Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Julie B. Rose of Juliedevivre.
“So Julie—I see you quit your job, but what makes you a minimalist?”
Sarah, my host in Munich, had seen my nomadic lifestyle blog in which I talk about travel, minimalism, budgeting, and love. Last August, we sat on her balcony eating fresh bread and cheese and drinking beer, staples of the German diet.
“Well, I don’t own a lot,” I said. “Pretty much everything I own can fit in my car. I sold my house and got rid of 98% of my belongings and furniture two years ago. I don’t care about or collect material things, and I’d rather my money go towards experiences versus possessions.”
She chuckled, and gestured around the simple two bedroom, one bathroom flat she shared with her girlfriend, Lena.
“I mean, that’s not so unusual. Maybe it is in America, but that’s pretty normal for us.”
Whether she meant “us Germans,” “us frequent travelers,” or “myself and Lena,” I wasn’t positive, but she could’ve easily meant all three. Because if there was one thing I had come to notice spending most of 2022 abroad… it was that NOBODY had as much attachment to their belongings as Americans, while simultaneously having the mindset that everything is disposable.
Outside of America, “replace” is not the first impulse
I spent the first six months of 2022 in Mexico and one of the things I came to notice about Mexicans was that replacement was a last resort.
Part of that outlook could be due to the prevalence of poverty in Mexico, but I think it’s also the cultural thinking that everything has a use. Broken, torn, damaged, depleted? Fix it, glue it, sew it, buff it, fill it—Mexicans are handy, and while whatever it is might not be made perfect, it’s usable.
The U.S. is a country where anything can be ordered up and delivered in mere minutes or hours, and many people don’t typically bat an eye at the premium they pay for convenience, ease, and shiny newness. While Americans are fortunate to have such infrastructure and business ingenuity, there is so much waste.
I remember all the Amazon purchases I so carelessly and thoughtlessly ordered, each one coming on a truck, on its own trip, in its own box… resold for pennies on the dollar at the garage sale I held when I became a nomad in 2020. How everything we buy comes in layers of plastic, which we then put in another plastic bag and walk out the door. (In Mexico and much of Europe, retailers do not offer plastic bags. You bring your own, or buy a reusable tote.)
In the past, if something I enjoyed was broken, torn, slow, outdated, or damaged, I would’ve tossed it in the trash (or in a kitchen drawer to deal with later) and gone about replacing or upgrading it. Now, I glue, sew, fix, resole, DIY, and trade-in, as much as I am able to, and breathe new life into old things.
I was in Greece over much of September. In Athens, I got a haircut and left my jacket in the salon. Later that day, I flew to the Greek island of Corfu. Upset at my forgetfulness, I told some American friends how I lost the only jacket I had in Europe.
“Just buy another jacket!” they exclaimed, incredulous that it was even an issue. And indeed, there is always an H&M. But I didn’t want a new jacket—my jacket, purchased five years earlier at Target for $27, was not special in any way, but it worked just fine. In fact, I found a way for my Greek friend Vasilis to retrieve it, who was on another island but would later come to visit me in Croatia. The American reaction? Just buy another; there is no limit to what money can buy. I’ve come to resist that as often as I can.
The pursuit of bigger, better, and more is an American invention
When I was 22 and I got my first professional job making $33,000 a year in Minneapolis, the first thing I did was go to the Toyota dealership and buy a brand new $22,000 car, debt that essentially matched my take-home pay for the year and saddled me with a 5-year loan.
So ingrained in our culture is the concept to mark personal success with external indicators, that I had to get a second part-time job and work 55 hours a week just to pay all my bills and eat, with my $750/month rent and my $450/month auto loan payment, plus insurance.
Advertisers and Hollywood have told this lie to Americans our entire lives: bigger is better, more is better, and better is better—that we willingly trap ourselves in an endless work-spend-collect cycle for our entire lives.
The college debt to get the good degree, the good job, and the good salary. The auto debt to get the freedom of the open road and to be stylish and safe at the same time. The mortgage debt to have the big house and the garage and the yard and the rooms and closets to hold all the things we’ll soon buy to fill it all up.
In many other countries, even the wealthy understate their wealth. They work to live, not live to work. When people are less obsessed with making money and collecting material things, they prioritize rest, leisure, time with family, take their vacations, and retire with “enough” instead of working until they’re dead.
Non-Americans are less attached to their living space and their belongings
As I gallivanted across Europe, posting about the sights, sounds, and tastes from Slovenia to Hungary to Turkey to Montenegro, a follower on Instagram commented: “What is your budget for this trip?? You must be spending $300 a day on hotels, taxis, and restaurants!!!”
I wasn’t. In 2022, I spent an average of $74 a day, on everything—that includes lodging, food, health insurance, personal care, and transportation.
And in the 16 weeks I spent traveling Europe last fall and late summer, I stayed with friends, friends of friends, or complete strangers nearly half of the time. The level of hospitality and welcome I was met with was absolutely unparalleled.
I didn’t know Sarah before I stayed with her. She was a friend of a friend I had stayed with in Salzburg, Austria, and at that friend’s request, Sarah had graciously agreed to host me in Munich. Sarah and Lena were also going out of town a few days later, and she offered that I stay and water their plants while they were gone.
“We’ve done a lot of traveling,” she noted. “We understand how it is.”
“How it is,” is trying to make each dollar last so a traveler can practice the “experiences over possessions” mantra as long as possible. Summer backpacking trips, gap years, and sabbaticals are a long-time tradition of Europeans in their 20s, 30s, and beyond—so every host has likely been a traveling guest at some point in time. Understanding that accommodations can be one of the most expensive aspects of traveling—I met many Europeans who opened their home to a wayward traveler such as me without a second thought.
In the 15 months I spent traveling the United States in 2020 and 2021, I was met with far less hospitality. Friends and acquaintances across the states asked to grab dinner and catch up while I was traveling, but far fewer invited me to stay. I thought back on the times some years ago when I rented out my house on Airbnb, and the judgment my American friends shared about strangers sleeping in my bed and cooking in my kitchen.
“Who cares?” I laughed it off. “Same bed, different sheets. And it’s not like I take my cookware with me when I die.” Years later, most of my cookware would be sold or given away.
I can’t pinpoint exactly why fewer Americans were likely to let an acquaintance stay—but it could have to do with the fact that fewer Americans are international travelers (thus not having been on the other side of the coin)—or that we are so accustomed to convenience, that a traveler in our space and among our things is an inconvenience.
Is this article an indictment of the American way and our popular Western choices? I don’t mean it to be. But we would be blind not to see we are a society that over-consumes: commercialism and materialism, food and alcohol addictions, vanity and appearances, and a host of other deadly sins. I may be a nomad living on $74 a day, with only the things that fit in my SUV… but I have enough—enough belongings to be comfortable, and enough to survive and thrive.
A big house invites more stuff, and if something isn’t “perfect,” it’s easy to just buy another… but we trade hours of life for the things that we buy. Therefore, we can also trade the hours we work and the things we don’t buy for our time back: time with family, time away from the rat race, and time for personal endeavors.
I hope that as a nation we learn to be more conscious of our purchase decisions, and reduce our tendency to waste and disregard. It’s good for the environment, and it’s good for ourselves.
And instead of measuring net worth, dollars, square footage, and brand names, how about we count the years… and measure “wealth” in freedom: freedom from debt, freedom from an indulgence of material things, freedom from a time- and mental energy-sucking job, and the freedom to spend our time on this earth doing what we want, with whom we want.
Julie B. Rose is a full-time nomad and minimalist who travels the world with her dog Penny. She shares her experiences at juliedevivre.com, where she aims to inspire and empower positive lifestyle change. You can also find her on Instagram or pick up her eBook, Money and Mindset: How to Take a Sabbatical.