Lessons in Simple Living From Extreme Minimalists


I write about frugality, and I try to follow my own advice, but I am by no means a minimalist. My kitchen is bursting with gadgets and appliances, my drawers with clothes, and my shelves with books. I haul in plenty of art and nick nacks and other pretty things, too. I'm no hoarder, but I have lots of things I use, that I might use, or even that I like to look at. It's all that stuff that makes my house feel like my home. That said, I am fascinated by people who are able to pare down to almost nothing and live quite happily that way. Don't they ever need another chair for a guest? An extra layer of clothing? Some old books to flip through on a Sunday afternoon? A few so-called creature comforts? (See also: Confessions of a Minimalist: 9 Reasons I Miss My Stuff)

Apparently, those aren't things everyone craves. And that got me wondering: Just how minimalist are people willing to get? The answer, of course, is pretty minimal. Here are a few examples from the far reaches of minimalism. They may not be for everyone, but incorporating the spirit of these efforts into our lives could help us all save more money — and even live a richer life.

No Possessions

I tend to think of minimalism as an aesthetic, one with sleek, modern furniture, clean lines, and limited clutter. That's one way of looking at it, but some extreme minimalists would say that you don't need furniture at all.

Peter Lawrence wrote about his experiences of deliberately living with less in "The Happy Minimalist." Lawrence lives in a simple, one-bedroom apartment adorned only with a camping chair, a sleeping bag, a computer desk, and a few kitchen tools and personal items. The house looks, bare, empty, almost like no one lives there at all, but Lawrence seems happy in this open space, watching the sun rise and set from his window, practicing yoga, playing guitar, and inviting friends over to watch movies he projects on his bedroom wall. Plus, his simple life allowed him to walk away from a cushy corporate job at 44. (You can check out a great video about Lawrence's life below, or here if your browser is finicky.)

How you can live with less: I admire Lawrence's discipline and drive for simplicity, but when I have friends over for dinner, I kinda feel like I should have somewhere for them to sit. That said, Lawrence is dead on when he says that most of us could live with a whole lot less, and might even be happier for it. Consider clearing out the clutter you don't need or use, and being pickier about what you bring into your house in the first place. Most of all, remember that happiness is something that's cultivated, rather than consumed.

Tiny House

If you struggle to keep clutter from piling up in your closets, one way to deal with it is to get a smaller house. It's like downsizing, only it often involves moving into what looks more like a playhouse than a grownup home for grownup people. The small house movement is believed to have started in the late 1990s, but it picked up speed as a result of a prototype designed to house those whose homes had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. After that, many designers followed suit with homes that were cute, cozy, and barely a few hundred square feet. Proponents say these houses are comfortable and cost-effective, and they leave a very small carbon footprint. (The documentary about the phenomenon is long; I won't feel bad if you bookmark it on YouTube and watch it later.)

How you can live with less: It's safe to say that most people aren't living in a home that's anywhere near as tiny as a true "tiny house." The 2011 NAR Profile of Home Buyers and Sellers found that barely 1% of buyers opted for a home of less than 1,000 square feet. But even that's still far below the average square footage of a new home in the U.S., which is now approaching 2,500 square feet, according the Census Bureau. That's more than 16 times the size of the tiny houses some people quite happily call home. The reality is that while our home offices, "flex rooms," and vaulted ceilings may make us feel like we're living large, the maintenance and expenses can leave us with very slim margins, both in terms of time and energy. Our parents and grandparents grew up in much smaller spaces. If anything, the tiny house movement serves as a challenge to our ideas of how much space we really need — and the cost of having it.

No Heat

I often think of my creature comforts as things, which just goes to show how much I take for granted. Like central heating. That's one I definitely take for granted, but some extremists are tough enough to give up even this cold-weather comfort. In fact, a number of people across the U.S. deliberately go without heating their homes (or not beyond what a few cords of firewood will provide) in the winter — even in cold states like Maine! They do it as a challenge, out of curiosity, and out of a sense of environmental stewardship. Don't believe me? You can check out the Cold House Journal for one couple's adventures in cold living.

How you can live with less: The average home heating cost in the U.S. falls somewhere between $1,000 and $2,500 per year, depending on whether you use natural gas or heating oil. That's money many of us could stand to save — and at little cost to our comfort. Rather than turn up the heat, stay toasty with some fuzzy socks and a sweater. You don't have to keep things so cold that you'll have ice forming in your toilet bowl (save that for the extremists!), but keeping things cooler will help keep costs down. Plus, it will give you a good excuse to curl up under a blanket with some tea, which isn't such a bad thing in my book.

How Low Can You Go?

If there's anything we can learn from extreme minimalists it's that a sense of deprivation can be a state of mind. Whether we give up personal possessions or other common comforts, the truth is that many of us are so fortunate, the vast majority of the things we own are completely unnecessary, at least in the strictest sense of the word. You don't have to throw all your worldly possessions overboard in favor of minimalism, but the fact that quite a few people manage to do it is worth thinking about. Or maybe what we should be thinking about is how much we'd actually miss all those things we work so hard to surround ourselves with. My guess is not as much as we'd like to think. Not that I'll be testing that theory in any extreme way. Like I said, I'm no minimalist.

Tell me about your experiments in minimalist living in the comments!

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Guest's picture

My wife and I pay a premium for our downtown loft, but it allows us to save money on lots of other things. Being close to my job and school allows us to share one car, and the limited floor space negates the need for more furniture. Living in Florida helps too, since everyone wants to visit us instead of us needing to travel. Great article!

Tara Struyk's picture

Thanks! It sounds like you've struck a great balance:-)

Guest's picture

I love this idea. I was just talking to a friend yesterday about how happy she was to sell her 3-story beach-front home and move to a smaller house. She would even down-size again if she could convince her husband to. She said that at age 80 it was too much maintenance and too easy to accumulate useless crap when you have a huge house. She's probably taken a boatload of stuff to the thrift-store and isn't done yet! :)

Guest's picture

I heat my home 50-80% with firewood...but extreme minimalism isn't the least bit attractive to me!

Guest's picture

I think there is a huge difference between what I could do and what I am choosing to do right now. I think I could be fine and learn to be happy with very little, as so many people around the world do without much choice, but since I have the option I do love to have family treasures, books, and pretty things around the house. I love to decorate and cook most of our meals from scratch. And when home is inviting I tend to want to spend a lot of time there, which ultimately saves money. While I have experienced the freedom of living with very little a few times in other countries (and I know I can do it!) I am very happy in our peaceful little 1500 sq. foot house with my memories. :)

Tara Struyk's picture

That's a great point - a lot of people in the world aren't minimalists by choice. Thinking of it that way makes it a lot easier to appreciate what we've got rather than always looking around for more, right?

Guest's picture

I definitely think that living smaller makes a huge difference. If you can't fit it in your house you aren't going to buy it. Does one need a sitting room, a living room, and often a 3rd room for relaxing. Less room, less stuff, more money and/or time = more fun!

Tara Struyk's picture

I'm all for more time for fun - and less time for cleaning!

Guest's picture

I think you will always hear more about the extreme examples of minimalists because that's the nature of the media. Unfortunately, the extremes tend to define minimalism. I'm just getting started on reducing some of the excess stuff in my home and in my life.

To me, minimalist living isn't about "how little can I live with." It isn't a one-size-fits-all lifestyle that says you should live in a tiny house and not have chairs for guests. It's more a release of attachment to things so they can be put into proper perspective. Many people treat their things as though they're more important than other people. This is just one of the ways we can put our lives back into proper perspective.

Tara Struyk's picture

I agree. I don't think the minimalists define the movement - as I said, I'm not giving up my furniture:-) I do think the extremists show us how much we can really let go of and at least for me, that makes letting go of a few more "things" a little bit easier.

Guest's picture

I feel minimalism is different for each of us. Using fitness as a comparative example. Of course we all don't strive to run a marathon or bench press 500 lbs. However, the concept of physical well being is the common denominator. Likewise, one person may use weights, the other an excercise rower. We simply use different paths, means and modes of transportation to get to a similar destination. Minimalism can espouse the same principles. My wife and I have downsized to the point where we only have what we need and use and so far, it has worked.

Guest's picture

The older I get the more minimalist I feel. The only reason I'm saving some stuff is for when my kids move out and want something sentimental.

Guest's picture
Candice McFarland

Interesting and decent article, except for one solid piece of serious but friendly editor advice. I want to hear LESS about YOU and more about the people and lifestyle you are writing about. When your audience is interested in a topic, they want to know about said topic, not what you think about it. You'll know you've reached a level of excellence when you can write without the reader "hearing" you at all. Best of luck!

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