Resisting the Cult of Stuff

The first time I came home from 9 months of backpacking through Asia and China, I was afraid to unpack. I kept wearing my same ratty backpacking clothes for weeks. I was more comfortable that way.

I could barely bring myself to even look in my closet, at the rows of neatly folded, fresh clean clothes. Clothes I hadn’t work in nearly a year. There were so many of them, and they seemed like something from an entirely different life. I had gotten so used to living with two changes of pants and 6 t-shirts that anything more than that was entirely overwhelming and unnecessary.

i wore this outfit until it fell apart

Of course that didn’t last long. In just a couple of weeks I was back into my old sundresses, cardigans and silk tops. I probably even went shopping, even bought some new stuff (after all, my clothing was all woefully out of date). I hadn’t needed a damn thing for months but all of a sudden I NEEDED new clothing.

 

Isn’t that a fabulous and terrifying trick of American consumerism?

Selling all your stuff to travel is a popular trope among travel bloggers. It’s considered an essential part of the change-your-life-and-see-the-world process. I’ve even written about it here. Travel bloggers love to write about packing as light as possible, as small as possible, carrying as little as possible. The party line is to look on too many possessions with disdain, to see owning things as a weakness.

And maybe it is, but if so, my confession is that, I am weak.

So let’s talk about “stuff.” By which I mean clothes, books, shoes, all that stuff you have that goes above and beyond what is strictly necessary. I have a complicated relationship with “stuff.” Which is to say I used to be a stuff addict, and I could totally become one again. That rush you get from shopping, I used to refer to it as “pure optimism.” That flash of envy seeing a friend’s overflowing closet. The irresistible draw of an online sale.

Temptation

Deep down I know that things don’t make me happy. They are a temporary high and than a monumental pain in the ass. They can hold you down and hold you back from so many things. But man, that siren call is strong.

My one saving grace is Mike: a true minimalist at heart. Unlike myself he truly walks the walk. He legitimately downsized his life 5 years ago (not just half-heartedly, like me), and has never looked back. Even now as we pack for Seattle, my stuff is about triple his.

When we’re on the road, it’s fairly easy to resist the siren call of the shopping cart. I have bought a few too many souvenirs it’s true, but even while living in Mexico I successfully avoided purchasing any unneeded “stuff.” Although I did buy a lot of ebooks, I’m only human.

Now we find ourselves in a strange position. We are moving to Seattle, leasing an apartment, and we own nothing. No bed, no couch, no desks. No spoons, no plates, no bath towels. No shower curtain, no sheets, no measuring cups. Aside from our clothes, our electronics and our many random souvenirs, we have none of the things you need to successfully live in an apartment.

Our apartment in Sayulita was furnished. Seattle won’t be.

You know what that means. It’s shopping time. Normally I would be jumping up in down in anticipation, but the sheer outlay of money involved, and our conflicting views on stuff ownership, mean this is not going to be the easiest task we’ve tackled as a married couple. There have already been several intense discussions over which is more important to buy first: couch or TV.

It IS kind of scary. I know I can easily fall back into the cult of things. We are settling down but we are never too settled- who knows if we will stay in Seattle. Maybe we’ll end up in Italy after all, stranger things have happened. Buying this couch may be the biggest commitment we have ever made together.

 

29 thoughts on “Resisting the Cult of Stuff”

  1. You’re so right on this “cult of stuff” idea. I find myself in the same sort of position – ultimately, I know that my ‘things’ are not all that necessary, but at the same time I feel the need to shop.

    It’s different when I’m on the road. My first big backpacking trip I over-shopped (including a literal dozen of the lanterns in your picture!!), but after that I got quite good at resisting market stalls, mostly. But as soon as I get home, it’s things things things all the way! Yet I’m planning on travelling long-term soon, and lot’s of possessions just doesn’t fit that lifestyle…

    I moved into an unfurnished apartment at the start of this year, and all I had was what I could bring on the plane with me – so same as you, I had no nothing, no forks or shelves or chairs or plates or bed or anything. And it’s so daunting having to buy everything!! My best tip for that is work out what you need most to feel ok – for me it was a bed, everything else was secondary. Second, work out what you can make do with in the interim – using boxes as bedside tables, buying a rug instead of a couch upfront, bare minimum kitchen gear, etc. It means you live a bit spartan at first, but it’s much less overwhelming than buying everything at once! Every few days, you then ask yourself – what items do I need most now? And buy just those four or five things. Clothes pegs, mosquito coils, wooden spoons, mugs… But it’s incredible the amount of stuff you accumulate – and how much it all costs!!

  2. When I first came back, I spent so much money re-buying stuff I had gotten rid of before I left! I just kept thinking, my did I get rid of my iron, my jewelry holder (I literally re-bought the exact same one) and so many of my dishes?? I think I felt so pressured to have as little in storage as possible before I left that I overdid it.

    That said, I also was not fully committed to staying where I was when I first returned so I didn’t go all in on refurnishing my place.I got a crappy couch off Craiglist with a decently matched coffee table and end table. I bought a dresser from a friend who was moving to Japan and got a free bed from another friend who was moving in with her fiance. Now that I finally think I’ll stay for a while, I hate how mismatched everything is – it’s so far removed from my super cute condo before I left. But I’d rather spend my extra money on trips than on new furniture so I just let it be.

    I am dying to buy new clothes but I need to lose weight first – I put on 15 pounds between my trip and coming home and I refuse to buy a bunch of new clothes in a larger size, so I’m making do with whatever old clothes still fit until I drop a few pounds (and yes, I’ve been home almost 2 years now!).

  3. Moving abroad definitely helped us to get rid of “stuff”. We still have way too many boxes stored in my mother-in-laws attic, but hopefully after living without it for a couple of years, it will be easier to part with when we move home. We are currently expats from Seattle, living in Germany. Let me know if you need any tips on stuff to do in Seattle, or where to find things. I was an apartment manager specializing in relocations. 🙂

    Brittny

  4. I can so relate to this Stephanie! When I get back from travelling I am amazed at the amount of stuff that I own! I spent a few days just like looking through my drawers, overwhelmed at all the things I have accumulated!
    It made me want to just keep living out of my backpack forever…But a month later, the itch to go shopping was back! I had cleared out my wardrobe the last few times I was at home so I had barely any clothes and what I did have was so old.Now it seems like every week there’s something else I need! It’s making saving impossible! s

  5. Welcome to Seattle!

    I know how hard it is to manage that urge to acquire ‘stuff’. My vice is books. There’s just something about having a book, even if I’m only going to read it once (or never), that is so great.

    If you’re looking for a place to acquire some high quality stuff, without paying the full ‘new’ price, I’d recommend checking out the Goodwill in Bellevue. Bellevue’s the eastside home to a lot of rich suburbanites, and you can usually find like-new high end appliances and furniture there. It can sometimes be a hit or miss, but when your luck is running good there, it is a jackpot. I’ve even managed to snag some Le Creuset from there for well less than half of retail.

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