The problem with asking, “Is this adding value?”

In the minimalism world, I hear a lot of people advocating that for each possession you have, each subscription, each experience, and so on, ask if it’s adding value.

The assumption is that if you ask this question, you’ll be able to figure out what’s really important to you and then be able to ditch the rest. The problem, though, as I see it, is that this question doesn’t really sort as well at the practical level.

Let’s consider a simple example. Say you’re thinking of buying a new TV. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say you already have one TV in your living room, but you’re thinking of putting another in your bedroom too. Following the “value-add” approach, you might ask yourself, “Will this second TV add value to my life (or anyone else in the house)?”

This question struggles to offer any practical help for a bunch of reasons.

For one, what is value? What counts as value? As a consumer, it’s pretty tough to sort that out. Even if you could, it’s even tougher to apply whatever definition you come up with, to the particular question of whether or not to purchase the second TV.

The second, more insidious difficulty is that when you ask if something’s adding value, you tend to gloss over the fact that even things that add value can close opportunities for even more value. Economists call this “opportunity costs,” the toughest costs to measure. These costs, I think, are what minimalism tries to expose.

Asking if something’s adding value, though, doesn’t really get at exposing those opportunity costs. In the heat of the decision, we don’t know what’s adding value, we don’t know what will continue to add value in the future, and we don’t know what might be a better replacement.

That’s why minimalism should operate more as an experiment.