The Journey from Materialism to Minimalism


The secret of happiness is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.
~ Socrates

We are selling, giving away and throwing away stuff to travel.  It’s tough.  We haven’t lived a life of luxury but we have accumulated a lot of things over the years.  Each of these things was important to us at one time either as something useful or beautiful or thought to be needed in the future and it’s heart-breaking to think about how much money we’ve spent.  We are bombarded daily with advertisements that tell us we need more things that are bigger, better or faster but the real question is what is it that we really need?

Faced with moving out of our home in coming weeks and living out of a backpack, this question takes on a whole new urgency.   We have heard from numerous long term travel bloggers who have praised minimalism as though it were a religion or more aptly, a philosophy.  We get it.  Freeing yourself physically of belongings, frees you spiritually too.  And sure, we felt good after our first yard sale and our many trips to the charity donation boxes and, overall the actual work of sorting and getting rid of stuff hasn’t been that strenuous so far.  However, it is emotionally draining.  It feels like we are saying goodbye to the memories of our lives lived up to this point and grieving the goals, dreams and expectations that we once had for this lifestyle storage shelf by storage shelf, box by box, piece by piece and it feels sad.

This journey from materialism to minimalism started long before the current travel dreams took shape.  And to start at the beginning of the story, we need to explain a bit about how we became as materialistic as we did.  I grew up poor.  My father died when I was very young and my mother did the best she could to keep the bills paid and food on the table for a family of six but we didn’t have much in terms of extras.  My lack of extras was amplified by the fact that I attended a private Christian school (my father’s dying wish) with some of the richest kids in our town who had the best toys, biggest houses and all the junk food they wanted!  One of my childhood friends had a horse farm with a tennis court and a pool, another had a squash court in her basement, another had every Barbie and accessory ever made, a canopy bed and lived in an old Victorian house which I thought looked like a castle and still another had the first satellite TV system and a queen-sized waterbed to herself (yes, I’m dating myself here).  I, on the other hand shared not only a room but also a bed with my sister for a number of years and then, when I had finally gotten my own room, it was short-lived because my brother’s girlfriend moved in.  My clothes, toys and furniture were hand-me-downs and, needless to say, I rarely had any private school friends over….

Al grew up in a more middle-class family but his parents were foster parents so most of their furniture, toys and clothes were expected to be shared with the multitudes of needy children that came to live with them for days to weeks to months to years (they eventually adopted his youngest sister).  As can be imagined, any nice things he had didn’t stay nice for very long in his household and, with many often unexpected mouths to feed, there wasn’t much room in the family budget for extras either.

Al and I met in college in the early ’90s and one of the things we had in common was that we were both poor students, paying our own way through student loans and part-time jobs.  We fell in love and got married during the worst years of the 90’s recession and lived frugally on part-time employment because fulltime jobs were very scarce.  We were happy but always financially stressed.  Then skip ahead 10 years to the early 2000’s, I had just graduated with a Master degree and had my first “real job” in my field and Al had landed a stable job in his field.  We went from years of being poor students and underpaid/underemployed young adults with huge student loans to DINK‘s (Double Income No Kids) living in a suburban town and developing our taste for travel.

All those years of seeing how the other half lived while settling for less were over.  We could now buy what we wanted when we wanted it – and the newest, biggest, brightest model of it!  Couple this with the fact that we were living in the suburbs with nothing to do but go shopping, to the movies or out for dinner.  Our long-suppressed materialistic sides finally got to see the light of day.  And they came to light with a vengeance.  At first, it felt necessary – we needed career clothes and professional things, then it felt fun – we replaced all of our ratty college things with new furniture, the latest gadgets and decorated our home with things we loved.  But eventually, shopping and buying became a way of distracting ourselves from our deep-seated questions (Is this all there is to life?) and our even deeper-seated (and difficult to acknowledge) weariness with this expected life (already!).

As our travel dreams began to awaken, minimalistic ideas also began to take flight in our minds.  We started to read the tales of numerous bloggers selling their crap to afford travel.  When we read Rolf Potts’ book Vagabonding, our perspectives began to shift from the desire to buy things to a desire to seek experiences instead and we moved back to the city in order to have more opportunities for experiences and significantly reduced our shopping (no more $200 Costco trips).  Well, except when I got a more lucrative job, we then had to buy a house, renovate and furnish it and we needed a better car….  ok, steep learning curve here!  As the title suggests, it’s a journey – with lots of pit stops and U-turns.

Now that we have decided to make travelling our life’s work and given ourselves a relatively short deadline to get on the road, we are forced into a crash course in minimalism.  We are going against the grain in society and we feel alone in the process.  I was struck by this on a recent shopping trip with my mother which was planned as some mother-daughter bonding time.  The intent was to buy items I needed for my travels but I was haunted by the above question as I shopped – what do I really need?  In the end, my mother had a very successful shopping day of buying new things for her upcoming road trip and I bought nothing because I second guessed whether it was useful enough, beautiful enough or necessary enough to take up such precious little space in my backpack. Oops, that’s not accurate – I bought one pair of travel underwear.

We are confident that we will experience the freedom that so many minimalist travellers have discovered so we trudge ahead another box at a time and, as we have read from so many other bloggers out there, we know that no one has become a full-fledged minimalist overnight.  It seems that most people reduce their stored possessions over years so we expect that the handful of bins we will be storing with family in Canada will lose their attachment qualities the longer and further we travel and eventually we will be ready to say goodbye to them too.

The next challenge will be curtailing my love of haggling in markets so I don’t end up with armfuls of souvenirs…. 🙂

We would love to hear tips and advice from those who have been through this process.  What has been your greatest challenge in transitioning to a minimalist lifestyle?  If there are things you still can’t part with, what are you doing with them while you travel?  Do they carry negative feelings, like they’re an anchor holding you down or more positive, like they’re roots or connections to the past?  Minimalism isn’t just for travellers – we all find ourselves needing to thin out our belongings and get back to basics at times.  How do you do it?  What have you learned from the process?

As always, thanks for reading, commenting and sharing!


26 thoughts on “The Journey from Materialism to Minimalism

  1. I think about this a lot, partly because it’s part of the teachings at the yoga school I’m currently at – detachment from possessions is a big part of what they think will lead to enlightenment (!) – but also because although I have such a small number of possessions here, it’s amazing how quickly you can buy stuff. Fairy lights for the bungalow, a throw for the bed, some organic toiletries (a yoga mat!) – and suddenly your case/backpack is even fuller. Plus, I have a lot of stuff in the UK still – I hadn’t planned to be away for a long time…and now I’m thinking about it again whether to be away for longer than this year…which would mean more things would need to go into storage, and that would mean a lot more would need to go to recycling!
    I think it’s definitely an iterative process – the longer I have been away from my stuff in the UK (6 months now) the less important it seems – but some of it is for different lives – if I resume my ‘business’ life – then some of it becomes important again….
    So this is a muddled comment cos I feel muddled about it, but I wanted to say, it’s a pretty big one for those of us on the road, it gets easier, and it happens in stages, and you’re definitely not alone! 🙂

    • Thanks for the support Ellen. It’s nice to hear that we’re not alone and it’s comforting to know that it will get easier. It certainly sounds like your travels are having a transformative effect your view of stuff and life. Thanks for sharing your “muddled” thoughts, it’s comforting to know you haven’t got this stuff thing all figured out yet either! 🙂

  2. I’ve done this several times and right now, I don’t own any furniture. However, I bought myself a massive cross trainer, which I do use daily, but I’m already regretting when I think about my next move coming up. I wish I’d gone for something smaller and more manageable, sigh.
    The point is: whenever you buy anything, anything at all, you’ve got to think about how much hassle it’s going to be shifting it.
    I’ve also got way too many books…. despite previously halving the load, they still come to about 20 medium-sized boxes 😦

    • Thanks for your comment, Ladyofthecakes. We can imagine doing something similar in terms of purchasing and then having a certain amount of buyers’ regret. It’ll take some getting used to – always considering how hard it will be to move before making a purchase! We can relate to the books issue too, we tend to collect way too many and I too have trouble parting with them. I’m giving some away and I’m mustering up the courage to go to the used book store and sell them. 😦

  3. Carol, I have no advice for you, for I’ve never been through the journey you’re on now. All I have for you and Al is a little prayer and good wishes 🙂

  4. I can’t help you with the process, but I do understand where you are coming from. I moved a lot in my late teens/twenties then settled in one place for the next 20 years, but like your mother I was a single parent and had no money for excesses. Then 10 yrs. ago I remarried, the kids were gone, I had a good job and I had money to spare – all the tatty second-hand stuff has gradually been replaced and I now have a comfortable home and a nice car. However, I am not a materialistic person and unless something has worn out I don’t replace it just because I can (I’m from Yorkshire and the saying goes that Yorkshire folk have short arms and deep pockets!). My OH on the other hand is a hoarder – we have drawers full of electrical cables and power leads etc. that have never been used in the 10 years, but will he let me throw anything away? Oh no! It’s not even as if he is emotionally attached to the junk!

    So what I want to say is, everyone is different, and you will learn to let go, if that is what you need to do to achieve the things you want. And when you do reunite with any goods you store behind, you’ll probably wonder why on earth you kept them! Some people are happy accumulating things, some people are happy accumulating memories, a lot of us are a mixture of the two. Once you are away, you’ll probably feel a huge weight dissolving.

    Thanks for a great post, I am quite excited for you, and await your first destination with bated breath!
    Jude xx

    • Thanks, Jude, your encouragement is very helpful with the process. And yes, we have had to sort through those drawers of cables and electrical gadgets too — we’re both of Dutch-Canadian descent so we’re always looking for a bargain and hate to waste anything (“don’t throw that out, it might be useful later”, “if it’s free, I’ll take it, maybe I’ll find a use for it”). On the positive side, our Dutch-Canadian friends and family have been happy to buy/take many of our things! This adventure forces us to reconsider our views and values when it comes to our belongings (“belongings” – even the word suggests emotional attachment) and, as uncomfortable as it is now, we expect we will appreciate the change in time. Thanks for reading and following!

  5. My partner and I have just returned from a 22 month trip through Asia and Oceania. We travelled very light with just one small bag each (35L and 40L) and a camera. Although I did a lot of pairing down before the trip we still own many things and were able to leave them with my parents. Now that we’re back though I have to sort through all the things that were left behind and decide what needs to go as we’re preparing for a move across Canada (from Toronto to Vancouver). I understand your difficulty very well. Getting rid of things is extremely emotionally draining. For me these things are a weight around my neck even if they do remind me of nice things in my past because I always find the memories to be bittersweet. While on this trip there were a couple of things we missed; Nat who is a chef missed his cooking knives and I (a musician) missed my sound system and my instruments. There are naturally the things we were most attached to before we left for the trip so it makes sense that they are the things we missed most. Other than that, there was not once when I thought about my candle holders or old diaries or couches or clothes so – the way I see it – if I went two years without a single thought for these things, I really don’t need them at all. It can be very difficult to get rid of things that were bought with the intention of learning or imbued with an expectation (an instrument someone wanted to learn, clothes that were bought for when one would be thinner, etc.) but I have always felt relieved in the past when I’ve donated things like this that make me feel bad every time I look at them. I think in the end what you’re doing is very worthwhile and you won’t regret it! The experiences you will have free from worry about all the baggage you left back home will be absolutely worth it.

    You were mentioning you were second guessing what to put in your backpack. When I was researching this before our trip I found this site very useful It’s an in-depth discussion on what to include in a lightweight travel bag with lots of good information. We used mostly this as a reference and found our bags were very light and brilliantly stocked after (the only thing I would have left behind is the rather-too-large medical kit we brought and all the medication, malaria pills, laxatives, imodium etc etc etc.). Good luck with your journey and I wish you all the best. I am confident you will feel lighter and more free afterward.

    • Thanks for the encouragement Ariane. It’s very helpful to learn how other travellers have struggled through their emotional attachment to things. I suspect that, someday further into our travels, we will also be writing words of encouragement to newbies about the pros of minimalism.
      Your link to packing advice is much appreciated too. It looks like it will be helpful. Regarding medical supplies, we tend to overpack these items too – taking the “boyscout” approach of being prepared for anything – but our trip to Southeast Asia made us keenly aware of how easy it is to locate all the medications we might need (often for cheaper than at home).
      Thanks again for your comments and enjoy your new adventures in Vancouver. Exciting!

  6. Hey mudskippers!! First of all, thanks for stopping by my blog, I sincerely hope it may be somewhat be useful to you in the coming months. I know how daunting this is at first and no matter how much ‘advice’ or encouragement I want to give you, I also know that this is a necessary phase you must go through in order to feel minimalist, rather than just desire to be, if you understand what I mean.
    I’ve been on the road for 10 years, own two pairs of shoes and a pair of (admittedly ready-to-fall-apart) Giselle Bunchen sandals and would not have my life any other way. My biggest regret? Paying thousands of dollars of storage space for 4 years !!! Ah! What a waste of travel money!! A quick home-visit and a garage sale got rid of the last lot of ‘stuff’ and I am much, much happier for it. Happy to hear your family has storage space for your gear, but don’t be surprised if in a year you’ll be hard-pressed to even remember what is in those boxes anyway 😉

    Have fun, enjoy the excitement, butterflies and sleepless nights which you no-doubt are having and please do let me know if there’s anything I can help you with ok?
    Travel safe and travel far
    All the best
    Laura xx

    • Thanks Laura. Writing about the struggle we’ve been having with ridding ourselves of stuff and receiving so many positive comments from people like you who have been through this has been immensely helpful in regaining perspective and feeling less overwhelmed. We recognize that this process is as much part of the journey of change as the travel itself will be and your comments have helped us to accept and maybe even embrace it rather than dreading and wishing it was done (which leads to procrastination in my world). So thanks for the encouragement and the, maybe not intended but much needed, kick in the pants! 🙂
      We will follow along on your adventures and look forward to learning more from your years of experience.

  7. I just went through the process of getting rid of almost all of my stuff including sentimental items. My method was to do it a layer at a time. I started with the things that were easy and that I didn’t even need really. With each layer I had a little time to adjust and feel fine without that stuff and then I could dig deeper. I’m so glad I didn’t do it all at once. I probably would have freaked out. But digging in bit by bit was much easier. The few sentimental items I kept fit in one small suitcase which went to live with my in-laws for as long as I need to. When I did part with things I cared about I reminded myself that they were only things and I can’t love a thing. The things that matter most are people and experiences. Good luck!!

    • Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Justme. We’ve had a few “freak out” moments of simply being overwhelmed by the sheer mountain of things or feeling too attached to sentimental things to let them go. Your layering approach is definitely the way to go. We have found that, when we get overwhelmed, giving ourselves permission to keep things reduces our stress and often leads to being able to toss them the next time we look at them.
      Thanks for following our blog, we will continue to enjoy your writings too.

  8. Enjoyed your honest and thoughtful article and all the commernts that followed. While I’m not preparing for a long-term travel adventure, I’m also reducing possessions – mostly due to impending old age and due to storage restrictions. Years ago, when I was a yogi, I tried to live by the dictum: Do I REALLY NEED this item/object? Usually the answer is ‘No’. But, as you say, the emotional attatchments are harder to drop – easy enough to toss the item into the charity box, but thos feelings? not so easy. Its part of being human.

    • Thanks Alison. It’s been amazing to see the positive responses to this article. Obviously this issue with our emotional attachment to stuff has struck a familiar cord with many people and everyone seems to struggle with it at different levels. I’m finding myself feeling relieved when I can sell/give away my things to someone I know – as if knowing that someone else is enjoying them makes it easier to say goodbye. That sounds rather corny since we’re talking about inanimate objects but I guess it’s the memories and meanings we associate with these things!

  9. A great read, and it was written at the perfect time for us, we are currently in the middle of a similar process. We’re no leaving just yet, just sorting our possessions into ‘things to store’, ‘things to sell/donate’. I think you are right that over time as you carry on with your life the things you have stored away because you have an emotional attachment to them become fewer and fewer, but it needs to be an ongoing process. However long it takes, the less ‘things’ we own the lighter we feel—and that is without even loading anything into a backpack!

    • Thanks for your comments Emma. It’s interesting, writing this post and receiving so many uplifting comments seems to be helping us say goodbye to our things. It’s good to hear from so many people who are experiencing similar reactions. Good luck with your downsizing too!

  10. We did it all about four months ago. We’re in our sixties; we have the time and the wherewithal to travel, so now we’ve sold everything — everything! — and are living out of two bags each. Without rent or a mortgage (or utilities, or TV cable, or insurance, or a car) to pay, it’s amazing how much money we have. We are spending long periods at each location (three months, it seems, is about right) so we can get to know (rather than just see) each place. We stay in apartments (which have kitchens so we can keep the cost of eating under control) and try to get to know as many people as we can in each location. Regrets? Absolutely none. When the estate sale ended, our primary emotion was relief. We wish you as much success as we’ve had.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tom. It’s great to hear that others have done this and not regretted it. Our plan sounds similar to yours in terms of keeping costs down. We’ll follow your adventures and learn from your experiences. Happy travels!

  11. I’m so glad you stopped by and followed our blog because that gave me the opportunity to check out yours. Now I’m thinking, wow, parallel lives!
    My husband and I also followed the American dream with religious fervor: the great career (that sucks you dry), the big homes, the fancy cars and toys, etc. Luckily, we avoided the cycle of drowning debt that totally limits future options… We had a long talk after I had an epiphany in August, 2011 that I no longer cared for all the things that we had worked so hard for and that it was time to drop out of the rat race. I discovered he had been feeling as empty and trapped as I was. We’ve been married 33 years and it took us a year to prepare to follow our dream and become travelers: donating, selling and giving away all our stuff.
    Currently, we have a safety deposit box, a home we’re leasing but will sell within the next year, and a suitcase and backpack each. It’s easy not to get too caught up in the buying frenzy when you think of having to fit what you want in a suitcase and then carry it!
    Some people questioned our sanity but a surprisingly number of our friends expressed a longing to do what we had decided to do. We totally love our new lifestyle (10 months on the road) and have absolutely no regrets about our decision. If you’ve come this far you won’t have any regrets either!
    Best of luck and we’ll be following your blog, Anita @ No Particular Place To Go

    • Thanks Anita & Richard, it ‘s so great to hear from people who having already taken the travel plunge and are loving it. We’ve found the same reactions from most of our friends – wishing they could do it too! Although the transition to this new minimalist lifestyle is a lot of work, we know that we’ll love being on the road together with no deadlines and these last few weeks of sorting and selling will have all been worth it. Thanks for reading and following. We’ll be following your adventures – we love your blog name too!

  12. Pingback: WOW…the VERSATILE BLOGGER AWARD is here! | Laura's Travel Tales

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