Dropping the Ballast: Lessons in Selling Most of Our Stuff

Cleaning up after a garage flood - and we'd emptied the garage to take this photo
Cleaning up after a garage flood - and we'd emptied the garage to take this photo
Cleaning up after a garage flood - and we'd emptied the garage to take this photo
Cleaning up after a garage flood – and we’d ’emptied’ the garage to take this photo

Ju and I don’t own a great deal of stuff these days. Not compared with what we used to own at least, and probably not compared with what most folks own. It took us roughly six years, but we’ve sold or given away most of our stuff in that time.

By being rid of all this stuff, we’ve enabled a lifestyle where we can travel as much as we please, or for that matter volunteer, house sit, write, take a job we enjoy or do whatever we find the most fulfilling. Owning stuff, it turned out, was like owning ballast to us. It held us down, although somehow in a mostly invisible way.

As we went through the long process of being rid of most of our stuff, we learned some lessons, some of them hard ones. They were valuable to us, and may be of value to you, so I’ve collated them below. Have a read, see if any of this resonates with you, and feel free to add a comment below if you’ve anything to add.

 

Lesson 1: Our Stuff Was Worthless.
To start with we cherry-picked the ‘best’ things to sell which we thought would generate the most money, as this money was to be sent off to the building society to help reduce our mortgage. Lots of photos were taken, items researched and long descriptions written to promote our stuff for sale, but quickly we came to begrudge this effort. Most of our ‘good’ stuff sold for much less than we’d bought it for, and often for much less than we thought it was worth. Frankly, the stuff we had bought and were continuing to buy wasn’t worth a bean, even the good stuff. The other stuff, some of which we’d spent a lot of money on at the time, went to the charity shops or the local tip. Learning this valuable lesson seriously reduced the amount of new stuff we bought.

Lesson 2: We Kidded Ourselves We Needed Our Stuff.
If we’d laid out everything we owned in order of how frequently we used it, maybe 5% of it would sit in at the top, in the ‘use every month’ category. Over 80% of it wouldn’t have been used in the previous year. Probably 50% of it hadn’t been touched in five years, other than to box and unbox it when moving house (or sometimes not even doing that, instead just moving the box from one attic to another). And yet somehow we convinced ourselves such-and-such an item was essential, we couldn’t possibly be rid of it. Getting to grips with this untruth was very difficult, but thinking in terms of the last time we used it really helped.

Lesson 3: Owning Stuff was Expensive.
In our heads, once we’ve bought something it no longer cost us. After a while, a couple of years maybe, some other truth started to reveal itself: even stuff we’d paid for was continuing to suck up large amounts our hard-earned. How? Often in indirect ways, but also in ways which were seriously expensive. Insurance, repairs, upgrades and replacements are the most obvious costs. But what about the fact we had a 3 bedroom house, and only two of us lived there? Each bedroom was costing us, in a hidden way, around £100 a month. Effectively we had become a storage company for ourselves. Now we let out the 3 bed house and live in a motorhome and a studio apartment, and that £200 a month gets paid to us, and then some.

Lesson 4: Mentally Our Stuff Owned Us.
When we came to let our house out to travel, we still owned a serious amount of stuff. Finding somewhere for it to go was a big hurdle, and caused no small amount of stress. How can this be? Surely we owned this stuff, we were its masters, and if we still had it we still needed it so it must be important to us. Why were we so annoyed with it all? Also, if something broke, we’d find ourselves often not just wanting to replace it, but to ‘get something better’ too. When we went on holiday, we fretted someone would break in to the house or garage and steal our stuff. If you didn’t know better, you’d think the stuff in the house owned us, rather than us owning it.

DSC02593
Our home now probably has less stuff in it than our old garage did!

Lesson 5: Once The Stuff was Gone, we Felt Free.
The emotional attachment we felt to much of our stuff made it very difficult to pare it down. As we picked up each thing to assess whether it should stay, we’d know we would need it if such-and-such a situation occurred in future (e.g. the pedestal drill: what if I needed to drill some vertical holes?). Right now we still own far, far more than the essentials, but have around 10% of what we started with. Around a year’s passed since we finally stopped downsizing on stuff, and what have we missed from that 90%? You guessed it. Nothing. How do we feel? Bloody awesome.

We hardly buy any stuff these days, in fact we probably save hours by not going to the shops or browsing the internet looking for the best deals. We do save a fortune by not adding stuff in with our weekly food shop. When we do wander through shops the stuff in them is always nice to look at, and the bank account’s healthy enough to enable us to buy almost any of it, but we don’t have any urge to want to buy. It can stay in the shop, we don’t need it in our lives.

As well we working out the investment side of our lifestyle (our free mini-guide gives some details on this), sorting out our relationship with stuff was the second essential aspect we had to tackle to get where we are, to attain a financially-free life.

Cheers, Jay

12 Comments

  1. I had to laugh at the Pedestal drill. I have had a pedestal drill in my man shed for 14 years and haven’t had to drill a vertical hole in all that time, but I can’t help thinking that as soon as I sell it a vertical hole will be required. lol

  2. Hi Julie and Jason, I’m currently clearing out in preparation for the start of my trip at the end of October, and like you have mentioned above, what a load of ‘stuff’ we accumulate in life that is just pointless. Ebay has become my new friend, but the pain of selling many thousands of pounds worth of stuff for a few hundred quid really does make you wonder why you even bought it in the first place. What was I thinking??!!! Robyn

    • Almost nothing. We allowed each other one box about A4 sized each. Everything else went, which was hard at the time (I was emotionally attached to tools which reminded me of jobs I’d done in the past) but we’ve missed nothing. Cheers, Jay

      P. S. Ju reckons we actually have less than 10% of what we started out with. Looking at the photo of the garage I’m inclined to agree!

  3. Even though our travels will not start for another 3-4 years, the journey has already begun in a way because we are preparing by getting rid of our stuff, although looking at our cellar, it feels like it might take a decade. It takes me back to my favourite year as a student living a small room with very little stuff. The focus was on experiences to be had, not stuff to be acquired. I think and hope the motorhome life will be a way of getting back to the joys of travelling light. Thanks for a great post!

    • Hi Sandra

      It’s good you’ve started early, as if you’ve anything like the amount of stuff we had, it’s a BIG JOB! Sorting out what you want to keep versus what’s going is a big fat mental challenge too, and your comment’s reminded me of a question I asked myself at the time:

      When was I happiest with the amount of stuff I had?

      The answers for me were (a) when I was a student in a university halls of residence. I had enough to fill a car (my Dad’s) and that was easily enough. There were more experiences to be had on a daily basis than I could fit into the years I was there, and I didn’t miss having anything. And (b) when we travelled in Dave, our old Hymer B544. Again we had so little stuff with us, but so many opportunities for experiences. The stored stuff back home had us feeling ill looking at the photos of it, wondering what on Earth it all was, and why we felt we needed it. And that was the stuff left after 2 or 3 years of gradually offloading stuff!

      Being rid of your stuff is so difficult, I would say, that most people never manage it, and simply die leaving a huge amount of (mostly) crap for someone else to deal with. We didn’t want to go down that path, we wanted to get the problem sorted while we were very much alive. We did, eventually, and we’re reaping the rewards. Good luck with the challenge.

      Cheers, Jay

  4. Yes, my favourite ‘year of least stuff’ was in university halls too. “Your last shirt has no pockets” comes to mind … getting rid of stuff is such a relief. The only things I would run into our burning house to save are photo albums of family holidays. Again, the experience is it. We have stopped buying stuff for the kids’ big birthdays and take them on trips instead because the memories, impressions and experiences are worth so much more than anything we could buy them, although a motorhome trip hasn’t grabbed them yet, because that’s for old people like us, and I’m still in my 40s :-)

  5. Hi J & J, Weve just gone through the process over the last few weeks. Realising that we were spending 10 months or so of the year in the van in Europe we realised that our house and its contents were becoming an expensive burden. The tip, the charity shops, friends and relatives took loads of stuff – the stuff we sold on gumtree was a nightmare! We didn’t get the price we advertised stuff for and some folk were really cheeky with the their offers. But it’s gone, the house is empty and we’re just waiting for the letting agents to find tenants. Meanwhile we’re living with relatives and preparing to set off again for another trip. When we went through our stuff we would say “Did you ever miss or think about this when we were on a beach in Greece or Spain or wherever” and if the answer was “Well, no not really” then we got rid. Cathartic process to say the least. The hardest part was parting with my vinyl but my son has taken that so it’s still here to listen to at some time and, to be fair, I can still find most of it to listen to on the web.
    When we come back to the UK for van MOT etc we’ve got loads of friends and family to stay with so we’re lucky in that respect. And now we are “Stuff free!!’
    Happy travels,
    Pat

  6. Hi Ju and Jay
    Been following your blog for a couple of years now and as a result and, with your helpful advice, have just started our our own travelling.
    We too fell into the trap of ‘commodity fetishm’and acquiring stuff we didn’t need. The pressure to acquire is enormous and not accidental. We have decluttered to an extent but the exercise continues. You’re right-you don’t really miss the stuff when it’s gone and it’s also true that it is almost worthless in terms of resale.
    Now, before I buy anything I apply the two question rule (not mine) (1) Do you need it (not want) it? and (2) can you afford it? Only if the answer to both is ‘yes’ will I buy it. Being honest with both is important but especially the question of ‘need’. How much do you really need something than simply wanting it?
    Anyway, not being tied to possessions, is an important step to true freedom.

  7. Just wanted to say, we’ve been in a van (Charlie-the-Chucklebus) for just over a year, we went through the same ‘pain-barriers’ as some of the above AND REGRET NONE OF IT! Well done for the time, effort and inspiriation folks like Jay & Ju gave us. Kindest Wayne.

  8. Hello All,
    Wow a very informative read, we too our in the throws of decluttering. Once married on 17/09/2016 we will be 6 weeks from our UK dept heading south for the start of our extended honeymoon.
    We have kindly been offered free space in our brothers storage container, so we have been doing the “we’ll keep that just in case” having read your blogg and posts I think we are tying a proverbial noose around our own necks!
    Emotional ties are the hardest, I love the question will I miss this on a beech in Greece? I hope I won’t even be thinking about it, boxes of birthday cards from sentimental occasions and photos. I have taken pictures of and given to my mum to recraft for others. Clothes have gone to charity or theatre groups for costumes.
    If we eventually come back and settle (5yr plan) will we like what we like now? Will our tastes have changed and no doubt we will bring new ideas and inspiration from our travels to furnish a dwelling with.
    Thank you all, it is reassuring to know that we are not alone, that the truth is to feel the fear and throw it out anyway. Lol. With gratitude Ian n Kat aka inka trail.

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