January 8, 2011

I think one of the coolest ‘take aways’ from our time in Manila is an honest-to-goodness appreciation of the concept LESS IS MORE.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I’ve known that saying for a long, long time but never really understood it in the profound way I do now.  You see, after witnessing poverty on the scale that exists in Manila, I am convinced that something in you inevitably shifts over time…

  • You can’t help but flinch when your helper takes your broken sandal out of the trash and asks if she can have it…
  • OR throw up a little in your mouth when you witness vendors in Tondo repurposing picked-over chicken bones that they dug out of the garbage…
  • OR watch the service person cry with joy over receiving your ratty old gym shirt (with sweat stains in the armpits)…
  • OR ask a child what they got for Christmas and have them reply ‘nothing’ as you awkwardly try to change the subject…
  • OR have your helper call in with food poisoning because she ate expired food that she ‘couldn’t bear to throw out’

I know I am not alone in having these experiences.  My expat friends frequently discuss how uncomfortable it is to participate in these exchanges and to know what the appropriate response is.

So what do you do about it?

Nothing.  Simply let it change you.

  • Let it make you think twice each time you go to put something in the garbage.
  • Let it force you to pause and reconsider when you’re about to buy your umpteenth pair of shoes.
  • Let it move you to appreciate the abundance of things you do already have.
  • Let it open your heart to consider giving away the possessions and money that you don’t actually **need**.

From Stuff to Experiences

As a girl who started her career trying to come up with strategies to get people to buy more stuff at Target HQ, I find it pretty remarkable to see that I’ve shifted from collecting items to collecting experiences.  What I’ve noticed along the way is that with each step towards reducing, I feel a wee bit of weight lifting off my shoulder.  You know why that is?  Because stuff requires immense investments of emotional energy.

Just stop for a minute and think about how frequently you worry about your car breaking down or your furnace going out or your precious new iphone getting scratched.  I know that not a day used to go by when I didn’t worry about one of those things.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying these things aren’t important to have at all, only that we need to limit the amount of things that we spend our emotional energy on.

I never got this fully until after my quarter-life crisis at age 25 when I quit my job at Target (without a new job to go to), sold my house (at a loss), put all my possessions in storage, sold my car (and used public transportation exclusively) and house-sat someone else’s place.  I couldn’t tell you why I had to divest of all those things at the time, only that I felt like I was being suffocated by all my stuff.  To this day, it remains the period in my life when I felt most alive and free.  And you know the craziest part?  I didn’t miss my stuff at all!

Cutting Down by 20%

As I’ve gushed about before, Nick and I feel incredibly blessed to be having this opportunity overseas.  One of the commitments we’ve made to each other is to process what we’re learning along the way and let this foreign service experience change us for the better.  Given that LESS IS MORE was one of our big learnings from this tour, we’ve decided that in 2011 our goal will be to reduce our stuff by 20%.  (Point of clarification: We can’t access the furniture and things that are still in Maryland, so we’re basing it on everything we have here in Manila)  We feel like this is the perfect place to find new homes for our old things, as Filipinos really treasure possessions (since they have so few of them).  I’m already looking forward to the give-away!

Call to Action

So here’s the call to action folks.  Will you join Nick and I in giving away a percentage of your things?  Only you know what’s a comfortable stretch for you, so be honest with yourself.  I promise you, it’s not as hard as it sounds… and you’ll feel a whole lot lighter heading into the new year.

Be sure and leave a comment if you’re up for the challenge!  And I promise that I’ll keep you posted on when we complete our purge – we got off to a great start this morning!

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  1. Alison says:

    What a valuable lesson! It’s true that stuff really weighs us down. I was always a bit of a collector of useless stuff. For me the big purge was when we sold our house and moved to Belgium. We got rid of everything except for a few boxes we stored with family and the 4 suitcases and 6 boxes we brought with us. It really made me realise how little I need. Even out of that little but of stuff there are things that I wish I sold before I left. I have acquired more stuff since moving here but having a small flat keeps it to a minimum. I think a new year’s purge would be a great idea though. Thanks for the inspiration!

  2. Jenn F. says:

    This is one of my favorite Sarah-insights… ever. Great post, well said and so, so true.

  3. Bethany says:

    I LOVE that you have shared this experience! Will and I were just talking about “simplifying” our life and possessions a few weeks ago. I’ve been donating stuff like crazy, much more than usual, and it feels great :-) I remember traveling around Central America for 2 months with just my backpack and having everything I needed. Life shouldn’t be about collecting things – but memories and experiences as you said. We’re in for your challenge!

  4. Becky Ahlstrom says:

    I couldn’t be more with you. For January, our book club is reading Unclutter Your Life in One Week, mainly because I’m obsessed with the strategy of simplifying as a means to living your most remarkable life (author’s brilliant message, not mine). Author’s blog (Unclutterer) gives countless ideas for how to simplify but also make sure your excess stuff can be used by others. Good luck! I’ll look for updates on your progress!!

  5. Daniela says:

    Great post and so in line with the FS lifestyle. We have been downsizing ever since my husband got “the call” to join the FS. We got rid of a ton of stuff before we moved from FL – donated most of it to our favorite charity that helps abused women and children. Then when my husband got a one-year assignment in DC and we had to take back hold of all of our possessions and move into an apartment substantially smaller than our house in Fl, we had to do it all over again. This time we donated most of the stuff to Goodwill. And you are absolutely right it does feel good and liberating because we tend to hold on to things we truly no longer need out of habit more than anything else. Giving it to people that need it more than we do is a great feeling. We have no % goals of what we want to get rid of down the road but I do think more about the things I buy these days and I buy less. I also do more recycling – I love hand-me-downs and don’t feel like everything I have has to be brand spanking new. Hopefully, that means less stuff ending up in landfills…

  6. Jen O says:

    Totally agree! One of the reasons Tim and I live in a small house is that it forces us to be intentional about all of our possessions. I love the trips to Goodwill throughout the year as I find more stuff to purge, and I find myself asking with every purchase “Do I really need this, and do I have a place to put it?” Great insights, Sarah.

  7. naomi says:

    We did just that the DAY after returning home from the US. It was quite disgusting to us what we witnessed (and honestly, participated in ourselves) with the consistent acquiring of STUFF. The economy in the US is blighted? I beg to differ, when each and every shopping mall parking lot was FULL to the brim, day after day.

    Anyway — we purged our house and I’d guess (not counting large ticket items like furniture) cut down by about 40% and it felt GOOD. We left the massive piles for our staff to go through and EACH and every item was reclaimed by one of them and it felt GREAT!

    I think the key – as you alluded to – is not only purging and regifting, but also not replacing it with more crap in the future.

    Here’s to a year of reduction …

  8. Jen says:

    We have been working on this for years. We’ve downsized Christmases, give away (Freecycle or donate) things we can’t use, try to limit the new (sometimes inevitable) and try to encourage experience gifts for our kids. We compost when we can, re-use or recycle and try to cut down on the plastic. We’ve even stopped using paper towels, which is a savings in many ways (only about a month ago).

    This year we are definitely working to get rid of the extra stuff. I started going through clothing the week before Christmas (again, and still working on it) for giveaways. Next will be toys, etc.

  9. Carly says:

    I’d LOVE to reduce my stuff…but I have no idea where to begin! Where’s a good place to start? I know I have a lot of things in good condition that are ready for their second home.

    Great post, Sarah!

  10. sarahlynn60 says:

    Start small and then just do it area by area one week at a time. Maybe start with shoes, then jewelry, then clothes and then finish the bedroom and move to another room. That’s how I did it. Glad you’re on board!

  11. sarahlynn60 says:

    Yippee! Thanks for taking on the challenge! Glad it inspired you…

  12. sarahlynn60 says:

    Yes, Yes, YES! Welcome aboard!

  13. sarahlynn60 says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I’ll definitely have to check that out. The message totally fits with everything I’ve experienced around simplifying. Here’s my update on progress so far: finished all the purging and everything’s stacked on the dining room table and in the guest bedroom. Inviting Norma and Rudy up today to have a first crack at it. So excited to see their eyes light up!

  14. sarahlynn60 says:

    Awesome, way to go! I definitely intend to make this a way of life instead of a one-time thing. Sounds like you’ve done the same!

  15. sarahlynn60 says:

    Yeah, I knew this would resonate with you! :) You are a great example of simple living. I have always appreciated that about you!

  16. sarahlynn60 says:

    HOLY CRAP – 40%?!?! That’s amazing! Way to go babe! I’d agree that giving the things to your staff makes the entire process even more delightful! :)

  17. sarahlynn60 says:

    Too cool Jen – I definitely intend to make it a way of life instead of just a one-time thing. I’ll have to come to you for tips on how to bring more of those practices into my life easily!

  18. jo says:

    Hi! I stumbled upon your blog and I was pleasantly surprised to find out that you currently live in Manila. Being Filipino, it usually surprises me that some foreigners choose to make my country their home, permanent or temporary – maybe because of all the bad publicity, real or imagined. Don’t get me wrong, I see the beauty of my country. I guess I’m more interested to know what other people think of it. I appreciate that you’ve seen the good and bad in our country, and made your experiences here a substantial part of your learnings in life. :)

    You’ve done great things. I wish you and Nick all the best!

  19. sarahlynn60 says:

    Hi Jo- Nice to meet you. We came into our time here not knowing what to expect but I can honestly say that I’m going to shed some serious tears when we head out in 6 months. The people here are some of the kindest, big-hearted individuals I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. Like any country, there are plenty of things that could be improved (corruption, pollution and traffic come to mind) but there’s also SOOOOO much that’s right here. And honestly, the stuff that’s ‘right’ has changed me for good. Thanks for being a reader. I look forward to getting to know you better!


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