The ‘One Bag Challenge’: What I Learned by Living Out of a Single Duffel Bag

A few months ago, I spent some time reading about people who are essentially “digital nomads,” meaning that they live their lives with a very small number of possessions and essentially work anywhere they happen to be. I started down this rabbit hole by reading this article by James Altucher about minimalism, which started with this:

“I have one bag of clothes, one backpack with a computer, iPad, and phone. I have zero other possessions.”

Essentially, Altucher lives out of a duffel bag and a backpack. They contain all of his worldly possessions and he moves from location to location quite easily. When he wants to “move,” he just picks up his stuff and goes.

Reading about this reminded me of a college professor I once knew who slept on a futon in his office and showered at the rec center at the university. He lived entirely out of his car, which was a tiny efficiency model. I remember him telling me that he could be ready to permanently go anywhere in the world in about five minutes.

Now, why would a person do this? There are a number of obvious disadvantages here, including a lack of access to many things that a person might need or want, a lack of a place to really call home, and a lack of the comforts of everyday life that we enjoy in our homes. The biggest disadvantage, in my eyes, is the lack of a place to prepare meals. Of course, some of those things can be mitigated by living in a furnished apartment, but that often ends up with you having possessions.

On the flip side, there are a number of pretty big advantages, too. For one, the time spent on shopping is tiny and the amount of time spent on cleaning house is basically zero. You can spend that time doing other things. For another, if you only have space in your bag and backpack for the relatively small number of items you can fit in there, you’re not going to be spending your money on a lot of stuff.

This whole concept intrigued me, so I decided to spend most of a month recently living out this kind of arrangement in the closest possible way that I could. I knew I was taking a trip to Denver during the month, so I decided at the start of the month to pack for the trip and then try living out of a single duffel bag and my backpack for the whole month, consciously avoiding using anything else (other than food prep items in our kitchen to make family meals). If I used things around the house, I made sure that they were things that I could have purchased elsewhere as a “service,” like doing laundry, which I could have done at a laundromat. I called it the “one bag challenge,” and it turned out to be very insightful in terms of my finances, my possessions, the money I spend on possessions, my home environment, and so on.

First, let’s really spell out what I tried to do.

‘The One Bag Challenge,’ In Detail

After being inspired by reading about “digital nomads” and vagabonding, I became really interested in the idea of what it would be like to live entirely out of one bag for a while and I basically did it for an entire month. The purpose was to evaluate my own connections to spending money on possessions, how living like that might alter one’s finances, and whether shifting to a much more minimalist lifestyle could actually work.

I am interested in things like frugality, minimalism, the tiny house movement, vagabonding, and so on, and though I am not on board to committing to such a thing with a family of five, I am interested in seeing what principles from those movements I could really apply to myself.

So, here were the ground rules I set for myself.

I put all of my essential possessions into a duffel bag and a backpack. I used the same ones I always use – a North Face Surge 2 backpack that serves as my “portable office” and a Best American Duffel bag. The intent with choosing what went into those bags was to provide everything I would need and many of the things I would want in two bags.

In large part, the duffel bag was my “living” stuff. It contained a few sets of clothes – five t-shirts, six pairs of underwear, six pairs of socks, two pairs of blue jeans, one dress shirt, and one pair of dress slacks. That was in addition to the t-shirt, underwear, socks, and jeans I was already wearing. I packed these tightly.

I also had a small bag of toiletries in there with a razor, some replacement blades, a toothbrush, some toothpaste, a small bottle of body wash, a small bottle of shampoo and conditioner, some floss, and a tiny bottle of aftershave.

I also had a spare pair of shoes in there in an enclosed bag. I describe them as “indoor” shoes and “outdoor” shoes, as one pair is definitely what I would wear indoors and at meetings and when doing things in a city environment, while the other pair is what I would wear in parks and on hikes and such.

I also kept a small bag with some snacks in there – granola bars and the like. I also kept some important documents in a small side pouch – insurance cards and the like. Although I have digital copies of these things, I still felt better having the actual documents with me.

My “backpack” was my work and entertainment bag. It had my laptop, my Kindle, a tablet computer, a bunch of chargers, my journal and a backup journal, several pens of various kinds and some backup ink, a water bottle, an emergency change of clothes, and a few other things.

I made sure to leave some extra space in both bags at the start for the purposes of needing to add more things during the month or to have space for transporting things (like a gift for my kids, for example).

I made a few exceptions for things I already had pre-planned (like some activities I already had scheduled that involved other possessions I owned), but I made it my goal to stick to this. If I needed clothes, they came out of the bag. If clothes were dirty, they went into a laundry bag that I kept in there. If I wanted entertainment, it came out of my backpack. If I wanted a snack, it came out of my backpack.

Whenever I had to use anything not in those bags, I kept track of it in my journal, because this was obviously something I journaled about extensively.

So, how did I do? Let’s walk through some of the lessons I learned.

Lesson #1: It is far easier to do this if you have living space of some kind.

Whether you find yourself staying in a hostel or staying with friends or even renting furnished apartments, everything becomes far easier if you have ready access to a place to bathe and a place to sleep without needing to own your own bedding and shelter.

I found myself thinking about this issue a lot during the early parts of the month. I take a shower every day, which requires, well, a shower. I eat a meal at home at least twice a day, which requires a kitchen and at least some kitchen implements. Those two things become much more difficult because you can’t really make them portable. They either force you to have some kind of living quarters or else jump through additional hoops.

For showering, you could buy a day pass at a gym or use a truck stop or a hostel. Those would all provide access to a shower, but they’ll each come with an additional cost and the hassle of getting there. For making your own food, you’re not really doing that unless it’s very simple stuff like assembling a two ingredient sandwich. Most likely, you’re buying prepackaged foods from stores. In a furnished apartment, you can cook for yourself, which is a nice money-saving advantage.

Again, you can avoid these challenges by simply living most of the time in a small apartment of some sort and relying on friends when you travel, but this experiment made me realize how we rely on lots of things in our home without really thinking about it.

Lesson #2: At the same time, this approach to life makes a very tiny apartment in a city much more reasonable.

If I had a very tiny apartment with basically enough space for a bed and access to a shower and a bit of kitchen space, I really think I could pull this off and live very cheaply. What I learned very quickly is that aside from the big things listed above, it actually wasn’t too hard to live out of those bags (with a couple of exceptions, noted below).

If I were suddenly single again, I would be very tempted to move to a large city, find a tiny apartment with a shower and maybe a small kitchen somewhere near a stop on the metro, and then move there. I’m not even sure I would own a car. I’d just spend my day exploring on foot, work in libraries and coffee shops, go back to the mini-apartment just to shower and sleep, and use the metro for everything. I’d probably maintain a mailbox somewhere near my hometown and check it once every month or so while visiting family, which I would do with a super cheap efficiency rental.

It seems like a very free life. Of course, there’s a big reason I’m not doing this…

Lesson #3: ‘One bag’ becomes more of a challenge with children.

When I look at my life, the big reason that I can’t do this is because of my children. I think Sarah would be willing to give this kind of life a long, serious attempt if we didn’t have children, but we do have children and that restricts us.

Children have some additional requirements that make such a life much more difficult. They require education, which means that we’d have to homeschool them or else move them from school to school constantly. I am not convinced that we – or anyone else – could do a good job of providing a well-rounded education for them, even given Sarah’s training as an educator.

They also require at least some steady socializing opportunities to learn how to form relationships with their peers. This doesn’t mean that moving is ever bad, but that a constant pattern of moving makes it difficult for them to learn how to form lasting social relationships. This is a key part of raising a child so that they understand the challenges of relationships with their peers beyond the kids they happen to see on the playground that day.

They also require space. They need a place to sleep and a place to relax. While it’s easy for one person to find such places, it becomes trickier with a family of five as more space is simply needed, even with few possessions. It also means some serious work juggling if both parents have some form of employment.

These are all challenges that can be overcome, but they’re challenges that are solved by simply having a stable family home with your children enrolled in school (or part of a homeschooling community).

What I concluded from this was that even if we all committed to a “one bag lifestyle,” that would still mean five bags and five places to rest our head and five places to take showers and likely a place to prepare family meals and a place to have a stable community of peers, at least for a while. That quickly points us to some kind of home, though it could easily be smaller than our current home.

Lesson #4: My hobbies would need a lot of re-thinking.

During this month, I came to realize that many of the hobbies I currently have require a lot of stuff and take up a lot of space. I learned very quickly that my access to several of my hobbies would be heavily altered or completely eliminated. So, let’s walk through several of my hobbies to see what that looks like.

Reading books is probably my biggest hobby and probably the one least changed by the transition. I have plenty of room in my bag for my Kindle and space for a library book or two at all times and I don’t really need much more than that. I spend about an hour a day reading books (on average), so it’s a significant part of my life that I don’t want to give up. My physical book collection would have to be sold off.

Journaling isn’t even so much a hobby but “something I do to help me deal with life,” and it also wasn’t changed very much. I keep some pens and my journal in my backpack at all times, along with a spare notepad for writing notes. When I fill up a journal, I make a digital archive of it. I do keep my old journals, but I don’t strictly have to do this – I could easily discard the old ones since I have a digital archive of them.

Hiking mostly just requires good shoes (which I noted above that I’m carrying in an appropriate bag), appropriate clothes, and a backpack with a few emergency supplies in it. I have all of that stuff. So this one’s easy, too.

After that… things get trickier.

Board games take up a lot of space. There’s no two ways about it. I don’t have space to keep more than one or two full sized board games in my bag and I’m not even sure I want to do that because of the damage that would eventually occur to the games themselves. My board game collection would have to be eliminated, with me just keeping a few small games that fit into my larger bag, ones with sturdy pieces. I actually started making a list of these during the month and wound up deciding on a few of them that I would keep in there (Tak, Innovation, and Pyramid Arcade (basically just the pyramids in a bag) are definite). A few others would be bought in digital form. Many, however, would simply be sold. I’d be able to keep up with this hobby by going to community game nights and simply playing what I have and then playing the games of others.

Tabletop role playing games are fairly easy. I do have a large collection of hardcover RPG books, but they actually translate really well to a tablet computer and most of them are easily available on there. I’d need to have a bag of dice along with me, but almost everything else could be borrowed if I were to play such games.

Fermenting/pickling foods and beverages takes up a ton of space and simply isn’t replicable at all with those constraints. I love making things like sauerkraut, kimchi, pickled cucumbers, kombucha, pickled eggs, homemade beer, and so on; there just isn’t a good way to do this in a backpack and duffel bag. This is a hobby I would have to abandon and simply enjoy those foods through friends or through purchasing them.

Cooking is similar in nature. It’s basically impossible to cook using the contents of those bags. You could, of course, visit friends and make meals in their kitchens, or you could rent a furnished apartment or some sort of temporary living quarters and cook there, but it’d be irregular and you’d have to either rely on what friends had on hand or what you buy yourself for just the meal you were preparing. This hobby would go into serious decline.

That basically covers 99% of my hobby time, honestly. Some of my hobbies could stay in place, while others would have to change significantly or be eliminated.

During this month, I found myself reading and walking a lot and basically not participating in my fermented food hobby. I attended some community game nights, but didn’t bring any games myself and just played what others brought. I intentionally cooked meals with minimal equipment. In short, I was able to still enjoy most of my hobbies, but some were eliminated and some changed significantly. I think I would be okay with this.

Lesson #5: There were some huge advantages, too.

While most of the lessons above might seem fairly negative, they really were counterbalanced with some enormous positives.

First, I spent what seemed like very little time doing household chores. There was almost nothing to clean up, ever, at least regarding my own personal things. Everything was in my bag or my backpack, so I actually spent very little time picking stuff up. To do laundry, I just carried my bag to the laundry room, tossed in the clothes, ran a load, and then packed things right back into that bag. Very easy.

Second, the fact that I could just walk out the door to travel was extremely nice. On the day I went to Denver, I literally woke up, showered, picked up two bags that were already packed from normal life the day before, and walked out the door. There was no packing for the trip. There was no making sure I had everything because I already had everything. This would make moving and traveling so easy that most of the resistance to simply going somewhere else for work or for life would become much less of a burden.

Because of that, I felt far more open to spur-of-the-moment adventures. Having a job that’s effectively telecommuting plus having a “one bag” life would make adventures seem much more realistic (without the child factor, discussed above). I can’t tell you the number of times, just in a month, I considered doing things that just weren’t on my plate beforehand, with only parental and spousal commitments holding me back. If I were single, or if I were married and Sarah were on board with these choices, I might have spent the whole month in Denver camping or renting a small furnished apartment or something, because… well, why not? I could just fly to Denver, take the metro to an apartment that I already arranged online, use the metro to get around the city and explore things, do my work wherever there was internet access, and then do the same somewhere else very shortly thereafter. That sounds tremendously exciting, and it’s very realistic with a one-bag commitment.

Third, while this lifestyle does shift costs around, it drastically reduces some of the biggest expenses in life. Yes, you’re going to pay more for things like food – it’s almost impossible to do this without causing your monthly food budget to go up unless you already eat out for most meals. You’re also going to spend more renting things that you might otherwise own or conveniently have, like renting a car or paying for a shower at a truck stop or something like that. Having said that, you’re drastically reducing the amount of money you spend on possessions and on the costs of permanent housing. That money can be invested elsewhere pretty easily.

Lesson #6: I would quickly start to put a very high premium on high-quality sturdy stuff that just works as well as stuff that takes up less space.

I already value things with a long lifespan, but that would increase even more if I were to do this. Almost everything I possessed would be chosen due to how well constructed it is in terms of extending the lifespan I can expect from it.

For example, every single article of clothing in that bag would be made to last and last and last. With my wardrobe being smaller, each item needs to be more reliable than ever and I don’t really want to be in the business of replacing articles of clothing frequently. In fact, what I would ideally do is move to a system where I refresh the whole wardrobe at once, wear it until everything’s really beat up, and then replace all of it at once at a sale of some kind.

As for saving space, I would probably consider moving to just using a tablet for all of my work tasks simply because of how much space it would save.

Applying These Lessons to Normal Life

These lessons are interesting and all, but what can I take from this to improve my everyday life and my financial state?

First, this month taught me that I have way too much stuff and that it makes a lot of sense for me to seriously downsize my possessions. In truth, I use about 1% of my possessions most of the time and maybe another 5% on occasion. Almost all of the rest just sits there taking up space. Why do I own it? Most of the time, I bought it, used it a little, put it into storage, and forgot about it. I had no real reason to buy any of that stuff and I definitely have no reason to keep it at this point. This experiment has pushed me toward having some massive Craigslist sales in the near future.

Second, this month taught me that the biggest benefits of home ownership (beyond as an investment) are tied into raising a family. Almost all of the benefits I see as a homeowner are directly tied to family stability and benefits to our children. Without those benefits, I would be sorely tempted to live a much more “digital nomad” life if i had a career that allowed for extensive telecommuting. However, in terms of what we see as important elements of parenting, having a home with adequate space for all of us to provide stability has an enormously enhanced value compared to living out of one bag.

Third, this month taught me that I spend an unsatisfactory amount of my time buying stuff or thinking about buying stuff or taking care of stuff. This isn’t out of some desire to own a lot of things. It comes from the requirements of being a homeowner, making meals at home, cleaning things up, and so on. The truth is that most of our household time is spent simply because we have so many possessions, and the fewer possessions we have, the less time we need to spend on household tasks, the less money we need for cleaning and household supplies, and the more time (and money) we have for other things we want to pursue in life.

I really encourage you to try out the “one bag challenge.” Make it your goal for a week or two weeks or even a month to live as much as you can out of the contents of one bag or suitcase and one backpack. Try to get all of your clothing, hygiene needs, entertainment, work, and even food out of those bags and just see how it goes for you. You might come to some really interesting conclusions about how you live your “normal” life, conclusions that may change how you spend and save your money.

Good luck!

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Trent Hamm

Founder & Columnist

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.