The Five Schools of Minimalism

I’ve been reading a lot of minimalist inspired writing this year. I fancy myself an aspiring minimalist and recovering consumer. I enjoy hearing different perspectives and can usually find nuggets that I can apply to my own developing minimalist philosophy.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve noticed that although there are many common minimalist principles there are a few distinct differences in the philosophies. I have begun to classify them in my mind as five different schools of minimalism.

The Five Schools of Minimalism

Each of the schools is driven by a root motivation that the philosophy places ultimate importance on. These five motivations are the following: saving money, protecting the environment, freeing oneself from oppression, living conveniently through simplicity, and sacrificing for others.

Before I describe the schools, I would like to caveat what I mean by minimalism. In general I am referring to those that are consciously and explicitly deciding to live in such a way as to consume less than their peers – those that have chosen to go against the western trend towards excessive consumerism.

Not everyone who owns little is a minimalist. Most of the world owns very little, but that is not usually by choice. Unchosen poverty is an altogether separate topic, though it is often hard for an outsider to distinguish it from self-elected poverty.

And now, the five schools of minimalists

The School of Saving Money

This group, the financial minimalists, places ultimate importance on reducing the amount of money they spend. They live minimally because it is less expensive. Often their goal is to get out of debt, save for the future, or even retire early. Financial independence is a popular goal for students of this school.

When put to the test, they will favor options that involve spending less money. This often means they will first explore forgoing, reclaiming, borrowing, buying used or buying at a discount in that order before they ever consider buying something new at full price.


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The foolish students of this school are short sighted and seek only to minimize each transaction, often ignoring other hidden costs such as the need to frequently replace cheaply made items. The wise, on the other hand, take into account the full view and calculate the cost per use of each item. They know that a well made item will last longer and are not afraid to spend more initially for something of higher quality if it will save money in the long run.

Minimalism for this school is mostly about the minimalism of consumer transactions. They do not place much value on status items like luxury cars, watches or suits. They cook their own meals at home and do not often eat out. They learn to do things themselves rather than paying others. Rarely will a minimalist of this school pay for a repairman, plumber, painter, gardener or maid.

Though claiming minimalism, they are not afraid to buy in bulk and store items for when they are needed. Though they do not value hoarding possessions, they recognize that you can often save money buy purchasing items when the price is right rather than when the need is present and thus, when following their core value of saving money, will actually keep on hand more than is needed.

Popularly taught by: Dave Ramsey, The Millionaire Next DoorMr. Money Mustache, Tiny House Movement

The School of Protecting the Environment

This group, the environmental minimalists, places ultimate importance in reducing the resources they consume to minimize the strain they put on the environment. Their goal is to minimize the negative impact they have on the planet which they recognize as precious.

They have seen that excessive consumption requires harvesting raw materials which often means commercial mining, deforestation and destruction of habitats. They also recognize that most consumer products travel a long distance during the cycle from raw material to disposal and that travel requires other limited resources like coal and gasoline. Finally, they recognize that each item they purchase will ultimately need to be disposed of and so far the human strategy has been to bury things in the ground or toss them into the ocean – a strategy that further destroys habitats.

For the reasons above, the environmentally focused minimalism seeks to limit their needs, purchases and consumption. They understand that as a consumer, they are responsible for the negative consequences that result from each item they purchase. So they seek to use renewable sources where possible and to undo damage through making use of items that have already been harvested from the earth. Each item they reclaim is one less item in a landfill.

Minimalism for this school takes the form of decreasing the need for raw material extraction and for waste disposal. Some families will not buy products who’s packaging will end up in a landfill, they tend towards items that can be recycled or composted.


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Often the students of the first two schools will overlap in their strategies – fuel efficient transportation is good for the environment and costs less. However, students of the environmental minimalism school can be distinguished by their willingness to spend more money on items that were harvested in responsible ways such as organic cotton or pesticide free food.

Popularly taught by: The Barneby FamilyLet My People Go Surfing

The School of Freeing Oneself from Oppression

This group, the freedom minimalists, places ultimate importance on living a life of their choosing as opposed to a life chosen by another. They seek to avoid being trapped by debt, style trends, corporate profits, rigid schedules and other initiatives that mostly benefit third parties.

They instead seek to suck out all the marrow of life.

They have recognized that many people feel trapped in lifestyles because they have become accustomed to high spending and can now only maintain that by working a job they don’t love. The freedom minimalist feels that life is hard for everyone. It is either hard to deal with the stress of a job, or it is hard to live with very little money. They chose the latter.

Sometimes these minimalists take to nomadic lifestyles living in vans, boats, yurts, etc. These self-elected poor are known by many names: street kids, runaways, van lifers, ski bums, surf rats, cruising families and dirtbags. Whatever the name, the students of this school feel that their lifestyles allow them to spend more time enjoying the places and people they cherish.


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Minimalism for this school takes the form of decreasing possessions and responsibilities that others say are important so they can increase the amount of what they think is important, be that a hobby, passion, faith or something else.

This school will often not spend much money because spending money requires having money which often requires making earning money a priority – something this group is not willing to do. However, this school can be distinguished from the first school by a few specific items they are willing to spend money on: travel, equipment to pursue their passions, and high quality essentials.

Though they often live closer to nature than most of society, when pushed they would chose their own freedom over the conservation of the environment, which distinguishes them from the environmental minimalists of the second school.

Popularly taught by: 4-Hour Workweek, Compasing, cruising families, Surfwise

The School of Living Conveniently Through Simplicity

This group, the convenience minimalists, places ultimate importance on reducing the amount of energy their lifestyle requires. They have recognized that often possessions come with hidden costs that can consume time and money. A large house needs to be cleaned. A collection needs to be maintained. This group seeks to reduce the overhead they must invest at any given point so that they can increase their enjoyment.

This school thinks that most people have a hard time detaching themselves from stuff. They have recognized that possessions have diminished returns and that more stuff does not always mean more joy. They seek to reduce what they own to only the things that they use frequently or admire often, though hey do sometimes have grace for one or two sentimental items, as long as they are small.


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This school encourages you to follow your passions but to be realistic about cutting ties with past passions. If you become interested in kite boarding, pursue it, but make sure to get rid of those golf clubs you haven’t used in a few years so they aren’t cluttering up your garage. In practice, this can be an expensive lifestyle. Living conveniently might result in repurchasing items in the future as your tastes change back.

Minimalism for this school looks like carefully selecting a small number of high quality possessions so that they can maximize their life while minimizing their overhead.

Though luxury items are not explicitly encouraged by this school, neither are they are not eliminated by principle. In fact, many luxury items are ideal under this school’s philosophy because of their ability to serve many needs – such as a smartphone.

Students of this school are great services consumers. They know that repairing, maintaining and building all require special equipment which can clutter a space. They prefer to pay others for their services when the need arises rather than keeping around all of the equipment they would infrequently need – even if this process costs a bit more in the end.

Popularly taught by: The Joy of Less, The 100 Thing Challenge

The School of Sacrificing for Others

This group, the sacrificial minimalists, places ultimate importance on helping others. They recognize that their wealth puts them among the top 1% of people on the planet. Rather than living in a way that reflects that, they seek to live simply and redistribute their wealth to those who have less.

These minimalists seek to live simply so that others may simply live. Through each sacrifice they make, they hope to cure sickness, fight injustice, feed the hungry and educate the unlearned. They share the burden of thousands who’s lot in life was cast with less fortune.


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Students of this school spend very little, like the financial minimalists, but rather than hoarding their money they continually give it away.

Students of this school make decisions that benefit the planet, like the environmental minimalists, but they do so not for the earth, but rather for the billions of people alive now and in the future that will depend on it to survive.

Students of this school seek to break free of the system, like the freedom minimalists, but rather than using that freedom to benefit only themselves, they free their mind from the system while keeping their bodies in place, so that they can benefit others that have not yet broken free.

Students of this school seek to decrease the time overhead of their lives, like the convenience minimalists, but rather than using the extra bandwidth to follow their own passions, they invest their time and energy in helping to transform lives around them.

Popularly taught by: Living More with Less, More or Less, Monseigneur Bienvenu


As I read about different ways in which people approach minimalism, I try to view it in context of one of these schools. I ask myself what drives the writer and how different that really is than the lifestyles they have been driven away from. And as I form my minimalist philosophy I ask myself which school I want to be in.

Though many of my minimalist disciplines will draw from teachers of each of the five schools, ultimately there will be decisions that distinguish my true heart. The school I have tied myself to will be revealed. Will that be a school I want to be remembered as a teacher of? Is that the race I want to run with my life?

What other minimalist reading have you done? Does it fit into these five schools? Are there schools I missed? If minimalism interests you, which school do you find yourself leaning towards?

Experiment: I’m Ditching My Desk

My Former Desk

As of last week, this is what my desk at work looked like. There wasn’t too much to it as far as work spaces go:

  • Macbook Pro
  • 30″ Monitor
  • Framed picture of my wife & recently-printed-from-the-design-team-printer picture of my son
  • Headphones & Mouse
  • Water bottle & bowl for afternoon snacks
  • A few trophies I won at work events


That filing cabinet under my desk is mainly storage for running clothes (only clean clothes of course). We have an active culture and every day there is some sort of afternoon activity; running, basketball, flag football, yoga, etc.

My decision to experiment with not having a desk happened by accident.

It started with my new laptop, a 13″ Macbook Pro Retina. It only weighs about 3lbs which is why I got it. I wanted to have something small and light so I can carry it back and forth to work on my bike.

The next week I hit my 3 year anniversary at Hearsay Social and got that nifty Patagonia backpack (in the picture above) as a gift. It has a lot more room than my 20 year old Jansport bag and does a good job distributing the weight so it doesn’t feel as heavy.

Finally, last week a few people were switching desks to sit next to people they were starting to work with more. I packed everything up in the shuffle, but never landed.

My Current Anti-Desk

I now have no desk at work – my desk is everywhere.

In the last week I’ve worked from various locations; conference rooms, couches, my house, an airplane, a customer’s office, the desk of someone I was working with, a hotel room, the desk of a coworker who was out of office for the day. I’ve just been floating around.

I tried to set a few rules for my experiment to hold myself to a certain standard. The main rule is that I can’t leave anything when I go home at night. I can sit wherever I’d like, but when I leave it should be as if I was never there.

So what did I do with all of the stuff on my desk?

Laptap goes with me everywhere.

Mouse & headphones are in my backpack in case I need them.

Backpack usually parks one place per day, it has been different most days.

Monitor is now being used by whoever is sitting in the desk I used to sit in.

Pictures & trophy are temporarily in storage.

Water bottle… well it’s a Patagonia backpack, there are two water bottle slots on the sides.

I am, however, cheating a little bit, I put that under-the-desk cabinet in a corner and kept my running clothes in it. If this experiment sticks, I’ll have to get rid of that too.

Why Get Rid of My Desk?

A few reasons:

I am an aspiring minimalist

The before picture of my desk should indicate that I’m a firm believer of the clean desk, clean mind philosophy. I work better when I can focus and I do that best when there are not a lot of things in front of me.

I know that this isn’t true of everyone, but I suspect that it is true of more people than actually have clean desks.

Having no desk dramatically reduces the things that are in front of me and allows me to focus on only one thing. It means I have no place to store things. No place for paper. No place for random things. If I have it at work, I carried it there on my back and am taking it home with me, so it must be considered carefully.

At the same time, since I don’t have a desk and cary everything with me, I always have everything I need to get my work done. There is never a time where the item I need is at the office.

My life and needs have changed

I’m married and have a baby at home now and so my priorities have shifted. Three years ago I was single and it wasn’t uncommon to find me plugged in at my desk with headphones on at 10pm. My desk was my throne and I had it configured just right.

My days are less predictable now. I am in meetings more. I travel to see customers more. I spend more time at home and more time working at home.

I am more mobile now and wanted that to be reflected in my work station.

It cuts down on drop ins

“Hey I saw you were at your desk, do you have a second to talk about something?”

That question is a tricky one for me. The answer is often yes. In fact the answer is always yes for something pressing. It is also almost always yes for something where work is currently being blocked. If an engineer is debating a decision and wants to talk through the edge cases with me for 15 minutes, making time right then will save our team wasted effort.

The problem is not everything is pressing or blocking. Most items are need-for-info questions that would be fine if they got a response in 24 hours. In the name of efficiency, I prefer to batch those and answer them at the end of the day.

Not being in a known location forces people to result to more reliable mediums to get a hold of me – chat, email, etc. That allows me more control of the workflow. I can respond to chat in real time or swing over. I can leave non-pressing email until a later point.

Of course, this experiment could have negative effects on communication – maybe not having a desk makes people to not ping me enough, thus causing a problem equal to being pinged too much.

I don’t prefer desks

Some of my most productive times happened while I was sitting in an ugly pink lazy boy I got at Goodwill for $35.


I founded my last company from that chair and spent tons of time working from it. I like having my legs up. I like having a laptop in my lap (who would have guessed?).

Now that I don’t have a desk at work I find myself gravitating towards couches, barstools, sitting on the floor or floater standing desks. I feel like my working location at any given point is more in tune with my immediate preferences and physical needs.

Hypothesis & Measurement

It wouldn’t be a good experiment if I wasn’t testing for something and I wouldn’t be a good scientist if I wasn’t gathering data. Truth be told I didn’t think too much about that before getting rid of my desk though, so I’m winging this as I write.

Hypothesis One: I will have less drop ins

I don’t have control data on this, but I can always get that afterwards. I going to start keeping track of drop ins per day and compare the numbers if I ever decide to settle in again.

Hypothesis Two: I will not settle into a location

I will log my location each day to see if a pattern emerges. If I end up sitting in the same place every day, especially if that is an open desk, I might end up proving to myself that I need a desk.

Hypothesis Three: I will not become less available to coworkers that need me

This is the one place I think my experiment will backfire. I’m going to poll a few co-workers asking a few questions about availability and I’ll do the same in a month or so to see if anything changes. Though it won’t be a blind study since they all know I’m trying this experiment, some data is better than none.

Hypothesis Four: I will be happier having more variety of workstation

This one I’ll determine strictly by my opinion at the end of the test. If I decide I really miss having a desk and go back to one, I will have successfully rejected this hypothesis.