Minimalist vs. Materialist

When I graduated from college, I decided that I shouldn’t need more than what I could fit inside my 2-door hatchback. This was mostly possible because I was about to join the Peace Corps and most of my furniture was hand-me-downs. Now that I am an adult I know that it is nice to have things. But as I move for the fifth time in two years, I can’t help but notice how much stuff I have and that this stuff comes with a lot of guilt. What would young idealistic me think of all this? Am I turning into a materialist and betraying my minimalist nature?

My household of two adults and a 35lb dog recently moved into a 735-square-foot apartment, and it felt cramped. It seems like we are making a great sacrifice to squeeze into a 2 bedroom/1 bath apartment. But if you want to live near a downtown this is the sacrifice you must make. If we moved further into the suburbs (and committed to being car-dependent) we could have twice the space. We could have an office and a guest room! And our guests could have their own bathroom! But wait…why does this seem so appealing? Does happiness lie in a guest room?

single family home

For a single family?

In the 1950s, the average home size was 935-square-feet. In 2007, it peaked at 2,277-square-feet. There have been many explanations for the increase–atomization of the American family, tax incentives, consumer culture, “keeping up with the Jones”. There is a sense that everyone needs there own space, even guests should they drop by. That bathrooms are a private space not meant to be shared (hence the often repeated HGTV expression that dual sinks are a “marriage saver”). The average household in America consists of 2.6 persons, according to the census. Meaning the average house has 875-square-feet per person. No wonder my house feels so small!

Is all this space providing some benefit? I want say, emphatically, NO! Things don’t make you happy! But I would be lying to myself (and you guys) if I didn’t admit that it is nice to have “room to grow”. I could get new furniture without immediately dealing with the old furniture. I could keep all those precious memories (all those mixed tapes I can’t listen to). Having rooms dedicated to certain activities is nice. Office is for work. Guest room is for guests. Den is for husband’s video games. Living room is for wife’s bad tv. Atomized? Sure, but also sensible.

tiny hosue

Is this the key to happiness?

I am not ready to abandon my idealistic roots. I have purged the apartment of many things. It no longer seems tiny–in fact it seems more than adequate. But the struggle has begun. Many of our friends have larger single-family homes in the suburbs. They know that kids and adults don’t share bathrooms (if economically feasible) and that babies need their own room. These things seem true. I arm myself with the knowledge that in many times and places people survive with less stuff and less space. I have many explanations for how we, as a culture, ended up here. I also know that when you push against social facts there is resistance. Regardless of how I feel about square-footage and happiness, any attempt to raise a family in 935-square-foot house today would be met with resistance. From outsiders who think you are “weird” and probably from insiders who have internalized the atomization.



4 thoughts on “Minimalist vs. Materialist

  1. I love this post, and I can completely relate! I often want more material conveniences and more space, yet I also have romantic visions of purging it all!

    One question that occurred to me as I was reading is around the relationship between our stuff and the amount of space we have. Do you think our desire for more space is driven by our accumulation of “stuff” or do you think we accumulate stuff to fill our apartments and houses?

  2. I feel like a fish…I accumulate things to fill the space I have. Partly to avoid the dreaded empty space and partly because I don’t have to think about the stuff in the room I rarely use or the back of the closet. I don’t know why I fear materialism and romanticize minimalism.

  3. When you think about it, both materialism and minimalism are powerful strands within American cultural history. The image of the rugged pioneer, striking out across the unknown continent with just the things he can carry, is perhaps just as strong a cultural reference as keeping up with the Jones’ is!

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