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The Small Bag Experiment
For years, I’ve enjoyed the writings of James Altucher (recommended reading: his book Choose Yourself). Although the man has made millions over the years, in part through a very successful web design company, I recently learned that he is now living out of a small bag with about 15 items in it – by choice, not by financial need. He no longer has a permanent residence and is essentially a vagabond, living with friends and staying at hotels and hostels and through Airbnb.
The piece of this story that I find interesting is that not too long ago, Altucher had a 4,000-square-foot flat filled with possessions. Over the course of several months, he sold off almost all of those possessions (including the flat) and moved out.
Some people might find this story strange. I find it fascinating and really, really valuable, even if you have no intentions whatsoever of doing anything similar. Let’s walk through why.
My Small Bag
I have this very nice duffel bag that I use every time I travel. What exactly would I put in there if I were going to live just out of that bag?
I’d start with three or four days of clothes. I’d probably include three decent everyday outfits – three pairs of nice chinos, three button-up shirts, three t-shirts, three pairs of underwear, and three pairs of socks, along with an extra t-shirt and sweatpants for exercise or messy things. When one of those started to look worn, I’d donate it and replace it. Easy enough.
I’d include my laptop, iPad, and Kindle and their chargers. I use those devices for such drastically different things. I use my laptop for writing and podcast recording and video editing. I use my iPad for reading magazines and watching videos and Netflix and the like. I use my Kindle for reading books. I’d also carry around an external mouse, some headphones, a good podcasting mic, and a document scanner because I’d just scan most paper documents and I often prefer to use an external mouse than a laptop trackpad when I’m working at a table. I could see myself replacing the laptop and iPad with a single iPad Pro at some point.
I’d include a good small flashlight and a package of batteries for it. This is my favorite flashlight I’ve ever tried.
I’d include my toiletry bag, with basic things like a toothbrush, a razor, some toothpaste, deodorant, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, dental floss, and so on.
I’d include a few ready-to-eat foods, like a bag of nuts or some of the better nutritional bars, so I could eat something nutritional anywhere. This wouldn’t take up a lot of space, but it would be in there.
I’d include a notebook and some pens. I take notes constantly and sketch out ideas on paper. I’d probably keep my last filled notebook or two with me because I look back through them. I’d digitize older notebooks.
I’d include a few small card games that I really love to play and some gaming dice. The rules for most games would already be on my iPad, so I’d just need the equipment to play. I’d basically have a small dice bag and an 800 count card box, which would easily fit.
I’d include a water bottle and a cooking cup (a cooking cup is a metal cup you can basically sit over a fire or a stove to cook anything in) and a few water flavoring packets and tea bags.
I could honestly fit all of this stuff in a good-sized backpack, but I’d probably still use the larger bag anyway in case other things came along.
I’m not counting things I’d keep in my pockets, like basic identification, keys, and so forth, and there are probably a few little things I’m skipping, but that’s what I would carry. I’d have a pretty content life with the things in that bag, honestly, assuming I was suddenly single again.
The question you might be asking yourself is why? Why would I even engage in such a thought experiment?
For me, the question is still why? However, my “why” points in a different direction.
When I look around our home, I see lots and lots and lots and lots of different possessions. I have a more-than-healthy board game collection. I have a lot of books. I have several boxes with items for occasionally-tackled hobbies. I have tons of cooking equipment.
If I could really live a happy life with the contents of that bag, why do I have all of this other stuff? Furthermore, why do I sometimes buy stuff to add to it?
This is all stuff that I rarely use when it comes right down to it. This is all stuff that someone, at some point, is going to have to deal with, whether it’s trying to resell it or give it away or throw it away.
Now, why am I keeping all of that other stuff? Really? It’s all extraneous. Why am I buying things that wouldn’t fit in that bag?
The contents of that bag are genuinely important to me. Everything else, less so. Why buy things that aren’t important to me?
Sure, there are some items that make sense to purchase because I’m a homeowner. I need a few cooking instruments, for example, and some basic tools for eating. Basic furniture makes sense. A few tools for home repair make sense. I do have a closet, so a somewhat larger wardrobe makes sense, too.
Everything else, though? Why?
The truth is that I don’t need the vast majority of things in our house, and quite a few of them are wants that I could have entirely done without.
This leads me straight to a very simple question.
The Real Question
Whenever I buy something new, I should be asking myself this question: Would this item take up a place in my small bag, and if not, why on Earth am I buying it?
As I’ve noted, my bag has enough space for my core items for living, my core items for working, and my core items for my main hobbies (reading, writing, playing tabletop games).
Every possession of mine beyond what fits in that bag is essentially extraneous. It occupies only a small sliver of my time, as the contents of that bag manage a large portion of it. Sleeping, self-care and hygiene, work, and my two main hobbies are covered by the contents of that bag. Every other possession I have is either an unnecessary expansion on one or another of those categories or is something that I rarely use and could easily borrow or substitute.
This observation really brings me to two conclusions.
First, it encourages me to continue to pare down my possessions. I can see the forward progress in certain places in my home. Closets that were once full to the brim are now half-empty. The only thing I can point to that takes up more space than it once did is my board game collection, and I could honestly pare that down significantly if I wanted to.
Second, it encourages me to ask very, very hard questions about each purchase going forward. Is this purchase something that would honestly go in my bag? If not, why am I really purchasing this? If it doesn’t go in my bag, it’s something that I’m not going to be devoting much of my time to. Period. 80% or 90% of the time, I’m either using a possession from my bag or sleeping. Everything else fits into the 10% or 20% remainder of my life.
These two conclusions have one thing in common: they put money in my pocket, make my life simpler, and don’t take away anything of real value in my life. Fewer possessions means fewer things to take care of. Fewer possessions means less money spent on stuff. Fewer possessions means that I’ve flipped some of that unused stuff in the closet to put even more money in my pockets.
I can save that money for the future and retire earlier. I can use it for life experiences rather than new things. I can use it to build a better life for my children and give them opportunities I can scarcely dream of having.
What would be in your bag? Why do you own things that wouldn’t go in your bag? Why would you buy things that wouldn’t go in your bag?
Thinking about those questions will bring you to some powerful conclusions about your money and your life.