The Downside to Minimalism (that no one likes to talk about)

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Minimalism is in. Marie Kondo has become a household name, and even Emily Gilmore jumped on the decluttering bandwagon!




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Reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up two years ago changed my life for the better. Trust me, I’m a believer, right down to the way I fold my clothes.

I joined the ranks donating bag after bag of unworn clothes, unplayed with toys, and unread books. The clutter disappeared, I spend far less time now cleaning and reorganizing our belongings, and I can finally think straight (as straight as a mom with four little kids can, anyways).

I breathe easier. I have spare time.

But for the middle class, single income family, there is a downside, and no one likes to talk about it.

A Different Kind of Materialism

Proponents of minimalism argue that a clutter-free environment decreases stress and reduces time spent maintaining your belongings, and I wholeheartedly agree. If you are wavering over tossing an item, minimalism says, “Get rid of it! If you really need it, you can always buy a new one later.”

Except when you can’t.

You see, people who write about minimalism do so with two underlying assumptions: 1) You have discretionary income and 2) that income is being spent on lots of unnecessary stuff.

Joshua Becker in his book The More of Less states, “Once we let go of the things that don’t matter, we are free to pursue all the things that really do matter.” Minimalism theoretically frees up money to make intentional purchases that align with our life purpose. We can also potentially save money to buy higher quality, longer lasting items.

Except when you can’t.

The Millenial Middle Class

The argument breaks down for many middle class millenials because money often isn’t really “freed up”.

For millenials, embracing minimalism simply halts overspending and stops the consumer debt cycle.

What millenials have in greater numbers than any other generation is this: student loan debt.

For example, when my husband and I got married, our debt combined to equal more than $90,000 together! The payments, even with one on a 20 year plan, totaled more than $700 per month.

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According to the Huffington Post, students graduating in the class of 2014 averaged $28,950 in student loan debt. Millenials don’t have much discretionary income at all, it turns out, and what they do have goes to necessities like a working vehicle, retirement, or paying down loans (source).

Our family personally still has around $25,000 in student debt to pay off (thank you, Boston University), and even with payments being lower on a 20-year plan, there’s not much left for fun things like new furniture, travel, or vacations. We struggle to save, and would love to buy a house one day in order to lower the amount going to housing, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards right now. I am committed to being a stay at home, homeschooling mom, so the near future isn’t looking much different.

“Is it useful? Is it beautiful?”

Here’s the dilemma: when you do not have discretionary income, decluttering actually increases your attachment to the belongings that remain.

When you are left only with items you truly love, accidents become far more costly. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to stop myself from saying to my kids, “We don’t have money to replace that!”

The five pairs of jeans hanging in my closet? That’s it. I don’t have a back-up stash in storage somewhere.

If they rip, or my three year old smears mud or bleeds on them, leaving a permanent stain, I either need to live with them or buy another pair. And when you have a big family there’s just not a lot of extra money to do that.

We try to teach our kids time and again that people are far more valuable than possessions. But if they accidentally break the only end table we have? It’s really tough to swallow the agonizing cry that wants to escape my lips, “But I really loved that!”

An Invitation to Trust

So am I against minimalism? No. I wholeheartedly agree that we need less stuff in our homes, fewer activities on our calendars, and more time to spend with people and on our true purpose. In short, I don’t have an easy answer to this downside.

What I do know is that minimalism does accomplish one thing for those of us living on lower incomes: it exposes our fear.

And if our lives are filled with fear – fear of not having enough to pay the bills, never have money for retirement, not being able to replace that one thing that survived our decluttering – then we’ve got bigger problems than just the clutter and the excess stuff.

Minimalism strips away our self-protection, so we can hear a quiet invitation to trust – trust that God, the one who owns everything (Ps. 50:10-11) and promises to provide for us (Matt. 6:27-34) will take care of not just our present needs, but our future ones too.

But the next time you preach the amazing benefits minimalism to a friend, tone it down just a bit. Be sensitive. See beyond your own circumstances.

Just because she is staying home with her kids doesn’t mean its a comfortable choice that makes sense on paper. She could be on a lonely faith journey – lonely because we don’t talk about incomes in our society; voicing your salary aloud is taboo. Her circumstances could be forcing her to trust that God will provide when something wears out or breaks. She could be making great sacrifices to live out her ideals.

She could be me.

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