My Minimalist Story, Part 4: Our Dirty Secret

From the time we decided to move overseas, my husband and I fantasized about owning nothing more than we could carry with us. We were determined to get rid of all of our possessions, and pare down our lives to a single suitcase each.

We almost achieved our goal. But in our final week of purging, we were weakened by the uncertainty of our plans. My husband had a job offer in the UK, but it was contingent upon us receiving our visas—which, given strict new immigration laws, was not guaranteed. (We did finally receive them, two weeks after moving out of our house.)

Furthermore, we had no idea how long we’d stay. What if we didn’t like England? What if my husband wasn’t happy with his job? What if he was transferred after 6 months or a year?

So that’s how we ended up with our dirty little secret: a 5 foot by 5 foot storage unit.

Though no bigger than a small closet, it may as well be an entire warehouse for the grief it causes me. Just the fact that it exists makes me feel like I’m not as minimalist as I could be.

The contents of that closet are things we deemed irreplaceable, or too expensive to re-purchase: an Eames chair, a Danish design sofa (now discontinued), a few boxes of books and paperwork, and a couple of items from our travels. We also included our bikes, since we had the space.

If we decide to stay in the UK, we’ll have them shipped over here. If we return to the US, we’ll bring them back into our lives. But for now they sit in limbo, things without a home.

The day we moved our stuff was the first time I’d ever been in a public storage building. What an eerie place! It was unnervingly quiet, with nothing but the sound of our footsteps echoing through the halls. Lights would turn on automatically as we approached each section, and go dark again after we passed by.

The hallways were completely empty, but we knew that behind the blank, uniform doors sat thousands upon thousands of things—silent, waiting, and in some cases, probably forgotten. The air was heavy with their presence. It reminded me of a jail—a prison for people’s stuff. I felt sorry for our things as we turned the key and locked them away.

We don’t speak of it very often, and the monthly charge is debited automatically from our bank account. It’s easy to pretend it doesn’t exist, but in the back of our minds, we know we’ll have to deal with the contents on our next trip back to the States—whether to dispose of them, or accept the expense of shipping them over.

So, the question is, how little must one have to be truly “minimalist?” Only what you can carry on your back? In your car? In a van? Should the items be such that you could dispose of them without regret each time you move? Should you have no attachment to individual things, no matter how irreplaceable or costly they may be? Or is there room for a few, well-loved pieces that follow (or wait for) you wherever you go?

These are the issues I’m considering now, as we “rebuild” our lives in the UK—because, above all, we don’t want to be burdened by another set of things when (and if) we decide to move on.

Left: a prison for possessions. Right: inside the cell.

Left: a prison for possessions. Right: inside the cell.

26 comments to My Minimalist Story, Part 4: Our Dirty Secret

  • Mia

    Funny I’ve been asking the same questions lately. My husband and I have been living a modern nomadic life (thanks to the Internet) for the past three years, hopping from one furnished apartment to another. We’re thinking of settling down next year though, or at least getting a sort of home base. Part of me is excited about having our own handpicked furniture again, but another part wants to keep living nearly possession-free. Anyway, if ever we do settle down, I guess we’ll buy mostly Ikea or Muji furniture and simple appliances. Nothing irreplaceable that we could get attached to.
    Looking forward to reading how you will rebuild your lives in the UK!
    I really love your blog and think you’re such a great writer. I’m excited to read your future posts!

  • I bet your storage “cell” is the most minimalist, uncluttered one at the facility!

    I think there’s comfort, too. I could be sitting here on the bare floor typing this, but I’m in a comfy armchair.

    There’s also a bit of psychology stuff in there… Have you (and other commenters) read “Too perfect: when being in control gets out of control” by Allan Mallinger and Jeanette Dewyze? Interesting notes about how being a perfectionist actually leads people to clutter and hoarding, but there is a bit in there about being proud of only having enough possessions that you can chuck it all in the car and relocate is also a form of perfectionism, or trying to control one’s environment, if you will.

    Have a great time away, and I look forward to reading more when you get back.

  • I believe that having a 5×5 storage unit still qualifies you as a minimilist. My goodness most people would barely be able to fit their wardrobe in there much less their entire life! I think it is perfectly ok and even healthy to be attached to at least a few items. We are humans not robots. Sometimes an item can evoke a memory that is priceless. What is wrong with that?


  • Zoe

    I think we have to be rational about things and remember that minimalists of old usually did not have the ability to travel long distances so they never had to think about the financial and logistical matters concerning “Do I keep a few things I use and need and store them for later or get rid of them entirely only having to purchase them all over again when I come home, or do I ship everything with me which might prove very expensive?” Personally, in your situation I’d pick the small storage unit as well. Like I said before, it would be hard parting with my Eames chair.

    One thing I’ve been thinking of however, when it comes to totally minimalistic living, is how attached I can be about certain items. I think to be a total minimalist and easily move about I would need to have no attachment to anything material, then I could easily pick up a new chair at the thrift store, not caring about the design because what I want is something simply to sit not, not necessarily to enjoy aesthetically. I’m certainly not there, I don’t want a lot but I want to like what I have.

    I wanted to say “thanks!” for the packing help. I just came back from a 5 day trip using only a small duffel bag that could fit under the airplane seat. I loved just walking off the plane and being on my way.

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks for all your wonderful comments!

    Mia, your nomadic life sounds fascinating–that may very well be in store for us, as we have no idea how long we’ll stay here. We’re trying to employ the very strategy you mentioned: buying simple furniture to which we have no attachment, that we can re-sell without regrets when it’s time to move.

    Michelle, I’ve never read “Too Perfect;” but thank you so much for recommending it, it sounds live a very interesting book. I definitely feel that minimalism gives me more control over my environment. :-)

    Janet and Zoe, I really appreciate your support regarding my storage unit–I was afraid you all would abandon me after I made my confession! ;-) I do feel a bit burdened by aesthetics; my husband and I appreciate good design, and like our living space to reflect our “style.” At the same time, we don’t want to invest in any pieces that are one-of-a-kind or irreplaceable. I’ll post soon about how this has affected our choice of furnishings in our new flat!

  • Funny post. I love the ‘dirty secret’ of your storage unit. Don’t feel bad about it. Its a eco friendly thing to look after and keep using your possessions :)

  • miss minimalist

    Thanks, bohobelle! That’s a nice way to think about it. :-)

  • […] your house, you won’t have to pay rent on a second home for your stuff. (Okay, most of you know my dirty secret, but I wouldn’t have one if I were in the same country as my […]

  • Cari Cook

    I definitely do not think your storage unit and the items in it disqualify you from being minimalist. After all, you did downsize from a 3-bedroom house, right? I am not a full supporter of the ‘own nothing but what you can carry with you’ idea either. If you have things that you truly enjoy and care about, then why get rid of them just to fit the label ‘minimalist’? Don’t get me wrong, I am not denigrating those that feel that way, I just don’t personally subscribe to that theory.

    Along a similar path: my mother lives in a hurricane zone along the Texas coast. Granted, they don’t happen too often, but several have threatened since she moved down there and she had to evacuate. She said the first summer she lived there it was challenging to determine what she would take with her when she left, knowing that there might be nothing left when she returned. She’s not really attached to her furniture (most of it came with the house she bought), but the things with sentimental value, like photos and needlework pictures she and I had made, were important to her. She made a list of what she would take with her, and sure enough, it filled her entire car. The important thing is that she decided what was relevant and meaningful for her and what she could potentially lose without (too much) regret.

  • Jason Edwards

    I don’t think the storage unit is really necessary.The problem with designer furniture is that the designer is trying to sell you minimalism as a product.You can’t sell simplicity, simplicity is simply simplicity.I would recommend looking at the Survival International website for tribal peoples which has numerous articles on tribal people who can carry all their possessions.A futon on the floor,a backpack,laptop, and a few cooking utensils is all you need.If you look at tribal people they may not own furniture but they have fine hand made clothing and small accents like some multi coloured seed beads around their necks.Even if you can’t replace the stuff in storage it doesn’t matter.Why replace it?Owning designer furniture is just another label.String up a hammock from Peru its more fun.Storage containers are just another way to make money from people who are bloated by possessions in the west.Antique furniture and furniture is just more trees cut down.Thow a futon on the floor and save the money.One bag is enough.Don’t worry about trying to impress people with Le Corbusier furnishings.

    • miss minimalist

      You’re right, Jason, and that’s why having a storage unit bothers me so much. I know we don’t really *need* any of that stuff — we’ve lived without it for the last six months, after all. Thanks so much for the Survival International recommendation — very interesting site!

  • Dear Miss Minimalist,
    I have found your site interesting and it is excellent that you are spreading the message of simplicity, which is an important message to pass on to others. By living simply we have a positive effect on the planet. Having few possessions and only accumulating what is necessary saves the planets resources.
    I can carry everything I own. I have a few changes of clothing, laptop, two pots, bowl, spork, futon and flask. I like sitting on the floor to eat and eating fruits, nuts, vegetables, and rice (vegan diet) .I like to eat food as it is, so I can taste the varying flavours without smothering food with sauces, spices, and manufactured sugars. I am not concerned with eating something different everyday and can quite happily eat oats in the morning, rice and chickpeas for lunch and a big bowl of vegetables in the evening for months. Many indigenous tribes in the Amazon eat the same staple foods on a daily bases and before air travel most people in the world ate local staples. I think people have become used to having so many choices be it food or possessions, that it distracts them from the simple things and experiences like tasting the flavour of a nut without covering it with salt.
    The nice thing about a bare room is that you begin to notice the space around you in a physical sense and you begin to notice other things like the changing sunlight during the day. Your window becomes like a landscape painting where you notice the changing colours of the flora. Many possessions tend to tie one down mentally and physically- seeing to much permanence in inanimate objects rather than being aware of the vitality of the outside world of nature. I think it also tends to make people more detached from nature and they forget how dependant we are on nature for our survival. They forget to make the connection between a table and a tree or a piece of metal with the hard work of mining it and the resultant effect it may have on ecology. Things are taken for granted and it is assumed that nature has an endless supply of resources. When you own just a few things these things are valued and have more meaning.
    Every time we go out and buy something new we take from nature. If we live simply with few things and don’t accumulate anything we do not need it saves time, money, stress, and the planet without having to do very much.
    Industrialization has taught many to seek experience through objectifying experience. A simple example is photography, a useful medium in one sense but a burden in another. Photography is a good medium for communicating an idea or recording an important event, however it can also stop us from experiencing events fully because we are so caught up in objectifying an experience through a photo rather than using our other senses like smell or our ability to transfer an experience to others orally by telling a story.
    We in developed countries can make the choice to live simply to help others in developing countries so they can also have the choice to decide how to shape their lives. This website is excellent and I will also spread the word by creating further links to create and encourage a larger community of people to live simply who I hope will do the same.

  • P.S Don’t feel to burdened by aesthetics.I had the same problem while I was at art school.I would spend a great deal of time looking for the perfect second hand minimalist table or lamp shade, but then I realized the most elegant thing is to own nothing .

    • miss minimalist

      Thank you, Jason — this is wonderful advice. I’m a visual person, and enjoy looking at beautiful things; my goal is to find aesthetic pleasure through nature rather than commercial items.

  • Own only what you can carry with you; know language, know countries, know people. Let your memory be your travel bag.
    Alexander Solzhenitsyn
    Russian author & dissident in US (1918 – )

    “He has the most who is most content with the least”
    Diogenes quote

    “Diogenes, when asked from what country he came, replied, “I am a citizen of the world”
    Diogenes quote

    I threw my cup away when I saw a child drinking from his hands at the trough.”
    Diogenes quote

    • miss minimalist

      Thank you for sharing these fabulous quotes, Jason! Diogenes is one of my favorite philosophers, and you’ve inspired me to learn more about Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

  • […] I was thrilled to receive an incredibly insightful comment on one of my older posts. I know that many of you do not receive the RSS Comments feed (you can subscribe by clicking this […]

  • Beauty and comfort are essential. Furniture can be beautiful and comforting. We sold our Stressless Recliners instead of putting them in our storeroom when we moved into our RV and it is one of the few things I regret.

  • Cindy

    I really enjoy reading about minimalism. I am not a minimalist at all but I have always love ‘less is more’ principle. My great love is travelling. I do travel fairly light – one backpack and one hand luggage. My house can probably be considered minimalism in the most general term but could be further ‘reduced’. Like most minimalist, too much stuff stresses me out and I always have this guilt of having too much possessions. I have practically stop buying stuff in the last 2 years and love the idea of recycling everything I own. I just want to thank everyone for the wonderful insights on living simply and I hope to achieve being a minimalist one day. It’s going to be a wonderful journey for me. Thank you all.

  • smiling eyes

    Dear miss minimalist
    Love your blog.
    I think it ís reasurring that you have a storage unit. It makes you human (nobody is perfect) and not a fanatic :o). One thing I think is missing from the discussion is thoughts about buying cheap funiture ( I know expensive funiture isnt a garantee for better working conditions for the workers).I think it is worth thinking about how the funiture is made. Are the people, who made it, paid enough? Are the working conditions ok? (working hours, safety conditions, right to be in an union ect.) furthermore: how much does making the funiture polute?

    Love from Anette, Denmark

  • Jeffrey

    If these things fall under the category of ‘kinda-important-but-I-won’t-use-it-for-a-really-long-time & I-probably-won’t-miss-it’, then it’s probably not something you need to keep around, even in storage. I suppose the exception would be really rare things that could not be bought, like vintage guitars, etc. But again, if it’s that rare and valuable, it probably belongs in a museum. I can count on one hand how many times I’ve said, “where is item x? I shouldn’t have given that away/thrown it out.” One of those items was a 24″ monitor, when I downsized to laptops. Certain things will spoil you.

    The math keeps me honest; it’s just not worth $100/month for a 5′ x 5′ unit in the NYC area. That’s $1200/year just to park your unused stuff, which probably will NOT be accessed more than once or twice a year; seasonal clothing, road bike during winter, etc.

    Don’t get me wrong, I will spend money on things that are worth their weight and if you ‘invest’ in quality things, I don’t think you shouldn’t throw them out just to start over. The very reason you’d spend $$$ on quality is because it will last a life time with proper care; like quality kitchen knives, tools, good pair of leather shoes, etc.

    Just found this blog, looking forward to reading more!

  • Tina

    We get a free safe deposit box with our bank account. All the jewelry I inherited and seldom wear is there. It was never “mine” I think I’m keeping it and the papers in it for my kids.

  • Tina

    I keep getting rid of more “stuff”. I am not free of stuff yet but I have a lot less. I look at minimalism as a goal to work toward. Each time I find something I don’t need there is a little more empty space.I was showing my great niece my houseplants today. I had just groomed them and watered them and they looked nice. They soften the edges of my rooms. But if I had to move, I would just take a cutting of each one with me and start them up again.

  • Angela

    My husband and I decided to work on campsites about 20 years ago and had to live in a small touring caravan. We sold everything in our home or gave it away and kept just what we could store in the van except for my sewing machine and photos we stored with family. It was in the days before DVDs and Kindles so I kept 12 books, all non fiction and my husband kept 12 videos as we had no tv signal. We had a simple life and enjoyed the wildlife and simple walks. I’ve never regretted getting rid of everything and sometimes would love to just get rid of it all again. We still live in a small home, although a little bigger than 72 feet floor space!! It really taught us what was important.

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