Would you sell your sofa and sit on a box? An experiment in international minimalist living changed this woman's life. Yup, she even sold the ice-cream maker.
Nothing arouses panic like watching moving men pack up everything you own and load it into a shipping container. If you’ve moved, you’ve experienced it: that inner voice shrieking, “Don’t break that!” And if your belongings have traversed an ocean or two, don’t even try to tell me that you’ve never moaned to yourself, “What if the ship sinks?”
Well, that’s what I was thinking as I watched every last item of ours disappear into wads of packing paper and cardboard boxes: pots, pans, my favourite spatula, towers of CDs and the irreplaceable kiddie artworks bearing my children’s messy handprints created back when they were tots. Then there were the 600-year-old Chinese drums, brass water buffalo bells from Burma, woven fabric swatches from Laos — all collected over years of living abroad. How could I cope if it were all lost? Or even until it arrived?
Then the truck pulled away, and a new sensation swept in: freedom!
My husband, kids and the dog had flown off a few days earlier, schlepping their own stuff, and glancing over at my two measly suitcases I suddenly felt lighter and uncoupled from the material world. I luxuriated in the possibilities of wandering the globe, unencumbered.
I actually laughed out loud when I remembered my hysteria over deciding to dump our fabulous 12x15 Oriental carpet. My movers had tipped up the sofa to wrap it and discovered wriggling moth larvae clinging to its underside and winged insects and grubs chomping away at the delicious, wool carpet beneath. (Gross.) We’d had it forever and tossing it was excruciating – as if I were amputating a part of myself. Oh, the pain!
Oh, what idiocy, I now chuckled, embarrassed by my own pathetic materialism.
A crazy thought dawned on me: I should have dumped the two-seater sofa as well! And the armchair! Actually, what is all that stuff clogging up our 40-foot container? Was I experiencing some kind of catharsis? Suddenly I viewed my surplus of possessions in a new light: they were objects, and nothing more.
To be perfectly honest, I’d begun stressing over my stuff several weeks earlier after stumbling on the TV show, “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” I was horrified. I took a good look around my own home and began culling. My deeply organised friend, Sarah, heard about my new project and recommended I buy her minimalist-living bible, “The Joy of Less: A Minimalist Living Guide.” OK, buying another thing to help me get rid of things defied logic, but I bought it … and devoured it.
Author Francine Jay, aka Miss Minimalist, suggests that owning more things does not make your life better. You have to maintain all those things, organise them and work harder to pay for them. In fact, she ventures that owning less could make you a happier person. And although I might have felt differently in the Go-Go ‘90s, I suddenly couldn’t agree with her more.
Trash, treasure, transfer
I followed her advice and sorted my stuff into three piles: trash, treasure and transfer, and extracted more than 15 bin bags-worth of crap from my house. Ancient McDonald’s toys, spare turkey basters, heaps of adorable hotel shampoo bottles; OUT! Why on Earth did we own four copies of "Treasure Island" and multiple versions of "Alice in Wonderland"? Out, out, OUT!
I’d even managed to sell nearly every single electronic item via Gumtree, placing ads for my gizmos that wouldn’t take kindly to America’s 110 voltage. Ice cream maker, toaster, Hoover - GONE!
But to no avail. One moving rep after another estimated that our personal effects would still nearly fill a 40-foot container, not the tidy 20-footer I’d imagined. I was distraught.
But now, pleased with my cases of carefully coordinated outfits (black, white and grey with a touch of plum), I wondered how I’d come to accumulate such a mountain of stuff. In fact, I even began berating myself for self-indulgently packing two suitcases instead of one. Did I really need three pairs of black boots? Was I insane? I’d even crammed in my favourite cast-iron omelette pan. Ridiculous.
Prisoner to our possessions
For comfort, I checked in with various globe-trotting friends, and all agreed there’s something wonderful about that period after your stuff’s been hauled away and before it gets delivered.
Pamela, who made the move from the UK to the USA with her husband and four boys told me that she felt elated when she walked out of her house with a bunch of suitcases and nothing else. “That’s the real honeymoon period no-one talks about,” she said. Now she’s settled down, but admits that other than the stash of “important stuff” she unpacked right away, “The container of goods from England is still in boxes in my basement! I'm dreading the day I have to go through it all.” It’s amazing how little you really need, she agreed.
Likewise, my friend Kee is a master of moving and has so far moved her vast collection of family heirlooms and carefully selected Asian antiques at least eight times to locations in Asia, America’s South, East and West, and Canada. And after spending so much time and energy organizing, packing and paying for movers, she’s become intensely philosophical about it. “The part that moves me the most at this point in my life is how much we own and how we are prisoner to so much of it,” she told me.
Like me, Kee experienced a similar catharsis and in one fell swoop auctioned everything off: the hand-carved Victorian bed her grandmother had been born in, her teapot collection and a zillion other treasures. She went all the way, refurbishing her home in a serene, minimalist style. But, she laments, “The basement is not yet empty … I'm not totally free, not yet.”
I'm not sure if I'll have the guts to follow Kee's lead and toss the lot and go full-on minimalist when my haul finally arrives, but I hope I will look at my material possessions differently. I hope I can see them for what they are: just things. And while going without can be painful, an overabundance of belongings is no guarantee of happiness, either. It's a balance, and I hope I get it right.
By Lauren Cooper
Lauren Cooper is a Wise revolutionary, globe-trotting journalist and battle-hardened expat. An expert on life in the world’s most expensive cities, she grew up in New York before doing tours of duty in Hong Kong and London.
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