I think there is a word that exists, though it won't quite come to me, that describes the life of someone who purposely leads a sparse existence, materialistically, and has few, if any, possessions. The only word that comes to me is "monastic," but that's not quite right, and I'm thinking there exists a word that doesn't have any religious connotations. The right word could possibly, but not necessarily, indicate a nomadic quality, as well, or, at least, the quality of not being tied down to a particular location or domicile.

Example sentence:

Living in an easily-collapsed geodesic dome, and owning only a laptop, futon, table and a few sets of clothes, Ms. Hilgers' [single-word] lifestyle was envied by some and perplexing to others.

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    One such word is ascetic, but that still has religious connotations (being derived from the Greek for monk)
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:14
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    I tried to think of an adjective based on "Thoreau" but nothing familiar came to mind.
    – GEdgar
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:18
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    @KevinWorkman - I did a cursory search at the dictionary.com thesaurus. Spartan (the word I couldn't bring to mind) did not pop up, so I posted here.
    – bubbleking
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 22:39
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    minimalistic, I think.
    – Otter
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 23:16
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    @Righleg In English it doesn't exactly have religious connotations. However it does imply a stricter devotion to this sparse existence than simply a preference. The person doesn't just like living this way, they've decided that philosophically it's the right thing to do.
    – Graham
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 12:31

15 Answers 15


Spartan conveys the idea you are referring to:

simple and severe with no comfort:

  • spartan living conditions; they lead a spartan life with very few comforts and no luxuries.

(Cambridge Dictionary)

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    I like the MW definition in the answer by @cobaltduck and I agree you should add the bit about Spartan vs. spartan. I feel like, together, these two answers paint a great picture, and I'm going to choose this one just because I have to pick one or the other. Cobaltduck claims you were FGITW. The approximations displayed for me don't seem to agree, but I'll take his/her word for it.
    – bubbleking
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:36
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    Note that actual Spartans didn't live like this.
    – Ben
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:18
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    Alas, and it's a sad thing, but I really wish I could downvote this — the fact that it was accepted probably makes it worse: Most historical uses of the word ‘spartan’ conveyed a strictly utilitarian and unembellished style of design. E.g. when describing Napoleon Bonaparte's tent as “spartan”, it means that he had no lush comforts or unnecessary furnishings; he did so for the purpose of military efficiency, not for the simplicity of a minimalist, austere, or ascetic lifestyle. I don't think this fits with the request at all. :-( Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 6:44
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    @can-ned_food The word spartan is used differently nowadays though. That happens a lot in English. So this answer is absolutely a good one.
    – user428517
    Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 15:27
  • By the same token, a lifestyle of few possessions doesn't imply a live without luxury. Check out​ less.best Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 22:30

I'd say it's minimalist.

Perhaps it does not dare make a virtue out of modernity and reinvent its interior in an honest minimalist style, so it serves up spadeloads of fake heritage instead.

The lean, minimalist design is refreshingly at odds with the usual run of touristy alpine decoration and furnishings featured at other ski resort hotels.

John McGowan's space may be a little larger but the minimalist style of small desk, computer station, neat cupboard space and obligatory plant is mirroring that of other employees.

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    "Spartan" was the word lurking in the back of my brain, trying to find its way out, but minimalist is definitely a solid choice.
    – bubbleking
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:33
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    +1 I'm of course not the OP, but I think minimalist is better than Spartan. A minimalist can have luxuries -- few objects, but objects deliberately selected for beauty as well as usefulness. A Spartan just has useful objects.
    – ab2
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 23:19
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    There's a difference in viewpoint here. Spartan has an implication of lacking comfort, while minimalist is about reducing things that are unnecessary but not sacrificing actual comfort or convenience. Hence the three quotes in the answer here are all positive, while the dictionary example sentence given in Josh's answer is (at least a little) negative.
    – Jules
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 9:24
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    (... hence you can readily find quotes like "I think it is important, too, to understand that minimalism is not a manifesto for spartan living")
    – Jules
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 9:34
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    OP refers to a monastic life as an example. I doubt minimalistic would genuinely apply to monks. Minimalism is more sort of lifestyle, something like Giorgio Armani might use for his Home Style.
    – user66974
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 14:29

How about austere?

3: markedly simple or unadorned · an austere office
from m-w.com

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    That might be a good alternative in some contexts. For what I was thinking about, austere has too much of a sad mood, I think.
    – bubbleking
    Commented Sep 7, 2017 at 20:49

Ascetic has some religious connotations but that doesn't necessarily preclude it from being usable if context doesn't include links to religion.

characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons.

If you really want to drive home the lack of religious motivation, and you're okay with using two words, secular asceticism would probably fit the bill.


I think you are looking for spartan, given by Merriam-Webster as defintion 2b:

often not capitalized : marked by simplicity, frugality, or avoidance of luxury and comfort a Spartan room

Note that in context, the word is not capitalized, whereas when referring to a person from the city of Sparta, it would be.



From vocabulary.com:

A person who lives simply and economically can be called frugal. Buying clothes at a consignment shop would be considered frugal. Not getting your mom a gift for her birthday — that's just cheap.

Thrifty, spartan, and prudent are synonyms for frugal, a word that often has positive connotations when used to describe a person who lives a simple life. "The question for retailers is whether shoppers will remain frugal or slowly resume their old spending habits whenever they get more money in their pockets," wrote The Wall Street Journal. You might also speak of "a frugal meal" — a very plain, cheap one. The word is from Latin frux, meaning "fruit" (in the sense of "profit").

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    Having said that, having seen your example sentence, the word that would come to my mind would simply be "non-materialistic". This seems to address all your requirements. As for spartan, btw, I don't like it as the answer to this question; to me it almost has the connotation of forced structure and discipline, but in a manner opposite to the piously religious one, as if one relishes and takes pride in forcefully extricating themselves from possessions (rather than simply not desiring them). But this doesn't sound anything like what I'd imagine Ms. Hilgers from the rest of the sentence. Commented Sep 9, 2017 at 18:35
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    +1 My first thought too...although on reflection I think frugal strongly implies penny pinching, being sparing, buying cheap, etc - rather than simply having few possessions - that could well be expensive or even high-end luxury items (laptop, geodesic dome, etc). To my mind a frugal life is always simple, but a simple life isn't always frugal.
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 17:47
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    @Fraser I will admit this is my own understanding and experience, but I don't think frugal has a negative connotation of the penny-pinching sort. I might say that about "thrifty" (which brings images of coupons and thrift-shops in mind), but not about "frugal". In my mind, a frugal person is one who does not delight in luxury and is instead focused on providing only the necessary, no more, but also no less. I.e. it implies the absence of embellishments (esp in the context of clothing / art), but does not imply undergoing hardship or expending obsessive amounts of energy aimed at being 'cheap'. Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 18:16
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    I think that is it - focused on providing only the necessary and nothing more - for it to be a frugal life the items would have to be purely functional, the bare minimum spec...it implies a sense of "going without" that simply having few things doesn't (to my mind at least) - one could have a few high quality top of the range items (laptop, tent, etc) and have a simple but not frugal life.
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 19:00
  • Is frugal not ambitious, as far as it can also mean "has a lot and stays that way by avoiding waste?" Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 5:33

I might suggest plain - not yet mentioned because the word itself is possibly too plain?

not decorated or elaborate; simple or basic in character

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    I do like plain, especially in the sense of "free of extraneous matter" or "characterized by simplicity: not complicated" [MW: 3, 7]. Would uncomplicated [MW: 1a, 2] be a less plain way of saying the same thing?
    – NMI
    Commented Sep 15, 2017 at 0:58

I know there's an accepted answer and several good ones, but I think it's worth noting that a relatively modern (slightly hip and click-bait-y) term for this is clutter-free, as in, free from clutter (confusion, mess, litter).

This applies particularly if it's a conscious ideological choice, rather than driven by affordability.

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    Surely uncluttered?
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 17:58
  • @Fraser: That would certainly be a valid re-wording, but as far as I can tell, "clutter-free" is the trendy term.
    – Aesin
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 19:41
  • If one googles "define:clutter-free" there is no definition, whilst "define:uncluttered" gives "not having or impeded by too many objects, details, or elements. "the rooms were plain and uncluttered"" - so I'll give you trendy but personally I think it is a bit too contrived. I guess it would really depend on context but I would always favour plain English over neologisms or "new speak" compound words.
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 21:36

Frugal - is good - but "simple" is perhaps best.

Living in an easily-collapsed geodesic dome, and owning only a laptop, futon, table and a few sets of clothes, Ms. Hilgers' simple lifestyle was envied by some and perplexing to others


For a brief time around 1968, the Beatles lived with the Maharishi in India, living there like other pilgrims with no possessions and with very simple food, clothing and shelter. I'm pretty sure that when George Harrison is explaining this business in the Beatles Anthology, he refers to such people as renunciants.

Definition of renunciant

plural -s

: one who renounces (as the world)

-Merriam Webster

When I looked for this word in Google Books, almost all of the uses were from books about ways of life characteristic of Arabia, India or the Orient, and almost none by standard Western authors. So I cannot say the word is widely used GMT - 1 to 10.

I did find this single (though very long) sentence in Google Books:

There was here a veritable consecration, hopeful and animating, of the earth's gifts, of old dead and dark matter itself, now in some way redeemed at last, of all that we can touch or see, in the midst of a jaded world that had lost the true sense of such things, and in strong contrast to the wise emperor's renunciant and impassive attitude towards them.

-On page 138 of The Works of Walter Pater

So that's one use at least. Apparently Pater thought it was an adjective.

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    That is the most awful sounding word I have heard to date.
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 18:05
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    @Lambie My first impulse to suggest something awfuller. But that can't be right. So instead let me observe that the request did not specify beautiful words to describe a lifestyle of few possessions.
    – Chaim
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 18:16

A life of penury means "extreme poverty" (Collins 2000).

Though this can be volitional, it also applies to ones who have had poverty inflicted upon them.

  • Poverty and a lack of material possessions are not the same thing at all. Although a multifaceted concept - in general poverty means the lack of the means necessary to meet basic survival needs such as food and shelter. Choosing not buy things isn't the same as not having the means to.
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 17:54
  • @Fraser It is possible for a wealthy person "to live a life of penury", confirmed by the OED in its entry on the adjective penurious. Sense 2 is defined as Stingy, parsimonious, grudging. In extended use: indicative of stinginess, mean, shabby. This is not necessarily due to poverty, but an attitude to expenditure - two very different things. One of the examples quoted is: 1998 Renaissance Q. 51 319 The stinginess of this edition and its penurious attempt to offer a Ford not worthy of critical and textual research keep the volume from being useful to students or their instructors.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 19:20
  • I know - that is what I said - "Poverty and a lack of material possessions are not the same thing at all."
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 10:30
  • @Fraser And what I'm saying is that penurious can be applied to either of them.
    – WS2
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 13:42
  • And what I am saying is that it can't really as a lack of possessions isn't penurious.There is no sense, in the context given, in which having few possessions equates to being mean, extremely poor or poverty-stricken.
    – Fraser
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 13:57

I am hesitant to post an answer when one has already been accepted. But I feel like the mindset the OP is trying to capture is one of being:


The definitions I found online don't capture my feeling of this use case but here is how it applies for me. Where you are and what you are doing is temporary. Extra effort and accumulation for things you won't need in the future is pointless and detracts from living in the moment. It provides a freedom from anchors.

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    temporal in English means related to time. Temporary means non-lasting. Temporal for temporary is Spanish...
    – Lambie
    Commented Sep 11, 2017 at 18:06

Simplistic or non-materialistic are the two words that come to my mind when reading your description.


You might be thinking of "mortified." This describes someone who lives in the world (so not quite ascetic or monastic), but who lives in self-imposed poverty.

While this does have a religious connotation, it can also have a nomadic quality. St. Peter traveled a lot, but his lifestyle was mortified due to his sparse diet and lack of possessions.

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    Note that this meaning of the word is labelled in the OED as "now rare" and has no citations since 1844. I doubt many people would understand it, most probably only being familiar with the modern definition "humiliated deeply; vexed, chagrined".
    – Jules
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 9:39
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    nicely found, just because not many people will understand it now, it doesn't mean that it is not an acceptable answer, the word fits the requirements.
    – jimjim
    Commented Sep 12, 2017 at 3:22

I am thinking of monk, hermit. Depending on the context, this could be taken as religious, or not.

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    The sample sentence requires an adjective: monastic and eremitical. But these are definitely religious words.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Sep 8, 2017 at 12:18

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