What do I want more of?
And why do I want more?
Make no mistake, what we seek to acquire says volumes about us. But that doesn’t mean that you or I decided to live the story in those volumes. Or that we’re even aware of what our story -- specifically our “props” or belongings -- say about us and about our priorities.
One’s life story chronicalled according to possessions changes over time. Classically, we explore as youths, enjoying the acquisitions of our parents, free to travel light in the quest for new experiences in new places. Most attempt to build assets and nest as young and middle-aged adults, often acquiring so much that it spills into storage unit cities. Next, once retired from a job, the script reads: Downsize and consolidate. The fear is that we may outlive our money and end up in “affordable” assisted living wishing we could “opt out.” Worse, your debt AND a monumental pile of your junk might disrupt the lives of those you love the most, even once you’re gone.
There are infinite variations on the scenario, of course. And there’s an actual movement -- the Minimalist Movement -- giving people permission to walk away from hyper-consumption and 80+hour work weeks. Some proponents are extreme, aka “off the grid”. Some are finding the most comfortable way to make the money outlast the month. And some, are reverting to childhood, and choosing adventure and awe over convenience and caution.
There’s a cost, though, to abandoning the cultural expectations that say we have to live in a big house, drive a new car and take enviable vacations in order to wear the badge that says, “Successful American Human”.
Our stuff is inevitably part of our identity. As our possessions evolve so does at least one dimension of our sense of self.
For example, there was a period in my life when I was a college student living on brown rice and water in order to buy books. I didn’t look at this as a problem, just as the reality I was walking through on my way to something better.
There was another period in my late 20s and early 30s when I ran marathons and wrote stories for major magazines.
A more recent identity was as an independent woman supporting a family, and paying the mortgage on a beautiful lakeside property in northern California while building a business.
Most of those chapters were spent in the pursuit of more -- more knowledge, more excitement, more stability, more possessions, more options for myself and my two children.
Lee and I have a stripped-down life. First came the major purge four years ago, when we got rid of three vehicles and a three bedroom home with a large detached office and almost all the contents. We became nomadic, and at the same time, I became almost obsessive about lightening the burden of stuff, quickly donating anything that is rarely or never used. I love this line in a popular country song: “I have everything that I need, and nothing that I don’t.” What some people call “spring cleaning” is really a continual process for us, as we refine and reorganize our very limited storage spaces. If you’re packing everything up and moving every 2 days to 2 weeks, you soon learn to minimize the things that need to be protected from the 4 point earthquake called travelling from one place to another with all your possessions. Roads in California regularly take us into even higher numbers on the Richter Scale.
In the process of purging possessions, we pared down to a stripped-down sense of self. I’m not entirely sure of why this is true, or even how to describe it. I’m thinking it has something to do with departing from socially accepted norms.
Lee and I were recalling an encounter several years ago in a campground in Benbow, California. The man in a neighboring RV came over with his glass of wine and we invited him to have a seat. He was very friendly and forthcoming --- until he asked where our home was, and Lee related that we were renters, not owners. His demeanor changed instantly. He soon departed, leaving no doubt that we had plummeted in his esteem.
Owning one’s home is an ideal that has been equated with a successful life. It’s gratifying to see the assumption that more is always better held up to the light, as more and more people explore tiny homes, tree houses, the camping lifestyle and minimalism in all it’s various interpretations.
Living with less stuff doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I see it as more of a trade. Lee and I faithfully watched a YouTube channel called “Less Junk, More Journey” once we began to seriously weigh the option of just hitting the road. It wasn’t that we identified with this young family from Tennessee, but their message is clear: They were willing to make the trade and grow closer together versus growing apart. They exchanged their stationary home and established careers for family unity and adventure.
So what was our trade when we made our leap?
We traded plenty of stuff -- closets of extra clothes, furniture, appliances, two bathrooms, extensive garden, precious antiques and memorabilia, books, photo albums, kitchenware, extra vehicles and so much more -- for plenty of new experiences.
We traded being able to do the laundry at any time for jockeying to stay somewhere with good laundry facilities when we start to run out of clean socks and underwear.
We traded seeing the same people frequently for meeting new people frequently. Funny realization came from this: We weren’t seeing those we care about the most any less while on the road. There’s an illusion that because someone is geographically nearby -- that because we could, logistically, see them frequently -- that we must have been actually seeing them frequently. This is not always the case.
We traded occasionally revisiting the beautiful places near where we lived with visiting breathtaking places regularly on our travels. Another revelation: When we had gone on vacations before, there was a frenzy to see EVERYTHING we could, because we didn’t know when we’d be able to come back. Now, when we feel it’s time to move on -- and we haven’t seen everything of interest -- we just say, with confidence, “We’ll be back!”
We traded lots of bills for few bills. We don’t have an electric bill, a garbage bill, a cable bill to name a few. Our fuel bill is larger than it was, but our “rent” bill is ten times smaller. We have maintenance bills seemingly all the time, and although they can be costly (ex. $2000 for a new roof when we drove too close to a tree branch), they don’t come close to brick and mortar maintenance costs.
We traded a lot of time apart for almost all our time together. We feel like we’re inventing a life together. This is, without question, the most fun creative collaboration I’ve ever experienced!
We traded juggling quite so many of life’s responsibilities for refining our sense of purpose. We feel we can make a much larger impact in the world by focusing on how we can give back rather than on how we can maintain an ultimately unsustainable lifestyle.
So we chose “more”:
More time together
More financial peace of mind
More new friends
More creative problem solving
More moments of awe and wonder in the natural world
More presence in the moment
A clearer purpose for our future
How is this reflected in our identities? Our sense of self is now about streamlining our life to free more energy and awareness for the list above. We care less about the assessment of others about how we live, and more about our own alignment with the life we’ve designed and the priorities we’ve chosen.
Susan is a published writer and motivational speaker with 30 years of experience, dedicated to guiding people to a life of financial invincibility and peace of mind.