Updated on 08.27.14

The Suitcase Test

Trent Hamm

The Things You Really Need

suitcases.jpg by Phineas H on Flickr!Over the weekend, my parents came to visit. At one point, we were talking about the experiences I had during my college days, and they mentioned that when I would move in and out of the dormitories, it would require a pickup truck to move all of the stuff.

During the conversation, I realized that if I were to do it all over again, I would be just fine with roughly a single suitcase worth of stuff. All of the rest of it was unnecessary and a huge waste of resources and money.

Things You Really Need For College

This idea intrigued me, so I actually made a list of the stuff I would take:

Five pairs of pants
Seven shirts
Five pairs of underwear
Five pairs of socks
One pair of shoes
A set of bed linens
Basic toiletries
My laptop
My cell phone
My iPod
A backpack

When I got there, I’d acquire the school supplies I needed – textbooks and notebooks and the like. I’d eat in the school’s food service, get my books from the library, and get around on public transportation. At the end of the semester, I save the notes I’ll need in the future, sell the textbooks, and pack myself up in that same suitcase I arrived in.

What this Would Have Accomplished

1.My startup costs would be much lower

No dorm room fridge. No entertainment system. No video game consoles. No huge CD collection. Just me, my brain, and what I need.

2. Most of those extra expenses are distractions from my studying

The less stuff I bring, the less stuff there is to distract me when I need to put my nose to the grindstone and study. It would also encourage me to not hide in my room and instead explore what the university has to offer.

3. Minimizing the amount of entertainment equipment discourages me from shopping for more content

I won’t blow money on video games if I don’t have a console in my dorm room. I won’t spend money on DVDs without a DVD player. And not having a television keeps me from utilizing either one. Instead, I can save that money to buy textbooks or reduce my student loan load.

4. The cost of transportation is much lower

If you don’t take much stuff at all with you, it becomes much easier to transport yourself to school before the semester and away from school at the end of the semester. For example, you can easily take the bus or train and not have to deal with shipping the excess material.

Things You Really Need in Your Life

That seems like good advice to give to a college student, but why not apply it to our own life, at least to a certain extent?

Just step back and think about it for a minute.
If you had to fit all of your belongings in a suitcase and walk away, what would you pack?

My list would actually look much like what I described above for my college suitcase. Those items, along with books from the library and my Nintendo DS, would take care of how I spend the vast majority of my time provided that my family was with me. I’d need some basic supplies for cooking, of course – a few pots and pans and a few dishes – but, in the end, what else do I need?

If you carry that thought a little further, why not simply apply the “suitcase test” to every purchase that you make? If it’s not something that will fit in your “suitcase” – basic clothing, basic toiletries, cooking supplies, and a small number of splurge items – don’t buy it, or at least strongly consider not buying it.

Recently, my wife and I have been going through our stuff and getting rid of a lot of old items we don’t use. Some items have gone to Goodwill, others have gone out in the trash, still others have been sold on eBay. It’s been a slow process, but an enjoyable one – during evenings when the kids are in bed or during nap times on weekends, we’ve been cleaning out closets and talking about what to get rid of and what to keep.

Our default positions usually are that I want to sell/get rid of the item while my wife wants to keep it. Over the last few days, though, I’ve mentioned the suitcase idea to my wife and she’s started to see the appeal of it – especially as we go through the large “master closet” in our bedroom.

At the center of all of this is our “suitcase test,” and while I find myself having a smaller suitcase than my wife, it’s provided a positive mindset for both of us.

Less is more.

It’s more money in the pocket, directly from eBay sales and indirectly from less spending. It’s more open space in our home without clutter. It’s more items that are high quality instead of cheap items to take up space.

It’s all in the suitcase, baby.

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  1. Lisette says:

    I agree that students need to be more economical in their packing, but if you bring only those items of clothes you’ll be doing laundry every week!

  2. laura says:

    Great concept!

  3. Craig says:

    There are flaws in this logic. If you had only gone to college with that:

    * You would have been freezing each night cause you wouldn’t have a blanket.
    * Your floor would have been a mess because it never got vacuumed.
    * No cups to get a drink of water with.

    So there are a bunch of things that you need but wouldn’t fit into a suitcase. The vacuum and bed sheets are my most immediate examples, but I’m sure there are others.

  4. leslie says:

    I would say that a dorm fridge is a bit more than a nice-to-have. The only food we could carry out of the cafeteria was mini pizzas, nachos, and bagels. Having a fridge in my room was a good way to keep vegetables and drinks to snack on while studying. I don’t see how that is a distraction.

  5. As another former car-and-trailer university student, I can identify with this post. I agree that a lot of distracting junk tends to get moved to and from campus, often without ever being used or taken out of the box.

    When I was at school, though (1994-2000), iPods didn’t exist, and laptops weren’t affordable for 95% of students, so to get the same functionality required a desktop with monitor, and some form of stereo system.

    It’s great to see that computing and music needs can now be met using items that would fit easily in a suitcase (or backpack, for that matter!).

  6. Carlos says:

    Methinks you’re overlooking some things:

    5 pairs of socks, 5 pairs of underwear?
    How about 8 of each (a week’s worth + 1).

    One pair of shoes? That’s not realistic. You’d likely need sneakers, a pair of shoes that are dressier than sneakers, and perhaps hiking shoes/boots (depending on the weather/opportunity to hike) near your school.

    How about some work-out clothes, pajamas, a robe, a sport jacket, a dress shirt, tie (for job interviews, special events, or dates).

    I travel a lot, and despite having done this for many moons, still don’t have the footwear challenge solved. I’m in Phoenix, AZ this week. I’m took sneakers to wear on the treadmill (hotel gym), hiking shoes to walk a few dessert trails (sneakers aren’t tough enough for this), and, of course, dress shoes to wear for customer meetings.

    If you got an iPhone, you could consolidate the phone and iPod into one device, and save even more space :-)

  7. moneyclip says:

    good advice for a would be college student to follow as well as those wanting to scale back, downsize and de-clutter their lives.

  8. chris hollander says:

    your cheating, just a tiny bit. Your Laptop and iPod (likely) contain a huge portion of the “baggage” that your parents would have packed into that pickup truck: thousands of CDs and mixtapes, a complete entertainment system, VCR/DVD players and media, boxloads full of pictures, your favorite books, your high school memorabilia (aka facebook), even, possibly, that special box of magazines that you don’t want your mom to peek into. ;)

    your still taking it all with you- you just found a more efficient way to carry it.

  9. John says:

    I would have to agree with leslie, while a dorm fridge may not be an absolute necessity, it’s certainly a lot cheaper in the long run to keep juice or pop in a fridge than to buy something to drink from vending machines when you need a little caffeine for late-night studying. When I lived in the dorms the only food we were really allowed take out of the cafeteria were an apple or ice cream cone.

  10. Adrienne says:

    That’s pretty unrealistic. One pair of shoes? I agree that a TV, game consoles, etc. aren’t necessary. But college students aren’t checking into a monastery. That time of life is very much about learning how to build social relationships. And, for many, it’s the first time they’ve been away from home. You need some comforts- a few favorite books, photos of friends & family, etc. It’s totally unrealistic to ask people to live without any creature comforts for four years or more.

  11. leslie says:

    something else, I would go as far to say, since we are being minimalistic here, ditch the phone, ipod and laptop for an iPhone.

    You can check your email, view pdfs and word documents, look up research anywhere! Without having to haul out your laptop! Need to type up a paper? Go to the computer lab where you won’t have to worry about room distractions anyway.

  12. Olivia says:

    I like the suitcase mentally.

    When I was in college (2004-2007), I kept things pretty simplistic thanks to lack of funds. My husband and I are preparing to move and are started to declutter, donate, and sell things because we’re moving to a smaller space than we’re in now. It feels great to declutter, and the idea that we’re only taking a car full of possessions instead of a moving truck to our new destination (in another state) is exciting. We’ll have more than one suitcase, but just enough to fit in a trunk and a back seat.

  13. Carolyn says:

    No coat? You live in Iowa! ;-)

    Agree with the previous posters. I’d take a minimum of 2 weeks worth of underwear & socks. A couple of pairs of shoes. Some sweaters and hoodies (probably 3-4 each). Light rain jacket and heavy winter coat. Hat & gloves. Reusable water bottle, travel coffee mug, and fork/spoon/knife.

    Otherwise your list is a good start.

  14. Ted says:

    This is a great idea.

    To take this idea further even, after reading this article it gave me the idea to go through my own stuff to see what I don’t need (I can guarantee it’s at least a few hundred bucks worth of stuff on ebay) and then taking every penny I make on ebay/craigslist and I’m going to dump all of it into savings. Instead of using it to acquire more stuff, I’m going to make it earn money for me.

  15. Sandra says:

    I LOVE,LOVE the carryover concept after college. My mother is a HOARDER and it petrifies me how I will one day have to sort through all her items that NO ONE really wants & needs.

    ALL that stuff takes so much or her life to MAINTAIN. Forget the frugality—clutter is simply more stuff to take CARE of. Get rid of it GREAT POST.

  16. While your list may be a touch minimalistic for reality, the idea is valid.
    Our consumerist society is highly flawed and most people DO have too much “stuff”. If we unclutter and prioritize our spending on the necessities, we might just see a positive savings rate in the USA for a change!
    Imagine that.

  17. This is an interesting exercise. With fast wifi available at ALL college campuses now, Trent is right that the volume of “stuff” a college student needs can be reduced quite a bit. No need for CDs, a radio/CD/cassette player and a big desktop computer like I had.

    However, I’m a girl, so I need a few things to make my life feel more like “home” – family pictures, a soft blanket, a hot pot, and probably an upgraded lamp (dorm lighting is terrible).

  18. Jessica says:

    I’m with the others who say this is a tad too minimalist, particularly with the clothes. Depending if or how frequently you can/do go home during the semester you can at least reduce your clothes to the current season/temperature. And it’s always good to have a warm sweater or sweatshirt with you always. I remember my campus bookstore running out of (expensive) sweatshirts the week after spring break one year, because most of the students took all their winter clothes home but came back to a week of temperatures in the 40s.

    I say better to have a few extra necessities (underpants, shoes, alarm clock, ear plugs/headphones) than to be caught off guard and need to spend money on something you already have but left at home.

    Plus, depending on the school you attend, the city it’s in, and the transportation available, it might require a lot of planning and time to run to the nearest store to get something in a pinch. I know at my small school, we didn’t have our own campus bus system and the public buses weren’t reliable, and the discount stores (Target, Wal-Mart) weren’t within walking distance. Which left us with the overpriced bookstore, and an overpriced grocery store (which closed my senior year)across the street. Just one more thing to consider!

  19. brooke says:

    i love this post. i am a huge fan of decluttering and living with only high quality items that i love and/or those items that i use on a regular basis. what is the point of anything else? if you don’t love it and/or can’t use it, why would you want to pay for the space to store it?

  20. DivaJean says:

    My church has an agreement with the local university and the dorms. We are lucky recipients of whatever clothing, furniture, and goods that students no longer need/want. The program was originally called 2 tons of love- but this year, it was more like 50. The only caveat is that nothing is sold- it must all be given away. We have had plenty of furniture to share with refugeee programs, displaced homemaker programs, programs for those returning into society from prison, free clothing giveaway program at our church, and the list goes on. It really is almost sickening how much kids just leave behind.

    It took daily dropoffs from a semi truck (stuffed full!) for a week to clear out all the offerings this year- and a group of 40 volunteers from 9 to 5 everyday to sort thru it all over the course of about 2 weeks. We got local pizza and fast food joints to donate lunches to help keep the crew fed.

  21. asithi says:

    For the longest time, I like to live “lite.” Which means being able to move at a moment’s notice during college and a few years after. I never have much stuff growing up, so never feel the lack. It was great because that means I do not have as much clutter as other people and do not purchase things unless it really adds value to my life. But, after a few years of living a middle class lifestyle, I am starting to accumulate a little more than I need.

  22. For a second I was thinking, “Man… I’m going to have to buy a BIG suitcase to fit my pizza stone in..”

    But then I realized that I was totally missing the point of the post which is a fantastic point. I probably have way to much stuff even though I try to live a very simple life.

    And I can carry my pizza stone in my other hand :)

  23. Dave says:

    5 pairs of underwear and socks? That means doing laundry every 4 days!!!

  24. liv says:

    theoretically true. not realistic.

  25. Danielle says:

    You clearly aren’t female. If I had shown up to college with just the clothes you mentioned I would have been the laughing stock of the place. I ran track in college and required workout clothing everyday. I was also the kind of girl who would go to dinner after practice in my sweaty workout gear without a care in the world so this is coming from a non fru-fru female. There were girls in my dorm who would change their clothes and put on makeup just to go to dinner. I thought they were nutty and they certainly would have died if their clothing allotment had been so minimal.

    Now I have boys, 4 and 6 years old and I can imagine maybe getting away with your plan with them when they go to college.

  26. Troy says:

    This is college we are talking about.

    Beer koozies?
    Beer Fridge?
    Beer Cooler?

    The “distraction from studying” is where the real education comes from.

  27. Marcia says:

    I enjoyed this list. It took me back to my college days (1988-1992). My freshman year, I had two roommates, and we had vastly different approaches.

    Me: it all fit in a small car (Festiva) going to college, missed a few things on the way back.

    MT: She brought a van. And took back a van and a car, and still had a bunch of stuff that wouldn’t fit.

    KM: She flew in from Colorado. Everything fit into two duffel bags, and her dad shipped her computer.

    We had a mini-fridge (MT’s). In those days, few kids had computers – you used the campus’s. I had a stereo.

    We needed more clothing…it was the northeast – a coat, sweatshirts. More than one pair of shoes – I was in ROTC, so I had uniforms, PT gear, and running shoes. I did laundry weekly. I really don’t think I had more than 9 days worth of clothing though.

  28. sara says:

    I think it also depends on the age and emotional maturity of the student- when I moved away from home for the first time into the dorms, I wanted it to feel like home. I wanted pictures, the pillow my grandma made for me, things to hang on the walls. All those things made the transition easier. If I had gone in later in life, or had already had a “moving out for the first time” experience, it would be easier to be more objective and minimalistic. But your suitcase test is a good way to look at stuff in general; we don’t need so much stuff to meet our needs.

  29. Glenn says:

    Hey Trent,
    Teaching tenth graders in high school, I do this activity all the time. Have you ever thought of doing a review of Walden by Thoreau? “Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!”

  30. Sta says:

    I agree that this is a little over the top. The theory is probably sound — don’t buy crap you don’t really need. But as far as what you actually need in college, this list just isn’t enough. I think the fridge is a must-have unless you want to waste a lot of money visiting the vending machine when the caf is closed. And as others have pointed out, if you only take five pairs of undies, you will be constantly in the laundromat. And that’s expensive! And wasteful.

  31. kz says:

    I appreciate the sentiment, but disagree (particularly with the modern-day suitcase walk-away example), but on a different principle than others. I have a lot of things that I would take with me, but it’s not just “stuff” (at least not to me). Clothes I could leave behind (save two or three pieces) because they can be so easily replaced. The items that can’t be replaced, that’s what I’d carry on:
    Laptop(that’s where all our digital photos and writing exists)
    Older, non-digital photos, including the scrapbook my mom made for me
    The teddy bear that belonged to my father before he died and I still sleep with (my husband is very understanding!)
    Non-digital writing, including journals and the handwritten notes from the day my husband and I contructed our vows
    Books that have been in my family for generations
    The quilt my godmother made for me when I was a baby
    My sewing machine and stand mixer – tools beyond pure necessity, but they sure to make life easier!
    And I know my husband would have similar items

    As you can see from my list, my “suitcase” would be quite large. I’m okay with that. I fully respect the idea of rejecting pure ‘stuff’ that just fills up our homes (and storage units). But there is room for items that truly bring joy to the owner – even if it just seems like junk to someone else.

  32. kz says:

    I appreciate the sentiment, but disagree (particularly with the modern-day suitcase walk-away example), but on a different principle than others. I have a lot of things that I would take with me, but it’s not just “stuff” (at least not to me). Clothes I could leave behind (save two or three pieces) because they can be so easily replaced. The items that can’t be replaced, that’s what I’d carry on:
    Laptop(that’s where all our digital photos and writing exists)
    Older, non-digital photos, including the scrapbook my mom made for me
    The teddy bear that belonged to my father before he died and I still sleep with (my husband is very understanding!)
    Non-digital writing, including journals and the handwritten notes from the day my husband and I contructed our vows
    Books that have been in my family for generations
    The quilt my godmother made for me when I was a baby
    My sewing machine and stand mixer – tools beyond pure necessity, but they sure to make life easier!
    And I know my husband would have similar items

    As you can see from my list, my “suitcase” would be quite large. I’m okay with that. I fully respect the idea of rejecting pure ‘stuff’ that just fills up our homes (and storage units). But there is room for items that truly bring joy to the owner – even if it just seems like junk to someone else.

  33. The best part of this is simple: you end up surrounded by things you truly love. Sounds like a great definition of wealth to me. ;)

  34. Steve says:

    My girlfriend and I have been going through the same process of de-cluttering, so this article is quite timely. Thanks for the perspective!

  35. michael says:

    At my university, eating in the campus dining places was very expensive. For the price of a meal plan (which forced me to pay for 3 meals per day, even though I never ate breakfast), I could eat every meal at IHOP — which is also pricey but with better food — and come out on top. Campus housing was the same: nice apartments near campus were MUCH cheaper than crappy dorm rooms, with the added benefit that I could cook my own food and save a bundle!

    I’d recommend that every Freshman price their options, as every school is different.

  36. J says:

    Kind of a “woulda coulda shoulda” post, but you really can’t spend nine months away living out of a single suitcase and not have to make some serious compromises. As others have mentioned, a coat is likely needed, as well as a selection of short and long sleeved shirts, not to mention clothes for doing things like working out.

    A college student also probably needs to have some sort of formal wear — for example, they might need to interview for an internship, attend a awards ceremony, attend a convention, a funeral or a wedding.

    Also, keep in mind that the miniaturization and technology have provided us with gadgets like the iPod that allow us to carry hundreds of albums around in our pockets, and even watch videos if we want. Those things didn’t exist when I went to college in the 90’s.

    Also keep in mind that it’s permissible to have this thing called “fun” in college. It’s also advisable to lift your nose up out of your textbook from time to time and get involved in some things at school, too. It’s not all about the grades — it’s about growing socially and working towards being an independent adult.

  37. Battra92 says:

    For those saying no to a laptop remember that most colleges are (or will) be requiring them sooner rather than later if they don’t already. Honestly, once I got my Macbook, college became a lot easier to keep organized.

    Of course with a laptop is also the means to watch TV (Hulu, YouTube, BitTorrents etc.) as well as being a DVD player. I knew one kid who had a nice 21″ widescreen monitor just for his laptop and it doubled as his “TV” from those sources.

    I would up the socks and underwear count to 8 or 10 of each. Honestly, I never needed more than a pair of sneakers in all my years of college until I started doing interviews.

    Bed linens are tricky. I like to keep a backup but that’s just me.

    I commuted to college so I never had that issue of how much stuff to bring. I am sure that once I get my own house/apt I will be doing this. Good info to think about, certainly.

  38. cv says:

    I always moved in and out of college dorms with a big load of stuff in the back of a minivan. I always hated having that much stuff, but never seemed to be able to get rid of much of it. Warm clothes for the winter and books were a good chunk of it, plus all those little things that you don’t think about – hangers, a garbage can, a decent desk lamp, a rug for the dorms that had linoleum floors, a fan for hot days since the dorms had no a/c, some basic cooking supplies for when dorm food got unbearable, etc. I always aim to be a minimalist, but in the end I never quite manage.

  39. Brendan says:

    I used to go through a similar exercise, though my hypothetical story was much more dramatic. :-) I asked myself: if there was some huge disaster (like a nuclear explosion) and I needed to get away quickly, what would I take? I think the spirit of the problem is the same, anyways.

    Like some of the other people that left comments, I also think your list is too extreme. Only 5 pairs of underwear? There is no reason not to have more. Also, even from a strictly frugal point of view, one pair of shoes is not a good idea. You should have several so that you can alternate wearing them. That will allow them to last longer. You probably also need at least one formal or semi-formal suit of clothes (including shoes) for situations that require them (a job interview, for example). And you need separate athletic clothes if you go to the gym or participate in sports (and you should do some physical activity).

    Coats and jackets? Sweaters? Umbrellas? Watch?

    If you actually tried to live with only those items, I’m sure there would be a number of other things that would come up.

    I do love the minimalism idea though.

  40. Jordan says:

    I have to agree with the other comments that say this is unrealistic. I know when I was in college my stuff filled up a car, which was too much, but even the way Trent is talking about removing all distractions that deterred from studying seems severe. Perhaps this is a more fundamental disagreement about the purpose of college – the most important lessons I learned were never in the classroom.

  41. bethh says:

    Aw, Trent, I fondly remember the post where you recommended using a towel more than once before washing it, as if that was a novel concept – now you’re going all bare bones! I hope that your hypothetical college self is okay with doing laundry way too often.

    I think that your list has merit, and I also think that it’s going far too light – college is a student’s home, and that list is too Spartan for my taste – even though I’m a minimalist at heart.

    Nevertheless it’s a good thought exercise, and goodness knows I despair of the volume of gear I bring EVERY TIME I travel.

  42. J says:

    No towel?
    You should never go anywhere without a towel.

  43. Carmen says:

    Nice idea, but a bit on the light side for reality.

    A session at the gym and changing to go out for the night would mean your underwear allowance would last just 2 days! I can only speak for myself of course but I’ve been the same since way before college. :)

  44. Sandra says:

    I’m very glad to see that most of the people writing wear UNDERWEAR!


  45. G says:

    Less pants, more underwear and socks.
    No jacket? Swim Trunks? Towel? Slippers?

    I would also have to bring somethings to cook with. I ate at the school’s food service for a year. I went insane from lack of proper nourishment. It was something akin to playdoh, it had color, filled your stomach and was non toxic but probably wasn’t good for you.

  46. guinness416 says:

    Oh commenters, so literal! I’m sure in reality our Trent the student could get a slightly bigger suitcase and fit in one extra pair of boxers.

    We’ve moved around a lot, and always lose things in the process (my sister in law called a few weeks ago to tell me I’d left spare tennis racquets in her house … when I moved from NYC three years ago). Proof positive, to me, that I don’t need so much crap. And yet, it always sneaks back up again.

  47. STL Mom says:

    It took me hours to move in and out of my dorm room each year! Clothes, record player and albums, books, curling iron, teddy bear, bedding, towels, lamps, and a sewing machine for refashioning my thrift-store finds.
    However, while not a minimalist myself, I greatly admired the student who was famous for showing up with two suitcases and a guitar.

  48. Mary says:

    I’m with kz – the things that are important to me won’t fit into a single suitcase. For example, my cherished multi-year cross-stitch project that’s moved with me from Colorado to California to Pennsylvania, kept me from vegging out in front of bad TV, and will eventually become a lovely piece of artwork that will occupy a place of honor in my home, is definitely too big to fit into a suitcase. :)

    I agree with the sentiment, though. Getting rid of junk that you don’t need, and vowing to fill your home and life with items of significance instead, is really quite excellent.

  49. trevor says:

    Leslie, unfortunately the iphone is dependent on it’s mother computer to install content such as music, back it up, etc. So it can’t really serve as a replacement for a laptop.

  50. HebsFarm says:

    I did the suitcase thing while I was in college, because I spent my summers working as a camp counselor, so if I couldn’t use it in my tent, it stayed in campus storage. However, the hoard of accumulated stuff I had to deal with at graduation was quite punishing. I promptly joined one of those Sponsor-a-Child organizations, because I thought it was criminal that it should take all day for me to carry all my possessions down three flights of stairs.

  51. Jen says:

    Dad and I were able to fit my dorm stuff into a Ford Aerostar with the two rear seats removed. Considering the fact that my desktop PC, safely crated in its original boxes, took up about half of the van, I thought that was pretty impressive. :-) I could (and often did) pack everything up by myself in about two hours.

    Some form of TV/movie viewing device is well worth inclusion. My dorm pals and I spent many an evening with 10 of us crammed into one room watching one thing or another. Good times.

  52. Kimberly says:

    I am all for not accumulating too much clutter, but the single suitcase theory takes it a little far for me. I don’t think I would have enjoyed college very much with just those few things – then again, I’m a girl and just need more outfits and makeup and hair whatnots. Plus I don’t think I was mature enough at college age to think through the pros and cons of having a TV and video system or not. I don’t know, I feel like college (and all of life, really) is for enjoying it and exploring new things, and there’s no glory in paring down “stuff” if it goes too far.

  53. Marcia says:

    You know, bits and pieces aside (alarm clock, towels, linens, trash can…), where you live does make a difference. In the dorms (where I lived half of the time), you didn’t need very much.

    In an apartment (definitely cheaper to cook yourself), we did need pots, pans, and dishes. Dish soap, etc. And THAT year was a total mess. My roomies left me with a fridge full of decomposing food…yuck.

  54. What a great post! The idea of the suitcase is such an incredible visual. I WISH I had read something like this when I went to college. I trucked around so much useless stuff during that time. And even when any normal person would have had just one suitcase, I carted two HUGE ones off to Europe with me for my junior year. And I had to ship tons of stuff back at the end! So silly, in hindsight. But things have changed for me.

    My husband and I live in a tiny one bedroom and people tend to wonder how we fit all of our stuff. Just the other day when we had a Halloween party (we do NOT let our limited space stop us from doing what we want) and a good friend just gawked at me asking, “where do you keep your clothes?” Uh, in the closet. I told her that I got rid of ¾ of my stuff when I moved in 5 years ago and have rarely even thought about any of that stuff. She just shook her head.

    But for me, having my husband and the necessities really IS enough. I do enjoy new clothes but I have learned from my husband to clear out the old before adding more. His pleasures are his electronics, games, TV, etc. But that’s HIS choice and as long as he makes room for it physically and in the budget, that’s fine with me. I do get to enjoy the perks even if it’s not something I’d choose.

  55. Anna says:

    I traveled alone between home and college on two planes and a train, carrying two suitcases and a brand-new portable typewriter (yes, kiddies, this was before computers). During the first year I acquired some precious books that I did not wish to sell, so I shipped them home (and back to college the next year) by U.S. Mail, the only available carrier at the time. When I got to college that first time, I went into culture shock, seeing students arrive in cars with their families, carting loads and loads of stuff into their rooms. Looking around me now, I am very glad that I know how it’s possible to live without accumulation.

    Now, excuse me while I clear out a closet….

  56. Carol says:

    In a similar vein, my husband and I went on a long weekend (2 night) vacation. Our accommodations included a small kitchen facility, so we could bring some food items. In spite of my minimalist intentions, we ended up with two suitcases and three coolers. We needed to pack two pair of shoes each – nice shoes for eating out at a nice restaurant and shoes for hiking the state park. Also wanted to be sure we packed enough breakfast food and snacks so we would only be eating out one meal per day. I was suprised by how many bags we brought, but we used everything.

  57. Anna says:

    Oh, Healthy Amelia #40, you posted while I was busy writing #41, and now you’ve reminded me of the first time my mother-in-law visited the house we’d moved into. She had clothes packed into three different bedrooms in her house, and when I showed her my closet, she said, “Where are your clothes?” They were right in front of her, but with space on either side, so she didn’t recognize them as clothes!

  58. Mule Skinner says:

    If I were really “walking” away: money, driver’s license, passport, motorcycle.

  59. John Smith says:

    I think some people missed the point of this. Having lived and worked on several different boats my living space was about 7 feet long and 3.5 feet wide. A bunk and a big one at that. All that I was really able to bring was a sea bag full of clothing and belongings. This forced me to really decided what was necessary including those small comforts like books etc. One thing nobody mentioned is technologies impact on this process.

    Having a laptop with me was like having everything I needed entertainment and communications wise with me – a nice feeling.

    That all said I think the process makes you quickly realize that while the “stuff” is nice – and I love me some “stuff” – in the end its the people in life that matter most.

  60. colleen c says:

    I was a college freshman in 1982, the prehistoric times before not only Ipods but CDs and laptops. That first year my roommate (a woman from my high school) and I coordinated all our bedding and decorations and we got an area rug and a mini-fridge too. Our Moms took us shopping and the day we moved in — to a 4th floor room with no elevator — we were sure our Dads would keel over from the effort of lugging everything up those steps. We repeated that move every spring and fall, with practically as much crap. What I DO remember being positive was that our room became quite the hangout because it was so comfy, and we were thrilled to have so many available young men pay us visits.

    College was the most exciting time of my life. It was my chance to leave my crazy (albeit lovable) family behind and “practice” having my own home. I am GLAD I had my stuff with me :)

  61. John Carrier says:

    As in many other aspects of my life, Gandhi has inspired me for years in his relationship with material possessions. Whenever I pack for a trip or prepare for a move, I consider the short list of items Gandhi owned at the end of his life: Two dinner bowls, a wooden fork and spoon,
    his diary, a prayer book, a watch, sandals, a mattress, and a walking staff, loin cloth and shawl.

    Gandhi lived as full a life as any would wish for, accomplished more than most ever will, and with the possible exception of the mattress and walking stick, he could shuffle off at any time with all his stuff in a small backpack. This was all his “gear” in defeating the British Empire; do I really need an apartment full of crap just to be happy?

  62. Momma says:

    Okay, it took 3 cars to move me to college. This list is simply not adequate… and yes, I am frugal momma!

    I do not think the start up college costs were that great for me… much of the things I took to college I already had!

    Also, public transportation is non-existent at many colleges, large or small!

    What is truly outrageous though, is the cost of college textbooks… but that’s a whole other subject!

    Feature Blogger at Engineer a Debt Free Life blog
    http://www.engineeradebtfreelife.com – stop by and enter to win FREE Walmart gift cards! woot!

  63. Jen says:

    Anna and Healthy Amelia have just reminded me that I did do one semester with two suitcases and a carryon–when I went to Scotland for a semester. (I came back with the same luggage, albeit slightly more stuffed.) And Healthy Amelia made me chuckle in solidarity, studio-dweller that I am. :-)

  64. Mike says:

    My spouse and I pulled this off at one point in our lives. We literally sold everything and moved to Alaska in a paid for car with 4 suitcases and an envelope of cash.

    It was probably the single most freeing thing we’ve ever done in our life.

    Most folks thought we were nuts but it certainly gave us a changed perspective of how much detritus most of us have in our lives.

  65. Helen says:

    I try to live my life by this concept already. I usually take two or three bike trips every summer and I can’t take with me anything that I can’t carry on my bike – or anything that I’m unwilling to move 50 – 60 miles a day under my own power! A huge part of the reason why I love my bike trips so much is that I love feeling that everything I need in life is right there on my bike. Obviously I need more than will fit on a bike to get me through the rest of my life, but why wouldn’t I want to hang on to that feeling of travelling light and making my way through life as unencumbered as possible? My closets are full of camping gear and photography equipment – all things I use for activities I’m passionate about – and very little else. All your “stuff” should be a reflection of who you are right now, not a reflection of someone you used to be or never really were in the first place.

  66. Sounds pretty close to what I brought with me to college. Only, some more clothes, another pair of shoes, no IPOD or laptop (or any computer), and some books. It all fit in a small trunk, so a little more than a suitcase full.

  67. Mike Dunham says:

    So many spoiled brats needing to change their underwear EVERY SINGLE DAY…

    I would suggest a wide-bottomed, wide-mouthed, stainless steel coffee mug, oversized so it can double as a cereal bowl, and a spoon. There is typically a HUGE difference in price between a “full” 21-meal-a-week plan and the next smaller version, which can be more than enough if you do your own breakfast. Add a $4 induction heater and you can expand your morning menu from cold cereal and juice to include hot oatmeal, tea, and instant coffee.

    Also, although I see bed linens on the list, I didn’t see a pillow. A good pillow won’t easily fit in most suitcases with the other stuff listed.

  68. Tradd says:

    Trent, sounds like you have something in common with Dave Bruno, the fellow who is doing the 100 Thing Challenge.


  69. Nate says:

    I did this when taking a weeks vacation to Washington State. I was able to fit everything in one suitcase and a satchel. I could carry both on and avoided losing my luggage or any fees for checking items.

  70. K says:

    I so love the idea of the freedom of one suitcase of stuff, or for me just what would fit in a regular school backpack. In fact, I daydream about donating and selling everything but a couple pair of jeans and sweaters, a couple of books, and a few family photos, and just taking off to anywhere. A few other posters noted the key word here: freedom. To be liberated from the weight of stuff is one of the most appealing of ideas for me.

    In the last few months, I read about a man in either Australia or New Zealand sold his entire life – home and contents, vehicles, clothes, job, and even intros to friends – on Ebay. He walked away with the clothes on his back and his wallet to get on the first available seat, no matter where the plane was going. I don’t know that I could go quite that extreme, but it is fun to think about.

    While many posters noted the items listed for the one suitcase are a bit too limited – especially in the undies category :-) – the majority seem to embrace the notion of how little we really need to live and most of the rest serve as filler and distractions. I think that is telling about the state and quality of our lives.

    Thanks for a provocative post!

  71. Heather says:

    Like most people, I would make the list a little longer (I’m thinking big, rolling suitcase), but I totally understand what you are saying! I vividly remember freshman move-in day. I shared a huge room with 3 other girls. My best friend and I were roommates and coming from 2 hours away, and our other 2 roommates flew cross-country. I feel awful, now, about how I had stuffed my parents’ minivan to the gills with a bunch of junk I never needed or even looked at that first year! And the cross-country girls each brought one (large) suitcase. I must have been aggravating to live with. I’m still a packrat, and I hate it.

  72. mb says:

    you forgot soap(s). for my dorm room, bowl/ spoon is necessary, the cafateria has really bad hours, and i cant get there for any meals 2 days out of the week. for truly walking away, less stuff, more paperwork.

  73. Anitra says:

    Helen, I feel you. I do a fair bit of long distance backpacking and if I am not willing to carry it on my back while I hike 20 or so miles each day, up and down mountains…then the item is out…this includes a shelter, stove, fuel, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, food, water, clothes, a headlamp and a few other items including toothpaste/brush etc. 20 Lbs or less…it is liberating to live that way for a few months…but a bed is nice sometimes and that’s hard to carry on my back.

    I am trying to apply that less is more to my real life…baby steps right?

  74. Tony says:

    Please don’t forget the important papers.

  75. BirdDog says:

    This brings back memories of me loading up my ’91 Ford Ranger and moving my stuff to back and forth to the dorms. I figured out that I had too much stuff when I was driving up the interstate and a pillow blew out of the back of my truck.

    I must agree with many of the others who commented, one would need more underthings and more shoes. Who wants to be the kid at a dressy occasion with sneakers on?

  76. Anna says:

    I’ve actually had this mental state for many years now. When I go shopping, I always keep in mind that something will have to go if I decide to get something new!

    And it works just fine…

  77. tim says:

    A laptop can be a games console, so too can a cell-phone.
    Always eating out is expensive and unhealthy, even if you are only eating out at subsidised canteens.

  78. threadbndr(Karla) says:

    When my son went to his first permanant duty station, he had a sea bag (duffle) and body bag (garment bag) full of uniforms and issued equipment, a seabag (full of civilian clothes, linens and books and his laptop case) and a backpack. That was it.

    With his car, he has a little bit more now, and as an NCO, his quarters are bigger (he doesn’t have a roommate any more, for one). But he can still get everything home in the back of his ’86 Corvette (which is not the biggest space).

  79. Ethan Bloch says:

    Well put Trent. When I moved out to San Francisco after college I trashed or sold over 60% of my belongings. Wish I accumulated and brought less to College to begin with :)

    Currently, I don’t have a TV and avoid unnecessary purchases as much as I can while still trying to sell unneeded items.

    I think more people would live healthier and happier lives if they did this, as ‘stuff’ just gives you a surgar high and doesn’t really lead to happiness.

    Rather, doing something you love and are good at is the path to happiness.

    That is all.



  80. Cha-Cha says:

    I developed a similar but more liberal program. Instead of a suitcase I used a ’71 Chevy Impala. When I moved, if “it” didn’t fit in the Impala, “it” was left. Kinda inconsiderate of me toward the landlord, but what is a college student if not self-absorbed?

    Eastern Illinois University
    Class of ’79

  81. Whitney says:

    I like this post. I actually did something similar when I went away to college. I flew in, so I had to pack everything on the plane. It all fit in two medium sized boxes, and a small suitcase. That included clothes, bedding (really bulky), a lamp, some favorite books, and a few personal items. When I got there, I got a computer, school supplies, and books.

    Moving out, of course, was another matter. I moved out right before getting married and my husband and I had managed more stuff in those four years than we realized. We were dirt poor, of course, so some of those things were things we knew we would need for our house (college kids are so wasteful at the end of the semester – made off with a lot of appliances!), and as we have been married longer, I can see the wisdom in that. Some of the best household items we have are from college (space savers from the dorm work great in an apartment that we live in while we save for a down payment!).

  82. Jo says:

    Trent–love the spirit of your post, and concur with you wholeheartedly (pooh pooh to all the negative posters!) Congrats to you for working WITH your wife on decluttering and streamlining your stuff to bring more peace and even money to your home.

    I feel this post, and all the comments both critical and supportive, would be very worthy of dinnertable conversations with children. Our family makes it a point to talk about “coming-up-soon” situations with our 10 year old while he still is open to learning and being influenced by his parents.

    Thanks again, Trent. Keep up the great work.

  83. This is a great post. To add to this, one of the ways I save money (and extra hassle) is to never check baggage when I fly. I find that, no matter where I go, I can manage to get by with a carry-on and a backpack. I’m not saying this will work for everybody, but I don’t need more than 2-3 days worth of clothes, toiletries, my laptop, and a couple of books for recreation. To me, the extra amount of time required to wash clothes every couple days is worth it, when I don’t have to worry about the hassle of checking bags.

  84. Michele says:

    My honeymoon was my best teacher for “living lean”. We lived out of our car for a month while traveling the country. We fit everything we needed into a two-door coupe, and by the end we found that we could have left a third of that behind.

    On our next month-long trip, we got everything into the coupe’s trunk. No one can call me high maintenance! :p

  85. AndyW says:

    I’ve lived out of a suitcase for 5 of the past 7 years. I work as a computer consultant and I’ve lived in Egypt, Romania, Greece, Turkey and France. My permanent residence is in California.

    I was forced to do this (it was not my choice) however, I have found that it was a valuable lesson in priorities. You can buy “things” anywhere, so there is no real worry about underware, for example.

    My priorities became, doing my job, communicating with my family/friends, maintaining sanity. My laptop and a couple of USB hard drives and a cheap pair of speakers took care of almost all of my three requirements.

    One thing that I always take with me is a musical instrument. I converted from guitar to ukulele because they fit in the overhead. I’ve also dabbled in the flute.

  86. Tracy says:

    There’s simply no way that I could fit my model railroad into a suitcase. It currently occupies one room in our basement, and if there’s one thing I would miss, this is it. If my house caught fire, wife/kids/dog are on their own, I’ll probably die in the fire trying to save the railroad.

  87. required says:

    5 pairs of underwear and socks? That means doing laundry every 4 days!!!

    I don’t use underwear, and I only own 2pairs of Socks, one in use the other spare, the in use pair get washed in the shower at the end of the day :)

  88. Jason says:

    Tracy…I was glad to read your comment at the end about your model railroad. I was reading through all the comments thinking about how I could totally do this if it weren’t for my model railroad. There is too much time and effort invested to even think about leaving it behind.

  89. Julie says:

    While I think your example is a little extreme, I do know that living out of a suitcase can be done for extended periods of time.

    Three years ago I went to Romania to work as a missionary. I did ship a crate, but it wasn’t due to arrive for several months…so I had to pack smart when I flew out.

    I had a rolling duffle bag packed with most of the clothes I’d need, a blanket, an air mattress, a pump, and a set of sheets.

    My smaller bag was actually carry-on size when not extended…but I extended it and put toiletries, shoes, portable speakers for my discman, and other heavier stuff in it. Those were my checked bags.

    I tied my coat on around my waist (as it was June) so as to not take up baggage space.

    I folded a small fleece throw around my small pillow before stuffing it into its case (then tucked a couple of books in there).

    My carry-on was my rolling laptop case (in which was also stuffed flip-flops, a towel, an external hard drive, pj’s, and a complete change of clothes).

    I used a huge ugly purse as my purse (which held all the usual contents as well as a discman, a small cd case, and a few other small “necessities”).

    Granted, all of this was a bit more than your one suitcase ideal…but I lived for five months covering three seasons with all of that and never felt deprived of home comforts. I even managed to take little trinkets and bandannas for my campers for that summer!!

    Now, though (married, owner of a spoiled cat, and with a little one on the way) it’d be a little harder to be QUITE that minimalistic. Though we certainly do our best to keep things simple, it may take several trips in the back of our Ranger (plus one load of furniture on a bigger truck) when we move from our 721 sq ft apartment to our 1607 sq ft house(where we plan on raising however many kids God blesses us with)!! A lot of that is books though, so I don’t consider that clutter.

  90. Steve Munson says:

    I had the same type of conversation with my mother a couple of years ago, only I used a footlocker in my example instead of a suitcase.

  91. Zed says:

    1. why are we chewing he out for not packing enough underwear?

    2. has anyone here been backpacking? packing list is bout the same for 2 days or a week, sleeping bag, water filter, stove, 2 shirts, the pants I’m wearing, 3-6 socks, 2-3 underwear. if you start the hike with any more than that it wont be in your pack by mile 10. trust me.

    3. when I moved I boxed most everything up and put it in the basement of the new home. then i went back to do some work on the old one. it was over a year before i unpacked some of the stuff and at that point i gave most of it to the DI

  92. Slinky says:

    I like asking, if your house was burning down (and size/weight didn’t matter for getting it out), what would you grab (excluding people and pets)?

    My top 3:
    Piano (A hand carved 1907 antique)
    Computer hard drive – which is why I have a drive drawer to just pull it out
    Future wedding ring

  93. Jason says:

    I like your list of things to take and think it’s manageable. However, I am interested to know what type of pants, shirts and the one pair of shoes you would bring.

  94. marcus says:

    surely eating from the school’s food service would be A LOT more expensive (and unhealthier?) than preparing at least SOME of your own meals. And where do you fit a bed (and other furniture) into this suitcase? And what is the advantage of moving from a console to a DS apart from it being able to fit it in a suitcase? This doesn’t make any sense. All seems a bit pointless…

  95. harm says:

    Why do people worry so much about laundry? If you
    are REALLY into minimalism, undies are easily
    good for 2 days, shirts and pants, 3 days….
    and if you work at home, or are a student, more
    than that, wink. I have plenty of undies myself,
    but they are getting kind of old and frayed, so if
    I had to suitcase out of my current abode, I’d
    just throw out a lot….(I know, if you are living
    in close quarters with a lot of people, you have
    to be more ‘spruce’, but us Americans worry FAR
    too much about being spotless and antiseptic. I
    also know there are people who carry that
    attitude to extremes, and truly smell bad)

  96. annie says:

    Just love this topic and lifestyle. Just love our trips on our motorcycle, we pack all we need in a t-bag attach it to the back and take off liberating to say the least. Work everday at accomplishing this in our everyday lives!

  97. jp says:

    love it! was blown away when you mentioned kids! I thought you were a just-out-of-college type. I’ll be living out of a suitcase for 4 months, and after reading your post i’m not sure i’ll want to go back!

  98. Layla says:

    I agree with this – I actually want to do this sometime, sublet my apartment and travel for like 4 months.

    The only thing I disagree with is the amount of underwear. Underwear is the one thing that I won’t wear twice without washing, so I like to have an excess of underwear. At least 8 pairs of underwear.

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