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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?