My Minimalist Story, Part 2: The Great Unraveling

Most of us spend our lives in a constant state of accumulation.

It all starts when we leave our parents’ homes, and start acquiring the “stuff” to lead independent lives. What begins with a couple of plates, milk crates, and linens in college evolves into furniture, cookware, tableware, and decorative items when we get our first apartments. From then on, it’s a continual process of adding and upgrading as our abodes grow larger, and our lives more complex.

What’s more, we’re cheered on along the way. Our acquisitions are encouraged by advertisers, and celebrated by family and friends. We’re given housewarming parties and shower gifts, and congratulated when we purchase a new TV or living room set. It’s almost as if our stuff becomes the measure of our lives, with “more and better” meaning we’re moving in the right direction.

Which makes it all the more interesting when you decide to do the opposite.

Before my husband and I moved overseas, we decided to get rid of our stuff, rather than move or store it (see My Minimalist Story, Part 1: A Clean Slate). We’d been living together since college, so our possessions represented our entire history together, from our first apartment to our current house.

What had taken over a decade to accumulate, we had one month to purge. Things we had coveted, pondered over, saved up for, shopped for, and excitedly brought home. Things that reflected our interests, tastes, travels, and activities. Things we’d bought to celebrate holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. We’d slowly woven this tapestry of stuff, telling the story of our lives, and now we had to unravel it.

When we told others what we were doing, it was clear we’d upset the natural order of things. Though we had the support of our closest friends and family, many people couldn’t comprehend why we’d want to get rid of the things “we’d worked a lifetime for” (we’re not that old). Others wrote us off as flighty, eccentric, or a little crazy.

No matter—my husband and I dove into the project with enthusiasm. We split the Craigslist duties, and hardly needed to consult each other on individual items. We knew instinctively the very few things that were special to us; everything else could go without regrets. If one of us wavered, the other would chant, “non-attachment, non-attachment.” The experience was nothing short of cathartic.

Here’s the room-by-room breakdown of our Great Unraveling:

Kitchen. We purged everything, save for our sporks, titanium travel cups, a corkscrew, my husband’s favorite knife, and two masu (sake cups) from Japan. We donated, or gave away, every plate, pot, pan, appliance, and utensil—they were simply too heavy and unwieldy to be worth shipping.

Bathroom. We disposed of everything, except the toiletries we decided to take with us. No sense in shipping towels or shower caddies!

Living room. We gave away decorative items, and sold our TV, stereo system, and all furniture except for two pieces—one impossible, the other too costly, to replace. (If you’re curious, the survivors were the sofa and chair in the photo that accompanies Farewell to My Minimalist House.) This was a tough decision—we didn’t really want to keep anything, but we knew we’d regret disposing of them.

Office. We sold our desks, chairs, and bookshelves, as well as all computer equipment except our laptops and a backup hard drive. We gave away (or otherwise disposed of) every last pen, paper clip, rubber band, envelope, file folder, and miscellaneous item in our overflowing stationery supply box. (In hindsight, we should have saved a handful of essential office supplies, to avoid having to buy mass quantities of them here.) We digitized our photos, and scanned and/or shredded the majority of our paperwork. We kept two boxes of important documents (taxes, real estate, financial), and allowed ourselves one box each of books.

Bedroom. We disassembled and disposed of our homemade platform bed, donated the bedding, and left the armoire with the house. We ruthlessly purged our closets, editing our wardrobes down to our favorite, most versatile, and most often worn pieces. It was liberating to suddenly have “permission” to get rid of all those things that weren’t quite right. No longer was I obligated to keep stuff that might someday fit again, come back into style, or be used for “dirty work” around the house!

Guest room. We sold the furniture (futon and small table), and donated the bedding.

Basement. We sold, gave away, or left for the new owner all the lawn and garden equipment, tools, and household supplies. We kept only our bikes (mainly because DH’s would be more costly to replace than store/ship).

Those weeks were full of chaos and activity, with a constant stream of friends, family, neighbors, and strangers parading through our house and carting away our possessions. It was like a strange dream. Between purging our stuff, preparing for settlement, packing, and wrapping up things at our jobs, we had little opportunity to consider exactly what was happening.

It wasn’t until the night before closing that the full impact of what we were doing finally hit us. As our voices echoed through the empty rooms, we realized that almost everything we’d ever owned was really gone. No longer would we be coming back to our familiar house, with our familiar furniture, and our familiar stuff. For the next six weeks, we’d be living in highway motels, awaiting our visas—then starting a brand new life in a foreign country. Fortunately, any nervousness we might have felt was drowned out by the excitement, and sheer extraordinariness, of the situation.

We slept on the living room floor that night, our two duffel bags lined up at the door, ready to start our adventure in minimalist living.

38 comments to My Minimalist Story, Part 2: The Great Unraveling

  • Zoe

    Just reading your description of getting rid of (almost) everything sounds like it would feel so cleansing and free. It will be interesting to see how settling into your new home will be different, what you think you need versus what you really need.

    I’d keep my Eames chair too.

  • Hi there!
    I lurk over on the Simple Living Board, and have followed some of your excellent posts. I used to post there a lot more often, but have pulled back for reasons of my own. Anyhow, I was struck by one of your posts there about longing to do some sort of art, but afraid of clutter. I can well understand that as an artist myself, and actually scaled down my media as I simply didn’t want all that bulk(acrylic painting). In the last few years I’ve focused on just doing watercolors, which only needs a pad or two, one box of paints and some brushes. I have one box of colored pencils that I also use. Another super possibility that involves nothing other than you computer is digital art – there are any number of fun and not too expensive programs. Don’t, whatever you do, try to squelch your artistic longings in the name of simplicity – then the simplicity becomes a trap, backfiring on you because you kept yourself from doing something that you would like, and have an orientation towards. There are far too many creative people who are squelched already. Just some thoughts here, and keep on the journey – you’re doing great!

  • Michelle

    Wow, I almost shed a tear at the end! Talk about ending on a cliffhanger – I’m dying to hear what happened once you Got There.

  • what a wonderful adventure!

    ~janet

  • miss minimalist

    Cara, digital art sounds like a great idea. I think that would satisfy my need to “create,” without generating any clutter. Thanks so much for the inspiration!

    Zoe, Michelle, and Janet, thanks for your great comments. Just a few more posts until we’re settled in to our new home! :-)

  • Jessie

    Wow, how liberating! I guess it really does take something like moving to a foreign country to make you stop and think about your stuff, otherwise if it was in the same country you would just put it all in a van and move.

    A very poignant post, thank you.

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks, Jessie! You’re right–such a move really does make you think about exactly what you *need.* (And yes, we’d moved that stuff around in a van far too many times!)

  • […] any more storage! Even so, when we completed our ultimate decluttering to move to the UK (see My Minimalist Story, Part 2: The Great Unraveling), I’m embarrassed about how many containers we left on the curb. (Don’t worry, they didn’t go […]

  • Jen

    My husband and I went through the same process- and the same sense of liberation- renting out our own house while we work in another country this year. We have promised to continue ‘living like we’re moving’- our house never looked as fantastic as when we finally emptied it of everything but the essentials (we’re renting it out furnished) and during our final month at home we made more time for friends than we had for years.

  • miss minimalist

    Hi Jen–it’s great to hear from someone on the same path! I hope you’re enjoying your time abroad; I’d love to hear more about your experience. :-)

  • Christy Z

    Hi – new reader here, very happy to have found you.

    I have purged probably 40 carloads of stuff and have a fantasy of doing what you did. LOVE reading this.

  • Fuji

    Do you ever have any remorse from having purchased the items in the first place?
    Sometimes I look back at the things I’ve purchased (and given away) and wonder why I ever spent the money on the item to begin with. It just shows the power of societal pressure to fit it I guess. In any case, many times I look back and feel badly about purchasing items – what a waste of time and resources!

    • miss minimalist

      Yes, Fuji, absolutely! I’ve felt quite a bit of guilt over the wasted money and resources.

      However, I’ve learned from my mistakes (ie excess purchases), and now I think long and hard before I buy *anything*! If it isn’t absolutely necessary, it doesn’t come into our home. Our UK flat has nothing but the barest essentials, and I love it. :-)

  • […] we decluttered before our big move, we found that we had somehow accumulated way too many sheets and towels for a household of two […]

  • […] my major declutter for our UK move, I have significantly less to do this year. Instead of tackling a three bedroom […]

  • Wow, this is inspiring!

    I too recently moved from the US to the UK, although I was 21 and therefore didn’t have near as many things, but I still got rid of most of my possessions. Some silly things from my childhood and quite a few books are still at my mom’s house, but I’m finding I don’t miss them all that much.

    We have no idea what the future holds and will probably have to up and move again. In four months we’ll be moving out of the three bedroom flat we’re renting into one or two bedrooms in my husband’s house while I study for grad school. We’re going to declutter again. We’re both voracious readers and like to support authors, so books are the main difficulty for us, but they are possessions we don’t mind having. Luckily the flat we’re renting is prefurnished so all we bought so far were bookshelves and a few small decorative things.

    It is really freeing. I am not an extreme minimalist, but I see my friends buying, buying, and buying things, whereas from my move I learned only to buy clothing and other possessions I know are practical, or if they’re decorative, then to keep them very small and light. I want to travel around the world, keeping the books in storage, and then eventually settle down in a one or two bedroom flat, surrounded by books and other essential possessions.

    • miss minimalist

      Hi Laura! Great to hear from another expat. :-) It’s wonderful that you’re embracing minimalism at such a young age; you can avoid that “accumulation phase” that most of us go through in our twenties. Enjoy the freedom!

  • Patch

    @ Cara: “Don’t, whatever you do, try to squelch your artistic longings in the name of simplicity”

    So true! I wanted to keep my coloring books, for both stress management as well as my need for artistic expression (not being a creative person). You remind me, however, to let the coloring books go in favor of creating (or attempting to create) MY OWN “art” using nothing more than a sketch pad, pencils, and crayons.

  • […] number in the thousands! I should also note — for new readers — that my husband and I sold most of our possessions when we moved from the US to the UK last summer. So, in the case of several items (like glue, a […]

  • nyxmoxie

    I loved this post. I couldn’t live without the tv. I live with my bf and we like watching movies and tv shows, we don’t have cable, no tivo, either. We mostly dl our movies and my bf is tech savvy and puts them up on the tv. He connects his desktop to the tv. We also use Hulu.com, network websites to watch tv shows, and netflix and itunes.

    Generally we don’t own a lot and aren’t very materialistic. As for art, have you tried graphic design? You can buy Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator and just use your laptop to design art on your computer. You can also buy one of those tablets that Wacom sells, they’re about $1,000 you hook it up to your comp. and draw, that way you don’t have to spend money on sketchbooks, colored pencils, etc.

    A lot of artists love the Wacom tablets because they just invest on them one time and then over time that saves them money on sketchbooks, pencils, charcoal, etc. If you use it a lot, over time it pays for itself.

    Anyway, yea good post. Loved it! I like reading your blog, its very inspiring, and freeing. Its nice to see other people who realize that their stuff doesn’t define them. To me it just seems pointless to spend life accumulating things, in the end you can’t take it with you.

    By having fewer things, you don’t have to work so hard to accumulate things, take care of them, clean them, etc. It gives you more time to do other things that matter more to you. It seems pointless to work hard just so people can spend the money on the accumulating of material stuff. I think that’s why people feel like they’re on a treadmill and that life is a rat race.

    One of my goals in life is to retire early from the workforce and imo being a minimalist will help me get there. =)

    • miss minimalist

      Thanks for your wonderful comment, nyxmoxie. I like the idea of graphic design — not only to avoid owning all the supplies, but also the resulting “art.” :-)

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the blog, and loved hearing about your reasons for being a minimalist!

  • Daniel

    I have found that the reason I keep a lot of stuff is as a key into my memory: many memories only come to me when I am holding or viewing a thing. So I decided to take digital photos of the stuff. My disk will hold more than I can possibly take, so they result in no real clutter. This made it much easier to get rid of the stuff.

    The next thing is how hard it is to get rid of things that people gave me. Very hard to get rid of things my mom gave me.

  • Jenny

    Great post! You are so inspiring. This reminds me of a movie I saw recently, Leap Year, where one of the characters asks the other what she would save if there was a fire, and she can’t think of anything. That was how she knew she wasn’t attached to her material possessions and she wanted to be with the one she really loved, but I think that theory applies to everyone really, besides things we may not love but we need to live our lives (toilet paper, or a trash can for example lol) we really only need to own things we value, I bet most of us own lots of things that we forget we even have and wouldn’t miss one bit. I am a minimalist as well and I have always enjoyed ‘purging’, every so often I will feel an urge strike and I will go through my apartment and gather together things that I dont use, dont need, or don’t really feel any attachment too any longer and donate them. It makes me feel good that things aren’t cluttering my life and donating makes me feel double good because that way someone who can benefit from an item will have the chance to use it.

  • Arrived here from Rowdy Kittens and I just wanted to say I’m envious and delighted. My fiancee and I just started decluttering our home, we are thrilled and this post and blog is a *great* motivator. Thanks and congratulations!

  • I can so Identify. We made a similar kind of move in 3 weeks, including having to get our 2 eldest daughters settled on their own (they suddenly got pushed out the door from Mom & Dad’s), and helping our 7 youngest separate themselves from much of what was familiar to them. Alot of emotions to deal with in many differing personalities.

    Now seeing some of our stuff in our friends/relatives houses when we are back to visit seems weird, but I’m thrilled not to have all the clutter that most of these people have, and don’t really want our old stuff back anyways. Overall, our children are happy having less clutter also, and are so incredibly creative I think mostly because they have less distractions with Stuff.

  • Kristin

    Dear Miss Minimalist,

    I love the posts – but and it’s a really big BUT, I’d love to see if you can still achieve the minimalist life when you’ve got small children. It seems that those of us that are in the process of breeding (ie: not footloose and fancyfree Gen Ys or Boomers)are excluded from such joyous lifestyles of travel (most mothers would rather chew an arm off than travel with a small child), clear spaces or working 4 hours a week from the beach in Spain a la Tim Ferris.

    Don’t get me wrong, it all sounds divine (and frankly I’m very jealous) – but it’s not very practical and it’s a point that I’m sure your readers who are new-ish parents have considered.

  • […] My Minimalist Story, Part 2: The Great Unraveling […]

  • Rob

    I’ve browsed your posts before, but really read this one now. In the 2 minutes it took to read I found myself getting excited at the whole concept. I’ve been paring away my possessions over the last few months and yet still seem to have so many. Time for a second stage purge, I’m guessing. At least I’m up to only having things I’ve bought in the last 2 decades :)

  • Wow–reading this reminds me of the final drive away from my home. I was terrified and amazed at what I had done! I get the crazy comments too–I have been told by one that I suffer from PTSD and as a result I am unable to form natural attachments to stuff! I just sat there with my jaw dropped at that pronouncement! Like, seriously?

  • […] to get rid of almost everything we owned. It very much reminded me of Miss Minimalist’s post The Great Unraveling. Perhaps when I’ve recovered from the experience I’ll write my own version of this […]

  • Nikki

    I’ve been a long time reader and was going back through the archives when I discovered the series of posts that I somehow never read!

    This is inspiring. Everytime I move, I reduce my items. Now I have only a bookshelf as my furniture, a wardrobe that can fit in a medium sized suitcase and one box of important items (two photo albums, important documents and my small amount of knitting things). My friend said “Everytime you move, you get rid of more stuff.” And I love it that way. Soon, I’ll be able to move across the ocean with only a suitcase!

  • Juditka

    Dear Francine,

    I guess you bought a new mattress, pillows and sheets since you donated all your bedding needs. Did you buy new sheets upon arrival, and where did you buy them? Thanks for the feedback.

    Cheers,

    Juditka from Hungary

  • Tina

    I came across this post I had never read. I was thinking about what furniture I would like to get rid of if I ever moved to a really tiny place. There are 2 chairs and a table and a cupboard for starters and 2 bookcases would go next. Then I realized I had just bought 2 pairs of slacks so one pair had to go, along with whatever shirts my son doesn’t want. I always keep one old pair of slacks for dirty chores. I have some nice china bowls. If I don’t use them soon, I’ll have to give them away, too.

  • Tina

    I was thinking of getting rid of a large cutting mat I have from quilting. I also have 2 pairs of pinking shears. I only need 1. There seems to always be something extra.

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