I'm a one-bag traveler. This only really matters when I travel, which is four or five times most years. On a daily basis, though, having only one bag is the absolute essence of minimalism. A single daily bag becomes a reliable tool for consolidating the gear and information that are most important in daily life. A single bag is vital to the holy grail that is Being Organized.
This doesn't necessarily mean that I OWN only one bag. It means all my DAILY STUFF is in one bag.
I currently have one work bag, two daytime purses, three evening purses, and a beach tote. This is because I haven't gotten around to getting rid of the two purses that are getting shabby after ten or so years. To me, having extra bags leads to guaranteed confusion, lost objects, and late departures. No bag ever made is pretty enough, or even useful enough, to make up for unnecessary hassle and irritation.
For local trips, I often just put my wallet and keys in my pocket, like a man, if I actually have pockets, because women's fashion is a conspiracy.
Ideally, my purse and work bag would be one and the same. In practice, I need a larger bag two days a week, and I don't like lugging it around more than I must. It's like when the rocket boosters separate from the space shuttle.
Purse: Wallet, phone, keys. Pen. Sunglasses. Lip balm. Tissues. Hair tie. Coin purse.
Work bag: Backup battery, adapters, and headphones. I carry sunblock and deodorant because of the climate where I live, and a small vial of Aleve because I'm superstitious. Mini emergency toothbrush, a wet wipe, and a stain treatment pen. Protein bar, and emergency sandwich if I'm flying. Folding grocery bag. Sweater. This is the maximum amount of paranoia gear I carry in my work bag, in addition to my tablet and phone. The most important object in this cavernously large bag is the EXTRA SPACE it provides for me to run errands.
I timed myself transferring items between bags. It took 57.71 seconds.
My husband commutes via bus, and he carries a backpack. It has his laptop and charger, glasses case, sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone, backup batteries and adaptor, headphones, and pen. Today, it also had a notebook, textbooks, and calculator because he's studying for a new professional certification. The most important feature of his backpack is the EXTRA SPACE it has for his lunch or a stop at the grocery store on the way home. I just asked him, "You don't have any receipts or anything in there?" He shook his head no, casually, like if I asked him if he ever debated what color of socks to wear with his outfit.
Parents whose kids are still at home will probably be thinking, "Easy for you, but we have kids." I know this because parents use this reply in every possible situation. The truth is that people who travel in packs have even more reason to organize and streamline their daily stuff. If you don't like dealing with tears in the morning, assuredly, your kids don't either. Checking kids' school bags and resupplying diaper bags in the evening prevents a lot of frustration before it has a chance to derail your family life.
Now that we've done the exposition, the key to Single Bag Theory is the strategic loading and unloading of the bag. The bag is Command Central. Since I don't need my wallet, keys, or sunglasses inside my home, they just stay in the bag. I never have to look for them. I know where the bag is because I always put it in the same spot when I get home. If I need to take something somewhere, like outgoing mail, I put it directly into the bag. This way I don't need a container or flat surface or special furniture; our apartment is so tiny that we don't have a foyer or hallway or mudroom or any of that. If we didn't have a system for our daily bags, then we would have a nonfunctional kitchen with counters covered in junk. That's just an objective fact.
Unloading the bag means making decisions. What am I carrying at the end of the day that is not strictly necessary to my next trip out the front door? Generally it is groceries or sundries I bought, receipts, mail, extra paper napkins, and the occasional piece of trash or recycling. Most of us carry receipts more out of habit or concern about identity theft than because we actually DO anything with the receipts. I try to avoid having receipts printed out at the check stand whenever possible. I do categorize my expenses in my finance app, but I only save the receipts with split expenses. This means that if I went to a restaurant, clothing store, bookstore, or other place with only one category of expense, I don't need the receipt for my purposes. If it's something expensive like electronics, I'll save it until I'm sure the item works properly. Most of our mail is junk mail, and almost everything that's left is outer and inner envelopes, brochures, and other useless inserts. We pay our bills electronically. Process and shred or recycle. Most of my trash sorting happens while I'm waiting at bus stops. When I check the contents of my bag at the end of every day, it only takes a quick glance and a few seconds to pull out anything weird or silly. I'm weird and silly enough without giving myself chiropractic problems lugging extra junk on my neck.
My smartphone takes the place of many of the items I used to carry. I no longer need a bulky paper day planner or address book or notebook or calculator. I no longer have tons of scraps of notes, phone numbers with no name on them, shopping lists, directions, or map printouts. I've developed the habit of setting alarms and time- and location-based reminders, because otherwise I know the fallibility of my ADHD mind. I need to be wondering about stuff like whether crows can be trained to pick up litter or whether there will ever be a wall-climbing scrubbing robot, not whether I've forgotten to order parrot kibble or where I put my keys. That's the point of all this, the point of Being Organized. We have more important things to do and more interesting things to think about than our daily stuff.
Having only a single bag has a magical way of making us more organized. Suddenly we know where our keys, phone, and glasses are. Suddenly we know where to look for our little scraps of notes. We start to be less late, and finally on time for things, because we can just sling the bag over one shoulder and go straight out the door. All the little rays of wandering attention we have aimed all over the place start to merge into a thick beam of focus. Having one bag can help us both look better and feel smarter, and what a magical bag that is!
Coming from a minimalist nomad, it may sound strange to advocate for domestic contentment. Aren't you all about getting rid of your stuff in favor of traveling the world? Well, yes and no. Minimalism is about focusing on whatever is most important to you and jettisoning anything that gets in the way of that. Not everyone likes traveling. Most people do, however, have a taste for mundane delights that is not being fully realized in their day-to-day. Domestic contentment is within reach of anyone at any budget.
When I was a kid in grade school, I read the story of the Greek philosopher Diogenes. He was known for living in a barrel in the marketplace, aside from his reputation as a wise man. Alexander the Great came to visit him and wanted to give him a gift, as much to demonstrate his own largesse as because this guy obviously could have used a pillow or blanket or something. He asked Diogenes if he wanted anything. Diogenes replied, basically, "Yeah, move over, you're blocking my sun." This made a huge impression on me as a child, and I spent a lot of time wondering about the drawing of the philosopher in the barrel, wondering what he ate and that sort of thing. These days, we would call Diogenes "homeless."
Whether someone can feel happiness and contentment while living on the margins of society probably depends as much on the society as on that particular individual.
It's not about the possessions or the dwelling, though. What makes the difference between absolute penury and contentment is access to a support network. Health care, physical safety, money, secure banking, food, bathing and laundry facilities, a soft warm bed, entertainment, and a social network of friends and family. Someone with access to all of that could probably live pretty cheerfully in a hotel with wi-fi, and be content with little more than a shower kit, a week's worth of clothes, and a smartphone.
Some of us only really wear a week's worth of clothes, anyway, because none of our other stuff fits right now, or the rest is waiting in front of the washing machine.
This is where we start to touch on the LACK of domestic contentment.
What I see in my work is that most people have a perpetual backlog of chores. There are dirty dishes in and around the sink at least 80% of the time. Likewise, there is almost always spoiled food in the fridge. There is always at least one load of laundry waiting to be washed or folded or put away, and often as many as ten. The bathroom is almost always grimy, the carpet is almost never vacuumed, the floors are almost always sticky, and there is almost always a full bag of trash waiting to be taken out. What the household feels about this state of affairs can most likely not be described as 'contentment.' Words that come to mind might be: frustration, resentment, despair, anger, depression, guilt, shame, blame, annoyance, or confusion.
This total lack of domestic contentment can and does lead to divorce. It's tough on kids. It can consume years that could otherwise have been pretty nice. Who wants to waste years or decades being chronically irritated almost every day?
My contention is that it's not housework in itself that causes this constant level of background annoyance. Rather, there is no vision of how good things could be and what domestic contentment actually feels like.
There's also the matter of... the stuff. Clutter causes housework to take 40% longer. Everything has to be moved out of the way to clean around it, under it, or behind it. Every single item in the house gathers dust or needs to be washed at some point. The more stuff there is, the harder it is to clean up, even if it's cute or valuable or it gets used every day. Crowded equals high maintenance.
What tends to happen is a gradual feeling of defeat. The more crowded and cluttered the house, the harder it is to keep it clean and stay on top of everything, the less often it gets done, the worse it gets, and the harder it is to get it to look clean at all. We resign ourselves to it. After a while, olfactory fatigue sets in, and we can't even smell it. Somewhere along that continuum, it's far easier and more pleasant to stay away, and any excuse to be out shopping or running errands starts to look attractive. Contentment can only be found elsewhere.
There's a close link between this pattern and a reliance on takeout food, pizza delivery, restaurants, convenience foods, or eating cereal for dinner. Who wants to cook in this kitchen??
A well-run kitchen is central to domestic contentment. After I finally learned to cook, I wondered what I had been thinking. Why would anyone not want to know how to cook? You can cook all your favorite stuff exactly the way you like it, anytime you want. I make a lot of stuff I would never be able to get in a restaurant - anywhere, not just in my neighborhood. I'd rather eat my own cooking than what I could get in about 3/4 of restaurants. If you've ever had a greasy or disappointing meal out, you know what I mean. A functional kitchen makes it possible to experiment and constantly improve your culinary skills, and that pays off in better and better meals. It's also cheaper and healthier.
I take notes on various recipes, quoting the compliments my husband or family members or guests make about the food. It's encouraging.
As much as we love travel, my husband and I would really rather be home than just about anywhere else. It's where our pets are. Our bed is more comfortable than any other bed. We have everything we need, we know where it is, and we have the space to use it. Thanks to our practice of minimalism, cleaning house takes very little effort. Laundry and dishes aren't that big a deal when they get dealt with every day: about five minutes per meal for dishwashing, five minutes per day to put away clean dishes, five minutes to run the washer and dryer, and ten or fifteen minutes to fold and put away laundry. It's hardly worth thinking about. The rest of the time, we're working on projects, playing with our pets, walking around the neighborhood, or lounging around talking. Our apartment is tiny, but it's big enough to do all of that.
Start by thinking of your default emotional state and whether you like it that way. Imagine how you'd prefer to feel. Contentment is not the same as elation, bliss, ecstasy, or hysterical laughter; it's sustainable and lower-maintenance. It's a feeling of "yeah, I dig this." Gaining a base level of contentment is often as simple as removing any obstacles between you and it. Remove any irritants and annoyances, resolve any backlog of tasks that lead to power struggles or a drain on mental bandwidth. Then sit back, smile, and sigh. How much more do you need?
It's a mystery to me why some people like to shop. I hate it. It's not just the odious clouds of perfumes or the bad lighting or the "music" or the people accosting you from kiosks. It's not just that I'm alienated by almost all patterns and most fashion colors, or that I'm more utterly befuddled by cuts and styles with every passing season. I just hate spending money. It makes me break out in hives sometimes. All of these reasons combine to make me an under-buyer. That's why my only bag threatened to disintegrate before I deigned to replace it.
The irony here is that in my work with compulsive accumulators and chronic disorganization, all of my clients, universally, have uncountable numbers of bags. Shopping bags, gift bags, plastic bags, paper sacks, tote bags, purses and messenger bags, bags of every description. The reason is that they always have piles of unsorted stuff skewed everywhere, and bags are irresistible "temporary" sorting depositories. Some of my people will cast off previous handbags, like a snake shedding its skin, when they get too full of receipts and other detritus to use anymore. The more I see this in my work, the more I respond by swinging to the other extreme and avoiding bags in general.
The lining of one section of my particular bag had been ripped out for at least a year. This regularly resulted in stuff migrating from one section to another. I put a new bag on my wish list last year. This is a convenient custom in my family; you make a wish list of stuff you want in various price ranges, and if someone is assigned to get you a gift for some reason, they can choose something off your wish list and still surprise you. My husband is relieved by this tradition and finds it useful. It wasn't so useful when the bag I had chosen, after looking at dozens, turned out to be back-ordered. Then the back-order was canceled and the price was refunded. But! THAT was my bag! What am I supposed to do, pick a different bag? I remembered this as Christmastime, but it was really my birthday, which means I already knew my work bag was falling apart nearly a year ago.
Then I noticed that one end of the strap was tearing loose.
Here is where I confess that I bought the darn thing at the Hollywood Goodwill for $7 in the first place. In my defense, it still had the original tags on it...
I'm not a purse person. What baffles me the most is the appeal of all these brown-and-tan bags with logos on them that don't match anything else in the known universe. Unless it's bags that cost more than a car. I went a long stretch without carrying any kind of handbag; I could just put my wallet and keys in my pocket. Then the stuff started to catch up to me. Wallet, keys, phone, sunglasses. If I wanted one single additional item, like lip balm or tissues, it started to get more complicated not to carry a bag. Then I got my iPad and started writing anywhere and everywhere, and I had to carry that, too.
Where it really starts to get complicated is when you don't have a car. Long hours on public transportation tend to attract additional stuff. Consolidating errands tends to mean there's always at least one small extra item to carry. Today it was business envelopes, as shown in the embarrassing photo above. I realized how frustrating it would be if this strap finally came loose while I was still two hours from home. As much as I hate carrying a bag that crosses the line from 'purse' into 'luggage,' it was time. My purse is my car now. I went into Ross and came out with a $20 commuter bag that has lots of inner pockets. I transferred my stuff into it and threw the old bag in the trash, right outside the store.
I walked in the door with the new bag, and my husband looked right at me and didn't notice. I did a little curtsy and moved my arm to draw attention to it. Still didn't notice. That's a sign that you've picked a sufficiently utilitarian bag, when your pet engineer is unable to detect it.
The first thing I did was to sit down and pull some things out of the bag. That's because I need them. The envelopes went with the other office supplies. I took out my charger and plugged it in. There's a daily homecoming ritual of pulling out the flotsam and jetsam of the day, the receipts and paper napkins and earrings and whatever other stray items find their way inside. It only takes a minute - literally like 60 seconds. The absence of that homecoming clear-out ritual is what leads to Bags Everywhere.
Bags Everywhere. We've got the shopping bags with items still in them, tags still on, receipt still inside. We've got the donation bags that are now mixed in with the keepers again. We've got the plastic bags filled with random stuff, usually car clutter that got scooped up and carried in, mostly including junk mail and coupons. We've got the purses, each partially filled with a combination of receipts, mail, hair ties, coins, and useful stuff we can't find. We've got the gift bags from various occasions with the gifts still inside. Then we have the boxes with a couple of bags inside, like Russian nesting dolls. Then there are the piles, usually laundry, with bags on top. That's the nature of my work. We gradually go through the bags, one by one, recycling all the junk mail and the excess bags, realizing that there really isn't all that much in these bags after all. I guess bags are just so friendly that they like being surrounded by others of their kind.
I can accept that it's useful to have a bag. I can even accept that I'm allowed to have more than one bag, or to buy one before the previous one turns into shreds and scraps. In the same way, my clients can accept that their lives would be easier if they had fewer bags to manage. Every day is simpler when you know where all your most important daily stuff is. Streamlining your daily bag, whether you're an accumulator or an under-buyer, is one of those small projects that can have disproportionately awesome effects.
Now that you have it, what are you going to do with it?
An exit strategy is a plan for what to do in a given situation when the circumstances change. For instance, say I have a job. I'm not going to work there for infinity years. At some point, I know I'm either going to retire, quit, get laid off, get fired, or die with my face planted in my inbox. Even if I get promoted, I still have the same set of options. It's the same thing with my car. At some point, I'm either going to sell it, trade it in, or donate it, or it will get totaled. Same idea with my house. At some point I'm going to move, because I'm a renter and I know we won't retire here. Nothing lasts forever. That includes our stuff.
Most of us never think about exit strategies for most of our possessions. It just doesn't cross our minds. Every brand-new, fluffy sock will one day either lose its mate or become threadbare. How lonely and tragic. Ever gotten a blister from wearing a worn-out sock one too many times? Things are made to be used, and at a certain point, they get used up. We give worn-out socks to our dog as a toy, and it's not long before they're too torn up even for that. Into the trash they go.
Our culture generates more material artifacts than any culture in human history. We number our garments and books and action figures in the hundreds. We have dozens of copies of things that never even existed in the recent past. For instance, my household contains an entire box of power strips, chargers, connector cables, and backup batteries. Remote controls, headphones, splitters, tablets, phones, protective cases, electronic equipment I'd have trouble explaining to a child. What does this do? No idea, honey. I think it has electrons in it. We have all this stuff, and where is it going to go? Into a museum? Maybe not if there exist hundreds of millions of iterations of it, and a new version is coming out this November.
The Beanie Babies alone could make an extremely weird monument if they were all gathered together in one place. A desert pilgrimage site, perhaps. Living wild animals could hop up and curiously take a sniff. Birds could nest in it. Otherwise what are we going to do with them all? Do we really, truly think that people a century from now are going to want millions upon millions of disintegrating stuffed toys?
There are three reasons why the people of antiquity created small midden piles instead of landfills that can be seen from outer space. One is that they used things until they wore out, and then had a secondary market for the broken stuff. There was an entire profession of "rag-pickers" who would repurpose worn-out clothes and linens. Old newspapers, letters, and sheet music were used to wrap fish and meat. The other reason is that people have had an enduring, millennia-old tradition of ritual bonfires. You had a holiday full of revelry and a big fire, with a need for things to stuff in it. That's where you sent your snapped chairs and other dangerous old junk. Of course, by far the most important reason that people of the past did not generate landfills is that they didn't make, own, or waste even a tiny fraction of the stuff that we do.
One day, we'll be able to feed our friable old plastic junk into a 3D printer or a home power generator. We'll mine our landfills for more materials. Hopefully. What else are we going to do with cracked plastic buckets, stained food storage containers with melted lids, and warped lawn furniture that won't support a person's weight? Times a hundred million?
Many of us experience strong feelings of sadness, nostalgia, and regret when we think of the fate of unwanted or useless stuff. Jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces. Worn-out shoes. Scary space heaters with frayed cords. Ugly lamps. Close-up photographs of a million thumbs. Engraved decorations from the weddings of divorced couples. Broken Christmas ornaments. THIS USED TO BE COOL! I think we sometimes project our own feelings of rejection onto misfit material items. Sure, I'm a little funky, but can't you love me anyway? Deep inside, we truly believe that physical objects have souls and emotions, that they suffer when they aren't polished or displayed in some way. We demonstrate that by bringing them home and storing them in mildewed, crumbling old cardboard boxes.
Many of my clients are compulsive accumulators. Some shop as a hobby, whether online or in stores. Others will cheerfully accept limitless amounts of bags and boxes of other people's castoffs, stacking them up and never using them, but resting peacefully in the sense that they have "saved" these items. Books that will never be read again. Torn or stained garments that will never be remade. Fabric scraps that will never be used. We can't accept the fact of ruin. We can't face the pressure of a world of seven billion people that seems to require the manufacture of trillions of small, consumable objects and the waste of 40% of our food production. We never spare a second thought to what will happen to these objects after they come in our front doors.
We probably don't spend enough time sitting around and crying about it. Suppressed grief over our lost loved ones. Suppressed grievances over lost glories of the past. Suppressed disappointment over the way our lives have failed to live up to our dreams. Suppressed sorrow over the state of the world. Wasting today fussing over yesterday, rather than making tomorrow happen the way we'd prefer. Living in a personal landfill rather than accepting that our existence adds to collective landfills.
The only way out is a grand exit strategy. A policy decision to quit buying so much stuff. To put our attention on food and energy waste rather than the fate of a couple hundred pounds of random objects. We waste far more when we throw away spoiled groceries week after week than we do by junking old junk. If we stacked up all our single-use packaging for a year, we'd quickly see that it adds up to far greater volume than any amount of old furniture and knickknacks.
My husband and I are continually divesting stuff from our household. We've realized that there's no point in keeping anything we don't use. It's expensive to rent a bigger house just to provide shelter for more stuff we don't even need. It all tends to get banged up when we move. What really makes our life together is our habits: our inside jokes, our favorite recipes, our conversation, our shared presence. The more we downsize, the smaller the house we rent, the nicer the neighborhood we can suddenly afford. Our bills get smaller and we spend less time cleaning house. In light of all these benefits, the stuff we still have has to justify itself more and more.
A lot of things go when you realize you don't need or want a car anymore. The car itself. The car payments. The garage. The insurance policy. The roadside assistance account. The automotive tools and various bottles of chemicals. The shop rags. The extra shopping bags. The special electronics and adapters for riding in the car. Then you start to realize, more and more, how much of your stuff and your lifestyle is built around access to your own personal car. One of these things for us is our Costco membership, which we decided to keep.
The thing about big box stores is that they normalize massive volumes of stuff. "Family-size" looks like normal size. This is like that point in the mid-Eighties when 64-oz drink cups came out, and what used to be a "large" cup was suddenly a "small," while "small" was "child size." That's back in the day when a can of soda was supposedly 2.5 servings, and my two brothers and I would share one on road trips. Stuff used to be smaller.
Buy large packages of stuff when you shop, and you need a bigger vehicle. Buy large packages of stuff and drive a large vehicle, and you need a bigger house and garage. I don't know of any single person who parks in the garage. Even though our vehicles are our most valuable possessions aside from the house itself, we will leave them out in the elements while we fill our garages with stuff. A lot of that stuff originally came from the big box store.
It's not mandatory, though. It's not required any more than we're forced to buy the $10 butter at Whole Foods Market. It's not where you shop, it's how you shop, what you buy, and how you store it once you get home.
We just moved into a tiny apartment. It comes with an itty-bitty kitchen with a small fridge that has a tiny freezer. As a result, we don't buy bulk groceries anymore. Have you ever brought one of those sleeping bag-sized bags of tortilla chips to a party? No amount of people can ever finish one of those off. A lot of super-ultra-plus-sized groceries wind up getting thrown away when they go bad. The only reason we buy this stuff in the first place is that it looks normal now. We still think we're saving money even when we're throwing away as much as 40% of the food we buy.
Beyond the sheer waste, a lot of people fill their kitchens up with so much food that the kitchen itself is barely usable. Every cabinet full to bursting. Countertops covered with food packages and collectible canisters. Boxes of cereal on top of the fridge. Cases of soda stacked on the floor. Second fridges with accompanying chest freezer. I've even known of people who store food inside the oven for lack of space. Houses were not built with the infrastructure to handle this kind of volume.
The last time we had a Costco trip, my husband went on the bus on his way home from work. He bought: shampoo, conditioner, a quart of minced garlic, and a bag of dried blueberries. He put them in his backpack and got back on the bus.
This is going to sound absurd, and it is, but our minced garlic consumption pays for our membership. I go through that stuff in greater volume than we do ice cream, breakfast cereal, booze, or coffee (none of which we buy). It comes in tiny containers at the grocery store for $2.99, or we can buy it in big ol' garlicky tubs and I can ladle it out with an ice cream scoop, which, now that I think about it, is a great use for our ice cream scoop.
We also buy fresh fruit and vegetables at Costco from time to time. This works for us because we're into juicing, and in fact we bought our Vitamix blender at Costco. We also eat massive amounts of vegetables, and we rotate through them quickly. In fact, the only vegetable in my fridge right now is a head of cauliflower, which is basically emergency rations and means I have to go to the store.
Sometimes we buy stuff at Costco from the fridge or freezer, although this tends to get us into trouble. We can't be trusted near that much hummus.
I don't buy clothes there, because they start at a size 8 for women, and I haven't been an 8 since 25 pounds ago. I can't even buy my underwear there. My husband will buy stacks of slacks and work shirts. This is crazy-making for me. Imagine a world where women can flip through a stack of pants, pull out our size, and know they will fit without having to try them on!
What we will continue to buy in addition to shampoo and garlic are dog cookies, software, and the occasional vitamin or pharmaceutical. We'll probably buy sheets and towels like we have before. We might buy electronics or patio furniture, although now that we don't have a car this will involve a Lyft. Mostly, our trips to Costco are going to be a thin disguise for my husband's desire to get more blueberries.
What I like best about box stores is that purchasing decisions are simplified. They're only going to buy something if it's widely satisfactory. I haven't had any bad experiences that led to buyer's remorse, other than perhaps the five-pound sack of baking soda I'm still trying to use.
Okay, full disclosure, I own some Costco stock, and also some Whole Foods. I figure if I shop somewhere, I know enough about it to have a reasonable sense of how the company is doing. I like Costco because of how they treat their employees, and I have friends and family members who have worked there, or still do. Just because I don't buy King Kong portions of crackers, cake-sized muffins, or barrels of mixed nuts doesn't mean I don't appreciate them as an entity.
The thing about minimalism is that we try to be as intentional as possible about daily life. We want to choose what we want for ourselves. We want to spend our money consciously and create a living environment that we find enjoyable, relaxing, and inspiring. This can include visiting the monuments of hyperconsumerism, consuming them rather than finding that they've consumed us.
An elliptical trainer
A stair stepper
A ten-top dining table
Ten dining chairs
A ten-foot ladder
Five sets of garage shelving
A shop vac
A circular saw
A metal bandsaw
A hydraulic jack
A weed whacker
A set of sawhorses
A fire extinguisher (we kept one)
Various scrap lumber
An insulated lunch bag
A travel mug
A salad bowl
A box of plastic food storage containers
Three potholders, two made by me
A coffee mug
A gravy boat
Three muffin pans
A glass baking dish
A roasting pan
A metal breadbox
A cake rack
A butter dish
A pasta maker
Four drinking glasses
Eleven wine glasses
A bottle of wine
Two tea balls
Three kitchen knives
A pasta server
Two sets of tongs
Three sets of measuring cups
A kitchen timer
A bag of refrigerator magnets
Two kitchen aprons
A dust mop
A plastic dish tub
A shelf organizer
An old jacket
A travel pillow
A set of colored pencils
A box of crayons
Three packages of index cards
A package of Post-It notes
A roll of wrapping paper
A stack of blank books and sketch pads
A box of CDs and DVDs
A CD organizer
Five thumb drives
A box of photographs (digitized and stored in the cloud)
A bulletin board
Three picture frames
A set of flannel sheets
Two bedspreads with pillow shams
Two bed pillows
Four throw pillows
Five small moving boxes full of fabric
Two sewing machines
A rotary cutter and cutting mat
A set of pottery tools
Two embroidery hoops and an embroidery frame
A set of gouache paints
A bag of paintbrushes
Three folding tables
Three milk crates
An extension cord
A coil of rope
A set of closet rod hardware
A package of wall hooks
A set of gardening gloves
A bag of seed packets
A set of loppers
A 12-pound sledgehammer
A pick hoe
A weeding fork
Two toy crossbows
A box of sprinkler heads
A box of drip irrigation hoses and supplies
A box of PVC fittings
A dryer duct cleaning kit, still in the package
A box of wooden hangers
A pair of rubber boots
A set of camping mugs
A set of tomato cages
A hummingbird feeder
A computer keyboard
A wicker hamper
Five wicker baskets
A set of wooden drawers
A wooden trunk
A plastic drawer organizer
A small jewelry box
A ten-foot shelf
Four board games
A bag of old shoes
A bag of old clothes
A box of sequined fruit
No idea how many books
Three potted plants
A bag of paper grocery sacks
Everything in our fridge and freezer
Sixty-two moving boxes
We're car-free now. Everything got so coincidentally hectic around that time that I haven't written about it in any depth. It just gets dropped in casually, like, "Yeah, we're middle-aged suburbanites and by the way, WE HAVE NO CAR." I'm trying and failing to think of anything else that makes a good analogy for this. Maybe the fact that neither of us drink coffee? Cars are so central to our culture that the idea is unimaginable to many people. When it becomes imaginable and practical for people like my husband and me, listen up, because the world is changing fast.
I didn't learn to drive until I was 29. I couldn't have afforded a car in my teens or twenties any more than I could have afforded a horse. It made no sense to me to work just to pay for my car so I could get to work to pay for my car. I lived in a city where I could take the bus to work, and that's what I did. I think I also walked at least three miles a day, and sometimes more like seven to ten. A few years later, I bought a commuter bicycle. People would sometimes ask me what kind of car I drove. When I replied, "I don't have a car," they would invariably laugh and say, "Ha, that's a good one! No, seriously." The conversation would go downhill from there, as in California in the Nineties, saying you didn't have a car was tantamount to saying you were in a weird cult. Probably weirder.
I can't socialize with you. You don't have a car. I mean, how are we supposed to do anything together? How will we get there? How do I categorize your personality and demographics and socioeconomic pigeonhole if I don't know what brand of vehicle you are?
That was then. Now, it's not such a big deal, partly because apparently a lot of Millennials don't own cars either.
What led us to get rid of our car was a casual interest that intersected with a coincidence. My husband's old truck finally died sometime after 200,000 miles. He took it to the shop and found that it was going to be a continual money pit. Time to let it go. We had a long discussion about how trucks can represent masculinity and potential, and how much our lifestyle had changed since he bought it. We talked about what we would do if we needed a truck for something, like buying bags of potting soil for the garden. Then we bought a Volkswagen Jetta TDI, a little sedan. Then there was a major international scandal, and VW instituted a buyback program.
We had that car for a little over two years. Between March 2016 and March 2017, we drove it 2000 miles. That included two road trips.
We drove so little that the car insurance company disputed our estimate and made us send photos of the odometer.
What happened was that we decided to build our lifestyle around not having a commute. Commuting is the least pleasant activity in most people's day. We figured we'd rather live in a tiny house or a sketchy neighborhood than have him on the freeway up to two hours a day. Every time there was a collision and he sat broiling in traffic, it brought home the idea even more. Driving is for people who actually like being in a car, and neither of us do.
We decided to move. We spent a few months looking in the neighborhood within walking distance of my husband's work. I work at home, so it doesn't really matter to me. We started finding places, and finding that they had been rented out before we managed to call. We developed our criteria and a sense of what we both wanted in a house. I got an email alert about a new listing while the phone happened to be in my hand, forwarded it to him, and he called within five minutes. We were the first of 83 people that day. Apparently a lot of people are willing to live in a tiny house so they don't have to commute! I happened to be out of town, so he took pictures of all the rooms and texted them to me, and I agreed, technically sight-unseen.
My husband started walking to and from work most days. He might drive if it rained, but sometimes he walked anyway, and wore a hat. One morning he found a wad of $84 on the ground. I did most of the grocery shopping on the way home from my various walking errands. I think of myself as my own car. If I want to go to the library, or the post office, or a club meeting, or the movie theater, I walk there, and I plan my route to swing by the store on the way home. We lived in a small, walkable community, and we walked.
After three years at that job, my husband got an offer on his dream job, working in the space industry. We decided to move again. We left our 728-square-foot house and moved into a 680-square-foot apartment. Coincidentally, the car buyback appointment with VW happened the week before our move. We were so busy moving that we barely noticed.
The best thing about being car-free was during the move. We both rode in the moving van. I was really stressed about the idea of driving the car and trying to follow the van, because I hate having to organize a caravan. It turned out it also would have been really hard for us to park next to each other at the Airbnb or during the moving process. Maybe I'm weird, but to me it was a relief.
Actually, I'm forgetting myself. The best thing about being car-free was when we got the buyback check! Now we have no car payment, no car insurance payment, and we're not spending money on gas or oil changes or car washes or parking or bridge tolls. I knew to expect this, because I got rid of my first car when I finally realized it was costing me a quarter of my (unimpressive) income. We used the buyback money for our IRAs. Future Us will appreciate this long after that car would have been a rusted-out clunker.
As a practical matter, there are three things we do with a personal vehicle, besides using it for storage. 1. Commuting to work, 2. Errands, and 3. Recreation. These can have separate solutions.
My husband decided to try riding the bus to work. His work reimburses him for his bus pass, so instead of a car payment, his commute is now free. He bought a folding scooter to use between bus stops. This has turned into a major source of fun, as he's been tying Spike's leash to it and having the dog pull him around. It's like they're puppies again.
Errands are no big deal, because our apartment complex is 4/10 of a mile from a shopping center. It has: a Whole Foods, a pharmacy, a dry cleaner, a UPS store, a pet supply, a barber, and the all-important taco shop. Across the street is the public library and the post office. Last weekend, we took the bus together to buy a large and awkward item from Office Depot. It turned into an outing where we both got some stuff resolved at the Apple Store and then went out to dinner. Most stuff, we order online and have delivered, as we've been doing for several years.
Recreation is sort of the point of the whole thing. We moved to avoid having a commute so we could free up time to be together at home. More time to take naps with the dog. More time for gardening. More time to sit around reading. More time to cook awesome stuff. We plan our vacations around not using a car, because most of the places we like to visit don't even allow cars. Historic districts, wilderness, archaeological sites, urban areas that are more advanced than most places in the US. The Las Vegas Strip, which I find exemplary for many reasons. Now we've moved again, and we live at the beach. Not just at the beach, but directly on the waterfront. We can hear sea lions when we walk the dog. We can kinda see a little bit of ocean from our balcony!
Going car-free is an urban choice. It really doesn't work for people in rural areas. Whether someone prefers one or the other is purely personal. It's a full-on lifestyle design decision. Both of us have lived in rural areas, near forests, near agriculture, in the suburbs, and in the city, although my husband hasn't lived downtown in quite as large an urban metropolis as I have. We've tried it all, and we're coming to find that trying it all is part of the fun. Owning a car nails down your finances in a similar way to a mortgage. Paradoxically, not owning a vehicle or house frees up so much cash flow that it's liberating, even though most people would regard not having a car as a net loss of freedom.
We're lucky in many ways. In other ways, we've made conscious choices, plans, and decisions to live one way instead of another. We're willing to pay higher rents per square foot in order to live in certain overpriced neighborhoods, and the tradeoff is that we get a living space that is half or one-third the size of what most Americans have. (Maybe less). We plan to have more experiences and less stuff. That's why we can now walk on the beach together during the time that other couples our age would be at the mall or watching cable TV. Less stuff, less screen time, and less time in a car translates to more time doing more fun things. What used to be fairly routine for most people, like living close to nature and having long conversations, has become special occasion date-night activities. We're enjoying flipping that and having special occasions every day.
If you were twice as big as me, you would:
Live in a 1360 square foot house
Have two cars
Have two bathrooms
Have two televisions
Have twelve dinner plates, ten cereal bowls, and twelve coffee mugs
Have eight bath towels and eight hand towels
Weigh 240 pounds (or be ten feet and eight inches tall)
Have four laundry baskets
Have 28 pairs of shoes
Have 56 hangers in your closet
Have ten skirts
Have 26 pairs of pants and jeans
Have twenty dresses
Have 54 shirts
Have 14 sweaters
Have four pairs of shorts and two swimsuits
Have 44 pairs of socks
Have 158 books
Have two craft projects in progress
I made myself count stuff in my ever-present donation/sale bag, because technically I still have it, and I've wound up moving with "donation" or "eBay" or "yard sale" bags more than once. I also counted our car, even though we sold it after I wrote this.
This is a silly idea in many ways, because presumably you don't have two drivers licenses, two dishwashers, or two ...I ran out of ideas there, because people may well have two refrigerators, two houses, two beds, two couches, or two spouses. Anyway, the point is that we can always look around and consider how much territory and how many accessories and accoutrements it takes to "be us."
Hopefully you just have twice as many friends, twice as much fun, twice as much energy, and twice as much love in your life as I do!
We set a new record. From the day we got the moving van until the day we finished moving in, two weeks elapsed. The fastest I've ever done it before was three weeks. This is a great argument in favor of minimalism! Anyone who has ever lived amongst boxes for a prolonged period, unable to find important things like, say, the forks, knows how annoying it is. It's such a relief to be able to relax on your own couch, looking around and not seeing any boxes to unpack. Normal and boring can be so satisfying. It's quite common, though, for most people to have boxes that never get unpacked at all. In that case, living with boxes becomes the new normal.
Why can't we unpack any faster?
We probably could have pushed through and finished our place in four or five days. By 'finished,' I mean that all the pictures are hung on the walls and everything has its own designated spot. All the boxes have been given away or recycled. All the packing material is gone. The staging area of pens and tape dispensers and razor knives has been redistributed and put away. Anyone coming over for the first time wouldn't know that someone had just moved in.
Experience has shown that it's better to live in the new place for at least a week before installing hooks or extra towel rods or that sort of thing. It can take a bit of time to figure out the best placement for the furniture, and that means the pictures have to wait. There's a brief buffer period where the place shifts from "just moved in" to "living in a mess." That feeling of messiness is the feeling of settling in, developing a comfort level and an intuitive sense of where everything works the best.
Or, it can just stay messy forever...?
After the first big push of our move-in weekend, we elected not to do very much on weekdays. We needed a break. It also gave time for the parts that take more mental bandwidth. It's really obvious how to unpack certain things, but others take more creativity and System 2 planning. For instance, the area under our kitchen sink is configured in such a way that it was really challenging to find space for everything I wanted to put under there. That was the only thing I did about moving in on that particular day. It sounds dumb when I put it like that, but kitchen real estate is really valuable. Getting it right can make the difference between a functional kitchen or a dysfunctional kitchen. If people aren't comfortable cooking most nights of the week, if there are almost always dirty dishes in and around the sink, if the fridge almost always has spoiled food in it, then something is wrong. A system isn't working right and the house is the boss of the people. Living with a dysfunctional kitchen is expensive and it causes a lot of arguments. This is why I put in so much thoughtful planning when we first move in - so that we can get back to living and cooking and eating and enjoying life the way we prefer it.
The kitchen is the heart of the house, and that's what I always unpack first. It's a good sign that it's working well when I find myself cooking more elaborate meals. A tiny kitchen can be nice, because you can reach almost everything simply by turning back and forth! The secret is to get rid of absolutely anything in order to maintain clear countertops. I have a two-foot-square countertop in this kitchen that has nothing stored on it, and it's just big enough to cook anything I like. Two square feet isn't very much, but it's more than almost every cook manages to keep clear.
The next most important area is the bathroom. This is the second most likely area of the house to cause arguments, because it's the area that relates to getting places on time. It's also the second most difficult area to keep clean. A dank, moldy bathroom filled with funky towels and damp laundry all over the floor is just a sad, scary kind of a place to start your day. A countertop covered with bottles and stuff makes it hard for everyone to get ready. Inevitably something is going to get knocked into the toilet. I am obsessive about keeping my bathroom countertop clear, even more than in the kitchen. When you have the smallest possible bathroom, with basically no counter and a minuscule medicine cabinet, then choices have to be made. Almost everything gets stored in the linen closet or the bedroom instead. Otherwise, it just gets cut out of our lives. How many lotions and potions and bottles and jars does one household need?
I realized that I am giving the bedroom short shrift. That's because the bed is literally the first thing we set up in a new place, and then we're done. We figure out which direction the head will be; we set up the frame; we drop the box springs into place; we drag the mattress on top. We make the bed in five minutes, the same way we do every time. Then we realize we haven't made enough room to plug in the lamp, and the outlet is always blocked by the mattress, and we have to drag it askew and deal with that. The blanket chest goes at the foot of the bed, the extra blankets go in it, the two small dressers get walked into place, and we're done with the entire room in maybe half an hour. Unpacking all our clothes takes maybe another half an hour. It's really not a big deal, although it would be if we had more stuff, I guess.
That's what it all comes down to. The more stuff you have, the longer it takes to unpack. The greater the proportion of non-essentials, the easier it is to leave them taped inside boxes. When you don't have much, and almost all of it is necessary to a functional home, then it tends to get unpacked quickly. What are we going to do without for a month: towels? Kitchen knives? The dog bed? I know from experience that what most people have in those perennially packed boxes consists of extraneous stuff like books, old school papers, junk mail, ornaments, toys, memorabilia, and gift bags with the tags still on them. Some people will take the big step of just walking those boxes out to the trash and dumping them, without even bothering to look inside, because they finally realize that if they've lived without it for that long, then they really don't need it. I think a better rationale is that the house is functioning fine, we're surrounded by everything we need, and we're enjoying living so comfortably that anything else is just extra.
The thing about downsizing is that eventually you wind up with only one closet.
Why is this? Why can't all homes have the same amount of built-in cabinets and closets and cupboards, and just have fewer rooms and less floor space? It makes sense to me.
The thing about stuff is that everyone has far more small objects than we do large objects. This is especially true after we start doing serious space clearing. Maybe we start with a boat or an extra car or truck - the big ticket items. When we move to smaller living spaces, we understand that we'll have fewer rooms. The guest bedroom goes, and with it the guest bed, guest dresser, possibly guest desk and chair. I know of one person who downsized from five couches to two. Maybe we don't really need both a kitchen table and a formal dining table, or maybe it's time to let go of the grandfather clock, the china hutch, the sideboard, the chifforobe, the davenport, or any other furniture that might show up in the final round of the middle school spelling bee. We've finally realized that we're unlikely to have regular dinner parties for twelve or more, and we're okay with that. Still, we need somewhere to put the tools and housewares of daily life.
My husband and I have just moved into a small apartment. There are plenty of smaller places to live in the world; we saw some of them just a couple of weeks ago, before we found this place. Studio apartments. We considered a couple, but I can tell you from this experience that we are not ready for that level of downsizing yet! The reason for that is that we're already struggling to deal with having only one closet.
Fortunately, it's a decent-sized walk-in closet with a shelf, or I don't know what we'd do. Suspend everything from the ceiling in cargo nets?
Throughout our marriage, every time we've moved, we've downsized. The first two times, both our garage and kitchen storage were cut in half each time. We also dropped the dedicated laundry room, the pantry, the coat closet, our original walk-in closet, and the family room. Then we dropped the dining room and a bathroom. Then we dropped my office, and then his, and the closets that came with them. That's when the trouble started.
Neither of us are really all that into clothes or shoes. We haven't had any trouble sharing a clothes closet, even though we both have recreational pursuits that involve special gear. It's...everything else.
It starts with the kitchen, because we both like to cook and entertain, and we're also into canning. I dehydrate my own backpacking food, too, because it's so expensive. This has caused us to accumulate a great deal of equipment. In the past, the kitchen excess has spread into other areas like the pantry, garage, and coat closet. Now, if it doesn't all fit in the kitchen, there's nowhere else for it to go. But - one kitchen isn't enough! If we go any smaller, we'll have to give up on at least one thing that we actually use on a regular basis. It will be a lifestyle change, not just letting go of an aspirational "one day" item.
We have non-perishable pantry items stored in our fridge right now, because all but one shelf in the kitchen is full of dishes, pots, baking pans, mixing bowls, small appliances, and other cooking paraphernalia.
Then it goes to the office. Most people don't have such a luxury, but we're empty-nesters. It turns out there are far more two- and three-bedroom homes on the rental market than there are singles. We shrugged and made use of the space, when we had it, though most people will fit in these items wherever they can. A holding area for incoming mail and pending paperwork. Paper records. Electronic storage media, which at one point included floppy disks, CDs, DVDs, thumb drives, SD cards, a backup drive, and more. A desktop computer, printer, and other peripherals. Printer paper and cartridges. Extra cables, chargers, power strips, and backup batteries. Product and software boxes. (Why are these so hard to let go??). Envelopes of various sizes. Office supplies. A red stapler. A rubber band ball, though the attraction of such a satisfyingly fine object mystifies my husband. Canned air. Boxes of photographs. Art supplies. In my husband's case, a bunch of electronics doodads, circuit boards, a soldering iron, robotics and mad science contraptions galore. Two busy people who like to work at home tend to generate a lot of accessories.
Then there's the recreational stuff. Backpacking gear. Bicycling gear. Motorcycle gear and hockey equipment, in his case. Exercise mats. Luggage.
Then there's the cute stuff. Board games. Pet toys. Outdoor toys like Frisbees. Decorations and tchotchkes. Souvenirs. Small items that might have gone into various drawers or been displayed on various flat surfaces now have nowhere to be.
What has helped during our downsizing process has been to think of objects as part of a larger collection. Take each individual thing as a representative of a category. When I thought of "fitness equipment," for example, it was easier to let it all go at once when I thought, "How will I work out? I will go running and I will use the fitness center at our apartment complex." We were able to let go of everything filed under "gardening" and "automotive" as well.
What's happened is that we're successfully containerizing everything. The office stuff has gone into a set of aluminum storage boxes, which are now sitting on a shelf where a few dozen books used to be. The paper files are in another storage box, which has likewise displaced a shelf of books. Basically, the extra books and food stockpiles have had to make way for things we don't yet feel we can do without. As we continue to move toward fully paperless, and as we learn to make a life in a smaller space, we will find that we are crowded by all these bits and bobs. We'll jettison them in favor of breathing room, and we'll feel a sense of satisfaction as we do.
The core of downsizing is the inner directive to "make it all go away." Living surrounded by boxes and bins and tubs and stacks and piles is demoralizing, irritating, confusing, distracting, and just not super-pretty. It's not doing us any favors to keep things we can't even find, much less things we don't use and don't feel like dusting. We have to put more attention on the smaller items than we did on the larger pieces, because there are more of them. We're outnumbered, but we're winning the fight.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.