The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

The high priests and priestesses of minimalism don’t know it, but they have a problem. They’re seriously disliked by the majority of people who are struggling to get by. Ordinary people deeply resent the “voluntary” nature of most high-profile minimalists who write about the joys of downsizing on their numerous blogs, or for the New York Times, or Sunset Magazine.

Take for example how Graham Hill starts his New York Times essay titled “Living With Less. A Lot Less.” 

I LIVE in a 420-square-foot studio. I sleep in a bed that folds down from the wall. I have six dress shirts. I have 10 shallow bowls that I use for salads and main dishes. When people come over for dinner, I pull out my extendable dining room table. I don’t have a single CD or DVD and I have 10 percent of the books I once did.

I have come a long way from the life I had in the late ’90s, when, flush with cash from an Internet start-up sale, I had a giant house crammed with stuff — electronics and cars and appliances and gadgets.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

Half way into Hill’s story, I started to guess at the vibe of the 329 comments already posted. As David Brooks can confirm, New York Times readers are an unhappy bunch. Hill probably wanted praise, but I’ve seen this car crash enough times to know how it transpires. A lot of readers tore into him. Like Michelle from Chicago:

There is a big difference between choosing minimalism and minimalism being a harsh aspect of daily life. At any moment, Mr. Hill could choose to buy more things. If one of his 6 dress shirts rips, he can simply buy a new one. It’s a far cry from a minimum wage worker who has this lifestyle by default, because there isn’t money to rent a larger apartment or money to replace a torn shirt.

The sad fact of the matter is the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” is so great the “have nots” are unable to give any credit to the “haves” for living below their considerable means. I believe Hill and others like him deserve credit for their thoughtful and principled simplicity, but it’s naive for him, for me, for anyone to expect those trying to live month-to-month to cheer well-to-do minimalists for critiquing conspicuous consumption.

I was mindful of this dynamic when commenting on a blog recently. I was responding to a post about the recent highs in the stock market. I wrote that many people are starting to invest in stocks which means it might be a good time to take some profits. And then consciously added, “for those fortunate enough to have them.” If I hadn’t added that phrase, my comment would’ve prompted other replies of the “who has profits these days” variety.

Where does this leave Hill, myself, and many other minimalists who recommend voluntary simplicity? Can it be done without offending? Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether. Maybe we should just live it and wait to see if anyone asks, “What gives? Why do you live the way you do? Why such a small apartment? Why so few possessions? Why don’t you ever check bags when flying?”

Someone now leave the obvious comment. Nevermind, I’ll do it myself. “What the hell Ron, why do you assume people can afford to fly?”

34 thoughts on “The Problem with the Simple Living Movement

  1. “Probably not. Which makes me think maybe we should stop writing about it altogether.”

    I don’t believe you should. Like most blogs their messages are not always aimed at everyone who reads them. As I peruse various blogs I will only click on them if it’s a favorite writer or the title appeals to me. When I do click on them I then skim the first couple of paragraphs to get a feel if this is a topic I would find useful. If not, I’m moving on.

    Adding a qualifier to such posts that targets a certain group let’s people know you are aware that this may or may not apply to them. Then at least you won’t be criticized for being narrow-minded.

    Setting an example will motivate certain people. Writing about it too will impact more, quicker.

  2. I’ve adopted minimalism, not to combat my natural state of plenty (ha!), but out of necessity. My husband and I have never brought in more than $25k/year (and not for lack of trying), so we began our change out of a desire to live on as little as possible and reduce the financial strain.

    Maybe if more people in our position spoke up about simplicity, it wouldn’t seem like such an elitist movement?

  3. I think that Amanda has a really good point and opportunity. Personally I don’t think the problem is in the movement as possibly in the attitude of the writer. Some people sort of brag about it as in, “Look what a good person I am”. That is definitely annoying and can be offensive. Also, the goal is not necessarily to live with less stuff, but to reap the spiritual benefits of that- more time for relationships, nature and less financial strain, as Amanda said. Those benefits are worthwhile to everyone, regardless of their economic situation. Even those struggling can get caught up in striving for consumer goods that don’t bring happiness- we’re all suseptible to that. That’s the message of simple living I think. In addition, just because someone chooses to go without doesn’t mean they can’t have a social conscious. They can still care about and try to help those who are struggling with food, health care, etc.

  4. Great comments above. Additionally, while the examples are rare, I have received a number of messages from people who were forced into minimalism (loss of job, medical emergencies) that found inspiration in our story. In the examples of others purposefully living with less, they were able to reevaluate their present situation and find at least a sliver of peace in it.

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  6. Great post and great comments. I personally feel that, as I grew up, my family had to live minimally out of necessity. I think that’s what fed my bad shopping habits when I got older (aka these past few years). I haven’t even really gotten a steady job and I tend to buy more than I need, so there might be an interesting category that should be minimal but has difficulties in our consumer-laden society. Becoming more minimal is something I’m striving for, so regardless of whether it’s elitist or not, thanks for providing motivation with your posts!

  7. I agree with this. This is more about the writers style in this one article, also doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, intend offense, or doesn’t write good column. I am from the lower income bracket but I have experience in BOTH, I had money TWICE, now I don’t–im still trying to livr more simply out of spiritual necessity. My Opinion: it’s the readers perception not the writers ‘fault’ nor intended message I believe. Thanks for this share–I write about minimalism a lot and I had no idea some people were actually taking it offensively!…???J9!

  8. People take offense no matter which side of the aisle (buying homes too big or too small; having too much stuff or not enough). Unfortunately, at this point in our country, the attitude seems to be that if you do not make the same decisions about your life that I have, then you are wrong (and by default are criticizing my decisions). That type of thinking needs to stop. There are lots of reasons to be minimalist, and the voluntary nature of it is so often not clear cut. My family makes enough money, but I have ~$60k in student loan debt–making minimum payments each month we would have cash flow to buy needless knicknacks, but we choose to buy and consume less to make a dent on our debt. Some families switch to minimalism to afford to own their own home, to give up uninspired jobs, to have less of an impact on the environment, and countless other reasons. Some families make different decisions about how to spend their time and money that works best for them and is not minimalist. I wouldn’t get too hung up on criticism whether blind or valid; it is all just part of the national conversation we should be having about money, equality, community, environment, etc. Reading blogs and books from people on a different path than most of the country reminds us that there are many paths to choose from, and we can and should evaluate what works best and leads us towards our personal and community goals.

    • Thanks Meredith. I’m not sure we have many models of “national conversations”. It would be nice to see community-based conversations about the topics you propose.

  9. No no don’t stop…. you must know revolutionist are never received lightly that’s why it is revolutionary. Some people will get it.. Most will hate you for it. The bottom line is minimalism is widely unavailable so maybe the direction you should be going is starting agencies or companies that offer the very average consumer (yes the one who has to save all year to fly home to see Grandma) a product that is available. Minimalism can be expensive and those who aren’t aware of how to do it on a budget will be confused and ultimately angry. Many people will be defensive they enjoy consuming….I can’t tell you (as a low income mother) that I myself have choose to teach y children to be minimalist and adopt the lifestyle and have been accused of being crazy and even abusive to my children! So next time someone post a comment, that’s not just fishing to get you angry, ask them what you think would help them achieve the goal of being a minimalist and work from there…..that is if its your calling :)

  10. Definitely keep writing. It’s great to read the comments, both pro and con. Anyway nobody is saying that “voluntary minimalism” is the same experience as “forced poverty”.

    The issue is choice. The maneuverability to make a choice depends on having enough money to make a change. Even if the change means real savings in the long-term, the initial outlay may be entirely prohibitive. It’s expensive to move.

    Also, a parent’s decision to minimize expenses may well be felt as imposed hardship by the kids, whose peers seem to have everything. So when more than two like-minded people are involved it can be a very arrogant decision to make for others (note Alice’s remarks above)

    For example, as a single parent with responsibility for a large family of kids I had a period when I drastically cut expenses. This was not a choice, but forced – I couldn’t keep up with services and costs. Sometimes our power was cut (showers by candlelight) and we went without a phone and a car for a year. We lived in a bike town, and everybody had good bikes, and we had good access to public transportation.

    But it nevertheless proved a very isolating experience. The kids could not socialize with friends/girl-friends/boyfriends/teammates to organize activities and rides, they had a hard time getting summer jobs without a contact phone. I had a hard time being involved in their schools and keeping in touch with them when they were out (e.g. to get notified of plans, changes, give permissions etc) – on and on. I had to conduct so much personal business at work – not something that was really too cool.

    While at the time there was nothing I could do about that, I feel I should have cut something other than the phone (although who knows what). Later when things improved with a promotion/raise I got each kid a cell and I now strongly believe it’s just not realistic to expect any individual above the age of 12 or 13 (maybe younger) in the United States to go without a personal phone without putting them at an extreme social disadvantage. It’s just not our culture. Ditto for home Internet. Gotta have it. The whole coffee-shop or library wi-fi just won’t suffice.

    As for the car – again going without is fine for one or two like-minded persons – but unrealistic for families. Doing things together esp. at night (going to H.S. sports/games) as a family was just not logistically possible nor fun. Kids put so much time into practice that it’s got to be respected by attendance at games, at the minimum. Meantime although I’m a big biker and had a bike trailer, getting groceries home for our group could get very difficult especially in winter.

    So the key is “voluntary”. Attitude is everything – at least to a point one can zen-out hardships, but if very prolonged, the stress and disappointment of it is unimaginably overwhelming and can feed generations of bitterness.

    Last: while I love the tiny houses — Wow! really cool — I have to question the soundness of purchasing what amounts to personal property vs a house or condo in a normal real-estate market. Granted we’ve seen a lot of the country go underwater in recent times, but as things recover, and in the strongest markets even through the recession it seems as though one is better-off buying real estate that can be expected to appreciate.

    I know that “home as an investment” is antiquated and unfashionable thinking, but in fact home appreciation is what ultimately pulled me and my family out of a deep debt hole. Appreciating at 18% per/year, the sale of our condo allowed us to get to zero debt and relocate.

    Obviously the trade-offs of living in a tiny home make sense – in a tiny home one presumably lives without a mortgage or if financed, for the price of a car, enjoying reduced utilities, minimal land costs/rent (?) so can ideally put savings to use in other investments. But it’s hard to find something as solid as real estate in which to spend money – especially now that depreciated values, foreclosures, and short-sales have stabilized prices.

    In other words I wonder how well tiny houses hold their values? How long do tiny house listings stay on the market, and what percentage sell for the listed price?

    Thanks for the forum, and to anyone who has had the patience to read to the end.

      • Hi Ron I was pretty much forced into poverty by western standards and I had no choice whatsoever but to adjust the way I lived and my expectations about what I should have. I had no choice whatsoever all I could afford was food and shelter, no computer, no internet, even public transport was a luxury and instead I had to wlak everywhere. I actually had to move out of the city into a regional area due to the high rents. In any case it was tough but it really helped me to grow and made me realise how wasteful and irresponsible I had been and the true value of money. I also had to give up some very bad habits that I might not have otherwise like drinking and smoking. I gained a feeling of confidence knowing I could live on so little, because Im never going to be “rich” I work as a waitress so aspiring to a ‘middle class’ lifestyle was just going to be a dead end full of dissapointment. My financial situation is greatly improved these days and i am able to save money and have a measure of financial security that friends on similiar incomes cant achieve due to their lifestyles and spending habits, so although i came to it out of necessity, im glad ive adopted it. Its not just for elite people its for anyone who wants to gain some control over their lives and entirely relevant to those on low incomes

  11. These people should not be offended by how others choose to live their lives. If anything, they should respect these people for humbling themselves and reducing the impact of their carbon footprints.

  12. Volunteer minimalism is a choice. The people who have the money to choose whether they spend their money on unnecessary things or not should not be criticized. It is their choice. Also, if people CHOOSE to not spend their money then it is their choice. They should not be criticized, but they should also not be praised. I’m happy that one has the intelligence to not blow their money, but their are bigger stories in the world than a rich guy living a poor life. The focus should turn away from this and towards poverty of the world.

  13. I think simple living is a good thing to do if your into being environmentally friendly, but if having a lot of things makes you happy then you should be able to have things

  14. Simple living is offensive to other people who may not have as much as the wealthy. Some people are struggling to get by. Some don’t even have a house to live in or clothes on their back, and then someone who has everything wants less. Some people just don’t appreciate what they have.

  15. considering most of us do not earn a fortune being frugal and living simply is really the only way the average person can achieve any measure of financial security. For a lot of people (myself included) the choice is between being perpetually broke and vulnerable or pulling out all the stops to put away every spare penny. This is nothing new but what people have done for generations without fuss. I suppose that is why it seems disingenuous that people of higher social and financial standing “discover” this lifestyle feel the need to advertise the fact. That said ,I do think too many people these days spend too much time comparing themselves to the well off and feel embittered by the fact that they cannot afford to live as they do. They spend every last penny on keeping up with the jones’ and go into huge amounts of debt chasing a lifestyle they could never afford and when the credit runs out, they lament the “unfairness” of it all instead of making the tough choices/ compromises that life sometimes demands. They speak of internet and cars etc as “essential” everybody else has them so I need it too ! LOL ! But the reality is it wouldn’t kill anybody to go without those things and I find such complaints insulting. Insulting to those who dont have anywhere to live or enough food to eat which happens to be a huge amount of people in the world. Not many people compare themselves to those less fortunate and think gee Im lucky I have a roof over my head and three meals a day, free education for my kids etc so many people take so much for granted

  16. I believe that Graham Hill, and most wealthy people who do this, do it for instant gratification. They want people to know “Hey! I’m not spending money like everyone else! I can do something!” And it makes them seem even worse than before, even if they didn’t intend to. I agree with the author and think that Hill was probably offending people.

  17. Growing up poor, I learned to hoard against lean times that always, always, circled back around. Now that I’m comparatively stable, I can cut vastly down on what I own. Example: I used to scrounge for used tires so I’d have spares when mine gave out. Now that I can afford a set, I don’t have to do this. But it’s a hard habit to lose. I think you got to the meat of why simplicity can be a luxury. All of that aside, the poor people I knew and still know could still gain from practicing some simplicity. No matter your situation, buying things we don’t need in order to feel better about ourselves is all too universal.

  18. I was born quite poor. I paid for my University while working several jobs, even spending half of a summer on the streets. My situation has drastically improved and I am now close to bringing around $300,000 home. A pastor started trying to make my wife and I feel guilty about our lifestyle. Not that we have a decadent lifestyle, but we live in a nice house and enjoy a nice vacation once a year. Having know what it feels like to be broke, I can sincerely say that simplicity is overrated if peer pressured into it. We quit the said church by the way. And I hope that I will never have anything else to do with an Anabaptist church.

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  20. Great article and insightful comments. I recently started minimalism and have pondered about how education can affect our perception of minimalism as well. I grew up in a low income household but was luckily to graduate from college and experience world travel and see how many different people live around the world. I have family members who didn’t finish highschool and struggling to make ends meet Yet gift each other famous brand expensive items for Christmas. Never travelled or been on a family vacation and not living a happy life. I’d love to introduce minimalism to when I see their praise for consumerism, zero savings and unhappy way of life. I wonder how much education plans a role? Could education not money, be what truly sets us aside as elitists?

  21. Living simply is not bad in that its good for your health, mindfulness etc..but understand that it will lead you down the road of a simplistic mindset.That is, a simplistic mindset likely wont add much value to the world and you will be seen as such. Yes its possible to live a simple life yet constantly seek to achieve more and contribute more, but know that its probably going to be more difficult to do so because :
    1.Doing more/having a greater impact means more stress, pressure etc ( this is inevitable), and that is what simple lifers are trying to get away from, and
    2.Because you will likely stop once you find contendness in what you have. There wont be a strong driver anymore because you will be satisfied.
    Not a hard rule..I know some simple lifers /minimalist living who are very driven and ambitious to make a difference etc…but these are very much in the minority of simple lifers I know.

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