Unnecessary possessions are unnecessary burdens. If you have them, you have to take care of them! There is great freedom in simplicity of living. It is those who have enough but not too much who are the happiest. – Peace Pilgrim
Back in 1995, when I moved into a van for the first time, I was shocked to discover just how small a space I was moving into. I had bought a beat-up old contractors box van (a van nose with a box behind it). The box was 8 feet wide and 12 feet long. Empty, it seemed like a lot of space, but when I started to move my stuff in, it quickly became apparent that only a tiny fraction of my possessions would fit. If I had any other choice, I would have stopped right there, but I had just gotten a divorce that had taken so much of my monthly income, I literally could not afford to rent an apartment. So I did the only thing I could, I started getting rid of all the stuff I thought I could live without. When I was done with that first attempt at minimizing, my pile of stuff went down by about half, but was still way too much. So I got rid of even more stuff, which was increasingly difficult, and started putting what I thought were the essentials into the van. I still had about three times more stuff than would fit! So I had no choice, I attacked the pile again. This time the choices were really hard, these were things I thought I just could not do without. But they had to go, so out they went. This time, I could cram it all in, but it left very little room for me to live. I lived with it that way for a while, but realized that I just had to get rid of more stuff. So I made what I thought were some brutal choices and finally, it was a comfortable, cozy little home. In the years that followed, I continued to live in that van and fell so deeply in love with vandwelling that I look back on those times as the best thing that ever happened to me. Today, I live in even a smaller space; my current trailer is 6 foot by 10 foot. So I own even less stuff, but I don’t mind it at all. The freedom and happiness I have found by mobile living is worth so much more than all those “things” I can’t have.
Everything we possess that is not necessary for life or happiness becomes a burden, and scarcely a day passes that we do not add to it. – Robert Brault
Since then I have discovered that there are popular movements to encourage mainstream people to embrace a similar lifestyle called “Simple Living,” and “Minimalism.” These grew out of the hippy/counter culture and Mother Earth News/Back-To-The-Land movement of the 60s and 70s. Without knowing it, and against my will, I had adopted these lifestyles as my own. I have done some research into them in books and on the Internet, and I think I am more of a Minimalist than a follower of Simple Living. There is no official definition of either, and in fact they are actually whatever you say they are. My understanding of minimalism is that each person pares down his/her life to the absolute minimum they think they need to live happily and comfortably with. I know many vandwellers who have much less stuff than I do, and others who have much more. They carry things I don’t consider necessary, and I carry things they don’t consider necessary, but we are all minimalists, since we each have gotten down to what we think is our minimum amount of possessions. Believe me, it is an ongoing experience. On a regular basis I go through my trailer and examine everything in it to decide if it really is necessary. Every item has to justify the space and energy it takes from me.
“Being Poor Isn’t Having Little, It’s Always Wanting More
Being a Minimalist Isn’t about Having Little, It’s Not Wanting More” – Anonymous
Minimalism Will Make You Happier
How can doing without things make you happier? We know it is counter-intuitive, but hear us out. Consumerism is the real religion of modern civilization. We are constantly bombarded by messages from the media and our peers that we need to buy and accumulate the latest and greatest things. If we don’t, we won’t be happy. Nearly everyone will say that they aren’t affected by advertising, but the facts say they are. Go to any city on any weekend and you will find many garage sales. Browse through a few of them and one thought will go through your mind constantly, “Why would anybody buy all this junk?” But, if you had a garage sale, and put your excess stuff out there, I guarantee that there will be people walking around looking at your stuff saying to themselves, “Why would anybody buy all this junk?” One look around your home at the amazing amount of stuff in it should tell you that you are powerfully influenced by the media. All those garage sales prove the big lie of advertising, you bought the stuff they were hawking, but it didn’t make you happy. In fact it left you feeling emptier than before. So you went out and bought something else to find happiness, but it didn’t work either. Somewhere deep in the back of our minds is the thought, “This thing will work, I will finally be happy.” I believe the real reason we surround ourselves with huge houses filled to the brim with “stuff” is fear. Modern living puts us in constant fear and apprehension for our safety and our future. So we build walls of “stuff” to keep the enemy out and so that we can feel like our future is safer. Unfortunately, instead of being a fortress of safety, it becomes a prison that owns and controls us. While some of that stuff did make your life easier and safer, it came with a tremendous price—you became its slave!
Frugality is one of the most beautiful and joyful words in the English language, and yet one that we are culturally cut off from understanding and enjoying. The consumption society has made us feel that happiness lies in having things, and has failed to teach us the happiness of not having things. – Elise Boulding
“Stuff” Steals Your Time and Money
Consider the huge impact your possessions have on your life. First, you have to own or rent an ever increasingly large house in order to hold all that stuff. Think about what is involved with owning/renting a larger house:
- Our monthly rent/mortgage payment goes up.
- We have to heat and cool it so the cost of utilities goes up.
- The cost of insurance goes up to cover more stuff and a larger house.
- A larger lawn needs more time to care for it.
- More space takes more time to clean and care for.
- Maintenance takes more time and money.
But there is an even worse consequence to owning so many possessions, and that is all the time we spend at work to pay for it. Ultimately, all we have is our time, it is the most precious thing in our lives and we squander it away by buying and warehousing more-and-more stuff. For many married people, both spouses have to work to pay for their home and for all the stuff they buy. Many single people have to work overtime or even a second job to live a rich consumer lifestyle. For nearly everybody the economic pressure put on you by the consumer lifestyle means that you have no choice but stay at your job no matter how much you may dislike it. You would love to tell your boss to take this job and shove it, but you can’t! You have to stay there and take his abuse because you have to warehouse your possessions and keep buying even more! You work at a job you hate, with people you don’t like, so you can buy things you don’t even really want! Minimalism, can free you from that vicious cycle.
It is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly. – Bertrand Russell
Think about how much better your life would be if you could get rid of so much stuff you could move into a van or RV:
- You wouldn’t have a monthly rent or mortgage payment!
- You wouldn’t have monthly utility bills!
- You wouldn’t have to pay insurance or property tax!
- You wouldn’t have to mow lawns, or shovel snow!
- You would be free of a Landlord, making you the lord of your life!
To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring these are some of the rewards of the simple life. – John Burroughs
When I moved into my van, I had kids I had to support so I couldn’t quit my job. But the very first thing I did after moving into it was to tell my boss I only wanted to work 32 hours a week instead of 40 hours a week. So every week became a 3-day-holiday! And, I still had more disposable income even though I was working fewer hours. Today, I work six months a year as a campground host in the National Forest and take six months a year off, not working at all. Minimalism gives me that kind of freedom. Plus, my home is so small that I literally have to stop buying more stuff. There is nowhere to put it! When something new comes into the trailer, something else has to go out. So now I am down to the bare-essentials and I am forced to buy stuff very thoughtfully. Before I buy something, I have to ask myself these questions:
- Do I really need it?
- Do I want to have to work more to pay for it?
- Is there any way to do without it?
- And most importantly, where will it go in the van?
Now, I won’t kid you, by living in a van as a minimalist there are many modern conveniences that I have to do without. But to me they are a minor sacrifice that pale in comparison to how much happier I am and how much more freedom I have.
Our life is frittered away by detail… Simplify, simplify, simplify! Simplicity of life and elevation of purpose.
– Henry Thoreau
“Stuff” Damages Your Soul
There is another way that minimalism will drastically improve your life. I firmly believe that all this stuff that we surround ourselves with, and the many walls we need to warehouse it, do damage to us mentally, emotionally and spiritually. First, spending all our time in buildings at work and home separates us from nature. Humans evolved along with nature, it is an integral part of who we are. To be separated from it is as damaging to our soul as being separated from the air we breathe is damaging to our body. Our stuff numbs us to the deep loss we feel because of nature’s absence in our life. Let me make a prediction: When you pare down your stuff, you will start to become antsy, you will feel restless and discontent because you have lost your security blanket! That’s because our possessions satisfy us at a very surface level that distracts us from the deeper, more real, feelings that lie below the surface. Without that distraction our true feelings surface and we become miserable. The most likely scenario is that you will fall right back into collecting “stuff.” But, if you will take the extra time and money that minimalism will bring you, and reconnect with nature, that void will be filled. The antsy feeling will disappear and joy will take its place.
Man’s heart away from nature becomes hard. – Standing Bear
Minimalism Is Great For the Earth
When you embrace minimalism and stop buying excess stuff, you will be doing a wonderful thing for the environment and the earth. Consumerism is a curse to the earth. Think about how bad the production and shipping of the things people buy is for the earth:
- All the raw materials for the production and packaging of those items have to be removed from the earth by mining or oil drilling.
- The raw materials for it must be transported to the parts manufacturer, consuming fuel. The equipment for extraction and transportation had to be manufactured and shipped, duplicating this process many times over.
- The parts for it must be manufactured, consuming more fossil fuel and producing large amounts of toxic pollution. The manufacturing plant had to be built, heated and cooled.
- The parts must be transported to final assembly, consuming more fossil fuel for transport.
- The final product of the item is created, consuming more fuel and creating more toxic pollution.
- The entire above process is duplicated to create the packaging for those items.
- The item is transported (often very great distances) to a warehouse, consuming more fuel for transport. The warehouse has to be built, heated and cooled to hold the thing.
- The item is transported to a retail location, whether a local store or online- warehouse, consuming more fuel and requiring the building, heating and cooling of another building.
- The consumer drives to the store (or orders it online) using more fossil fuel for transportation.
- After buying the product, the packaging is discarded. Probably it will be driven (using fuel for transport) to the dump where more fuel will be used to move it around and where it will remain for a very long time (maybe for centuries!) steadily polluting the earth.
- After a period of time (sometimes a very short period of time in our throw- away-culture) the thing will break, and be thrown away. Probably it will be driven (using fuel for transport) to the dump where more fuel will be used to move it around and where it will remain for a very long time (maybe for centuries!) steadily polluting the earth.
- The item then needs to be replaced and so the process starts all over again.
Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of its filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles and trebles that want another way. – Benjamin Franklin
What makes this process much worse is that most of it is done in foreign countries that have no environmental laws. It is all done at the lowest possible cost which generally means no effort is made to decrease pollution or destruction to the earth. There are places where the pollution is too horrible for us to even begin to understand, but because it is so far away, we aren’t that concerned.
The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. – Hans Hofmann
As a minimalist, you break this entire cycle. Every time you put something back on the shelf and don’t buy it, the earth is tremendously improved. So the next time you are debating a purchase, visualize the process described above. Imagine cities in China that are so polluted that the street-lights never go off because the light from the sun is blocked by the think, black layer of deadly pollution blanketing it. Then think about how happy you will be to not have to work to buy that item or pay to warehouse it. When you put that item back on the shelf, or delete it from your online cart, everyone wins! Once you embrace minimalism, you will find you have quite a bit more extra money. You can take that money and start buying things made locally, even though they cost more. That will greatly reduce the damage done to the environment by transporting the item over huge distances. Also, it will be made in America, where we have much stronger environmental laws. As a bonus, your friends and neighbors will get a job!
Happiness consists, not in possessing much, but in being content with what we possess. He who wants little always has enough. – Zimmermann
Bear in mind, that no matter how minimally you try to live, you are still going to buy things. You have to eat, you have to get around, there are certain things you simply can’t do without. Don’t feel bad about that! That isn’t our point at all. Instead, rejoice in your newfound ability to not buy any more than you need to live. You are doing the minimum damage to the earth. Finding a place of contentment and freedom in life is worth every small cost!
“A simple life is not seeing how little we can get by with—that’s poverty—but how efficiently we can put first things first… When you’re clear about your purpose and your priorities, you can painlessly discard whatever does not support these, whether it’s clutter in your cabinets or commitments on your calendar.” – Victoria Moran
Only contentment can make you happy – desires fulfilled breed more desires. Keeping away from all desires and contentment in what comes by itself is a very fruitful state – a precondition to the state of fullness. Don’t distrust its apparent sterility and emptiness. Believe me, it is the satisfaction of desires that breeds misery. Freedom from desires is bliss.” – Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj
In our rich consumers’ civilization we spin cocoons around ourselves and get possessed by our possessions. – Max Lerner
“It is not a daily increase, but a daily decrease. Hack away at the inessentials.” – Bruce Lee