Suitcase Minimalism and What I’ve Learned

Suitcase Minimalism and What I’ve Learned

We gave notice on the flat we rented at the end of November, hoping to be able to move into our new flat but knowing that if we couldn’t, it would be an interesting lesson in minimalism. In the end, the new place wasn’t ready. Obviously we needed those lessons! On Christmas Eve we moved out of the old place and with nowhere to call our own, began relying on the kindness of friends and family. We stored some of our stuff in a friend’s garage and have dragged the rest back and forth across town as we sleep in various spare rooms made available to us.

We’ve been couchsurfing across the city for a month. It’s been novel. It’s been exasperating. It’s been fun. It’s been draining. It’s been challenging. And of course, I have had some interesting insights into my relationship with stuff.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Minimalism for minimalism’s sake misses the point.

We have put stuff in storage. A few bits of furniture, kitchen stuff, a couple of boxes of things. Most of the things in storage are not things we couldn’t bear to part with, but items that were convenient to keep. We are only moving a few suburbs away and we are not paying for storage, so why give items away only to have to buy them again later?

We could have got rid of everything, but what would that have achieved? What point would it have proven? I want to move into our new place and get straight into planting the garden, not spend the first few weekends re-accumulating all the stuff we gave away. Minimalism is about finding out what is enough and getting rid of the unnecessary, not getting rid of everything.

2. Minimalism is not about counting your stuff.

There are minimalists who have less than 100 items, or who can fit their entire personal possessions into a single bag. This is not me. I have no idea how many items I own, although I’m sure it’s more likely to run into the high hundreds or even thousands. And actually, I’m not interested in counting them.

There are plenty of minimalism counting challenges out there based on numbers: Mins game (where you get rid of 1 thing on the first day, 2 on the second, 3 on the third and so on all the way up to 30 – which means 465 things in total) or Project 333, where your wardrobe is 33 items of clothing for 3 months, or the 40 bags in 40 days challenge (actually, this would probably wipe out everything I own – I have nowhere near that amount of stuff in total, let alone that I want to get rid of!) are just a few I’ve come across. Counting the stuff you’re getting rid of, however, is different to counting what remains.

When we left our stuff in the garage, we didn’t count it. We felt everything in there was useful and we needed. What does it matter what that number of things is? What would we use the number for? To compare ourselves to others? Minimalism isn’t a competition.

Minimalism is a personal journey: finding out what is enough for you. Enough isn’t a number.

3. The less you have, the more you can focus.

It has been a revelation to me how much easier it is to get stuff done when you remove most of the distractions: and by distractions I mean stuff. With most of our stuff packed in boxes we are operating out of a few bags filled only with the basics, and it’s been surprising how productive I’ve been.

Jobs that I’ve been putting off that come under the “need to do but really can’t be bothered because they are boring” category, like finally tackling my ridiculously non-minimalist inbox, laptop saved files and hard drive and filing / organizing / deleting thousands (yes, thousands) of unnecessary emails and files. Tedious but oh, it feels so good to be onto it!

Also the jobs that come under “procrastination central”. The things I’ve been saving for when the time is right… which of course, it never is. When you completely run out of distractions the only thing for it is to stop procrastinating and start getting stuff done!

4. Too little stuff can stifle your creativity.

It’s been great paring down to the absolute basics. On the plus side, I’m getting lots of stuff done. On the downside, I can feel my frustration rising because of the limitations I have.

By limitations, I don’t mean distractions. I mean the things I love to do that I can no longer do. Like baking and cooking. I can cook still cook dinner, sure, but without utensils and ingredients and storage space, we’ve had to stick to the basics. We ate the same vegetable lentil ragu for dinner 4 days in a row. I miss my kitchen.

Getting stuff done is fantastic, of course. But I’m not a robot. I can’t just work at 100% capacity all the time. I need rewards and down time – and that is what cooking is for me. It nurtures my creative side. It gives me happiness.

Finding “enough” is finding your sweet spot, when you don’t feel frustration because you are constantly looking for / maintaining / cleaning your stuff, but you also don’t feel frustration because you don’t have what you need. Living out of a couple of suitcases has made me realise that a couple of suitcases is less than my “enough”.

5. However many clothes you have, it’s (probably) still too many.

Okay, so I don’t know how many clothes you have. But I know how many I have…and it is still far too many! I’ve written about my wardrobe decluttering struggle many times, but after posting most recently back in October I had a major epiphany and decluttered a whole lot more. I didn’t think I was done, but I thought I was getting close. Now we’ve moved I’ve observed I still have too many clothes. It seems you really don’t need to own that many outfits at all!

The main reason I’ve found this out is that there is very little wardrobe space where I’m staying currently, so most of my clothes are still in my suitcase. Being lazy, it’s far easier to wear the things on the top, wash and repeat. Which means I’ve probably been rotating the same 5 outfits over the last 2 weeks. Which means I could probably manage with 5 outfits most (all?) of the time. Not that I intend to cut it back that far (yet) but I’ve noticed that I haven’t felt restricted, or lacking in choice. In fact, it’s been super easy to get dressed every morning!

Post writing that October article, I thought I’d made great progress. Now I know I could get rid of more. I’m rather looking forward to unpacking when we finally move and seeing what else can go. Maybe Project 333 (which I’ve always considered completely impossible) may be within my grasp after all!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Have you ever tried to find your “enough” sweet spot? What did you learn about yourself? What was “more than enough” and what was “less than enough” for you? What would your one thing that’s you’d never want to let go be? Have you ever tried living out of a suitcase? Tell us about it! What did you love and what did you struggle with? Any other insights you’d like to tell us? Please write a comment in the space below!

26 Responses to Suitcase Minimalism and What I’ve Learned

    • Thanks Amanda! My personal feeling about counting challenges is that I can’t keep up with the pace and then I feel like I’ve failed. I’d rather go at my own pace. Well, no, I’d rather go at the quick pace (!) but actually I find decluttering hard and I need to go slow. I may have taken longer but I’m getting there, and oh the wait makes the win makes it all worthwhile! Good luck : )

  1. I find it interesting you’ve found this time great for getting boring things done. I can totally see how that happens, but I hadn’t forseen that for you. I often feel I’m far away from my enough, in that I can always see several things that need decluttering in my place, and i have a reputation for minimalism in my friendship group! Certainly the circular wardrobe challenge I’m doing has made it clear to me that you can make so many more outfits out of a small base than even I expected…

    • Yes it’s been great – but slightly boring! Haha, I can relate to that, my husband and I always think we have too much stuff whereas everyone around us think we own nothing!

      I’ve been following your circular wardrobe challenge on Instagram… how many items do you think you own? I am so excited to count mine and find that I have a truly minimal wardrobe! (Ahem, I suspect I am in for a shock! – wishful thinking, but I love a challenge)

      • Thank for that, it’s been nice to see you pop up on IG here and there :) Looking over photos from last year’s audit (because I agree – who wants the bother of counting clothes too closely?) it looks like I’ve got 60 pieces of day wear and 17 pieces of camping/gardening wear – these are what I count as my ‘capsule wardrobe’…so I really ought to say I’ve got about 80 pieces, shouldn’t I? On top of that I’ve got 12 pieces of exercise gear, 25 accessories and over 40 undergarments. Urgh, still a way to go!

        Have fun in New Zealand! My husband and I are heading there this Tuesday. You’ll be fine with just carry on, and it’s fun to realise you can do it! I read once that Helen Mirren doesn’t pack clothes when she goes on holiday. Instead, she goes to a local thrift/second-hand store and buys what she needs, then donates it back at the end of her trip. I’m going to give that a go this time, it sounds like fun!

        • 80 pieces – this time last year I’d have said that was amazing and completely unachievable, but this year I’m feeling more minimalist and think that is a realistic amount! It’s interesting because following your Insta challenge has really made me visualise what that looks like – you have a lot of outfits and combinations; it never seems like you wear the same thing day in day out. Ironically I do where the same thing day in day out and I have even more to choose from. Less is more for me I think!

          We decided we were only going to pack hand luggage for our 2.5 week holiday – to be honest I packed more than I needed because my bag was only half full when I’d finished (32 litres) so I chucked in a couple of extra things. We were planning on buying fleeces or winter weather gear at the charity shop if we needed it, but it’s actually quite hot. Same plan – to donate once we’d finished. I love your challenge though! That sounds like a real test! You’ll have to tell me how it went!

          • My #circularwardrobe challenge has been educational for me as well! It’s not a realistic representation of how I wear my clothes because I am deliberately trying to find a new combination to wear every day. I normally repeat my favourite combinations more often than what you’re seeing, but it’s been a great eye opener to find lots of new combinations I would never have thought about before I really pushed myself to keep changing it up. It has been a great reinforcement to my belief that my wardrobe is really well set up now, and I reckon I’ve proved I’ve still got more than enough clothes ;) I’m glad you’ve found the challenge has helped you visualise how a capsule wardrobe can work across time, I’d definitely like to use it as a tool to help others understand the concept better too.

            I’m glad you’ve caught the nice weather in Wellington – I hit up the Wellington Salvos and was surprised that it was hard to find good, quality (i.e. would actually be warm) jumpers. Of course, its summer at the moment so they don’t have their full jumper stock out! Apart from that, I had a ball trawling through the shop for two hours, trying on all sorts of things I’d usually never consider buying or wearing. It cost me NZ$120 for 5 days worth of clothes, but I could have easily mixed up those pieces to give me another 2-7 days worth of outfits. It was liberating to drop it all back in the collection bin at the end…ok, I did keep three pieces for further consideration ;)

  2. I completely agree about clothing. I was thinking about it this week as our vacation wraps up, I have only worn the same few pieces for 2 weeks. I’m also glad to see your first and second points. I keep seeing posts from people doing this and I wonder if they really get it. I wouldn’t call myself a minimalist but I like the idea of it and I’ve never been into buying or collecting stuff. I hate clutter. I feel like my husband and I have just what we need, but that the kids have been a bit spoilt by one of their grandmothers. She is a bit out of control and we have had to have several talks with her. I think it is finally starting to sink in. Anyway who could be bothered counting their stuff, there are much better things to do.

    • It truly amazes me how little I need! All those capsule wardrobes I thought were beyond me – maybe not!

      I didn’t call myself a minimalist for a long time because I felt I had too much stuff. Then I realised it’s not about how much stuff I have, it’s more a philosophy or way of thinking… and I embraced it a lot more. I dislike clutter but I dislike getting rid of stuff more! So it has been a hard-fought battle. I think kids (and grandparents) is a whole different battle I’m glad I’m not having to fight!

      I’m counting my wardrobe as I find it useful to know how many things I have, as I’m actively working to reduce the number. Otherwise, I don’t see the point. Who knows what 100 or 1000 things even looks like? Maybe I’ll take a pic of the stuff in storage, but there’s no way I’m counting it!

  3. I am having a similar experience. About 6 years ago I decided that I wanted to downsize and I rid myself of over half my possessions. 3 years after this my partner and I and our infant child emigrated to Australia and left with 3 bags. I did leave a few “prized” possessions such as paintings I had been gifted with my older children but we got rid of everything. It was so liberating. Approx 4 months ago we got rid of most things again to travel. I knew we would be settling after this so we did keep some possessions in the corner of my sisters shed. Things like our expensive juicer, those paintings ( which I had brought over as hand luggage on a return trip to visit my kids). Like you most of what I kept were things that it made economic sense to keep. My partner leaves today with a small trailer of the things we are keeping and my small child and I are flying to meet him in a week. I am on a plane which charges outrageous prices for checked luggage so she and I are going to live with 7 kg each for a week. 3 outfits, her teddy and some books. I love the challenge of making do and it is amazing how resourceful one can be when deciding what to keep and what I need for a week. Turns out it is very little.These steps to downsizing have given me a chance to ponder my possessions and what I really “need” and what I “want”. I do not need much but I do like some things and I do not feel pressured to have only a few possessions and label myself as a minimalist. I think intentional living is more accurate. I am also excited to unpack the few special kitchen items so I can cook again.

    Part of our journey over the past 4 months has been house sitting in 5 homes. Every home had so many possessions, knick knacks, things everywhere. In one house the cupboards were breaking from the weight of the items on the shelves.Living among others possessions as we have has given me further awareness on how I want to live and more importantly with what I want to surround myself with in my own space.

    Good luck with your move.

    • I can relate to so much of what you’ve said here Vicki! There’s nothing like moving country for clearing out the clutter and simplifying.

      We are going overseas to NZ soon to visit family (2.5weeks) and we opted for hand luggage. It was extra to book in hold luggage and I thought it would be a good test of our minimlist-ness (clearly not word ,but I can’t think of the correct one!). Like you, we have 7kg each. Except my husband is far bigger than your small child… I’ll be fine but I do forget sometimes that men’s clothes are so big!

      It’s interesting what you say about the minimalism label. I don’t really think of it like that – I feel like there’s a really loose definition – but I dislike labels usually .Especially food labels – vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, climatarian etc. Intentional living sums it all up far better!

      I can completely relate to the house-sitting experience you’ve had! I’ve had the same experience myself!

  4. if you have more clothes than you need, but the clothes you have all fit and you like them, would you get rid of them? or would you keep them to wear when some of the others wore out? I mean, if you have 10 shirts and give away 5, when the 5 wear out, you have to get more. even if they are thrifted, they are more and you had more to start with. and you spent $ on them that could be used for something more pressing. it makes sense to me to get rid of what you don’t like and doesn’t fit (tho maybe you could alter the misfits), but to get rid of something just to get rid of it doesn’t seem right. my take is that sometimes being green and saving $$ sometime means keeping some modest number of things you are likely to use in the future. mothers of stairstep children save clothes of the largest to hand on to the smallers. people with apple trees may can or dry them to have later. takes space and counts as things, but it may be good anyway.

    • Now that is a good question and I intend to write a blog post about this…because for the last four years I did that – I kept clothes until they wore out. And all it meant was 4 years later I had worn out a couple of things (I had so much stuff plenty still hadn’t been worn), I’d still needed to buy some things as the stuff I had wasn’t suitable for certain occasions and what was left was old, tatty, dated and not very inspiring. I think it’s better to donate or sell to someone who will wear it now than hold onto it for later. I have also put weight on over the last couple of years to the point where several (most?) of my clothing items no longer fit. Some I didn’t wear when it did fit, but now do I hold on longer in case I lose weight? I think I need to let them go.

      I think the answer is buy only what you love, and limit your items so you wear what you have often, then when it wears out replace it with something else you love. I have so many things it takes years for things to wear out! It took me 4 years to realise that less was actually the answer!

      I tend to sell / donate the better stuff and keep the tatty older stuff so I can truly wear it out. I can’t bear to toss stuff in the bin and I doubt some of my older stuff would sell. I’ve had success selling things on eBay which is good as I know they’ve gone to a genuine home rather than the charity shop racks where they might not be bought.

    • I have a long way to go, but here is what I’ve found works for us. We only keep extras of things that we wear through quickly and need to replace often. For example, we all wear socks in the home and burn through them quickly. When we buy new ones, we get the large pack and save some in a backup tub where we keep these things. As the socks become worn out, we replace them from the tub. I like to wear fluffy socks in winter, and I’m often given them as gifts. I only keep 2-3 pairs in my drawer and the rest in the backup tub. I wear the couple pair until they are completely worn out and then replace them. If I had more in my drawer, they would all get stretched out and ruined by the end of winter rather than just the 2-3. Then I have fresh new ones to wear until I’m given more. Things like shirts, we just keep the ones we really like. If we find we like too many then sure, we could store them in the backup tub, but its size is a limit. We mainly just save backup clothes for the toddler and little things like socks that we know we’ll need to replace often. That works for us right now.

  5. I love your content, but I use Feedly to aggregate all the blogs I read, and yours requires me to click through to your website for the full article each time. Can you please change that?

  6. What a great post! I too struggle with the idea of counting things. I have been undertaking lots of decluttering over Jan, and thought briefly about counting the number of items I gave away, but it was too difficult. Once they were bagged, I just wanted it gone to a new home! And I want to enjoy and love what I have, not make it about numbers or placing limits.
    I travelled for 4 months with about 10 items of clothes. Jeans, shorts, jumper, 3 t-shirts, dress, 2 pairs shoes, bathers. I know I only had 2 pairs of socks which wasn’t enough, but I wasn’t going to spend my precious money on socks! I simply washed whatever I wore each night and it was usually dry in a day or two. I don’t think I could live with so few things in my everyday life, but I don’t own many items of clothing either. I make majority of my clothes (my down time) and with a life including children, work, study and sport, I wouldn’t make more than about 8 items per year.

    • You expressed exactly how I feel – once I’m in a decluttering mood I like to run with it and get as much done as I can before I change my mind again, and counting only slows down the process (which is already a slow one) and gives me the chance to reconsider!

      I went backpacking for a year about 10+ years ago and I had a similar number of items – and by the end I hated everything I owned I think! That few items wouldn’t work for me either, although I think the trick is to get rid of things when you begin to dislike them. I ended up having a shopping spree on my return because my dislike had been festering for so long! I would have been better to replace items one by one I think. It’s interesting because my experience then would be very different to now – maybe age helps. I was sick of looking frumpy and scruffy whereas now I care a whole lot less!

      My goal for this year is to learn to sew. I really think it is an empowering skill and I can’t wait to be able to make my own clothes! Fingers crossed I will be a patient learner (there’s a first for everything)!

  7. I was wondering if you’d moved yet and just when that thought crossed my mind I find this post. :-) I hope you don’t have much longer to wait as I know it’s a pain to live in limbo like this and at the same time you must be itching to get to work on your new home.

    I used to live what I called my gypsy lifestyle, I moved on average every two years, sometimes more often. The one positive side of moving frequently is that you have an opportunity to touch all your belongings to pack them and I found myself donating a lot of things each time rather than packing and unpacking them

    • We’ve taken the homelessness as a chance to take some holiday, hopefully when we get back in mid-Feb we will be able to move into our flat and the gardening can commence!

      Before I lived in Perth I lived in Bristol for 11 years, and I lived in at least 10 places. Only the last one (the flat I bought) was unfurnished. Moving frequently helped not to accumulate too much, but my parents (who I now realise are hoarders) were more than happy for me to keep stuff at theirs. And so I did…for years. What a waste of stuff other people could have been using!

      When I bought the flat I fell into the trap of buying nice things for it in an attempt to fill what was missing from my life – a sense of purpose, and happiness. I’ll have to write about it sometime, but meeting my husband, moving overseas and leaving all of that really set me on my minimalism path. But of course, if I’d never had that experience and realisation that stuff wasn’t going to make me happy I’d never have ended up where I am now : )

  8. I get what you’re saying about numbers, it seems a little weird to count. I thought project 333 would be too difficult for me so I just de cluttered my clothing every so often, taking into account what I really wear. Eventually I decided to count the things I decided were necessary to keep, just out of curiosity and it turned out I was really close to the parameters of project 333. I found it interesting to see how close those numbers were to what I felt was right for me

    • I think counting EVERYTHING is unnecessary but I do love the idea of clothes counting because that is something I’m actively trying to reduce, and it really helps. Last year I had a goal to get to less than 100 items, and when I did that I realised I still have double what I need! I actually think 33 items is closer to what I really need now. I’m impressed that your wardrobe is so small – I find wardrobe decluttering so hard! (Well, I’m much better now.) I was scared of Project 333 for ages because it seemed so unachieveable but now I realise it’s closer than I thought!

      Counting is really helpful when you have a goal in mind, or want to get a grip on what you have (like 8 sets of crockery vs 4, or 2 frying pans). I just don’t need to know I have 1,654 things (or whatever it is). That would just be tedious to count and not in the least bit helpful to know!

  9. All great points, Lindsay! That first one should be framed & put on a wall somewhere. Sometimes, we focus too much on what looks tangible (a minimal space) but forget what we’re working towards.

    Couchsurfing for a month sounds like an interesting experience, btw. I’ve traveled a month at a time but it seems really different from being “forced” to, shall we say, when plans fall through.

    Thanks for sharing, I’ll definitely be tweeting this great post!

    • Thanks Daisy! I’m not sure the framing and wall-hanging is very minimalist though… ; ) (Just kidding)

      The “temporary homelessness” seems like such a long time ago now! I guess we always knew it might happen, so we had ideas of what we might do… at least at the start. That said, it ended up being a couple of weeks longer than we were anticipating. We’re lucky we have such generous friends and family, I think : )

      Thanks so much for sharing!

  10. I moved to Japan for four months with one suitcase. Having been on a few rounds of wardrobe purge I thought I might just push myself. I am returning home in 3 days’ time with the whole new appreciation of my wardrobe. Yes, I can live out of a pair of jeans, two pairs of shorts, two t-shirts and a dress for four months, but I bloody hate it! All my clothes are ruined, I feel bored, unattractive, unkempt. I want to have some choice, not a lot of choice, but I definitely want more than 30 items to choose from. So, after throwing away all of the clothes I came with (because I can’t face wearing it ever again) I shall come back home to my minimised, albeit still ample, wardrobe and shall enjoy wearing every single item in it immensely!

    • That’s so interesting that you say that, because actually I had a very similar experience. I went backpacking for a year back in 2003, and of course could only take a few pairs of clothes, a pair of hiking boots and a pair of flip flops. I got so sick of wearing the same things, and even though I had to replace a couple of things on the trip, by the end I hated them too. And I went shopping like crazy when I got home! I wanted to wear new and different things. I think the issue was I just had too little choice. It was probably similar too you – maybe 10 items. And I rebelled. Now I think 30 is enough, but also knowing that I can head back to the charity shop and “swap” things if I need change without making myself hate what I own first. Enjoy the choice, though – I know how good that feels!!!

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