Living With Less: What If We All Become Minimalists?

Living with lessOne of our readers asked us what would happen if everyone decided that living with less was the way to go. What would a world full of minimalists look like?

Fair warning: this post is more than 3000 words (move aside Leo). Fill a flask, make a sandwich and grab some trail mix. Comfy? Okay, let’s dive in.

Sporty and I love it when our readers ask us questions about our minimalist lifestyle. Sadly, this doesn’t happen nearly enough, so when Shirley from Down Under reached out on Facebook we were super excited.

That is, until we actually read her question. Let’s just say we’d have preferred something a little less taxing, like, “How can I get my husband to tidy up after himself?”

Short answer: You can’t, but hopefully he mows the lawn to make up for his laziness.

But beggars can’t be choosers and we’re always telling our readers that we’re happy to help, so we had no choice. I mean we couldn’t just ignore her could we?

Given the enormity of the question and the fact that we’re urban hippies and not (as she clearly assumed) worldly wise economist types, we were left with no option but to ask our fellow minimalists for help.

I think you’re going to be impressed Shirley!

what if we all become minimalists

The Question

Ang, I genuinely don’t want to seem combative, but I have to ask you something. If your advocacy of minimalism takes off and loads of people start to practice it, what will happen to the Retail Industry? It employs millions of people around the world, the biggest part of the US economy.

What about all those people employed making widgets for people to buy?

What about the people involved in advertising the widgets?

What about the TV programmes paid for by the advertising of widgets?

What about the people who freight all the widgets?

What are they then going to do for a living?

Millions would be impoverished and condemned to poverty. All the money spent by those people would disappear and would affect farmers, tourism, people offering experiences, the list goes on.

I would genuinely like to hear your vision of a future with a world full of minimalists.

The Answer

A question with many parts deserves a multitude of responses, so with that in mind I reached out to the minimalists we know online (either personally or by reputation) and asked for their help.

The are two reasons for doing this. First, minimalism isn’t a one-size-fits-all lifestyle. Although all of us identify as minimalists on some level, how that’s reflected in our beliefs, our life philosophies and the way we navigate our lives, differs greatly.

For example, living with less could mean one car instead of two or it could mean no car at all.

It therefore made sense to get as many different opinions as possible. My hope was that we’d end up with a well-rounded and considered response that would set Shirley’s mind at ease.

I think we pulled that off.

Secondly, I’m far more of a shoowadee* kind of person. If you say things like ‘world economy’, ‘personal finance’ or ‘GDP’ to me, my eyes will glaze over faster than a tofurkey on Thanksgiving. Conversely, if you mention ‘spirituality’, ‘the energy in the room’ or ‘giving back to Mother Earth’ you’ll find I’m alert and ready to engage.

*Shoowadee is what Sporty and I call those people who walk around barefoot, go on vision quests and smudge their apartments (or yerks) with white sage to cleanse the energy. (I generally wear shoes, but the rest is pretty accurate.)

One last thing. I decided against editing down everyone’s responses, as I felt it would take away from their individual tone. Plus, the answers offer varying points of view and I didn’t want to risk detracting from that.

Ang’s Response

AngI think Shirley’s fears are unfounded. When I was researching an article I wrote for Oprah SA back in 2008 I discovered something that really surprised me. This was right at the outset of our minimalist journey, when I was still under the impression that Sporty and I had hit on something new.

Are you finished snorting your green tea through your nose yet?

I’d (wrongly, it turns out) assumed that this whole consumerist mindset was still very much in its embryonic stages. Clearly I was living under a rock (or too busy smudging), because it came as something of a shock when I found out that it was anything but.

We’ve been mindlessly consuming for close on a century and there’s no sign yet that we have any intention of slowing down. But even as this ‘less is more’ way of living starts to catch on, our following in relation to the shopaholics of the world is comparatively miniscule.

For the most part, people want to buy stuff. But just in case we have any intention whatsoever of changing our mind, the marketers are hard at work ensuring we won’t. This talk by Kate Cooper explains how.

Sporty’s Response

What they all said….

Now for the Minimalist Big Guns

Claire from Want Less

Want Less - JeffreyClaire writes about ditching stuff, beating debt and getting a life. She lives in Yorkshire with her wife and their Dachshund, Jeffrey. While they’ve decluttered like a couple of pros, Claire et al still live in a house, own a car and wear clothes.

You can find out more about this super funny Brit blogger by visiting her blog: Want Less.

Claire’s Response

Firstly, I want to start out by saying this is a legitimate question, worded in a really thoughtful way. What if minimalism hurts others, by denying them an income?

Let’s take a look at this.

For minimalism to have this negative effect, I figure there would have to be:

a) enough minimalists to make a difference to global economics
b) a lot of people’s jobs relying on the ‘widgets’ that minimalists no longer buy
c) no alternative sectors that could replace the ‘widget’ industry.

If we take a look at a) first, the number of humans on this planet goes up by around 228,000 each day. Let’s assume consumption goes up proportionately. There would have to be more than 228,000 minimalists created each day for us to even notice a downward trend in consumption levels. Basically, it would have to catch on, big-time. I’m not sure we’re there yet.

If we look at b), sure, minimalists buy less material goods. Of course. That’s kinda the point. Some might spend less too, but others might spend the same amount by choosing more expensive goods that are made to last or are fairly traded.

But the minimalists that spend less – are they hiding their cash under the mattress and therefore keeping it from the economy? I’m not sure they are. Some pay off debt (which was money spent on stuff in the past), others save for retirement (money that will be spent on stuff in future), still more buy experiences, which prop up different jobs.

Now to c). The argument against minimalism and for the status quo seems to be: spend money we may or may not have, on stuff we don’t need, using resources the Earth is running out of, to prop up an economy based on often low-paid manufacturing jobs.

Wow, is this the best we can do? Imagine if things were different. Buying only the things we need or love, and that we can afford – things made in a sustainable way by people paid a good wage, then enjoyed for as long as possible and disposed of responsibly. Seeing the ‘experience’ economy grow, while sweatshops dwindled away.

Human history has been through many changes. We didn’t always support ourselves this way, and it stands to reason that given how we’re ploughing through the Earth’s resources at a fair old rate, that major changes will inevitably happen in the future too. I think humanity has an immense resilience and capacity to adapt.

Basically: things will be fine, even if half the world turns minimalist. Which they won’t anyway.

Michael Todd from Own More Owe Less

Own More Owe LessMichael writes about living the paid-off lifestyle: a radical idea to live life free from debt. He’s married with kids and like Claire, lives in a house and drives a car. So definitely not what you’d call a militant minimalist. His grocery bill is his biggest monthly expense. Visit his blog: Own More Owe Less to find out more.

Michael’s Response

Minimalism can mean different things to different people.

But, I think what is common among any minimalist is the idea of not making needless purchases, using debt to do it.

I will also say, I work in the advertising and digital industry, so I am one of those “people involved in advertising the widgets.”

Credit seems like a great way to increase consumer spending for widgets. But it’s a short game.

Now, think of the collective customer base out there. If they all pay for widgets with credit, they are buying widgets, but ALSO buying the money to buy the widgets. It’s actually TWO purchases going on. One puts money in the widget-maker pockets. But also a bank’s pocket.

And the bad thing is that the credit purchase takes away from future spending availability for the customer. The credit bill becomes a recurring purchase, taking away consumer cash availability to buy ACTUAL widgets.

So all together, credit eats away at the customer base by reducing their buying power long term.

Think of the consumer power that would be unleashed if the entire population had no bills. It’s a tsunami amount of money being spent on credit interest. Which buys no widgets. It’s essentially wasted money being siphoned from the economy.

Without bills, they now have cash. And lots of it.

If consumers’ personal budgets weren’t tied down with debt payments, having cash to buy things would not be a worry. They actually have and keep the money they have, instead of handing a large percentage to a bank. Just look at any mortgage or amortization table and it is not uncommon to spend almost double for something using credit payments.

It’s math. In fact it’s elementary school math.

I also think those purchases would come from a better emotional place. Buying what’s needed, not wanted. Unhealthy buying patterns disappear. Buying isn’t an attempt to mask emotional distress, or salve a weak ego. When cash and owning outright is the rule, purchasing items takes on a much more practical, and helpful role in people’s lives.

Love this topic. It’s one of the things I think is a fallacy about debt. That consumers and business need debt to be healthy. I think it’s the opposite. Reigning in borrowed spending (consumerism), by adopting some minimalist attitudes leads to much more money in everyone’s pockets.

Colin Wright from Exile Lifestyle

Colin WrightI first ‘met’ Colin back in 2010 (or thereabouts) and was instantly smitten with his hair. Can someone please tell me why guys always get the lovely locks (I’m looking at you too, John Stamos)? But I digress. Colin is probably one of the more extreme minimalists featured in this post.

For the past seven years he’s been living wherever his readers tell him to, while carrying his world possessions in small-ish carry-on bag. Colin’s book, My Exile Lifestyle, chronicles his life on the road and is definitely one of the more engrossing memoirs I’ve read. Visit his blog: Exile Lifestyle to find out more.

Colin’s Response

I hear variations of this question a lot, and the answer is that we assume that the way our economy works is fixed, and that nothing can ever change.

That presupposes that nothing has ever changed before, which is false.

It also presupposes that the way we operate now, a system that requires perpetual upticks in production, purchasing, and consumption, is possible and desirable. The former of which, at least, is false.

So the idea that we should focus on the important things and eschew a lot of the ‘consumption for the sake of consuming and keeping people working’ ideologies we adhere to makes sense to me. There are a lot of ways to keep people engaged, productive, and sustained (in terms of food, housing, etc.) than what we’ve landed on these past four or five generations. The idea that this is it and we can’t possibly do it any other way is an unfortunately common myth.

A prolific writer, Colin has penned a bunch of books: some fiction, some how-to and some travelogues. My favourite by far is My Exile Lifestyle, which chronicles his adventures spanning four continents. Grab a copy and book yourself an afternoon on the couch.

Claudia Pennington from Two Cup House

Two Cup House - Claudia & GarrettIn April last year, Claudia and Garrett were living in a 1,500 sq ft house and mired in over $200 000 worth of debt. They’ve subsequently managed to pay off $16 000 plus in credit card debt.

And that’s just the start of it. Their blog: Two Cup House is no longer. Visit Claudia Pennington to get in touch or learn more.

Claudia’s Response

In my opinion, people who work in retail to produce and sell widgets are already impoverished.  People who work in just about every part of the retail supply chain receive low wages (if they’re paid anything at all).

On top of that, people who work in retail are subjected to the constant barrage of in-store advertisements to sell these widgets, so many end up spending all of their earnings on widgets.  (I should know, because I’ve been there.)  Most of the people in the retail supply chain don’t earn a living wage, let alone a wage that supports a life of consumerism.

John Maynard Keynes predicted that we’d only need to work 15 hours a week to support our lifestyles, and I believe that is possible. However, it’s our consumerism that drives us to invest 40 or more hours each week into work we don’t enjoy, buying stuff we don’t need.

If everyone became minimalists, my opinion is that the people in this system would prosper.  People would place a higher dollar value on the time they invest in work.  They would work less and enjoy life more. They would buy fewer goods and spend less on these goods by purchasing wisely.

If everyone became minimalists, there would be a mass exodus from retail employment.  Retailers would be forced to improve their employment practices, update their business models, and diversify the products and services they offer.

If everyone became minimalists, they would spend more time on things they enjoy.  Outdoor retailers would flourish.  There would be more pet adoptions, so pet specialty retail would grow.  There would be more travel–more flights, more hikes, more bikes.

If everyone became minimalists, there would be more entrepreneurs, educators, writers, volunteers, travelers, farmers, and gardeners than ever before.

If everyone became minimalists, the air and water would be cleaner since we would be manufacturing fewer goods. The pollution generated from manufacturing in the United States in the mid-20th century was relocated to Mexico and China where pollution and poverty run rampant. Quality of life would improve for everyone across the world involved in this supply chain.

If everyone became minimalists, there would be less distress and better health, largely due to working fewer hours and spending more time doing the stuff that truly fulfils us.

Anthony Ongaro from Break the Twitch

Break the TwitchAnthony and I became friends after I discovered that he’d shared my TEDx talk on his blog. We’d have become friends anyway, but still, I like that he helped me spread my minimalist message.

Anthony is all about intentional living, a subject he writes and vlogs about extensively on his blog: Break the Twitch

Anthony’s Response

It’s true that the American economy is based so much on retail and industrial sales…it’s a little scary to think about what might actually happen. I feel like the economy would just shift and we’d be able to go back to focusing on locally produced goods and services though. Things made in higher quality, etc.

Al McCullough from Sell All Your Stuff

Al & Shelly in SaskatchewanAl and his wife ditched cubicle life in 2014 and moved to Panama for a change of scenery. Originally from Toronto (my second favourite city in the world), the pair now spend their time house-sitting their way around Canada.

They earn their money online, live out of two medium-sized duffel bags and are happier than they’ve ever been. You can find out more about them via their blog: Sell All Your Stuff.

Note: Al opted to address the questions individually, so I’ve included them again so his responses make sense.

Al’s Response

I believe minimalism will revive the “ma and pa” shops that once dotted the countryside. Big box stores won’t be able to carry large quantities of product (which allows them to have lower prices).

What about all those people employed making widgets for people to buy?

Yes, what about them? Corporations take their manufacturing to where labour is cheap. That was once my country of Canada regarding car parts manufacturing. We’ve seen plenty of those plants up and move to Mexico, where labour is cheaper. Actually, you’re seeing it in the USA as well. Look at Michigan.

What about the people involved in advertising the widgets?

They’ll use different approaches. We’ve seen many fear-tactics with advertising. Don’t get West Nile, use OFF bug spray.

What about the TV programmes paid for by the advertising of widgets?

Product placement within. It’s happening with Netflix – you might see an ad at the start, then no interruptions throughout the show/movie; however, there are many, many ways to have a product in the scene.

Millions would be impoverished and condemned to poverty.

Millions already are. People had jobs before Walmart came along. Again, the small town shops were everywhere, from grocers and bakers to hardware stores. Many people also live beyond their means because they are tricked into thinking a life with stuff is fulfilling and will make them happy. I’ve lived in developing countries where life isn’t about stuff. People spend time with family rather than in front of the TV or shopping for stuff they don’t need.

All the money spent by those people would disappear and would affect farmers, tourism, people offering experiences, the list goes on.

Would it? People being unemployed is the least of farmers’ worries with companies like Monsanto forcing them to grow specific crops. And those people making widgets could open a tourism business, or work in the tourism sector.

I would genuinely like to hear your vision of a future with a world full of minimalists.

My POV – There likely will never be a world full of minimalists, but if there were, I don’t think the world as we know it would stop revolving, it would just continue evolving.

[Tweet ““Live simply so that others may simply live.” —Elizabeth Ann Seton”]

Additional Reading

Just in case you’re that nerd who’d like to read even more on the topic, I’ve identified a few other blog posts that address the subject as well. If I find any more (and I’m sure there are plenty), I’ll be sure to add them.

Joshua Becker from Becoming Minimalist

Joshua Becker

[Excerpt from A New, Minimalist Economy]

Minimalism, as a lifestyle, does not require (or even invite) people to stop spending money altogether. Instead, it merely redirects their money toward non-material pursuits.

As the wave of minimalism expands (which it continues to do), a new economy will begin to emerge. Economists, take heart: money will still be spent. It will just be spent on more rewarding things than material possessions.

If you’re overwhelmed by the amount of stuff you own and are thinking of joining our cohort of minimalists, check out Joshua’s book Simplify: 7 Guiding Principles to Help Anyone Declutter Their Home and Life.

Side note: Joshua’s book inspired Sporty to start putting her stuff away instead of dropping it wherever she found a free surface.

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus from The Minimalists

The Minimalists

[Excerpt from Stimulate the economy like a minimalist]

Ultimately, minimalists aren’t interested in “stimulating” the economy. Stimulation is ephemeral. We’d rather improve our economy’s long-term health by making better individual decisions about consumption, getting involved in our community, and supporting local businesses who care.

If more people do this, we’ll build a stronger economy, one that’s predicated on personal responsibility and community interaction, not a false sense of urgency and the mindless stockpiling of junk we never needed in the first place.

Joshua and Ryan’s book Everything That Remains: A Memoir by The Minimalists is a must read for those who prefer narrative and story over ‘how to’.


Mr Money Mustache from, wait for it, Mr Money Mustache

Mr Money Mustache

[Excerpt from What if Everyone Became Frugal?]

In the short term, a massive switch to frugality would cause an economic depression, as the free market struggled to reallocate everything. Many people would suffer.

But by creating a small and constant shift to a new way of living, the system will have time to adjust gracefully over time.

Luckily, there are only a few tens of thousands of Mustachians so far. The world isn’t in a rush to bend to our ways.  But together we’ll get this thing fixed, if we just keep the pressure on, slow and steady, until the job is done.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay