Minimalism Suits Us

Our home in 1992 following Brett’s retirement and the delivery of our household goods from Japan. We had So. Much. Stuff.

Brett and I were talking this past week about when he retired from the navy in 1992, and how much stuff we had back then. Up until his final tour in Japan we had always lived fairly simply and had never acquired or accumulated much because we only had a very small weight allowance for moving our household goods. During the second year of our last tour, when we were in Japan, Brett received a promotion, and along with a nice pay raise also we received a huge increase in our household goods weight allowance. My reaction to that was to shop incessantly.

Shopping was my primary form of recreation while we were living in Japan. Beyond Brett’s income, I made good money teaching English conversation, and I did nothing with my earnings but buy, buy, buy, especially antiques. I attended every monthly bazaar, hit all the local shops and stores, took shopping tours, and visited monthly antique sales held at Japanese shrines. We came home with an assortment of 15 antique tansu (Japanese chests), loads of antique porcelain, antique kimonos, and tons other things that I had convinced myself we couldn’t leave Japan without owning. Looking back, there probably wasn’t a day that I wasn’t shopping somewhere for something. I didn’t know what I really wanted so I bought everything.

I believe our first wakeup call to minimalism came when our household goods shipment from Japan failed to arrive back in the U.S. on time, and we were told it could no be located anywhere in the system, that it was lost. Deep, deep panic that almost everything we owned was gone forever was our first emotion.

But something changed in both of us as we waited for news about our shipment. We also began to admit to feeling somewhat liberated by the thought of not owning all those things. I began to question why I had ever wanted to buy and own so much stuff, and realized the thrill had been in the hunt, not the owning. I felt deep, searing pain whenever I thought about losing photo albums and other personal and truly irreplaceable items that might be gone forever. For everything else however, I discovered I felt no real attachment whatsoever. What I wanted was our simple, uncluttered life back again.

We have spent the last 30 years divesting ourselves of all those Japan things. We have enjoyed them while they were with us, but the sale of the items has financed countless adventures, vacations, and other undertakings. Selling some of the items helped get us through some difficult financial times and helped fund the girls’ adoptions, payed off debt, got us to Hawaii, and launched our last Big Adventure. Selling the remaining items now is helping us save for our next adventure.

Brett and discovered during our travels that we were very satisfied living with only what we could fit in our suitcases. What we carried with us in those suitcases was enough, and it was the experiences we shared that made us happy and filled us up, not the things we owned.

Minimalism fits the nomadic life we crave now as we work toward an even more minimal lifestyle. Nothing we have sold over the years has been missed, and the same is true now. We are eager to divest ourselves of more, and the fewer things we have in our apartment these days, the happier we seem to become. Our daughters will go through their and our things this Christmas, and take back with them the items they want to keep. Almost everything else we own will eventually go, and in the end we will keep only what can be packed into a suitcase and taken to our daughter’s home for storage. We don’t need anything else.

Maybe this final turn toward minimalism is a function of aging, maybe it’s heredity, at least for me. Who knows? When I was young my grandmother always let me 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 any more, even though she already lived simply. My mother also got rid of most of her possessions and downsized when she got older. She would rather have traveled than maintained or worried about a lot of stuff, which is where we’re at now as well. I used to call Brett the “king of the packrats” as he used to hold onto everything, but he has also fully embraced minimalism these days and has a small footprint.

Whatever the reason, as the time passes the less both of us want to own and maintain. It’s an adventure for both of us as we learn what we no longer need or want, and what it’s time to give up. We remain a bit surprised by how well we like living with less, how easily we adapt, and we are looking forward to future of living out of a suitcase once again, this time with nothing left behind to tie us down.

Adventures in Downsizing

How soon is too soon to start when you want to get rid of everything? That’s the question we’re struggling with these days. Is it too early now to start letting things go, or should we wait until next year or even right before we plan to go? Are there things we can live without now versus waiting until next year or right before we leave? Are we ready to embrace real minimalism?

We’ve sold a few things already that have been sitting around unused and taking up space, and that the girls have said they don’t want. A small TV, a lightbox, a lampshade, a Le Creuset baking pan, and my stand mixer have all found new owners. I put our three Japanese hibachis up for sale a couple of weeks ago, more to see if there was any interest, but while I got a lot of views there have were no takers, even after I lowered the price. So, they’re going to be listed at my Etsy shop instead and we’ll see how they do there.

It isn’t easy to figure out what to do with other items we’d like to sell. Would they sell better as an individual item through Buy & Sell, or on Etsy, or at a garage sale? Is the item something I’m willing to ship or would the cost of that outweigh what we can get for the item?

Pricing will the biggest issue we face, especially living in Hawaii. Postage back to the mainland is quite expensive, and could push the price of several items up too high. We have to accept for some items that we will never receive their true value, and will can only hope to get what we paid for them. For example, our beautiful big hibachi table will have to go for thousands less than it’s worth – we’ve seen similar sized hibachis selling online for over $4000, but I know we’ll be very fortunate to get $600 for it here, as well as the custom stand, glass top, and antique plate inside. That’s still more than we paid for everything, but we can’t take it with us and shipping it would be more expensive and more of a pain than would be worthwhile. I will be happy though if someone else is happy about getting it. I can always tell when someone is thrilled to have gotten an item and that makes it easier to let go of.

I’m grateful for the time we have to figure this out. Selling everything is going to be a bigger task than I initially imagined, but if we’re smart, time will be our friend. We were shocked by how much stuff our neighbors still had right before they moved, where they ended up having to hire a truck to haul away what didn’t sell. Our goal is to end up with no more items than will fit into the trunk of our car to go to the resale store when it’s time to go.

Let the Downsizing Begin!

Brett and I made a command decision a couple of weeks ago that we will not be putting anything into storage again when we set off on Big Adventure II. Just about everything will be sold, including most of our Japanese antiques. Anything we keep will need to be small enough to be packed in a box and affordably mailed to one of our daughters on the mainland, including art work.

The decision was made after lots of discussion about what we should keep along with the cost of shipping those items back to mainland once again. Besides the expense of shipping our goods back to the mainland, the movers losing a large box of our stuff and our shipment not being packed very well when we left Kaua’i last time played a major part in our decision. The main thing though is that we want less to own and be responsible for while we travel.

We’ve been storing several things for the girls but have let them know they will need to go through their things while they’re here in December and decide what they want to keep and what they can let go of. For example, we’ve been storing WenYu’s first guitar, a Fender Mini-Strat and its amplifier, and she’s already let us know she intends to take that back with her when she visits this December. But the cute “hat lamp” she’s had since she was a baby and was so insistent on keeping before she now no longer wants. It will most likely be the same with many other items they couldn’t bear to part with before.

Because the girls are adults, we will also be giving them all their official paperwork (birth certificates, adoption paperwork, diplomas, etc.). They will also get the packet of clothing they were wearing when we received them in China and that we’ve kept for them all these years. They will each be carrying back a piece of art work (or two) of their choosing when they depart as well – they’ve already agreed to that. We will be taking some things to Japan next year when we visit, things that our son should have to either keep or dispose of.

We’ve already started selling a few things as we’d rather have the money in our bank account now than those things sitting around unused, or in a closet collecting dust. Our goal is to sell at least two things each month. At the end of last month we sold my apple green KitchenAid stand mixer because I had not used even once in the last year; my hand mixer is more convenient these days and gets the job done. I listed the KA on our local Buy & Sell group and it sold in less than half an hour for the full asking price. The next day we sold a Noguchi pendant lamp that we can’t use. Last week we listed an ultra-thin light box that WenYu no longer needs and a small TV that YaYu didn’t want to keep. Those sold in a couple of days so we’ll probably list something else this month to keep the ball rolling. After the girls are here for Christmas we’ll reassess what else we can let go, and we’ll have a garage sale right before we depart in 2023 with anything that’s remaining.

We’ve learned during the last few years that downsizing and getting rid of stuff isn’t the worse thing in the world, and there’s nothing we’ve previously sold or given away that we miss. Our kids don’t want our stuff, and we’d plan to live very minimally when we eventually settle, so this is the right thing for us to do, and there’s no reason like the present to get started.

The Kids Don’t Want Our Stuff

Many of our treasures came from Japanese flea markets. Our kids could care less. (photo credit: Astrit Malsija/Unsplash)

When we’ve talked with our daughters the past few weeks we’ve mentioned that we’d like them to think about what things of ours they might want, including artwork, antiques, and so forth.

The silence has been deafening.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, Meiling mentioned that while she likes our things and knows some of them are valuable, they just aren’t her style, and she thought her sisters pretty much felt the same. She said we should sell what we don’t want before we go and put the money toward our travels.

I was honestly a bit surprised by her thoughts at first. We think our stuff is unique, beautiful, high quality, and valuable, and we’ve worked hard to curate it over the years. But after some thought I realized I never wanted any of my parent’s stuff either, nice as some of those things were. I wanted to collect to my own taste and decorate my own way as well.

Walking through an estate sale is up near the top of my list of depressing experiences. After doing a couple of those I decided I would do anything in my power not to have my children ever have to go through that. Going through a house filled with old books, linens, dishes, bric-a-brac, clothing, furniture, out-of-date technology, dirty tools, etc. that no one in the family wanted was very sad for me. According to Forbes magazine, most children don’t want their parent’s treasured possessions these days. And, as we have found out, a parent’s interest in collections does not automatically pass on to their children.

We now intend to sell and donate the things we won’t want, need or plan to use in the future. We’re not going to get rid of everything, but will downsize once again from what we currently own. We’ll hold a yard sale before we leave Hawaii, and put other items on our local Facebook Marketplace to reduce the cost of shipping what we do keep back to the mainland once again.

When we downsized for our move to Kaua’i in 2014, Brett and I came to enjoy the process as we went along, and found that going through our things before we let them go could be fun at times. We read and reminisced about all the letters that Brett and I had sent to each other during his time in the navy and then shredded them (because we would have been mortified if our children had seen many of them). We talked about books we had read and enjoyed before we sold or donated them. We sold or passed on things to people who wanted them. Done in a period of over a year, downsizing was a very positive experience for us. We have missed nothing we got rid of then.

The kids don’t want our stuff, but we hope to make further downsizing a positive experience once again. Because we have so many fewer things now than in the past, letting things go will require a bit more thought than it did before, but I’m pretty sure we will once again end up keeping just the right amount, and we’ll be happy and satisfied with the result.

Simple Living or Frugal Living?

(photo credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash)

A couple of days ago I was remembering an old friend in Portland, someone I considered to be quite frugal. One of her many skills was finding and buying bulk food deals for her family (four children) and I recalled her telling someone that she kept three freezers full of all her frugal finds.

Three freezers? I remember thinking at the time that there was no way I would want to manage or keep track of three freezers full of food, which was w-a-y more complication than I needed or wanted to take on in our similarly-sized family’s quest to live more frugally.

That got me thinking again about frugal living versus simple living. What am I trying to accomplish now? Which is more important to me these days?

Although frugality and simplicity make a good match, living frugally does not always equal living simply. For example, even if I only shopped at Goodwill, other thrift stores, or yard sales, if I bought a lot of stuff and brought it home, that wouldn’t be living simply although it saved me some money over buying new. I’d still end up with more stuff that I have to track and maintain. If I drove all over town to get the best deal with coupons, that would use both time and gasoline in the pursuit of saving a few dollars. In my life, maintaining a closet full of clothes, keeping track of a lot of food, or taking the time to drive all over town are complicated undertakings, and there are plenty of other things I’d rather be doing.

My definition of simple living is doing more with less. This does not mean not looking for the best prices, having reserves or buying extra when something is on sale, or enjoying the hunt at a thrift store or yard sale. It means setting limits that work for us. Being frugal for frugality’s sake isn’t an end in itself. Frugality means that Brett and I continue to learn how to do things better with less.

We remain a work in progress. One freezer full of food along with a well-stocked pantry would be more than enough for us, too much actually, these days. I like knowing what we have without having to resort to spreadsheets or calendars in order to use what’s on hand in a timely manner. We have enough clothes. We have much less furniture than we did three years ago, and it’s more than plenty for the two of us. Less means it’s simpler these day to keep our house clean, open, and light.

More than anything else we’ve done, being able to cut back on not just possessions but on the time we spend acquiring possessions (including food) has allowed us to focus more on saving and as well as doing a better job of saving. It’s frankly been liberating, and helped both Brett and I get to the core of what we need to feel secure, content and even happy.

Just becoming more frugal wasn’t the answer for us because frugal living didn’t necessarily equal simple living, and that has turned out to be our ultimate goal: A simple life.

What simple living means to me or our family might either be too complicated or too bare-bones for someone else. Everyone has their own “sweet spot.” For my friend, that meant having three freezers full of food. For me, it has meant not only spending within our means, but having more time to do the things we enjoy, and not feel burdened by the need to always be in search of the best deal or “have it all.”

The Neighborhood Next to Ours

The neighborhood next to ours in Portland

Back when we lived in Portland, the neighborhood next to ours was filled with street after street of large, beautiful homes, with big, green, well-manicured lawns and exquisite landscaping. The homes run the gamut of styles, from English Tudor to French Provincial, 50s Post Modern to Old Portland Foursquare, Mediterranean to Dutch Colonial. Volvos, BMWs, Mercedes and other high-end or new cars often sat in the driveways, and several of the homes had swimming pools. It seemed at least two, if not more, homes on each block had signs in the yards proclaiming that renovations, remodeling, or landscaping work was currently taking place there. The streets were lined with huge, leafy elms which kept the streets cool and inviting even on the hottest days, which was why I enjoyed walking there in the evenings during the summer.

It used to be my dream to live in this neighborhood. I wanted a beautiful lawn and landscaping, a bigger house for our family, a big elm tree in front. And for a while, Brett and I probably could have bought one of these homes. We instead bought a cheap house with a tiny yard up the hill from this neighborhood, with no trees at all in front. That turned out to be one of the best decisions we ever made considering what happened to Brett’s income a few years later. Because we bought the cheap house we were able to weather his loss of income and then climb out of the debt that we accrued. We’d have gone bankrupt if we’d bought the bigger house, but instead made a profit when we sold our house before moving to Hawaii.

The cheap house turned out to be a great house, perfect for our family in a perfect location.

These days I shudder when I think about the prices of homes for sale here on Kaua’i, or in other places we considered moving, and the annual taxes on those homes. I can only imagine how much the upkeep would be, as well as things like heating them in the winter or cooling in the summer. We had a small patio installed at our cheap house, a real wake-up call to what extensive landscaping and maintenance would cost (a LOT). I don’t even want to think of how much we would have paid to furnish a larger home, even with vintage or used furniture. Actually, a bigger home would probably have ended up mostly unfurnished, but I’m sure we would still have been craving stuff to fill it rather than feel satisfied with what we had. We would have been living in neighborhood full of Joneses, trying to keep up with and most likely failing and feeling miserable about it.

This is our dream apartment for the future. Brett and I can happily imagine living a space this size these days (photo credit: Beazy/Unsplash)

I never saw it coming back then, how minimalism has become more and more attractive to us as we grow older. We don’t want or desire so much space now, so much room to fill and maintain. We’ve learned how to live in small spaces, including how to carve out individual space so we don’t feel crowded, even in a one-room studio. The older we get, the fewer things we want to own. It’s been a surprising journey finding how little we need or want, and what we can easily let go of.

I can no longer imagine myself in one of those big houses back in Portland. These days I admire houses around the island but don’t covet them any more. I’m no longer looking at real estate websites and dreaming about the houses that might work for us somewhere. Our dreams these days are of living in other places around the world, borrowing someone else’s house for a month or so, for as long as we are able, and then finally ending up in a small apartment, with just the right amount of stuff.

Imagining the Next Downsize

Only some of these things will be kept the next time around.

The other day I took two houseplants that weren’t doing so well and set them out on our front porch (where they almost instantly revived). With the plants gone, I was able to move a few things around in our living room which somehow managed to give it a fresher, more uncluttered and open look. I was surprised that the removal of only two items and a few other small changes facilitated such a big change in how the otherwise small room feels. Less had created more.

Brett and I are already starting to think about what we’ll ship back to the U.S. when we leave Kaua’i in a couple of years, and what we can let go of this time. Last time we sent back around 1,500 pounds for storage; we hoping for around 500 pounds this time. We already know we’ll be able to let go of more now, a reminder that downsizing and decluttering remain a process, not a one-time-and-you’re-done task. We know that was unbearable to let go of before can become bearable over time, and maybe even desired, and that we have a very different sense these days of what we want to live with than we did when we set off back in 2018.

While I think I already do a good job of not accumulating things, I came across an article the other day for decluttering or downsizing a room that I wish I had thought of or known about earlier, an idea which I plan to use mentally over the next couple of years as the actual process would be impossible given our current space. The exercise requires removing absolutely everything out of a room you want to declutter, from furniture to pictures to tchotchkes. Everything. When the room is completely cleared out, it’s deep cleaned it from top to bottom (and repainted if needed or desired).

The room should then sit empty for at least three days, but longer if possible while careful thought is given to the desired result for the room. After that, items should be slowly brought back into the room, maybe over a period of days, until the imagined result is reached. After that, everything else can go. The happy result should be a decluttered room with less needed than one initially imagined.

While we’re unable to do the empty room thing now, Brett and I will instead imagine a future empty space, and think carefully about how we’d like our room(s) to look. Our days on the road taught us that we prefer small, uncluttered spaces with a few thoughtful touches. What we’ll be asking ourselves going forward what pieces that we have now will be useful? What pieces will bring us joy?

We know that some things aren’t going to make the cut this next time, but it’s going to take time for us to figure it all out. For now we’ll appreciate, enjoy, and use what we have, but always with that empty room in the back of our minds.