When I was in my twenties, I was bitten by the travel bug. I’m not sure exactly how it happened, but I realized that being in planes, trains, hotels, and unfamiliar cities made me extraordinarily happy.
Perhaps tellingly, this passion coincided with a “nesting phase” in my life. I’d graduated from college, shacked up with my now-husband, and was going through the typical process of setting up a household. We had left our sparsely-furnished dorm rooms, and enthusiastically went about filling our new abode—with furniture, décor, and the zillion other items we assumed were necessities.
Trouble is, we weren’t quite ready to settle down. We moved an average of once a year: the first time with all our belongings in the back of a car, the second with a small moving van, the third with a somewhat larger one. By our fourth move (this time cross-country), we had so much stuff we needed to hire professional movers. Our things were starting to drag us down, making us less mobile and flexible with each passing year.
Looking back, I think that travel became my escape from our increasingly-cluttered environment. Feeling stifled by the stuff we were accumulating, I was enamored with the idea of editing all my possessions down to a single suitcase. For each trip, I’d make a packing list weeks in advance, and relish the challenge of taking as few items as possible. I knew every ounce would weigh on me like a little anchor, so I was determined not to include a single item that was unnecessary or superfluous.
To me, traveling lightly was exhilarating—I had never felt so free! I was heady with the notion that I could go anywhere when all my stuff was in one little bag. When I returned from a trip, I would count the days until my next vacation. Half the excitement was the opportunity to explore other cultures; the other half was the chance to recreate that feeling of unbridled freedom. I looked forward to those precious weeks when all I needed was the stuff on my back.
Eventually, it dawned on me that the idea of living with just the essentials didn’t have to be limited to my twice-yearly vacations. I thought, “If it feels this great to travel lightly, how wonderful would it be to live this way? How much more could I accomplish, discover, experience, if I weren’t weighed down with so much stuff?”
From that point on, traveling lightly became a metaphor for how I wanted to live my life. I began to edit the contents of my surroundings with the same fervor as I had my suitcase. As I slowly ditched the extra “baggage,” I could feel the weight lifted from my shoulders.
Of course, decluttering an entire household is a much more ambitious project than packing a suitcase. However, I simply thought of all the little tips and tricks I’d used to lessen my burden on the road, and began to apply them to my everyday life. And you know what? The lessons I learned from traveling lightly became the foundation for my minimalist lifestyle:
1. Choose what to keep.
My first instinct when I set out to declutter was to choose what to toss. But then I reasoned: why not start with a blank slate—like an empty suitcase—and choose only what I wanted to include in my life? I outfitted my household as if I were packing a bag, choosing things carefully and deliberately, and getting rid of the excess.
2. Ditch the duplicates.
I realized that if you don’t need two cameras, hairbrushes, or lipsticks on the road, you don’t need them in real life either. It’s very liberating to embrace the idea that “one is enough.”
3. Forget the “just-in-cases.”
I don’t know how many things I’d squirreled away over the years, “just in case” I might need them someday. When traveling, on the other hand, I was content to fly by the seat of my pants, acquiring things on an as-needed basis (buying toothpaste in Thailand can be an adventure in itself!). Adopting this philosophy in my everyday life was a huge relief—I no longer felt any obligation to hoard things away for the future.
When I travel, I put everything into packing cubes. Not only do they keep my stuff organized, they limit how much I can take. If something doesn’t fit in the allotted cube, it doesn’t go with me. I utilized this same concept in my closet (and around my house). I assigned each category of item a specific space or container; once full, nothing new can be added until something comes out.
5. Favor versatile and multi-functional items.
If I’m going to carry something around the world, it better be a workhorse—in other words, either perform a multitude of functions or be appropriate for a variety of climates, occasions, and activities. The same now goes for everything I own: whether it’s a shoe, a shirt, a sautee pan, or a piece of furniture, the more versatile the better.
6. Don’t be seduced by the souvenir.
I learned early in my travels that I didn’t need a snow globe, t-shirt, or magnet from every destination I visited. By the same token, I don’t need things to commemorate every event in my life (be it a birthday, wedding, graduation, etc.). I’m a firm believer that memories (and digital photos) make the best souvenirs.
7. Embrace technology.
Going digital (with books, music, photos, and documents) significantly lightened my luggage—I won’t carry any physical item that can be reduced to bits and bytes. Likewise, I’ve eliminated entire filing cabinets and bookshelves in my home by scanning paperwork, buying ebooks, and using my laptop as my office.
8. Be a borrower.
I’ve discovered that it’s not necessary to own everything you might ever need. Borrowing—whether it’s a fellow traveler’s guidebook, or a neighbor’s ladder—fosters cooperation, camaraderie, and friendship. Of course, you should be just as generous with your own stuff!
9. Lighten your footprint.
Traveling lightly made me fall in love with public transit, and the idea of walking everywhere. Therefore, I’ve tried to structure my life to be car-free whenever possible. It means less worry, less expense, and less impact on the planet.
10. Make the world your home.
George Carlin famously described a house as “a pile of stuff with a cover on it.” He went on to say, “If you didn’t have so much stuff, you wouldn’t need a house. You could just walk around all the time.” So true! I’ve found that when your “pile of stuff” is small enough, you can feel at home anywhere in the world.
As it turns out, I ended up taking Carlin’s words quite literally. Although my initial goal was a decluttered life, I eventually sold my house, reduced all my possessions to a single duffel bag, and moved overseas to London, England. Because my load was light, I was able to move on a dime, with little hassle and cost. I find it absolutely liberating to be able to carry everything I own, and embrace any opportunity that arises.
I’ve come to view life as one big, wonderful, extended journey—and the less I’m dragging around, the more I enjoy it. I’d never envy someone with more cars, more clothes, more furniture, or more stuff—just as I’d never envy a traveler with more luggage. The joy of “less” is ingrained in every fiber of my being. And although my entire life may not always fit in a suitcase, I’ll forever strive to travel as lightly through life as possible.
Francine Jay is the author of The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide: How to Declutter, Organize, and Simplify Your Life. She writes about living with less at Miss Minimalist.