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Middle Class Minimalist Message Sounds Off-Key for Poor

Two self-styled gurus of minimalism say their message of making life more meaningful with fewer possessions is one to which everyone can relate.
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In a culture of "stuff," two self-styled minimalist gurus have popularized the idea of earning less and owning less.Allison Joyce / Getty Images file

For upper-middle class Americans drowning in stuff, a message of simplicity might sound appealing. But for the poor, advice about streamlining an already bare-bones existence rings hollow.

Joshua Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, two self-styled gurus of minimalism, have popularized the idea of earning less and having less through their books — the two are currently on a 100-city book tour — and a blog that draws an audience of 2 million readers. They say their message of making life more meaningful with fewer possessions is one to which everyone can relate, no matter their financial status.

“You have the luxury of options right now,” Millburn said.

When he walked away from a six-figure job because he was disillusioned following a divorce and his mother’s death, “My initial plan was to write fiction … and to work at a coffee shop,” he said. “I radically pared down my bills to make a part-time living … but everything I did was in line with my values.”

Millburn said that he and Nicodemus both grew up poor in Ohio, and that he spent two years cutting his expenses to whittle away at most of his credit card and other debt before embarking on his lifestyle change.

“I think we all have options,” he said. “I spent a few years changing my life and paying off about 80 percent of my debt and sacrificing,” he said. “I moved into a very tiny apartment.”

Joshua Fields Millburn, right, and Ryan Nicodemus are The Minimalists, writing about living a meaningful life with less stuff.via The Minimalists

That advice might sound off-key for those in poverty.

“A wealthy person minimalizing is making a lifestyle choice,” said Sasha Abramsky, a fellow at advocacy group DEMOS and author of “The American Way of Poverty, How the Other Half Still Lives.” Poor people, he said, “don’t have that option in the first place.”

Through their public relations representative, the two declined to say how much they earned from preaching a gospel of fewer possessions and less money. “Focusing primarily on money misses the point,” Millburn said via email.

Even poor Americans can benefit from disciplined spending, Millburn insisted. “I think ultimately it’s about decisions with the resources we do have …. I think people don’t realize how much is going out the window.”

Not so, said Arne Kalleberg, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies poverty.

“The poor people I’ve talked to, they know exactly how much money is going out the window because they’re counting pennies,” he said. “They know exactly which bills they’re going to not pay this month and how much they’ll pay in interest. That doesn’t mean poor people don’t waste money — every time you want to wash a pair of jeans, you have to pay $3 — but they do know where the money goes.”

“As long as the big-picture inequalities remain, a conversation about minimalism … is going to end up blaming poor people when they stay poor.”

In a blog post, Millburn wrote, “I’m currently wearing a $100 pair of jeans, and, yes, they are worth $100 of my freedom to me; they are also my only pair of jeans, ergo I get immense value from them since I wear them almost every day.”

If you’re a middle-class person with a washer and a dryer in your house, that’s easy, Kalleberg said. Trips to a Laundromat cost both time and money.

And for the people who can’t afford $100 jeans, perhaps they can have the cast-offs of elective minimalists.

Nicodemus said that at one point, he had roughly a dozen shirts he wore when he painted. “I probably only needed one or two painting shirts, if that,” he said.

“I think that’s the nice thing about a lot of different charities. There are places now within communities … that have high-quality stuff,” Millburn said, saying he donated a lot of his clothes when he embraced minimalism.

“I’m certain I can go to Goodwill ... if I was in a lower income situation [and] have free or very low-cost access to high quality goods.”

But there’s nothing generous about telling poor people they should be grateful for hand-me-downs, Abramsky argued.

“It’s one thing for a wealthy person to say, ‘I don’t need that pair of jeans,’ but the psychology of telling a poor person, ‘you’re not good enough to buy new clothes’… psychologically, that comes with a lot of baggage,” he said.

Minimalism also assumes a certain amount of free time, which poverty experts say is as scarce as disposable income for poor Americans.

“I would say that for me I know that I have at least 20 minutes a day to sit and let my mind wander and do a little bit of meditation,” Nicodemus said.

Others can, too, he said. “They can find at least 20 minutes a day…. They can certainly slow down a little bit and make better decisions here and there.”

It’s not that simple, Kalleberg said. “Poverty comes with tremendous time restrictions,” he said. “With the psychological pressure of juggling … everything becomes stressful and everything generally takes longer than it would if you had resources.”

Ultimately, the problem of applying minimalism to everyone is that “it assumes everything is equal,” Abramsky said. It assumes poor people live in neighborhoods that are as safe as rich neighborhoods, that they have access to good grocery stores and doctor’s offices and parks and schools — and almost always, this isn’t the case.

“It makes all of these assumptions about equal environments that don’t hold,” Abramsky said. “As long as the big-picture inequalities remain, a conversation about minimalism … is going to end up blaming poor people when they stay poor.”