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!