The Luxury of Little

Before I began my retirement travel adventures, like many people in the “developed world,” I had so many possessions that I couldn’t remember where my stuff was, or in many cases even remember that I had it. My junk drawers were expanding. I had “spare” cables, obsolete electronics, redundant tools, more sets of dishes and silverware than I had places for people to sit, and boxes of mementos that “one day” I would get around to going through and sorting.

Time and time again I would find myself repurchasing something because I had forgotten that I already had one saved in a box someplace else for when I needed it. I had two boats that I didn’t use, two jet skis that I didn’t ride (don’t ask) and shelves of records albums and CDs that I didn’t listen to. I had clothes and shoes that I never wore and sporting equipment of all sorts, collecting dust and quietly mocking my laziness.

As I was organizing to begin traveling, it became clear that I had three choices; spend another fortune packing up and moving everything, rent an expensive store room and hide everything away, or face the inevitable and purge, purge, purge. For practical reasons the latter was the only wise choice, but I was afraid to face the sorting process and especially troubling the reality of getting rid of anything with sentimental value. Then a tornado struck. A real tornado. Not me, but some of my neighbors, and I saw an opportunity (serendipitous excuse) to get rid of some things.

I packed up all of my pots and pans and kitchen appliances, put my old clothes into boxes, sorted through my spare tools and took them to a family that had lost everything in the storm. This felt good, not only because I was helping strangers in a jam, but because I was downsizing the excess and making concrete progress toward my retirement travel adventure. I felt lighter. I was beginning to feel more organized. Physically it was a small step, but psychologically it felt like a new beginning.

This motivated me to start selling what I could and finding other ways to get rid of the rest. A friend had bought a new home, so I made her the offer of a house full of furniture at a very good price, and she took me up on it. (Well, actually, she TOOK ME. After she made a small “down payment,” I moved and never heard from her again, but live and learn, right?) After many trips to the charity shops to drop off things, and leaving what was left for a friend’s garage sale (that didn’t turn out financially too well either), I was left only with what I was taking to Mexico. There was a small box of very sentimental items that I left with a relative.

After the experience of selling and giving away everything, I was dismayed at what the value of my stuff really was. A simple calculation showed that residual value of all the possessions I had spent my hard earned money accumulating over the years would have been wiped out by less than two years worth of storage fees. That is not even accounting for the ruin and depreciation that naturally occurs whenever things are stored. Even though we tell ourselves differently, the possessions we mindlessly hold on to have little monetary value.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it,” and this is exactly right. I think it can also be said the value of anything comes from the amount of pleasure we derive from it or the utility it has for us. That is why I prefer experiences over material things. The value of adventures grows over time and stays with us forever in our minds. Most possessions bought for the momentary thrill of acquisition are soon stuffed away and forgotten.

What is the point of spending our precious time earning money to buy things we don’t want or need? What is the point of paying hard earned money to store things we don’t use or even remember that we own? I don’t want to imply that I am living like some ascetic, but it is gratifying to have a grip on my possessions (instead of the other way around) and to be able to enjoy life without too much excess. I am not super organized, but when you intentionally limit yourself to fewer possessions, it is easier for your mind to grasp the things you do have.

Selling everything and the necessity of traveling light has taught me to be more mindful before I purchase anything. Knowing the actual value of most purchases (mental and financial) keeps me in check. Now, if I want something, I buy it without guilt but, I remember the thrill of acquisition fades, and value lies mostly in an item’s utility. Sometimes I do something silly or hypocritical, but I know, having a lot of “stuff” we don’t see or use doesn’t make us more secure. It drains our finances, limits our options, distracts our attention, diminishes our energies and most importantly, it wastes our time.

This is perhaps the biggest lesson I have learned during my retirement travel adventure: There is great value in “the luxury of little.”

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Also published on Medium.

Author: Jonathan Look

In 2011 Jonathan Look decided to change his life and pursue adventures instead of comfort and possessions. His goal is to travel the world solo; one country at a time, one year at a time. To accomplish this he got rid of most of his possessions, packed up what little he saw as necessities and headed out. His goal is to spend ten years discovering new places, meeting new people and taking the time to learn about them, their values and their place on this tiny planet. He embraces the philosophy that says a person is the sum of their experiences and rejects the fraud of modern consumerism that makes people into slaves of their consumption. He doesn't intend to be modern day ascetic, just more mindful of his place in the world and to make decisions according to that new standard.

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  1. A great one, Jon, thanks for putting it all so succinctly. I followed you on this path last year as I sold my house (except for the part about leaving the country) and even I was surprised at how little money I gained from all the extraneous crap I had accumulated…I ended up just giving away tons of stuff. But that’s OK….less stuff in the landfill, plus people will actually USE the stuff, right?
    For the last year I have lived in 329 square feet and it feels good….yet the truth is I am still living with way more than most of the people on the planet….

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    • There were a number of shocks that come with downsizing. Most good, a few eye-opening, especially like what your stuff is actually worth. Anything I get now I think of as temporarily just passing through. It does feel good when you own have outlived their usefulness, to give them a good home.

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  2. Jonathan,

    I got it, I understand, I read your article in Marketwatch about the awfulness of retiring. That’s where I am at right now. I am 68 years old and have worked full time my whole life since I was 19 and worked for my dad who was a contractor while going to school since I was 14. I put myself through college, raised a family and have been married to the love of my life for 50 years this October. It is time to stop but very hard to do. I like the comfort of not worrying about money when a paycheck is coming into the bank account twice a month. We have saved diligently and I have a financial advisor who manages my investments. By all the retirement calculators and financial advisors I can retire due to two pensions and 401k’s, annuities and savings. I will leave this earth with more money than I can spend based on their predictions. I am an engineer and love my job, I get great satisfaction in developing a project from inception through startup and operation. I am ready I think, the impedious was two tragedies in the family. First my grandson of my daughter Sam had a very severe accident and suffered brain trauma. He was in the hospital for 8 months and is still in recovery and plans to start college this fall. Sam got out of the hospital in July of 2015 then in October my 10 old grandson Kyler (son’s boy) was diagnosed with DIPG, a tumor in the brainstem. His prognosis was not good and the average life span after diagnosis is 7 to 10 months. Kyler was a fighter and as his body functions slowly went away he still fought to live but finally succumbed in April of last year. I was there and watched my son watch his son pass, the inversion of the natural progression of life is something no one should have to endure. I threw myself into my work thinking about all the bills and costs associated with Kyler’s and Sam’s journeys but they were for naught, everything has worked itself out. Both my son’s and daughter’s families have had great support from the community where they live in Ohio. The one thing this has done for me is my renewed faith in my fellow man. So I am thinking about hanging it up the end of this year and thinking about what I am going to do with the rest of my life as well as my wife’s. I envy your boldness and sense of adventure. I have that in me also, I need to wake it from hibernation and really live life on the edge. I plan to follow your website, I think it inspires me to take the next adventure in my life.

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    • Thanks Randy. I can understand how making the decision is difficult. I enjoyed my work, but I felt that I wanted to go on to other things. I didn’t have the sense of creation that you really seem to enjoy, so that made things a bit easier for me. I think one of the most important things after you feel some financial security, is to have something you want to do. I wanted to travel, make photos and explore the world. For you, it may be something else. I also wanted challenges (ones of my choosing) so I could keep growing. For me, I haven’t regretted the decision for a day. None of the bad things I worried about have to pass and when the unexpected came up I found I was stronger than I thought I was. Life is always a work in progress. (I think it is wonderful you were able to be there for your family and help them through times that would be tough for everyone.)

      It sounds like you are asking yourself the right questions. One more to consider is, what do you want to accomplish in retirement that you can’t do at your current job? Is you wife on board too?
      Jonathan Look recently posted..Eating Snails Portuguese Style

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