaging and unhealthy. And nobody ever seems to address taking healthy behaviors too far.”
  • gleanorganics: “Making everything yourself all the time so that your passions become chores – no point in losing happiness over it.”
  • mile73: “Thoughts on that. Favorite old clothes? Baby blankets? Keep? Or is empty space (mental physical) as valuable & important?”

Extreme minimalism is akin to extreme frugality: It works for some people, but robs others of life's dear enjoyments.

I wouldn't be comfortable living in a home without my cool Stuff. I'm drawn to the William Morris quote that Claire shared in her reader story last weekend: “Have nothing in your houses which you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” And I guess it turns out that I see beauty in a lot of stuff.

Do you think minimalism goes too far? Or does the minimalist movement appeal to you? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

“Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without”

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