How Becoming a Minimalist Changed My Relationship with Money

Jackie L describes her first memories of money management as “ugly and painful.”

Her family lived in Los Angeles subsidized housing for years, under a single-income household where her mother was a full-time nurse and they looked for opportunities to generate extra cash that included collecting cans for coins. One memory she said was particularly traumatic was seeing her mother break down after losing a handful of coins.

Money was feared and fought over. The adults around her worried about not having enough of it, fought over it, and cried over its loss.

As a result, Jackie regarded money as an all-consuming monster. She spent much of her early young adulthood trying to fight “the beast,” and became unhealthily obsessed about spending as little as possible, instead of saving as much as possible.

Her drive to be frugal ultimately backfired: her tendency to spend on cheap, sale items got out of hand. She then turned to minimalist money philosophies to turn herself around.

Today, Jackie is a freelance writer, debt free, and has a decent relationship with money. This is how she did it.

I was a compulsive bargain shopper

I spent my Friday nights rifling through the clearance sections at Target. I got a thrill for steals even on stuff I didn’t need. The deals were a mere illusion because I actually squandered hard-earned cash on excessive purchases.

I knew I needed to do something about it when my spending on daily deal sites, in particular, started to get out of hand

My frugal ways also reached an all-time low when I would attempt to convince my friends to dine at certain restaurants solely because I had daily deal vouchers for them.

"One common misconception about minimalism is that you can’t own anything or spend money."

Although this bargain-hunting zealousness didn’t lead me to financial ruin, it did take a toll on me mentally.

I began attending minimalist meetups

I soon became interested in the Minimalist movement, and found guidance from a variety of sources, from zen readings to minimalist blogs and memoirs.

It helped me realize that I have more than enough to be content and helped me let go of the impulse to buy things just because I was getting a bargain.

I began attending local minimalist group meetups in Los Angeles. Through these gatherings, I met fellow aspiring minimalists with shared struggles and tips on incorporating minimalist practices into daily life. I tried the Minimalist’s 30-Day Minimalism Game, where you get rid of one item the first day, two things on day two, and so on.

First, I purged my stuff

The closet of my 500-square-foot apartment was a disaster area, crammed with dresses, shoes, and accessories found at thrift stores and sample sales. Using Marie Kondo’s system, I lumped my belongings according to category and physically touched each item to see if it “sparked joy.” The result was that I got rid of about a third of my clothes.

I moved to a smaller space

About a year later, I ended up moving and got rid of a ton of other items.

I could have afforded another place – and paid more for electricity as well as fill the bigger rooms with new or more furniture, but after two months of non-stop apartment hunting, I stumbled across a gem of a place. A cabin nestled along a creek in the little Santa Anita Canyon, just east of Pasadena.

The trade-off? I was downsizing to a little more than 300-square-feet from my 500-square-foot apartment. Over the course of two weeks, I got rid of as much stuff as I could: larger pieces of furniture like my dining table and bookcases, about 100 books, and even my record player and entire music collection. I sold some of my records, but donated most of what I got rid of to my friends and through a local Buy Nothing Project group.  The money I made from selling my records went toward my moving expenses.

Now I focus on values-based spending

Since I became interested in minimalism, I’ve been focused on getting rid of excess and holding on to what’s essential.

Keeping my living expenses to a minimum in a major city minimizes my financial stress. Plus, it allows me to put more money toward my future self. I have a sufficient emergency fund. I was able to save a sizable down payment on a new car — this means I took out a smaller loan that I would have needed to otherwise. I’ve also managed to trek from California to New Orleans and Texas, and vacationed in Hawaii without going into debt. I’ve been able to be more aggressive about my retirement savings. I also don’t eat out as much. The money I save on food goes toward my savings.

As a freelance writer, my monthly income fluctuates quite a bit. But because the amount of money I need to earn to scrape by is relatively low, I have more options. For example, if I wanted to, I could work less. Last year I took the entire month of June off to focus on personal projects. Because my monthly living expenses were low and I had savings, I could afford taking a break.

One common misconception about minimalism is that you can’t own anything or spend money.

While it’s common to think of a minimalist as someone who lives the life of an ascetic, the movement is really about aligning our time and possessions with our values.

I’ve been able to take a morning off a week to volunteer with my mom at a local food pantry. I spend my free time cooking healthy meals, making videos, and learning drums.

My friend Sarah, a fellow minimalist, owns stacks of books. Why’s that? Because she is a book lover, and these books give her much joy. And while I probably don’t own as much stuff as the average American, I do spend on travel and commit the occasional splurge on a pair of boots. The point is to put your attention, time, and resources toward the things you love the most.

Being a minimalist is a gradual, ongoing process, and it looks different for everyone. In five years, I might approach minimalism in an entirely new way.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for individualized professional advice. Articles on this site were commissioned and approved by Marcus by Goldman Sachs®, but may not reflect the institutional opinions of The Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., Goldman Sachs Bank USA or any of their affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions.