Updated on 04.20.09

A Tour of My Messenger Bag

Trent Hamm

My laptop messenger bag is basically my mobile office. I take it with me whenever I leave the house for anything more than a trip to the grocery store. The contents of that bag let me quickly get to work anywhere I am, any time I want – and that gives me a lot of personal and professional flexibility.

Reflected in the bag, though, are several aspects of my frugal sensibilities. Most of the items in the bag, in fact, cost me only pennies. My biggest strategy is to look for useful freebies – things that are extremely inexpensive or free replacements for items I might otherwise pay for because they clearly fill a use.

Several readers have asked for a tour of the bag, so here goes. I hope you find some tips and tactics that are useful.

The Foundation – In My Pockets

Contents of my pockets

The four most important items – the ones I find myself turning to several times a day – reside in my pockets, not in my messenger bag. These essentially boil down to four items.

Keys I keep my keychain simple – just the key/car opener for each of the two vehicles we own, the key to my own house, and the key to my parents’ house. I have several other important keys, but I keep them locked away at home to reduce pocket bulk.

Wallet It’s where I store receipts and keep my drivers’ license and a small number of other cards. I’ve discussed in detail how to organize the items in your wallet, and I still stick by those principles.

Swiss Army Knife I received this as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and it serves me well – I specifically carry the Spartan model, which is minimal in size but also minimal in tools. It does include the three things I use most often – the corkscrew, a basic blade, and a bottle opener. I used to carry a Leatherman Wave, but it was right on the fine line of being too bulky and it didn’t include a corkscrew, which I consider to be practically essential for a pocket tool like this. Having used both extensively over the last decade, I’ve realized the tool I would actually like to have is the Leatherman Flair, which is basically a “middle” alternative between the two.

iPod Touch Prior to receiving this as a gift, I kept a notepad and a pen in my pocket, as well as a voice recorder. This device has replaced both, as I can jot down most quick notes and do quick voice recordings with it. It also takes up less space in the pocket.

No cell phone? Honestly, I don’t carry one in my pocket at all times. I usually find it to be a digital leash, enabling people to contact me and interrupt me at the very time I want to escape a little bit.

The Bag Itself

My messenger bag

That’s my messenger bag, in it’s typical place by the door of my office so I can grab it whenever I’m ready to go somewhere.

The bag itself is a Timbuk2 Laptop Messenger bag made from hemp. I’ve removed the shoulder strap since I virtually never used it and it always seemed to be in the way – I prefer to carry it by the handle.

The bag sports a Google logo because the bag was a giveaway item – I didn’t buy it. Likely, I would have just used my old college-era backpack until it fell apart, but since this bag was free, I’m quite happy to use it.

The Contents of the Bag

Contents of my messenger bag

So what’s in the bag? I pulled everything out of the bag for the picture above. Here’s what’s inside, starting in the upper left and proceeding downward.

Laptop AC adapter This item’s in the upper left and is pretty self-explanatory.

The “frugal laptop” I discussed this in the past. This is a rather old laptop that I recently refurbished and installed Linux on. It works perfectly on the road, as the big things I want to do when traveling are accessing the web, answering email, and a bit of light writing. I don’t do heavy duty tasks when traveling, so an older laptop with Linux on it is perfect for my needs. Again, this is an item that’s in there because it’s a great value – reusing an old piece of equipment and finding a great new use for it is a great frugal tactic.

A USB “multi-card” reader This little device lets me read memory cards of all kinds, allowing me to easily transfer files.

Pens I keep a healthy collection of pens in my bag so that I can jot down notes at any time and I don’t have to worry about one failing.

Wireless mouse This is probably the least-used item in my bag. I keep it in there because it’s useful to have when others are using my laptop for some purpose – I prefer the touch pad, but some people hate it. This one’s another freebie, actually.

Small notebook Sometimes it’s just not convenient to use the laptop for note-taking or for jotting down very quick notes or for giving people notes of some kind. In those events, I bust out a small notebook like this one. I used to use a full-size pad, but I found this medium-sized one to be more convenient and appropriate for my use (plus they were on sale at a huge discount at a local store a while back – literally pennies each).

Nintendo DS / earphones / baggie with games If I’m caught in a situation with fifteen minutes or less of downtime, I’ll usually get out my DS and play a game of some sort. It’s also a surprisingly effective way to connect with some people.

Reading materials The rest of my bag is filled with reading materials. An allotment of recent magazines (WIRED, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Bon Appetit, The Economist, Business Week, and Consumer Reports are all visible) and two books (at this moment, Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein and if on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino) can usually be found – sometimes, there will be newspapers and other documents in there, too.

Digital camera I also include my digital camera in the bag, so I can take pictures. It’s not in the image above, though … because I’m using it to take the picture.

One thing I should be carrying, but am not in this picture, is business cards. I usually keep a handful of Simple Dollar-related cards in the bag, but I happened to be out of them when the picture was taken.

Two Useful Rules of Thumb
So, what’s useful to note here?

A travel bag doesn’t need to be expensive In the pictures above, most of the pens, the wireless mouse, all of the software on the laptop, and the bag itself were free. The magazines, the spiral notebook, and the paperbacks were obtained for pennies. The laptop itself is reused. The DS, the iPod Touch, the knife, and most of the DS games were given to me as gifts. To put it simply, the bag full of essential items that I carry with me wasn’t a big cash outlay – many of the items were either free (or nearly so) or gifts.

Less is more I know many people with bags far, far more overstuffed than mine. Once upon a time, my bag included quite a bit more than this, too. I realized several things, though. First, the more stuff you carry in the bag, the harder it is to find the item you want when you want it. Second, if you’ve got it stuffed to the rims, it’s even more devastating if you lose the bag. Third, an overstuffed bag is much heavier. Finally, an overfilled bag creates a really terrible impression of you on others.

Focus on what you actually need to do On the road, I do several things. I do some light research. I do some writing. I go to meetings where I take notes. I answer email. I wait. In reality, that’s about it. So I focus on the materials that make these tasks easier. Other items are unnecessary.

Good luck.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Nick says:

    Nice post Trent. Your organization-related posts are always very helpful for me. I tend to be a bit of a scatterbrain.

    That said, I know I could be more productive if I had a well organized travel pack like this. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Tori says:

    I’m not seeing the pictures.

  3. Todd says:

    I love my Leatherman Micra. I use the scissors almost daily for a random assortment of situations and it is small and light enough to fit on my keychain.

  4. Ryan says:

    Woah, hang on. Is that a DSi? When did you get that?? Definitely envious over here…

  5. Jeff says:

    Italo Calvino! Awesome. I’m assuming you’ve read Cosmicomics?

  6. Anne KD says:

    My new laptop bag was a gift from my husband, on sale at the local office supply store. He’s very supportive of my ‘side hustles’. Our old bag is too small for anything more than the laptop and the power cord. Since I’m carrying around folders (starting a small side business designing menus and flyers for very small restaurants like bagel shops) I needed the extra space to look more professional when I meet with a client- it’s not a good thing to drop folders and envelopes in the parking lot, right? My laptop is the main computer for the designing thing, and I bought it with money earned from my other small business specifically so I could design my own flyers, etc. I carry our camera when visiting a client, and sometimes bring the monopod too. The bag has places to carry extra storage media in little zippered pockets, and a pocket for business cards. The bag has proven to be very helpful in keeping me better organized, and it’s worth the money my husband spent for it.

  7. ChristiaanH says:

    This certainly is a post I’d never expect to see here. A true “What’s in my bag” post. I’ve always liked these… Especially the “pocket dump” .. that’s in your pocket at this very instant.

    It’s even got so bad that I signed up on the “EDC” forum (Every day carries) to get more ideas. You’d be amazed at what some people carry with them every single day.
    I’ll be doing a topic just like this one next week, just because I really like these things.

    I used to carry a timbuk2 bag but the effects of carrying it over one shoulder for more than three years was beginning to take it’s toll. So I opted for a backpack. (A booq Boa 3m) My back likes me a whole lot better now.

  8. Curlilox says:

    You are running out of stuff to write about aren’t you?

  9. Scott says:

    This is great Trent thanks! You have inspired me to do my own “what’s in my bag” assessment and clean out some of the junk I haul around on a daily basis. I’d like to drop some of the things I do carry and make some room to carry my camera around more.

  10. Jason says:

    Hi Trent. I’ve been following your site now for about 6 months. The content of your posts, initially, seemed really great. Simple, well written, relevant, and timely. Best of all, new posts every day. But lately you seem to be going off topic. Posts about your laptop bag, Mother’s Day, Benefits of Trying, the Apology, etc. aren’t doing it for me. It’s good stuff, but it’s not why I come to The Simple Dollar. And so, you’re starting to lose me. The only reason I’m telling you this is because I like what you do and hope you’ll do more of it. Stay on brand — financial talk for the rest of us — and you’ll keep me interested. That’s my take. Thought you might like to know.

  11. John Frainee at PlainCents says:

    Looks like you pack pretty light. I need to learn that lesson. My travel bags tend to be very hefty, and I struggle to keep up with the rest of my fellow travelers. Bravo.

  12. Mark says:

    Very clever of you to keep the “key” part of your keys hidden — I take it you might have seen those articles about being able to copy a key from just a photo. Online security isn’t only about passwords anymore :)

  13. Dena Bugel-Shunra says:

    I hope you’ll be reviewing the Shock Doctrine. It has implications about personal finance, as well as big picture economics, I think.

  14. SJ says:

    Hrm…. how heavy is the bag fully loaded?


  15. Morydd says:

    I personally prefer the “Tinker” to the “Spartan” the only difference is a #2 Philips screwdriver in the place of the corkscrew. I can count the number of times I’ve needed a corkscrew and didn’t have ready access on one hand. I also have my “work knife” which is the Victorinox Multi-tool and a “formal knife” which the Victorinox “Rally”. It’s just a small blade, a screwdriver/bottle opener, and a nail file. Useful, and scores points when someone snags a nail.

  16. Dana the Common Cents Coach says:

    I laughed when I saw you mention your Nintendo DS–I have been teasing my husband about his since he got it. I am not a big fan of video games–I thought they were a big waste of time. I have to eat all my words now because he has me hooked on the crossword puzzle game. Hey, everyone needs their little escapes now and then!

  17. Sandy E. says:

    I’ve always heard that too many keys and too much weight on a key chain will in time damage the ignition. That makes sense to me. I have a little knife I carry and the one feature it has that I use a lot are scissors — Cutting off price tags, opening a CD w/cellophane to use in my car after a purchase. My knife also has a pen, (like the inside of what you put in a ball point pen that you pull out from the top of the knife), and I have used that a lot too.

  18. jc says:

    why not carry the cellphone and let calls go to voicemail? or have you trained people to expect that if it’s on you you’ll answer?

  19. Richly Chheuy says:

    Love your post, now I’m thinking of doing a similar blog post walking through what I have in my Timbuk2 bag(s) =).

    I have a similar messenger bag I’m using now and it my entire life in there: Catholic bible, journal, Catechism, work laptop (or netbook) small notepad, writing tools, green laser pointer, portable speakers, large notepad, small bottle of cologne, portable power strip, and so forth. Basically, if I can fit and I THINK I’ll need it, I’ll put it in there. I think I should start carrying a swiss army knife a lighter in there too, haha.

    I recently got another Timbuk2 bag, the Hacker Daypack, which is a traditional backpack. I carry my bag over my shoulder and after a while, without any padding, I get all cramped up. Maybe I’ll just nix the shoulder strap, just carry my work stuff in my messenger bag, and all my personal stuff go in my hacker pack.

  20. Bill in Houston says:

    This is weird. When I saw the top of the post, it looked very similar to the contents of my “briefcase.”

    I use a large laptop bag, one with rollers and the extender handle.

    I carry a Palm E2 instead of an Ipod, but my wife and I both carry Swiss Army Spartan (use the bottle opener often)! The knife was a stocking stuffer from my mother three years back.

    The briefcase/laptop bag is an old TravelPro with reinforced corners. I got it at Fry’s for $39.

    I carry my old Toshiba Satellite from 2003 (it uses Win XP Pro), with a corded mouse (Microsoft) and Linksys wireless card. The laptop has only a gig of RAM but it was state of the art six years ago. It suits me fine (I’m a tech writer by trade who also does statistical analysis and scheduling for my company, and Word/Excel/Project run fine).

    I only carry the newspaper (Houston Chronicle) as hardcopy reading material (plus crossword and sudoku). I have a number of books on my Palm, and a few spare SD memory cards to swap functionality out. I also carry a memory stick for SneakerNet transfers, a small notebook, and two red Pentel EnerGel pens. While I type faster than I write, it is often easier to whip out the notebook and jot something down than fire up the laptop or open up the Palm and call out the Memos app.

    You pack lighter than me (aside from the mags). excellent use of space with a small bag, Trent. One reason I carry the larger one is for travel. I had one trip to Japan back in 2001 where my checked luggage didn’t make the transfer in Chicago with me and I spent two days without a change of clothes or my heart medications. I leave room for my pills (weekly dose by day pack) and two changes of underwear, t-shirt, and socks.

    Thanks for posting this. It made me look over my shoulder and see what I had in there :)

  21. codekitchen says:

    Wow crazy, I could’ve been looking at my own pockets and messenger bag. All the way down to the pocket knife and reading materials. The only real difference is I carry an iphone rather than ipod touch. I hear what you say about interruptions, I’ve trained myself to be very comfortable just letting calls go to voicemail if I don’t want the interruption.

  22. Danielle says:

    You definitely could have used the DS as a conversation starter with either myself or my husband. We both love to play video games, and both prefer the Nintendo systems for a variety of reasons.

    I also like to “travel” light whenever I go out with our 13 month old. It’s amazing how little you actually need for a baby when anywhere in town is five minutes from home and you keep emergency supplies in the car regularly (i.e. diapers, wipes, and a single change of clothes).

  23. Christian says:

    If on a Winters Night A Traveler was once my favorite novel. It is a beautiful book if you can get it. Funny.

  24. kristine says:

    Looks like George Costanza’s wallet!

    In my tiny purse, I keep receipts till I get home, in the same compartment as the money. In essence, the receipt replaces the money spent- no guessing where it went!

    Tip: keep store cards, credit cards, and not-so-often used rewards cards in 3 separate hair bands. Makes it super easy to find what you want on the checkout line.

  25. Lizzy says:

    Tip: Apples travel well in messenger bags. And they fill you up until you find your next free meal!

  26. Ann says:

    I have a Swiss Army knife that I have carried in my pocketbook for a few years (got it as a Girl Scout leader when the girls go theirs). It is probably the handiest and most used item that I carry, although it did cause me a bit of delay 3 years ago when we were getting ready to board the ferry to visit the Statue of Liberty (that original knife was confiscated & had to be replaced!).

  27. st says:

    no Kindle eh?

  28. clayton says:

    I just realized something. You are more profitable by being frugal! Kind of ironic. Your incentives are different, so can your personal advice be helpful to readers?

  29. Dylan says:

    I was wondering what your thoughts on the value of magazines were. I consider magazine subscriptions to be a great deal. Generally they’re around $10/year or about a buck a month, and easily provide an hour or more of entertainment.

  30. Amit (India) says:

    Good post.
    Helps to understand your bag organization.

    Less if more….absolutely true

  31. Tim says:

    Hi Trent,

    I just wondered – how long do you hold onto your magazines? I’ve literally spent thousands of dollars on magazines over the years (bad addiction, I suppose), but then find it difficult to get rid of them.

    Do you ever struggle with the “I might need this someday” issue?

  32. Alpha Raye says:

    Wow! That’s exciting that you got a Timbuk2 bag for FREE, and a laptop nevertheless.

    I have spent good money on 2 bags from them and I don’t regret either purchase. I got my laptop bag for a graduation present, best $100 ever spent! It’s a Hacker converter bag from messenger to backpack if I need it and plenty of space for all my personal stuff and art supplies!

    I also snagged a smaller messenger bag a few months later, at an extremely good deal. It’s my go everywhere art bag, for when I DON’T need the laptop!

    Awesome to see someone share what they carry!

  33. I used to carry a spartan, which incidentally is the default SAK in supermarkets in Switzerland, where I picked up a bunch of them, and one of the small pen sized maglights (a red one obviously). These days I carry a leatherman squirt S4 and I replaced the maglight with a white photon light (this combo is quite small). For longer trips, I bring the spartan which is hooked up to a delta windmill lighter. I also pack a small first aid kit. The Flair is pretty spiffy (I have one), but also a bit weird :O). Leatherman stopped making them. Some day I’m gonna get myself a Sebenza, … some day.

  34. Jacinta says:

    My daily carry bag (although as I also work from home this isn’t a *work* bag per se) contains:

    * a 500mL water bottle (washed regularly and always filled before I leave the house)
    * a folded up hat
    * (in summer) a 30mL tube of sunscreen
    * a notebook
    * some pens
    * business cards
    * hand-wash/disinfectant solution
    * a small packet of tissues

    I keep this ready for me at the front door for when I have to go out. I usually add a book or such on my way out. Similar ideas, but a slightly different focus. When I go out, there’s a very good chance I’m going to spend at least 10 minutes walking in the sun. I don’t burn easily, but I’d rather not burn at all. I also don’t like to waste my money on buying drinks when our local tap water is both safe and pleasant to drink (where this doesn’t hold, I buy water).

  35. Nice post. I am working on a post of my Every Day Carry (EDC). I am a keychain, pen, and mini gadget nut. I don’t like to carry anything, and prefer things that go in my pockets . . .

    If you haven’t seen it- check out http://www.edcforums.com

    I just discovered this EDC site a few weeks ago, and I am glad I am not the only keychain and mini gadget nut.

  36. Lou Lou says:

    Wow, thanks so much for a look into your organization. It reminded me that my main carry bag is a disaster right now and that this weekend it will be on the top of my list to clean out and reorganize.

    I must say though that your bag, with all the books and magazines, must be a bit on the heavy side.

  37. Anna says:

    I have carried a Swiss Army knife for years. When I was a school nurse, one day in the 4th grade I used it to enlarge the holes in a cardboard display piece. A boy in the class was quite offended: “Girls can’t have pocket knives!” That was then…by now he has grown to manhood and presumably has learned better.

  38. Nick says:

    Years ago I read an article about the “5 Minute” bag to be stored by the door when you left for the day. It contained things you could complete in a few minutes while you were waiting. It has reduced the amount of time sorting, fixing, reviewing, replying, purchasing online, birthday cards, etc. at home or at work.
    I have always carried an extra car key in my wallet.

  39. LaptopBags says:

    Wow. Thanks for the post. I could definitely downsize a bit too!

  40. Traci says:

    I use a similar “mobile office” approach, but I use a rolling leather briefcase. This has made my back pain virtually go away. I got a beautiful leather one made my Franklin Covey on ebay for a fraction of original cost. I have been using it for three years…cost per use = $.10 day as of today.

    And, because I’m a girl and I have a kid, I have a purse, too. It has a band across the back of it that slides over the telescoping handle of the rolling bag so that I don’t have to have the purse on my shoulder. Very handy on the bus!

    My only complaint: Nobody that makes rolling bags seems to realize that we also carry coffee mugs and/or a thermos for coffee. We need a side pocket for that!

    Loving Simple Dollar!

  41. Amy B. says:

    How do you use your iPod touch to take voice notes? I’m not carrying my recorder any more, and I miss it.

  42. Alex says:

    Wow. This is great timing. I just got a Timbuk2 bag for my NEW job. A great start! Thanks.

  43. Kate says:

    Two great additions to your bag would be a reusable Sigg water bottle and a commuter coffee cup – assuming your drink water or coffee away from home.

  44. michael bash says:

    “… in it’s typical place by the door ….” It’s good you state often that you’re working on your writing. The bit above shows you’ve got a ways to go. A simple approach might be to read what you write before you publish it to the world. You’ll be surprised what you can find and correct.

  45. Another Dave says:

    Scary how similar our daypacks are. I carry a few more things like Motorcycle Riding accessories (eye protection, earphones, Liscense/insurance, gloves) and I carry my Wave because I do Electrical/Mechanical work. I have a 10year old LLBean backpack that has done more miles than I can count. I also have a Broadband Access card for my laptop.

  46. Josh Moore says:

    Great post!

    I wrote a similar post not to long ago about the tools I use for completing my work as an entrepreneur. I personally find the lighter I travel the less stressed I feel, and the more flexible in location I become.

    My messenger bag comes with me interstate, to the city, to friends houses, etc. and is definitely my portable office (and sometimes more).

    The only thing I would like to have is a longer battery life. With all the travel I do three hours per charge does not seem to cut it these days. Maybe something to worry about in the future.

  47. Hello says:

    You could get rid of the Nintndo DS and use your iPod Touch instead. Loads of (mostly free) games available.

  48. Benton says:

    You might want to look into a Gerber multi-tool before you spring for the new Leatherman. I have had both for quite a few years and I much prefer the Gerber because it only takes one hand to open and close.

  49. Perry says:

    I carry a small Swiss Army style knife (it’s not Swiss Army) that I got at a flea market in Germany for 5 euros. I like it a lot, especially because it is old and worn from much use. I wonder about whoever owned it before me. On more than one occasion I’ve been glad to have the cork screw. I just wish it had a Philips head as well as a standard screw driver.

    Where did you get the old laptop? I’d like to have an older with Linux loaded, but it haven’t been able to find one for the right price with the right hardware.

  50. 1WineDude says:

    Holy crap! Another Calvino fan! I **knew** I liked you! :-)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *