Even in a country where the vast majority of homes/families now have at least one computer, television, cell phone, a dishwasher, a stove, a fridge, a washing machine, a dryer, and numerous other items people even some decades ago would have thought was a huge luxury, we still hear people saying “I/we need ___.” I catch myself saying it too, and when I do, I think “Really? There is no way you need that.” It used to be that I really did think I needed __ when I said I did. The reality, though, is that all we truly need can be fit into a backpack.
The first time I set out to backpack with my husband with our brand new packs from our wedding registry, the first many steps away from the car were difficult. I felt I was leaving everything stable behind me. As I walked away from “safety,” I thought about everything I was leaving behind- no air conditioning, no heater, no refrigerator, no stores, no water from a spout, no toilets, no Internet, no locking doors, etc. But after the first night of sleeping under the stars in complete remoteness (or as remote as I had been) and stillness and being snuggled in a sleeping bag, listening to the rise and fall of my husband’s breath next to me, I realized there were a lot of things I was more than happy to give up for this. Moreover, none of those things I was leaving behind were really “needs” to begin with. While backpacking, there are no jobs, no concerns beyond surviving, no limitations in where you can set up shelter or make food. That is freeing.
At that point, I started to reconsider what my needs really were. If I could pack everything I needed to survive for X many days in a pack on my back, then were these other possessions in my life really something I “needed” at all, or were they just objects weighing me down? Everything in my life was up for re-evaluation. And what I found was that most of my possessions (and actions) were the latter. Furthermore, most of my possessions were not even useful to me! So I began the process of shedding the excess….and most of it was excess!
- Shedding the excess
I’ve always been the kind of person who holds onto mementos, sentimental items, and even papers thinking I “might need this someday.” Sound like a familiar thought? As I went through each item that used to be so significant to me, I found the significance had weakened dramatically. I couldn’t even remember the sentimentality of some of the items at all. Heck, I couldn’t even remember most of the people who had signed my sentimental shirts from plays I had been involved in. For the items I did remember the significance of but the item was not useful, I took a picture and put it in the “donate” or “sell” pile depending on how much its actual monetary value was. I had also kept old class notes and tests and other assignments. Now that I’m at the end of my career path (read: as far as I’m going to get in my studies), I realized not only did I not need to keep these because I hadn’t referenced a single paper once in all these years, but they had been taking up space for that many years as well and had been carried along to every apartment too! It felt like such a waste.
For items like pictures, I made scrapbooks, and for the numerous letters and cards I had received since birth, I scanned them into a “memories” folder in my computer organized by event (i.e. birthdays, graduation, etc). Don’t get me wrong, it took a long time. But memories mean a lot to me, and I know that having words from people I love will be especially meaningful when they are gone. I also know that the amount of physical space this stuff was taking up was not acceptable to me.
What else did I scrap/donate/sell? Well, for one, I found that so much of my technology had been replaced by new technology or was just not being used. A lot of the old redundant technology was something other people still wanted and would be willing to pay good money for, so I sold a lot of it on craigslist. I kept only a printer, one laptop, and a monitor for when I wanted two screens. We got rid of or sold every TV we owned because instead we use our laptop connected to an LCD projector for entertainment desires. We now use free Hulu accounts for TV and scrapped the cable subscription. In addition to saving money, we found that without the urge to have the TV on and watch something (even something totally uninteresting), we watch a LOT less of it (read: 1-2 hours a week. seriously). We’re considering getting rid of the projector too.
I ditched the vast majority of my books and continue to read and then donate books as I go through the ones I’m still interested in reading. I buy digital copies of books now or go to the library. I kept about 50 books that are either informational hiking/backpacking/climbing guides or are books I have read multiple times and will read again. All of these fit in one small bookshelf with my husbands books he loves as well. I trashed the PC game CD’s that are totally outdated and unusable at this point and saved some of these as ISO files on my harddrive if they were still useable. I also donated all the DVD’s I own and copied some to an external harddrive if I liked them enough as well as the VHS tapes because, really, who has a VCR anymore anyway?
My husband and I had collected a number of pictures of us that we had blown up to put on our walls, but found that over the years, we would put up less and less of those as we moved. They looked cheap or the picture was very old or because it seemed too weird to just have pictures of us up in the house. Tastes change; it makes sense. But why keep things that don’t fit us anymore (in the physical or emotional sense)? If you haven’t used it/put it up/looked at it over the last year or even better if it still in the box from your last move, you cannot argue you need this thing. The only exception might be medical items, but even medical items have expiration dates and those need to be bought again at some point as well.
Clothes. I’ve found most of us have a small amount of clothes we actually wear compared to the vast clothes collection we have sitting in our closet. Our clothes stop fitting, they stop fitting our mood, they make us uncomfortable, they don’t look like they did in the store mirror, or we never really liked them to begin with- whatever the reason, we all have clothes that are not being worn and when we’re serious with ourselves will never be again. There are other people in the world who would be most appreciative to have your clothes, to have any clothes. Give them away to people who could use them.
Do you have a relative who likes to buy you little useless trinkets for decoration? I did too. And I kept holding onto them and justified keeping them by saying “Well, they’re from this person and it would hurt them to not see this out at my place.” or “Oh, they are good decoration.” But what I realized is that 1) If you keep something out that you don’t have a use for or like, then that person will think you want more of it. That defeats the whole purpose, doesn’t it? They are spending money on something they think you will like, but you don’t and you are keeping it because you feel obligated. Is that really a gift or a weight? 2) Honestly, do these trinkets make your house look more homey, or it does it make your house look cluttered and messy? When I looked at my collection of trinkets, I determined the latter. I took a picture of all the trinkets together and sold or donated them. And this person stopped buying me trinkets! *If you think your trinkets/collectibles make your house look better, then make sure to organize them in a fashion that people will notice them as though they are actually furnishing your house. You are proud of them- let others see that.
Which brings me to my next point. I told this person and everyone in my life who might buy me a gift to stop buying me gifts. I appreciated the sentiment, but the reality is that the vast majority of the time, people’s gifts just sit in your place wasting space and not being used. Most people think they know people better than they think they do. I can count the gifts on one hand that both meant a lot to me and were used in my life regularly. I tell people that their sentiments mean more to me- write me a letter. Donate money to a good cause. If you feel so inclined, give me a check to use on things I have found the need for. But no. more. stuff. please. and thank you.
- Maintaining the Simplicity
This leads me to the most important step in all of this. I decided to STOP BUYING THINGS unless I deemed it TOTALLY NECESSARY or if buying X would allow me to get rid of more than a couple of other things because it had multiple purposes (like a Vitamix- I’ll write about that later). At this point, I think the only things I would deem totally necessary are basics like toothbrush, toothpaste, toilet paper, food, etc and also recreational items I will use in climbing/hiking/backpacking that will allow me to do the things I want to do safely. Even then, though, there is a long process of considering whether it really is something I need to climb/hike/backpack and also to finding the best value and most efficient product for me specifically. If it is going to be a redundant purchase (ex: I already have a harness, but I want a better one), I either need to get rid of the first item or find a purpose for keeping it (ex: having an extra harness is good for bringing new people to climb without them having to rent gear).
What did we keep besides a small amount of clothes, books, technology and basics (toilet paper, etc)? Day-to-day items like kitchen supplies (the least we needed to cook with), dog supplies, organization tools for those things we kept so everything is as tidy as possible, and fridge/stove/washer/dryer, bed, couch. Oh yeah, and recreational gear (I think this probably comprises the majority of our stuff at this point). And this feels like a luxury- I am willing to up and leave most of that behind to live in a trailer traveling the rest of my life if that becomes a possibility.
We definitely don’t live as minimal as some, but compared to most Americans, we live with a small amount of items and the vast majority of those items are used on a daily basis. The other aspect of wanting/needing less items is that I save 100% of my paycheck and a large portion of my husband’s every month despite the fact that we travel two to three weekends every month to climb with friends or backpack, own a large dog, buy food for the week at Whole Foods, and eat out a couple times a week. When we travel, we either camp at a cheap site or stay at a friend’s (or friend’s relative’s house), we travel in one car with many people sharing gas, we bring our own food or eat out at cheap places, and we do free activities (climbing, backpacking, hiking) unless there is a day pass fee and most of the time there isn’t. Our luxuries involve every so often celebrating at a nicer restaurant than $8 a meal and taking a vacation to a place requiring a plane ticket. Even so, we are traveling to Colorado soon and plan on car camping the majority of that time. Our dog is being taken care of by a friend instead of at a dog daycare. In other words, though my husband and I could easily afford more stuff, more luxuries, we don’t indulge in many. We want to retire early. That is our goal, and because we know that, we work towards it. We know it is worth avoiding immediate gratification for long-term success (however you define that for yourself).
American media and society encourages us to buy, buy, buy and want, want, want. It is the initial excitement about buying that makes us continue to do this. But when you look at the results in your life- the clutter, the disorganization, the money you sacrifice and thus the time you sacrifice at your job for that money and that stuff- are you really excited or happy? By wanting less, by acknowledging you “need” next to nothing and find a balance between wants and needs, you will find your life is simpler and your financial and long-term goals come into focus and come to you easier and more effectively.
- Extending the Concept
The concept of balancing wants and needs can be applied in every avenue of life, not just financially. Here are some examples. My husband replaced gaming with rock climbing. Why? Because he wanted to keep gaming, but he realized it was an unhealthy addiction. He realized his life needed more healthy habits and so he sacrificed immediate desires for long-term health and ultimately happiness. Similarly, if I gave in to my desire to eat Kraft mac and cheese and chai tea for every meal, I would be nutritionally deficient and constantly strung out on caffeine and sugar (not to mention more than a few pounds heavier). I indulge every so often, but generally find healthier alternatives that don’t taste as good to my taste buds, but are what my body needs to stay healthy and happy. Additionally, I found a job that balances my desire for stability and variety. It has pros and cons like any other job and I still sit at a desk all day, but I make a point to walk or climb during my hour lunch break to satisfy my need for activity and movement.
The list could go on and on. Look at your life and find areas where you are allowing excess rule and not balancing wants and needs as you would like to ideally. I promise your life will be simpler and more fulfilling.
Sources for Pictures: