An interesting phenomenon happens when you travel lightly and simply for a while — at least it did for me. After traveling for many weeks with so few belongings, one begins to wonder: if this works so well on the road, why do I continue to have so much stuff at home?
On my own personal journey on this Earth, my minimalist mindset began with my travels. I’ve always found it more pleasant to travel with a small amount of things than with a huge pack, but when it came to my everyday home life, I used to be pretty similar to most people in the amount of stuff I owned and the space required to store it. Lots of accoutrements from my childhood, college years, and “just in case” things. Once I escaped the oppression of graduate school & my pre-job training years and started traveling more, an introspective process naturally developed where I began to question why I had so many belongings. Stuff that had not been used in many, many years — sometimes more than a decade — yet I still kept it around and crammed into various closets in a Tetris-like fashion. Whenever I’d move apartments, I’d pack up all this stuff neatly into many large boxes, U-Haul it to the new place, unpack it, and shove it all into the next closet until it was time to move again.
There were two time periods in my life that changed this pattern. The first one was in 2005 when I had to move across the country for a year long internship. I knew I would be returning after a year, so I packed up what I could fit in my Honda Accord and made the multi-day drive to my new temporary home out west. Other than buying a mattress and a second hand sofa, I didn’t buy anything else of substance that year, and what this taught me was that I was perfectly fine living without all the stuff I had left back in my old city. Great, in fact. That was one of the best years of my life, and all I needed to be happy was a few pieces of furniture and just enough stuff to fit in the back of a sedan. When I drove back to the east coast after my internship was up and returned to my many boxes of things, I got a larger apartment with lots of storage space, so I figured hey — why throw all this stuff out when I have plenty of room for it? So I didn’t do anything differently. But the seed of change was planted in my head.
The next big shift was about 4 years after that. My mini-morphosis, if you will (heh heh). This was the era when personal blogs started getting popular, and as I searched online about decluttering techniques, I came across several websites on minimalism (*my favorites are listed below at the bottom of this post). Turns out that this was exactly the nudge I needed to finally make a big change. In a country that prides itself on conspicuous consumption, it was comforting to read that there was a contingent of people out there consciously going the opposite direction; and they seemed very happy with the choice.
So what did I do? I started getting rid of my stuff. Mostly donations. Some of my pricier items went up on Craigslist and I was able to get at least a small portion of my purchase price back, but the vast majority of items went to Goodwill. Tennis rackets I hadn’t used since age 15? Gone. Redundant kitchen glassware still in its original box? Gone. Stacks of CDs and their associated jewel cases? Gone. Boxes and boxes of old textbooks, notebooks, and “required reading” novels that I hadn’t touched since high school? Gone. All this stuff I had been holding onto for impractical and sentimental reasons was booted out of the apartment permanently.
And it felt awesome.
I don’t want to give the impression that this was an easy process. It wasn’t; it took a really long time. There were certain items in particular that were very difficult to part with, and it took several years for me to actually do it. It’s different for everyone, but for me, the hardest possessions to let go were my old video games, some of which I had had since age 8. The amount of sentimental value attached to these were off the charts. Yet they took up so much space, and despite the lie that came up every single year that “I’ll get them out and play them occasionally”, I never actually did. Because I had no desire to. In hindsight, the main reason why I kept these around was to reminisce about the great times I had playing them during childhood. Eventually after many years of purging my unnecessary belongings, the video games were the last thing left, so I had no more excuses to delay the situation any longer. Since I had gotten rid of so much other sentimental stuff and hadn’t regretted it at all, I got the many boxes of games and consoles out, took several good pictures of all of it so I still had something to look back on, and ended up successfully selling everything except my Nintendo 3DS (because I still use it). And guess what? I haven’t missed any of it. The really important part — the memories — will always be with me long after the physical manifestations are gone. And if I need a reminder at any point to jog my memory, I always have those pictures to look at.
This process will never be done, as it’s an ongoing activity. Things that were once useful become seldom used, and new things enter the house. I have, over time, become much more careful about which new items come through the door. Which brings up an important point: the biggest trap to avoid when de-owning things is to not immediately go out and buy a whole bunch of new useless garbage to replace the old useless garbage that just left. If you really need something or you see an item that will truly make your life better, then by all means go buy it. But if you find that shopping for replacements is the part of the process you’re excited about, then you need to step back and reassess what it is you’re actually doing: simplifying your life or making a convenient excuse to buy more stuff.
So what is the result of all of this downsizing in my own life? I own way fewer belongings than the average American, and as a result, I do not need much space to store it all. A little under 2 years ago, I bought my first house that is a hair over a thousand square feet in size; less than half the size of the average American house (which according to the US Census Bureau is around 2700 square feet). It’s small compared to most houses you see driving around, but it feels open and airy due to the fact that there’s very little clutter. There’s no need for huge closets because all that junk got thrown out years ago. We have a few pieces of well-made furniture designed to last a long time, and all of it serves a useful purpose.
How did this make life better from a practical standpoint? Since we don’t have much stuff, we don’t need a huge place to store said stuff, much less a storage unit — which, if you have so much stuff that you require a storage unit, that’s ridiculous and you need to do something about that shit right now. A smaller place results in a smaller mortgage payment, a smaller tax bill, smaller utility bills, fewer things that can go wrong with the house, fewer maintenance & upkeep requirements; basically a whole lot less of everything to worry about. And what this does is it frees up quite a bit of both time and money to do things that do bring you happiness. In my case, that’s traveling around the world, seeing new places, and partying with interesting people. More free time, low stress, a tidy place to live, and a huge pile of extra cash at the end of every month? I’ll take that.
The alternative is to slave away for the Man at your day job for 40 years until you get super old and it’s time to check out. Hey — all this junk costs money and you have to put it somewhere once you acquire it. If your day job brings you unparalleled levels of joy and you don’t mind working for a long time, then hats off to you. You’re in the minority and I’m happy for you.
But for me, my day job is not something I want to still be doing when I’m sixty and my body starts falling apart. That’s the sitting-on-a-beach-and-drinking-rum-from-a-coconut time of life.
Having said all of the above, I want to make something very clear: at no point do I feel that I have deprived myself of anything important by adopting this life philosophy. On the contrary, I’m fortunate to live quite lavishly compared to most, especially when it comes to the amount of resources I spend on travel. But by cutting out all the unnecessary waste — and let’s face it; it’s mostly garbage — and focusing on the few things that are really important to me, life has become simple, easy, and relatively stress free. This is by far the happiest I’ve been, and I’m infinitely grateful to all those who have inspired me along the way to get to this point. For anyone reading this who is overwhelmed by a complicated life and a crap ton of junk in the house: know that there are alternatives, and you have a choice. This way of life has worked exceedingly well for me, and it may work for you too.
*Lite Adventurer’s list of favorite minimalism blogs in alphabetical order:
- Be More With Less
- Becoming Minimalist
- Miss Minimalist. Francine doesn’t post much anymore, but it’s worth reading all her old posts, especially the one about the time their apartment got robbed.
- Mr Money Mustache. He doesn’t advertise himself as a minimalist, but his principles are the same. A great finance site if you’re trying to find ways to cut expenses and retire at a young age.
- Rowdy Kittens
- Save Spend & Splurge. Sherry’s writings on minimalism were the earliest ones that kickstarted my own process, so I’m especially grateful for her contributions. She had another minimalism website back in 2009-2010 which she sold to a new author who can’t write nearly as well, so I’m not even going to mention the old site. Her current blog is a combo minimalism/personal finance/fashion-tips-for-the-ladies type blog.