The first time I heard the question, I was sitting in the living room at my mother-in-law’s house. We had tuned into MSNBC for Tammy Strobel’s interview. After their appearance on the TODAY Show and in the New York Times, the Strobel’s were being interviewed on the cable network about their experience with minimalism and tiny house living.
At the end of their conversation, the host asked Tammy a pointed question. Relatively new to the movement, it came across to me, as a “gotcha” question—an odd send-off to an otherwise friendly interview. The interviewer asked:
But Tammy, what if your way of life caught on and everybody chose to live minimalist? What would happen to our economy? Have you given any thought to the ramifications?
Since then, I have come to understand, while terrribly mistimed in this specific interview, questions concerning the impact of minimalism on our economy are important ones—and quite significant to a percentage of the population. On a semi-regular basis, I am asked similar questions and have come to expect them. Recently, after an event here in Phoenix, I was approached by a CFO with the same concern.
Joshua, I understand what you are saying about owning less and I don’t disagree on a personal level. However, our national well-being requires people to buy things they don’t need. If minimalism caught on nationally, our economy would be ruined.
Now, before I move on to address his specific concern, I do think in the short-term and to some extent, he is probably right.
There are numerous factors that contribute to the overconsumption so prevelant in almost every wealthy society in our world today. There are personal, heart issues that give rise to overconsumption: greed, jealousy, lack of empathy, desire to impress, pride, compensating for personal shortcomings, our propensity to look for happiness in the things we possess, and general unawareness of the damaging affects of overconsumption.
But beyond that, there are also societal issues at play. Our economy, to a large degree, is based on overconsumption and the need for people of every social class to spend more than they have. Disappointing retail figures and sluggish consumer confidence are always reported as doomsday scenarios.
“We must get people spending,” is the mantra of the journalist as the only way to revive a slowing economy. In fact, just this past week, a news story lamented the possibility of consumers paying down debts: “If [consumers] trouser the savings to pay down debts instead, expect more gloom ahead.”
My first question after reading the article was, “What kind of society have we built that requires people to go into debt to sustain it?” How long can that last anyway? But, beyond that, I was reminded of the often-asked question I first heard addressed to Tammy on MSNBC.
Can minimalism and a thriving economy co-exist?
I believe they can (and I am not alone). For starters, those who argue they are incompatible fail to miss the bigger picture on two significant fronts: the flexibility of our capitalist system and the misunderstanding that minimalism represents zero spending.
First, concerning the flexibility of our economy, it is widely assumed that markets and business dictate consumer behavior. And again, to a degree, they are correct. Marketers work long hours and make good money devising new ways to shape our consumer behavior and bend it toward their specific product line. However, business, at its very heart, is about catering to the desires of the consumer—not the other way around.
For example, on a consistent basis, there is outrage over fast fashion—these outlets that offer cheap textiles with an ever-revolving supply entering and exiting their store. The reality exists that to create such a large quantity of clothing at such low prices requires somebody, somewhere to be paid very little to produce it. We throw our hands up in disgust… and then we drive to the store to buy our cheap t-shirts. As a result, more inexpensive t-shirts, sweaters, dresses, and sneakers are produced.
However, if the consumer masses finally said, “Enough! I am willing to pay more money for my fashion to ensure proper working conditions around the world,” and truly meant it, these outlets would change their practice and their strategy to meet the new demands of the public they desire to clothe.
Businesses may influence some aspects of consumer spending. But as a long-term rule, they respond to consumer demands far more than they create them.
Which brings me back to the original question. Would our economy decline and our nation falter if minimalism became the norm? In the short-term, yes, there would absolutely be some hiccups along the way. But an economy based on free-market, capitalist principles will always be able to re-invent itself. Entrepreneurial spirits will always find new ways to generate revenue. And they would do so in a new, minimalist economy as well.
This, then, introduces the second misconception mentioned above: the belief that minimalism represents zero spending.
Minimalist lifestyles do 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. It will focus on things like:
Experiences. From concerts and eating out to museums and sporting events, minimalists prefer experiences over possessions. Spending will begin to move in that direction.
Travel and Tourism. Many minimalists refer to travel as the “ultimate experience” and some embrace the lifestyle purely for its pursuit. Others recognize it as merely a nice byproduct of owning less. Both approaches impact our economy significantly: as dollars are directed away from fleeting material possessions, travel will become more attainable—and so will the many industries required to support it.
Art. While not every minimalist considers themselves an artist in practice or appreciation, there is little doubt that a new, minimalist economy will place a higher value upon it. Minimalism allows more people to practice it and in turn, provides more opportunity for people to appreciate it.
Higher-Quality Consumer Products. To live is to consume. We all need food and shelter and clothing. We also have passions and purposes that we desire to fulfill with our short lives. These needs and these purposes require material goods. Minimalism does not reject all material purchases, but it does provide the opportunity (and the desire) to own higher-quality items. In a minimalist economy, well-designed, multi-purpose, quality-crafted items will be desired and purchased.
Services. In a minimalist economy, services become more desired than retail products. As a short anecdote, my friend recently hired a personal chef to complement his use of a personal trainer. He would credit minimalism as a means to that end. Because he spends less money on things and less time caring for them, he has found the space in his schedule and budget to hire these services—services that, in the long-run, are an investment into his health, well-being, and productivity.
Research and Problem Solving. As Mr. Money Mustache eloquently argues, the savers and investors represent the true engine of economic growth:
Only by sacrificing current consumption, can people put money into banks or share offerings, which end up in the hands of new and existing businesses who can then use that money to create new technology, factories, or human capital, allowing them to increase their productivity. Capital creates productivity, and productivity is the driver of our standard of living.
Sharing. The movement is already underway—technology has made it possible. Resources and products are being shared today among citizens at a far-greater rate than they have been in generations. From Uber and AirBnb, to Fon and NiceRide, there exist examples all around us of this growing industry providing a snapshot into our future economy. Again, each one represents the ingenuity of individuals and the entrepreneurial spirit.
Public good. This, then, represents the greatest benefit of minimalism on a macro-level. Minimalism provides opportunity for the individual to practice generosity on a larger scale than ever before. Minimalism allows us to redirect our finite resources away from our wants and begin to use them in practical ways to meet other people’s needs. Whether we are feeding the hungry, housing the orphan, saving the environment, protecting animals, or speaking up for the disenfranchised, our resources can make this world a better place for everybody.
Will the economy falter if minimalism grows to a nationwide movement? Certainly, our existing one based almost entirely on individual overconsumption will slow—and it will hiccup in the short-term.
But it will re-invent itself. Indeed, it always has.
Lori in Prescott says
As the clothing and furniture and cars improved, so would the housing industry (which drives this country). My dream would be comfortable tiny homes for the elderly and the indigent in safe communities.
Here is my hero, Ed Begley, Jr. planning his new green home.
We would continue to consume, only MINDFULLY.
It’s only October and I already have customers asking me, “When do you open on Black Friday!” Firsthand, I don’t see it getting any better, but I hope it will. I always come home “shell shocked” after a shift at the department store. The mindless spending and the rudeness of the customers. Some are very nice, but for the most part…not so much. ;)
I guess Joshua, sometimes I can’t understand why we give our money, time to other places. I mean…it’s ok, but are we still taking care of our own? I’ve seen people give resources to other countries and adopt children from other countries…but do we overlook our neighbors for example who may need new shoes for their kids? Or help paying a medical bill?
I was orphaned and the three of us kids had a very rough go of it. We were never adopted…but in the midst of all that I had a relative adopt a child from Vietnam. Why?
I’m not being obstinate, I really don’t understand.
Is it harder to adopt from the US? Is it easier to adopt from overseas? Maybe someone can help me to understand better.
Regardless, I’m so happy for you Joshua!!! I know God is working through you!!! :) :) :)
Sadly, there seems to be a status symbol attached with international adoption. It’s more expensive and sometimes viewed as more heroic. It may just be that there were three of you and your relative wanted to adopt only one. Regardless of the reason, I’m sorry you were wounded. I agree with the sentiment of helping our own first and only then helping others.
Thank you, Molly :)
joshua becker says
Thanks for the comment. I am so thankful that you shared your story with us—it is an important one for all of us to hear.
I think, Judy, as with most things in life, it is a both-and situation. We need to help people here and we need to help people there. We can do both at the same time.
The current situation is not that all aid money is being spent overseas or that all adoptions taking place in America involve internationally-born children. In fact, roughly 87% of adoptions that take place in the US involve American-born children, while the remaining 13% represent international-born children (source). People are working hard within our borders to alleviate the injustice in our country. And I am glad they are.
But it’s not a matter of we should only be doing one… it’s always a matter of we need people doing both.
As someone who works in the handmade (clothing) community, I still see rampant overconsumption, though the pendulum is swinging toward “stash-down” and “slow fashion.” If our culture *could* shift to less consumption and more mindful consumption, I think people would find they don’t need to work as much to have what they need instead of everything they think they need to keep up. Instead: more time to maintain mental and phsyical health, more time with family, more time for travel, more time to volunteer in the community. There definitely would be fewer startups and business selling mass-made goods and, dare I say it…that might be a good thing.
David Y says
Dave Ramsey has talked about this before on his radio show when people ask him what will happen if everyone decided to become debt free and get rid of the credit cards.
He came to pretty much the same conclusion. The economy would suffer for a while, then recover as people didn’t need to make payments for stuff they bought years ago. The same would probably hold true if more people scaled back on the stuff they have.
joshua becker says
Sounds like I am in good company. I will add him to the list of people who agree with me. :)
Kent Faver says
I find the comments on travel interesting – largely because this seems to be the sermon of so many minimalists – spend all your money on epic travel.
People add more to global pollution by traveling than many other activities. Why not gardening or community involvement? Why not Habitat for Humanity or CASA or becoming a foster parent? Because it’s not sexy. Traveling is – you put travel pics up on Instagram or FB or Twitter, and other “minimalists” ooh and aww over them – secretly wishing they could travel the globe like that. I sometimes think Minimalism – and specifically the travel aspect with it – is becoming a new religion or dogma.
I very much agree with you, Kent. While I do embrace minimalism, the whole “travel and experiences” thing just doesn’t sit well with me. It can be very expensive (reducing the resources we have available to help others) and, at least at this point, not good for the environment. I think each of us needs to decide what is important to invest our limited time and money on. For some, it may be travel and experiences as opposed to material things. But for others, perhaps some physical items that enrich their lives. That’s the whole point: enriching our lives and the lives of others, and doing it in a mindful, responsible way.
Graham Dunn says
Exactly! You nailed it.
I do think a little travel is good, but we must watch it lest it become another mantra of a movement and we blind ourselves to the ramifications that you outlined.
You seem to have a very cynical take on traveling. I understand where your concerns are coming for, but as a minimalist and a self-proclaimed wanderluster, I’d have to disagree with a lot of your points. For one, travel is not sexy. The experience maybe, but travel itself is not. And I don’t mean the kind of two-week vacation type, book the fanciest resort possible. I mean like true travel where you get to actually experience the culture. I have never met another person who considers themself a minimalist, but I’d imagine most wouldn’t “spend all of their money on epic travel”. In general, I find that I meet very few Americans when I travel and I wonder if that’s because most Americans don’t care to venture outside of the little comfort box they’ve made for themselves.
I actually currently live in a country where the locals here are very harshly visa restricted, except for when it comes to a few selected countries. They’d love nothing more than to go abroad and experience other countries, which is a privilege that so many Americans take for granted just by never leaving the United States. In other countries young people are encouraged to take a gap year before heading straight to college and most use that time to travel, yet many young Americans are still hearing the rhetoric: “America’s the greatest country in the world. Why go anywhere else?”
I’ve learned a little from living and traveling abroad and I’ll be able to apply that knowledge when I finally decide to settle down in the States. In this article, Joshua gave a wonderful great handful of reasons why minimalism would work on a large scale. Travel was only one of them and if we ever get to a minimalist economy you don’t have to utilize the services, but there’s no reason to knock the idea either.
joshua becker says
Thanks for the comment. Great thoughts. I am glad you felt the confidence and security to articulate them.
Minimalism allows each of us to pursue happiness wherever we desire. Because of the search for happiness in possessions has been removed, we are finally free to look elsewhere.
And from what I see, different people begin to search for joy and fulfillment in different places. Some look in travel, some look in added zeros to their bank account, some look in meaningful work, some look in service to others. I have my opinions about the best places to find that fulfillment, but one benefit of minimalism is that each person is free to pursue wherever they desire.
Whether they find it in the first place they look is not necessarily relevant because they are always free to look somewhere else.
Karen T. says
I totally agree, Kent.
Andrea H says
Well said! A very well addressed answer to the ‘gotcha’ question. As someone who is pursing a ‘minimalist’ wardrobe I have found myself not necessarily spending any less money, but rather redirecting that money toward fewer, better products.
I hope this blog post helps frame the conversation about minimalism because it’s seem like traditional media isn’t quite getting it right.
I cringe at the example of ‘cheap clothes’ vs ‘high quality clothes’ – most big brands, no matter the price are being produced in developing countries, sometimes the only difference is in the label being sewed in at the end.
Second, one of the first comments gives the example of medieval Europe as a minimalist society. However, in medieval Europe the vast majority (speaking 80%) of people were farmers, most of them little more than self-sustainable. The upper class – the nobility and rich merchants – was just as un-minimalistic as they are today. As far as I know, there has never been a society in history where people didn’t buy all they could or could afford, I’ll be curious to see an alternative.
joshua becker says
Somebody could help with the history better than me, but I always envision the pre-European Native American civilization as one built on respect for each other and the land. I am not naive enough to assume there was no corruption or greed among them, but it was my first thought to your statement of “there has never been a society in history.”
I’d define a minimalist economy as one where people would willingly choose to own less than they could, and would choose a few better items over more cheap ones. If you focus on respect and care for land and people, I think that’s what the social market economy was supposed to do before it turned into globalized capitalism…
I agree – our economy will change, but not falter.
I’m looking forward to your post Sunday!
joshua becker says
I am also looking forward to Sunday.
Exciting thoughts – regarding both the possible new direction of our economies and your upcoming announcement!
Agree 100%! The economy needs to be re-invented. We need to shift our thinking further about our economies and banking systems. They don’t work anymore. People and governments going into debt to sustain the economy is not healthy.
Looking forward to the big news Joshua!