How Traveling Changed My View of Possessions

Posted: July 15, 2012    Categories: Travel



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.

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.


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.

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