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How Traveling Changed My View of Possessions

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Then

Then

Despite 5 years of traveling around the world I think I am still fundamentally the same person I was before I started traveling. I’m kind of a smart ass and a bit cantankerous. There hasn’t been any sort of spiritual epiphany which has lead to a brand new Gary.

That being said, my attitude towards some things have changed. In particular, my attitude towards stuff.

Before I started traveling, you could say I lived a good life. I had a nice house on a lake outside of Minneapolis. It was 3,000 ft² (278 m²) and had all the stuff that a 20-30 something bachelor would want: I had a bitchin 106″ giant projection screen TV and a 175 gallon fish tank. I purchased the house with the idea in the back of my mind that I’d probably be getting married in a few years. That, however, never happened.

Despite the fact that I lived there for 8 years, I never furnished most of my house. Other than my movie room and my office, the walls were bare over most of my home. Yet, when I sold my house and packed everything up to start traveling, I found myself filling an entire large truck full of…..stuff. Ladders, hoses, dishes, towels, end tables, couches and lots and lots of books.

Now

Now

5 years later I find myself wonder how and more importantly, why, I had so much stuff. The amazing thing is that despite all the stuff I had, I still probably had less than most people who had smaller homes.

Having now lived more than half a decade out of a bag, it has given me a different perspective on how and why we acquire what we do and what we really need to get by.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned:

Stuff Begets Stuff

The more stuff you have, the more stuff you need. If you have a bath tub you need a bath mat. If you have a stove you need pots and pans. If you have a bed you need sheets and a pillow and even the pillow then requires a pillow case. As you collect stuff you then need shelves, closets and cases to put all the stuff in.

There are now entire stores dedicated to helping us organize all our stuff, which in turn requires more stuff to hold and store all our storage solutions.

If you have a closet for your clothes, there is a good chance that you will eventually fill it. It is sort of like a wardrobe version of Parkinson’s Law.

I now realize that I don’t need a bath mat. My bathtub needs a bath mat. I don’t need a dust cover for a toaster, my toaster needs that. We confuse what our stuff needs and what we need. I just want to take a shower and eat toast. Everything else beyond that is superfluous.

Technology Shrinks My Pile of Stuff

If you spent any part of your adolescence or early adulthood in the last 40 years, there is a good chance you have accumulated hundreds is not thousands of records, CD’s, DVD’s and books. By both volume and weight, the majority of the stuff I had accumulated was media.

All of those boxes disks and paper have now been condensed to bits which reside on my laptop, iPhone and Kindle. Even during the first few years of my trip, I was buying and lugging around heavy, expensive books. Today I just download them to my Kindle where I have access to them forever.

Not only has physical media disappeared, but the stuff we used to play it has gotten significantly smaller. I don’t need a TV or stereo because I can do everything on my laptop and iPad.

Even all the electronic gadgets I had at the start of my trip have collapsed into just a few devices. My iPhone alone has replaced my wifi finder (yes, I had one), point and shoot camera, GPS, digital audio recorder, and video camera.

I assume that there is a generation of children growing up now who will never have to experience lugging boxes of books from apartment to apartment when they move.

Emphasis on Quality

When you don’t have a lot of stuff, you tend to pay closer attention to what you have. Because I don’t have much, I make sure what little I do have is of higher quality. This extends from the electronics I carry to my clothing to the bags I carry everything in .

Even though I have fewer items, the cost per item I own has almost certainly gone up. You can’t afford to have stuff falling apart when you don’t have much stuff to begin with. The tools I use (camera and laptop) have to be of high quality for me to do what I do.

I also spend much more time researching purchases before I make them. I spent a full two weeks trying to figure out what watch to buy when I was in Hong Kong earlier this year. The concept of an impulse purchase is now alien to me. Because I have to carry anything I purchase with me all the time, I’m reluctant to acquire new stuff.

Minimalism

Since I’ve started traveling back in 2007, the term “minimalism” has become a trendy way to describe a lifestyle. Even though I could very well be the poster child for minimalism, I’m reluctant to embrace the term. While I don’t have a lot of stuff, I don’t necessarily want to be in the business of encouraging others to do it, nor do I extend the concept to other parts of my life. I don’t necessairly disagree with what minimalists are trying to do, I just don’t like being part of a movement.

I am a minimalist only in my taste in music, of which I am very passionate.

The Future

While I plan on traveling until I am physically unable to do so, there might come a time where I get a place where I can stay in between trips. No matter what happens, however, I can never see going back to owning such a large house again. 3,000 sq/ft is far too much for any one person and I could live comfortably in less than 1/3 that space. In fact, I’ve been in prison size hotel rooms the last few years and didn’t have a problem with it.

I have no desire to own a house anymore and I don’t want a yard to take care of because that will only require the purchase of crap to take care of the yard.

There a cost to owning things beyond the monetary cost of acquiring it. Living with only 2 bags of stuff has been extremely liberating.

No matter what the future holds, the last 5 years of travel have taught me to not only to get by on less, but to relish it.

  • 52 Comments... What's your take?

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Comments

  1. Clelia says:

    Living out of a backpack It’s so liberating! When I sold all my things to travel, I couldn’t believe on how much crap I had accumulated over the years.

    Now I buy quality stuff, just as you do, and I’ve changed a lot in regards on how I treat my possession. When I had an over payed job working for someone else, I didn’t care much. Now I take good care of everything I have, because I know the hard work behind the money I earned to be able to buy these things.

  2. Rafika says:

    I loved this blog, Gary. Due to my work, I move every two to three years. This has given me a type of discipline necessary to for a mobile lifestyle. Upon packing out, I feel liberated. Then, when my stuff arrives, I feel “at home” wherever I am. During the interim, I decide if I need something before adding it to my possessions, because eventually I’ll have to cull or pack it when I leave. I’ve noticed that what I tend to keep are things that remind me of my family, like digital frames on which we store photos of family members. It’s a good way to observe what we value (treasure).

  3. Carina says:

    Hi Gary, I totally understand you. I already knew that I could live with less stuff, but I didn’t realise it before I started travelling. When I packed my suitcaseS (20kg+10kg hand luggage) for my South East Asia tour, I thought I didn’t pack much… However, every time when I had to stuff my suitcases again before flying to the next destination, I always wished I didn’t bring so much with me. So, a few weeks later, I started to give clothes, hair dryer and everything unnecessary away to feel FREE!

  4. Milly Day says:

    I really love this post and feel the same about ‘stuff’, as I’ve been living out of a backpack of clothes I brought for a three month trip for over a year now. I forget what clothes/jewellery/gadgets/trinkets I have at home now…I plan to find the nearest car boot sale when I eventually get home, take virtually all my possessions along and hopefully make enough money selling them to get straight back on a plane!

  5. RobG says:

    I’m a little late to the party on finding this, but I totally agree with it. I’ve been fulltiming in an RV since early 2008. Since then, I’ve been pairing down my “crap” more and more. As I type this, I’m on the verge of heading south towards SoCal/NV/AZ/UT and have a storage unit of crap that I’m going through, organizing, tossing a lot of stuff, and selling everything I can. What doesn’t get tossed will go into a small enclosed snowmobile trailer that I have future plans for (or it’d get sold too). So that way it’s just one thing to worry about storing. Everything else I own will be in the RV.

  6. Sebastian says:

    I can really identify with what you are saying. Three years ago I only studied economics because I wanted to have a lot of material possessions. A house, a car, a big TV.

    I changed my view on things and now I live a more minimalist lifestyle. I don’t have a car because I don’t need it. I don’t have a TV because I realized that watching TV is a waste of time.

    The factor that had the most impact on this change was travelling.

  7. apol says:

    Well said. I must keep in mind from now on that buying stuff begets more stuff and that I must be conscious about whether I need something or only my stuff needs it.

    thanks for this!

  8. Sab says:

    That’s one of the most inspiring posts I’ve ever read! Will totally share that! Thanks Gary!

  9. Mig says:

    Living with less feels free for sure! It’s less stuff to think about. Good point about the yard because the bigger it is, the more costs it takes to maintain it.

  10. It’s amazing how the need for a home and stuff looses its lustre – I certainly know that now. The Gypsy has emerged from the from what my possessions need. The continually need of more has become such a bore. Although I’m lucky in my location ’tis a nice spot. Enjoyed your blog :)

    Sweetie
    Merimbula, Australia

  11. OCDemon says:

    I feel exactly the same way. I’d love a comfy, cozy, but basic home base, and that’s it. No yard to take care of, and only enough possessions for efficiently living. I hate the idea of having stuff just sit there, which is why eBay is one of my best friends.

  12. After 25 years of adult life, gathering stuff and owning homes, my husband and I rented out our house, got rid of all our stuff and ran away in an RV to a life of full-time travel. That was 6 years ago.

    It was extremely liberating after so many years of conventional living to free ourselves of our stuff and hit the road.

    As people get older, their stuff ties them down. We have friends who say, “I’d love to do what you’re doing, but I can’t give up my stuff.”

    How sad, because you can’t take it with you in the end…

  13. Jonny Blair says:

    Decent post. I always have a “base” on my travels which I use to store my stuff. Yes, I live out of a backpack but my possession take up considerably more room. I’ve now managed to somehow develop bases in 4 continents. A useful alternative to simply refusing to collect stuff!

  14. Nice post. Traveling has also helped me realize how little I actually need. Our culture places strange values on belongings making them incredibly difficult to let go of for a lot of people. You’re so right, releasing yourself from possessions is a truly freeing experience. I wrote a blog post about it here: http://thisamericangirl.com/2012/12/09/do-you-have-it-all/

  15. Kevin Wells says:

    Enjoyed the article Gary, I can really relate to what you’ve said here!

    I chose to “go minimal” about a year ago, cutting down my stuff to a base level for living in my apartment. This was significant for me because I was for years an obsessive “pack rat”.

    Then I decided to go one further than that and go “total minimal” to allow me to go off travelling without having to maintain a base and possessions back home. So I now have just the two bags like you Gary.

    I liked the description: “a kind of wardrobe version of Parkinson’s Law”. That’s exactly what it is, the more living space and storage you have, the more you fill it up.

    The way I like to put it is “people become owned by their stuff”. When it gets to that stage and not vice-versa, you know it’s time to do a cull – whether you’re going travelling or else staying in one place all the time!

  16. There was a period in my life where I took a break in traveling. A break of about four years. During that time I accumlated so many possessions; so much so that I was becoming “possessed” by them. When I decided to uproot I started to get rid of these items. As I got rid of each one I felt my freedom increase – it was soo liberating. Since then, I have lived extremely minimally. As a result I can lead a more mobile lifestyle.

  17. Winnie Xiong says:

    Nice post, Gary. I totally agree with what you wrote in this blog. “Stuff Begets Stuff”, I moved in an empty house five years ago carrying only three large luggage. As you said, “The more stuff you have, the more stuff you need.” Now, my bedroom is stuffed with three cabinets, a wooden desk, tons of clothes and two large cases of sundries under a queen size bed, and so on. I tried to clean my place, but every time when I decided to dump my needless things, I would like to give myself an excuse to keep those things longer. You owned a grand house before, what made you be willing to separate with your gorgeous house and good life then just live more than half a decade out of a bag?

    Sometime we do confuse “what our stuff needs and what we need.” Some people work very hard day and night in order to pay house loan, afford a luxurious car, or some costly stuff. It always brings a question to me: What do we live for, materials or our life? I think we should be the owner of stuff, but not the slave of stuff. Therefore, many backpackers like you give up tumultuous city life and look for variety and colorful life they expect.

    I have no courage to travel for half a decade so far, but I am willing to travel around the country in several weeks and experience the culture.

  18. Sonja says:

    This post reminds me of the movie Up in the Air. The protagonists mantra is if it doesn’t fit in a backpack you don’t need it. He was of course also taking into consideration emotional baggage. . . That all being said. I could not agree with you more on this! One of the best lessons I learned from my travels is “letting go”. If it isn’t essential pass it on. There is a meme going around now that states “travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer”. What else do you need?

  19. Jeff Homes says:

    Great Post. I’m currently in the process of downsizing. The house is up for sale and I hope to hit the road in the next few months. Your comments on books certainly struck a chord with me. I’m currently in the process of selling over 1500 books.

    I’m amazed that you had a house with so many empty rooms. My experience has been that stuff tends to accumulate to fill the space available. 12 years ago we moved to a small farm. Not only is every room in the house full of clutter, but we have managed to fill multiple outbuildings with tractors, tools, old furniture, cars, and flea market bargains, etc.

  20. Ed Helvey says:

    You may not be the poster boy, but you surely represent the trend of a lot of us, Gary. I did my downsize 3 1/2 years ago. Still have TOO MUCH STUFF and continually getting rid of more – but the greatest freedom came from going “houseless” – what a burden to shed. Always had way more space then I needed and all the stuff “it” needed to support it. I’ve never looked back, don’t miss a thing and can live in almost any amount of SMALL space – including my 17 foot van. Living Free and Happy. Keep on keepin’ on!

  21. Colleen says:

    The key phrase to describe minimalism is ‘very liberating.’ In 2008 I sold my house and all my possessions to travel the world. I don’t miss any of my former stuff nor having a fixed address. I will never return to home ownership. It’s too confining and too time consuming.

  22. Jamie W says:

    I love this post. Although most of us are guilty of buying “crap” this post really helps open your eyes. It’s like the phrase, More money more problems.

  23. Your post reminds me of a quote I overheard. “The only reason to buy something is to have the right to sell it someday.”

  24. Lauren says:

    Woops! I didn’t see that new comments appeared at the top. Feel free to delete this guy as it’s basically a repeat of my original comment, which I thought was sucked into an internet black hole.

  25. Lauren says:

    I really like the point you make on our stuff needing stuff. I never thought about that before, and as ridiculous as it is, it’s also true. I admire your ability to get rid of things.

    I think I’m one mental breakdown away from becoming a hoarder. It’s not that I use a lot of things in my lifestyle, but I give sentimental value to items, which makes it harder to just get rid of them.

  26. Kevin says:

    Thanks for the post Gary. I felt the same way after traveling for just 2.5 months. I moved out of my place, sold my car and hit the road for SE Asia, and came back wanting far less stuff. I know what you mean about the word “minimalism”. It sounds kind of like a hippie movement. How about “optimalism”?

  27. Andrew Gagne says:

    Great post. I recently committed career suicide, and transitioned to my dream job: a) I work 6 weeks on, 6 off; b) when I work, I live in company-provided accommodations and receive a per diem; and c) my employer pays for my travel, to and from wherever I want to go during my time off.

    Problem: I still have all the stuff, the house, the mortgage, etc.

  28. Great article…my family is also trying to downsize. I’m finding that I hold a lot of emotional value to certain items – especially things that I associate with my husband and kids. But I find that as soon as I just make the decision and get rid of the items, I no longer even think about them. We have a house full of stuff and I look forward to the day when we can break free. It will be so liberating.

  29. I really liked this post. As I am planning my next escape, I frequently look around my flat and think.. I have too much ‘stuff’. And that is exactly what it is. Things that I have accumulated that in all honesty, I haven’t touched in a long time and realistically will not miss. Time for a change methinks.

  30. I completely agree. I have never been one to buy tons of stuff or hoard everything, however, I was still amazed how much I had when it came time to get rid of it all.

    As you say, it is definitely liberating to get down to just the basics you need (or really, really want).

  31. Surminga says:

    Can relate to this not in a travelling sense but in a University student. If I had several books and several loads of rubbish to cart back and forward from home University every summer it would be an impossible task. After the first year I learnt that I didn’t need everything I had and changed my mindset in the future in terms of purchases such as DVD’s and books as it is all digital nowadays

  32. Rick says:

    Love the post but I do have one question Gary. Since you are often staying in hotel rooms that have a lot of the stuff you used to have, isn’t that cheating just a bit?

    You don’t own it, but you are using a lot of the same type of stuff. Same thing goes for the restaurants and recreational activities.

    I don’t have any larger point here it was just a thought that popped into my head.

    • Gary says:

      I’m not trying to live like a caveman. The fact that I can go to restaurants and hotels is why I can get the benefit of something without having to own it.

  33. Thanks for the post, Gary. I enjoyed reading it. I especially liked the part on quality.

    I’ve started traveling with no plan of finishing it since February this year, and everything I own can be put in my backpack (about 35l) and in a messenger bag.

    I’ve been vagabonding as a martial artist, so my martial arts uniform takes up some space in my backpack. Also, a hoodie and a pair of jeans find their home in that backpack… but the thing is, I don’t use them often, as I’ve been in Australia and in South East Asia for the last 5 months. I’m contemplating the possibility of traveling only with a messenger bag.

    In any case, it’s amazing how much we need… or don’t need to live a happy life.

  34. allison says:

    I admire the hell outta your two bags! I am prepping to travel long-term in 2013, and it’s SO refreshing to get rid of all my crap. I DO have trouble getting rid of albums and books, though. Working on that.

    “I just want to take a shower and eat toast.” That statement makes me SO happy. I’m seriously adopting that as my new mantra. Credit to you, of course.

  35. Gaelyn says:

    I found living in a RV for the last 20 years really helped me cut down on stuff. Everything that comes in has to have multiple uses.

  36. mike crosby says:

    The way you feel about minimalism is the way I feel about veganism. It works for me, but if it doesn’t work for you, not a problem.

  37. Jason Nugent says:

    I can back up Gary’s statement when he says that his house was mostly unfurnished. I applaud his effort, although I do wish he had owned a dining room table. Maybe then I would have hit my head on his light fixture a whole lot less often.

  38. E says:

    Soooo What watch did you settle on?

  39. I always enjoy reading your thoughts and travel adventures.Someday i hope to do a bit of traveling myself. You only live once!

  40. Ken says:

    I read this and had to “Share” it on Facebook. Here are the comments I attached:

    “This really resonated with me. As I helped my elderly parents move from one apartment to a somewhat smaller apartment, we had to confront how much stuff they had! In fact, it seems like they crammed most of what they had in their three bedroom home into the first apartment. I am now trying to figure out how to divest myself of unnecessary stuff.”

    Bottom line, I have too much stuff, I know I have too much stuff, and I have to work with my wife to rid of the stuff.

  41. Great post! I really relate to your comment about minimalism. I too probably fit into the minimalist category (house sitting for the past year & only traveling with a few small suitcases). And I may even fit it with my approach to small business (I don’t believe we need all the latest and greatest gadgets to get our work out to our ideal clients – In fact, I think it’s sometimes a method of procrastination). But, I’m still not identifying with the movement itself. I think it’s fine for other people to have “stuff”. It’s just not what I personally identify with as ‘the good life’, for me.
    ~ Loralee

  42. I have been wondering lately why I have all the stuff that I have. I spent a lot of time and money acquiring it and now I just want to get rid of it. Most of it never gets used and takes up space.

    • Gary says:

      Pick a length of time (say 6 months). If you haven’t used it or touch it during that time, you can probably get rid of it.

      • fey tula says:

        I grew up with parents who taught me “things you don’t need are things you don’t own”…I live by it!

  43. I too went through a huge transition over the last few years. I have voluntarily gone from having cars, motorized “big boy toys”, and a house in a gated community to now being able to move everything a luggage on an airplane. I neither am a poster child for minimalism but wholeheartedly embrace it.

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About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
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