You’ve been hearing about minimalism for a while now, I’m sure of it. Declutter like Konmari, find your capsule or 333 wardrobe, eliminate your possessions and then you’ll feel better. Well it turns out there is more to minimalism than simply getting rid of shit (although that’s normally part of it).
And for us, a minimalist lifestyle has been absolutely key to becoming a full(fish)-time travel family. It was a matter of choosing between our stuff, or our adventures. And framed up that way, how could we not be exactly where we are?
In this article I outline exactly how we created a minimalist lifestyle, and how this helped make it possible for us to travel the world. Full-time. With 2 little kids. Crazy right? Oh, and like always, I share the hard parts of living with less, because there is always a shadow side isn’t there? Read on my friends!
What is Minimalism?
When I tell people that we are practicing minimalism (and it really is a practice), I usually get a response like, “oh I could never do that, I love my shoes!” (or guitars, toys, makeup, runners…). But what you need to hear up front is that minimalism is not about purging all possessions for the sake of living with nothing. While some people who take up this lifestyle end up getting rid of a lot, it isn’t simply about living with less. By no means is owning material possessions a bad thing. The challenges come when these possessions interfere with what really matters in life (like relationships, health, family, sense of fulfillment).
Minimalism is about living with things that bring a positive rather than negative effect on your life. It’s about focusing your energy (meaning money, time, effort, care) on what you actually value rather than on stuff that likely causes you stress. The Minimalists say it so beautifully:
Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. Real freedom.
See that? Minimalism is more of a means-to-an-end than an end in itself. It’s a path that you can take in order to achieve something that you truly value. And this is exactly where we began our journey to a minimalist lifestyle: thinking about what we valued (family time, travel, ease of life) and realizing that we weren’t actually prioritizing them (we were stressed, long work hours, little travel).
How Our Minimalist Lifestyle Led to Full-Time Travel
Picture this: newlyweds, and newly house-poor. A hardworking, primary income-earning husband. A wife (that’s me) working on her masters degree. A new baby. And a lot of stuff. Oh, and then another baby. Sound familiar? I know it does for a lot of people like us. We were overwhelmed, money-stressed, parenting-stressed, and relationship-stressed.
And on top of it all, we had major wanderlust and longed for the old days of trotting around the world without a care. At the rate we were going, any significant travel was just not in the cards. The idea of a couple week-long vacations a year seemed like such a rip off! But from who? Who was actually ripping us off? Oh. Right. We were.
We were ripping ourselves off of a lifestyle that was totally within our reach, just out of our scope of consideration. We were continuing along as we should have been, working hard, paying bills, working hard. And it started to become really clear that we needed a change.
And to break it right down, here’s why :
- Money. Well…you know…lack of money, that is.
- Mess. Our stuff was always all over the place! And I resented feeling like a maid.
- Dissatisfaction with ourselves. That constant feeling of wanting to happier but “too busy” to figure out what would help.
- Comparison with others. I was feeling lame that I couldn’t keep up with my uber trendy friends, and then I felt even more lame that I was feeling lame. See how that works? A bad spiral, that one.
- Consumption & waste. Throw-away clothing culture was starting to gross me out. Yes, sadly, I need to say goodbye to cheap mass made stores. Most of the clothes look crappy and fall apart anyway.
Even without our deeply rooted wanderlust, we still would have made these changes toward minimalism just to regain our sanity! But with our dreams to run around the world, it seemed more of a necessity. Learning to unlock the connection to possessions is fucking hard, and I surely haven’t figured out. But I am learning a whole lot more about why it’s so hard. And with awareness, I learn to let go a little bit more each day because I actually know what I am up against.
Why Is Letting Go of Possessions Is So Hard?
Holy smokes, people have written entire books about this. Seriously, they have. So if you are beating yourself up because you can’t seem to give things away, or stop buying, collecting, accumulating… you need to stop. You are not crazy. You are actually quite normal, and most certainly not alone.
Also know that there are some massive forces at play, like how you were raised. And don’t you go blaming your parents now… think about what factors influenced their relationship with stuff as well. And how about the fact that billions of dollars are spent on marketing the idea of consumption! This sense that you don’t have enough is literally shoved in your face every day. Multiple times a day actually. You’re clothes are dated, home decor is boring, table isn’t dressed well enough. Car isn’t new enough. It’s literally endless.
So. Please give yourself a break. And remember, possessions are not bad. Not at all. As long as they are actually valuable to you in some way, and do not take away from your life. You get me?
Creating Our Minimalist Lifestyle
You’ve probably gotten the sense that minimalism is a lifestyle, and by all means a process. No one wakes up and decides hey? Why not try minimalism this week? because it actually takes some time to put into practice and truly adopt the philosophy (and about that second part, I wonder how anyone truly adopts this when living within such a consumer culture…it’s big time challenging!).
In our family, we’ve found there are 3 main phases to create a minimalist lifestyle, that we call the easy stuff, the hard stuff, and the mind stuff.
Phase 1: The easy stuff.
At the beginning of our journey toward minimalism, we focused on purging the things that were bogging us down. I call this the easy stuff because there was just so much to get rid of that it was actually really easy to see bags and bags leave the house. Things like mismatched Tupperware and socks, random toys that don’t really have a home, clothes that are hideous or need repair (like I am every going to get to that!). Old books that I never read, shoes that didn’t have a place in my closet…this stuff was easy.
It’s hard to know where to start at this stage because usually there is so much to do. So, I just picked something small, and tackled it. For instance, the “junk drawer” in my kitchen. This was a nightmare to me and drove me crazy every day, so purging and organizing this drawer was amazing. And then I moved on, one simple space at a time. One day it was one cabinet, the next it was one bedroom closet. I made a point not to destroy my entire house by pulling everything apart, but instead, tried to keep some degree of order by only biting off what I could chew each session.
It’s also very satisfying to see a space go from cluttered to minimal and simple. And the momentum felt amazing! But what’s interesting is that after I finished going through our home and clearing everything that so obviously had no place, I realized that there is actually so much more that needed to go. And this is where it got hard.
Phase 2: The hard stuff.
Yikes. This is the r e a l l y hard part. The stage where you find some meaning in your belongings, whether it’s a memory, a hope, an idea of what you once were or what you’ve always wanted to be. Let’s face it. We all have things that we kind-of know we don’t want, but we keep them anyway. Or for some reason, we are holding on to what we think these things mean. For me, the biggest gut-wrencher are those items that hold dreams of the future, memories or deep sentiments, and gifts I’ve received.
But those pants might fit one day?
Dreams. Most people have different identities wrapped up in their clothing, believe it or not. For example, I have an entire drawer that makes me seem like a total fitness nut (and even though I once was, I am not one today). Do I wan’t to be this person? Yes. Am I this person today? No. Of course I’ll keep a few things so that I can exercise, but I don’t need an active-wear wardrobe like Serena Williams.
And how about this one: I have pre-baby clothes that I try on every once in a while with this embarrassing hope that I can squish into them like I did 4 years ago. But who the hell am I kidding? And without fail, I feel like shit when I can’t get my beautifully strong child-bearing hips into these. Fuck. These clothes make me feel negative. So why do I have them?
Let them go. I hear my wiser self say. But…but…but… Just do it. This is not about giving up on bettering myself or becoming fit, this is about loving and accepting myself now, and realizing that too-small clothing does nothing positive for my life.
Valuable to Who?
The experience of loving an item (be it a dusty un-read meditation book, a bathing suit, or too-small skinny jeans) but accepting that it doesn’t work for me at this particular time is essential. I realized I had so much appreciation for many items in my home, but that did not mean that I had to keep them. What a strange concept, right? Let me say that again:
Just because something is valuable and you like it, doesn’t mean you have to keep it.
Think about it. If you operated by “keep all things that are lovely and valuable” then you’d be in major trouble. The world is full of valuable, well-made, and beautiful objects! The most important part is that the item is valuable to you not just valuable in the general sense of the word.
Does it serve a purpose? Does it bring you joy? Or does it stir up negative emotions? These questions help me when I get stuck with a particular item.
My aunt gave me this picture frame, I better keep it.
Memories, keepsakes, & gifts. I am all about feelings. Love them. All of them. But I am not about holding onto things that bog me down because they have sentimental value. Now that said, if everything in my home held meaning and feeling, I’d be in love with my space! I mean, how beautiful to surround yourself with things that speak to you with such emotion?
Where I believe we get into trouble is when we feel obligated to keep things because of what we think they are supposed to represent. So for example, someone keeping an old table that was their grandmothers even though they will never use it. We cannot allow our lives to be cluttered out of guilt or obligation. If it is truly meaningful, then by all means enjoy it! If it’s a burden, give it a kiss and send it out the door. Memories and emotions don’t actually live in the object, as you’ll see!
And this goes for gifts too. Just because someone bought you something, it absolutely does NOT mean that you must keep it. Find a way to pay it respect, and pass it along.
This has been tricky in our family as my husband and I are both from gift-giving backgrounds. To manage this, we’ve made a point of sharing our minimalist beliefs and preferences so that people don’t feel like their money is being wasted. They can either pass on giving us presents, or gift us something that they know we need or will enjoy.
Phase 3: The “mindstuff”
So speaking of all this “stuff”, the absolute most challenging part of adopting a minimalist lifestyle is what goes on upstairs…in our big beautiful heads, that is. Throughout this journey I have realized more and more how entrenched these ideas of consumption are within our minds. From such a young age, we learn the significance of possessions, how they’ve become intertwined with markers of success, gender, status, social identity, and most notably, happiness.
I’m working at untangling these connections, but like the space behind a cluttered and dated office desk, it’s a nightmare of knotted-up wires that take a while to make sense of. I don’t pretend to strive toward anti-consumption, or anti-possession, but what I am working at is becoming a little more aware of what I think I need to be happy.
The biggest lesson that I learn over and over again is the fleeting sense of joy after acquiring something, only to find that joy quickly dissipates. Interesting isn’t it? How could that kind of happiness be real?
Confession: I impulse shopped today and bought a new pair of jeans and a skirt. I haven’t worn a skirt in about 6 years. Wonder what that was about? This “mind-stuff” is so curious to me: why did I feel the impulse to shop? What feeling did acquiring an object bring to me (or help me avoid)? How long will this joy last, and when it fades, will I stop to think about what was actually going on for me? It’s all in the mind, which to me, is the core of minimalism.
What Our Minimalist Lifestyle Looks Like Today
When I think of minimalism, I admittedly think of monochrome Scandinavian design, with maybe a hint of subtle colour. I think of style uniforms, simplicity, order. And I think of Apple. And a lot of white.
This is so not my life.
I have two toddlers. I’m not inclined to be tidy. I leave things on counters and don’t normally make my bed. I barely unpack my suitcase on vacation and it makes me insane! That’s right. I drive myself crazy with my stuff, and I hardly have anything! And I tell you, the main thing that is helping our family manage so much travel and moving around is keeping things as simple as possible.
What We Own
So what does that actually mean?
Well, try this for a visual: all of our belongings fit inside about 16 rubber bins. To me, this seems like too much, but this is everything we own from bedding & towels, kitchenware, toys and books, all clothes, decor, art supplies, tools, office, camping and sporting goods, everything. It’s not a lot. But it’s also everything we need at the moment, so it works.
Oh, we also have a bed and 1 vehicle. Clearly they don’t fit in the bins.
So here’s the magic: By reducing what we own, we have been able to easily store our possessions with little hassle so that we can venture out into the world with our kiddos without having expenses pile up on us while we are away. This also gives us major flexibility with where we call “home”, and no obligation to return to our starting point (Canada) at any particular time. For us, this is what it is all about.
Of course, becoming a full-time travel family isn’t just about sorting out our belongings. There a whole lot of other pieces to the picture (like you know, earning money) that I cannot overlook. However, freeing ourselves from the weight of our possessions nudged us that much closer to being able to book that first flight.
What Continues to Challenge Us
While we have certainly made major changes in how we are going about life, and where we lay our heads at night, we are a work in progress. And aren’t we all? It is astonishing how much effort it is to push against something that has been part of our entire lives (that something being overconsumption). And without conscious thought, we very easily slip back into old ways. And to be totally honest, it doesn’t just happen by accident. Sometimes even with full awareness, I choose to totally indulge in materialism only to realize later that I’ve probably wasted my money. Sigh.
So what trips us up? Where are the sticky points that slow us down as we trundle toward a simpler, more manageable, less weighted-down lifestyle? Here’s a breakdown of 4 things that I continue to find challenging about a minimalist lifestyle, particularly as we travel around the world:
4 Things That Are Challenging About Maintaining A Minimalist Lifestyle While Traveling:
1. Appreciating beautiful stuff.
I cannot lie. I really like beautiful, artistic, lovely items. I sometimes search for pics of tan leather sofas, minimal yet trendy home decor. I pause at store windows and long to dress like the mannequins. I sometimes dream of an art loft full of supplies, buying a serging machine that I’d probably use twice. I want a kitchen aid for some reason. I don’t even bake, nor want to have baked goods in my house at all times. Oh, and I want a chic trendy wardrobe. And edgy options. And boho ones too. And while traveling, I can’t seem to stop lusting over art and decor that would be so incredible to have in our home someday.
The challenge is that I truly appreciate art and beauty and continue to long for possessions. And this is okay. I can look and lust, dream and plan. And my hope is to make thoughtful decisions about what would actually bring me joy (and it’s probably not the Kitchen Aid).
2. Traveling & packing.
Okay, this makes me anxious just saying these words, because honestly, I haven’t figured out how to keep my stuff organized when we are travelling. And we are literally traveling all the time. There is something about living out of a disorganized suitcase that is so unsettling, but for some reason, I continue to struggle with this. Maybe it’s because my kids itty-bitty-sized clothing sneak into the wrong piles. Maybe it’s because my husband couldn’t care less if he wore wrinkled clothes, and maybe it’s because I would rather enjoy the present moment rather than be an adult and sort out my clothes. Ugh. Any tips? Please send them my way, because I can’t stand it.
So. While this is clearly an issue, a minimalist lifestyle has made this much better. We pack less and less belongings each time we start a new adventure. We figure out a way to gain most value from the possessions we do bring, and we try to pack half of what we thought we should. And it is still always too much. Way too much. Next time, it will be better.
3. Impulse to purchase when I’m feeling down.
This one is hard to admit. It feels shallow, and embarrassing. But it’s true. When I feel like crap, stressed, maybe bored, annoyed, overwhelmed, I sometimes feel like buying myself something. I know, I know, this is actually quite common. But that doesn’t mean it’s OK or normal in any way. Buying shit to feel that momentary joy is not a productive way to manage emotions. But ugh, it kinda helps right?
Well, sort of.
Until that same feeling creeps up again and that cute top no longer delivers. So here’s my challenge: instead of minlessly wandering to a store when I feel that restlessness or dissatisfaction, I am working at paying attention, looking a little deeper, and avoiding making silly purchases. If I still think I need that special something a few weeks later, maybe I’ll reconsider.
4. Feeling like my style is lame.
Sometimes I get confused about where my sense of “style” comes from. Is it actually my style, or have I just gone along with one of the options that society presented to me at some point? It tricky because I often feel like I truly love a certain look, for example, and then realize that it’s super trendy and everyone else seems to love it too! And no, I am not just on point with my taste. I was probably unconsciously persuaded for a long time to love that certain trendy item (ahem, choker necklaces?) until I believed it was my idea. So here I am thinking I’m expressing my authentic style but really, I’m just playing out some perfect marketing plan.
Sigh. But I really love my high wasted jeans, god dammit!
The challenge with style is that the trends change so fast (no brainer alert!) and therefore, by design, most of us feel like we cannot keep up. Because I generally avoid buying clothing unless I need to replace something, I almost always feel like my style is lacking. What I need to remind myself of regularly is that this sense of “sucking at style” is no accident, and usually drives people to go spend money they don’t have. So instead, I want to become so selective with what I buy so that over time, I curate a wardrobe of amazing items that I feel fabulous in. Even if I wear them all the time. Like every day.
What I enjoy most of traveling with my family is seeing how people do life in other parts of the world. And yes, I like to say it that way, “Do Life,” like it’s this thing we get to decide how to take part in. For us, doing life with a little less focus on what we acquire has been freeing, lightening, exciting, and also incredibly challenging. It has brought personal struggles to the surface that we used to deal with through consumption, and nudged us toward giving our energy to what we truly care about.
And often we don’t know what it is that we want to direct our energy toward, but that’s part of this process. At least we have a bit more space in our lives (and closets) to figure it out.
Author: Kate Butler
Kate Butler is a writer, a wanderer, a digital nomad. A mother of two, lover to one, and dedicated to living an inspired, colourful life. She co-authors Flipping Moons and has an online therapy practice, LiveLight Counselling.