Do you ever find yourself wondering what is minimalism? Sure—you know it’s about decluttering and owning less—but what is it really all about?
What’s the meaning of minimalism, why should you care, and do you have to give up all your stuff?
If you’re feeling confused, I don’t blame you. There are a lot of varying opinions about what it means to be a minimalist and some definitions can leave you feeling uncertain if it’s a lifestyle worth pursuing.
Case in point: a few years ago, I read a blog post about a minimalist kitchen tour. The author revealed that, among other things, she owns an ice-cream maker because her children enjoy it and she uses it often.
None of this was particularly remarkable until I read the comments at the end of the post and realised one reader was of the impression the author wasn’t a real minimalist because she owns an ice-cream maker.
The comment struck a chord with me, and since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about my minimalist lifestyle and what it means to be a minimalist.
Are we truly defined by the things—or lack of things—we own?
I don’t think so but I was interested to hear your thoughts, so I surveyed my readers and asked them a few questions about what it means to be a minimalist.
The feedback was incredible! I received over a hundred in-depth responses and I decided to share the conversation here with you—along with my thoughts on common myths and misconceptions I often hear about minimalism.
If you have something to add, feel free to continue the discussion in the comment section at the end of this post. I’d love to know—what does minimalism mean to you?
All reader comments published with permission.
What Is Minimalism?
THE TWO CAMPS OF MINIMALISM
One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve become more active in the online minimalist community is that minimalists tend to fall into one of two main camps:
- Hardcore declutterers whose primary focus is owning and consuming as little as possible.
- People who want to live with less but, more importantly, want to live with intention.
The first camp gets the most attention in the mainstream media, which makes sense because it’s sensational. When we hear about extreme minimalists, we’re curious and it definitely challenges us to think about our own lifestyles.
This camp is also easier to understand, whether you agree with it or not. The rules are simple: own as little as possible.
In a way, I admire these types of minimalists; anyone who commits to an extreme lifestyle obviously knows a lot about commitment, hard work and dedication— all admirable qualities!
But at the same time, I can’t help but feel that this type of minimalism is about achieving some sort of goal, like climbing a mountain or running a marathon. It can be competitive, exclusive, and— let’s be honest— a bit elitist.
A few months ago, a reader shared this article with me, and I think it sums up the major criticisms of stuff-centric minimalism:
Basically, minimalism is largely something only well-off people can afford to pursue, because their wealth provides a cushion of safety. If they get rid of something, and then need it later, they’ll just buy it again. They don’t need to carry much else besides a wallet when they’re out and about; if they need something, they’ll just buy it on the fly. No sweat.
The article continues and points out:
The great irony of minimalism is that while it purports to free you from a focus on stuff, it still makes stuff the focus of your life! The materialist concentrates on how to accumulate things, while the minimalist concentrates on how to get rid of those things…ultimately they’re both centering their thoughts on stuff.
If you’re obsessed with NOT owning stuff, are you still growing? Are you moving forward and creating the a life you love? Or are you just creating new standards to compare and stress about?
A few of you felt the same way and shared similar concerns in your emails:
I feel uncomfortable labelling myself a minimalist in part because it is quite a loaded and trendy term. It feels SO entitled to announce “I’m a minimalist”, when so many people don’t have the choice whether to live minimalist or not – they have their lifestyle forced on them by socio-economic forces and their personal family history. It also feels weird to actually have a focus on “stuff” when there are so many other things to be doing that feel more like “living”. An obsession with “stuff” seems like it is entirely counter-minimalist, and perhaps the flip side of hoarding. – Tully
I’m just beginning this journey and I have since removed myself from many online groups that talk about “minimalist lifestyle” because I’ve seen people get OCD over how many chairs they have or should I own pets, or does this chair look good in this corner. If I have a table am I not minimalist enough?
I wonder if one of the things that prevents people from calling themselves a minimalist is fear of the judgement that may come from others? “You call yourself a minimalist? So why do you own 2 pairs of shoes and not just one?” The risk of the minimalist movement is being mistakenly regarded as meaning a sterile and boring life characterised by scarcity – of possessions, food, friends, activities.
– Jo Williams of Jo Simply Will
These are all valid points, which weighed on my mind when I first started blogging in 2015. I knew I wanted to write about minimalism but simply writing articles about decluttering didn’t feel right to me; it didn’t go far enough to explain how minimalism had completely changed my life.
I spent several months reflecting on what minimalism really meant to me and ultimately, made the connection to intentional living (placing me firmly in the second camp of minimalist beliefs). I launched my blog and since then, I’ve found a huge community of like-minded minimalists—including many of my readers!
There are, of course, many shades of grey between the two camps. I’ve learned minimalism is very personal and a “minimalist life” will look different for everyone—but there are some common truths that I hold close to my heart and I want to share these with you today.
MINIMALISM IS NOT ALL ABOUT STUFF
First and foremost, if it isn’t already clear, I want you to know that being a minimalist is not about giving up all your stuff.
Guess what? I own stuff. I shop sometimes. My home, while much smaller than it once was, is not pristine, white or empty.
Obviously, owning less is part of being a minimalist, but I don’t believe it’s the deciding factor.
Instead, I believe minimalism is subtler— a different way of thinking— and becoming a minimalist is about retraining our minds about intention and alignment.
When we declutter, we evaluate our stuff against our values and priorities, and in the process learn to make better decisions—not just about our stuff, but also about our time, money and oh-so-precious energy!
So yes, as a minimalist, I own a lot less stuff than I used to and there are a lot of tangible benefits (a more comfortable home, less time spent cleaning, and more money in my pocket) but it’s what I’ve learned about intentional living that has been truly life-changing.
It’s not what we own, but WHY we own stuff that matters.
After all, as one reader rightly pointed out:
I guess I’m saying it all starts with a decision and flows from there. If I just willy nilly start tossing things out without a reason why I’m doing it, then of course I’ll end up buying another house full of stuff! – Sunny
I absolutely agree. I think mindless decluttering is a lot like fad dieting— you might lose weight in the short-term but you’re unlikely to learn anything about long-term healthy living.
Here are more of your thoughts about minimalism, intention and purpose:
What defines someone as a minimalist is that in all aspects of that person’s life are carefully considered, including possessions, how they spend their time, friends, food they consume, etc. How that person spends time and what that person owns or consumes is based on an intentional decision about what matters most to that person. – Lisa Foster
I define minimalists as people who know themselves and what they want for their lives very well; they aren’t afraid to use some things around them to get there, but they know that those things are never more important than the experiences they represent. – Lauren Aziz
Explanations for choices we make in the name of minimalism vary widely from person to person, but the part that really matters to me when talking about this lifestyle is actively making decisions and having a willingness to set boundaries on what’s allowed into one’s life–from food, to clothing, to relationships, to time commitments… it all takes practice! – Kayla D. Samber
I believe that living minimally is living with intention, where you consider carefully what you do, who you keep around and what you buy and store because you know that at the end of your life people will look at these things and experiences to determine who you were. […] To me, minimalism is a lifestyle in which items don’t define you, but reflect you. -Rachel Carpenter
We spend so much time remembering the past and imagining the future that life in the present moment is passing us by. Minimalist to me means asking myself at every turn: Do I really need this? Is this what I really want? – Connie
Minimalist Rules: The Only One That Matters
When I emailed my readers, I asked them if they felt comfortable calling themselves minimalists— why or why not?
The results were truly a mixed bag of responses. Many of you were very proud to embrace the title of minimalist, others loved the lifestyle but not the label, and yet others felt afraid of being judged.
As one reader put it:
I don’t feel comfortable calling myself a minimalist because I feel like if I’m not doing it 100% all the time in every area, people will sniff and judge me for calling myself so. – Sydney
Others confessed they felt like aspiring minimalists, implying that they feel there’s a certain “standard” one has to reach before being called a minimalist.
No one seemed clear on what exactly this standard looks like— is it owning a certain number of items? Only wearing neutral colours? Living in a certain sized home?— but it’s clear that quite a few of you feel there’s some sort of standard one must live up to before you can “achieve” minimalism.
To this, I’d like to argue there is only one rule to being a minimalist: being true to yourself.
As one reader, Missy, wonderfully explains:
Minimalism is not about having less stuff or forced self-denial; it’s about values. It just happens that when you value life and people over stuff, some of the stuff starts falling away and the calendar and to-do lists start clearing up, because priorities are different. Minimalism is not decluttering, but decluttering is a natural byproduct of a shift to a minimalist value system. – Missy
This explains why minimalism looks different to everyone and why “rules” don’t work; we all have different personal values, priorities and dreams, so it’s impossible to create a single standard to reflect this.
There is no dress code, you don’t have to live in a tiny house, and you don’t need to know how many things you own. You don’t have to toss your record collection, your favourite family photos, or those absolutely gorgeous sparkly heels you bought last year but rarely wear.
As long as you’re being true to yourself and making mindful decisions that honour YOUR vision and values, then in my book— you ARE a minimalist.
Or as Stephanie put it:
[…]There is no set style and no rules about how many things you can own or buy. It simply asks you to be more intentional about the connection between the things you buy and the happiness they bring you. – Stephanie
And Bex from Minimo:
I am confident in considering myself a minimalist even though I may have more items than, say, the Minimalists. But I believe minimalism looks different to everyone, whether that means dressing in patterns vs neutrals, keeping some pictures vs digitizing them, or having an art studio in your backyard vs a tiny house. – Bex
And it’s ok if you’re a work in progress – in fact, I think minimalism is by definition a work in progress. With time, we learn more and more about ourselves, and then we adjust our lifestyles accordingly. You can’t really “achieve” minimalism unless you stop growing as a person.
We may all be at different stages of our journey, but if we’re actively seeking to be intentional with our lives, then we’re minimalists.
Or as Debb explains:
It’s just like people who play the piano — they may be playing beginner pieces or rule when they play classics – but whatever the level, they still are all piano players. – Debb Stanton
Minimalism Is NOT About Restrictions
Anyone who’s read anything about minimalism has heard the expression “living with less”; I’ve used it many times and it’s a quick and easy way to sum up a minimalist lifestyle.
Easy, but perhaps not very accurate.
Minimalists may choose to own less “stuff” than the average person, but it’s not a restrictive lifestyle. Instead, it’s about making an intentional choice to have MORE of whatever matters most.
I love how Stephen, from Queanbeyan, NSW explains this (emphasis added by me):
To me the essence of minimalism is letting go of what’s not serving a purpose in your life so you can focus on what’s really important to you. Sometimes you choose to let go of the good to focus on the best. – Stephen
I’ve written before about my minimalist journey and how it took me years to make real and sustainable changes. Looking back I can see it was because I thought minimalism was about willpower.
My focus was on all the things I was giving up (all those shoes and handbags! Noooo!!!). Although it’s embarrassing to admit, it was painful and I actually mourned the loss of my things.
This went on and on until, finally, I realised minimalism is a tool to help me achieve my dreams. I stopped viewing minimalism as a restrictive lifestyle and instead as a choice to live the life I want most. It’s not about giving things up.
Instead, it’s about not settling and choosing to live your life to the fullest!
Or, in your words:
[Minimalism] is about slowing things down and only keeping what is important so that I can give my full attention and effort to what really matters to me. […] Our identities are bigger than simply what we own and as cliche as it sounds society puts to much emphasis on our material goods. When we don’t have those things to hide behind we are forced to face ourselves, who we are and what we stand for. This can be scary but also so liberating. – Emily
Minimalism to me is a way to an unencumbered life with unnecessary stuff, which blocks the energy for whatever could be happen in the future. So, as I’m ridding the unnecessary, it is slowly opening doors to new experiences. – Vivian Haight
Finally minimalism to me means a earthly freedom to be able to move to India tomorrow and not worry about all of my stuff left behind. It’s about having time to invest in new relationships and in new hobbies. It’s about figuring out what you are made of how little you really need to be fulfilled and happy. – Beth
Those last few quotes really sum up the joy minimalism brought into my life. After years of feeling stuck and hopeless, minimalism gave me the gift of freedom. I feel optimistic, hopeful, and—after hiding them away for years — believe in my dreams again.
Final Thoughts + Minimalism Resources
Thank you again to everyone who took the time to write and share your thoughts on the meaning of minimalism.
Your responses really inspired me and I was blown away by the depth of this community! I’m sorry I wasn’t able to include all your comments in this post but please feel free to continue the conversation in the comments—I’d LOVE to hear more about your experiences and your wisdom!
Also, if you’re interested in learning more about minimalism, here are some resources to help you get started:
- Mindful Decluttering – my free decluttering guide and workbook
- How to be a Minimalist: 5 Things Not to Do + What to Do Instead
- 6 Gentle Reminders About Minimalism
- Minimalist Lifestyle Checklist: How to Get Started With Minimalism
- 20 Minimalism Do’s and Dont’s
Do you feel comfortable calling yourself a minimalist? Why or why not? What do you think defines someone as a minimalist? What does minimalism mean to you? Let me know in the comments! x