Travel Minimalism: Realigning Expectations

^^Stuff getting sorted through for our yard sale at my parents’ house. SO. MUCH. STUFF.

There are a lot of things in this world that stress me out: Deciding how much to tip. Calling people on the phone. Finding an address I’ve never been to. Purchasing anything more expensive than a few dollars. Hovering very near to the top of the stress list is packing and moving. Maybe because I’ve done it well over a dozen times in the past three or four years — often enough that I never have a chance to forget how time-consuming and soul-sucking it can be. Moving with such frequency also means that I no longer have that little bit of nascent hope of an easy, breezy fresh start. All I’m expecting now is an unfortunately soviet flat and a slightly unhinged landlord.

As I’ve mentioned several times before on the blog, my mobile lifestyle (even if it is generally confined to Moscow and Berryville) has previously forced me into an unwilling minimalism. Owning less stuff, I imagine in the scheme of things my packing woes are fairly insignificant. My routine generally consists of about a day of foisting kitchen items off to friends, stuffing clothes and cameras into a suitcase/carry-on, and frantically cleaning up before the landlord shows up. With the Russky involved, there’s a lot more debate about what to leave behind but not too many extra bags. He’s keeping it light too.

I've chosen to keep him, but not the inner tube.

I’ve chosen to keep him, but not the inner tube.

Struggling to maintain a… stuff-stuffed lifestyle was no fun at all. So after falling into the pattern of finding a new apartment ever 9-12 months, I guess I’ve arrived at the point where I can finally say I’ve fully embraced a minimalist style. My working label is travel minimalism as I truly think it’s a habit brought upon by my constant moving and not by any real desire or inherent nature to tend toward less. I’ve finally realized that having more things is, frankly, a giant pain in the ass and not worth the trouble. On the one hand, it’s a great method that has led to far greater mobility (although no less stress – because what else would I do with my time?). On the other hand, I’ve developed a weird sort of buyer’s guilt whenever I go shopping.

Peeking into my bank account is never a particularly pleasant task and it certainly hasn’t gotten more enjoyable since quitting steady work and traveling around. Compound that with my embrace of travel minimalism and living with less, I’ve found myself more and more often paralyzed at the thought of spending money on items I know I’ll have to pack. (I’ll be very clear and admit that I rarely say no to purchasing food or experiences, aka things I won’t have to pack later.) In fact, if the Russky hadn’t harangued me in Bishkek or a few weeks earlier here in America, I never would have purchased a new tablet or camera – both of which are relatively small and, more importantly, integral to every day use. My reluctance wasn’t even about the money necessarily; it was more an offshoot of the ever-present thought “but do I really need one more item?!”.

But here’s the thing. I’m not an ascetic who took a vow to live with nothing. Even though I’m a travel-induced minimalist, there’s not really an all-knowing panel of uber-minimalists who are judging my purchases. (If there is, they’ve kept pretty quiet so far.) There’s really nothing holding me back from any necessary or inconsequential purchases except for myself.

As the wonderful blogger over at The Nife en l’Air often notes, minimalism isn’t about the numbers – it’s a totally personal judgement call. So what’s with all the worrying, self? Less stuff should equal less stress, right? It’s just a personal mental block. So I’ll just continue to remind myself that if you’re describing yourself as a minimalist, that’s cool — no matter how many bags it takes to pack up your life. Unlike traveling, there are no extra baggage fees or weight limits on a lifestyle choice.

Managing Expectations of (Travel) Minimalism

1. Head towards minimalism with an end container in mind. Whether you’re paring down to a properly packed house, bedroom, or suitcase, decide on your goal before you get started.
2. Be deliberate about what you get rid of. When I first started seriously culling my possessions, I got really excited and ended up re-buying a lot of things which I shouldn’t have gotten rid of. Don’t go too crazy – you’ll end up going through the cycle again.
3. Create a semi-regular ‘weeding out’ schedule. I know, it’s boring. But you’ll be so happy you don’t have to look through 5,000 t-shirts when it comes time for your next move. Learn from me: a once a month/season cull of your possessions is much more manageable that doing it all at once under a time crunch.
4. A purchase is not a failure. Just because you’re trying to live lightly doesn’t mean every purchase needs to be stressed over; remember, minimalism isn’t defined by a certain number. Sometimes you just need/want something. It isn’t the end of the world.
5. Be deliberate about your purchases rather than sticking to a strict budget. This works for me. Sticking to a budget = spending money without much thought until I don’t have any more to spend. Being deliberate = consciously curating a small shopping list and purchasing deliberately from that.
6. Don’t bother trying a lifestyle that doesn’t fit you. Minimalism is great for me: I move a lot and I could live with just a few black and grey clothes. If you like knick-knacks or clothes or… stamp collecting… don’t force it. Just be prepared with a few extra suitcases!

What’s your style – do you tend towards minimalism or harbor hoarder tendencies?

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31 Responses

  1. bevchen says:

    I’m fine with minimalism as long as it doesn’t involve books. I still have books at my dad’s place that I have no room for but can’t bear to get rid of… mostly from when I was a kid. I mean, what if I have my own children one day? I clearly still NEED all my Roald Dahl books ;-) And I just cannot stop buying new books either. Reading is my obsession!

    By the way, tipping stresses me out as well, which is why I tend to make Jan pay when we go for meals. I never know how much to give!

    • Polly says:

      Ugh, same. I have 15 medium sized cardboard boxes filled with books stacked in my room that I just stare at. If I had to, I could cull it down to a few boxes but I just caaaaan’t :(

    • Get an e-reader, woman! No point keeping hundreds of random novels you’ll never ever re-read clogging up the shelves. Precious kids’ books etc, are in a different category, sometimes there’s just no substitute for paper. But 95% of the time there is.

      • Polly says:

        You know, I’ve switched over to using my tablet as an e-reader which has stopped me from buying too many new books. The ones I already have though… hard to get rid of. And I mean that both sentimentally and physically.

        • I got rid of a load before I moved to Spain. The UK is full of charity shops, and they gladly take what you don’t want. That was easy. I still have tons of books, mainly technical and professional (we’re talking 25 boxes worth), and I’m at a loss as to what to do with these. I don’t want to lug them about anymore, but it’s hard to decide what to do! Some of these were very expensive…

          • Polly says:

            Unfortunately, a lot of second hand stores in the States don’t take a lot of books since they have so may already. I’ll get rid of them eventually, *sniff*

  2. Anna says:

    I am minimalist while traveling and kind of while living – I had to make do in a 12 by 13 ft NYC studio for 7 years. But I look forward to getting a big dacha so that I can finally have space, shop for furniture, antiques, have a walk-in closet….

    • Polly says:

      That exactly why I fear buying a house or large apartment: I have a pretty good feeling I’d fill it up immediately, just to have it filled. I’m pretty sure I don’t have the personality to do much of anything middle-of-the-road.

  3. I feel that I am a hoarder by nature but constant moving around has resulted in me becoming a de facto minimalist. Let’s see what happens when I’ve been in one apartment for over a year. (Or at least a year!) x

  4. Marielle says:

    I’m a minimalist by nature while traveling. I’m pretty small, so if I can’t manage my luggage by myself, forget about it. I moved a couple times abroad and each time ended up being so expensive because of the stuff I left behind – the worst was all the bedding since I still needed it up until the night before I left! I’ve left a trail of comforters in my wake across Asia. I moved back to the States last year and now I feel like a big stuff-haver. I don’t decorate, but OMG I have enough yarn to keep me knitting for years and I keep buying more.

    • Polly says:

      Oh yes, the bedding is what I always splurge on and then have to abandon. We’ve somehow managed to move an IKEA mattress twice by sheer force of will, but man it’s a pain.

  5. Em says:

    Great post! My first move abroad, I brought two suitcases. My second, with a husband and dog, we shelled out around 700 bucks to ship a pallet in a sea freight container. This allowed us to bring bikes, bedding, special art and lots of kitchen supplies. Not sure what we will do when we move again, but this is nice for a couple/few years!
    – glad the inner tube didn’t win out :)

    • Polly says:

      I can’t even imagine trying to ship something – although it would be amazing, I’m sure I’d bring an outrageous amount of things I wouldn’t need ;)

  6. I have always been one to clean out my closet frequently and be minimalist. When I would travel I tended to over pack but have gotten much better about packing light now.

  7. I could not agree more, especially after looking to move to Munich and wondering how I collected all this shit over three years. Like only three years! Where did it all come from? I never go shopping! Damn you Amazon and why are you also available in Germany (P.S., I love you). Maybe I am a hoarder.

    • Polly says:

      I just thank god (well, usually curse) that Amazon and most places don’t ship to Russia. It sucks but I can’t go crazy internet shopping.

  8. Great tips, Polly! Having gone through the routine after 10 years in Baku ( the longest I had ever lived in one place- a few flats, same city though), I don’t envy you.

    Are you here in VA now? It would be great fun to see you at your yard sale! Good luck, and happy holiday!

  9. Sophie says:

    I’ve never really consciously thought of this, but ‘unwilling minimalist’ pretty much exactly describes me … and just like you, it doesn’t make me any less stressed! I think I actually end up stressing myself more. I’ll wear the same clothes until they’re rags and suddenly I need to replace everything at once = overwhelming. Or I’ll tell myself that I don’t need a certain piece of organizational furniture (small cabinet, bed-side table), and then just end up with piles of stuff everywhere. It’s weird because I acknowledge this but still totally have buyer’s remorse!

  10. I think learning to be a great packer is a skill I have to keep working on as it is always hard for me to decide what to take and what not to take as I have a desire to overpack. But it is good to just have a set number of suitcases/bags to fill and then I must stop!

    • Polly says:

      I always end up over-anticipating how much I’ll actually wear. I guess I figure that I’d rather have a little extra rather than spend money replacing things while traveling.

  11. Elizabeth says:

    My bedroom in my parent’s house is almost the exact same color as yours. Too funny! With most stuff I’m a minimalist, but I am a complete book hoarder. I cannot go into any more book stores because wow too many books were purchased while I was home. Now I need to carry them all over China and back to LT where there are no English books for me to read. I’m so excited to live vicariously through all of the characters in the books I’ve purchased though :)

    • Polly says:

      It’s a great color, obviously!

      Apparently book boarding is incredibly common! I’ve got the same problem. Although I’ve moved over to reading on my tablet, I can’t get rid of what I’ve already got!

  12. We are starting the clean stuff out process for our move. Luckily we have pared stuff down each move we have made but there is still stuff we may have been willing to move across town but not cross-country. Your #1 is so true…I started making a list of things that will go and then we have pretty much a matching list of maybe items to go based on what kind of rental we end up with (condo vs house, and how many bedrooms). Of course some folks who may seem like minimalist (like my brother), who stopped by today on a trek around the country boasting all his stuff is “basically” in three suitcases…apparently has half a basement of stuff at my father’s house. Minimalist is somewhat a relative term :)

    • Polly says:

      Ok I’m definitely a little guilty of having a stash in my parents’ house, though I clear through a little bit every time I visit because I feel bad haha.

  13. Annie says:

    there is so much tulle and frills in that first photo, it makes me happy. also, that second one. mericuh. classic.

  14. Angelina says:

    I’m more of a minimalist than a hoarder and constantly thinking of not adding more material possessions unless they are absolutely necessary. Which is why, for instance, my apartment is free from decoration aside from a little snowman figure that hangs all-year round on the war and a tiny succulent. However, there are exceptions: I love books, in paper form, and I can’t bear to give away those that I enjoyed and I keep adding more – so my boyfriend had to build more bookshelves!

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