The #1 Quality Each Minimalist Needs: And How I Nurtured It

In 2020, I downsized 35 years of life — and a 1,600 square foot home — into the back of my SUV. And even now, I look back at the Herculean feat it was and wonder how I possibly accomplished it three years ago.

I vaguely remember those 40 days while I closed on my house sale. They were frenetic; I thoughtfully (but not too thoughtfully, because there wasn’t time to waste) packed, stored, consigned, sold, bestowed, donated, or trashed — ALL THE BELONGINGS I HAD ACCUMULATED in the world. 

I drove away from an empty house, stripped of its life (most of what it used to house, deposited at the Good Will on my way out of town). What remained with me was some clothing, shoes, pet supplies, kitchen essentials, and electronics that would get me through the following year and more of nomad life. Now, I can pack up my life in less than an hour, as I travel around the world.

Others look at what I did and think: “Wow, good for her, but I never could!” and that doesn’t surprise me.

Because when the seeds were first planted, I thought the same… that I never could.

And while every choice I made on my journey was intentional, my actual transformation from a maximalist to a minimalist was a happy side effect of those decisions.

It boils down to one single quality that I nurtured. And that quality is… DETACHMENT

How does one “nurture detachment?”

Detachment is the absence of emotional attachment, or the process of separating from emotional attachment — and in this context, I’m referring to an emotional attachment to belongings and material things (or the urge to collect such things). 

And I had a lot of material things, which became painfully apparent to me in 2017, only after a series of some major life events and a brush with financial insecurity. 

But — and I think it’s a curious thing to note — I didn’t set out to “detach,” or to lower my dependence on the possessions and conveniences around me. I set out in search of what I really wanted and loved doing, my growing detachment a ripple effect.

In 2017, I was laid off from a dream job, and in the months following, I decided to travel solo on a budget. I went backpacking to Europe: for four weeks, I survived and thrived with only the things in my 40-liter backpack. Why did I have so much at home I didn’t really need (or didn’t even miss)? Why were others in the world so happy and capable with much less than me and my American peers?

When I returned to the states, drained of funds, still looking for another job (and fresh off an international breakup), I made a desperate decision to rent out my 3-bedroom house — and temporarily move elsewhere — to earn rental income. I found a tiny furnished studio “casita” to rent, and took only what I thought I would need during that time — while locking all the other personal items in my home into my master bedroom closet. 

Families moved in-and-out of my painstakingly furnished primary home, my American dream of which I was proud… using my cookware, appliances, and sleeping in my bed.

I lived in my little casita for four months — without a dishwasher, without a big shower and bathtub, without a walk-in closet, without a dining table. But time flew by, and I was fine. I blogged about this, calling this period my “exercise in downsizing.” After the four months came to an end, I came “home” to things I once thought I couldn’t live without but had nearly forgotten. 

The following few years during the Arizona tourist season, I would put my house up for rent again. While I still appreciated my house and my efforts in decorating it, I had divorced the emotional from the physical. 

There’s nothing like a brush with financial insecurity to force a radical change in one’s thinking. 

Fostering a “falling behind the Joneses” mentality vs. one of “keeping up with the Joneses”

In 2020, while the early months of the pandemic raged, I somewhat impulsively decided to trade in my 2015 Honda Civic for a 2017 Honda CR-V SUV — I wanted a more comfortable vehicle with a little more space in the back for solo traveling. (I had just returned from four weeks road-tripping across New Mexico and Texas, and I had felt a little cramped in the Civic.)

I had some big plans for road trips (and car camping!) in my new ride, and I went to northern Arizona, southern Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, and South Dakota. A few months after I purchased the CR-V, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, I was caught in a freak hailstorm; my new used SUV pelted with hail. There were dozens, if not a hundred, dents. Body shops estimated that it would take $14K to fix, so my insurance company wanted to declare my $28K vehicle a total loss and sell the parts as salvage — and pay me out $24K. 

I wanted to take the check for the damage ($14K minus the $500 deductible), but my insurers didn’t even present that as an option. I argued with them — the damage was purely cosmetic. I didn’t want to go car shopping or be responsible for a shiny new vehicle — I was about to start nomad life!

My insurance company couldn’t fathom that I wanted to keep my vehicle as-is, especially after just buying it a few months prior. “You’re not going to be happy with it,” one email read. But for me: it was just a car, it wasn’t a status symbol, it wasn’t a measure of my worth, and I didn’t care that it had a hundred dents. My car served a utility, and that utility was to get me from point A to point B safely and comfortably, and I would drive it until it stopped working.

For someone that has owned eight vehicles since age 16 (one of them a shiny luxury convertible) this mentality shift was a feat. Plus, that $14K was a nice little chunk of pocket change that translated into months of travel spending.

Meaning and memories

One of the topics frequently addressed in Facebook groups about downsizing or going nomadic is, “But how can I manage to part with ___ [insert sentimental item here]?”

Just because you leave behind the object, doesn’t mean you lose the meaning or the memory behind it. Take a photo. Write about it in your journal. Reflect on what that thing represents to you. The object itself is not what’s sentimental, nor does it have intrinsic value — WE are the ones who assign meaning, memory, nostalgia, and value. 

Is it the records, or was it the hours spent dancing to your favorite tunes with your beloved family that you really hold dear?

Is it the elegant dress and shoes, or was it the occasion you wore them to that brings forth such a fond and striking memory?

Is it the gift itself, or was it the sentiments expressed from the gift-giving that really matter?

When I took this understanding to heart, I was able to separate the emotion from the object — keep the emotion, the meaning, and the memory, and get rid of the physical embodiment. 

When I sold my house and culled nearly everything I owned, I did it out of necessity. I couldn’t take it all with me on the life that I had chosen, as I had learned during my exercises in downsizing, nor did I want to. 

Now, having been nomadic for three years… I can tell you: nothing I’ve given up has broken my heart. What originally started for me as an exercise, eventually became practice and second nature — and it can for you too.

How I define minimalism

I haven’t been able to find an official definition of minimalism that doesn’t apply to design and architecture, so I’ve written my own. Minimalism is:

  • owning less, buying less, and being appreciative of the things you do have instead of searching for more, but also; 
  • having no great attachment to things; and 
  • the absence of collecting and using objects to fill a void

Becoming a minimalist (how I practice minimalism today)

  • I weigh every purchase decision and am extremely conscious of the new things I buy
  • I made every effort to repair instead of going straight to replace
  • I get rid of things I don’t use often, don’t like, or no longer have utility for me
  • I separate the emotions from the object, keeping hold the memories (while making new, amazing memories!)

It was fairly easy for me to be cutthroat about getting rid of most of the things in my house. But what was truly tragic was the mental math — the tens of thousands of dollars worth of things I had purchased, recouping mere cents on the dollar… the tragedy not because I was sad to see my these things go, it was because I couldn’t emotionally reconcile the amount of money I had spent: money that could’ve gone to my financial freedom even sooner.

By the way… what else have I detached from?

I’m detached and disconnected to our society’s single-minded vision of the future: college, career, house, marriage, kids, two vacations a year and retire at 65, and I’ve ended relationships and friendships that were dysfunctional or no longer beneficial.

I find “detached” is a very healthy way to be.

If you liked this article, you might like my guest blog on Becoming Minimalist: I’m an American Nomad Traveling the World: Here’s What Other Countries Taught Me About Minimalism

What other qualities do you think minimalists have? Leave me a comment below.

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4 thoughts on “The #1 Quality Each Minimalist Needs: And How I Nurtured It

  1. You definitely nailed it with detachment, imho! I would maybe also suggest “creativity” – as in the ability to get stuff done in a different way than you’re used to because you’re missing a specific item because you’re a minimalist 🙂 For example, frequently washing clothes in a sink (rather than relying on a washing machine) so you don’t have to bring so much along on a long trip.

    1. Oooh, that’s a good one!! Minimalism definitely brings out the craftiness in us. I did a LOT of washing in the sink when I was backpacking Europe. I also carry a needle and thread with me in my cosmetics bag. Waste not, want not as they say 😊 

  2. Great article Julie. Completely agree with your definition of minimalism. Good luck with your journey.

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