Though I have written in some detail about our desire to downsize (minimize) our possessions, my goal is not to become a minimalist. In fact, I do not believe that the concept of minimalism is all that helpful in our path towards financial independence and early retirement.
“Minimalism” to me is a negative term. Nobody wants the bare minimum.
After all, if you’re eating healthy, do you make yourself a “minimal” dinner or a sensible dinner? If in need of a new computer, do you look for a “minimal” computer or a sensible one? Do you go on “minimal” or sensible vacations? You get the idea. Minimal is just the wrong word.
The concept of minimalism I think is a good one – living with less, or living below your means. I think most of us could get behind that statement. Living with less and spending more frugally is the first step towards quitting the rat race early and enjoying a lifetime of happiness. Check.
Hell, it worked for me.
I also agree that the more you do those things, the earlier in your life that retirement becomes possible. Less stuff is generally a good thing. It means simplification. It very often relieves stress. I truly do believe the concepts of “minimalism” to be sound and worthwhile.
The problem is the term “minimalism” very often conveys something more negative than simply living with less, and the extra negatives ingrained in this term very often cloud the idea of minimalism.
What does the term “minimal” mean to you, anyway?
According to Dictionary.com, one definition is “barely adequate or the least possible“. Barely adequate? That doesn’t sound happy or productive. Or, how about “the least quantity or amount possible, assignable, allowable, or the like“?
Pardon me, but that just sounds horrible.
And truthfully, who is to say what is truly “minimal” in your life? If you buy a $50 set of silverware instead of a $20 set, is that against the confines of being a minimalist? After all, that $50 set isn’t what represents barely adequate. You don’t NEED a ceiling fan in your bedroom either, or that car in your garage or driveway, or your laptop computer, or…
Your mindset is one of the most powerful forces behind your decision-making process. Don’t focus on something with negative connotations in order to better your life. That is entirely counter-productive. None of us are seeking to skate by in our lives with the bare minimum.
Forget the term “minimalism”.
Reach your goals by living sensibly
Luckily, it does not take a barely adequate lifestyle to retire early. There is no need to compare every one of your possessions to some amorphous definition of minimalism. Becoming a minimalist is not the key to a lifetime of happiness and jobless bliss.
The truth is you can live well – in fact, in the lap of luxury, and still set yourself up to achieve financial independence and retire super early. The key is living a more sensible lifestyle by making smart decisions with your money. Think about your happiness, first and foremost. Forget adequacy. That’s boring.
The toughest part of this equation to handle is getting to the root of what makes you happy and resisting the temptation to go overboard when doing it.
For example, watching television may legitimately make you happy. But, do you need a huge 80-inch television to do it?
Living below your means is a lifestyle choice that actively prioritizes a non-ridiculous way to spend your money. Maybe you don’t need that new 80-inch television from Costco after all, or that pricey prime-cut filet steak every week, or those $100 date nights every month.
A minimalist may not have a television at all. But screw that. Be honest with yourself about what makes you happy and do those things. Just don’t be an out-of-control maniacal spendthrift when doing so.
That’s right – if you want that pint of expensive “designer” ice cream, throw caution to the wind and buy it. Enjoy it, but enjoy it over time. This means don’t crash in front of your television and destroy that pint of delicious ice cream like it’s going out of style.
Or hell, do that. But do it every 6 months, not every week. Moderate yourself. In other words, be sensible, not minimal.
Because, when you live below your means, you aren’t depriving yourself of anything meaningful. You still get to watch TV. You still get to eat at your favorite restaurant. You still get to do all the things – above the bare minimum required to live – that you know and love.
The difference is control. Be honest with yourself about what actually makes you happy. When you do those things, make those things special. The less you do them, the more special they become.
In the end, early retirement has nothing to do with doing or having the bare minimum. Early retirement is enabled by living sensibly, spending frugally and moderating the things in life that you call treats.
Are all minimalists living with the bare minimum?
Certainly, not. In fact, most claim that minimalism isn’t about depriving yourselves of things either or living with the absolute bare minimum required to get by. But unfortunately, that’s what the word “minimal” means.
To me, minimalists aren’t living a “minimal” lifestyle at all. Instead, they are living sensibly. They spend money much more wisely than traditional Americans. They have reinvented their definition of happiness and find the good in almost any situation. They know when to treat themselves and understand how to moderate those treats.
They save big, spend small and live happy, healthy and productive lives. And there is nothing “minimal” about it.
They do so by living…sensibly. Be sensible, dang it!
Note: This article was originally published in July of 2015, but has been updated after my retirement from full-time work last December.
Steve is a 37-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.