We have been doing this since November 2016. This minimalist approach served us perfectly while living in and visiting almost 20 countries. If anything, we still have too much stuff.
And although we travel full time and live out of one suitcase (plus our hand luggage), we’re by no means living some strict, puritanical lifestyle.
I don’t notice any profound difference from the days when I had endless amounts of clothes, apart from having less decisions to make every morning and more money in my pocket.
“You live out of one suitcase? Is that even possible?!”
My response is:
“Yes. It absolutely is.”
Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of how you can rid yourself of all your life’s clutter, refocus your attentions on quality over quantity, and learn to live out of one suitcase as a couple (or solo).
So get comfy, and enjoy your last few minutes of looking at all your clothes without slightly resenting them.
From daydreamers to minimalists
Traveling the world full time together.
It seemed impossible. But we were already used to impossible by then.
The path of most resistance
From visas (I’m Irish and Rachael is American), through fulfilling our own personal ambitions—I did a Masters in Writing back in Ireland while Rach went to Paris to work as a bike tour guide— we never chose the path of least resistance. In fact, we always seemed to take the scenic route, which was probably a harbinger of the years to come. No one starts a great story like:
“Hey, remember that time when everything worked out perfectly as planned for me at the first attempt?”
Or at least if they do, tell them that they’re literally the worst at stories. After Rach and I got back to being on the same mass of land at the same time, we began to address every roadblock stopping us from traveling full time as a couple. One day, there were no roadblocks left.
The runway is clear
With nothing standing in our way anymore—and people sweat life’s little blockades way too much anyway—we booked a one-way flight to Paris and began to plan the biggest adventure of our lives. But as our daydream-to-reality departure date sprinted towards us, we were confronted with an unexpected question: “How much stuff do we need?” Or rather,
“What in the world are we gonna do with all our crap?!”
This set a chain of events in motion that I’m so thankful for. Well, I’m thankful now. I may or may not have been jumping around my room clutching my precious items insanely like Gollum in Lord of the Rings at first. Ah, life…
The clutter purge begins
Rachael and I began to jettison the non-essential items from our life. We were gobsmacked by how much clutter we had accumulated in just over a year and a half of fairly modest New York City-living. We slowly began to get rid of stuff, but there was a lot of:
“But I love this t-shirt I haven’t worn in 6 months…”
Our efforts began to pick up steam, mostly because we had a lovely roommate and weren’t gonna leave him with an apartment full of our crap when we flew to France, like “Peeeeeeeace out!” Here’s us burning all the clothes we didn’t need to keep warm.
It worked perfectly at the first attempt!
We patted ourselves on the backs, delighted that we were now fully-fledged minimalists and had cut out every single non-essential item from our lives.
We were nowhere even close.
Why live out of one suitcase?
First off, why would you even bother consolidating your worldly possessions? That’s a very good question.
And for some people, it’s a terrible idea.
- Do you derive untold happiness from having a new outfit for every day of the month?
- Are you a sneaker-fiend that simply can’t live without that intoxicating new trainer smell?
- Do you place a lot of self-worth in being the guy in the office with the slick new tie?
If this is the case, then the juice of minimalism just isn’t worth the squeeze for you.
The ultimate goal of consolidating your life is increased happiness. Why would you give up the things that bring you unbridled joy?
But, if you’re like most people, although you still like the ties, trainers, and infinite outfits, it’s not integral to your happiness.
The crazy thing is you’ll quickly realize that you actually LOVE getting rid of all those inessential things that you LIKE.
Your stuff kinda owns you
Stuff sneakily accumulates in the background over the years, like compound interest. An impulse buy here, a birthday gift there, and before you know it, your jam-packed drawers become a source of anxiety.
You toss shoes into the back of your closet for 6, 12, 18 months at a time. Out of sight, out of mind.
And although you may not wear something for donkey’s years, the thought of having it there gathering dust is weirdly comforting. That’s how you see all those poor hoarders on TV with homes full to the brim of junk.
It didn’t happen overnight. They just never had the opportunity to stop and think because they never needed to.
You spend SO much less
When I realized that cutting my possessions down by four-fifths had zero negative impact on my happiness—the opposite, in fact—it rebooted how I thought about adding anything non-essential into my life.
Sure, you might say stuff like
Reactive consuming—you know when you’re mindlessly meandering around Target/Penney’s/Primark dropping junk in your basket—will absolutely slaughter your wallet and any minimalist aspirations you have.
So, when it comes to the short-lived dopamine high of retail therapy,
JUST SAY NO.
Side note: If you fly more than one a month like us, having just one checked suitcase saves you hundreds. We flew ~17 times last year, and just having one suitcase saved us ~$700.
Your head is 100 times clearer
I’m far from the sharpest knife in the drawer, but it seems to me that ‘conventional wisdom’ whenever there is money to be made- is flawed. Intentionally so.
Not to be all tin-foil hat, but Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays invented the modern form of advertising. It was engineered to convince people they were incomplete.
Well, incomplete until they purchased the (insert item here) being shoved in their faces.
If you think about it, advertising wouldn’t work if we all had high self-esteem. We’d simply purchase the item we needed at the best price. So simple.
But just like being born into the religion your parents happen to follow, without questioning its merits or an alternative, our generation are devout materialists.
And if you can side-step this ‘you are what you own‘ system- which is literally designed to undermine how much you value yourself- that’s got to be a victory for your day-to-day happiness, right?
Okay, enough with the ‘why’.
Let’s get to the ‘how’.
How to live out of one suitcase as a couple
Empty your closets and drawers into a big pile in the middle of your room… I’ll wait. 🙂
If this pile is approximately 18 stories high and looks like it needs its own postal code, congratulations! You’re normal.
But if you’re too anxious to say goodbye to a large percentage of this, it’s okay to leave now.
I’ll see you in a year or so, yeah?
Still here? Great!
It’s now time to comb through this leaning tower of clutter and separate it into 3 new piles:
• I wear this all the time
I’m happy get rid of this
But, what to do with your stockpiles?
If you’re about to begin life as a digital nomad, time is of the essence to cut down on your stuff. It serves as a terrific fire under the ass. Be ruthless.
Put every item on trial for its life.
Whether you’ll be a digital nomad or not, I highly recommend giving yourself some hard deadline, goal, or other form of accountability.
Okay, first things first:
Everything from pile #2 goes. BAM! Bag it up!
I wrote an article about how to get rid of your stuff, but the Spark Notes version is:
When getting rid of nice stuff you don’t need, donate as much as you can to a homeless shelter. You can gift stuff to friends, too, but only if you truly think they’ll actually want it.
REMEMBER: If it serves no value to anyone and only takes up space, dump it.
No one in the world, besides you and your Mum, care about your personal nostalgia. Nostalgia literally means a pain. Don’t be a pain when giving a gift. Give something that will add value to their life or dump it.
For pile #3—AKA: the largest pile—there’s a verrrrry high probability that it can all go.
In fact, as you ease yourself into the minimalism mindset, you’ll realize that a decent chunk of pile #1 can go too (Whaaaaaaaat?!!!). It’ll take you a little while to come to this conclusion, though.
The point is, everything that makes it into your suitcase must be a ‘definitely’, not a ‘probably’.
The 80/20 principle
I’m a firm believer of the 80/20 principle, or ‘the law of the vital few’. In essence, it states that you get 80% of the results from 20% of the causes, but it seems to extend to almost every area of life:
- If you’re a freelancer, you get 80% of your income from 20% of your clients.
- As a landlord, you get 80% of hassle from a certain 20% of your tenants.
The trick is identifying this all-important 20%.
For the purposes of this article, we’re focusing on the 20% of clothes that you wear 80% of the time. You know the ones… Can you picture them in your head? Good.
These are the clothes you’ll want to be bringing along for your journey. You also want to keep these items in mind when you’re purchasing new gear. Is that leopard-print leotard still worth the purchase?
Oh it is? Totally your call.
Quality over quantity
If you research minimalist blogs or documentaries, one thing you will hear repeated constantly is the old adage “quality over quantity.”
Like all cliches, the insightful sentiment has been used so much over the years that its value has been diluted. So, let’s rebrand this threadbare old phrase:
“Aim to have much fewer things but ensure they’re all of better quality.”
If you’re going through the life motions, like I certainly was, you inadvertently become a card-carrying member of the Throwaway Society, which is the polar opposite of the quality over quantity parade.
Do you flit between “Look how small this new phone is!” and “Look how huge the screen on this new phone is!” every two years?
Are your tech or style trends being dictated by the people who stand to make money from? Will they move the goalposts once you’ve made your purchase so that they can get more of your hard-earned cash?
We don’t realize—or conveniently ignore—that the vast majority of stuff you buy has been built with planned obsolescence (phone getting a bit slow after that update?) or is just plain bad quality.
If we are going to have fewer things, we will obviously use the items we have much more often. This means we will need them to last longer before they’re replaced.
But if they are poorly made, intentionally designed to fail, or developed to become out-of-date or out-of-style in a year, you’re in trouble.
When you’re making a purchase, try to think cost-per-use as opposed to upfront dollar cost on the day. Focus on the value, not the price. Sure, that shirt will cost you 11 bucks today, but will it look like toilet paper after 3 washes?
But if that pair of leather boots costs, say, $150 and you wear them 520 times over the next 2 years (going off the rough estimate of wearing them 5 days a week for 2 years, which is actually conservative when you only have one other pair)—that’s like 28c per wear.
Plus they look better with age.
Elon Musk thinks 100 years in the future when making decisions. Why don’t we start with 3?
Recognize excuses immediately!
We have an extraordinary ability as humans to create fictional stories in our heads that make us the hero or the victim in any situation.
Never the villain.
Your brain is like a biased propaganda machine. These ‘fictional stories’ are also known by the simpler term:
And anyone who’s read the amazing/slightly primitive The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz knows that excuses will stop you achieving basically anything worthwhile in life if you let them.
It will certainly stop your quest to live out of one suitcase as a couple in its tracks. If you’re trying to consolidate your stuff, you can’t allow any space for excuses.
If it begins with an
You’ve got yourself an excuse, my friend.
Your minimalist suitcase
Purchasing a much smaller suitcase is an amazing method of minimalist shock therapy. It sounds deceivingly simple but you’ll won’t believe how much easier it becomes to trim the fat when you have no choice.
The suitcase we first started traveling with was almost novelty-size large, in hindsight.
At the time, we thought we had gotten rid of the absolute maximum we could. Today, our current suitcase looks like the young baby of our first one.
And we can still prooooobably go even smaller.
Pack smart for travel
Dense items like shoes should always be kept out of the suitcase where possible. Try to fit them all in your respective hand luggage.
Stuff those shoes up with socks, tights, boxers, or anything else that will fit in them.
Laptops and cameras should always be in your hand luggage, too. This is as much to do with your peace of mind as minimizing the weight of your luggage.
Make sure your laptops and iPads easily accessible for when you’re going through airport security. There’s nothing worse than having to empty your carefully-packed hand luggage with 30 people in their socks tutting behind you in line.
Fold and roll your clothes up as tight as you possibly can when placing them in your suitcase. It should feel like stacking burritos. Or, for a wrinkle-free approach, try ‘bundle wrapping’.
Packing cubes are the future, too.
If you assign your cubes into specific categories—say underwear, t-shirts, jeans—all you need to do when you arrive at your destination is remove each packing cube and place them straight into your drawer or dresser.
Pack clothes that play nice
Living out of one suitcase as a couple means sacrificing certain things. One such sacrifice is having new outfits for every day or occasion. What I’ve found extremely helpful is packing items that can look good separately or in tandem with your other clothes.
More muted colors are recommended as opposed to ostentatious statement pieces, but that’s 100% your call.
For instance: A black t-shirt, grey jeans, and a pair of brown leather boots are perfect for basically any casual thing you do (as a guy).
But if we’re going out for dinner or somewhere nicer, I can throw a blue button-down or a blazer over the t-shirt. That blazer goes great over a round-neck sweater, too.
You get the idea.
You want clothes that work great by themselves AND play nice with the others. If your clothes were people, pack lots of Ed Sheerans and not so many KanYe Wests.
One in, one out.
Here’s another helpful thing to keep in mind when fine-tuning the contents of your suitcase:
Operate a strict ‘one in, one out’ policy. Like a busy nightclub on New Year’s Eve.
Again, put everything in your suitcase on trial for its life. Everything must be there on merit, and any item that is added must be better in some way that the one it replaced.
Don’t worry: When items are no longer useful they go to a lovely farm in the country for the rest of their days.
Digitize as much as you can
One thing I want when I have a home someday is a sprawling library full of books I adore and some others that I pretend to adore because I think it makes me look smarter.
“No, Geoffrey, the chapters in Ulysses are actually referred to as episodes.”
In pure suitcase terms, though, one 300-page book weighs more than a pair of runners.
So, if jogging is your thing—and it’s my favorite way to get to know a new city—are you willing to give up a month of jogging for that one book? Sophie’s choice, I know, but the good thing is that you don’t need to choose.
You can fit more books than you’re ever gonna read on a Kindle or other e-Reader. Or just download the Kindle App on your phone if you want to keep it even more minimalist.
Calibre is an unbelievable free program for arranging your Kindle library, or converting free PDF versions of books you find online into .mobi files you can read on your Kindle.
Or you could listen to audiobooks instead?
Audible gives a free trial—I’ve done like 3 of ‘em—which allows you to download 3 books to your phone that you can keep after your trial expires. I recommend downloading books that you can re-listen to multiple times like Sapiens by Yuval Noah Hurari or The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k by Mark Manson.
Youtube has a surprising amount of audiobooks too; particularly in the old-school personal finance field, which is my current kick (Rich Dad, Poor Dad, for example).
If you’re an Amazon Prime subscriber, they have Prime Reading which offers you free ebooks and a limited number of audiobooks.
Okay, we’ve firmly established I’m a book nerd.
The best freemium storage apps for full time travelers are:
They’re perfect for storing everything from photos and videos, to snaps you take of business cards so you don’t need to carry them around.
Keep your partner accountable
As the months traveling full time as a couple whizz by—and believe me, they will—it’s important to keep stock of what you have. Did you add anything this month? A pair of trainers maybe? A new headband, Rach?
Be honest, Rachael…
SIX NEW HEADBANDS, are you serious?! 😀
Seriously, though: When you’ve come this far, and done all the hard work, why slip back into old mini-hoarder habits?
In fact, if you’re not careful, these seemingly insignificant additions will bleed into your travel partner’s half. By the same token, make sure they’re taking the minimalist approach as seriously as you are.
Unless you’re both taking the whole minimalist thing seriously, it won’t work for either of you.
So, yeah, I’ve started wearing Rachael’s clothes now, no biggie. No, by this I mean that any item that works as both his and hers, frees you up a precious space in your suitcase.
We got these awesome thick unisex winter socks at the Union Square Christmas Market one year, and we can both wear them.
Also, stretchy ankle socks are perfect for the gym or jogs and take up barely any space at all.
Things like hoodies can double up, too.
AKA: My wife steals my clothes.
We even have an awesome safety razor we both use—after switching out the blades, obviously—which frees up space. Side note: This razor was a godsend (I don’t make any money from recommending it).
For less than $25, you’ll have enough razors to last you BOTH a year. I went through 15 painful years spending stupid money on those expensive, razor-bump-giving crap you see marketed on TV all the time.
Take advantage of two-in-ones, as well. For example, a friend of ours purchased a pair of sweatpants that look like dress pants and he loves them.
They actually look cool and are maybe worth a purchase somewhere down the line.
Just pair them with your tuxedo t-shirt and you are now simultaneously ready for the Opera and Walmart.
Ask your host for stuff
If, like us, you choose to travel month-to-month through Airbnb, here’s an invaluable tip:
Ask your host if they have, say, a hairdryer or a blender in their apartment before you book, even if it isn’t listed.
In some cases they will.
In many others, they’ll say they do and then go and purchase one for you—and their future guests—before you arrive. It makes sense.
Wouldn’t you spend $25 to guarantee an entire month’s rent?
One thing travel has taught me is never be afraid to open your mouth. Whatever about the expense, it’ll save you schlepping a hair dryer around the world.
What’s the worst that can happen, somebody says ‘no’?
Delegate who carries what
Although this isn’t technically a ‘minimalist tip’, it’s relevant to packing. And, also, this is my article, damnit! Decide in advance which one of you will carry, and be responsible for, what.
This is most important for passports, boarding passes, expensive electronics, and any other tickets. Assign a specific pocket or hiding place for passports that never changes.
You know when you have that momentary freakout when you think you lost something and start patting your pockets frantically? This tip avoids that.
The stuff you can’t throw away
I wouldn’t be the most sentimental person in the world, but obviously there are some things you simply can’t dump, donate, or give away. A wedding album for instance or something your grandmother gave you.
“Why don’t you just digitize your wedding album and throw the hard copy away, Keith?” I hear you ask.
Good idea. You can bring it up to my wife, though.
Some people put stuff into storage, but to me it seems stupidly expensive when you’re living on one-way tickets and don’t know when you will return.
For this kind of sentimental stuff, important documents, or other things that you don’t want to bring with you but know you will use again—a nice suit, for example —here’s what we do:
We keep a suitcase in each of our parents’ houses—one in Ireland, one in Missouri—that holds these things.
Every time you’re home, you can peruse these cases to see if there’s anything you can get rid of.
There you have it; your comprehensive guide on how to live out of a suitcase as a couple. After that steep initial learning curve, it gets easier and more rewarding with every new country you travel to.
And without all the mental clutter- and financial hemorrhaging- who knows what you’ll achieve?
You might even write the next great novel that I’ll have on my hypothetical bookshelf.
Thanks so much for reading! Have I missed any tips here on how to consolidate your life into a suitcase? Is there anything more specific you’d like to know? Tell me in the comments!
And if you loved it, give it an ol’ shareen.