On becoming a Minimalist

Krystal Gabel

I know Minimalist living.

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The irony of Buying More Stuff

I lived out of a carry-on suitcase and in a $650 Chrysler Town & Country minivan for three years. Nothing was left at my parent's house. I didn't pay for a storage unit. All I owned was my person, my thoughts, and what we could carry on our backs if the van broke down on the road and we had to walk to the next destination.

This mentality, to be a Minimalist, seemed impossible before I actually did it. I grew up with a family who collected "things". Family heirlooms, replacements for favorite items lost in childhood, entire collection sets, things that tickled one's fancy, odd things, cheeky things. Things.

I carried forward that inherited mindset - that things are here to own - until I was 30. My last house was two stories with four bedrooms and a full-size basement. Every room was packed to the gills with even more in boxes yet to be unpacked. Before I understood what it really meant to be a Minimalist, I would spend my money before I earned it and regularly lived on credit. And I would spend my time off work "organizing" the things I hastily bought rather than actually using them.

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A cluttered room of "things"

I was physically, mentally, and spiritually lost in my stuff. Retail therapy was not really therapy after all.

My boyfriend recognized - mainly from how I was wasting my hard-earned salary on stupid things - that I was burned out. He suggested I quit my job, sell the house, and we travel.

We had talked about it for a long time - traveling, living with fewer wants.

But, what held me back (what holds anyone back?) was that I had student loans. Thirteen years into 10-year student loans, I still owed more than $30,000. The piles of stuff around me clearly demonstrated that I spent my money in the wrong places for years. I couldn't enjoy the road with that kind of debt haunting me, with all these material possessions riding my tailcoat.

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Student loans hold back a lot of dreams

So, I did what I had to do to obtain our goal.

I listed all my furniture on Craigslist, had one rummage where I sold everything of monetary value, and then I donated what was leftover.

I laugh at how I started. I was struggling to pitch old paperwork, so I gave myself a timeframe. If I hadn't touched or used this "thing" for 6 months, I had no choice but to get rid of it. The second time through the house, my timeframe shifted to 90 days. If I didn't use the item in the last three months, it was pitched too. I was exhausted from moving my junk around, again.

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Deep closet cleaning

Finally, in the third elimination round, I set aside belongings that I had used in the last one to two weeks. My pile of valuable possessions took up less room than the surface of the couch.

This filter of keeping only what you have touched in the past week is extreme but it helped me recognize the few things I use on the daily. I learned, too, that I needed very few things for a simple (van) life. Most organizers suggest you throw away something after not touching it for a year, but I knew stuff would be a burden on the road, so I kept almost nothing that I once owned.

I did keep, however, a week's worth of clothes, my basic hygiene supplies, waterproof sandals, hiking boots, and my Adidas shoes. I kept a hardbacked, magnetic clasp notebook I bought when in San Diego with a friend. I condensed my sewing kit and writing supplies. And I saved other artifacts like my diplomas and a few favorite books and tucked them in protective bags at the bottom of my carry-on suitcase.

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Minimalists travel light

We also invested in some tools to fix the van, a power converter, spare tire, a car battery to charge our phones when the van was off, materials to create block-out panels for the windows, and paid for three years of vehicle insurance and our annual membership to the gym.

A month after I started my path to become a Minimalist, I sold my empty house and paid off all our debts, including my student loans that had cost me $476 a month for more than decade. We were left with around $15,000 of the proceeds.

That day, when we left our house in our Chrysler van, I didn't look back in the side mirror. We had broken our institutionalized links to the 21st Century. My consciousness felt… altered. We no longer had a house (and were homeless). We had no debts (and no credit, either). Neither of us had jobs (only a vague itinerary of where we wanted to go next). The Cloak of Normalcy was no longer our reality.

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Chrysler Town & Country minivan

We wanted to take three years off, so we invested the money and gave ourselves a budget of $5,000 a year. That's $416 a month. $104 a week. Less than $21 a day. The van didn't have a kitchen or a bathroom, so we ate out nearly every meal and used the gym to take showers. $5 a day per person for food is not satisfying. Some days we starved so we could fuel up and travel to the next beach where we soaked in the sun for a week before we moved on. Most days I was searching for a bathroom more than once. On cold days, we wandered around shopping malls, watching others spend their money on things that we didn't have space for anymore.

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Long Beach, California (one of many beaches we visited)

But it was all worth it, giving up everything I owned for what I gained. I dove directly into the deep end of Minimalism. We didn't just get rid of our earthly possessions. We were purposely living a life of poverty.

While most are subsumed by the desire to be physically comfortable, we rejected the physical comforts of a house and regular paycheck and chose to have almost nothing but each other and a van for protection. To barely own the basics to survive and not even have your own toilet is how I learned what matters most to me, how I earned humility, how I found true freedom, how I began my life as a Minimalist.

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A single dandelion

Minimalists reject what society says is materially normal in order to find value in what really matters in this world - compassion, kindness, patience, love, relationships, and nature.

I thought it would hurt more giving up the things that used to define me.

Instead, the process of finding Minimalism has allowed me to consciously acknowledge that material objects are not what gives us the capacity for a fuller life. My purging of things has taught me that a force exists inside each of us, that we have to tap into it to move beyond the things that tie us down.

Life in a van and on the road is not easy. So, I live in a house again, but this time it's a tiny house and mainly contains items that are memories from being on the road. Nothing lives in boxes or in stacks on the floor. Everything I own I try to touch, use, or admire at least once every three months, or I do still follow the rule to donate, sell, or recycle.

And, I now think for a long time before I make a purchase. I consider if it's an item I would pay to store, be willing to sacrifice, or take along if we did go on the road again.

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Krystal Gabel is a cannabis rights activist. Her content is influenced by her 3-year sabbatical from corporate work when she lived in a van on less than $20/day.

Brush, CO
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