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 I probably even went shopping, even bought some new stuff (after all, my clothing was all woefully out of date).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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29 thoughts on “Resisting the Cult of Stuff”

  1. Stephanie – the older I get the less stuff I want to buy…but yet I love it around me. A couch is major…Enjoy it and don’t think about it.

  2. I like to think along the lines of a need rather than a product, and my design background helps when it comes to these situations. I’ll be perfectly happy with secondhand sofa bed or even a mattress on the floor, for instance.

    When it comes to the smaller things that you won’t use so often, hopefully your neighbours won’t mind sharing theirs!

  3. Great post. I am visiting home from travels and feeling guilty about buying clothes for my next trip, despite my current ones having been worn to death over a year of travelling. But I used to love the rush of clothes shopping, so I’m fending that feeling off too. Confusing!

  4. The first big purchase my husband and I made was a couch and matching ottoman. We love these pieces so much that we’ve had them shipped all around the world, even though our apartments usually come fully furnished. There is something to be said for having the comforts of home!

    I like having nice towels to give to guests and soft sheets on the beds. My kitchen is fully stocked with dishware and cooking implements that I use on a daily basis. I’m definitely not a minimalist. But I’ve learned that I’d rather pay more for quality items that will last for years. My parents gave me a set of dishes more than a decade ago when I moved into my very first apartment. It’s a nice brand and I love the pattern and am still using them to this day. On the other hand, I bought myself some cheap drinking glasses and replaced them after just a few years. Granted, our situation is a little different, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having or wanting stuff, as long as you don’t exceed your means or buy just to buy. So go pick out a super comfy couch and cuddle together while you watch Hulu on your computer 🙂

  5. I can totally relate to this. Stuff is difficult sometimes. Andy and I actually own our apartment in Germany, which meant at one point spending a bunch of money on a bed, couch, kitchen stuff, etc. It’s painful sometimes, because I would rather spend that money on traveling. But we do live here, and despite leaving for months at a time to travel, we want (and need) to be comfortable when we’re home. We’ve realized recently that, in order for it to feel more like our home and not just a place we stay at sometimes, we need things like pictures on the walls. It’s weird to bounce back and forth between the two worlds. I really do enjoy traveling with as little as possible. I go carry-on only 99% of the time, I wear the same handful of shirts for months at a time while we travel, and that’s fine, I’m committed to it. But I have to commit to having a real home when we’re home.

    I think you’ve lived the full time travel life long enough to resist going completely crazy and spending tons and tons of money on unnecessary things. I think it’s still a reasonable idea to compare costs to travel expenses and use that as a way to decide how important an item is. But you do have to embrace the idea of buying things if you’re going to have a home in Seattle. And nothing is ever truly permanent, you can always sell furniture later if your life takes a different direction again.

  6. I love this post! I lived in China all last year and I’m moving back again in a month. I’ve been home in Seattle for a few weeks now and shopping has become so tempting. China kills most of my clothes and shoes, so the idea of pristine ballet flats or beautiful summer sandals kind of goes out the window. Now I’ve come home and realized I have no cute summer outfits! I decided to make a list of things I absolutely needed to buy: jeans, leggings, sports bra, maxi dress- and I’ve refused to buy anything else. Now I’m going through all my childhood stuff and putting it in storage and it’s been weighing on me. I’ve been going through my childhood toys trying to decide if someday my future daughter will want them. I’m only 23 and I’m single! I guess there’s no harm in keeping some stuff in my parents’ attic but part of me just wants to sell it all!

  7. This definitely resonates with me. I feel like I don’t need a lot of stuff to make me happy but I am no minimalist. Now I am settling for a few years in Sydney I have just purchased furniture for the first time in nearly 10 years. I managed to get all of our furniture off gumtree (like craigslist) – only $1600 to furnish a 2 bedroom apartment! The furniture I bought may be used but I am definitely happy with my purchases – I didn’t just choose the cheapest but actually stuff that I like. And the best thing about purchasing good quality second hand stuff – my house will be unique as I didn’t go to ikea for everything. I agree with Dave that you need your house to feel like a home but still be OK with selling stuff off again when you are back on the move. Good luck with your move and finding the right stuff for you 🙂

  8. Oh girl, I FEEL YOU. I am actually in shock at how much I’ve accumulated over the past two years. Compared to most of my friends, I still have the smallest wardrobe and fewest pairs of shoes by far. But it’s funny how you NEED things–like a vegetable peeler or a throw pillow or something to put on the walls, and then suddenly you have a “home” that fits into a whole moving truck instead of just a backpack. I’ve been thinking about this, though, and as much as I love all of my stuff–it’s served me well, and I’m not so attached to it all that I couldn’t sell or get rid of most of it if I decided to travel or move abroad again. I think that’s the key! Like, I spent $1000 on an awesome mattress and I have loved every night that I spent on that thing over the past two years–but I’d be willing to just accept that as an expense for the life lived in NYC. I think that’s the key! Also: I do constant overhauls of my closet and sell/trade/give away items if I haven’t worn it in at least two seasons! Good luck resisting the cult of stuff!

  9. Stuff stuff stuff. I really think it’s true that it ends up owning you in the end, but at the same time, I totally get the dilemma you’re in. I was like Mike once, and I really did downsize, but somehow, that pile of unused stuff stored in a cupboard at my mum’s house has grown, slowly but surely over the last few years. We’re also going to be moving into a completely unfurnished place in Berlin and will face the same issues. I think a TV is a completely non-necessity. Zab disagrees. What to do?!

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