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
You know what, John?
I have a unique situation when it comes to “owning stuff”. I started working when I was 16 and by the time I got to 26, I did all the consumerism I could possibly indulge in (cars, houses, gadgets, toys, what have you) — 90% of all of this has been paid up for. Thank god for that.
Looking at where I am now, I am pretty much done for life. That one thing you wrote about how you’d want to consume more when you already have “more” is so true that it gives me the jitters when I think about it.
Really, though, I stopped spending on anything I can’t carry on a plane. I do have to continue to pay up for the assets that I amassed, though ( manageable).
The big question, however, is that when you see that 99/100 people go out and splurge, buy more, spend more, purchase toys, etc., what do we do? Do we just let them tinker with their toys? Don’t we feel the slight tinge of jealousy?
As long-term travellers, we don’t have much to boast of when we come back home, do we? When we are done with all the travel that we ever wanted to do and settle down, we see that we don’t have anything at all. A fresh start then? Won’t things be more expensive by then?
Totally agree with this – “Consumerism is our most Defining Characteristic”. It’s one of the biggest things I’ve noticed travelling in other countries. Before we left, we were starting to think about the whole consumerist thing and cutting down and already had that kind of weird feeling fitting in with our friends etc. People don’t really seem to understand it. SO many people said things about me not having a car, even though I can drive, as if I am strange for taking the bus/ train. But even then, I still have loads of stuff in storage and am definitely not minimalist. I think the mindset you’ve been brought up with is really hard to shift. When I get back from backpacking I really hope I can be brutal and get rid of it!
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
Breaking out of the consumerist mindset is hard, damn hard. I certainly don’t claim to have any of the answers. I never really noticed the materialism in myself until I moved abroad. It took years of living outside of Canada to see how strongly I was affected by society. Having these discussions with people who are not digital nomads is difficult. Everyone thinks they are not affected by marketing and make their own individual choices. That’s total bullshit.
Buying things makes our lives better, so it is not an all or nothing debate. However, looking at the lifestyles of people in my home city of Calgary, I can see that western countries have gone way overboard. I’m afraid of settling down anywhere, because I know how difficult it is to resist the temptation to consume. Good luck with your return home!
You have some interesting questions here.
I don’t think it’s possible to change other people’s minds with criticism or confrontation. If we want others to consume less, I think the only way is to lead by example and pose arguments that don’t attack who they are as a person. It upsets me when I see people do things like drive gas-guzzling SUVs to pull over-sized campers with TVs and air-conditioning so they can go camping and “experience the outdoors.” It is such a destructive way of life. However, saying that would only make people defensive and angry. I think smaller gradual changes are the only way, unless we have a gas crisis or another major recession.
Yes, I think it is easy to envy people that have more than us. However, I think I have become comfortable living on less. I really believe that there is no material good that could make my life any better now, so I don’t really worry about what others have. I’m healthy, have everything I need and have the freedom to do what I want. My life is great. Most of my peers in Canada can’t say the same thing.
The real danger is that we substitute that materialism for other forms of competition, like getting stamps in our passports, or trying to do the most authentic travel, etc. There is a lot of that going on as well. I have to remind myself that life is not a competition. I can only strive to better my life and those around me.
If I ever settle down again, I definitely will live a much simpler life. Getting rid of my possessions in Japan really made me realize how much needless stuff I had acquired. Most of that was a waste of time and money so I will do everything I can to avoid reliving that experience. In terms of the cost of setting up again, yes it will be a little expensive, but not prohibitively. I owned some beautiful Italian furniture in Japan that I really wanted to keep. I looked into shipping it to Canada or putting it into storage, but calculating those costs made me realize that it would be cheaper to replace all my possessions in the future, rather than trying to keep it now. If I need to buy stuff again in the future, I will do it slowly and with much more deliberation. I definitely won’t be rushing to fill a large house with endless possessions.
I’ve been abroad since 2005 and on the road since 2010… I guess you could say I’m a minimalist. Everything I own fits into a suitcase. I recently went back to the US and did lots of shopping, though. I got good rain jackets for the fam, new laptops, snorkeling gear, and other products to make life more awesome, like a mini speaker for our iPod. But living in a developing country (Guatemala), I rarely buy stuff besides some secondhand clothes when I need them. Even if I wanted to buy more cool gear for the road, they don’t sell it here and i they do, it’s heavily taxed and very expensive. But I guess what I want to say is that even though I’m a digital nomad and have minimal belongings, I still do want stuff that I know will improve my life. I certainly don’t buy things just to fill an emotional void or anything like that… I am happy with where I am and where I’m going. The stuff (like the quality snorkeling gear) just helps me live the life I love.
I do have to say that I felt very far from the US culture when I was in the states. People seem terribly unhappy. Even family members who are “well off” seem miserable because they’re tied down by debt and so worried about what society thinks. I wish more people would live for themselves and stop worrying about proving themselves with more stuff and accomplishments. It’s also funny how ignorant a lot of people are about the rest of the world. I guess my relatives thought I was living in a mud hut in the mountains, dodging bullets every time I went out on the streets. They don’t seem to realize how great of a life you can live outside of the US.
I threw out a load of stuff 4 years ago to go travelling back then. But before I left I put the remainder into storage.
When I came back from my travels I then had the the stuff taken back out of storage and delivered to my new apartment.
What surprised me was how I felt about it when I saw it again after that break. Some of it – but only a small proportion I was glad to see again. But the rest of it just seemed like unnecessary junk. And there was lots of it. Mountains of books, loads of clothes, appliances and other stuff.
I’ve now gone off travelling again. Only this time I’ve learned my lesson and I’m doing it really minimal. This time round I got rid of practically everything before I took off. I
‘ve now been away almost 3 months. And you know what? I don’t miss any of it. I have 30 kilos of baggage and with that I have practically everything I need for my life. I don’t need anything else! In fact I could probably get by on even less.
If and when I live somewhere long term again, this time I won’t be filling it up with loads of stuff.
Also I’ll make sure I live in a much smaller place, with far fewer storage cupboards and shelves. The more storage space you have and the more rooms you have, the more stuff you buy to fill it up with.
By the way Im always amazed by these people who say that they have a 4,5,6 or 8 bedroomed house. What for? What do you do with all these bedrooms?! It’s just status and boasting. Likewise the idiots who drive around cities in RCVs. No-one needs an RCV unless they live in the outback!
I definitely agree. The more space you have, the more you buy to fill it up. I went through that in the past, but I hope to avoid it in the future.
I don’t have any plans to settle down in one place yet, but I have been keeping an eye out on small home designs. After living out of one room apartments for so long, I know my wife and I can probably live comfortably in 400 to 600 square feet.
It’s a difficult issue. Stuff can make our lives better, but it is also easy to get carried away. For a typical middle class family in my home city of Calgary, a 2500 square foot home, with a two car garage,a camping trailer and summer cottage are the minimum requirements for a good life. For travelers like us, sufficient possessions can fit into a suitcase. Where is the line drawn between enough and too much?
I’m also very happy with where I am, but I don’t think I would have this perspective if I didn’t live abroad.
I hate to generalize, but I agree that most people back home don’t seem particularly happy with their lives. People seemed stressed and don’t have time for friends, family and the simple things in life.
For the last couple of years, my wife and I have been spending a few months in Canada. With suburban sprawl it is really hard to get by without a car. For that reason, we were thinking of buying a vehicle. It would make our lives easier and open up some opportunities for trips to the mountains, lakes, other cities, etc. The other day we had to return some library books. It would take a 10 minute drive to the library and maybe a couple of dollars for gas. By bus, it would take 20 minutes each way and cost us $11 return. By bike it takes about 45 minutes and is free. I was thinking about the journey as I was cycling. We were getting exercise and fresh air. We stopped at a park briefly to enjoy the scenery. It felt good to workout or bodies and knowing we weren’t polluting the environment. Returning our books wasn’t a chore that we dreaded doing, it actually was an enjoyable mini adventure, that didn’t cost any money. I think those pleasures are largely missing from modern life. Every one is in a rush to go somewhere or have their noses buried in smart phones. Despite all the meditation and yoga fads, there is very little appreciation for living in the moment.
I sometimes laugh at the questions people ask me of living in another country. Some people have a hard time imagining that you can rent apartments, go to cafes and restaurants and have Internet access in other countries. Often the quality is much better at a lower price. The only way to find out what the rest of the world has to offer is to travel.
Excellent post, that I enjoyed reading. When I’m back in the US I find that I want to buy things to fill the void of having nothing else to do. When I’m traveling I never have time to even thing about buying things. I sold my house, I still have a small storage unit, but it seems the less I own the more at peace I am with things. There is a lot of truth in the statement “Unclutter your life, unclutter your mind”.
loved your article, especially the part where you said that consumption is good..to a degree.. i think that’s very true. everyone needs to find the balance that will fit with their lives at different points in time. keep up the good work! 🙂
This is a great introduction to minimalism, and I will be sending some of my friends here before preparing them for some of the more hardcore minimalist proselytizing which I give them!
This is a little nitpicky. but still worth mentioning. The author says that incidence of obesity is significantly different between urban to suburban locations, but this WebMD article cites one study of 7 million people in and around Chicago and concludes that factors such as higher education, high income, and high home value are much better predictors of being lean. Suburbanites were either less obese or equally obese as city-dwellers. The article is here: http://www.webmd.com/diet/news/20060223/obesitys-home-city-suburbs
Thanks for taking the time to submit a contradictory reference.
I only have anecdotal evidence for the claim of the link in obesity to urban density, but I believe it’s evident in cities all around the world. Populations that live in downtown apartments are much less likely to own a car and are forced to live more more active lifestyles. I’ve seen it in the US, Europe, Japan, Thailand and Canada.
The article you linked to says ” Urban sprawl MAY not deserve blame for obesity” and “When it comes to obesity, a person’s income and education PROBABLY trumps location, the researchers note.
That’s not so conclusive in my view. “May” and “probably” do not demonstrate very strong correlations.
Also, the study is based on driver’s license data from neighbourrhood’s close to the city center. This is a sample population of “drivers”. Driving is the probably that leads to obesity. It’s comparing “suburbs close to Chicago” with the most distant suburban areas.” This is not a comparison between urban and suburban dwellers.
What I’m saying is that if you live in the center of a large metropolis like Tokyo, London, New York, Bangkok, Budapest or Istanbul, you are much less likely to own a car, and will have lower incidences of obesity. Many travellers comment on how thin Japanese are (I lived there for 13 years.) However, that is only because tourists don’t go to more rural locations.
I believe it’s near impossible to become obese if you have a job and do not own a car. The only way it could be done is if someone was buying food and supplies for an obese person staying at home.
Here are some studies.
Estimates indicate that if the average metropolitan area had not experienced the decline in the proportion of population living in dense areas over the last 30 years, the rate of obesity would have been reduced by approximately 13%.
Conclusions. Household motor vehicle ownership is associated with overweight, obesity, and abdominal
obesity among Colombian men but not women
However, the odds of being obese were 80%
higher (p 0.05) for men and women in households who
owned a motorized vehicle compared with those who did
not own a vehicle.
Thanks for the reply, John. Obesity correlates are definitely not my area, so I can’t give a smart response. I was just curious about the claim in your article because you didn’t cite any studies, and the first study I came across seemed to contradict. I appreciate the links to published work with other outcomes. Either way, I enjoyed the post.
“We want to build a life of experiences and contribution, not of possessions.”
My thoughts exactly, John. I live an work in the greater Baltimore/DC corridor. To put it mildly, materialism and status runs rampant here. However, in the midst of it all, I became a minimalist.
I never thought I would say this, but I have grown SICK of of the pursuit stuff and things. Sure..I have my Iphone, a couple of books, clothes and a punching bag. I have gotten rid of literally tons of stuff in the last few years and feel like I have a new lease on life. My wife is not as extreme as i am, but she respects my new outlook and is making an effort to live with less. Minimalism is not something that can be forced on anyone, but rather a lifestyle gradually acheived by observation.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a great comment Gil.
I agree that minimalism can’t be forced on anyone. Consumption fills biological needs, so it’s counterintuitive that getting rid of stuff actually makes us happier. I don’t think it can be explained, it needs to be experienced. I certainly needed to experience excess in order to understand that it was actually reducing my personal satisfaction.
I think the planet needs more people to come to this realization, but I don’t know how to get the message out.
I loved your article. I am in the middle of a clearing out phase – hundreds of books and cds that I’m unlikely ever to revisit. They have got to go!!
Definitely I believe in buying fewer items but better quality. Here in the U.K. we have fantastic charity shops which I find I use more and more because other consumers are donating stuff that they’ve hardly used! Some of the clothes still have the original tags on. I can get good quality items on the cheap, and if I later decide I don’t want it, I just give it back to the charity shop without feeling I wasted my money.
I bought a 70s retro hifi receiver on ebay which looks fab, sounds good and was a fraction of the price that I would have spent on a new one.
I would rather spend my cash on concert tickets. Keep Music Live.
Thanks for taking the time to comment Susan!
Stuff is so over rated! I agree, experiences like live music, time with family friends and just walking around our communities are much, much more rewarding.
Terry @ Path to Simple
Your paragraph about culture shock (the whole article, really) is so spot on. The US is lost in consumerism. I’m not putting us down, I just wish the others would wake up to the needless spending that is causing us to miss out on better things.
Thanks for the comment Terry.
I hope the world wakes up too, but it doesn’t look like we’re headed in the right direction.
Hi John, I absolutely loved reading this! Your story is amazing and is so inspiring. I’m an Aussie currently residing in Calgary and I actually want to move to Japan next year so we’ve got something in common there!
Your story truly resonated with me. I’m all for experiences over things. I feel so liberated living abroad and refraining from accumulating too many things because I know I am going to pick up and move again. I’m 26 and am yet to own a car! I’ve been in Calgary 10 months and don’t even have a bike, I always travel on foot.
It’s a pleasure to read that you have created a life that gives you more time to pursue your interests and dreams. Thanks for making my day with this! All the best 🙂
Thanks for taking the time to read my post.
Japan is amazing. I’m sure you’ll love it there.
We definitely live in a time of great opportunity. There’s never been a better time to travel and do anything we want anywhere we want. Minimizing consumption of physical goods allows us to maximize meaningful experiences.
Calgary has one of the largest bike path networks in the world, so if you have a chance I’d recommend doing some cycling in the city. The geography of the city is very beautiful in places.
Nice read I have begun the journey. A divorce and self employed venture failed, have brought to life a new goal and life outlook.
I’m scaling back from a extravagant life of endless money and things to a life of experiences and joy.
It is a difficult thin to leave the stuff you thought Mae you happy but once the mind set soaks in you view it as the chains that hold you prisoner to consumerism.
I just got home from another trip out of the country. Every year for my birthday I try and travel somewhere new. After just returning a few days ago, I can’t keep waiting another year to get to travel. I feel like right now I work from when I wake up until I go to bed. I spend all the money I earn at my job to afford a place to live, a car to get to work, and things to try and make me happy in the short moments I get to myself. When I travel, I am forced to count on myself and others and that’s it. It reminds me of who I am, because I am free to explore and follow my heart. I am 27 and I feel like I need to make a change. I feel like everyone I know here in the states is overworked, and just exhausted. The corporate feeling is like we are backed into a corner and it takes all of our energy to make the most of it. And so we do. But why can’t we have more? That’s how I found this site. I typed in “more experienced, less things”. I typed it because I want to find a way to wake up in the morning, not rush, instead, take in the beauty around me. I want to walk or ride a bike in the morning. I want to do work I am passionate about. I want to go outside when it is nice out. I want to exercise and make good meals and enjoy them. I want to get good sleep. I want to have conversations about life, love, passions, and experiences. I want to be less stressed. I want to relieve the stress of others. I want to contribute to others lives and allow others to contribute to mine. I’m sure anyone could argue I can do any one of those things with my job and live in Southern California like I do. But the corporate lifestyle and demands of the workplace are such that if you are not working towards a promotion, if you are not committed to the business in such a way that it is on your mind all the time and besides watching tv and going to bed you never can get your mind off of it. I’m sorry this is so much rambling. But I want to be free, to set myself free from being trapped in an office 85% of my day and spending the rest of my time attempting to relax and struggling to find a way to be less stressed and more happy, when all of that is quite simple and easy to do when traveling independently. My big question is how to make the first step. All I know is I still need income and it is really scary to think I could quit my job and then struggle for the rest of my life like I have seen some people with less advantaged deal with their whole life.