It’s been a couple of years since my wife and I got rid of our business, house, car and most of our possessions. Culling our possessions and reducing and our materialism has been very liberating. I haven’t talked about minimalism or voluntary simplicity much on this site, but I’m starting to realize that it has become a defining part of my lifestyle.
It’s not Minimalism if you are a Backpacker
It is very easy to not own many possessions if you are travelling long term. If you can’t bring it on a plane with you, then it is essentially useless.
When I left Canada for Japan some 15 plus years ago, I had a ton of stuff in storage that I thought I would use again someday. I had clothes, books, kitchen supplies, bedding and a ton of other stuff. Virtually all of that was raided by my siblings, sold in garage sales or just thrown away and I don’t miss it at all. I can’t even remember what most of it was.
I went to Japan with only what I could carry on a plane. Did that make me a minimalist? I don’t think so. If it were free to ship stuff, and I had a place to keep everything, I’m sure I would have taken most of my possessions with me. For one thing, I could have avoided the process acquiring new things when I arrived in Japan. Moving to a foreign country forced me to embrace minimalism, it was not a conscious choice. The real test comes when you are stationary and have the income to buy the things you want, yet choose not to.
I Like Stuff
Possessions make our lives easier and better. There I said it. Consumption is good… to a degree, at least. I don’t want to wash my clothes by hand. I don’t want to start a fire every time I cook a meal. Taking a plane, sure beats paddling a log across the ocean. I love my computer, I have guitars in storage with family in three different countries. I do retain some possessions, but considerably less than I’ve owned in the past.
If I had a permanent residence, I’d most certainly buy and keep more stuff. I want a video camera, a good espresso machine, kitchen knives and a kick-ass frying pan. Those things would make my life measurably better, but I don’t buy them because I don’t have my own place to keep them. That is good. I don’t want to get a permanent residence any time soon because I know how easy it is to get into that vicious cycle of work and consumption. No matter how much you own, there is always something new and better that you absolutely must have.
Minimalism has had a Profound Influence on my Life
There are substantial cost savings to be made from buying less things, but there are auxiliary benefits, too. There is a certain mental and emotional liberation when your life is not spent shopping.
Location independence has put a structural constraint on my purchases. I know I can’t bring very much with me when I travel, so I generally don’t buy any durable goods. My wife and I never scrimp on quality food, but virtually everything else has been cut out of our lives.
This freedom from consumerism means we don’t waste valuable time shopping, looking at catalogs, or browsing the Internet for new things to buy. We don’t go to home centers on the weekend to buy things for our yard, or spend time cutting the grass or pulling weeds. We are not constantly on the look out for sofa cushions to match that new picture in the living room. We don’t spend our time washing the cars, getting oil changes or visiting mechanics. So much of the regular chores of our lives has been eliminated because there really isn’t so much to do if you don’t have many possessions. Now we can focus on what brings us greater happiness and personal satisfaction.
Reverse Culture Shock – Consumerism is our most Defining Characteristic
It really is amazing how much time our possessions and the culture of shopping can suck from our lives. Many expats and long-term travellers that have returned to their home countries often experience reverse culture shock. After being abroad for an extended time, our home culture can become very alienating. A common theme I have often heard is the surprise that “all people do is shop.” Obese people drive their over-sized SUVs to super-sized box stores and fill up giant shopping carts with lots and lots of stuff. Go stand by the exit to a Walmart for an hour to see what I mean.
I get it. There is huge societal pressure to conform and impress peers with our purchases. All my friends have a tattoo so I need one too, to express my “individuality.” My neighbor has a new car, so I better start thinking about getting one that’s a little newer and slightly better than his.
When I first returned to Canada for an extended stay, it was hard to fit in. All my friends have cars, houses, large screen TVs, and countless other possessions. My wife and I take the bus and own very little. I have very little in common with those people any longer. I’m okay with it now. In fact, I embrace it. I’m proud to consume less and own less. It’s who I am now. I find it very satisfying to not spend much money.
The More We Get, The More We Want
In the past, I got caught up in consumerism and I still think it would be easy to fall back into it if I’m not careful. I like nice things. A new, reliable automobile can make your life easier. I tell myself I need a MacBook Air to make me more productive, even though my current laptop is still great. I would love to get more guitars and a big kick-ass amplifier, but of course, I would need a large place to use them effectively.
Therein lies the problem. The more we consume, the more we need to consume. Buy a bigger house, and you need more furniture. Extend your garage and suddenly you find yourself needing a bunch of specialized tools. Get a new barbecue and soon you will need new lawn furniture and a deck to make the most of it. It never ends. The more you get the more you want.
That is why I need structural constraints in my life. I don’t want to own a car again, because it makes me lazy. Without a car I am forced to walk or cycle much more. I also buy much less, because I can’t carry large quantities home. It’s no surprise that people living in the suburbs or rural locations are typically 30% more obese than their urban counterparts. The same is true in Japan as well. People often remark how thin Japanese are. Go to more rural locations, where car ownership is higher and you will see that Japanese are not immune to the obesity epidemic, either.
Not having a permanent residence, makes it impossible to purchase furniture or other durable goods. My wife and I live on about a quarter of our old living costs now and we are much happier for it.
What do you do with your life when you are not shopping, cleaning or maintaining the stuff you own?
There is not a day that goes by where my wife and I don’t comment on how great our life has become. I play more guitar, read more books, work on more of my own business projects, travel more, exercise more, sleep more, spend more time cooking healthy meals at home. My time is spent doing the things I value most.
One of my biggest fears, is having to move back to my home city of Calgary. Calgary is a nice enough city, but I am more worried about becoming a consumer again. I don’t want to get a job where 30 to 40% of my salary goes to income taxes. I don’t want to get a house in the suburbs where mortgage payments will drain 30% of my take home pay and force me to commute an hour or so to work everyday. I don’t want to spend my evenings and weekends shopping or working on the yard. I most certainly don’t want to be so burnt out from my lifestyle that I feel the need to vegetate in front of a TV for several hours a day.
My wife and I talk of owning a house again sometime in the future. If that happens, it will certainly be much smaller and simpler than what we have had in the past. We keep talking about where we would want to live permanently, but we always conclude that we are not anywhere near ready for a permanent residence. We want to build a life of experiences and contribution, not of possessions.
mnmlist by Leo Babauta
On Minimalism A post by Babuata with links to articles to get you started.
TheMinimalists by Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus
Minimalism Explained by Colin Wright of ExileLifestyle.com
The 28 Benefits of Minimalism by Joshua Becker of BecomingMinimalist.com
Real Life Minimalists Interviews on MissMinimalist.com
Our Tiny House A look into the 128 square foot house of Tammy Strobel of RowdyKittens.com
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