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Living Light (Or How I Learned to Love Not Having Stuff)

Why I have a minimalist approach to keeping and acquiring stuff.

Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Everything I own fits into one carry-on, one piece of checked luggage and about 8 USPS flat-rate boxes. I spent my 34th birthday going through a 10x10 storage unit, donating most of what I had away. Now, almost a year later, I am trying to whittle my possessions down to a back pack, carry-on, and that same piece of checked luggage. I just feel like I have too much stuff, you know?

If you think I am crazy, it's okay. I get it. I know there are a lot of people who couldn't get their shoes down to one checked bag, and that is fine; I am not judging them, or you. It is just that over the course of my 35 years, I have become very tired of worrying about my stuff.

The mental burden of stuff

So a little background; when I was 13 my family was evicted from our apartment. We packed up everything that was important to us and put it into a storage unit, just carrying the necessities with us as we moved from family member to hotel to family member to hotel. It was a very hard period in our lives.When I look back over those (too) many years, I think about the insane amount of energy and money we spent thinking about our stuff.

How are we going to pay for the storage unit this month? What will happen if we can't pay it? Should we sell some of the stuff to pay for keeping the other stuff?  How will we pay back the family member who helped keep our stuff? Am I going to lose my stuff? What will we do without our stuff?

It was exhausting. When we finally got another apartment, most of our stuff was gone--either sold or lost to storage bidding wars when we could no longer keep up the payments (don't get me started on those storage wars shows--its despicable). So much time and energy wasted. Yet it was still hard to fight the urge to collect stuff, because you never knew when you might need it. I had developed a need to always be prepared; as if I could stop us from ever being in that position again by simply having the right tool, or an extra pot.

After moving out on my own I quickly built up my own supply of stuff: furniture, household appliances, books, games, utensils, cookware, more books, bedding, clothes, sentimental keepsakes, shoes, chotchkies, and even more books. I started to notice that all of these things were Very Necessary and Important, up until the time that I had to move. The moment I gave my landlord notice I was giving away, donating or tossing at least a third of my stuff.

I have no doubt that some of my ability to let go of those items came from making peace with my past. I stopped fearing homelessness. It wasn't that I thought it couldn't happen again, but that I knew I would survive it if it did-- and that t.v., extra pan, and tub of toys-I-won-from-claw-machines wouldn't help me. By the time my husband and I moved to Chicago we fit could fit most of what we had in the back of my GMC Jimmy.

When we left Chicago for Puerto Rico six years later, well, we had more stuff. After weighing our options we decided to pack up our stuff and put it in storage (yeah, I know--see above), while we gave PR a try. Our apartment in San Juan was furnished, so we each brought clothes, a few books and a couple cannot live without appliances (my electric kettle and rice cooker) and that was that. Puerto Rico didn't work out for us (long story for another post on another day) and we headed back to Chicago a little under a year later.

It had already been decided that we were going to be moving to Hawaii, and there was no way we were going to be shipping all of our stuff. On top of that, the move was going to be temporary, in fact, it is possible most of our moves in the next ten years or so will be temporary. Both of us appreciate that job markets are fickle and don't want to be locked into a certain geographic location. The decision was made--the stuff had to go.

The Purge

So I spent my 34th birthday in my last ever storage unit, sorting everything I owned into piles. Give to _____. Donate. Keep. I won't say it wasn't painful or that I didn't make a couple decisions I regret. BUT damn, did I feel a thousand pounds lighter when we dropped off the last batch of items at Goodwill.

Don't get me wrong I still have some stuff, like books I couldn't part with, a special toy from my childhood, pictures, and some of my dad's clothes. I even have some suits I haven't worn in 5 years--just in case, graded papers from grad school, and empty notebooks leftover from my office supply hoarding days.

What is important is that I buy and keep are things that enrich my life; items that comfort me, remind me of loved ones, or that actually make my life better and/or easier. These are things that I honestly seek out on a regular basis and miss when they are not around. They recharge me, not drain me. When I miss my dad I pull out his shirts, the ones that still smell like him, and remember what his hugs felt like (amazing and safe). When I need to laugh I pull out my battered copy of Good Omens and escape into Pratchett and Gaiman's clever words. And when my husband and I start a family I will be able to pull out my three favorite childhood books (all out of print) and share them with my children. I also (maybe unreasonably) put my rice cooker and electric kettle into this category because of, well, reasons.

Things that fall into the dump or pass pile? Everything else. Old textbooks I do not use at all, not even a little bit, but spent $120 on them & I refused to sell them back for $5. Clothes that never fit or will never fit again (feels). Impulse buys. Emotional purchases. Books I can get on an e-reader. Old cell phones. The collection of Urban Decay products I NEVER USE, because I sweat off makeup here in Hawaii faster than I can apply it. Essentially anything you forget about, cannot remember why you have, or has no real emotional or practical value for you.

It is easy to fall into the but-I-paid-x-amount-of-dollars-for-that trap. I get it, no one likes to think they are losing money--but I would recommend you look at it in three ways. First, you paid for the experience of having it, rather than the actual item. Hopefully it served you well and you got your used out of it. Now it's time to let it go. Second, things are only worth (monetarily) what someone is willing to pay for it. If you wouldn't buy it now--then it has no worth to you. Third, sometimes we make a purchase we regret or don't use as much as we thought we would. If you cannot return or sell it, then it is a sunk cost. Why add the emotional and mental burden of continuing to think about it, feel bad about it, or even just have it taking up space in your life. Let it go. You'll be happier for it.

Why get rid of stuff?

There are major advantages to purging. First, we no longer need a lot of space. We can rent smaller (read: cheaper) apartments. When and if we ever settle somewhere, we can totally go the tiny house route. Second, it is very easy to organize and find things. I haven't had do the "mad dash to find that one thing" since we unpacked--although I do sometimes look for things I forgot I got rid of (whoops). Third, it is easier to save. Since we got rid of most of our Stuff, we do not really want to accumulate more, so we do not buy as much. Finally, it has allowed us to really prioritize our needs and wants. Organic food can be expensive, but amazingly, when you are not buying random shirts or office supplies (I have an office supply problem--I know), you have the extra cash to spend on the organic grapes. Or have that really nice dinner. Or travel.

So, yes. I have learned to love not having too much stuff. It has simplified my life and, I believe, will give me a better future. I hope to pass this minimalist approach to stuff onto my children. I want to model that experiences make you who you are, not things. And pass on that stuff can have a bigger cost than just what you pay for it.

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