Less is more

I’ve spent the last six months living abroad, which means living out of suitcases. I am given Air Canada’s average baggage allowance (50 pounds) in two suitcases plus whatever electronics I can stuff into my backpack. That is all. This framework puts what you own into pretty sharp perspective. As you pack you realize how many things you have to leave behind and how quickly essential items (watercolour supplies, notebooks, running shoes, sewing kit) begin to stack up, leaving you with no room for anything that isn’t very useful. It also leaves you with very little incentive to acquire anything new. Whenever I think about going shopping I just think to myself and now how are you going to fit that into a suitcase. That is just going to be overweight. And in the end if you are smart about it you can fit pretty much everything you need into two suitcases. I don’t have as many shoes with me as I could possibly desire—everytime I mention buying new shoes to my family I am merciless mocked and only have one friend who defends my shoe collection—she is worse than me. Frankly I am no worse off having just one colour of Vans to choose from—I wear orthotics so when I find shoes that fit me I tend to buy them in every colour so that I have enough to last me until the apocalypse, hence the family mockery.

Graham Hill recently wrote a story for the New York Times about how he came to live a minimalistic lifestyle. After selling a tech-start up he found himself with more money than he knew what to do with, which resulted in him acquiring more stuff than he knew what to do with. Eventually he decided that less is more, and like it is for me travel taught him the value of only owning as much as you absolutely needed to take with you. He makes some really good points based on his own personal experience.

Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me. My circumstances are unusual (not everyone gets an Internet windfall before turning 30), but my relationship with material things isn’t.

We live in a world of surfeit stuff, of big-box stores and 24-hour online shopping opportunities. Members of every socioeconomic bracket can and do deluge themselves with products.

There isn’t any indication that any of these things makes anyone any happier; in fact it seems the reverse may be true.

For me, it took 15 years, a great love and a lot of travel to get rid of all the inessential things I had collected and live a bigger, better, richer life with less.

Rowhouse Livin’ criticized Hill for advocating something that only the rich can afford:

I can’t figure out where he’d put everything he needs in 420 square feet. This choice raises two issues. One, for meals he has to go to the market, get take-out dishes, or eat at restaurants every day. This lifestyle will end up costing him far more than would preparing all his meals at home. The author is a dot-com millionaire and serial entrepreneur, though, so presumably costs are not as pressing a concern for him as they are for me. And two, he’s not ready for an emergency where he loses utilities, or where he’s too ill or injured to leave the house for a time. Again, if you’re not keeping supplies on hand, then you’re choosing expensive contingency plans — stay in a hotel until the problem is fixed; hire a helper until you’re feeling better. Outsourcing these kinds of things is expensive. The author has a blind spot: he has ready-cash privilege.

I disagree with this. Yes his experience is based on being a wealthy individual who can buy whatever he wants, as opposed to being someone who just can’t afford a TV. The setup he has, while pushing it to the extreme isn’t that excessive. Your average person will have a computer, some kind of sound system and some way of watching movies or TV socially. His wall to ceiling storage isn’t condescending, it’s practical.

As far as the fridge goes I currently have one shelf in a fridge and one shelf in a freezer and that stores enough groceries for three or four days. A single person living in that apartment could cook easily with the amount of storage he has.

And he’s right that stuff doesn’t make you happy. My mother is a packrat and I grew up in a household brimming with stuff. We are the people who fill up our house and then go get a storage locker once that’s not enough. I watched this and wondered what the point was. None of those boxes of stuff made my mother particularly happy and they didn’t make my home any nicer, they just took up space. It has nothing to with the amount of wealth we had. It was simply that those possessions didn’t bring us anything of much value. Most of them we didn’t really need.

I am amazed by the amount of stuff your average university student posseses. I helped a friend move last spring and was amazed (and mildly judgmental) that someone my age would have as much stuff as she did. It seemed impossible that she had so many DVDs, video games, and books—especially given that she can get watch just about anything online and take out all the books in the world from the library. Where was she going to put them and why had I agree to help her move them from point A to point B? Most of it ended up in a storage area, and has not seen the light of day since. She may as well not own them at this rate.

All this made me think about the stuff that I own. Books are heavy and cumbersumb to move. I can get as many as I will ever need out of the library. At the rate I read I could fill up a lot of basements very quickly, and I have no interest in doing that. I don’t need to possess a book to enjoy it and there is nothing nicer than knowing that when I’m done with it I will never have to see it again. Another source of books I love is book exchanges. These books are not yours forever but for long enough. Once you are done you pass it along. This isn’t pauperism, it’s practical.

Before finishing university and moving to random foreign countries I made an effort to dispatch some of my belonging. Clothes that I hated were given away to interested parties, I sold some of my books and graphic novels leaving those that weren’t taken that I never wanted to read again at my friendly neighbourhood book exchange (partially motivated by guilt at absing the system for so long), and sold some of my CDs. I have no need to physically possess these. I can access music at the drop of a hat all I need is a wifi hookup. I don’t need these things and I don’t want them. I don’t want to have to cart them halfway across the country, or halfway across the world in a few years time. I don’t want to have to store them when they are of little value or use to me.

It’s not that I don’t own anything it’s that I don’t need that much, and probably none of us do. The father of one of my really good friends is a teacher who spends his summers living out of an RV. His life advice has always been spend money on experiences, not things.

When it comes to things I believe less is more—even if it means taming the voice in the back of my head that wants to buy that shirt in every colour just in case I never find another shirt that fits me as well. I don’t need a collection of DVDs. I don’t want a house that is bursting at the seams. I don’t need to own books to read a lot. My collection of cardigans will not make me happy.

Or as Rowhouse Livin’ concludes (I heartily agree with them on this) “have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”