Minimalism has been subject to a plethora of scrutiny by progressives. The most commonly held view is that minimalism is solely for upper-class bourgeois who live a life of excess and can afford to rid their home of excess, curate a capsule wardrobe, and move into beautiful apartments with bright walls, open space, and large windows. This is not a lifestyle for poor and working people. Especially those living paycheque to paycheque.
This is not an argument without merit. Of course, there are those who are scrapping by and do not have the means to create a wardrobe of ten expensive, well-made items and live in a beautiful space that facilitates a simple and beautiful life.
But, that’s not what minimalism is about either.
Firstly, with any lifestyle, philosophy, or even religion, we as individuals have the luxury to incorporate what fits into our lifestyle — not the other way around. Not all Catholics are pro-life. Not all Stoics remain calm in face of adversity. Not all minimalists count their physical possessions. You are able to pick and choose what you agree with and what you don’t. And you don’t have to explain your choices to anyone.
Secondly, we must be wary about blank statements. No poor or working earners can relate to this lifestyle. This is only for middle and upper-class earners.
To be utterly frank: I’m not sure I agree.
The one thing that I’ve learned as a lawyer at a legal aid clinic is that it is fundamentally dangerous to put a group of people — who only have one thing in common — together. No two clients are the same: their upbringing, their relationship with money, their sense of agency. I know an unattached man who spends his paycheques chasing the American Dream. I know a single mother who is simply trying to make ends meet and provide a better life for her daughter. The only trait that bonds them is that they work tough, blue-collar jobs and were terminated for reasons that were illegal.
I am not here to judge anyone for the financial choices that they make. I also believe that poor and working people are entitled to nice things. And that is why I make no comment about whether minimalism is right for poor or working people, but simply that it is impossible to make a blanket statement about a sector of society that we often know little about.
Minimalism Has Allowed Me to Pursue a Career of Contribution
As a middle-class woman, minimalism has helped me in many ways: health, relationships, finances, and career satisfaction.
When I first entered law school, I knew that I didn’t want to be the stereotypical corporate lawyer. I wanted to help marginalized communities. I wanted to use my skills (that I hoped to gain at least) for good.
But as my time as a law student progressed, I started to travel off the path that made most sense to me. I saw that my colleagues were travelling down another path — one that was more clearly defined, well-lit, and had a detailed roadmap. The destination wasn’t predicated on service. The destination was predicated on money. And lots of it, at that.
I looked at my student loan balance and back at the prospective salaries that I could be earning. Six-figure salaries. Salaries that would enable me to pay off my student loans fast. Salaries that would impress my friends, families, and future significant others. Salaries that would allow me to rent a nice apartment, eat well, and take a god damn vacation.
And while I never did go through with entering the Corporate World, I did secure a job with the provincial government. A second-rate Corporate World. Where my co-workers, who were lovely and friendly, remained in passion-less positions due to the false pretense of job security and fancy benefits packages. While I’ll never judge anyone for the career choices that they make (and the factors that went into these decisions), I knew that it just wasn’t for me.
And so, a year and a half later, I left that wonderful job to take another job. A job that paid 40% less with no job security. A job that guaranteed to be more trying. A job that delayed my prospect of eradicating my student loans.
But it was an opportunity that placed me back on my original path, who’s destination promised service to others. It was a position that enabled me to use my skills to help those screwed by our unjust system, unable to afford a private lawyer.
I would not have been able to take this job if I didn’t adopt minimalist concepts into my life.
If I didn’t simplify my finances, clarify my needs, or pare down my wants, I would have been forced to take a higher-earning job that would have left me unfulfilled.
I have never counted how many shirts I own or utensils in my kitchen drawer, but I have learned to evaluate what matters to me and what doesn’t.
Realizing that I wasted most of my paycheques attempting to be a trendier version of myself — and finding a solution to tackle that inclination — allowed me to earn less and live more purposefully.
Now, 1 1/2 years after taking that leap of faith in my career, here’s what my current situation looks like:
- I earn roughly the same income as my past job;
- I anticipate being debt-free within the year;
- I am a new dog mom to a senior, rescue dog
And, perhaps most importantly, I am now able to earn a living by doing something that is incredibly meaningful to me (and what I believe is important to the community).
You Don’t Need Six-Figures in Savings or Reach Early Retirement Before Helping Others
As a progressive lawyer, it is important to state that you are more than the things you own and the numbers in your bank account. If you are privileged as I am, in that you have the luxury to choose an alternative job that is not minimum wage, it is imperative that you determine your “enough.” Once you reach that mark, give your time, energy, and skills to help others reach their enough. Mental minimalism is a framework that can help you get there.
I see many personal finance bloggers advocating for a frugal lifestyle so that they can achieve early retirement in their 30s or 40s.
But instead of promoting a message that will only serve you in the end, why not advocate a frugal lifestyle so you can take a lower-earning job that will help those in need?
A part of my job, aside from helping low-income people navigate the legal system, is that I am able to advocate for stronger laws and policies before the provincial and federal government. I am able to participate in organizing meetings led by grassroots organizations. I am able to devote an afternoon helping injured workers with their campaigns of letter-writing or knocking on doors. I am able to be a part of something that can help make the world a more equitable place.
Had I listened to my insatiable appetite for bigger and better material things, I would have never been able to take this career leap. I’m okay with sacrificing the Mercedes-Benz, a five-bedroom and three-bathroom house, and upgrading my phone every single year. I’m not okay with spending decades of my life chasing ephemeral pleasures in an effort to mask my discontent.
Minimalism has helped me reject the American Dream and pursue my own dream instead.
As Greg McKeown aptly stated:
“We live in a world where almost everything is worthless and a very few things are exceptionally valuable.”
As a progressive, it’s important for me to illustrate to middle and upper-class earners the importance of thinking beyond themselves. We need to reframe our definition of financial success and prosperity — away from an individualist concept and more towards a collective one.
Change starts from within.
And I believe minimalism can help frame that change.