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How To Own Less Stuff (Minimalism, Vanlife and Living Lightly)

Updated: Aug 4, 2021

Vanlife is the epitome of freedom, we live wherever we want to, go wherever we like, we explore when we feel like it and we sleep when we’re tired, there are no rules but the ones we set for ourselves and there is no giant thumb we are toiling under. Choosing to live in a van means choosing a different kind of life, houseless but not homeless, tiny, resourceful, contained and always moving, a nomad meandering down the road of life or in Dixies case a kind of diesel powered snail, taking us and our things from here to there and on to wherever next. It has been a calm and quiet and freeing life and almost a year later we would not change our experiences or do a single thing (no matter how badly executed before) differently.

Real freedom I think means nothing holding us back. We understand by now exactly how much of everything we require to live happily and comfortably and the balance is getting easier to strike. We want to thread lightly through life from this point on, creating as little waste and leaving as faint a footprint as we can along the way. Getting to this point of owning the “right amount of things” is bound to be different for every person as our wants, needs and essentials differ so much and depend on so many variables. Before we set out on our journey, I wanted to feel free, light as a feather and ready to fly away with just a backpack on a moments notice but my reality was a long, considered process. Although Dixie (when she is neat and clean and tidy and suitably photogenic) can appear a dream house for those interested in a simpler, more basic lifestyle, we didn’t just arrive here overnight, it was a winding, sometimes frustrating but very rewarding road.

Minimalism begets Frugality

It started for me a couple of years ago (long before vanlife was a word I had ever even used) with two normal enough issues, budgeting for a rental apartment (for myself and daughter) and moving into that new place. Budgeting was difficult. Living in a house entails too many utility connections, too much furniture and we just had too much stuff. The hassle involved with setting up new accounts had me doubting whether we even needed any service further than electricty. (I should note that we were living on the most expensive island in the world at the time and every single financial decision was a ridiculously painfully expensive one) I began to cancel as many direct debits as I could, our cable package, sports TV stations, cell phone contract, leaving only the ‘very’ essentials of rent, electricty, Wi-Fi and of course Netflix. Minimising the amount of bills leaving my bank account made the financial side of moving house a little easier. What about the rest?

Adding to the expected costs involved with relocating, I don’t drive and was relying on a couple of friends with cars, vans and even motorbikes to tote the bulk of our crap from one side of the island to the other. I’m sure many of you can relate to this, they do say moving house can be an extremely discombobulating event in ones life and sure enough, the whole experience although not my first move ever was a real eye opener, involving a couple more taxis and a lot more curse words than I had anticipated and I resolved that next time I moved house it would happen smoothly, seamlessly, for cheap or for free and I would be able to carry all my things in only one vanload.

The two are twins, minimalism and frugality, they become inseparable, mainly because the everyday focus turns from the cost to the worth. The cost is set by “The Man” and confirmed and reconfirmed by millions of consumers worldwide but what is the item actually worth to you? Unexplainable, subconscious things like brand loyalty, previously taken for granted, are questioned when you start to look around at your options. The rise of a lazy, disposable lifestyle is rather unnerving to watch and you stop thinking about the price tag and start researching into its origins, is it fairtrade? Ethical? Organic, cruelty free, these things become more important than before. Save money by buying less but better quality and carefully chosen on its own merits and your own opinion not some unfixed undulating price point.

Lotions and Potions

Minimalism has become a huge movement lately but you don’t have to label yourself to start to acknowledge, empty and reorganise your life. Companies call it “rightsizing” when they won’t say redundancy – adjusting the size of the workforce according to the demands of the business. If you’re feeling a little overwhelmed with your “things” and need a little right-sizing, start with cosmetics like I did, (easier perhaps if you are a guy), and take a good look at what you own. Around now I started to get pretty pissed off with myself for wasting so much of my money on lotions and potions, you might feel the same anger from within if you take an objective look in your bathroom cupboards but don’t worry, anger is normal, use it to fuel you to make some changes, however small. I discarded any old makeup I had stashed away (a lot more than I’d like to admit for someone who rarely wears the stuff), donated some unopened tubes, reorganised the remaining products and over the course of about a year I stopped buying anything new and slowly used up and emptied out each bottle. Now I was pissed off at myself for the volume of unrecyclable plastic I had accumulated but more on that later as these topics of minimalism, frugality and waste all tie in together. In the van we barely use any so-called ‘beauty products’ and to be honest if there was one magic bottle that we could buy to clean our bodies, our hair, the floor and the winscreen and the toilet bowl and the kitchen sink we would buy it.

No Ads, No Sale

With no TV in our lives we are not being advertised to on a daily basis. We avoid the constant exposure to “things”, to modern ideals, products are no longer pushed into our heads and our hands, no peer pressure exists to own the same toys as the guy next door but newer, bigger, more expensive. We lose sight of what other people are watching and doing and buying and that is a welcome break for us, it is quite refreshing how little you think about your hair when you are not regularly exposed to picture perfect made-up people with made-up hair dos and garishly overpainted faces, spending time on your hair now seems silly. Cancel your cable, sell your TV AND break free from all at that nonsense at once. When screen time is drastically minimised you make better decisions when you do choose to relax and watch a movie or documentary, your sitting-down time becomes more valuable as you realise how much of it was wasted in front of mindless propaganda masquerading as entertainment previously. If you don’t have ads for pizza constantly played in your face, ads with delicious imagery of fresh baked thin crust cheesy goodness, it stands to reason you won’t want to eat so much tasty pizza. Now I want pizza. See how easy advertising is?!

Sell, Donate, Ditch

Still frustrated but eternally optimistic about the prospects of an uncluttered, uncomplicated life ahead, I turned to my bedroom where all I saw was more money wasted in garments either hung neatly in my massive waredrobe or gracing the carpet in silky pools at my feet, sometimes my floordrobe really was that bad. I was determined to claw back some cash from this fashion wreckage and set about sending most of my clothes, many items unworn and still wearing their tags, to the local consignment shop who sold them on for a 50% cut. The process of minimising my wardrobe took almost 18 months as I had just one shop on the island to sell to and those outfits had to be seasonal. Anything the consignment shop didn’t accept was donated immediately to ensure it didn’t creep back into the house and many overflowing bags were left to charity. If you were pushed for time and not in need financially you could donate 95% of your life to a charity in one trip but I would imagine waking up the next day might be quite a shock, so much of our identities seem inextricably tied up in our stuff.

There are a ton of resources around to help you through this process if you choose to minimise your life or wardrobe as it can involve facing certain hard facts, and not just the guilt associated with money wasted accumulating more clothes than any human could possibly wear in a whole year. Acknowledging and accepting your body shape (I somehow had a closet full of every size from XS to XXL) can be emotionally draining so find what feels good to wear first and start building up from there. Letting go of things that no longer fit you or no longer suit you is a great feeling so try to embrace it! It becomes addictive then, a new frame of mind appliciable to any aspect of life not just the closet. Piece by piece I was able to exchange my old outfits for cash. The floordrobe lake dried up and my room (and routine) became tidier and much easier to keep that way. Eventually, giving up my job meant all signs of the bland corporate uniform were hastily (and lucratively, for second hand wear) removed from the equation and as the volume of things I owned shrank my bank balance only grew.

One Arse, One Chair

Having less means living lighter. Somebody told me once about a whole house full of furniture they keep in a storage unit, rotating the tables and couches and bookshelves in their home every few years and paying a monthly rent to contain the unused stuff in the meantime. Excess furniture, that surely is the polar opposite of living lightly. Here in the Backwards Van we work on our ‘One Arse, One Chair’ theory, that usually one each of any thing will suffice. Paying to keep any item in storage seems like an awful waste of money. Why not sell the thing and you will get that money plus the money you used to spend on rent every month? If you need that thing again you could rent one. In fact, we recently gave our two fold out chairs away, they were unused and clunky to transport. So it is currently a case of two arses, no chair in here but we have plenty of floor space and Dixies side step makes a comfortable stoop not to mention the big soft double bed very nearby. Furniture should be very functional and constantly used or at least make you feel good about it.  I stripped our house down to its bare minimum and sold almost all of our furniture and guess what? We missed none of it. Its fine to have the choice of two tables to dine at but we were only ever using one, the other? It became a quick $100 in my pocket.

The Paper Trail

Writing for years and years means years and years of writing and I had to make a choice with my notebooks too. Diaries, journals, letters and cards make lovely memories but if boxes of old faded paper are cluttering up your living space or holding you back in life you might take one last nostalgic look through each page before you toss it onto a cermonial campfire. Paper still plays a huge part in our lives and attempting to reduce your own paper trail only highlights this, every transaction brings needless scrappy receipts we’re supposed to store safely and junk mail seems endless, unless of course you minimise your need for an address and they can’t find you 😉

Paper enters the van now usually in map and guidebook format which we store neatly in a little red bag affectionately known as The Library. I could write a blog about the many words we use to make this little van feel as big as a house!

Burning a lifetime of personal correspondence is a drastic step and not something I recommend anyone go into lightly. As with every other part of life, people have different limits and reasons and needs and desires and we all have to want to change before anything positive can happen at all. To each their own, and if your mother is anywhere near as supportive as mine she might let you keep a small suitcase of your extra special, unpartable little treasures in her attic for the foreseeable future. Thanks Mammy 😊

Count Every Penny

During this time of huge change in sorting through our things, household finances fell under the microscope again. Gone from our bank statements were the pricey takeway coffees, the leisurely restaurant lunches and anything expensive at all really as we brown bagged our lunches to eat at our desks and took our own popcorn to the movies on cheap dates but those nights out were some of our loveliest as we walked for hours on the beach or watched the sunset on the sea. I shaved my head for charity and minimised my hair, we decided to give up hangovers too and since the sobriety has provided a certain kind of inner peace (and financial stability) otherwise unknown. We decided William would move in to share lifes costs (both financially and emotionally 🤣) and owning less things we required less house to keep them in so moved to a smaller place in town, saving a fortune monthly in both rent and transport as we redefined our bus commute into a short walk. Less space to rent, to clean and to furnish, less public transport and asociated costs equals more money, the rest is history.

What DO we own?

What do we own now? Not much. A toolbox, a few blankets, some clothes and a headtorch or two. Dixie ambles through life carrying only what we need inside. When we first moved in I brought 100 items but that was a year ago and some things change. I don’t count anymore, the numbers are less important. I keep as many items of clothing as I can fit in this box. 35 litres of clothing? Not really, but you might be surprised as to the amount that fits. Top tip- when storing folded items in a hard plastic box, put the box on its side and stack into it, you’ll fit much more and everything will appear neat and tidy. How long everything stays that way is entirely up to you 😉 One great reason (which doesn’t seem to bother William so much) to store clothes sealed in plastic is to keep them odour free. After another lovely evening cooking over hot coals, when the van and absolutely everything in it reeks of woodsmoke and campfire at least I can find a fresh shirt to wear. Everything I own fits me, is warm and mostly uncreased and I am ready to go in no time. My floordrobe is neatly contained and the box doubles up as a bedside locker! William has a backpack with all his belongings in there, almost every one.

If you reduced your kitchenware to only things you use at least 3 times a week, what would that pile look like? A few plates, some cutlery, a pot and a pan and a couple of coffee cups. A cafetiere, a tea pot and a kettle, an extra cake tin or two for occasions and that’s about all we need. I used to collect mugs, I had about 50 of them. Now? 2 each. If it is dirty, we wash it out. What about other household essentials? There are few. A dustpan and brush, a bucket, a hose, a rug for mucky shoes. Producing less waste becomes a priority when you try to live lighter but sometimes convenience is cheaper and hard to resist, another balance to strike as what comes in to the van must also go out and we only have use of facilities provided by the County Councils.

That drawer full of wires and cables and batteries and junk, that cupboard full of blankets and sheets and old tablecloths, 5 different pairs of “just in case” interview shoes, those shelves full of DVDs and CDs? We have none of these things. I sold my favourite handbag, mysteriously for more money than it was ever worth but found I then had nowhere to keep my wallet so I sold that too. Now I carry only my phone with a compartment for cards and notes. Simple.

Our One Arse One Chair theory has taught us to find our own comfort too. Scan the horizon for the perfect flat stone as a picnic table or look for a good slope on a dune to sit for coffee and a rest. We don’t always need more “things”, sometimes we have all we need right there in front of us. The old thought experiment of running from your house as it burns to the ground, what would you take with you? What is really important and more importantly what about the hoardes of other stuff you own, are they weighing you down? Are you paying for upkeep of unimportant stuff in storage or in extra rooms in your rental and would that money be better spent and your things better used elsewhere? Considering minimalism might help you achieve a goal, financial or otherwise, it helped us immensely thus far in our journey. If you are packing up to take to the open road you’ll know exactly how much room you’ll end up with, probably  very very little, so next to choose what lucky, useful things come along with you for the ride and what you leave behind. Now, I’m not suggesting your house is on fire, but if it was…  ?! 🤔💭

Stay tuned for more articles from The Backwards Van, if you cant wait head over to Elizabeth's site here!!

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