I was recently posed a very interesting question that I believe is well worth answering.
A commenter asked me why I (and many others) appear to equate stuff with stress. They said they noticed this pattern on sites about minimalism:
“Stuff = unhappiness; stuff = no freedom; stuff = stress; stuff = no spirituality; stuff = a weight holding me down; I want to fit my stuff in just a car, etc. What has that go to do with enjoying your life?”
I think this is an excellent question!
To begin, I think it’s worth mentioning that this question is not usually addressed in minimalist circles because the majority of practicing minimalists don’t ask it. Most people I know who have embraced simplicity or minimalism inherently understand why stuff = stress, restriction, unhappiness, etc. Most of us have sought simpler lives because of this reason. And interestingly enough, the commenter inadvertently answered her own question later in the comment:
“I have a house with lots of furniture, lots of books, lots of dishes and yet my husband, daughter and I are very happy, have personal freedom and can move around when we want. We partake in the things we love, i.e. our family and friends and our stuff doesn’t prevent us from travelling around, i.e. skiing over Christmas holidays north of our city; Caribbean cruise in February; skiing during March-break in Vermont; skiing during Easter in Banff, Alberta and in the summer we usually rent a villa in Provence or Tuscany for a month and bring a couple of our daughter’s friends (this year we’re going to Australia for July and August). We live in a large city that has some fantastic restaurants, festivals and art venues and participate in all the activities our city has to offer. We are not “weighed” down by our stuff nor does it create stress.”
So here’s the simple answer:
It’s all about finding a balance. To achieve the kind of freedom we all crave, you have to have the money to buy it. This isn’t a difference between having a lot of stuff and having no stuff. This is about having enough money to support your dream life. Minimalism provides a way to live our lives the way we want to, without having to worry about finances, life “maintenance” (housework, long work hours, etc), or unnecessary pressure to maintain a certain social status. You know what else provides all of those things? A lot of money.
Commenter, I don’t want to sound cynical or condemning here. I choose to believe that you were just asking a question, without sarcasm or malice. And in a way, I truly envy you for the life you get to live. But unless you have found a way to travel the world, take vacations on a near-monthly basis, and escape work for weeks at a time for free (and if you have, please share your secrets!) then I hope I’m not overstepping my bounds when I say that you must enjoy a pretty fantastic income.
And if that is the case, I have no judgement. Seriously – I am really happy for you! But the reality is that most of us just don’t live the same way. I believe that everyone has the same opportunity to climb the corporate ladder and reach a high level of financial success. But the majority of people I know who have embraced simplicity started where I did: at the bottom. And a climb from the bottom to that level of wealth generally takes years and a single-minded focus that is not exactly conducive to a peaceful, free lifestyle.
A lot of money can buy you a house big enough to hold everything you own without creating clutter, allow you to move wherever you want, give you the freedom to travel, and (with the help of a decent housekeeper) can take away the strain of housework. But so can minimalism.
There’s a definite line there. If you have almost enough money, it doesn’t work. Almost enough money often means your mortgage is a burden. Almost enough money generally means that vacations are things you have to save for, working long hours the rest of the year to compensate. Almost enough money usually means that you still hold your breath at the end of every pay period and breathe a sigh of relief when the paycheck clears. This is where the majority of middle-class America lives. And for us, minimalism is the alternative.
People with dramatically high incomes can support the kind of life you described without stress. Those of us on the much lower end of the income scale have discovered the same freedom and peace through keeping our level of stuff (size of house, number of expenses, etc) proportionately lower. It’s all about finding an equilibrium. And for those of us who can’t find balance by tipping toward the money end of the scale, we’ve found that tipping toward the “less stuff” end has the exact same effect.