Now that I’ve stated our intention to live a minimalist lifestyle, I imagine you’re thinking we’re shucking all our earthly belongings to the side so we can try living out of a backpack. While that path might be right for some, it’s not what we’re after. What we’re really seeking is a better way of a life – one where we’re able to do more of what we love doing, explore more places on this earth, make an impact on other people’s lives and generally be free to actually live our lives with a lot less stress and more time.
Once, that was actually my life. In my early 20’s, I was a volunteer staff member at an orphanage for the severely handicapped in Mexico for a three-month stretch. The Mission, as it was called, was located about a mile and half from the main road. All our needs were met as we had food to eat every day, a bed to sleep in, a warm shower and a toilet. We had no radio, no TV, no cable, no internet, no computers, no cell phone coverage (at the time, it was quite costly to send an international message), and we were not in any way surrounded by shops enticing us to spend all our money. Instead, we kept our hands busy with helping. We cooked, we cleaned, we watched over the orphans and their needs. After the hard day’s work, we were content to have quiet time to relax, read, appreciate the star-filled sky, spend time with one another or generally pursue other interests like knitting, hand-sewing, playing guitar or writing. I remember my time there so fondly because even though I worked hard, I was extremely happy because everything about my life there was so serene.
The serenity, calm and sense of ‘all is right in my world’ probably stems from the simplicity of our lives there. We lived, now that I think of it, a minimalist lifestyle.
But it was only for a season because I soon returned to California and my life at university. I got busy. I got a job. I got myself wrapped up in credit card debt because I kept buying more things with money I didn’t really have. It took a long time to dig myself out of that one, and I had a lot of help and guidance getting free from that burden, but even so I hadn’t yet solved my problem with acquiring stuff. As time went on, my belongings swelled. I kept thinking that they brought me some kind of comfort, that having stuff proved I was somehow ‘making it.’ I was convinced that if I just organised it all better, it’d be fine. But it turned out my kind of organisation was really more like “out of sight, out of mind.”
When it was time for me to move apartments, I was confronted with the amount of stuff I owned. The signs of excess and clutter collection were evident in those moments when my friends – bribed with promises of pizza and beer – strained under the literal weight of my stuff. From their cars, they lugged huge bins full of my paperback novels across the car park, through the complex and up a flight of stairs. “You have too many books,” they said, collapsing in my living room after dropping the bin. “Do you really need all of them?” Yes, I replied. Yes, I thought. I needed them… didn’t I?
Then, in my next move, there were plastic bins chock full of unopened mail to pore over and shred. I remember my beast of a shredder calling it quits after having too many papers shoved into it. A sense of shame washed over me while the four of us uncovered the mountain of paperwork I’d stashed into the dark recesses of my closet, thinking I’d get to them someday. I’d even briefly entertained bringing them to the new place to try to sort them there, but they convinced to deal with it now so I wouldn’t be moving more junk into my next place. I remember telling myself I shouldn’t get to that stage again.
Then, there was another move – the big move – from the United States to the United Kingdom. My stuff mingled in with my husband’s stuff. And together, it was indeed a lot of stuff. We had four full-sized IKEA Billy bookcases, plus a corner piece and a half-sized Billy all stuffed to overflowing with books (mostly), DVDs and board games. Our shared closet was cramped and packed with clothing, and worse, we had another closet that was chock-full of junk we didn’t know where to put or how to deal with.
This move was the first time I felt like I needed to decide between what I should keep and what I should let go of. Most of our electronics (save computers, laptops and USB-chargeable things) wouldn’t be going. All furniture would be sold or given away. A huge portion of our clothing would no longer be needed. My precious books that I’d collected over the years, that I’d made friends carry in moves? Those wouldn’t all be coming either. And that horrible closet full of crap? We’d finally have to deal with it.
And so we did. Painstakingly, we sifted through what felt like an insurmountable task. Amid the chaos, we found more mountains of paperwork that had hidden unused gift cards, long-searched-for gift certificates and even $200 cash that nearly went into the shredder… After days of sorting and packing and deciding, I distinctly remember hitting a point of despair when I asked my husband if I could just burn it all. I no longer wanted any of this stuff. I didn’t want to go through it anymore. Why did we even have all these things anyway? The excess we’d accumulated were once things we thought we’d needed, or thought would be useful, or simply just wanted. But a vast majority of it was stuff we didn’t really use and we weren’t, overall, any happier for having bought them. In fact, a year later, we haven’t even dug out most of the things we brought with us! It’s made us realise that the money we wasted acquiring that stuff could’ve been better used towards our savings, our move, our house, our travel goals – almost anything else but all this stuff.
So again, we promised not to put ourselves in that position. But this time, instead of an exhausted vow, we’re making an intentional decision to own less stuff.
Why? Because we don’t want to harbour and hoard a bunch of things that we need to pay for, make space for, make time for, clean, manage and maintain. Because we’re tired of acquiring things we think are cool, but aren’t really that useful or necessary. Because we’re tired of telling friends and family we’ll see if we can make it out on a trip because we don’t know if we’ll have the money for it at that time. Ultimately, we want to be unburdened by the magnitude of our stuff so that we can say “yes” to savings, to travel, to making memories with family and friends worldwide, to doing the creative things we enjoy, to helping others. And personally, I want to find ways to recapture a taste of the life I lived in Mexico – the one where we had what we needed, where we were surrounded by things that we valued the most, where we lived simply and we made a difference.