Back to the Future: The Older I Get, the Less I Want

These days it takes very little to make Brett and I happy. Experiences, not things, are what bring us joy. We’ve learned over the past 16 or so months as we’ve traveled that we can live very nicely with very little. Our favorite Airbnb is still the small (less than 300 square feet) studio apartment we stayed at when in Strasbourg, where we learned we could live in a very small space as long as we had a comfortable bed and a comfortable sofa (in that apartment they were the same thing!). We’ve found the two of us don’t even need a dining table anymore. We just don’t need much of anything these days.

It wasn’t always that way though. I used to want all the stuff. I wanted to have everything. When Brett retired from the navy in 1992 and we moved back to the U.S. from Japan, our household goods shipment weighed 12,500 pounds! That’s a LOT of stuff, especially for just three people. When we got it all unpacked and put away, our home looked and felt like an overstuffed museum of Japanese antiques and other goods.

Thankfully things changed. When we moved to Hawaii in 2014, we shipped only 4,500 pounds for our then family of five, and the whole time we lived on Kaua’i Brett and I questioned whether we still owned too much stuff. When we left the island four years later we shipped just 1,000 pounds back for storage on the mainland, and this December we expect to get rid of a third to half of that. We now have less than 10 of the items we initially brought back from Japan.

Back in 2010, when we were struggling and loaded with debt, it was helpful for me to remember how I felt back when we almost lost our stuff, that it was all just stuff and I didn’t need to accumulate more to live a happy life. I’m much happier these days with less and knowing that others are taking joy from and using the many things we were willing to let go.

The Older I Get, The Less I Want

When Brett retired from the navy, it was at the end of a three and a half year tour in Japan. He spent most of that tour deployed on an aircraft carrier while I spent most of those years shopping and accumulating stuff. Up until then we had always lived fairly simply and had not acquired much because of the small weight allowance for moving our household goods, but right at the beginning of our Japan tour our household goods allowance was upped by several thousand pounds. In the second year of the tour, Brett received a promotion, and along with a nice pay raise he also received another increase in our household goods allowance.

I, to put it mildly, went nuts. Shopping became my primary form of recreation, a way to keep busy while Brett was gone and our son was busy with school and friends. I was teaching English at the time, making good money, and all I did was buy, buy, buy, especially antiques. We came home with 15 (yes, 15!) antique tansu (Japanese chests) of all types and sizes, loads of antique porcelain and lots of other items I had convinced myself we had to have and couldn’t leave Japan without owning. I told myself all these things were an investment. Looking back, I don’t think there was a day that I wasn’t shopping somewhere for something. It was almost obscene how much I shopped. The only good thing, if I can claim it, was that I paid cash for everything; we had no debt and actually had a decent savings account as well. And, the shopping stopped as soon as we arrived home in the U.S.

Our household goods were scheduled to arrive back in the States about 4-5 weeks after we did. Four weeks arrived though and there was no shipment or any word about it. At five weeks we called to check on things and were informed our shipment could not be located, that it had been lost and they were trying to find it. Initially, all I felt was panic, deep, deep panic that almost everything we owned was gone forever. However, in the next couple of days, something began to change. As I thought about having to start over, I also began to feel liberated, like an incredibly heavy weight had been lifted off my shoulders. As I moved through the near-empty rooms of the apartment we had just rented, I began to question why I had ever wanted all those things we had accumulated. While I felt deep, searing pain when I thought of the photo albums, the few of our son’s things I had kept from when he was a baby, and a few truly irreplaceable items that might be gone forever, for everything else I felt no attachment whatsoever. I wanted our simple life back again.

Our household goods were eventually found, delivered, and were squeezed into our small house, but they never held the same appeal for me they did when I bought them or when we lived in Japan. We’ve spent the years since Brett’s retirement slowly divesting ourselves of much of our Japan stuff. Brett was unemployed for almost three years following his retirement, and the sale of several of those items we had brought back saw us through some hard times, so maybe they were an investment after all. The sale of other items helped us fund our adoptions. But I haven’t missed one of them, and have never regretted that we sold them.

We now have less than half the weight of what we shipped back from Japan, even with the addition of three more children and a bigger house, and I would very much like to get rid of a lot more. I know now I can live, we all could, with much less than we have now and manage quite nicely. I just don’t want things anymore, not unless they’re functional and serve an important purpose in our lives. Shopping holds no thrill for me these days. The girls, of course, love having stuff, but for now, they want more for us to be out of debt than for them to own more. Brett, the King of the Pack Rats, still clings to his stuff, but even he has made immense strides in reducing his hoard. We’re getting there.

Maybe what’s been going on is a function of aging or just heredity. When we were children and used to visit our grandmother, she always let me and my siblings go through her things and choose something to take home because she was “thinning things out.” She said she didn’t need so many things anymore, even though she already lived very simply. As she has aged, my mother has divested herself of most of her possessions and lives in a small, uncluttered apartment. She’d rather travel than maintain or worry about a lot of stuff. Whatever the reason, it seems the older I get, the less I want as well.

The above was originally posted on July 26, 2010. I’m happy to report that Brett has given up his title as King of the Packrats. These days he’s a true minimalist, more so than I am.

18 thoughts on “Back to the Future: The Older I Get, the Less I Want

  1. oh, the stuff…at least you’ve got some use of all that. But the majority of people throw out so much stuff, I am genuinely worried that at some point we’ll end up buried by our own garbage that so abundantly generate. Just take a look at these huge department stores that are overflowing with stuff. Who needs all that and who’s going to buy it eventually?
    My husband and I lived almost 2 years in a small rented apartment of under 900 sqft and we had the same revelation- that is all we need.We had a wonderful time, we felt so liberated by not having to worry about much nor maintaining a lot of stuff. You’ve come a long way, good for you! Stay the course, none of us leaves this world with anything but what is in our soul and mind.

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    1. Selling that stuff saved us more than a few times. The Japanese stuff always brought in more than we paid for it, too.

      I agree with you about all the stuff that exists in the world. I actually start to feel anxious now when I’m in a home or other space where there’s a lot of stuff. There is a book that I can remember the name of that contains pictures of what families own in different countries around the world. Each family pictured was asked to bring out all their possessions in front of their house and then were photographed with it. Was that ever revealing! Of course the family from the U.S. had the most although a few other countries almost matched them.

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  2. How liberating! To be able to travel and not worry about all your stuff. To not have to spend time cleaning and sorting and packing and tidying. To not have to worry about insurance and theft and fires. To not have to have storage.

    I do love buying new things but I also want to scale down. I’d love to thin our kitchen – to only have one of our utensils. But Mr S is a pack rat, a hoarder, a “collector”. And worst of all, he doesn’t store his things nicely, doesn’t clean or dust or tidy. Just higilty-piglty. And he likes double of things in the kitchen and single use things. But to not ignore the log in mine own eye – I am thinning my hand bag “collection”.

    It’d be funny if the divesting of things was genetic rather than learned. Some mitochondrial that provokes ridding oneself of stuff! While another micro-thing is calling, in others, “More, more, more!”

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    1. It has been very liberating not to own or have to deal with stuff any more. Brett always jokes that these days we carry our net worth in our suitcases, but we really have very little stored away. I don’t miss the dusting, cleaning, etc. that comes along with owning stuff, and we have enjoyed packing up and leaving behind the stuff in the Airbnbs we’ve rented when it’s time to go, no longer responsible for any of it.

      It took us years though to get where we are now. We had and needed loads of stuff when we had children. But through the years we kept sloughing off the stuff and eventually got here. It was a long, slow process though. We’re happy to have arrived.

      Through my own very unscientific observation I have decided that men are actually more likely to become packrats then women. Mr. S sounds like many men I know.

      Some people like stuff and others don’t. Brett and I were a good combination in that I wanted to throw away everything and he wanted to keep everything – we kept each other in check.

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      1. I had lots of collections as well, but most of them are shared, like our coffee cup collection. I let a lot of them go when we moved, and downsized or got rid of the others.

        Brett’s whole family were/are packrats. It was a learned behavior and took him a long time to change. But he did and I’m very proud of him and the effort it took.

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  3. Tell me it is doable. The part I cannot stand giving up? The art that made our house our home. We did not collect furniture, but we did pick up a piece of art in every move. My parents and grandparents collected art as well. Agggg.
    Otherwise I am ready to sell most everything and move in three years. What will be in that house? Not much, besides art.

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    1. We used to have a LOT of art, Janette. We bought art everywhere we were stationed, and had a big collection of Japanese woodblock prints, both old and new. But we knew we couldn’t move it all to Hawaii, and kept the old stuff (some of which I bought on my first visit to Japan, when I was 18), and one woodblock print of a street in Japan (Ninenzaka in Kyoto) where I had walked with our son and later with our daughters. Almost all the other stuff went to auction, made us a very tidy sum, and I am happy now that others are enjoying them. We still have our framed Tokyo subway map, a small watercolor of Hong Kong we bought one evening from a street artist, and a gyotaku print (fish print) I made in a class I took. That’s it, none of it valuable but meaningful to us. What we have now is enough – every one of the pieces I kept makes us happy and therefore they’re the most valuable of all the art we once owned. They fill the rooms they’re in.

      We felt at times that we could not let any of it go, and then one day we could. I have other things though that I never use or put out, but cannot yet bear to part with (my collection of chopstick rests). I would feel like my heart had been ripped out if I had to give them up. Not sure why, but that’s where I am.

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  4. Ha! I am for sure living with the King of the Packrats. This year is going to be challenging, as we will be paying to move things from one house to another. We’ve already had a few “discussions” about stuff, and I know we’ll move more stuff than I’d prefer. That said, DH did bring me two things to sell on eBay the other day, neither of which I had any idea he had. That basement is a wonder and I can’t wait to see what else comes out of there. LOL.

    I used to shop for fun when I was working, too. My sense is that it filled a need when I was stressed over my job, bored in a strange city for work, etc. But since I retired, I have gotten rid of waaaay more than I’ve purchased, and I find myself needing less and less. I’m convinced it’s part of the aging process, but I could be wrong. I watched my mom clean out her mom’s apartment and swear she would not do that to her kids. In the past five years, she has given away so much she’s down to a small 2 bedroom assisted living apartment, and her hubby is the one who needs the larger closet. So maybe it’s genetic or maybe it’s learned behavior. 🙂

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    1. Shopping in Japan was always an adventure. You just never knew what you might find or how you might use it. We came home with Japanese dishes, furniture, art, antique kimonos, porcelain, cookware . . . everything, it seemed. Three of our tansu are in our friends’ home where we’re currently staying on Kaua’i – I see them every day and miss none of them. Their new owners love them and that makes me very happy.

      After years of observation, and from stories I’ve heard, I’ve decided that men are worse packrats then women. Men cannot bear to part with their things. We used to literally almost fill a dumpster with the stuff Brett kept everytime we transferred. These days all he needs is his iPad, his Kindle, and his phone and he’s happy. I hope it lasts.

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  5. I think decluttering is like peeling an onion. You just have to go one layer at a time. I also find it both exhausting while doing it – each item is a decision that needs to be made – but also exhilarating when I’m done. I often keep peeking in to look at the area I decluttered! After some time has passed and I return to declutter the same area, I find I can easily let go of items that during the prior pass I couldn’t bear to part with.

    I laughed out loud when I read your response to the first comment. Sitting on my table waiting to be listed on Ebay is “Material World: A global family portrait” by Peter Menzel! I loved looking at this book with my son when he was younger. Books are my kryptonite!

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    1. Material World! Yes! A very, very interesting look at how different places in the world manage stuff.

      We often found that with the passage of time, things we initially weren’t able to part with weren’t so worthy of keeping after all. When we moved to Hawai’i, we also asked ourselves with every item, “Do we want to pay to ship this?” More often than not the answer was “no.”

      My favorite pictures were the ones the realtor had taken when our house was being sold. The whole place had been stripped down and looked amazing (and beautiful, too). We still sold several more things after we sold our house, but those pictures are my inspiration whenever I think I might want stuff again.

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  6. Joining those who have husbands who are “collectors”! We are in the process of trying to clean out our garage and donate/toss/give to family. It is so painful for my husband; even getting rid of empty cardboard boxes is a challenge as in “but we might need them”. Not to mention box after box of his Mother’s things (no idea what’s in them) and she passed away in 2005! My own weakness is books, books, and more books! To the point that some of our grandchildren consider me their “lending library” and borrow books to take home when they are visiting. We know that we will most likely need to move one more time which should be enough motivation to get serious about right-sizing. Your post is very helpful. Thanks for that.

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    1. We started out with TONS of books (20+ cartons when we moved from Japan), but slowly divested ourselves of them by selling them to Powell’s City of Books or putting others out at yard sales. They are an emotional item, and it is very had to let them go, but once we did it was very freeing.

      One thing I’ve thought of recently is that if you have a place to store stuff somewhere else where it’s not easy to get to, you could try that for a year or so, especially with books. If you don’t need to look at any of them in a year, then you probably don’t need them at all and can let them go. This is something I’d start out slowly doing though. It could be true for other items as well. We’ve realized over the past 18 months that much of what we put into storage at our friends we don’t need or want any more, while when we were getting ready to go we couldn’t imagine living without it.

      Brett was like your husband back in the day. We discovered that if he had only one small task to complete every month he could get it done and then it motivated him to do more. We discovered during our pre-Hawaii move decluttering a big box of cancelled checks from the early 1980s! Why we held on to that for nearly 20 years I still don’t know. They all had our social security numbers on them as well as that was required to use checks in military commissaries and exchanges. Thank goodness that box never got stolen!

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  7. After my husband passed I couldn’t bear to get rid of ANYTHING!! As time has passed and I had a 75% of my home damaged by a water leak I have trimmed a lot of things down. Now that it’s been a year since the flooding incident and I’ve not used many things that are in storage, I will be making another huge donation to Goodwill this Spring! It is a truly eye opening experience to realize how well you can do with so little…

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    1. I think I would not be able to downsize for a long while if I lost Brett, so I’m glad we’re getting this done now. Having our stuff in storage while we’re on the road has helped us realize we neither want nor need much of it. Some of it is the girls’ and will go back with them, but we kept stuff we’ll never use again so it will be passed along. I love the freedom from having to maintain so many things, all the constant dusting, etc.

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  8. I’m 38 and have a large family. I have seriously, seriously decluttered the house. My husband is such a lovely guy but still has TONS of lego that he never, ever, ever uses but can’t bear to part with it. I entirely blame his parents because all 4 of his siblings ‘collect’. I’m still hoping to convince him to pare down more. I feel I have truly minimised my things. All those online ‘let’s get rid of’ articles all mention things I have no duplicates of or don’t even have at all. It did take a near emotional breakdown for me to toss so much.

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    1. I sure get that “coming from a family of ‘collectors” you mention – that was Brett. He was the one though that kept asking himself if he wanted to pay to move some stuff that he had kept and he always said no, it wasn’t worth it. That’s what helped him get over his urges to ‘collect’ and ‘save because I might need this someday.’ I have to say that like your husband’s Legos, I have a box filled with over 400 Japanese chopstick rests that I haven’t done anything with for over 20 years. There is no way I could part with them. I’ve been thinking about them a lot recently, and have finally figured out a way to display them once we settle, so that’s a start. But I get holding on to something that others can’t figure out.

      As I say over and over, downsizing and decluttering is a process, and one that takes time and a great deal of thought. It is hard work to let go of our stuff. The process can bring joy and relief, but it can also be emotionally draining.

      The older I get the more I enjoy minimalism. I’ll never be a true minimalist, but I’m getting close.

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