Inside: Minimalism promises freedom from consumerism. But what should you do if instead of setting you free, minimalism makes it worse?

The kitchen displayed so perfectly in the photos was divine. The clutter-free marble countertops (granite, maybe?), called to me.

I couldn’t help but glance around my own kitchen with dismay. 

The blogger mentioned the few items surrounding her sink, one of which was a Simple Human soap dispenser. The second I saw it and read what she loved about it, I knew.

I wanted that soap dispenser – two of them, actually: one for dish soap and one for hand soap. They looked both functional and beautiful, something I look for specifically in anything I buy for our home, new or second-hand.

I hopped over to Amazon right away and was SOOOO close to clicking “add to cart”…until I stopped to do the math.

I realized that together, they would cost $30.

Thirty dollars. Not that big a deal, you say.

Well, it is a big deal when that thirty dollars is about half the wiggle room you have in your budget every month.
Minimalism doesn't always make you want to buy less, at least not at first, and especially if you're trying to do minimalism on a low income.
Minimalism claims to set people free from consumerism. But does it really? Get advice on how to handle struggling with consumerism even AFTER you've become a minimalist.

Minimalism Sometimes Makes You Want More

Thirty dollars to dispense my soap from more beautiful containers.

My finger hovered over the “buy now” button…but still I hesitated.

The cheap, plastic Softsoap dispenser did dispense the soap. And yes, the dish soap did come out of the big ugly BJ’s container.

They both worked just fine, ugly though they were.

I didn’t really need a new soap dispenser, and we certainly needed that money for other things (any extra expenses that month, paying off debt, saving for a house – ya know, the usual adult stuff).

I reluctantly talked myself out of a $30 purchase.

But this isn’t the first time this has happened, and I don’t always make the same choice.

I sometimes buy the pretty, shiny thing, instead of talking myself out of it.

In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve struggled more with consumerism since becoming a minimalist than I did before.

How is that possible???

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Not Your Average Minimalist

Before I get much further, you need to know that I came to minimalism from different life circumstances than many other minimalists.

Minimalists do come from all ends of the income spectrum and all walks of life, but the general consensus seems to be that more minimalists come from circumstances of abundance and excess than they do from places of financial frustration.

I don’t know this for sure, and I wish I had data to confirm my suspicion. If you do, please share it with me. I’d love some solid numbers.

My husband and I have always been pretty frugal. We endured some pretty crappy home furnishings for a long time because we couldn’t afford anything new, and for the most part, I was thankful for what we had.

Because I am a stay at home mom and we are raising a growing family, we live on a modest income that pays the bills with a little extra.

Again, this isn’t a pity party. You just need to know where I’m coming from to understand my message.

Decluttering: A Blessing and a Curse

I was introduced to minimalism through Marie Kondo’s The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up, and minimalism forever changed my motherhood.

I didn’t think we had much to get rid of, but somehow, I filled bag after bag with things we didn’t use, love, or need. I dropped bags off at the local thrift store and gave things to friends who needed them.

Related: How You Can Afford to Be a Stay-at-Home Mom

And when all the clutter disappeared, what remained stood out like a sore thumb.

The things we kept, we truly needed, but when I looked around our home, I saw very little that I truly loved.

And isn’t that what so many minimalists said was the point?

Shouldn’t what remains after decluttering be what “sparks joy”, what you “truly love”?

Around this time, I spent more and more time following minimalist bloggers. I noticed the “minimalist home tours” tab on several sites.

I love the heart behind these tours: to help people see that minimalism can look different for everyone. There is no one right way to “do minimalism.”

People need to hear that message, and I don’t know of many other ways to communicate it.

Like Instagram, however, these minimalist home tours are a double-edged sword.

Seeing multiple homes that were carefully curated with unique, beautiful furnishings and carefully chosen décor inspired me on my best days, and discouraged me on my worst.

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

Consumerism After Minimalism

The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up dealt a death blow to clutter, for which I am thankful, but it gave me something new to contend with, a different kind of consumerism.

It put a yearning in my heart for a home filled with quality things I loved, not just things that were functional. 

Unfortunately, “quality” usually equals more dollars. Those whose incomes are larger than ours say it’s worth the investment: what you buy will last longer, waste less, be enjoyed more.

Theoretically, I agree.

Except we can’t afford “quality” just yet. We’re having to settle with “good enough for now.”

As I heard this rhetoric over and over, echoed by so many minimalists, my contentment vanished.

A surprisingly fierce longing quickly filled the void.

I wanted everything I owned to be just right, right now.

I wanted to be able to afford to buy those quality items, things that would last a long time. 

Despite these struggles with consumerism, I didn’t let that longing affect my appreciation of minimalism or stop me from calling myself a minimalist.

6 Tips for Dealing with Consumerism After Minimalism

1) Expect it.

The human heart is actually pretty predictable.

Just because you start living with less doesn’t mean your desire for more goes away.

Minimalists hold out promises of forever freedom from the hold of consumerism. Well-known minimalist author Joshua Becker actually states,

Minimalism brings freedom from the all-consuming passion to possess. It steps off the treadmill of consumerism and dares to seek happiness elsewhere (source).

And as much as I love Joshua Becker, I respectfully disagree.

I believe its human nature to desire to possess. Minimalism combats that desire fiercely, it will never be completely satisfied. It cannot be mastered, and the second you think you’ve mastered it, beware: “Pride goes before a fall.”

I don’t think anyone can make that promise, and false promises often lead to disillusionment.

When we expect to be tempted by consumerism, no matter how minimalist our lifestyle, we are better prepared to fight it.

2) Stop it at the source.

Is Instagram feeding your desire for things you don’t need and/or cannot afford? Take an Instagram break.

Do minimalist home tours make you fill up your Amazon cart faster than a tired mom at Target? Stop reading them.

Does walking through Target make you want to buy everything (and you either do it on credit or leave frustrated that you can’t)? Get what you need at your local grocery store. Order specific items you need on Amazon.

Do commercials really get you? Cancel cable and get Netflix instead.

Figure out what your triggers are, and try to reduce the frequency with which you encounter them.

3) Choose a method to help you deal with delayed gratification.

Personally, I use my bullet journal to write down things I think I want.

I actually title the list “The Things I Think I Want” because with time, I often realize that I don’t want them after all. There is something about writing it down that helps ease the intense feeling of “I need this right NOW”.

Often, the impulse goes away after a week or two. Sometimes it doesn’t, and I really do still want and need the item. Then we find a way to fund that purchase.

Another blogger I know swears by snapping a photo of what she thinks she wants, and she finds that the urge to buy goes away in a day or two.

Others add items to an Amazon wishlist.

Whatever method you choose, make sure it helps you. If you’re still finding it difficult to resist the urge to buy right away, try something else.

Related: 14 Things We Aren’t Buying Right Now to Save Money

4) Cultivate gratitude.

I’ve read comments on simple living articles shared on Facebook. A few of them scoffed that any American could claim to know anything about simple living.

And in a way, they are right.

We live in a country of abundance, and even the poorest American who comes to minimalism will probably find something to declutter, something to give away, something to get rid of.

We have SO MUCH to be thankful for, and yet, we are aren’t.

Gratitude doesn’t come naturally. It needs to be cultivated, made a habit.

Start a gratitude journal. Counter every complaint with one whisper of thankfulness.

Gratitude is one of the best weapons we have to fight consumerism.

5) Embrace the process.

A friend and I were discussing our generation (Millenials) – the beauty and the flaws. While I fiercely defend the strengths of my generation to pretty much anyone, expectation of instant gratification is one of our weaknesses.

We think we can have it all right away.

We can have the house with the perfect furnishings with the dream job with no debt with the…

It’s a long, long list, and we get frustrated when we can’t have it right now.

There’s an itch in us to have our home just right from the second we move in. It’s probably why we all love IKEA so much: this beloved store makes it sort of possible to achieve such a goal.

But what if we waited?

What if we accepted that building a home takes time? That affording and finding the “things we love” takes time?

We need to learn to appreciate the empty spaces – the room waiting to be furnished, the walls waiting for just the right things to hang on them.

We need to learn to enjoy the process.

6) Don’t give up on minimalism.

My favorite definition of minimalism is by Joshua Becker: “The Intentional promotion of the things you most value, and the removal of anything that distracts us from it.”

While his definition is my favorite by far and I enjoy reading his blog, I don’t agree with everything he writes about minimalism.

You see? I can love one minimalist’s definition of minimalism and appreciate his writing, but I don’t agree with everything he has to say about the subject.

And that’s more than o.k. because at some point, we NEED to define minimalism for ourselves.

Trying to live someone else’s version just doesn’t work.

I’ve read countless books on minimalism and simple living.

I’ve read more minimalist posts on Pinterest than I can say.

No one’s definition of minimalism is the same, and everyone comes to minimalism from a different place and for different reasons.

Therefore, what it means to them will be different.

Related: 22 Simple Living & Minimalism Books for Weary Moms

Don’t Let the Downsides Stop You

Minimalism is what you make it. While it is helpful to read what minimalist “authorities” have to say, ultimately, you need to decide for yourself.

What has minimalism done for you? What do you want from minimalism?

Don’t let someone else’s definition of minimalism that doesn’t sit right with you make you give it up altogether or stop you from pursuing a life of less in the first place.

You’re robbing yourself of something that could really change your life.

  • Because of minimalism, I have time to homeschool.
  • Because of minimalism, I am not overwhelmed by a big family or my home (most of the time).
  • Because of minimalism, I spend far less time organizing and reorganizing ALL THE STUFF (because there’s less of it).
  • Because of minimalism, I have time to work from home.

What’s your “because of minimalism” story?

If you don’t have one yet, I encourage you to give it a try. See how it could change your life.

Everything has a downside.

Don’t let minimalism’s downsides keep you from experiencing its benefits.

Read Next: 8 Tips for Decluttering on a Low Income

Minimalists often talk about how they have so much extra money after adopting a minimalist lifestyle, but what if that's not always the case? What if minimalism can actually hurt your budget?

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24 Comments

  1. Appreciate your honesty here. We are living small…750ish sq feet for 6 of us…and a low income. (approx $24,000) 90% of the time I am content with small…but there are moments! when I just don’t know where to go with a necessary item. We can’t maintain the things we do have. Yet. We are soo privileged! We eat very well, homeschool, live in a wonderful rural location- mountains, water, and quiet. But I long for the quality you speak of. To not struggle with space.
    I just realized I was doing the wish list without fully realizing what it was…We go to town about every 4-6 weeks, by the time we go, the need for something no longer exhists.
    Again. thanks for being honest with the struggle. It is real.

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing, Sheila! That is awesome to be living and thriving in such a small space, and small income! I love what you said about only going into town every 4-6 weeks. That is definitely a powerful deterrent to buying stuff.

  2. Hi there,

    I recently stumbled on your blog and have not been able to stop reading article after article. I wanted to say a sincerely thanks for your candid and honest reflections on minimalism (this article as well as others on your website). I find it’s really inspiring that you are not only talking about its benefits, but also looking at the more “touchy” parts that often get left out.
    Thank you for your courage!
    God bless,

    Ana

    1. Author

      You are so welcome, Ana! Its always heart-warming to know when your writing makes an impact. Thank you for taking the time to share, and I hope to keep “seeing” you around the blog. 🙂

  3. I’m sorry you’re still struggling. My children are older now, and we are still pursuing minimalism (journey, not a destination), but I found owning things I did not love was beneficial when my children were small. I was much more detached when things were broken or damaged if I *didn’t* love them. Did someone stain the cloth napkins? Oh, well, they looked pretty bad before. No harm done. Pen on a surface that is not paper? I never liked that table anyway. Chip a plate? The other plates in the cupboard are chipped already. Little hands can set the table without Mama hovering.

    Now I have more things that I love, and I am more anxious about damage. I am actually getting rid of things I love because I don’t like being a person who prioritizes things above people.

    I am sharing this because I hope someone can release their desire for “better” things, and instead see “ugly” as a gift to their children.

    1. Author

      I love this! That is the conclusion I am coming to. Our $50 couch and chair set that we got at a yard sale are awesome because the kids can do anything to them and I don’t even care (plus, pretty much nothing shows, unless it’s black sharpie of course). Thanks for sharing these reflections: I think it’s a very important message to moms. 🙂

  4. Yes to the Netflix tip!
    We had no internet for a month at the start of the year so we watched free to air TV with all the ads and the change in attitude from everyone in the house was noticeable alnost immediately. The kids were wanting, wanting, wanting and we adults were feeling more dissatisfied than usual. Switching back to Netflix made such a huge difference and the house felt calm again. And we aren’t big TV watchers so I can only imagine the difference would be even greater in many other households. Great tips here, thanks June ?

    1. Author

      thanks Kristee! What’s funny is we are considering dropping Netflix, but that’s another post….

  5. The title grabbed me off of Pinterest. A minimalist and a budget? Yes, please . This article helped me so much. For example, my struggle is as well the furniture I don’t absolutely love but like and it’s functional. I stock up on sales to stretch our budget but it does not add up to social medias standard of minimalism. Contrary to most, empty space calms me. I love the feel of a staged model home because it allows me to have my chronic illness rest days without having guilt to clear clutter when there is none. However, I feel wasteful to constantly purge for the mere look of design when I know financially the best thing to do would be to keep the ugly but functional until you have the room in the budget to comfortably buy something of greater quality and design. The struggle forbalance is difficult. For me minimalism has shown me to simply wait. Wait and plan for the right things like writing down what I want and waiting for the money in the budget or not wanting the item after all. Minimalism helps me to not overspend and save for building wealth. Minimalism helps me to take necessary rest without the extra clutter in our home. Minimalism helps me to be grateful for the ‘clutter’ that I do have because it functions to help me run a smooth household.

    1. Author

      I agree that the struggle for balance is difficult! I’m glad you could identify with the struggle. Minimalism offers so many benefits, but it DOES have challenges, especially for people on lower incomes. Thanks for stopping by Marie!

  6. ah, Boots theory!

    https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/72745-the-reason-that-the-rich-were-so-rich-vimes-reasoned

    my life looks very different from yours, but I can’t afford the aesthetically perfect house tour minimalism either. I’ll definitely be reading more of your blog.

    my “because of minimalism…” is “I can find all the important documents (qualifications, passport, deed poll etc.) in about 30 seconds”. it’s small, but so much better than “I have literally no idea where that is and I need it tomorrow”.

  7. In my view it’s not minimalism that is the problem as much as still comparing surroundings with that of others – who by the very fact that they are on Instagram – are most likely more wealthy than the average Joe – or Jane –

  8. I completely agree with your post. I have spent a lot of time trying to minimize and every time I try to get rid of something that I don’t “love” and doesn’t bring me “joy”, I run up against “what am I going to do without it?”. If you get rid of something that you don’t really like, but is functional, you often have to spend money to buy something you love. It’s like the worn out t-shirt that I wear around the house. I don’t exactly love it, but if I get rid of it, then I’m probably going to ruin a shirt that I like to wear for going out of the house, and then I have to spend more to replace it with something that I “love”, because I don’t keep too much extra. So, I totally agree that minimalism must come from a place of abundance, or even over-abundance and we need to make realistic expectations about how much we can afford to minimize.

    1. Author

      Loved “I totally agree that minimalism must come from a place of abundance, or even over-abundance and we need to make realistic expectations about how much we can afford to minimize.” Thanks for sharing, Brooke!

  9. I hear ya!!
    My amazon wishlist is huge and I often have to talk myself out of hitting the “buy now” button. I’m in the process of decluttering and downsizing, and we’ve been making do with good enough pieces for most of our marriage. There IS a benefit to having one good quality item that is right for the job rather than making do with two or three items that you are trying to make work. But I can’t afford to go on a shopping spree buying lots of nice things, either. So I’ve been having to exercise self control, pace myself, and meet real needs one at a time (and tell my wants to take a back seat.) On the other hand, I have also found that I can extend the life of things instead of replacing them, like putting slip covers on furniture, and I can improve the overall appearance and atmosphere of our home that way (which meets a need and my wants for a while.)
    We have to smart about it for sure. It’s a balance!

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing, Amber! You are so right that it’s all about balance. I am finding that the longer I wait, the easier it gets to make the frugal, non-consumerist choice, though. I just have to stay away from Pier One catalogues…

  10. Is minimalism hurting you or is it your budget? Do you feel as though owning less stuff is liberating and beneficial or is it that you are unhappy with the stuff you own because maybe it’s not that nice? I started minimizing my stuff a year ago and then I stopped and started up again these past couple weeks. I lost my job a few months ago so I’m on such a tight budget that it hurts. I own very few things and now my youngest one is on board. He is happy and willing to donate most of his toys and stuff he doesn’t use. My oldest doesn’t want to, but she doesn’t own much as it it. The biggest challenge is my hubby. My room is bare and it looks sad. I have a tired wardrobe and most of the stuff we own is beat up. I have a wish list of the things id like to replace but I don’t have the funds. I have to say it feels so darn good to have less stuff. Its so much easier to keep clean. I really want to replace so many of the items we do have but I can’t afford to. Its a sacrifice I chose by not working and staying home with my kids. When I go back to work I plan on staying a minimalist but replacing what few old tattered things we do have. I don’t think that counts as consumerism?

    1. Author

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Lisa! When I say consumerism, I’m going by the definition, “A preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.” So maybe it depends on how often you’re thinking about it? For you, it might not be consumerism. I’ll be real – for me, it is definitely a struggle because of how often I think about getting those newer, nicer items. Maybe that’s because it seems like such a long way off.

      I think it really depends on when you come to minimalism, and from what economic position. It also depends on your personality and how you view and use your home.

      All the articles and books I’ve read on minimalism, the authors never mention a desire to buy more things after getting rid of stuff. They seem to indicate that once you declutter, you’ll be set free from this desire to buy things. Because like you, I came to minimalism on a lower income, with a family and student loans still to pay (as a stay at home mom), decluttering revealed the tattered state of the thing we do own. As I mentioned in the post, I am SO thankful for things being easier to clean, but I personally didn’t desire to buy new things as strongly before decluttering as I do now.

  11. I’ve also experienced these urges to buy more to fit into my “vision” of what minimalism should look like.

    I think the urge to buy MORE is the result of the aesthetically-fueled minimalist movement, not the humble, spiritually-centered movement.

    To be fair, a true minimalist home tour would be wouldn’t be very glamorous. But that wouldn’t get many clicks on pinterest. 😉

    1. Author

      thanks again for your thoughts Polly! I’d love to hear more about how you came to minimalism and what authors/writers influenced you because you seem to come at it from a different angle than so many minimalists today. Maybe a blog post? I’d love to read it!

  12. I freely confess that I’m not a minimialist fan. I’m not completely sure why. Maybe because the exposure I’ve had online to minimalism has been so…. empty? Spare? Modern? Sleek? Gray? Neutral? So much IKEA and things that won’t last. There is no coziness to it and I crave coziness.

    We have practiced simple living a lot though and one thing that has helped IMMENSELY is that I’ve kept my decorating all around the same few base colors and looks I love all the time we’ve been married. I’ve shopped my home so many times. I have all kinds of things that have served various purposes in different rooms over the years. So we do have “nicer” things, but we’ve had them for twenty plus years and have re-purposed them many times. I think that’s the secret. The furniture in our home is not “up to date” or “trendy” but it’s solid wood or solidly made and will last forever if we take care of it. 🙂

    1. Author

      I love the idea of shopping your house! Such good advice – I’ve done this mostly with bins and baskets. Generally, I can switch things around so that the containers I have work. Unfortunately, many people do see minimalism as blank and white and everything the opposite of cozy. We need more “cozy minimalists” to speak up because I think so many people miss the benefits of minimalism because of misconceptions. Thanks for starting this discussion and giving much needed advice, Sallie!

  13. Thank you so much for writing this! I love the *idea* of minimalism, but when I look around, what we do have is…not the “best”. I’d hate to get rid of it and then not have anything!!

    The suggestions of a wishlist and gratitude list are so practical. …such a minimalist idea 😉

    Again, thank you. This post helped me very much

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