We’re conditioned in our society to acquire stuff. Our culture and economy often seems to revolve around this quest. And no matter how large a space we have, we can easily fill that space with stuff. It seems to be a universal law – the amount of stuff you have expands to fill all available space.
The acquisition of stuff can easily end up consuming our space and our lives, cluttering our homes, our budgets and our minds.
We pay to acquire it, pay to house it, pay to store it when we run out of room, and pay to move it when we seemingly inevitably upgrade to a larger place.
Repeat this cycle a few times, until the day comes when your next of kin get stuck with paying once again to dispose of it all.
For those wanting to travel full time for an extended amount of time, breaking the acquisition cycle is essential. You just simply can’t take it all with you. With valued media collections, cherished family heirlooms and closets full of unending wardrobe choices, letting go can seem like an insurmountable task. We’re just so conditioned to have stuff around us.
One key is realizing that stuff needs us more than we need it.
If you’re determined to embrace a life with the simplicity of less stuff – you can do it. It is never too late to break free from the endless acquisition cycle. The biggest block is typically one of social conditioning and attaching sentimental value to inanimate objects.
Setting your Goal
There are a lot of extreme minimalists out there who blog about the joys of owning extremely few possessions – capping yourself at “100 things” or less, or even traveling with no luggage whatsoever. And often, your “stuff” limit may be constrained by the amount of space that is physically available – such as living in an RV or traveling via a backpack.
Goals are great, and they definitely give one motivation and discipline to keep their amount of stuff in check. And these sorts of goals can be a fun experiment to see if you can do it for a short term. When we moved to the US Virgin Islands for a 5 months, we set a goal of only checking two bags weighing no more than 100 lbs. And we were successful in meeting this goal while still comfortably having everything we’d need to live and set up our household & office. And in our first year of travel together, we compressed both of our lives to live & travel in a 16′ travel trailer with only 45 sq ft of living space. It was an awesome experiment to see just how little we could do without (including plumbing!) while still feeling comfortable and abundant.
But don’t feel you need to set a goal that seems unrealistic for you. Set a goal to live the life you want by consciously choosing how much power stuff has over you. Choose goals that meet your objectives. Some stuff has a very legitimate role in our lives, serving a useful function and adding value. And other things are just anchors holding you back.
The trick if finding what those things are, and jettisoning them.
An Approach to Purging
There’s many aways to approach purging your stuff. And there’s really no right or wrong way – just want works for you.
My trick to approaching purging is to set up a process that avoids overwhelm. Don’t try to think of your entire house as a singular project to get done.
Instead, focus on one area at a time by dividing up the purge process into sessions. Each of these sessions should be manageable within the span of a couple of hours, something that can be tackled with a feeling of fairly immediate accomplishment.
You can tackle a session once a week, or several a day – the pace is up to you and your objectives.
For each session, I followed a framework that looked something like this 7-step process:
1) Pick an Area! Pick just one area – perhaps a closet, a dresser, a drawer, a cabinet, a hutch, a filing cabinet, etc. Set an attainable goal to purge a certain percentage this session, such as trimming away 20% of my socks. Keep in mind that you can return to do more in future sessions – it is better to work in phases than to get paralyzed trying to do too much at once!
2) Divide and Conquer! Divide things into three piles (mental or physical):
a) Stuff you see as essential must-keeps.
b) Stuff you regularly use.
c) Stuff you rarely use, touch or appreciate (this pile should be much bigger than the others – if it’s not, you haven’t made the mental shift yet.)
3) Further Divisions! Put your essential pile to the side for now, focusing on your rarely used and regularly used piles. While keeping them separate, sub-divide things up into logical categories (using clothing as an example: pants, sweaters, ties, t-shirts, long sleeve shirts, etc. or work clothes, lounge clothes, exercise clothes, dress up clothes, etc.)
4) Rotational Purge. Start going through each of your rarely used piles in rotation with a goal to purge a certain number of items from each pile. If you’re unsure if you should purge or keep an item, ask yourself these questions:
- Does this item serve a unique purpose in my life that can’t be met by another item I am keeping?
- Do I find myself not using this item as often as I should because it doesn’t exactly meet my criteria? (continuing the clothing example – I don’t have anything to wear with this color, there’s a stain, the fabric isn’t comfy, the fit isn’t perfect..etc.)
- Does this item bring me joy and delight?
In this process, you may find some things you not only don’t want to purge, but want to move to the must-keep pile.
After you’ve completed going through all your piles once, take a deep breath and congratulate yourself!
5) Switch the focus. Do a few more rounds on the rarely used piles each time increasing the number of items you purge. Then repeat the above steps with less aggressiveness on your regularly used stuff (ie. instead of purging 4 items each round, may be you only purge 2). Or if your goal is bring more variety into your life, such as a wardrobe, perhaps you’re feeling ready to intentionally weed out the “old standbys” you regularly grab for.
6) Combine. Switch back and forth from your regular and rarely used piles until it feels you’ve achieved your initial goal. Combine the piles to get a sense of what you’re actually down to. Purge more as desired.
7) Reassess Essentials. Now turn your attention to the pile of stuff you initially deemed essential. In all likely hood, some of them no longer will seem as essential now that you’re in full on purge mode. Don’t be afraid to purge from this pile now.
Generally at this point, purging has become a virus and you’re on a roll shedding like crazy. Most folks I coach can hardly help themselves doubling their purge goal for the session!
You’ve successfully avoided initial overwhelm by starting with simple easy to reach goals that aren’t as scary as ‘get rid of 99% of everything!’ With each round, the brain adjusts, and it becomes easier and easier to want to get rid of things.
You get good at making quick judgements of ‘will I ever really use this??’ ‘is it worth the space??’ ‘does it serve its function?’ ‘is it bringing joy and delight to my life?’
Set up an area somewhere in your home to stage all the stuff you’re getting rid of… because next, you have to figure out where it goes.
How to get rid of it
Now that you’ve started purging down to stuff you love, how do you get rid of the rest? There are several options, each with varying levels of effort involved. You’ll probably find that a combination of approaches is appropriate.
- Trash It / Burn It – Sometimes, it seems the easier way to make stuff disappear is to simply file it away in a dumpster. And while quickly freeing, it’s also the least responsible way to deal with the hole we dug ourselves into. I strongly urge you to consider other ways, except for the stuff that really is of no value to anyone.
Sell It – With resources such as eBay, Craigslist, Amazon Marketplace, classified ads, etc., getting cash for your stuff is viable and may help fund your upcoming adventure. It takes a bit of effort to make listings and complete transactions however. You’ll have to become a proficient shipper & packer if you’re mailing packages, and you’ll be constantly setting up appointments (that often get broken) for people to come and view your stuff. When dealing with in person transactions, you’ll also quite likely get in the role of becoming a negotiator. When you’re dealing with a household of stuff, it is going to become overwhelming at some point. I made it a game and had a good deal of fun with it. Don’t stress about making top dollar – the key to purging is speed and efficiency. And be ready to give in when the overwhelm approaches. You may even want to consider hiring an estate liquidator who will come in and handle the entire process for you.
- Donate It – Some stuff is just too much effort to sell, and the tax write off and/or goodwill generated is worth more than the potential cash you can get. Donating to a favored charity is an awesome way to go. Just remember to properly document your donations so you can get the proper tax credit if you itemize your returns.
- Freecycle It – Freecycle.org is site dedicated to Freecycling – freely giving things to those who can make better use of it. Each Freecycle group is locally organized, so the results can vary quite a bit. It can also be a bit of a pain, as you’re essentially putting in similar listing efforts as selling the items, and even though no cash is exchanging hands you still having to arrange to complete transactions. Nothing is more frustrating than going out of your way to meet a Freecycle recipient only to have them change their mind at the last minute or not show up, leaving you with both the item and wasted time. But when you do find an appreciative new home for your stuff, it is mentally rewarding!
- House Cooling Party – Some stuff, we just don’t want. But it may not be easy to sell, and may have more sentimental value attached than we want for it to go into the hands of strangers. For these items, I offer up the suggestion of a ‘House Cooling Party’. The object here is social time with your friends before you venture off, but unlike a traditional house warming party, at a house cooling party all the guests are required to choose and take gifts from you household. This is a great way to find an appreciative new home for artwork and other hard-to-sell treasures, and it is especially efficient at clearing away the half-empty bottles from behind the bar! And bonus, when you come back to visit your friends in your travels, you also get to visit your treasured stuff displayed in their homes.
- Digitize Stuff – To reduce the amount of paper you have, consider having documents that are still relevant digitized. You can scan them yourself, or hire a service that does this. Photos, music, movies, etc. can all be converted or purchased as digital media, requiring only a large hard drive to store it. And if you are responsible with backups, digitized data has a much longer life expectancy than treasures stored in a damp and musty garage.
- Indefinite Loans – And for some items that we might eventually want back in our lives at a future date, such as beloved furniture, artwork, etc. – consider loaning it to trusted friends for an indefinite period of time. I was able to help a dear friend furnish her new home with my family’s heirloom teak dining room furniture, and still reserved my rights to take the pieces back should I ever ’settle down’ again or my friend can no longer make use of it. Be willing however to let go of these items if something should happen to them.
- Store It – For everything else that you just can’t part with, such as childhood mementos, family heirlooms and stuff you absolutely want should you settle down again – compact it down as small as possible and store it. We have a few boxes tucked away in a family basement, and we also keep a small storage unit in Sacramento that we have set up as walk-in closet – allowing us easy access to periodically “check out” books, movies, flying equipment and Burning Man gear. But we haven’t managed to stop by in over a year now, and we are looking forward to ditching the storage unit entirely this year.
Whichever ways you decide to go, give yourself ample time to complete the process, but do give yourself a hard deadline – circle a date on the calendar, tell your friends, and hold yourself to it!
It took me in total about 2 months to shed myself of everything in responsible and sane ways. For instance, I made goals for myself such as “Today I will go through all documents from 1995-2000, and reduce my hanging wardrobe by 40%.”
Chris knew that he needed a deadline to motivate him, so when he decided to go nomadic he actually “evicted himself” by giving two-month notice on his apartment, before he even had researched a trailer or a tow vehicle to move into! But having an immovable date on the calendar is exactly what he needed to be forced into action – turning his dreams into reality.
Don’t Pretend it is Easy
It may be physically easy enough to haul a garage full of boxes to Goodwill, or to dump years’ worth of old files into a shredder. But don’t force yourself to pretend that all this letting go is emotionally easy. You’ve held on to your stuff for a reason, and you need to honor your attachments and give yourself the emotional space to let go.
It may seem silly – but you might just literally need to say goodbye. For example, take photos of yourself wearing all your dorky T-shirts one final time. Or make a video of you saying what you liked about each piece of artwork in your home.
For other things, doing some sort of personal ritual might be appropriate. For example, Chris took boxes of files with him to Burning Man his first year on the road, and added them to a burn pile on the final night – releasing years of mental baggage from his past jobs and life.
No matter what it is that is holding you down, there is a way to break free of it. Take the time and find it.
Life with Less Stuff
Even if you’re not embarking on full time travel, shedding yourself of stuff has lots of benefits. You’ll have less cluttered space, which is usually much calmer and recharging. You may even be able to substantially downscale your living space and reduce costs.
And once you break the cycle of needing to acquire for acquisitions sake, you’ll find a lot more room in your budget – as you carefully consider stuff you bring into your life and space.
Once you have the stuff you own concentrated down to stuff you love and value, you’ll find you value and use them even more. On the positive side, this means your favorite sweater becomes one of your only sweaters. On the negative side, your favorite stuff may get more use and degrade faster than before. You may spend more time maintaining the stuff you own because it’s used more, and difficult to replace with something as perfect.
Another thing that having less stuff has introduced me to is thrift shopping for my wardrobe. With a very limited space for clothing, and a strong appreciation for variety in my wardrobe, planning to replace a portion of my wardrobe regularly at a thrift store is both fun and very affordable.
When living in a small space and keeping hyper mobile, generally to buy something new you simply have to toss something old to make room for it.
The shedding never ends however. Even once you get all your stuff down to what you can carry with you – it’s a good idea to re-evaluate what you’re traveling with after you’ve been on the road a few months. It’s really not until you’ve lived a fully mobile life that you comprehend what your style is. You’ll probably find that a decent percentage of the stuff you thought you just had to have with you, never gets touched. It’s time to toss it and lighten the load.
And we’ve also found that we like to change it up frequently, and regularly re-tool our arsenal of stuff to match our current traveling preferences. When we make such transitions, going through everything and re-purging is such a freeing experience and a bit of ritual to mark changes in our traveling life. And, because we keep on top of it – it’s generally not an overwhelming experience.
My story of shedding stuff
My path to shedding my stuff started long before I embarked on full time travel. It was the gift from a friend of the book The Sacred Santa: Religious Dimensions of Consumer Culture by Dell deChant that awakened me to the consumerism cycle that is akin to a cosmological religious practice in our culture. I started to become much more conscious of my spending habits and the stuff I acquired. It had to have a needed purpose, and not just fulfilling what seems like a spiritual and/or emotional need.
And then while living on the east coast of Florida in 2004, I experienced three back-to-back mandatory evacuations of my beachside home due to hurricanes. There’s something about packing up everything you deem essential into your car and leaving your home behind facing impending doom that really forces you to evaluate what stuff really matters. So when Chris proposed that I hit the road full time with him in early 2007, it was an easy transition – as I had already done the mental work.
Inside of a couple months I shed myself of about about 70% of my possessions and left my home behind, putting it on the market to hopefully sell. I purged through old financial records that long ago needed to be tossed, stripped my wardrobe down to fit inside a small box, sold off books/movies/music that I hadn’t touched in years, shed old technology that was obsolete for my life – and hit the road with just what I needed (and a few grand in cash from selling stuff.) It was easy, and even fun, to purge as I utilized eBay, Amazon Marketplace, Craigslist, Freecycle and donating to local charities.
With each item gone, my world seemed a shade brighter and freer. My house did sell a year later, and I shed the remaining stuff in quick order – leaving me with just what I carry with me, and a few boxes that I leave at Chris’ parents basement.
I actually found a lot of joy in the purging process, and for a while – experimented with running a professional consulting and purging service that I called ‘Purge Genie’. I would help people go through their stuff, decide what was worthwhile trying to sell, and then sell it for them. I got really good at managing eBay, Amazon and Craigslist – and became quite an expert packer. Eventually, I got over the charm of it because dealing with other people’s stuff by moving it into my space became a burden to my own happiness. But it was fun way to help people escape their clutter. (Incidentally, I still own the domain name and have all supporting business aspects built – if this sounds like a fun business idea to you, let’s talk! I’m ready to shed my shedding business.)
Sell Your Crap – Adam Baker’s of Man vs. Debt very comprehensive eBook about selling your stuff via eBay, Amazon and Craigslist. He covers everything you need to know about being a successful seller and getting rid of all of your crap. Adam walks you through step-by-step in setting up your accounts, writing listings that sell and pricing your crap. Highly recommended.
Getting Rid of It: The Step-by-step Guide for Eliminating the Clutter in Your Life (Live the Good Life) – Kindle book by fellow nomads Betsy & Warren Talbot that goes step-by-step in more detail than I covered in this chapter about the purging process.
No Excuses: Go Nomadic
This article is part of an ongoing series answering the common excuses folks give us for why they’re not pursing their dreams of full time travel. We launched this series a few years ago as Answers to the Common Excuses – and are in the process of massively updating it. We’ll be releasing newly updated & expanded chapters over the coming months. We’ll be addressing topics like: Affording It, Family, Pets, Logistics, Healthcare, Community, Keeping Connected and more.
Read the whole series: No Excuses: Go Nomadic
eBook version – This blog series is also available as convenient eBook. We offer this compilation on a ‘pay as you wish’ basis, and will be keeping it updated with the blog series. We don’t aim to make a living off our blog, but a little support to keep the blog going is always appreciated (buying the eBook is kinda like taking us out for a beer).
Cost: Pay As You Wish (really… just set the price!)