Please help me with my struggle between materialism and minimalism.
March 6, 2007 8:58 AM   Subscribe

This is not about me mistakingly thinking material possessions = happiness. (I don't.) And it's not about me running up credit card debt because of impulse shopping. (I haven't.) This is about my competing urges: materialism and minimalism.

Mostly I try to pair down my belongings and live on less. But I never feel like I've paired down enough. I feel greedy for even having the stuff I have. But there's another part of me that does want that 46" Sony flat screen tv. That Pottery Barn sofa. That trendy $30 t-shirt that should really cost $3. These competing urges have rendered me unable to enjoy any purchase I make or don't make.

An example:

Recently, my computer broke and I had to buy a new one. I ended up getting a 20" Apple Imac. There's a part of me that feels guilty: Did I really need the 20"? No. Couldn't I have been happy with the 17"? I suppose. After traveling overseas and seeing people living in abject poverty, I feel guilty. I feel horrible, actually-- for the poor, for the starving, even for the workers in the Chinese factories earning pennies an hour to make me a stupid Imac. But how much can I do to help them? Don't I need some things to enjoy life a little?

But there's another part that secretly craves the bigger 24" Imac. So much screen real estate! So big and shiny! I know it wouldn't make me happier, wouldn't really change my life all that much but I still want it. I crave it! I secretly wish I'd bought it.

Is this normal?
How does one find a middle ground?
How do I find serenity from these two urges?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (43 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
I think it is normal to want things. I know I do- no matter how much I consume, I want more, more, more. I find my serenity in two points: #1, since I know that I'll always want more, I can turn myself down when the feelings of When I Buy This I Will Be Happy surface, since I know that's a lie. And #2, I can use what I have to help others. I can donate things I own to help those in needs, and send money I have to help those with less. I can't save the whole world, but I can do my part. Plus, keep in mind that your life isn't necessarily better because you have expensive shoes and someone else has homemade shoes. To define your life as better because you have more things just buys into consumerism. I try to think beyond that.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 9:09 AM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

It seems very common for Western Buddhists (and others) to take their rejection of materialism to mean that one must go from thinking "I'll be happy when I have more" to "I'll be happy when I have less". The fallacy of course is the "I'll be happy when..." anything. Thinking about these objects and whether they are in your possession or not is tying you to them. Leave it. Be happy now.
posted by methylsalicylate at 9:11 AM on March 6, 2007 [67 favorites]

If you could have been happy with the 17", and you secretly crave the 24", but you ending up buying the 20", then isn't that the middle ground?
posted by amro at 9:12 AM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Read this book; or just read this shorter article by the same author.

Among other things, he discusses the idea that people living in a consumer culture can be roughly divided into two types: "satisficers" and "maximizers." Satisficers are happy to have material possessions that are "good enough" at satisfying their needs, even if there are better things out there. Maximizers always try to make the best possible choice, and are often terrorized by the fact that they may have overlooked better options out there.

Sounds like you're a bit of both, and are having trouble resolving the conflict between these two approaches. Reading Schwartz's ideas won't give you a holy grail solution, but its a good start.
posted by googly at 9:13 AM on March 6, 2007 [4 favorites]

i guess its normal. if this is driving you crazy, id consider looking at the function or utility of an object as a basis for its worth. ive been down the "get the nicest apple" road, as well as the "get the smallest cheapest one that will do the job". at the end, neither position is really as satisfying - both in the long term and short term - as the one that best fits my needs - irrelevant of what other people are buying or are able to own (say, the starving somali stereotype, or say, the guy that buys the 30" screen just to say he owns it, but does nothing but check email).

for example, i used to have a great big fucking sony CRT, but because i was mobile (living in a new city) it kind of anchored me in my apartment in a way i didnt like. so i decided to sell it and picked up a nice big flat LCD whose screen really isnt that better - but its light, and does not weigh me down or take up a lot of space in my room.

if i were you, id go with the 30" screen and a laptop to plug it into.
posted by phaedon at 9:13 AM on March 6, 2007

I try not to buy something until I think of a specific use I will put it to. 12" screen to 17": I won't have to sit hunched over anymore, plus I can increase my resolution to fit more stuff on the screen. 17" to 20": Well....I could increase the resolution a tad, I guess. Not really worth it. 20" to 24": Sha, as though.

I should note that this is not an inborn virtue for me. It came about because I "have to" justify purchases to my wife and she's very frugal. It's rubbed off somewhat on the smaller purchases (office supplies, that kind of thing) over the years.
posted by DU at 9:15 AM on March 6, 2007

While I can't answer your question, I can sympathize. And tell you you're not the only one. Some days I think about emptying my condo of all the crap I've accumulated and don't need. Do I even need a condo?
posted by ninjew at 9:15 AM on March 6, 2007

I recommend reading 'Your Money or Your Life' by Joe Dominguez. That book totally changed my views on material possessions and what they should mean in my life.

I've struggled with this quandary myself, and solved it in the following way: If I am making a major purchase I think may be frivolous, I list out the pros and cons on a spreadsheet and then assign point values or percentages to each factor. It sounds cheesy, but it makes decisionmaking a lot easier. If the cons outweigh the pros, then I wait on it or decide to shelve the matter permanently.

It's not wrong to pamper yourself once in a while. Why else do you make money? There's no joy in hoarding all your gold. If you buy things that are of a high quality, like an iMac, they will last longer most times and end up saving you money in the long run.

I concur with Pink on donating goods. If I buy something, whatever it replaces or makes obsolete goes to Goodwill or on Freecycle.
posted by reenum at 9:17 AM on March 6, 2007

Tell yourself "feeling guilty is a form of attachment" and then let it go?

If your goal is to travel lighter through the world, you're not achieving your goal -- nor helping anyone -- by just feeling bad. (Though I can relate!)

Maybe it'd be easier to let it go if you took every concrete action you could to reduce your impact? (Recycle the old TV, buy the new stuff second-hand.) If need be, you could even add a penance, like donating money to some e-waste or sweatshop group.
posted by salvia at 9:19 AM on March 6, 2007

Pure self-expression is only possible after one discovers that there is nothing one must do, admits there is nothing one ought to do, and accepts that there is rarely anything that one even CAN do-- and then, with whatever is left of the self, deciding what one will do.
posted by hermitosis at 9:21 AM on March 6, 2007 [28 favorites]

As long as you aren't living beyond your means, what's wrong with buying things you want? Money is worthless unless you eventually spend it on something, isn't it? (Full disclosure: I have a giant 30" Dell screen and I love that thing.)

I think that this is a separate issue from your guilty feelings about overseas poverty. Can't you find a charity that you like, and donate whatever percentage of your income you think would make you feel better? You can then feel free to do what you like with the rest.
posted by myeviltwin at 9:35 AM on March 6, 2007

Think of what parents say when their kids don't eat their veggies, "finish your dinner -- there are children starving in China." This does not mean that one should throw their brussells sprouts in the mailbox. This means that we should take a moment to be grateful for having more than enough to eat, instead of blithely wasting food.

On the same principle, I'd say buy whichever computer you want and can afford because you really want it, but resist buying stuff to scratch the "gimme something new" itch.

Since the accumulation of material possessions is causing you some guilt, perhaps consider checking your impulses by assigning a waiting period. If you still really want the t-shirt or the sofa in a couple of months, go for it. Meanwhile, balance it out by doing some good in the world, either with your money or your time or both.
posted by desuetude at 9:42 AM on March 6, 2007

I think the philosophy of "take what you want, and then purge your guilt by overcompensating in neglected areas" is not a very practical one. It doesn't offer freedom from guilt, it merely offers a release-valve for it during moments when the pressure reaches critical mass. It's actually a very Catholic idea: sin all you want, confess on Sunday, make your penance, lather, rinse, repeat. It places one in a constant hamster wheel of desire, atonement, and redemption.

You need to just stop for a while. Making bargains and compromises with your childish greed is no way to live a free life. As a world traveler and painfully self-aware being, you are in a better position than most from which to decide what is right and what is wrong, no matter what others may do or spend or have. If the parts of you that would leap these hurdles is weak, gives in easily, or gets confused, than that is work you have to do, not writing checks to fillintheblank charity as an apology for your weakness and to bolster the illusion of your moral fortitude.

Luxuries are important and a valid expense, but a luxury is valued is determined not by its cost, but by the amount of pleasure it arouses. If you are indulging in luxuries whose expense is not proportionate to the actual pleasure you derive from them, then yes, you are letting your desires or sense of entitlement unhealthily influence your decisions. What a person should feel when making a luxurious purchase is not satiety or relief, but a sense of balance and personal edification. Everything else is just garbage that stands between yourself and what you really want.
posted by hermitosis at 10:00 AM on March 6, 2007 [4 favorites]

gack, that's "a luxury's value is determined".
posted by hermitosis at 10:02 AM on March 6, 2007

I totally relate to you.

A couple things...don't equate helping out and being a good useful person in the world with how much you spend on yourself. Because throwing money at some other world problem instead isn't going to make you feel better anyway. But finding ways to help will. Like joining online communities, being aware, reading newspapers and articles. Taking a class, teaching someone how to do something, etc.

I went through the same thing recently - I really wanted to sell my car and buy a hybrid instead. And I realized that in a way I would just be throwing money at a problem to absolve some guilt I had about not contributing more and being selfish and materialistic. Sitting in my hybrid in traffic wouldn't make me feel as good as if I had taken a more active approach to help, and so that's what I've been doing.

As far as the minimalist/materialist dilemma...Here's what I've done. I've vowed to keep and enjoy all the nice, quality things I have. I've gotten rid of everything else. For about a month or so, I gave away/used/got rid of one thing every day. Sometimes it was something small (a book), sometimes it was bigger - a piece of art, furniture, or my whole entire CD collection (which I realized was superfluous because I had the whole thing backed up on my Mac - where I actually use it). Also, go paperless. Do everything on your new mac! Streamline your life in little ways if you can...minimize the amount of dishes you own, brush your teeth in the shower with an electric toothbrush, create little "rules" about files, email (ex. I have a 10-email inbox limit, meaning I force myself to deal with every email and I can't let them pile up), whatever. The point is, the little things and removal of clutter will meet your minimalist needs while allowing you to enjoy your nice purchases.

And find physical (as opposed to cash-related) ways to become involved with causes and issues that interest you. The rewards will be longer-lasting. And any materialistic guilt you have about shopping will become separate from that. It will be simply about you and your shopping, with moral import removed, because that need is being met elsewhere.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:04 AM on March 6, 2007

I sympathize too. One thing that helps me achieve the minimalism I desire (not a total success by any means) is to look at some of the stuff I craved & bought and now think is junk, or no longer interests me. Then I try to only buy things that I really believe I won't consider junk later. I try to remind myself that these things rarely do make me happy. And I try to spend my money on experiences (spa, travel, diving, dining, reading, etc.) rather than stuff for myself.

I also allow myself to feel smug about my "successes" (I don't have a car, but I CRAVE an SUV which I adore but won't allow myself to have, so feeling smug about my self-discipline helps reduce the cravings a little bit).

I try to give myself time to think whether I really want something - the craving usually subsides. And I try to remember how much I'll regret it when I give in to my cravings (bc I usually do regret it).

When all else fails, though, and I really, genuinely want something valuable, I give in and I enjoy it. And I remind myself that contributing to the economy is a good thing, not just for me but for others as well.
posted by Amizu at 10:10 AM on March 6, 2007

I feel for you. I live in a constant state of flux on this issue. My earthly possessions wax and wane. The fluctuation used to be more frequent, but have slowed pretty dramatically.

I do a lot of thinking about a purchase before I make it. I do a lot of soul searching in terms of it's utility. What it finally comes down to for me is the following:

Will I use this thing? I've been wanting a new iPod for over a year, but I've put it off because the reasons I really want it are for carrying more of my music (sure) but mostly because i'd like to use it to carry photos. I'd much prefer doing this with a widescreen iPod. If and when that comes out I'll have to evaluate that question again.

I'd been wanting a dSLR for a while and had repeatedly talked myself out of it. I finally decided that for the types of photography I really liked it was the best decision. It still took me months to come to terms with that. The final straw was realizing that I *love* photography. It's the one hobby that has really stuck. It makes me happy, gets me out of the apartment, talking to people, moving around. Why would I not encourage that?

It's also, oddly enough, easier for me to spend more money on something of quality. If I'm going to shell out some money on something I want to know that it's useful, made well and will be of use for some time. That usually means paying more. Not always the most, but usually more. Unless you're talking about can openers.

Finally, if you live in a large space consider moving to a smaller space. I find that when my space is limited I'm much more careful about what I bring into my life. I'm about to move to a place more than 2x my current space. It'll be interesting to see if my feelings about "stuff" change again.

I've reached the point where I feel good about a purchase I use/enjoy. I don't feel guilty about these things because I am paying myself, putting money away, living within my means and doing meaningful things for other people. I hope you can find similar peace.
posted by FlamingBore at 10:11 AM on March 6, 2007

Maybe you just need to change what you want with your money. Instead of allocating or not allocating your money towards consumer goods, what about allocating it towards your long-term stability and goals?

In the book "The Millionaire Next Door", the author identifies a class of people, the millionaires named in the title, referred to as "High Accumulators of Wealth". These people have material possessions that are pretty much average or below average, but they have assets much greater than the majority of the population.

Instead of being used to buy material objects, their money is "wasted" sitting on various investments that don't lose value. What they really "buy" is security and freedom - no worries about getting sick, losing a job, random calamity, and eventual freedom from work. These things may be worth much more than that new TV hanging on your wall.
posted by meowzilla at 10:11 AM on March 6, 2007

While I agree that the comment above about your worries being the bigger problem, I think its important to be thrifty in life, especially if youre guilt-prone/buyers remorse type. I get a great bang-for-the-buck for most of the things buy especially big ticket items. I would have never bought a mac when a PC of equal power would have sufficed. I would also only buy on sale and only pay full price if I believe this item would never go on sale. Being a deal hound can be a little compulsive too but at least you dont feel like youre overspending.

If you're still worrying about the poorest cultures compared to yourself even after paying a fair price on things, then you really need to accept the inequity between rich and poor societies and stop worrying about it so much. I'm more concerned about the real things in life I can affect like how i treat my loved ones, etc. Making yourself responsible for people half a world away is silly and takes you away from your local responsiblities. In the time you wrote this to askme you could have emailed a joke to a friend.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:13 AM on March 6, 2007

First, I think this is beyond normal, I think this is basically the status quo for any person living a life of relative privilege who tries to be compassionate. This world is unfair and if ethics are important to you then you should not be comfortable with this reality, you should never allow yourself to simply be comfortable with this reality.

On the other hand, constant worry and guilt are not serving anything. I think methylsalicylate has it basically right: as long as you expect peace and satisfaction from an external source, whether the short-lived satiety of material acquisition or the grudging righteousness of self-denial, you are going to be disappointed. There are a thousand books worth of responses to how one finds contentment, but I believe a uniform reality is that it comes from within.

Give more and then consider your self-budget from what you're left with. Reduce your exposure to lifestyle and gadget porn: I think we smarties often discount the reality that all these things are carefully and cunningly crafted to instill the urge to acquire, and we think we are immune to it. We're not. Always start with where you are and what you have. Think about what you want to achieve and how to do it with what you've got. It will be clear when you really need something else to get there. And don't be austere just for the sake of it - it's a poor basis for practical decisions. Do it when it makes sense.
posted by nanojath at 10:14 AM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I completely relate to this as well. It's an ongoing battle.

Owning things bestows a kind of power or currency in society. It does make us feel better. however temporarily. Being without and wanting things all the time is a very powerless feeling and I know it well.

The worst part is that no matter what it is, the urge always remains. I'll never have everything I want in life, you know?
posted by loiseau at 10:16 AM on March 6, 2007

I often have similar internal doubts over purchases and tend to spend far more time debating the merits of an item than I should. But one thing that helps me justify a purchase and find the middle ground is identifying an older item that I'd now like to sell. Sort of a one item comes in, another goes out kind of thing. This makes sense in terms of both limiting the clutter from acquiring material possessions and staying financially sane. This also encourages me to consider each material purchase for its value as a trade or sale later, forcing me to only buy stuff that's "worth" it. Overall, though, I'm not that strict about it, but it definitely keeps me from buying crap.
posted by superfem at 10:20 AM on March 6, 2007

I discard one posession every day. I try to focus on owning only items that serve me. When I do purchase something I only do so after carefully pricing out all alternatives; that way I'm comfortable with my decision, regardless of how much - or little - I spend.

on preview what meowzilla said; owning as few possessions as possible and living cheap makes almost anyone cash rich. I grew up dirt poor, and achieved financial independence this way. Perhaps you can too?
posted by Mutant at 10:23 AM on March 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

if you can afford it, go nuts. with one caveat. it's smart to make quality triumph over quantity. I still wear the (very expensive) handmade shoes I purchased 15 years ago (they've just been resoled and relined a couple times) -- cheaper/not as well-made stuff just doesn't last as long. same thing for the shirts -- top-of-the-line cotton and handmade shirts mean I'm still wearing shirts from the mid-90s and they'll last so many more years (yay for replaceable collars and cuffs).

you don't really need dozens of shirts/shoes/suits/whetever -- get very few with the highest quality you can afford, they'll last forever.

do you crave that big TV? if you can afford it, get a 1080p that won't get as obsolete as the lower definition ones, and keep it for a decade unless it blows up or something -- in the end, it will cost you little more than a hundred bucks a year.

feel guilty? the ancient Romans argued that you should donate one tenth of your salary -- the pars decima was their version of karma, and it's still a good idea.
posted by matteo at 10:26 AM on March 6, 2007

After traveling overseas and seeing people living in abject poverty, I feel guilty.

Remind yourself that in the entire world there's only one person out there who doesn't have someone worse off than them. Clearly that person isn't the only one who can feel joy with a clear conscience, so why are you not allowed to enjoy the moment? We recognize the insanity of never being happy so long as someone else has more since, again, only one person gets to have the most. Recognize this as a different side of the same coin.

There's a complacency in guilt over our own good fortune to be born into a situation to receive or create material success and it does nobody any good. Many years ago I read a book by a woman struggling with some buddhist positions while living in a scary area of LA and it had a quote that has stuck with me: "things are not as they should be, they are what they are." It's an abdication to feel guilt and reject the things we have just because others don't have them.

If you were talking about feeling guilt over choosing to eat out for the third day in a row rather than make the donation to UNICEF you'd planned then that would be one thing. But assuming you're a good person who does and donates for others, tries to buy responsibly and doesn't work in a field that oppresses others you should feel perfectly free in enjoying some things.
posted by phearlez at 10:45 AM on March 6, 2007

The problem isn't so much what you do or do not possess. It is that you feel guilty that you enjoy a better quality of life than those who are worst-off among us. OK. But unless you truly pauperize yourself, you'll never even come close to their level of poverty. And if you do, you'll have done nothing to alleviate their troubles.

No, the way to really fix things is to become filthy, fucking rich—I mean Sultan-of-Dubai-meets-Bill-Gates rich—and do something to significantly improve their lot.

Seriously: people who drive Hummers are the ones who are serene in their materialism. You don't want to be serene.
posted by adamrice at 10:59 AM on March 6, 2007

Stop watching TV, and don't go shopping unless you actually need to buy something.

Only buy quality items that allow you to do the things you need/want to do.

Sell or give away stuff you don't use.

After that, forget about it, you're doing fine.
posted by benign at 11:06 AM on March 6, 2007

I’m working on combating the materialism/minimalism dilemma in myself. I quit my product designer job when it started depressing me (making all this STUFF) and now I am in training to be a product design professor, where hopefully I can teach future designers to design thoughtful and meaningful objects instead of STUFF. I can be all materialistic by studying products while not having to actually buy them. And I have become super-critical of objects, which means I buy less. So far so good, I've had the same cell phone for the last three years! Doin good with other big ticket items, too. But, not clothes and shoes. Never clothes and shoes.

Read this article about a group of consumers who wouldn't buy anything new for a year. This is a really neat spin on materialism. If you have access to a university library, there is a large amount of literature out there on consumerism that you might find interesting.

Quasi-scientific somewhat-preachy perspective: There is a big difference in the impact on other countries in buying a new computer vs. buying a new t-shirt, and I do mean “difference” – I couldn’t tell you exactly how different or the magnitude of the relative impacts off the top of my head, but you should understand that these two actions have different consequences, while I do understand how it all boils down to the same thing from some perspectives.
posted by Eringatang at 11:10 AM on March 6, 2007

alternatively, you could use two rooms of your living space.

1) a room devoted to material culture in all it's forms, tv's, books, movies, and all the spinoffs. and

2) a room of emptiness, peace and serenity, perhaps with your bed and a nightstand in it, and that's all.

that way, you could embrace both philosophies, and not feel like any part of your outlook would be compromised...
posted by emptyinside at 11:37 AM on March 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is about my competing urges: materialism and minimalism.

Your discomfort stems from the competition.

Allow both parts of yourself to exist. Sometimes you'll lead with one, sometimes with the other.

As with most of these "dilemmas" the best way out is to just chill out.
posted by tkolar at 11:44 AM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I struggle with this too.

What works for me is essentially matteo's solution: buy a few really good things, things that last a very long time, that give me pleasure every time I use them. The rest is dross, and is ruthlessly pared away.

This is a reaction, partly, to my packratish, aquisitive youthful ways. After carting too much stuff back and forth across 3500km, after moving (at least) two dozen times in 15 years, I strongly felt the need to simplify.

This is also the realization that I Just Don't Need That Much Stuff. To cook a good meal, I just need a good knife and a few pots, so I bought good ones. I'd rather wear a few comfortable, tailored clothes than a closet of shirts I wear once every couple of months. I'd rather spend $350 on a circular saw that almost makes me break into song every time I open the case, than a cheapie from Sears that I hate every time I use it.

So, a few things, but good things. The least I need. The boundaries are very personal, but the desire for comfort, quality or aesthetics need not conflict with a need for minimalism.
posted by bonehead at 11:48 AM on March 6, 2007 [2 favorites]

There seem to two kinds of searchers: those who seek to make their ego something other than it is, i.e. holy, happy, unselfish (as though you could make a fish unfish), and those who understand that all such attempts are just gesticulation and play-acting, that there is only one thing that can be done, which is to disidentify themselves with the ego, by realizing its unreality, and by becoming aware of their eternal identity with pure being. - Fingers Pointing Toward the Moon by Wei Wu Wei
posted by poodlemouthe at 11:50 AM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

I can't speak for the moral and psychological aspects of your question, since that's not really my forté.

However, as a computer technician I can feel confident in saying that, while making the decision between the 17" versus the 20" screen or the faster processor or more RAM might be of questionable utility now, in a year's time you're going to feel good in knowing that you don't need to buy 'yet another upgrade' because spec'ed out a good system to begin with.
posted by owenkun at 11:56 AM on March 6, 2007

at the risk of sounding cliché, happiness is wanting what you have, not having what you want.
"Happiness is the death of desire"
posted by exlotuseater at 12:57 PM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

How does one find a middle ground?
How do I find serenity from these two urges?

The boundaries are the hard part.

I have no answer for you. What I do is this:

If it's something I use everyday, I clearly need it. Be it a sofa, a kitchen knife, a pair of pants. So, buy for quality, comfort, looks, durability, knowing that you'll use it well and often. Spend a bit more, but know that you'll keep it for a while.

If it's something I rarely need, I try to make do without. I rarely regret giving something away.

If it's something I am unsure about---do I need this?---I'll put it aside for a while, a year if possible. Did I really miss it? Did I even think of it in that year? Was it something I kept wishing I had, to do something?

Consumables can be tricky too, but the same principles apply: can you buy less, but buy better? Can you limit your purchase of industrialized products and shop from the local farmers' market rather than the big chain store? Can you avoid unethical manufacturers?

I have no lasting sense of serenity, but there is happiness to be found at balance, even if only for a moment.
posted by bonehead at 1:15 PM on March 6, 2007

Sony flat screen tv
Pottery Barn sofa
Apple Imac

Before throwing all your material goods out the window, consider your devotion not to them, but to the brands they represent.
posted by mkultra at 2:25 PM on March 6, 2007

Minimalism and materialism are two points on a Mobius strip --- you think you're getting away from materialism by choosing a minimalist lifestyle, but at the furthest point of your journey, you find the materialist desires reach an apex. You're back to where you started.

Materialism and minimalism are the same. They just appear different due to a cultural sleight of hand.

Hence the cliches of modern, new agey culture. Gurus with Rolexes. Pricey meditation "retreats." Expensive hemp fabrics. Environment-friendly, hybrid Lexus SUVs. Oprah.

How to escape?

First, understand the loop and its many forms. Realize that your yearning for minimalism wouldn't exist were it not for immersion in a culture saturated with materialism. Do teenage monks in Tibet struggle with the materialist-vs-minimalist quandry? No. It doesn't enter into their life experiences or worldview.

Minimalism is an outgrowth of -- in fact, the purest expression of -- materialism. Accept this fact. In so doing, you'll see minimalism for what it is, and be released from it.

Now, think about the flat-screen TV in connection with this. Where do your desires for it originate? Are you seduced by the material joy it promises? Are you trying to "justify" the purchase by convincing yourself that it fits into an otherwise minimalist lifestyle?

Once you've got a grip on these issues, you'll see the TV for what it is -- a utilitarian object in the raw. If the utilitarian side still appeals to you, you're free to buy it an enjoy it. If not, cast it aside. The choice will be clear.
posted by Gordion Knott at 3:17 PM on March 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

For some people (perhaps such as yourself), happiness can be attained briefly by satisfying your material desires. Then again, you may find that sharing the wealth and goods you do possess can help prolong the contentment.

To assist you in proceeding from step 1 to step 2, email me for my mailing address.
posted by rob511 at 4:00 PM on March 6, 2007

No matter how much lifestyle stuff you do, it won't help those workers in China. Political change will help them. The Western answer to your question is not to change your lifestyle, but to tithe a part of your income and to be involved in the change you want to see in the world.

One neat example here would be donation to the EFF, which promotes internet freedom in China, which would be of benefit to those workers at least indirectly.
posted by By The Grace of God at 4:29 PM on March 6, 2007

When you buy, make it mean something. I've been buying kitchen appliances and dishes lately. I'm buying high quality, name brand stuff that I fully expect to still be using in 20 years, if things go well. I'm planning on getting a new laptop this year even when my current one still works fine. Why? Because it still retains a decent resale value and I'll be able to roll the money into the new one.

If you're going to spend money, make it be on things that you'll use, things that you'll... for lack of a better word, respect.
posted by mikeh at 8:37 PM on March 6, 2007

Had you not spent the money, you would still have it in your bank account. And what is money, if not the ultimate material possession? You possess just as much now as you did before the purchase; the only difference is that your possessions are now in the form a laptop instead of cash. Prior to earning the money, you possessed the capability to do work, which you then converted into work, which your employer converted into money.

You have neither gained nor lost anything but time.
posted by charlesv at 8:38 PM on March 6, 2007

Practical tip for learning about this stuff: Travel incessantly. Have a home base somewhere, temporary bases as warranted—but spend months to years living with what you can schlep, yourself, in two suitcases and a carry-on. And by 'what you can schlep' I mean you must lift them all off the ground and carry them up the staircase in the Warszawa Wschodnie train station (I said the Warszawa Wschodnie, accept no substitutes), simultaneously, without sprains, pulls, coronaries, or aneurysms. That will teach you just the sort of thing you're asking us to tell you.

You might go further, and trim it down to books, earplugs, a notebook, and a pen, and in fact I highly recommend the earplugs, but even the larger capacities of two cases ('Three.' 'Counting the carry-on.') will give you a gut sense for a lot of your material-goods questions. See what's in those three cases ('Two.' 'Not counting the carry-on.') and you'll learn a lot about your own soul.

Aside from that, let me wholeheartedly second what benign said at eleven ('Eleven-oh-six.' 'Counting the carry-on.'). I'm too poor to buy cheap stuff, and proud of it; and I have never regretted divorcing my TV.
posted by eritain at 2:54 AM on March 7, 2007

How does one find a middle ground?

One suggestion would be to practice delayed gratification.

Whenever I want to buy something, I don't buy it right away. Instead, I wait as long as I can. Sometimes I find that I don't really want it that badly; it was just a momentary impulse. Even if I eventually do go ahead and buy it, not buying it right away is a good exercise in self-discipline and impulse control. Also, there's a remarkable amount of satisfaction to be gained from having something to look forward to.

So you might tell yourself that you'll buy the 24" Imac--three years from now.
posted by russilwvong at 1:00 PM on March 8, 2007

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