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.