Monday, 18 July 2011

Five Benefits of Owning Fewer Possessions

Instead of renting a U-haul to drive out to Roanoke on August 1st (expensive when unemployed), I decided to ditch everything that would not fit into my 2006 Toyota Prius (and buy a cheap bed/dresser upon arrival).

It all has to fit in...there? 

I willed all of my furniture to Sister #2 and fiancee.  They were grateful for the upgrades (and ability to relinquish that green, fart-stained couch that witnessed too many frat parties).  I warned them that I might take it back in two years when the MFA is complete.  But more than likely, I'll do something overseas when I graduate (Peace Corps?), so they'll be able to keep my furniture longer (perhaps indefinitely).  I cut my supply of non-furniture items (e.g. kitchenware, clothes, books) by about 40% by making donations to Good Will.  (If I was more frugal, I may have thrown a yard sale or sold my belongings on Craigslist or eBay, but at this point it wasn't worth the hassle.)

I attempted to pack my car like it's August 1st.  The remaining items do not all fit into my Toyota Prius.  Looks as though I'll need to downsize.  Again.

Pre-Good Will book collection.

What has this experience taught me?

First, nothing I've done is radical.  When I was traveling, I met people who sold everything to afford a year overseas.  They were literally carrying all of their possessions in a backpack!  Still, this has been radical - for me.

That said, downsizing is less painful than expected.

Here are five benefits of owning less:

#1.  Money Saved.
I no longer have to pay extra money for a storage facility, or a larger apartment to fit my extraneous belongings.  I can funnel that extra buck into my travel and retirement funds.

#2.  Increased Gratitude and Awareness.  
I really appreciate the things I have left.  The stuff that fits in my Toyota Prius represents about 20% of my total belongings pre-RTW adventure.  But it's the finest 20%.  It's my favorite clothes, books, blankets, and jewelry.

Moreover, I'm more aware of what I own.  I can almost list every item off the top of my head.  That, to me, is a litmus test of value.  Try it sometime.  Sit down with pen and paper in hand for 30 minutes and list your every possession. Then, compare that list to what you actually own.  If you forgot to name that wicker chair or book on beading or wool sweater, then chances are they really aren't that important to you anyway.  

#3.  More Travel Expedient.
Owning fewer belongings makes travel, relocation and living abroad simpler.  It's easier to pack it all up and take it with you.  It's easier to convince a family member or friend to store a dozen of your boxes in their attic as opposed to 12 dozen.

When your boss offers you a chance to work at the corporate office in Beijing, or the kids move out and you can finally execute a RTW trip, or you get that hankering to volunteer at an orphanage in Maputo, you're more likely to go for it (and less likely to use your belongings as an excuse for not embarking on the thrill of a lifetime).

#4.  Other People are Happier.
Think about how many books you own that you've read once and never opened again.  Or how many clothes, in the depths of your closet, that haven't been modeled since 2005.  If you're not using an item on a regular basis (say, once per week) consider that it's just taking up space.  Someone else would love to read that post-noir novel or slip into your Jimmy Choos.  Spread the happiness.

#5.  Less Likely to Overspend Again.
When you're constantly buying things that you don't need, it becomes a habit. You start to do it automatically, oftentimes to fill some physical, emotional, spiritual or mental void.  Once you downsize, you may realize that life is possible without the clutter.  You might find other pastimes to fill aforementioned voids that don't involve a credit card swipe (e.g. walking, frisbee golf, french kissing/petting, people watching, the public library).  In the future, you'll be less inclined to live outside of your means.

The bane of my existence.

Consider that living outside of one's means is a key reason why we're experiencing the current economic downturn.

Also consider this:  a wide body of research indicates that once a person has enough money to meet their basic needs (e.g. food, shelter), increases in wealth have little effect on personal happiness.  According to this research, happiness is most closely tied to job satisfaction and personal relationships - not how many pairs of galoshes, ceramic mugs, and New York Times best sellers you have at home.


  1. This is great! I wholeheartedly agree with your take on this. Bill and I have gone through a vaguely similar process moving into our cottage from a suburban homestead. We're still in process, although we've unloaded a full 50% of our belongings, which had already been weeded out mercilessly. Anything that goes beyond the essentials (that for us many recreational toys such as bikes, golf clubs, backbacking gear, and skis) just weighs you down and holds you back.

  2. Megan, thanks. The idea for me of sitting down and making a list of every item that I own (and then throwing away anything that I forgot to name on the list) was pretty revolutionary. When I came back from my trip, there were so many things that I FORGOT I even owned. I figure if you forgot them or can't even remember them off the top of your head, they really can't be that important. I've found this entire process extremely liberating.

  3. You inspired me to finally write this post that I've been thinking about for months: