Minimalism vs. Frugalism

By Duff McDuffee on June 14th, 2011 1

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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23 responses to “Minimalism vs. Frugalism”

  1. Hi Duff,

    I wasn't really too aware of the "minimalist" movement except from your blog, so I appreciate hearing about these differences between the minimalist aesthetic (image) vs. the frugalist ethic (practicality).

    It sounds like yet another example of the self-helpy or personal growthy author tendency to pick-and-choose and appropriate only the parts of a theory or concept that they like, while leaving out other parts. There's nothing wrong with new combinations or syntheses, which can include eliminating the parts that aren't necessary (haha is that minimalism or frugalism?) However, sometimes the parts they leave out are essential in making the theory whole, useful, or healthy.

    New concepts or theories are subject to distortion anyway (the communication and transmission is never going to be perfect, it's inevitable that people will pick up the buzzwords and memes) so if the concept itself is distorted from the source, that makes it even worse.

    My recent post Find your career without losing yourself! June 7- 11- 18- 21- downtown Toronto

    • Appropriation is part of why I find the current "minimalist" trend to be relatively superficial, that and the emphasis on an aesthetic vs. an ethic. But then again, we are all a mix of superficial and deep motivations, and we must allow for values to evolve given new contexts.

      I suppose one reason I'm writing about these topics at all is because "minimalism" has frustrated me in its contradictions, like saying we should simplify and then praising a very expensive modern home for it's beauty, or Leo B. saying "stop buying the unnecessary" and then advertising a $500 28-day course on changing simple habits like cleaning up your house.

      • "But then again, we are all a mix of superficial and deep motivations, and we must allow for values to evolve given new contexts."

        Oh absolutely. And sometimes it's the shallow motivation that "gets you in the door" so to speak, to try a new personal growth method that leads to deeper development later.

        The contradictions that you mention, I think happen when people don't acknowledge and encompass both their shallow and their deep, or claim to be living the ethic when they are really living the aesthetic (that could be because they are actually unaware, or they are aware and they are pretending)

        And values do evolve both personally (on your own journey) and societally. There's no "OK that's it! Found the answer! Done!" (I wish!)
        My recent post What’s the worst and-or best career advice you ever got

  2. you wrote,

    "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.”"

    Obviously you aren't claiming that minimalism and frugalism are mutually exclusive, but I can see some interesting overlaps here, for example if someone collects a lot of things they can use all or part of at a later date, eventually, some of that stuff may cease to be "a good use of life energy in the long run" (you turn out not to need it in the future, or it needs repairs that aren't worth it to you to make). Same action, different philosophy driving it.

    • Right—the same action could be driven by a different set of values. Some frugalists don't have collections of stuff to use later because they feel they can always get that stuff easily and/or don't have much room, so they appear more like minimalists.

  3. Erica says:

    I'm glad you wrote this post, because my main issue with minimalism is that it's not practical for me. I fix things in my house, I knit, I do art projects, I build and repair bikes, I study languages, I garden. Having reference books, art supplies, tools, hardware, random bits and pieces, craft materials, recycled containers and found objects, etc. puts me into the hundreds of things all by themselves if they are counted separately, but I save a lot of time and money by holding onto those things, even if I don't use them for a year or more as sometimes happens. It seems that many, if not most, blogging minimalists have no hobbies except writing or art appreciation or anything else that can be done without having "stuff."

    I'm definitely a frugalist, by your definition.

    • Yea, minimalism isn't practical period. It's a particular aesthetic. A phrase I just came up with after writing this article is minimalism is a "reverse peacock." The male peacock displays its fitness by showing just how many resources it can waste to create those beautiful feathers, thus making it very impractical as a bird (it can't even fly, for example). Bodybuilders, people living in giant elaborate mansions, etc. are human peacocks. Minimalists do the opposite—they garner attention and display their fitness (i.e. social status) by showing how many resources they apparently don't need (I say apparently because the things they do have are usually very expensive). In addition, the minimalists claim that their aesthetic is an ethic, that they are minimalists because it is better to be minimalist, but they in fact violate most of the rules of frugality in the process thus betraying the true motive of minimalism—winning at social status games.

  4. Evan says:

    Hi Duff, I guess I'm quibbling and complicating things.

    Trading off time and money is tricky. How do I value my time? Time may be irreplaceable and money may not be..

    I do think that simplicity can have ethical content and that it can result in some kinds of minimalism.

    Sometimes saving stuff that may become useful can lead to a houseful of junk (thinking of an aunty of mine). Also having five cheap and functional items may add difficulty to my life while one gadget that may cost more but be easier to operate may be preferrable.

    So, I mostly agree but have a few quibbles and additions I think.

    PS your commenting system or whatever doesn't seem to like ipads.

    • "Time may be irreplaceable and money may not be.. "

      I'd say this if anything is a frugalist argument, for one's life is always time-bound whereas the amount of money one makes is much more potentially open-ended.

      "I do think that simplicity can have ethical content and that it can result in some kinds of minimalism."

      Yes, I think so. The A-list bloggers who speak of minimalism IMHO give lip service to the ethical and are really promoting an amoral aesthetic however.

      "Sometimes saving stuff that may become useful can lead to a houseful of junk (thinking of an aunty of mine). Also having five cheap and functional items may add difficulty to my life while one gadget that may cost more but be easier to operate may be preferrable. "

      Sure can–it's a balance.

      "PS your commenting system or whatever doesn't seem to like ipads."

      What do you mean specifically here? Intense Debate seems to work fine on my hand-me-down iPhone 3, and the iPad is supposedly just a big iPod Touch.

  5. Jacqjolie1 says:

    Strange thought: can a minimalist be pwned?

    There's a few bloggers that I know that identify themselves as both minimalists and frugalistas. I don't really get the # of things aspect but do have a one-in / one-out process on stuff like purses. It stops me from buying another one because I don't want to go over my limit of 7 and I love all the ones I own. 🙂

    To me, the difference between the two is, as you say – the "look at me, I'm an awesome minimalist rockstar" aspect of *some* minimalists whereas frugalistas aren't showy about it – some are frustrated, maybe even embarrassed when they have more month than money. Also that most frugal bloggers that have been living like this a long time may talk a bit about "wants" vs. "needs" but most of us are pretty darn moderate and don't turn owning cable TV into some kind of moral debate. Maybe because we've passed the stage of *doing* frugal and just *are* frugal whereas many of the more extreme minimalists are in the initial enthusiastic stages since the modern web tizzy over it has only been going on for a few years.

    What I find a bit more annoying with the more radical minimalists is that most seem abnormally averse to *working* (apart from writing awesome ebooks and awesome tweets, preferably in appropriate coffee shops). Unfortunately, this makes them amazingly prolific since they have all that time on their hands to write – when they're not contemplating washing their bowl. Maybe if they had more stuff and more interests, they'd find a new hobby to do. Maybe if they had jobs, people like working parents could relate to them.

    • Yea, I killed my T.V. back in high school, but now I have NetFlix but I don't consider myself a better person for not owning physical DVDs.

      Having real jobs would make all of self-help writing a lot better IMHO.

  6. Charlie says:

    1. The key difference between a minimalist and a frugalist is the computer they choose to own. For the minimalist, this will be either an iMac or the Macbook Pro. For the frugalist, it will be a cobbled together desktop PC running Windows XP. Other than that, minimalists and frugalists are virtually identical.

    2. Elimination of clutter is a big issue, and on the frugalist side, you have hoarding because hoarding saves you money. Waste not want not. Minimalists abhor clutter.

    3. Aesthetics are an important consideration. It only becomes a problem when people pay a lot of money for luxury brands instead of buying real quality. This would be coffee from Starbucks instead of Dunkin' Donuts.

    My recent post

  7. A very smart article on "stuff" I just ran across today, very worth reading:

  8. Adrian Short says:

    I don't accept that minimalism (by your definition) is either shallow or wrong. Striving to create beauty in one's own life or the wider world is a noble aim as long as it can be achieved without causing harm.

    Frugality is a bit more tricky. While there are times when some individuals need to be frugal to make ends meet, if everyone does it you cause a great deal of harm. If we all retreat to log cabins in the woods we'll have no more computers, phones, transport infrastructure, advanced medical care, university education and all the other good stuff we take for granted. We'll have shorter lifespans too. Individuals can do what they like but as a society we need to keep investing in the good technology that moves things forward.

    So frugalists are really just living off everyone else's hand-me-downs. But without average consumers, there would be no hand-me-downs and frugalists would be reduced to a very basic subsistence lifestyle without the sophisticated technological safety net that they currently take for granted. It really all comes down to divisions of labour. You can clean your own windows, or you can work at a job and pay a window cleaner to do your windows. The frugalist is destroying two jobs (his own and the window cleaner's) and the worker is supporting two jobs. I know which creates more happiness in the long run.
    My recent post Lightness — a design direction for everyday life

    • I don't accept that minimalism is wrong or shallow necessarily either. Many popular forms of it are certainly shallow, and not necessarily ethically wrong but often confused as to whether they are an ethic or an aesthetic and therefore lead to absurd juxtapositions like "stop buying the unnecessary" and then praising giant mansions or selling uber-expensive online courses.

      I don't follow your frugalism logic at all though. For instance, I recently received an iPhone 3 someone in my family no longer needed. I don't have AT&T service, but use it to check email and even make Skype calls. This is an example of frugality in my opinion. If we all were frugal, most likely things would be built to last—pots and pans would last 500 years and be handed down through the generations, homes would be built to last 1000 years or more, etc.

      I do think frugality is often opposed to the latest and greatest technological inventions, but it need not be anti-technology. For instance, Mark Hurst's book Bit Literacy is pro-tech but very frugal in its recommendations of how to deal with information, saying "let the bits go."

      Frugalists do in fact live off of other people's hand-me-downs, but this doesn't mean they are parasites. Without bacteria that lives off of dead animals we'd be living in a sea of dinosaur bones! I do think however that there is a symbiotic relationship between those who are more frugal and those who are less frugal in society, but our society in general is MASSIVELY, OUTRAGEOUSLY wasteful. We already live as if we have 100 Earths, and things are only getting worse.

      • Adrian Short says:

        "our society in general is MASSIVELY, OUTRAGEOUSLY wasteful"

        It depends what you mean by that.

        If I buy a product and it comes with too much packaging, I'd say that's wasteful. It very quickly goes in the waste or recycling but doesn't provide much economic or social value.

        If I buy a newspaper every day and recycle it at the end of the day, I'm not sure that's necessarily wasteful. I've enjoyed reading the paper (I wouldn't buy it otherwise) and for as long as that's my preferred way of reading it does create economic and social value.

        If I buy a new iPhone every year it's because I value it. The old phone, which probably still works, gets passed on to someone else. By buying new technology regularly I keep providing the incentive and market for technology to develop and for technology companies to employ people, pay their taxes, etc. That's a good thing.

        Now some industrial processes are excessively polluting. That causes harm so it should be minimised. But that's not the same as wastefulness.

        I think you need to distinguish between lifestyle choices that are pleasant or expedient on an individual level and those that can scale up. Frugalism when done through choice rather than necessity is a rejection of the market economy, technological development and social progress. If small numbers of people do that it only really affects them. If large numbers of people do it then our children will grow up in a society where their life expectancy is under 40, where they'll be expected to marry their cousins when they're 12 and where they can get executed for blasphemy or for disrespecting the Big Boss. I'll pass on that if it's all the same.

        The future is large-scale urbanism, energy-efficient housing and infrastructure, high value and highly specialised work and an individual commitment to quality over quantity, and technological and social progress. Call it minimalism if you like — the name isn't really that important. What's important is identifying the problems you're trying to solve at scale and reconciling that with individual lifestyles that are lives worth living. Frugalism is fine for a small number of individuals with negative ambition but definitely not an idea that I'd like to see get wider adoption.

    • et50 says:

      If you read thru at ERE many folks there living in places with cheap real estate rather than the proverbial log cabin. Yes, Jacob lives in an RV. And there are people who are full time RVers.

      But the cheap log cabin can only be build dodging building inspectors and regulations and sail boats are notorious money pits.

      Each to their own, but research costs before you commit.

  9. fxgeorges says:

    I tried the frugal route and had no success. I was constantly organizing coupons and ads. I was running from store to store and checking bargain websites using up all of my ‘free’ time. I was always anxious thinking about getting this weeks deals before next weeks deals were released. And worst of all, I could not shake the the feeling that I had missed out on the deal of a lifetime if I had NOT taken advantage of a sale or coupon. Grrrrrrrr. I was spending more money than ever ‘stockpiling’, and I now have about a year’s supply of toothpaste.

  10. I also wonder what you mean by "perhaps living in an RV, a log cabin she builds herself, or a small sailboat — where the cost of living approaches zero"? All of these have costs associated, albeit small. But approaching zero? Only in the rarest circumstances. RVs need a place to park (think RV site fees or land costs, including infrastructure and permits), the "log cabin" also needs a site, the sailboat must be purchased and repaired.

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