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 I probably even went shopping, even bought some new stuff (after all, my clothing was all woefully out of date).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.


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.


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30 thoughts on “Resisting the Cult of Stuff”

  1. I was just going to suggest Craigslist as well. The only things I bought immediately after setting up my current place was a bed and some plastic drawers for my closet. Luckily, the rest of the house was furnished with the roommates stuff, but after the last 18 months, I have slowly accumulated more stuff, only via Craigslist (and of course, only for less then asking). It’s been fun!

  2. Two words: Craigslist FREE.
    I fully relate to these feelings, and it is overwhelming to think about investing in furnishing a place from scratch. I was able to find really, really nice furniture for nothing or next to nothing – which relieved my anxiety because 1) I wasn’t spending a ton of money all at once and 2) If I DO need to pick up and go I can just pass the free things along to someone else. (Sounds like I have a commitment issue…haha.)
    There is a lot of free crap out there, but it is worth it to see what you can find. I rented a truck and then just spent a day running around the city checking out free listings, (take Mike with you though…) loading it in the back if I didn’t hate it. I love the “stuff” I got.
    I know this just scratches the surface of the issue as a whole, but had to share! Then, you’ll have extra money to spend on Seattle food 🙂

  3. As a part-time traveler, I struggle with this sooo much! After our last trip to SE Asia, I came home and got rid of massive amounts of crapI didn’t need. It was almost cleansing. I am slowly going through closets and boxes and trying to simplify everything. When traveling, I pack light and it’s so liberating! Trying to have a little taste of that at home is tough. BTW – Seattle is awesome!! 🙂

  4. I’m one of those people who only half heartedly cut down when I started traveling. I got rid of a lot but anyone would be embarrassed by the amount of boxes I’m storing (luckily for free at my mom’s place). I’d like to say traveling has made me reject everything material but it certainly hasn’t. I love shopping while I travel, not for anything big but just nice things that someday when I have an apartment will remind me if places I’ve been. I like my home to feel pretty, that makes me more happy than living in an empty space. I do know that I will never be a minimalist but I like to call what I am a deliberatist. I may own lots of things but I own nothing that I don’t absolutely love or is functional. Anyways, good luck on your move! I can’t wait to see what couch you choose! 🙂

  5. It was around two years ago that I discovered “minimalism” – as a lifestyle and as an aesthetic choice. I believe the idea of living with as few possessions as possible first took root when I watched George Clooney’s “Up in the Air”, in which Clooney’s character goes around delivering talks about how his entire life can be carried around in a bag. His reasons were different, of course, but it struck a chord and I’ve been fascinated by the idea of minimalizing the amount of things I own as much as possible.

    It also helps when I’m on the road, of course.

    First things to go was the furniture. I realized I had chairs that were hardly ever used and tables that did little more than occupy space.

    Next, my wardrobe. The same exercise. Shirts that hadn’t seen the sun in years and jackets that had been out of fashion since freshman year of high school. All gone now.

    The hardest part was books. I love reading on paper, but books are also a real pain to carry around. So I got myself a Kindle and now do all my reading on eBooks. My book collection resides safely with a friend who loves and appreciates them.

    Then I digitized every document I owned. Then I got rid of my car.

    Honestly, I’m a fair distance from living out of a suitcase, but I’m happy that I’ve changed my life from that of passive consumption to being an active participant, and I’m happier for it.

  6. Yeah, I hear you. I’ve been in the same situation myself a few times now — finished up a stint of travel and ended up somewhere that I need to buy a houseload of stuff to function like an adult again … at least for a while. I think it’s important that when you commit to living back in the ‘real world’ for a while, you do actually commit to doing it — and that often does involve buying a bunch of stuff that won’t fit in your backpack. Decent-quality stuff, at that — there’s no point cheaping out on everything and coming home to an apartment that just makes you sad. If you half-ass it, you’re basically saying “this isn’t going to last”… and then you live your life like that, and don’t make the most of the opportunity.


    You have to approach it with the mindset that if your world changes again, you’ll happily get rid of as much of that newly-acquired stuff as you need to to accommodate that change. If that means that everything needs to go on Craigslist and you walk out the door a year from now with just the same backpack you walked in with, that’s ok. Live your life in Seattle to the full — but don’t let the stuff it comes with hold you back from potential new lives in the future.

    I’ve lost more money than I care to remember on buying and then getting rid of furniture, appliances, clothes and all the rest — but I don’t regret it. I’ve made the best decision for me at the time whenever I’ve taken a job or apartment, and whenever I’ve later given it up, so it’s not something that bothers me. It’s just a lifestyle tax, really, and one I’ve been happy to pay.

    So yeah, buy whatever your heart desires as you move to Seattle (including a sofa-bed for me to stay on when I’m in town) … just don’t get too attached to any of it. 🙂

  7. I can relate to this except I am a big shopaholic.. When I left the states I sold the big things like couches, beds, dishes, etc.. but some stuff is at my moms in the basement and I miss it.. It’s going on two years in India & it will be longer so I start to think.. hmm should I bring my designer pizza stone? or my fancy sheets and pillow cases? But they just sit alone at home! I think you’ll enjoy getting the things you NEED because you won’t have that guilt along with it. So let yourself enjoy the home shopping!

  8. I sometimes feel like I’m the worst backpacker ever- travel has made me more materialistic. Not in the sense of iPhones and Ferraris, but day to day stuff like clothes and trinkets. It’s like it’s awakened some dormant shopping gene that I never knew I had. I was a ridiculous minimalist beforehand, so it hasn’t damaged me or my bank balance too much, but it’s something I’ve never really heard other travellers say.

    It’s good that you have Mike there to tone things down and keep things sensible, but don’t beat yourself up if you want to splurge on a few things. Unless you’re going totally Liberace, it isn’t rampant consumerism to want to decorate a bit. I always find houses that have just the bare necessities to be quite creepy.

  9. When I accidentally moved back to the UK, I brought back a suitcase with clothes & important things I’d need immediately, and my dog. Several weeks later his kennel was shipped back full of my books. It’s the one thing I can’t give up.

    I still don’t own a great deal of stuff. I made it my mission not to get too settled, but in living at my parents I needed a bed. My room already had a desk and drawers & a wardrobe. The things I bought- like a TV & DVD player- will all get sold again when I move on. There’s eBay & Free/ For Sale pages & groups on facebook. And I guess you can always do the same with that couch… or TV, whichever you choose to buy first 😉

      1. Book Rate, I tell you… Book Rate is a wonderful thing. In all the boxes (well over a 100 when you add all the moves together) I’ve shipped Book Rate, only one got lost — and it was my own poor-packing-fault.
        Garage Sales and Ikea can be great for furniture… the Ikea stuff, especially, is easier to part with once you decide to uproot again.

  10. Steph I did the exact same thing when I had to rush home to the UK from Sydney in February because I was sick…I had nothing but a suitcase and a backpack and went home to a closet and drawers full of stuff but you know what happened? It actually helped with minimalism and I threw out so much stuff BUT I also went shopping 😉 I think it’s all about balance and not being too hard on yourself; you recognise that it’s n easy habit to fall back into but at least you have Mike to hopefully reign your spending in 😀
    Now that I’m back in Australia for my second chance I’m finding that I do actually need a lot less stuff but that doesn’t mean I’m not looking forward to a little shopping session when I get back to Sydney 😉

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