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.”
Also published on Medium.