Could Extreme Minimalism Be Selfishness In Disguise?

When people are excessive we often call them selfish. So could extreme minimalism really be a form of selfishness? Perhaps, anything in excess, even minimalism, is selfish. 

signpost-918796_1920 Extreme minimalism: photo of nothing but a tiny sign in the distance.

Just as my recent post in response to The Minimalists’ first podcast, I write this at the risk of losing some followers, especially those who practice extreme minimalism. But I believe we need to look at minimalism, like anything else, with some constructive criticism.

If Someone Eats Too Much, We Call Them Extreme

When people buy more than they need, we consider them selfish. After all, why does any single person need a 3000-square-foot house, several cars, and hundreds of luxuries and toys? They’re just consuming, wasting resources, hoarding the wealth. But what about extreme minimalism?

I believe in hospitality. I was raised to consider others’ needs and to serve people when I’m able. This is where I have an issue with some of the values of minimalism. Minimalism teaches us to primarily consider our own needs before the needs of others.  

What Does A Minimalist Do For Someone In Need?

If you only keep enough items in your home for one or two people, how will you serve the needs of potential guests? Will you ask them to bring their own dishes, their own chairs, their own towels? Where will they sleep? 

If someone needs your help with transportation and you only ride a bicycle, you won’t be of much service. What if a friend is in trouble and needs a simple tool such as a screwdriver, a flashlight, or a shovel? “Sorry, buddy, but I don’t own those. I’m a minimalist.”

The Other Side Of The Argument

Minimalists aren’t selfish because we consume less. We’re helping to save the environment. Minimalists aren’t selfish because we share our love and our talent instead of material stuff. That’s much more thoughtful and sincere. Minimalists aren’t selfish because… uh-oh, I’m running out of examples.

Thinking Back To My Trailer Days

Perhaps, like anything else, even minimalism is a vice when taken too far. When I lived in a trailer and rode a bicycle as my only mode of transportation, I was a taker. I couldn’t accommodate guests, but I could be the guest. I couldn’t offer others rides, but I sure would depend on others to give me a ride when in need. I was financially strapped in those days. I didn’t have much to share. Now that I have a little more, it’s my turn to give.

I agree that there’s something special about sharing our own skills and talents. A homemade gift is a wonderful thing. (Of course, homemade gifts take equipment and materials to create.) But I also believe that we should be willing to share our space, our homes, our belongings.

This doesn’t mean that we need to practice over-consumption. We should limit how much we own. But if we limit ourselves so much that we only have enough for ourselves, we might, in fact, be selfish.

If you’ve bought into the idea of extreme minimalism, I would urge you to check your reasoning. Is it really a noble cause, or are you just subconsciously finding ways to care only for yourself?

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22 Comments

  1. Great article, I never viewed minimalism from this perspective. I pride myself in being a minimalist compared to the rest of the U.S., but you can certainly take it too far. One must also give back to those in need. Since I’ve changed my lifestyle, I have more time and money to help the needy. Less is truly more and I appreciate people like you who get the word out.

  2. I completely agree with you. I’m what I’d consider a moderate minimalist. I hate clutter but do enjoy having things that I love around me. I considered giving away my mother’s china but recently served dinner for friends visiting from the UK and really enjoyed setting a pretty table. I feel the same with how I eat. Mostly vegan but don’t tell me what I can or cannot eat.

    1. I think it’s when people make extreme rules for themselves and/or others that they begin to get carried away. What might seem like a sacrifice on the surface might become a way of protecting oneself to being open and vulnerable to others.

  3. Hi Dan:

    Another insightful post. I love the honest self-reflection in your writing on the subject.
    I do agree, as minimalists we can take things too far. We sometimes become obsessed with possessions – what we have or do not have. Some minimalists pride themselves in taking from others instead of contributing as you pointed out. I struggle with this concept. I was raised in a community where we shared and helped others who were in need.

    Thanks again.

    1. Thanks, Kelvin. Minimalism seems to create a lot of dichotomies. I struggle with the label of being a minimalist because I feel it creates too much black & white thinking. (I have a post scheduled for March 14 that goes more into that). But owning less makes it hard to be generous and hospitable for sure. I think there’s a happy medium that we should embrace: Be practical, but not overindulgent. Live simply, but have enough to support others.

  4. This article is spot on. (Btw- If consider myself a moderate minimalist. Nothing is overstuffed on my home and I ‘Marie Kondo’ed ‘ before she was probably out of secondary school!)
    But I have a youngish extended family member who would personify exactly the selfishness this piece speaks of. She is now 29 with two children and owns a small home. She is very minimalist. She eschews most tech – no tv or gadgets including a cell phone etc., has just a few plates and cups – not enough for even a few extra people though she has 30 family members within an hour’s drive, As is customary in our family she is offered things by various family members regularly as are all the young people in the family. No pressure -we just put out items with an “I don’t need this does anyone want it?” Tag. If someone wants it they can take it. For instance an aunt( not me) gave her first dibs on a beautiful desk that was this aunt’s dad’s because this girl loves to write we are all told. She seemed thrilled and took it immediately. When her mom dropped by and asked where the desk was she said she gave it to someone who needed it ‘more’. It goes this way for many items she is takes from the family grab bag – a table, a bed, a trunk, a bedroom set for their daughter etc. Well it turns out she was selling these things online( her techie brother in law discovered their eBay site accidentally!!). We assume she is saving the money as they really are minimalist and own next to nothing. But my two sisters in law are very angry that she sold family pieces. We have a policy all know that if you decide you don’t want a substantial piece or an item of real value ( which they are told when they take it) – you give the former owners the right of first refusal. Most of us now will not do the open giveaways – we send all the other kids texts and pictures of items we are willing to part with except for her so we keep her out of the loop…
    On birthdays and holidays we all give small gifts – often homemade food or crafts but she gives nothing yet she is not working and is quite crafty and a good cook. My daughter gives small homemade items for example – homemade chocolate fudge sauce, home canned fruits for example as money is very tight. My mother in law makes wall hangings and trivets, throws and fancy homemade candy etc. This girl bakes awesome breads we are told yet giving a loaf for Christmas is never forthcoming. She is constantly borrowing her dad’s car – he must drive it to her and hen his wife follows and drives him back. Same with her parent’s laptop.
    She lives a taker’s lifestyle enabled by others. She is not unfriendly and is good with her kids and nieces and nephews and I love her of course- she, her husband and her beautiful daughters are family, but this cannot be a true kind and gentle minimalism. It is ugly cold and greedy. It seems odd to call a person with few possessions greedy but this is how she comes across…
    Minimalism should not be considered a ‘good’ lifestyle choice IF it is achieved on the backs of others. We should all be generous with our time and talents to others regardless if that includes the give and take of ‘stuff’.
    Sorry for rambling!! Great article. Thank you for posting the article!

    1. I’m sorry about your situation with your extended family member. I think there are major differences between living simple or moderate minimalism, minimalism, extreme minimalism, frugality, and being selfish and stingy. A Facebook commenter pointed out that we can find wealthy people with large homes who are still frugal, unwelcoming and selfish. I question some of the memes and ideals that popular minimalist sites recommend. They say we have more time for others when we let things go. The dichotomy is that we have less space. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      1. Dan,
        Not that it matters but the person I was writing about is a niece of mine and not my daughter!
        My daughter is generous, kind and creative and is always hosting various family for events and bringing special foods or useful items she has crafted to others who host!
        I so like your approach to living with less. I get a lot out of your writing. Thanks.

  5. Great perspective Dan, I always feel I want to live with the absolute minimum but your article has made me realise why I don’t. It’s frustrating sometimes when I think why have I got all these glasses, crockery, cutlery, bedding, towels etc (however I have to say my quantities would probably be considered small by many folks) and long to have less stuff but then visitors arrive and I have enough to go around without having to share a Mug!! We recently moved to a smaller property but still wanted enough bedrooms for our sons to have their own space even though the older one is away most of the time at Uni. What is important is not to have one less bedroom, but that when my son comes to stay he feels at home and comfortable with privacy when he needs it.

    1. I’ve always thought that I will downsize from a 3-bedroom to a 2-bedroom or less when my daughter gets older. My mom reminded me that my house is the perfect size for visiting kids and grandkids. Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away. I think as long as we are making a point to think critically and live practically without excess, we are living simple. But we need to keep others at the heart of our lifestyle. How much can we give without being over indulgent is the question. Thanks for commenting, LW.

  6. I can’t call myself a minimalist but I very much believe in what I call “reductionism”. Which really just means reducing my consuming, not buying a bunch of stuff I don’t really need. I’m looking to downsize a bit when the nest is done emptying. But like many of your respondents, I was raised to be hospitable. To me, an extreme mimimalistic 400 or less square foot home isn’t very conducive to overnight guests or more than a few dinner guests (that may need to bring their own dishes). And the argument about freeing up time is only really valid if that time is actually being donated to the “greater good” whatever that may look like.

    Me and my wife watched one of those shows on tiny houses last night and though there is a romanticism to the idea, we both thought that “teeny-tiny” is just a bit too impractical for us. And personally, I think the cultural infatuation with tiny living spaces will wane some with time. But again, we will be looking to reduce when the time comes.

    Having said all that I think there is real value in the idea of minimalism and the broader idea of reducing our footprint. We owe it to this big blue marble we call home and to the generations that will follow …

    1. David, I love tiny houses in theory. Yes, quite a bit of romanticism there. I’ve lived tiny myself for more of my life then not. Today, I live simple and refrain form non-essentials, but I’m not an extremist. I think as with anything, balance and moderation are important considerations in minimalism.

  7. I don’t quite agree. You cannot call a minimalist selfish, just because one cannot help out with material items. Perhaps minimalists could help out with time instead, or love or talent as you wrote: “Sorry, buddy, but I don’t own a shovel, but I’ll gladly help you out to dig that hole.”.
    A minimalist would not own items just for helping others, but only the the things that are needed. If someone would ask a passionate minimalist gardener to borrow a shovel, sharing that essential item is a much greater selfless act than lending one of five shovels in the garage that are never used. True selflessness is prioritizing others over yourself, helping if you can, sharing what you have, and not owning things just for sharing.

    1. Mike, you are right. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. There is much truth in it. This is a subjective topic. It’s not all black and white. I wrote this partly as a response to what I see as the extreme end of minimalism, where ideas and memes tend to suggest black-and-white, rule-based thinking. I agree that sharing what we have is key. But if one reduces what they have to almost nothing they would have little to share. When I lived in a trailer, I still shared my space, but I was never able to truly host a friend or family member. If we have to treat others out because we do not have the space needed, is that really minimalism, or does it lead us to consuming more each time we buy food out? If we put our guests in hotels. We buy. The whole concept of minimalism as a lifestyle is full of dichotomies. I have a few more posts coming out in the near future that look at some of these dilemmas. I’ll always support simple living, but I’ll also risk being seen as an outsider to the minimalist crowd to speak freely and think critically.

  8. Depends on your lifestyle. My friends might call me an extreme minimalist with understanding that my job includes that; I teach internationally. It is a waste of money to keep a storage unit of things. I’d rather save the money or put it into a retirement fund. My job provides housing, transportation, and I pay for my food. When I visit friends, they cannot put me up since their own places too small, so I have to spend money to stay in hotels or Airbnb, thank God for Airbnb, and rent a car, and get the plane ticket – all very costly. I love my friends so I visit them, but out of 16 years of living abroad, only 2 have visited me. I live in Asia, and for many people that area is not on their bucket list. Now that I am older and still do not have that place to call my own, well, I am visiting less, and trying to save more instead of traveling so that I can have a place to live in the future.

    1. Yes, Mary, I think things are different for those who are living the “traveling” lifestyle. I was writing more from the perspective of those who tend to live a less transient lifestyle, have families, and are active in their local communities. I think if we fall into the latter category, it’s nice to be able to accommodate others if we have that ability. We don’t have to be extravagant, but hospitable and willing to give of ourselves and our belongings.

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment and adding to the discussion.

  9. I grew up in Alabama. Southern hospitality and all that that entails. I can’t imagine not having enough place settings to serve at least six guests, or not having an extra pillow, sheet and blanket so I could at least offer someone to overnight on my sofa. We share when we have it and give when we can and try not to have things we don’t use or have more than we need……hurricane Katrina really made us think hard about these things.

    Someone, like the young lady Merf56 references, may be a minimalist or living simply but when they are using other people’s resources in the manner Merf56 describes then I would call them selfish. It’s one thing to be broke, it’s one thing to come on hard times, it’s one thing to need a helping hand sometimes, it’s one thing to say that I don’t have a shovel but I’ll help you dig that hole/ plant that bush/ fill that ditch somehow, it’s one thing to take advantage of the spirit of sharing resources amongst friends, family, neighbors and community. It’s a completely different matter when you contribute nothing in return, when you take from other’s resources so as not to use your own. THAT is called freeloading.

    I apologize if that sounds harsh but we have a close family member who behaves in this manner and has done so for years. This person’s behavior has not led to warm fuzzy feelings and admiration for this person’s frugality. To expect a handout but not be willing to return the favor when you have the ability to do so is a good way to turn yourself into a parriah.

    1. I think we all know at least one person who is so frugal that they freeload. I don’t think this is the norm for minimalists, but I think it could be a danger for some.

  10. I am reminded of Erich Fromm’ s observation that the very poorest find it humiliating to be so destitute that one cannot show hospitality or kindness, and thus are excluded from this very human social interaction.

    1. I love Erich Fromm’s work. I would hope that those who choose minimalism but still have means would indeed show hospitality and kindness. I expect many would. But I also sense an obsession and urgency that might suggest that some are too focused on downsizing to be welcoming to others.

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