Minimalism is primarily an aesthetic, hence why minimalists generally like Macs and iPhones due to their simple and elegant beauty. Minimalists’ decisions about how simple to be often seem arbitrary because they are based on aesthetic concerns, not practical ones — but minimalists often confuse the two. For instance, many people rave about how usable the iPhone is, but in fact it is a mixed bag — what it is, is beautiful. But Apple makes many design decisions to choose beauty over usability, which is why iTunes is so confusing and hard to use for example. Living with less than 100 things is another example — what constitutes a “thing” is arbitrary, “100” is arbitrary (but a nice round number), digital “things” not counting as things is arbitrary, etc. It’s more about a feeling that is generated from the aesthetic in a specific person who likes that aesthetic than about saving money, conserving resources, not being owned by one’s stuff, focusing on what’s most important, etc. which are also concerns but are subject to the overall aesthetic. So when Leo Baubata says “stop buying the unnecessary,” what he really means is “don’t buy ugly things or too many things such that your minimalist aesthetic is ruined.” For what is truly unnecessary to the minimalist is that which ruins the simple aesthetic.
Frugalism on the other hand is about getting more out of life by maximizing value for one’s dollars over time, since life is time and time is money. A frugalist may or may not like Macs and iPhones, depending on whether they are worth the cash, can get them for free or cheap, can fix them easily themselves (thus saving on repairs), how long they last, whether they could do without a phone or computer altogether, etc. Frugalists frequent yard sales, fix up things they get for free, and always think “does this save me money in the long term based on saving and investing?” and “does this allow me to spend my time doing what I want to do with my life?” Frugalists may or may not have aesthetic concerns, and often have an aesthetic based on the deal they received or the rarity of the item they acquired. A frugalist’s home may be full of knick-nacks or sparse, may be clean or dirty but is much more likely to contain reclaimed materials with many imperfections than a minimalist’s. Rarely will a frugalist purchase anything new unless it was 80% or more off the retail price, or else the frugalist will consider this purchase a rare indulgence, whereas for a minimalist newer often has a simpler aesthetic and matches with other things already purchased.
Where a minimalist might carry a $12 Moleskine journal, a frugalist would be much more likely seen carrying scraps of paper already printed on one side, cut and stapled together into a makeshift pad. A minimalist might be seen wearing all black or single color clothes which are brand new and have some unusual cut, whereas a frugalist is more likely to be wearing something comfortable purchased at the Goodwill or a yard sale that is slightly out of style, perhaps with some holes patched up by hand. A minimalist might wear Vibrams 5-finger shoes to get back to nature and do “barefoot” running, whereas a frugalist would simply go barefoot, or wear an old pair of leather sandals which have been resoled several times. A budding minimalist may aspire to one day own a Prius and live in a large eco-home in the woods overlooking a stream or else travel the world with a Macbook Pro and an REI backpack, whereas a budding frugalist will instead aspire to downsize — perhaps living in an RV, a log cabin she builds herself, or a small sailboat — where the cost of living approaches zero, thus freeing one to work for money or not.
The minimalist is always concerned whether adding something new will destroy the aesthetic they are creating, whereas the frugalist is always concerned whether adding something new will burden them with financial obligations or be a bad use of one’s life energy in the long run. Thus a minimalist will acquire digital things in lieu of physical ones unless they are beautiful, whereas a frugalist will often accept many physical or digital things as long as they are cheap or free or otherwise a good investment, can stash them somewhere, and are in good working order (or at least potentially fixable). A frugalist will often collect ugly things that still work fine — like a beat up old truck, or an old iPhone 3 which can be used with Skype over wi-fi — even if they don’t need them right now if they think they can use the items (or parts of them) at some later date. A minimalist would consider this “junk.”
Most people are not philosophically consistent however, so we will at times make choices based on either a minimalist aesthetic or a frugalist ethic or some other perspective altogether. In addition, the above was somewhat of a simplification and there are other concerns at play here, like the frugalist aesthetic of preferring to do things with one’s hands, or the minimalist’s ethic of focusing on what is most important. There are also overlaps, for instance this blog has a minimalist aesthetic and here I have several articles criticizing minimalism! But it can be helpful to sort these things out to make sense of what is going on when people talk about “minimalism” within the personal development world, and why primarily minimalism as expounded by the A-list bloggers is about the simple aesthetic, not the frugal ethic.
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