Minimalism – A matter of needs vs. wants

A while ago I wrote something about Downsizing and switching to digital copies (eBooks, music, games,…). Then I discovered Minimalism and found it quite interesting, but also not clear on the financial part. Should I consider this?

tl;dr: Just think at least twice if you really need or just want something, and thus if it is worth buying. Is this already Minimalism? I don’t know.

About Minimalism – What did I understand?

If you really want to learn something about so-called Minimalism, read from people actually living this lifestyle and ask them. Or ask Wikipedia as always.

Roughly summarized it comes down to this: We tend to assume that happiness can just be achieved by owning a lot of (expensive) things. Money equals happy life. Minimalists tend to disagree and try to focus on diminishing consumption.

Wile I was consuming all these ‘how to live a better (minimalist-) life’ tips one thing came to my mind: first you need to be able to afford this lifestyle.

Example – The ‘famous’ Minimalists

When you come across Minimalism, you will almost immediately discover The Minimalists, who might be the most ‘famous’ people living and promoting it.

Their story involves being broke while still earning a 6-figures (over 100.000€) salary. Not realizing that they were spending more than they earned. They quit their corporate jobs, got rid of many things and changed their life.

Following their story you realize that in just about 2 or 3 years they were able to be debt free, started saving money for ‘rainy days’ with several funds (seed money at a thousand € or more each) and so on.

How did they do this? I couldn’t find a satisfying answer. Owning a house and an expensive car you can sell might come in handy. And they offer several great tips everybody can follow. But still there was something missing for me.

Does this conclude in you need a ‘rich’ background?

Other Minimalists – Are they all the same?

Of course one should not draw a conclusion from just one example. Looking at several other people’s minimalistic lifestyle and how they got there, I figured that they always seemed to have something in common.

They were able to afford a car, a house with some land (no matter how tiny the house on it, owning land and even just having a small hut is something not everyone can afford). Or they had a really nice apartment in a well situated area of their city and so on. Nothing to be called really rich, but still they had a certain background and which they could rely on.

Again I was kinda missing the real ‘how to story’ behind all their great accomplishments. It felt like only scratching the surface when reading all these amazing stories.

Please note that I’m not saying they don’t tell the truth. I just think what these people are often describing is truly amazing, but they are also kinda selling you their dream lifestyle as being easily available for everyone, which it is not.

Conclusion – It is a about your feelings!

There is one very important lesson to be learned here first: Just because you throw away or sell all the stuff you don’t need, and are more aware of what really makes you happy, doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be debt free immediately. And even if you didn’t have any debts in the first place, identifying what really makes you happy, maybe even completely changing your life, might not be that easy for everyone.

You can label it Minimalism, Downsizing or something else, but in the end it comes down to a feeling that you have. That something is (a bit) wrong in your life and you want/need it to be changed. Maybe for many of us this can be achieved by re-focusing on how and what we consume.

Just to get this straight: Being in debt is certainly not just a simple feeling, it is a serious problem! And currently I’m lucky enough not to be in debt and I try to keep it this way.

Now about me – Do I really need to worry?

Having read and said all these things about the popular term Minimalism, I started wondering what I could change my life. Because I reached this point at which it was obvious to me that I need a bit of a change.

The following might be obvious for many people, but for me and several others it is not. So you might be good with finances and it is easy for you to resist all temptations of our society driven by consumption. Well I’m not and here is why.

Background Info – Me and the money!

I admit I was never good with finances. Nevertheless I’ve always had enough to buy the stuff I wanted, execpt for real luxury like a car. Sometimes I had a small deficit on my bank account, because I again forgot an incoming invoice or something alike. Nothing really serious and always covered by the next wage. When I was younger and sometimes still while in the university, I additionally could always count on my parents for financial help if needed.

The only rule with money for me was: Do not make debts. That’s for example why I do not own a car. Surely I could have bought a really cheap one, or one on loan. And there have been several moments when I wished I had done so. Then again I always realized that I didn’t really need one. But this is a car and not a new Smartphone, a Tablet or a graphics card for my PC.

For many people this would be a great situation, being able to live like that. Me complaining here is more of a first world luxury problem. Just being able to buy nice and even expensive things without having to worry about the rent is already pretty awesome. So what am I being that anxious about and looking into Minimalism?

Look at yourself – Start asking what if…?

At some point I started worrying a bit over some ‘what if’ questions (not the ones from xkcd). So what if…

  • the washing machine/dish washer/TV/PC breaks down and we need a new one?
  • something expensive in our flat needs to be fixed?
  • we need a new bed?
  • a high doctor/hospital invoice needs to be paid?
  • …?

My bank account couldn’t give me the answer I was looking for: ‘No worries my friend, I got you’! Some people might say ‘a little credit here and there wont kill you right?’ Sorry but I beg to differ!

Like I mentioned before I was never really in debts and I’m not planning to be. As far as you can really plan on this. The only way to achieve this is to be prepared.

Although I realized this, I was still not really good at saving money. Being an IT-Guy, I I started looking for tools and discovered YNAB (You Need A Budget). It has helped many people and is in fact a great tool. Sadly I never really got used to its system. At least it helped me to discover some shortcomings in our households bank account. Stupidly I had just forgotten to take some running expenses into account.

Take this as a first advice from stupid me: Look at the last 3 or 6 month on your bank account(-s) and clearly identify your running expenses! Don’t be like me and do rough estimations and keep wondering whats happening with your savings.

The Trigger – When it hits you!

The real trigger for me came, when my girlfriend got accepted for a 6 month stay abroad to study/work at UBC (University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada). Of course I wanted to visit her, we wanted to make some trips to Seattle or Victoria Island while being there and spent the Christmas holidays together. It was an amazing, maybe even a once in a lifetime opportunity. But it was so damn expensive. Where was I supposed to get 4.000 to 5.000€ in roughly 6 month, with additionally having to pay the full rent on my own during this time?

Before I had asked myself hypothetical questions about what if. Now it was reality hitting me. For the first time a seriously I felt pressured and I really wanted to visit her and spend some quality time together.

I managed to do it! For nearly 4 weeks I went to Vancouver even with a short trip to Seattle. The whole rent back home in Germany was payed as was the additional rent in Vancouver, and I still had money on my bank account afterwards.

Vancouver – Sunset Beach

Btw: for a small shared bedroom I had to pay more than half of what we pay back home in Dortmund for ~80m^2 for a month.

I…I…Identify – What did I do?

It can be really hard sometimes and I need to force me very often in doing it, or especially not doing it. But what exactly did I do?

The identification of shortcomings was key. Find more things where I spend all my money and if it is really worth spending it. With the last thing being the part where the buzzword Minimalism might be applicable.

First I looked at something which was a big expenditure for some time: my trekking gear. Looking back at it still feels like I was (a bit) addicted. Not that I didn’t use all the things I bought. No they were of great service to me. But many of my friends, with whom I went on trekking trips, bought less or cheaper things, sometimes from smaller/unknown brands with the same or even better usability.

Nevertheless I was always looking for more. Better things, more ways to optimize my gear, which in case of weight is also a minimalistic approach by the way.

Now I really had to force myself into not buying more trekking stuff. And I really liked some of the new products.

Saving by buying – The idiot consumer is me!

And then I came across several things, that really showed me how I was affected by marketing strategies. I’m not talking about simple advertising. No I was buying things at a special offer prices, when I did not really need them. Let me give you some examples:

  1. Cyber Monday from Amazon and many other shops doing these huge sales with origins in the ‘Black Friday’ sales. You can save a lot of money there right?
  2. My Steam library. Many games of which most of them I’ve never played. Most of them I got through HumbleBundle saving a lot of money buying bundles right?
  3. Crowdfunding especially on Kickstarter. I really do like the idea of this, for projects that might never have come to life without the funding. And you can save so much money by buying (funding) stuff for the reduced price, compared to the future retail version right?

The answer to all of these cases is of course no! Except when you really need the stuff that you are buying. With need not meaning for survival, it could also just be something to make you happy. But not just for the short moment of unpacking it or installing a game. You should look for long-term happiness here. And this is really something what is hard for me to accept.

Simple Tip: Unsubscribe from every newsletter. Yes they inform about interesting offers, hot-sales and whatnot. But they just tempt you into buying stuff you do not need in the moment you are receiving these info mails!

Conclusion – Identify needs and wants!

Considering all this, my lesson was to really identify needs and wants. And I’m still learning this!

Let me give you an example: If you buy a video game and have fun with it for many hours, great. It fulfills a need for happiness. Even if you buy cosmetic ingame content, which might seem unreasonable or even stupid in the first place, might be worth it. If it makes you happy whenever you look at the character you are playing, or at your digital car you are driving. It is worth buying this stuff, assuming you are not in debt, then of course it is not and you should focus on the really important things as your needs. Doing so can still count as minimalistic. Because again: Minimalism doesn’t mean to renounce everything.

But if you just buy a game to play it for 10, 30, 60 minutes, or never even play it at all, then just don’t. Let’s assume every game I own cost me 5€. Thus my steam collection would have consumed 1.500,00€! Seriously, for something I was only rarely using. I could have easily saved over 1.000,00€ if not more if I had only bought the games I really wanted to play. Even if I had bought them at a full resale price.

The future – Look for reasonable happiness!

There are Minimalists that started with a packing party. Boxing everything they own, over time unbox only the things that are needed and after a certain amount of time get rid of everything that wasn’t unboxed. Another approach is to look at everything you own, go into yourself and decide ‘does this really make me happy?’ and only if the answers is ‘yes’ keep it.

At the moment both are not the ones I’d consider being a good choice for me. Maybe they are the best because of their radical nature, maybe going slow is also way to achieve the final goal.

Currently I would say I have already learned some lessons which I can be proud of. I feel being more in control of my finances than ever, I got rid of several things that I don’t really need anymore and I’m getting better and better at forcing myself not to buy more stuff.

For the future I’d like to be able to reach more financial stability for the long-term, while still being able to go on a nice vacation once in a while. And I really like to reach a point where I don’t have to force myself into not buying new things. I’d be happy if the urge would just vanquish at all one day. 

So is this already Minimalism, or just another form of it? Do I really need to put a label on it? I don’t know, but I’m feeling good with my personal achievements. Do you need to be rich as a Minimalist? No, but without basic financial security it might be much harder.

It is true that money doesn’t buy you true happiness!




One Comment

  1. Great thoughts. I watched a TED talk on this topic recently and got a little familiar with it. Most people can agree to that concept to some extent, I guess. I also tried to follow some basic principles and “THINK BEFORE YOU BUY” but still ended up buying a new bike, games and so on. No, I did not need these things, but I think at least some of it makes me happy. The bike is a thing I will use regularly for my commute to work which makes it more pleasure. Well, some the games (7 Wonders Duel) are really fun and are played not only once. Most of the money was spent for the move in the new flat and getting it cosy and practical in there.
    I don’t know, the Minimalism principle does not seem to fit my reality. Sure, it’s a good thing to follow the basic principle but as you said, the promoters of it seem to be rich from the start and live easily by their promotion. “I don’t need much things. Just this (minimalist) house, my Macbook (and now 200 adapters) and nothing else.” Well, what about my wife and kid? Preparing and buying food? If I just want to eat rice or noodles with ketchup I’m fine.
    Anyway, the minimalism principle I think is good for things such as media and as you said, gear. Do I really need the Star Wars Premium Edition Box on Bluray in my shelf? The books I do not read/view? The DVDs only watched once? A fancy Halloween costume for one evening fun? USB geek tools? A better TV?
    Give everything a good thought before buying new stuff and look into/use what you already have is the message I took from it.
    And for savings I think it’s really best to put away money at start of the month and don’t touch it. For me it works to have a goal, otherwise I am really lazy. Being it to be in shape for a trekking tour, learning for an exam or to generate savings for holiday or a bike.
    BTW, come around for a game evening! You can reach my home quite good from the central station 😉
    Uhm, why am I writing this in English?

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