There’s a big trend at the moment towards minimalist living and de-cluttering, with some people even paying ‘de-cluttering gurus’ to help them minimalise their lives. We got the chance to experience the benefits of living with less first-hand during our travels, and I have to say, it was super liberating. Carrying my whole life in a 60L backpack for a year and a half was the best proof (if I needed it) that most of my possessions aren’t really necessary. It’s amazing how little you need.
If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we learn the importance of base criteria (namely physiological needs, safety, and love/belonging) in order to ‘transcend’ into higher values like self-esteem and ultimately self-actualisation. Otherwise known as achieving our personal goals, whether that’s in career, parenthood, or something else entirely. This is a fascinating model for many reasons, and it goes far to explain why – if we just aim for success alone – we’re sometimes left feeling empty, dissatisfied or low.
What we learnt from travelling is that by minimalising our lives and only satisfying those crucial base needs – like food, water, shelter, sufficient money – we opened ourselves up to focus on feeling love and belonging. We simplified our criteria for happiness. We weren’t thinking about stuff, only people and places. Experiences. We forged connections through traveller friends, small daily interactions with locals, through standing in awe of places and experiences.
Life was simpler, because we were focussing on fulfilling those basic needs, without even thinking about spending money or energy on anything material. We couldn’t really carry much, and beyond a few souvenirs and practical purchases we were liberated from the myth that buying more and more stuff will somehow make us happier. When we bought a few jokey Christmas gifts for each other during our first Christmas together in the Philippines, we regretted it within a matter of weeks and ended up giving most of it away.
We learnt that those connections, those basic needs, are really all that matters. The energy, excitement and happiness we got from meeting people and connecting with places unrivalled anything I’d felt before. We came home to a room full of old artefacts from our previous lives, which almost seemed to mock us with how over-the-top and unnecessary they all were. Why did I have so many clothes? So many pairs of sunglasses? So much make-up? So many books and DVDs? It seemed like a museum full of things that didn’t really belong to me any more.
I started thinking about why I bought all this stuff in the first place, and it made me think of a quote from Don Draper in Mad Men, when he said: “Advertising is based on one thing, happiness. And you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.” I guess I’d bought all of this stuff as a way to feel like I was doing the right thing. Working 50-60 hour weeks was a good thing, because I could buy all these nice things that made me feel validated in what I was doing. I was also saving a lot of money with the eventual travel goal in mind, but I’d made these purchases too. Chasing more money to buy more things, be more frivolous. I’d feel myself rewarding particularly tough weeks and months at work with little shopping sprees or holidays, trying to keep myself motivated to work harder and harder.
But travelling made me realise that there’s another way. Work smarter, not harder, and save most of your earnings. No matter how much you earn, it’s possible to spend most of it by acquiring fancier tastes, and spending more frivolously. However, if you live super cheap, you can save a big chunk of your earnings which means you have to work less and either just enjoy life at home, or set off on travel adventures. These behaviours also mean whilst you’re away you can travel for longer in cheaper countries (if you so wish). It’s all about creating engrained behaviours, and enjoying saving money. It’s not for everyone!
Traditionally, earning a good wage was all about being able to provide for a family, but if the idea of starting a family isn’t for you (as I’m increasingly thinking), there are other ways to go, to minimalise your lifestyle.
If it’s possible to work in contracts / freelance in your chosen career, this is a way to earn (possibly bigger) money in a shorter time, or take some months off each year to free yourself up for adventures or passion projects (or just having fun!) the rest of the time. If you can scrape together the money to buy a small property, you can alternate between having a home you’re investing in, and hosting other travellers/renting it out, whilst you travel somewhere with cheaper living costs, and your mortgage pays itself off. We spent about a quarter of the money per month travelling (all-in) vs. what we would spend in a month in London – i.e. £500/month (all-in) vs. £2000+ to live in London. It’s far more financially achievable than you may think!
Having worked in marketing for 7+ years, I’ve seen the dark side of advertising and new product development. Creating need where none exists; over-selling products; manipulating consumers towards products or services that aren’t necessary, or even beneficial for them. Whether selling unhealthy food, placebo healthcare products, or credit cards, I’ve seen the ugly side of marketeers and their appetite to create need and brand worship for things that just aren’t necessary. I fall for this advertising all the time, as we all do, but it only pushes us into spending more, far more than we need to.
I’m not saying we all need to be monks that own nothing. But thinking harder about what we functionally need – rather than what we just want – has changed my thinking. Headphones to listen to music are needed; a food processor in my kitchen; new prescription sunglasses when my old ones break. ANOTHER dress, or pair of sandals, I probably don’t. I’m still weak and get drawn in by these purchases on occasion, but I’m trying my hardest to resist, and keep within a budget, selling old stuff when I can. I want to build a home with all the functional stuff I need, a few decorative things here and there, then STOP BUYING. If you buy quality for things that get most wear and tear (furnishings, shoes, coats) they tend to last a good few years, which is better for your bank balance and the environment too.
As Patricia Arquette’s character in the brilliant film Boyhood says in her 40s – ‘I spent the first half of my life acquiring all this stuff, now I’ll spend the second half of my life getting rid of it all’. Hopefully, I can just acquire less stuff to begin with so the stuff I own doesn’t start owning me.