For the last five years I’ve been living out of a suitcase. After college graduation, I spent years working outside of America without returning. I moved across continents, living in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Despite my current reputation as a jet-setter and nomad, I used to always hate living out of a suitcase. I dreaded packing and unpacking. I always felt like I was forgetting something, or found myself missing items I left back in my parents’ basement. My first real experience with the suitcase lifestyle was attending high school in rural Japan at age 16.
Confessions of a Stubborn Pack-Rat:
I am an only child, and I had an obsession with interior design to the point of neurosis. I used to enrage my mom clipping apart her magazines for pictures of patterns and interiors that pleased my eyes. In my head, I was “the Turkish version of Martha Stewart,” with a room decked in many shades of orange, filled with eclectic items from Asia and the Middle East. All through college I took great pride and satisfaction in the appearance of my home, always having the most chic apartment amongst my friends.
I also had a treasure trove of clothes. I had stayed mostly the same size since age 14, so the clothes had been piling up since I hate wasting things. I tried my best to limit the excess, giving clothes to cousins and friends, but like most of my family, my idea of “limited,” was far from minimalism. My dad is x-military and is always prepared for everything from natural disasters to nuclear war. My mom’s a collector, and loves “stuff.” Like many Americans, their basements and garage were packed to the ceiling until recently.
Living in Japan was a great experience, but with the help of my parents, I massively over-packed. Because I also bought many things in Japan too, I even purchased another luggage to bring everything home. After Japan, I had caught the travel bug, and I started to take frequent trips around Asia and the Middle East by myself.
Transition from Fanciful Pack-Rat to Nomadic:
The lifestyle change wasn’t easy, but it became increasingly obvious that I must live with less if I wanted to see the world. I didn’t accept this reality easily though; I stubbornly fought it tooth and nail. I developed every trick in the world to pack as much crap as possible on every trip and international move. With the “Middle Eastern” mentality of a natural hustler, I found every loophole in the book to try to get free extra luggage or somehow carry more than was allowed. I kept a small backpacking backpack stuffed full with over 40 pounds of luggage, passing it off as my carry-on. I also brought my student ID card with me, performing teary stories about studying abroad on a scholarship to airline managers in hopes of obtaining extra free-checked luggage, and it usually even worked (ironically it only failed in Turkey). For years, I was convinced I could get away with a life of excess, and so I insisted to continue to pack-rat around globe. I would even make my parents dig around the basement on “scavenger hunts,” bringing me countless items when they and friends visited me abroad (sorry mom & dad!). However, the sensation of “carrying the world” on my shoulders with all my unwieldy luggage was becoming too great of a burden for this 120 pound woman to lug around.
Why I changed?
- A big part of it was money. (I guess I’m cheap, but I’m still an economist, so it’s my job to know how to economize.) The airlines were getting stricter and cutting costs, allowing less free checked luggage. I was already spending a big chunk of my budget on travel, and in order to make the most of it, I needed to cut down buying new crap, and I didn’t need the extra luggage fees either.
- I was sore and tired from lugging around so much crap around the world. It was getting ridiculous. I actually budgeted for massages after each flight because of this.
- It was a huge hassle. I always struggled with packing so much, and it made every flight stressful. I also had to get to the airport early to have enough time to fight with the airlines and then I had to spend the rest of the time waiting with a massive backpack in the lounge. This could all have been avoided.
- I was terrified of becoming stuck. I made a resolution to myself to live life as much as I can, and it’s important to me to be able to be mobile and flexible. Having many things does not bring you freedom. It traps you. I see this with many friends and family who are eager to move and/or travel the world, but do not because they don’t know what they would do with all the stuff they keep in their homes or apartments. I refuse to become like this. I don’t want possessions or a luxurious lifestyle to make me become sedentary or overly complacent in life. The opportunity cost of luxury just isn’t worth it.
- I had a serious health scare and I realized how little all the things you own matter compared to the preciousness of life, memories, and the relationships you build.
Strive for Balance:
I recently read a book called the Life Nomadic, where the author sold almost everything he owned, traveling and living out of a small bag with only 2 pairs of underwear, socks, 3 shirts, 1 pair of pants and a few other things. The book was a good quick read and certainly inspirational, but a bit too much for me. I strive toward greater simplicity, but I know that this lifestyle is too much even for me. We all have our own comfort levels and necessities (some people have health problems and other special needs, etc), so you should strive for balance, rather than a crazed sense of minimalism. If you are obsessive with minimalism it kind of defeats the purpose of simplicity, which is to clear your mind and make life easier. Here are some of my more balanced tips for life and travel though:
Travel Light, Travel Well:
1. Limit your baggage, reduce your emotional load. — I now try my best to do all trips and international moves with a maximum of one checked luggage and a small carry-on with essentials. When I travel for less than a month I try to keep it limited to the carry-on. The exception to both of these rules is when I’m bringing a large number of presents for other people, but even then I try to keep to my limit.
2. Buy the right luggage. —I really recommend luggage with 360 wheels and light framed cloth luggage with extendable zippers. These wheels will make your life a world easier when traveling. Unless you’re traveling to Brazil regularly, don’t go for the biggest bag being sold. You will only be tempted to buy/bring too much junk, and you will easily make your luggage overweight (unless flying to Brazil where you can bring 32 Kilos). I’m a big fan of Samsonite. You can buy the suitcases for a discounted price at Ross, TJ Maxx, or the outlet stores if you’re in America. The bags are great and have a 10 year warranty. If you’re going to a developing country or a natural place that might not have the best roads, go for a quality backpacking backpack (mine is a discontinued bag from Cabela’s from more than 10 years ago, so you can’t really buy that). Get one with a cross strap and good lumbar support so you carry the weight on your hips, not your shoulders. A backpack is ideal if you are planning to cover a lot of distance in your trip, and will be staying in different places and using multiple types of public transportation. (After years of lugging duffle bags and backpacks to save extra weight for my junk, I’m opting for a suitcase now, but in the future if I do more extensive trips, I might opt for the backpack instead of the suitcase.)
3. Consolidate everything, wherever possible. This means not having a thousand electronic devices, cables, shoes, clothes, etc. I’m a big fan of multi-functional things, but also remember when you consolidate, and things break, you can be even more screwed. Use USB chargers with multifunction adapters. Consider wearing comfortable shoes that are still a little stylish so you can walk long distances in them (I don’t wear anything I can’t walk less than 3 miles in. I also don’t buy/keep anything that can’t take somewhat of a beating. You never know where your day will take you, so it’s good to be prepared. I save a lot of money by walking everywhere and only taking public transit, and I also exercise enough between running, walking, and a bit of pilates at home to not need a gym membership.)
4. The magic of rubber bands & ziploc bags & other handy tools — I never travel without these two items. I have become a big fan of “rolling” for packing. I always thought it was annoying and messed up your clothes, but it’s the best way to save space in your bag, and it actually is a lot easier to get to things quickly. For larger items like towels or jackets, I have resorted to using cloth hair ties to keep them in a smaller space. I also rolls like shirts and pants together, and tie them with the bands. Ziploc bags are also a life saver for organizing your things and keeping any liquids from ruining your things. I always use one ziploc bag to collect small papers to save from my trip, and another for important documents and receipts. This keeps your papers from getting destroyed by water damage as well. (My dad also brings duck tape and a tape measurer; both can be useful)
5. Find your signature item & own it — I’m not ready to wear gray shirts and jeans every day, but some people might be. I wish I had this kind of control, but I’m not there yet, and I probably won’t ever be, and that’s okay. I’m still a bit vein when it comes to appearance and style because I strongly believe in the power of branding. My all time favorite signature item is a pearl necklace my grandma gave me. Pearls are simple, timeless, and elegant, and add class to simple outfits. (I realize this doesn’t work for guys.) When I’m in developing countries I tend to lose the pearls and use my favorite green earrings and necklace that I bought from Bedouin women in Sinai/the Sahara. If accessories aren’t your thing, that’s fine—pick a color or favorite shirt, etc. It doesn’t have to seem expensive or fancy, but make sure whatever the item is, it’s very “you.”
(My signature earrings/shirt)
(“Red Dress” with 500 Startups friends — #500strong)
My other signature items are a red dress and a shirt I bought in Central Anatolia. Whatever your item(s) are, make sure they are durable, and have versatile use. The idea is not to become “more materialistic” (remember you can lose your signature item, and you’re still YOU!), but rather to focus on a few things that you love. This makes it easier to NOT buy more things, because you know you wouldn’t want to use anything else.
The Journey of Your Life: Becoming a Better Minimalist
6. The 80-20 Rule—The Pareto principle, or also known as “the law of vital few.” This basically means that only 20% is crucial to the whole. Like 20% of your customers might generate 80% of your revenue, you wear only 20% of your clothes 80% of the time. Basically 80% of the things you use come only from 20% of the things you own. This ratio is the norm, but let’s try to be lean, and pair down.
I highly suggest the exercise of trying to live out of a suitcase. It doesn’t matter if you are traveling or not; pack your bag and try to live only off of those things for a few weeks. Take inventory of what you pack and don’t, and you will realize how few of your possessions are actually essential of your life. You will be surprised with how few of your things you actually use. We all do this: we have favorite shirts/shoes/pants/dresses/bags, and we use them until we wear them out, leaving the rest of our closets full of things we never touch. What’s the point of this? Don’t keep lying to yourself. See what it’s like to be a nomad without leaving home by trying living out of a suitcase. It will amaze you. (It wasn’t until moving back to California and living on friends couches for a few months before finding work that I finally completed the transformation to minimalism. Living out of a messenger bag with only a handful of adaptable outfits and electronics was eye opening. I didn’t get rid of EVERYTHING after that, but it helped me to pair down a lot more.)
7. Stay Small & Functional — If you must collect some things, try to keep them small and limited. When I actually buy things (which is not that often), these days I am limiting myself to only purchasing small and functional items. I mainly just purchase notebooks (I still like to brainstorm on paper), earrings (I recently pierced my ears, so I only have a few pairs), and shoes (I destroy shoes incredibly fast from walking so much). If this gets excessive though, it loses its purpose. Figure out what you actually NEED/USE regularly, and then make that something you collect. Limiting yourself to the types of items you buy can help keep you from making impulse buys of random crap. Don’t make buying/collecting an obsession though. If you get enough of these things, then don’t keep buying them until you have mountains of them.
8. Go Digital.—I’m still sentimental and love collecting odd items from around the world, but instead of buying them, I mostly just take photos of them and the places they are from instead. I may have albums full of things I may never look at again, but at least it’s on my cloud drive and not in my closet. If you love books, try getting a kindle and also doing audible instead. Even my librarian mom is starting to prefer the idea of a digital library at her fingertips instead of a house full of books. This is also a great way to access things anywhere anytime.
9. Just the Paper –Okay, so I said go digital, but I still love old fashioned notebooks and journals. Paper is a great way to get your ideas out without distraction. (Evernote is a great alternative for going digital, but it’s nice to have a notebook when you’re taking off in a plane or your battery is dead.) I also collect odd scraps of paper and propoganda posters, because they are small and can fit in a folder, amuse me, and make great collages for my friends (I always make my own cards from postcards and collages for my friends. I’m all about recycling.) Moderation is still key (I limit myself to one ziploc bag per major international trip).
(A present for a friend—collage card wrapped in tin foil with magazine cutout. )
10. Buy less. Before buying new things, whether you are traveling or at home, ask yourself, do I really need this? Will this really make me happier? Think about the opportunity cost: If you don’t buy this, what experiences could you instead save for to make your life richer?
Even when it comes to buying presents for others, it really is the thought that counts. Opt for more sustainable gifts that won’t clutter your friends’ and family’s life like experiences, or recyclable/functional items. I’m a big fan of taking friends to lunch, making them collages (from the odd images I collect in my plastic folder), and only buying them things I know they will use and need when I do buy things. Books and ebooks are also great gifts. Years later my friends still tell me that they have the letters and collages that I made for them when I lived in other countries.