How Simple Living Can Make You Feel Rich Overnight

There is nothing like living from 1 suitcase for a year in 2nd and 3rd world countries to make a person realize how little we really need in life.  On our recent year-long journey, my daughters and I did just that.  OK, maybe one suitcase and one carry-on each to be specific.  Amazingly, we found that we had over-packed for the first leg of our trip and actually lightened our load for the second half, taking a few pounds less each in our designated suitcases.

Unlike many location independents who sell everything before taking off, we kept our home in the states.  My husband was not traveling with us so he held down the fort.  We also used the empty bedrooms left behind as rental opportunities and brought in enough rental income to offset the rental expenses abroad.  What this meant was that at the end of our journey we returned to our original home and our original STUFF.  Yes, STUFF in capital letters because that’s exactly what it felt like – a ridiculous amount of unused and un-needed objects.

I never considered myself a “shopper” and definitely not a “hoarder”.  I have always been diligent about going through our things every season, disposing of ruined objects and taking bags of things to Goodwill.  I’ll wear my shoes until there are holes in the soles before I drag myself out to by new ones.  I love clean surfaces and you would have no trouble walking through our home due to clutter.  I think I would fall on the low end of acquirers when compared to the average American.  And yet the STUFF seemed to pile up faster than I could deal with it.

So when we returned to the states I made a personal commitment to simplify our lives by paring down to only the necessities and not purchasing anything superfluous.  And here’s where I made 2 interesting discoveries.

  1.  In some ways I am a hoarder
  2. There is a fine line between frugality and hoarding

You see, I started with our bathroom cabinets.  Here is where, in our house, you will find toiletries and medicines.  What I found was many duplicates of things.  Instead of a bottle of lotion, I had 3 or 4 bottles of lotion at various stages of emptiness.  Instead of a box of Tylenol, there were several half empty ones.

What was going on? I mean, I pride myself in using things up before buying new and not accumulating.  Here’s my best guess.  I think that often things were getting lost in our cabinets because they weren’t organized sufficiently, leading me to believe, for instance, that we didn’t have something (like lotion).  I would then purchase a new lotion.  Alternatively, I am guilty of going shopping before taking a careful inventory and then buying things that I think we don’t have only to find out later we did have.  The half empty bottle of lotion would then sit unnoticed forever in the back of a cabinet, only to be joined in the future by a second half empty bottle. If I did at some point see the old bottle, I’m sure I saved it out of the voice of frugality in my head that says, “waste not, want not”.

Scarily, the same thing was going on with our medicines.  Having raised 3 children in the last years it was amazing how many outdated medicines we had accumulated.

It was time for Sherman’s army.  I swept through the cabinets armed with garbage bags and immediately disposed of everything out of date.  I then began sorting things by type and found we are actually quite rich in toiletries.  I could have thrown out all but one of everything but I am still a firm believer in “waste not, want not” so I chose another path instead.

I chose to organize with military precision everything that was still useful and make a commitment to finish these things off one at a time and purchase nothing new until the old is used up.  At this point I think I have a years worth of body lotions and lip balms and probably enough perfumes for my remaining lifetime.

“So”, you may say, “you still have a lot of STUFF, Carmen. What’s the difference?”

Here’s the difference.

After throwing out everything that was outdated, ruined, and/or just plain gross there is significantly less STUFF.  But more importantly of the stuff that is left, it is highly organized, easy to access and to see.  Because of my new organization it is much easier for me to know whether I, in fact, do need to buy something new or not. In the last couple of months I have purchased 0 toiletries with the exception of toothpaste and shampoo when needed. Oh, and toilet paper, of course.

I am happy to say, I just finished off my first half empty bottle of lotion yesterday, have sent it to recycling and have moved on to number 2.  One less bottle in the cabinet!

So, where does the “feel rich overnight” part come in?

In the past, because I did not have a good grasp of what we actually owned it was very easy to think we “needed” something.  It followed, then, that it was very easy to purchase because of that sense of need.

Going through our things, taking control and getting a good sense of what we have, I realized that we actually have very few needs.  In fact, in many cases we have more than what we need.  We’re actually rich.

From that sense of “richness” I have a diminished urge to purchase when I go to the store and we’re saving money because I’m not making unnecessary buys.  I also feel freer to use things (like perfume) that I used to save as “special” because I now realize I have plenty and don’t need to save into eternity. This makes me feel “rich” as well.

I’ve now completed going through the house bathrooms and medicine cabinets.  I intend to continue with my quest until I’ve hit every nook and cranny of our house and garage. By the end we should be feeling like millionaires!

If you’d like to sense “richness” in your own life, here are some step I would recommend.

  1. Make a strategy for going through your things.  Tackle one area at a time so you don’t get overwhelmed.
  2. Arm yourself with garbage bags.  You can mark the bags using Sharpies so that some are “trash” and others are “donate”.
  3. Give yourself a 3 second rule.  You may hold each object for 3 seconds before you make a decision.  Keep, Junk, or Donate.  Don’t let yourself get stuck.
  4. Completely clean out whatever area you’re working on (cabinet, drawer, closet) until it is empty.  Then clean the area thoroughly by washing/sweeping/mopping or giving it a new coat of paint. This will ready it for your newfound organization.
  5. Sort your remaining items by type and return them to the space only in a new orderly fashion.  Use labels if helpful to designate space for things.  Keep everything as up-front as possible so things can’t hide from your sight.
  6. Force yourself to do a quick inventory of what you have before every shopping trip so that you don’t duplicate in the future.
  7. Use your things in an orderly fashion, sticking to each one until it is completely used up and then disposing of/recycling the container before you move on to the next.

My goal is to pare down to only 1 of every necessary item we own and to be sure everything we own is necessary. Want to make a goal of your own?


  1. “My goal is to pare down to only 1 of every necessary item we own and to be sure everything we own is necessary.” – I hear you there! I’ve never really been a collector of stuff, but it just happens, like you say. What I have the worst time with is collecting pens. They pop up in every bag, on every trip, at every conference. Ugh. No more pens! But I don’t feel like I can just toss them, so I focus on using just one or two of them at a time to use them up before grabbing a new one.

    Thanks for the piece, Carmen. It really resonates with me.

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    • PENS!!!! Sometimes I think my brain is not connected to my hands. I find myself walking away with other people’s pens without even realizing it. It can be insidious how things find their way into our space.

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    • I feel the same way about pens. I use only one pen at a time until it runs out of ink. Then I move onto the next one. Also, I make it a habit of not taking someone else’s pen and keeping only one available pen on my desk at work/home. Luckily, I’m down to about five pens overall.

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  2. Carmen,

    Reading your article as I sit here in my 15’x20′ apartment in Bangkok, which I’ve rented on-and-off for 9 years now, I think back at how my life was before the nomading began (December 5, 2001). Before then I was already frugal; had to be since I was already planning for this new life of mine. But I did still have a 2 bedroom house full of stuff. And my garage was like a continual garage sale! (I had 5 bikes for christsakes.) But these days I go through the paring down like you’ve just done, at least twice a year–especially when I’m exiting Thailand (on the real chance this will be my last time here for awhile).

    What I try to do is get everything to fit into a backpack and 1 wheeled luggage. Not at all easy since I have to travel with not 1, but 2 notebook computers (1 is a backup) along with its peripherals; technical and design manuals can’t be discarded; proper cooking tools usually make the cut (I can’t keep buying good knives every time I move); along with basic travel essentials. But what happens in this process, which is my point here, is that I am forced to not only place priority and value onto everything I own–something few of us Americans do these days–but I learn to really appreciate what I have left.

    I know you have 3 daughters, no doubt they became pretty conscious of what was in their individual bags as they traveled all of last year. How many kids their age would even know what’s in their closet? So, to use the cliche, sometimes “Less is more” is totally fitting for us nomads.

    So, I like my little pile of stuff. Because, well, we now enjoy this very intimate relationship!

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    • There’s something so satisfying about being able to live with very few things. I read once the thought that every object in our possession carries with it a bit of mental energy. Even when we don’t use it, somewhere in our brain is at least a mental note,”that’s in the 2nd drawer with the towels” or some such. By ridding our lives of as many objects as possible, we free our mental life for other things. I know, for myself, creativity is one of the things that really blooms when I’m not tying up my mental life with STUFF.

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  3. I remember once asking my mom, “What would you save first in a fire?” And she said, “Let it all burn!” I have a similar tendency, having shared a room with a hoarder sister, to desire minimalist spaces. My favorite scene in movies is when people walk into a beautiful empty apartment or loft. A few books, photographs, cooking utensils and done! Oh, and the laptop I guess.

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  4. Living out of a backpack, now, for almost a year, this piece resonated with me a great deal. It is amazing how little stuff we need, and how we over-consume. Pens? I’ll still plead guilty to that one. But it’s very free-ing to know *exactly* what you have, and therefore *exactly* what more you need. Generally, not a lot.

    I found myself removing lint from a dress with sellotape last night. (New. Washed it with a fluffy towel. Grr…) But it’s something I’d never have done before travelling with a little taught me the value of a lot…

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  5. After traveling the world, what do you think makes people feel rich and poor?  For instance, you hear of chinese peasants migrating to the city for a better life.  What are they missing that is better in the city?  What makes people feel unhappy living a simple life in the country?

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  6. Teaching abroad and learning how other cultures live is a great way to take stock of your own lifestyle.  Teaching abroad can be a wonderful adventure.  If you’re considering it, you may want to browse a few job listings.  Teacher gig dot com is a great resource for this.  You can browse the latest jobs or narrow it down by specific country.  If you’re considering teaching abroad, you should definitely check it out.  🙂

    Teacher Gig Job Listing ForChild Care

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  7. Seriously loving your posts…

    We are about (hopefully) to embark on a semi-nomad life. And just reading your post makes me even more excited.

    Thanks for sharing with us nunomad’s (even if it is just semi)

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