I’ve mentioned before that I grew up with a lot of stuff. Boarding in a tiny room in Tokyo with only my laptop and contents of one suitcase for several months showed me just how much I needed the clarity and simplicity of life unburdened by so many baubles. Though the city is quite a character and would lure out even the most distracted of homebodies, not having a legion of things populating every spare inch of space reminded me that there was vast, uncharted territory in need of exploring, just outside my door.
Over the past couple of years, my wife Min and I have jettisoned most of our low-hanging fruit. Things we had been curating and carting from city to city but no longer used (or never needed in the first place) have all been given new homes or recycled in one way or another. Now, the harder work of cutting into muscle begins.
We’ve started with our collection of books. Those white binders in the photo are business case studies from our years at the Darden School. We plan to sort out what material we think will continue to be useful throughout our careers, scan and convert to digital files, then recycle the paper and donate the binders. I also reorganized the books by areas of interest (e.g., everything about China or Chinese language is now on one shelf). This way I can tell at a quick glance which books I’m less likely to need for future reference and target them for donation.
There are a few reasons why we’ve declared our war on things. The first is simply a practical matter. Our current apartment in the US is roughly the same size as the one we own in Shanghai. If we can learn to live in this large of a space with the three (maybe someday four) of us, we’d have rent-free housing for whatever time we’re based in the cosmopolitan nerve center of China. In addition, every dollar we don’t spend buying things is a dollar that can pay down our graduate school debt.
There are environmental considerations. Avoiding the direct footprint (carbon, water, etc.) of unneeded products is the first level. Optimizing the amount of things we buy and keep means we can live in an apartment that is only as large as we need. This saves the upfront footprint of the building material, and over time translates to lower heating and cooling power needed (lower cost for us, less carbon for everyone).
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, there is a spiritual aspect to this. We would much rather use our money to invest in meaningful experiences like education, time with friends, and travel to new places. Many physical things provide an upfront, short-term boost of happiness, but lose this ability once novelty has worn away. Good memories stay with us long after the event, generally don’t require maintenance, and will never void the manufacturer warranty.
To be sure, there are things that are very much necessities. A bed on which to sleep. Pots and pans with which to cook. Tools that make us more productive, such as the computer and camera I use to create this blog. Perhaps a few things of sentimental value to remind of us good times or great beauty to brighten our space. Beyond that, you can really live without the rest.
For me, this is ultimately about having fun. Money and time not spent getting things, storing things, repairing things, and disposing of things goes into my What I Really Want to Be Doing Fund. I wasn’t the biggest fan of finance courses in business school, but this is the kind of portfolio management I can really get into.