Do you have too much stuff? Collecting experiences instead of things

Updated November 2018

Jenn Miller was on the road with her husband and four children for over seven years and is well versed in all aspects of long-term travel.   Jenn will bring a unique insight into extended travel, touching on topics ranging from inspirational articles to practical trip planning to family travel to education on the road to interviews with interesting people she’s met along the way.

When my grandmother died, I remember standing over her casket feeling that cavernous sense of loss that seems limitless until the quiet echo of your own screaming sorrow reverberates back from the cold hard limits of reality. In that echo, beyond the cacophony of my own grief, I could hear her voice – a quiet whisper. She was never one for emotional displays or drama. She was a no-nonsense woman, the product of an era of hardship and overcoming. She was known for speaking her mind, and not always with a great deal of compassion. She was, however, often right. That whisper, on a crisp Ohio fall’s afternoon was as clear as if she’d been standing beside me instead of painted like a mannequin of herself in the box:

“There is nothing in this box. Not me, not my stuff, not my house, not my titles. My cars, my jewelry, nothing. I’m gone, and I’ve taken everything that matters with me.”

Is family travel for your family

That moment was one of those clarion points in life when everything comes into sharp focus and life is neither confusing nor difficult. What my grandmother whispered to me as she passed out of sight was what has become the central lesson of my lifetime: Love people, not things, collect memories, not stuff.

Love people, not things, collect memories, not stuff.

I’m not anti-possessions, nor am I a minimalist. I love surrounding myself with good things, and beautiful things. But I’ve noticed something about things – sometimes they become an albatross around the neck. What was meant to bring joy sometimes turns out to bring bondage. The pursuit of possessions kind of sneaks up on a person, doesn’t it? We buy a few things to fill the corners of an empty room, and before we know it we’re buying a few things to fill the cracks in our hearts too. That’s not a value judgement, just an observation.

For generations in our family, folks have opted in favor of having options over possessions. Long before the Indie Travel Manifesto was penned, it’s been written into our hearts by our parents and grandparents that having freedom is more important than having “stuff.” Sometimes we also have stuff, but not at the expense of having options.

Why is having that freedom, those options, so important to us?

with Grandma

Well, to put it succinctly, because nothing fit in that box we buried my grandmother in, and nothing will fit in the one they bury me in either.

I want to always have the freedom to live my life to the fullest. I don’t want to feel tethered to an object because of debt. I don’t want to feel like I have to miss my kids’ childhood because of a job. I don’t want to feel stuck in one place because my things are overwhelming me.

But those are all negatives, so let me try to put it another way:

Relationships matter more to me than owning status symbols, and I want to be free to pursue them, no matter what that means. I want to be free to fly across continents to help a friend at the drop of a hat. I want to be free to invest my whole soul in my kids for the few short years I have them. I want to be free to steer the course of my life based on the people I meet and love, and not be forced to make decisions based on the items that own me.

Relationships matter more to me than owning status symbols, and I want to be free to pursue them, no matter what that means.

Memories matters more to me than stability. I collect memories at the feverish pace that some people attend garage sales on Saturday mornings. Why? Because of those that I might get to take with me. Even if they aren’t the greatest memories, they’ll comfort me in my old age in a way that none of the trappings of wealth ever could. I live in mortal fear of missing something great in this life. That causes me to make a lot of mistakes and do a lot of crazy things, but it will never be said of me that I missed the adventure of a lifetime!

I live in mortal fear of missing something great in this life.

Of course all of that is highly subjective and from a rather esoteric standpoint, isn’t it? Not everyone is going to “get it.” There will be more than a few people who think I’m absolutely crackers. That’s okay. I can live with that.

The economics of it

Miller Family
Let me tackle the question from a more hands-on place: economics.

When the markets crashed in 2008, my family was camped on the highest sea cliff on the Adriatic Coast of Italy. We woke up one fine October morning and found that all of our money was gone. All of it. We were without a job. We were without a house, or any other kind of “security.” We have four kids. To say that it was a sobering moment would be selling it somewhat short.

Of course we were not alone, nor was our situation the worst, even within our friend set. We lost tens of thousands of dollars, in our thirties, true, but we knew people who lost to the tune of millions, in their sixties. Many of our friends were without work in the period that followed. We knew people who lost their homes, their retirement, their cars, their pride, and they were stuck, in the truest sense, as they were upside down in their mortgages. Remember? You knew them too… perhaps that was you.

It was at that moment of economic crisis that we really saw the true value of prioritizing options over possessions. We were able to make a quick hop to Africa where we could live inexpensively and richly on the shores of the Mediterranean and still have an adventure while we regrouped, updated our skill sets, and launched an all out assault on re-creating our careers. Because we weren’t tied to a location, when a lucrative contract popped up, three continents away, we could jump on it. We might not have had any money, we might have been living on our credit cards for a while, but we weren’t upside down in a house or car payment, we didn’t have to wrangle high winter heating bills without income, and we were free to go where the opportunities presented themselves. The choice we’d made to prioritize for freedom ended up being the most precious possession we had: we had options, when many people didn’t. We still do.

It was at that moment of economic crisis that we really saw the true value of prioritizing options over possessions.

I’m writing this from the Kapiti Coast in New Zealand, where we’ve spent the last month house-sitting for another family off on a RTW adventure. The past six months have been a long slow adventure across both islands of this southern country that we’ve packed full of memories with our kids. I realize that each day of this epic life is a gift, a privilege, and to be savored with honor to those truths. But it’s also the result of a conscious choice. I traded my house, my cars, my washer and drier, my dishwasher, my beautiful oven, my piano, my enormous dining room table, my purpose built school room, my idyllic 2 acres of forest surrounded by 1800 acres of state forest, the security of a “good job” and more for the possibilities, the options, and the freedom. That’s not a trade everyone wants to make, I get that, and that’s okay. But for me, for us, it’s the key trade that has allowed us to live on five continents and provide our kids a storybook childhood. It’s a trade I would make a hundred times over. Even with the fear and uncertainty and heartbreak and worry that has come with it.

I’m so glad my grandmother took the time to whisper to me one last thing before she left; perhaps the most important lesson of my lifetime. I’ve returned to her grave a couple of times, leaned my back against the cold stone, and chatted with her about the realities that occur to a mother as she enters middle age. She’s whispered a few things back, but none more profound than her parting gift: “None of the stuff fits in the box. Invest in memories. Invest in people.”

Did this article motivate you to change your life? Read on for more:

manifesto - options over possessions