3 Things I Learned From Trying (& Abandoning) Minimalism

Let’s rewind to a couple of months ago. It was May, and I had just finished reading the ever-praised Marie Kondo’s The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. As a self-proclaimed neat freak and Type A personality for as long as I can remember (or at least, since I first heard the term “Type A personality”), this book really spoke to me.

I’ve always been borderline obsessed with maintaining a clean and organized space, and have always been the first to admit when an object no longer serves a purpose in my life. Yet simultaneously, I’ve also always been a tad more into shopping than is probably good for me, which led to a cycle of purchasing items I didn’t truly need…and then passing them on when I realized that they didn’t fill an all-important place in my life as I had originally imagined they would.

So when I read in Marie Kondo’s book that minimalism would not only allow me to maintain the orderly space I continuously crave, while also ridding my unhealthy shopping habit, I was ALL for it. On top of that, I stumbled across YouTube video after YouTube video of people claiming that Marie Kondo’s book also allowed them to discard of the mental clutter they had, simply by removing the unnecessary physical clutter from their lives. I thought this was the bandwagon I had to hop on.

I donated and purged to achieve the clarity that I had been promised — and was sorely disappointed when this act did not enable me to wake up at 5 AM every day and become a productive superhero like it supposedly had for all these YouTubers (shame on me for not figuring this out before getting rid of my stuff). I had the same amount of mental clutter, and only succeeded in making my concrete-wall apartment feel less homey by removing physical objects. So before you try your hand at it, here are some rarely discussed aspects of minimalism that I learned from my attempt, and later abandonment, of it:

1. Minimalism didn’t necessarily rid me of my focus on physical possessions. 

When I started decluttering, it actually did feel slightly freeing at first. However, this quickly spiralled, and I became slightly obsessed with seeing how much more I could declutter and spending time debating whether I really needed certain items in my life. All of this meant I was still spending too much time concerning myself with physical possessions, which is what minimalism was supposed to help me eradicate in the first place.

2. Most minimalism books are not targeted at college students, or people who are already lacking. 

Minimalist books and proponents claim that you should rid yourself of all unnecessary items and items that you don’t love. You read books about people who purged 50% or more of their possessions and felt a euphoric sense of liberation after. Yet depending on your circumstances, you might not own much more than the necessities to begin with. And disposing of that one extra ratty towel and chipped coffee mug you no longer use probably won’t give you the mental freedom you were promised by these minimalists who were fortunate enough to own more extra possessions before their journeys began.

3. Minimalism can lead to more shopping and money-spending.

Counterintuitive, I know. But hear me out on this one. When you don’t have a lot of extra income, you don’t necessarily own a lot of items that “spark joy,” which is what Marie Kondo claims an item has to do for you to be able to keep it. Maybe you only own one pair of pants that you really and truly like, and none of the others fit you quite perfectly. According to minimalists, you should only keep the one pair of pants that you like. But you likely need more than one pair of pants, and then must spend extra money to pick up an extra pair or two. Moreover, it makes sense that you will want to invest in some quality new pants if you’re going to own so few pairs, so you splurge a bit on these new pants. All of this leads to more money spent, just because your other perfectly functional pants didn’t “spark joy.” But you know what else sparks joy? Not spending your hard-earned money on replacing possessions that were perfectly usable to begin with.

*****

Like many lifestyle fads, people are quick to rave about the benefits of minimalism, but suspiciously omit the negative aspects. These are the major downsides I’ve personally experienced with minimalism. Maybe give them a ponder before you excitedly donate a good portion of your worldly belongings to achieve yet another unattainable Instagram-perfect lifestyle. (Insider confession: I miss owning sweatpants. I really do.)

Brea has an MA in Linguistics from the University of Toronto. She loves chocolate (maybe a little too much), her three dogs, and all things to do with language.

Image via Unsplash
  • Carolina

    I agree! While I am glad that I did as much as I did, and also inspired my partner to do so (he discarded an entire large tupperware container of literally just paper) it wasn’t as liberating as I hoped because 1) we didn’t discard of the things we need but don’t love (aka, the expensive, turquoise plate set I bought when I got my first apartment bc I was going through a turqouise phase), and 2) like you said, it wasn’t a “night and day” transformation. We don’t have THAT much stuff and even then, it still feels cluttered bc we have a small apartment.

  • Ella

    Dang I can’t believe you purged your sweatpants!

    These are very smart comments on minimalism. It’s unrealistic to think one purge session will change the way I consume physical goods for ever after, yet I think that every time I purge /shrug

  • Eddie

    Great post! You’re either a born minimalist or you’re not. You can go crazy focusing on the physical aspect of minimalism that you forget about the mental aspect. If having tons of junk brings you comfort and peace then why not keep it?

  • Irina

    I got into minimalism as a student (with a budget of 250€ per month after paying rent). I basically skipped the “minimalism as design and art” part, and dug into the “figuring out what really adds to my happiness and success and what doesn’t”. I found that it increased my quality of life, as it stopped me from wasting time and space on cheap stuff.

    • That’s the part of “minimalism” that I like too. When I strive for that type of minimalism, it can help me save money. It’s the minimalist-consumer-complex that tempts us all to buy impractical white fur rugs and uncomfortable chairs that I try to resist.

  • bextannya

    Very interesting! I hadn’t considered a lot about what you bring up, but it’s actually true for me. I find that trying my hand at minimalism made just want to get rid of everything (including my furniture, bed sheets, you name it) and start fresh – but this is SO not the point!
    Will reflect on what you wrote 🙂

  • Curious…i started to decluter maybe 6 month ago… I do understand very well this post because i found myself asking the Same questions Marie kondo style, what i concluded was that i couldn’t ask the question that way, if it sparked Joy… Instead i ask if i ever will use it again… The question “is it your style?” worked like a charm for me and helped to make unregretable decisions… Minimalism for me is own just the right amount of stuff to live confortably using every item. 🙂

    • Marianne

      I love your last line! And your thoughts in general on finding the right questions to ask yourself in order to make decisions about your possessions. I think that gets at the deeper mental side of the movement. I’ve been paring down a lot after my last move and your last line is a good goal to keep in mind. I personally need to get away from “will I use this?” and think more about “do I/have I used this?”

      • Thank you very much, Yes, the last question works very well too! 🙂 I found it difficult to let it go, but finding the right questions for me in the process, simplified my decisions!

  • Lauren Howard

    I love this. Minimalism can be really exhausting and guilt-inducing because it makes you hyper-aware of your possessions. I’m starting to not feel bad anymore about the amount of clothing I own. I’d never survive on a capsule wardrobe, and as long as I like all my clothing and don’t have an addiction, there’s nothing wrong with it.

  • Marvis

    i can see your first two points but the last one just doesnt make sense. Why on earth would u replace things with high quality more expensive things (clothes, etc) when u can use what u have already and replace when necessary. I understand u do spend a bit more on quality things but if u compare it to the long run it can even out or save you a few bucks. Offcourse minimalism has its tiers from basic to extreme. The whole pants situation for guys i think 1 black jean and 1 blue jean and 1 dress pant is pretty minimal enough to me. I own alot of shirts but i do go through 3 shirts a day on average so its necessary to have about 25 of them for me. but hey there is no right or wrong

  • HL

    Regarding #3 – Marie Kondo never advocates getting rid of things you need just because you don’t like them (nor would any minimalist) – she says that you should use that thing’s usefulness as its source of joy instead of the thing itself. If you are getting rid of things you really need, you are not applying her method as she intended. Also, you claim in the first sentence of that example that the other pants don’t fit correctly, so why would you keep them anyway – wouldn’t that mean they aren’t useful? Yes, you need to spend money to add quality items to your collection but if the old pants don’t fit you’d have to spend that money for new pants that fit anyway, so I fail to see in this instance how minimalism forced you to spend more money.

    I’m not a minimalist myself (although I find it interesting and inspiring), and I agree it’s not for everyone; I just think making an effort to learn about it and maybe try a little bit of it gives us an opportunity to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone. Whether or not it “sticks”, I think exploring it can be successful if it at least causes us to reflect on why we are so attached to material things, what emotional needs we might be using shopping to fill, and what cultural forces are at play in our desire to consume and our unwillingness to live with less. I think there are some fascinating insights to be had there.

  • Magda

    For me, this is really useful when shopping. I have a few things that really “spark joy” and a lot that do not, or do it for a very short time. Therefore, when I go shopping, I try to only end up buying the “perfect items” – the ones that will add to my short list of items “sparking joy”. But the truth is – I get bored with stuff. I prefer to have less perfect combinations and change them every now and then instead of spending millions on getting the “perfect, sparking joy” set of items which I will no longer enjoy in two years or so…

  • Jay0623

    I went through the Kondo method before moving out of my parent’s home and into my new place, and it was invaluable for me. I had twenty-five years of accumulated physical and emotional baggage to sift through, and putting each item through the “spark joy” wringer made it much easier to tell which things I should pack up and bring into my new life and which ones I could let go of. Which, in turn, helped me sort through which memories and emotions I wanted to hold onto, and which ones I could stop carrying with me. While I did end up buying some things to replace the stuff I got rid of due to being worn out or carrying bad emotional associations, in my experience minimalism isn’t about buying new things as much as making peace with the old.

    Obviously you want to use common sense here — Kondo shared an anecdote in her book about getting rid of a screwdriver, and then needing to use the edge of a ruler to wedge screws into place. You don’t need to go that far! But being conscious of what you keep around you, making sure you have a use for an object before you bring it into your space, and curating your surroundings to support your physical and mental health are all very important things to do, and minimalism can provide a good framework to think about how to accomplish that.