Downsizing Your Life

Reducing Your Possessions to One Suitcase, A Carry-On, and a Diaper Bag

Initial Cull

On November 20, 2008 I casually announced, “I’m going to reduce my worldly possession to two suitcases, a carry-on and a computer bag.” The declaration was delivered in about the same fait accompli tone as other people might mention they had decided to buy a new pair of shoes. At the time I was living in a two-bedroom terrace house in Sydney. I sold the furniture, gave my art to friends — it was quite an extensive collection — and donated everything that was left over to charity. No rocket science there, but it was an exercise is learning how to differentiate “want” from “need”.

Six weeks after my announcement I flew out to Casablanca on a one-way ticket. Why Morocco? Three good reasons: hadn’t been there, didn’t know anyone, and couldn’t speak the languages.


In retrospect, my life in Casablanca was still rather materialistic. I furnished a small apartment in Derb Oman, an area in the old part of the city where I was the only occidental. Then I hunted for English teaching jobs to cover the bills. Although not an inflated expat salary, my income allowed me to do more-or-less what I wanted. But more importantly, on my terms. And I jumped into the deep end of life in North Africa.

After 18 months; however, some things Arabic started to get to me, so one morning I woke up at 7am, decided to leave, and booked a ticket by 2pm. Good timing as I left Morocco on a high; another six months and I would have been totally over it. By the time I left I could greet in Arabic, get by in French, and had a wonderful array of friends with whom I keep in contact. Tick the “time well spent” box.

Two weeks before I left Casablanca I had a chance meeting with a 27-year old American-born woman who needed to escape from the 10pm curfew imposed by her Moroccan grandparents. I sorted it out with the landlord, handed her the keys, and told her to give the contents of the apartment to someone who could use the things when she left. True to her assignment, she found a struggling young couple with a baby and they thought all their Eid al-Fitrs — the three-day feast at the end of Ramadan — had come at once.

Apartment disposed of, I packed my two bags, the carry-on and a designed knock-off and headed for Santiago de Chile. In the process I jettisoned some things I’d brought from Australia and repacked with items from Morocco. The two suitcases were lighter.

More simplification in Chile


The next downsize was a fully-furnished apartment in Santiago. Tick a box for online rentals. Brilliant!

There I perfected the art of one-pot concoctions: a bit of starch, a bit of protein and a lot of readily available vegetables and hot peppers. The enough-for-a-week rations were sectioned into individual meals, some to eat, others to freeze for variety. I didn’t eat any junk and without even the thought of a diet I dropped a dress size. Easy, healthy eating? Tick.

The next step was hassle-free hair. I left Sydney with a great cut and a two-tone dye job that a talented stylist in Casablanca replicated. But in Santiago, the first over-priced dye job turned my hair bright orange; the second came out dull pink. So now when my “naturally” red hair needs to be restored, I do it myself and use the 30 minutes productively. And I’ve recently had my hair cropped so it doesn’t need to be managed much at all. Another simplify-life tick.

I may not have much money, but I don’t have any debt, so I figure that puts me ahead of most of the rats in the race.

On November 1, 2010 I started to write full-time. It was yet another reinvention that meant I had to really watch how I spent my pesos. I coined the mantra “I may not have much money, but I don’t have any debt, so I figure that puts me ahead of most of the rats in the race.” That said, I had a place to live and food to eat. Compared with the street people in the plaza — whom I could see from my window and got to know vicariously — I had nothing to snivel about. Tick the “Yes, I can do it” option.

Another downsize to come out of this occupational change was that I bought two black cotton outfits, rather like exercise clothes. A proverbial writer’s uniform, I wear one and wash the other. Tick fashion trend-setter or no-hope dresser.

After 17 months in Santiago I left my two suitcases with a friend and headed out with the carry-on and a diaper bag — brilliant as it has so many compartments. On the month-long sojourn through Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Galapagos I had everything I needed. A woman I met at a home-stay in Lima thought it was amusing that I carried my own coffee cup, immersion water heater and wine glass. But as I learned when I lived and worked on fly-in reserves in Canada, wine out of jam-jars just doesn’t taste as good, so I always pack the essentials.

Further reduction

San Telmo
The next destination was Buenos Aires, and it made Argentina the eighth country I’ve lived in. In the midst of yet another financial panic attack — I have them quite regularly — I rented a furnished slum in San Telmo. A week later I got a decent contract.  But for four months it really didn’t matter. I had good neighbors and got to deal with my first ever slum-landlord, a slimy species that really should be exterminated. When the job finished I booked my tickets for a month in Colombia, a month of island-hopping in the Caribbean, and a month in Canada to catch up with kith and kin.

Time to pack. But did I really need all that “stuff?” No, so I happily culled. Space bags — a brilliant invention right up there with the wheel — reduced my wardrobe in a manageable size. The second suitcase of things ended up with Solidad, a cartoniera, one of the many poverty-striken people who go through the garbage looking for cardboard and plastic to sell. I’d gotten to know her as she worked the patch on the corner.

Then I chalked up a new bench-mark and headed out with one suitcase, a carry-on and the diaper bag. Why I didn’t even need a trolley at the airport.  True liberation! The day after I landed in Bogota I turned on the computer to find a major editing contract. The experience taught me that I can work anywhere, as long as I have a desk and an Internet connection. Tick the location-freedom box.

While in Canada I closed my bank account and cancelled my credit card in Australia. Now my “fortune” is centralized and I run everything online. At one time I likely qualified to launder money as I had accounts in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and Denmark.

My new policy is one-way tickets and 90-day visas. Booking flights and furnished apartments online is making traveling so simple.

After Canada I headed back to Argentina where I’d rented a more up-market fully furnished apartment. But four months, I’ve decided, is really too long as it means I have to leave the country after 90-days to renew my tourist visa.

Now the plan is to follow the summer. A month from now I fly out to southern Africa for six weeks and then on to Asia. My new policy is one-way tickets and 90-day visas. Booking flights and furnished apartments online is making traveling so simple. And you don’t need as many clothes when it is warm. While I have a fantasy about living out of a carry-on, I don’t think that is going to happen. Central Canada is often cold, even during what the locals think of as “summer,” which may translate as that one-nice-weekend in July.

Travel as lifestyle

My bags

People often tell me I’m “brave” — while secretly thinking that I’m eccentric, neurotic, and/or barking mad. I generally snort and reply that there is a very thin line between bravery and sheer stupidity, and that I waffle across it with great regularity. It is just fortunate that I don’t make mistakes. Instead, when everything around me melts down, I chalk it up as yet another “good learning experience” and charge full-steam ahead.

One thing about travel is that alone doesn’t mean lonely. Mix with the locals and get an insight into the culture. Check out the expat sites before you get there and hook up with some people that way. Compared with getting mail once a month and writing letters by candle light in Nigeria, Skype, email, and the Internet have revolutionized keeping in touch. Tick easy communication.

By western standards — where people are often judged by the possessions they have rather than by what they contribute — I’m a total failure. While my lifestyle won’t appeal to everyone, it may give you pause to consider how much “stuff” you really need.

By western standards — where people are often judged by the possessions they have rather than by what they contribute — I’m a total failure. While my lifestyle won’t appeal to everyone, it may give you pause to consider how much “stuff” you really need. And if you don’t know what’s in the boxes in the basement can the contents really be all that important? Travel legend or should-be-certified? Your call.

Do I miss any of my things? No. Have any regrets? Not even for a nanosecond. Do it again? In a heartbeat.

My unsolicited advice? Have a garage sale, downsize, and head out. There is a world of adventures waiting for you. And if you don’t need a trolley when you land, that just makes it even simpler.

For more transformational travel stories and to learn how to simplify your life and travels, check out the following articles:

manifesto - options over possessions


Photo credits: Othmanlah, Mike D, Halloween HJB, all other photos courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.


Leave a Comment

  • OTA - Overland Travel Adventures said at 2013-04-19T05:44:31+0000: Great article. I always want to downsize, but instead I seem to keep accumulating! My small room in Nairobi is cluttered and there's no more space under the bed - it's ridiculous! But you've inspired me now :)
  • Avon Campbell River said at 2013-03-20T15:58:54+0000: This is difficult, but can be done if you have the best lightweight clothing and accessories. Best tip: multifunctional extreme ultralite towel (Discovery Trekking) that can double as a coverup, pillowcase, plane blanket and yes, a really fast drying towel. I like that the silver in the fabric means that it can kill bacteria so it can be less "funky" between washings...important when travelling.
  • Trish Tazuk said at 2013-03-10T06:20:32+0000: Great article. I'm very envious of both your nomadic lifestyle as well as the simplification of your possessions. I first learned how little one needs for travel when I car-camped in Europe for a month with my family while in high school in the late '70s. My sister and I packed at least one full suitcase each but we ended up using only a few tshirts, one pair of jeans, a single sweatshirt, and some changes of underwear, washing every few days at the campground facilities. We realized that no one knows that you wear the same few outfits over and over! I now rarely take more than a carry-on and have to chuckle at the travelers loaded down with all the fashion no one cares about.
  • Leonard Doyle Durrett said at 2013-03-07T16:34:19+0000: Love the article. I have been traveling around Central & South America for the last 14 years and have downsized to about where you are now. I just need to be debt free. ( working on that now). Thanks for your wisdom.
  • Lois Downy said at 2013-03-04T23:42:15+0000: Love the article. My husband and I just returned from a year-long travel adventure. We had one suitcase each, and 1 carry-on each (and one of those was a backpacking guitar). There was something wonderful about paring down in this way. When we came home and saw the contents of our storage unit (significantly pared down before we left, but still, much of the stuff from our 17 years together with 4 now-grown children) I had an urge to give it all away. I didn't, but I suspect that even that pile of stuff will get smaller as we travel more. I like the diaper bag idea. I'll have to look into that.
  • Worldtravelfamily said at 2013-03-04T19:53:52+0000: Love it! We're in the middle of downsizing to four backpacks at the moment, 2 adult, 2 kid sized. Already life is easier and more carefree. I need to go looking for black cotton outfits!
  • Charles McCool said at 2013-03-04T19:03:50+0000: Congratulations. Your lifestyle seems pleasing to you, which is the only person you need to please. Best wishes.