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The One Simple Lifestyle Change That Will Transform Your Life

Everybody wants more. Everybody wants to have the bigger house, the faster car, the nicer suit. When the new phone comes out, we want it. We need it. When we get to six figures, we want seven, and if we’re lucky enough to get to seven, we want eight. Everybody always wants more.

But what would happen if everybody wanted less? What if you offered somebody a mansion and they simply said, “No thanks, my studio apartment is just fine.” What if you offered someone an Armani suit and they said, “That’s alright, I’ve already got all the clothes I need.” Because interestingly, that seems to bring people a lot closer to happiness than you’d think.

When I was a kid, I didn’t know what I wanted to be when I grew up. My friends wanted to be firemen, or soldiers or race car drivers. But not me. None of that stuff really jumped out at me. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wanted to be rich.

This dream carried through my teenage years and into adulthood. When I started work as an accountant, I would fawn over my clients’ bank statements, mad with envy.

“Bro, come look at this one!” I’d say to my colleague, and we’d huddle around it, staring at the endless zeroes, in awe of these guys who were ordering European cars like Domino’s and living in million dollar houses. I would run through their entire statement, looking at the $2,000 dinners they would buy and the weekend shopping splurges they’d have on clothes and holidays.

“That’ll be me one day,” I would smile to myself.

I was going to upgrade from this shitty job, work at some big bank in London, get a gig on Wall Street. I was going to be that guy who drove around the corner in the $400,000 car and everyone would stop to watch me drive past. I’d be the guy that finally bought that $3,000 bottle of wine on the menu. I had a nice life, but I wanted more. I always wanted more.

My first trip to Africa started to change that. I worked with many vulnerable children and families during my time there, and interestingly, began to admire them a lot more than I’d admired those millionaires in my client folder. It forced me to question the value of my dream and where it was taking me, and I began to wonder why I had been chasing a life of excess when in reality, I already had everything I could possibly need.

I spent the next 3 years travelling the world, and with these thoughts in the back of my mind I started to embrace the minimalist lifestyle. I stopped buying new things, simply because I didn’t have any room to carry them. And as I stopped buying new things, I stopped wanting new things. And as I stopped wanting new things, I noticed that new things didn’t have any effect on my happiness at all.

With only five t-shirts, my body felt the same as when I had twenty t-shirts.

With one pair of shoes, my feet felt the same as when I had five pairs.

Somehow, my shoulders didn’t seem to complain that I wore the same jacket each day.

Instead of wanting more, I wanted less. And slowly, I realised I’d been chasing the wrong things all along. All those years I’d been working 40 hour weeks to buy more and have more, and now suddenly, there was nothing I wanted to buy. So what good was a job after that? What was I supposed to be working for?

Nothing.

I didn’t need to work for anything. I was free.

And just like that my dream had come true. I was rich.

rich

Over the past year, I can count on one hand the physical things I’ve bought that cost more than $100.

Two.

A cellphone, and a juicer.

I’ve largely managed to remove “stuff” from my life. And despite not earning a lot of money and not buying a lot of things, the year gone by has been one of the richest years of my life. Without the burden of a job, mortgage, car and house full of stuff, I’ve managed to spend my entire days on more fulfilling activities such as writing, reading, learning, meditating, exploring, exercising, cooking, relaxing, and interestingly, almost all of these things are free. Some would say I’m living like a retired millionaire, and maybe I am, but I don’t have much money at all. I’ve learned that when you stop buying things, you stop needing a lot of money, and when you stop needing money, you no longer need a regular job, and when you no longer have a regular job, you have time, and when you have time, you can literally do whatever you want. And isn’t that the meaning of happiness? To do whatever you want?

In the west especially, we place a lot of value on material things. We often define people by what they have, rather than who they are. Just the other day I remember asking my friend about someone in her family.

“What’s he like?” I asked, to which she responded, “He has a helicopter”. It puzzled me. A helicopter? Is that who he is? I guess a few years back, that would’ve impressed me, but the reality is things are just things. And they have nothing to do with who you are.

Ask yourself, who are you as a person? Who do you want to be? What do you want to learn, to be good at, to experience, to see?

Because what makes you rich and unique is not what you have, but how you have lived. It’s in the stories you’ve collected, the lives you have touched. It’s in the memories you have to take with you.

blind

Since I’ve been travelling, I’ve had a lot of plane rides and bus trips to sit and reflect, and the one thing I always tend to think about is happiness.

What does it mean? And where does it come from?

Many of you, like I did, might consider that getting your dream apartment, a European car, a walk in wardrobe with all your favourite clothes, and a million dollar lottery win will probably get you there. But imagine you had all that tomorrow. Picture yourself with all of that. What would you do next? I’d assume you would say you’re going to spend the rest of your life doing things you love, like travelling, or relaxing on the beach and surfing, or writing music, or spending time with your kids. But if you think about it, you can already do all these things. You do not need the house, or the car, or the million dollars for that fulfillment. And that should tell you that in reality, your happiness has nothing to do with those material things at all.

becker

If you find yourself unhappy, not having the time or money to live the life you desire, start asking yourself, why? What are you missing in your life? Chances are you’re spending too much time working, and not enough time on the things you love. But what are you working so hard for? What do you need to buy that you don’t already have?

There is a Swedish proverb that goes something like, “He who buys what he does not need, steals from himself.” Take a moment to think about how much you’ve stolen from yourself. What did you spend your paychecks on last year? Were they essential to your survival? Will you remember those things ten years from now?

You can buy a car for $10,000, or you can travel the world for a year. You can buy a $1,000 iPad, or you can buy 10 flights around Asia. You can buy an $800,000 penthouse apartment, or you can spend the rest of your life relaxing in beachfront huts for $20 a day.

Think about the stuff you’re buying. Is it bringing your dream closer? Or pushing it further away?

In The 4 Hour Work Week, the author talks a lot about lifestyle costing and design. The basic premise is, what is your ideal lifestyle, and how much does it cost to live it? I love Asia, so for me, I’d probably live there, at least for now. A decent bed is $12 a night, great food is $5 a day, a massage is $5 and other miscellaneous costs might run me $5 more. That works out to $27 a day to live a comfortable life at the beach (or in the city). So ideally, that is what I’d aim to earn, and the rest of my time would be spent living, i.e. doing what I love.

What about you? How much money do you really need?

The beauty of this equation is that it highlights the value of minimalism. If your lifestyle is too expensive, want less. Make do with less. Everyone has a choice between living with more and working more, or living with less and working less.

Which will you choose?

jackma

People often ask me, what’s my secret? How do I do it? How do you spend the entire year travelling the world?

I suppose there is a secret, and to live this lifestyle it’s mostly been about one thing – spending less money.

Everything of importance to me I can fit into my 70 litre backpack. There’s a couple of pairs of shoes in there, my laptop, my camera, some clothes, some toiletries, and that’s it. I live with the contents of this bag year round, and need nothing more and nothing less. It almost feels like I own nothing. But I have more than I could possibly need.

backpacking life
My life squashed into one bag

I can’t remember the last time I went “shopping”. I don’t remember the last time I bought a new shirt. I do not spend my day dreaming of things to buy, but rather reading about things I want to learn, writing about things that are on my mind, and seeing places that I’ve always wanted. I take photos, I sleep in, I walk, I exercise, I read and write, I explore and I relax. That is my day.

In this age of hyper-consumerism and extravagant spending, I’ve been liberated by simply living a life of minimalism. I am no longer enticed by shiny things. I no longer believe in the lie that success consists of earning more and buying more. I buy only what I need, and I simply live.

The one simple lifestyle change that will transform your life

In the movie Fight Club, Tyler Durden famously said, “The things you own, end up owning you.” You buy a house, and it owns you. You cannot stop working because of it. You cannot travel because of it. You cannot spend more time with your family because of it. You cannot quit your job because of it. Your entire day, your entire life, becomes about earning more money to pay for your house.

Ask yourself; do you own the house, or does the house own you?

When you buy a car, you need to finance it. You need to service and clean it. You need to pay for petrol, insurance, warrants, parking. You worry about where to leave it, whether someone will dent it, whether it will be stolen, whether it’s been registered. The car you wanted so badly is now always on your mind, sucking in all your time, money and energy.

Ask yourself, do you own the car, or does the car own you?

When the weekend finally comes you have two precious days free, but you need to spend it cleaning the house, the car, the boat, the second house, the clothes, the garage, the garden.

Let me ask you, what if you had nothing? How much simpler would life be? Instead of 5 rooms to clean, what if you only had three? Two? One?! How much more time would you have to read, surf, run, play the piano, go out for dinner, travel, stargaze, dance?

Instead of wanting more, maybe it’s time we started thinking about less. Instead of filling up your shelves, empty them. Instead of buying something every weekend, sell something. Instead of wanting everything, want nothing at all.

You might just find your dreams are a lot easier to get to, when there’s less stuff in the way.

 

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43 thoughts on “The One Simple Lifestyle Change That Will Transform Your Life

  1. I don’t own my stuff. I’m a slave to my stuff. Looking at my stuff, there are things I haven’t used in years. Yet, here it all is. Anyone want to buy some stuff?

  2. What a thoughtful philosophical and inspirational piece! Are you the reincarnation of Buddha? 😉 I totally agree with you. All my possessions used to fit in 2 duffle bags, that’s it. I got married and my partner came with a house and a car (all paid off though). But we certainly don’t want more. I am always trying to find ways to simplify our lives, and we have a lot of free time as a result. Happiness is being able to be content with what you have, and I don’t buy stuff too much. I think it’s a mentality that one can develop. It’s not really a natural one as we are born in a world of consumerism, but with a bit of practice, it gets easier and life gets richer and more fulfilling.

  3. Brendan what an amazing article. I was in Shanghai while you were there too, since my time there, I have been itching to up and go somewhere again. Being an Asian brought up child, I want everything materialistic and think how many dollar signs I earn is my net worth. I am currently aspiring towards becoming comfortable with this idea and travelling like you do! Just thought I’d shout out 🙂

    1. Hi Natalie – Shanghai is one of those places where you can easily get sucked into the world of buying LOTS of stuff. Even I bought quite a lot of clothes and shoes I didn’t need while I was there. This was a couple of years ago now, so I’ve definitely gotten better at living with less since then. Hope to see you on the road some time!

  4. Thank you for posting such an insightful and philosophical article. This reminds me of a conversation I had recently with a woman while at work. She was from Ottawa, Canada (my home town), but originally was born in Vancouver. I mentioned to her I was from Ottawa as well, but moved to Vancouver. Instantly, she asked me why I had moved to Vancouver as housing is very expensive (and it is). I replied to her, I was looking for a new start, a better job, etc.Her every response was “you can’t buy a house” I have no intention of buying a house and she became upset at this as she couldn’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to buy a house. It dawned on me her entire life was working towards buying, owning and maintaining a house. When I told her, of my love of backpacking, she said it was a waste of money as you can’t touch it or own it. She was completely consumed by the notion you must buy and own a house. To think otherwise of a “waste of your life”. Material goods was the be all end all of life for her.
    To each their own of course. Seeing your post and how I agree with you was a breath of fresh air.

    1. Hi Tony, “unplugging from the Matrix” is very difficult for most people. It takes time, and often the concept cannot be explained to people. They need to discover it for themselves, as you and I did. And that is only if they want a lifestyle change in the first place, of course. To each their own I suppose.

  5. As soon as I started preparing for my OE I realised how much stuff I had……and didnt need. I sold heaps, including my expensive car, yet I still had to leave a crapload of stuff at my parents. When did I get so much stuff? Why? I live in London now, I have bought a few things out of necessity (ie warm clothes) but thats it and I will continue because I’m here to observe, explore, travel. Not have a big wardrobe with flashy gadgets. I totally get you man! xx

  6. Hey Bren, I just stumbled upon this article and dude, you are the real life Tyler Durden. I love your advocacy for living simply. Congrats on being awesome 😉

    Each time I’ve gotten rid of a significant amount of stuff, I’ve always feel better, lighter. Its like therapy. There’s usually a threshold I get to though, I reach a limit of stuff that I can’t seem to let go of even though it’s no longer serving me. Then I get distracted by the culture I live in and start adopting its values, thinking to myself that I need to climb the ladder and get more.

    But then I read an article like this and remember what it is I really want to do, and what really makes me happy. I have a feeling if I poke around your site enough I’ll be motivated to get over that stuff-purging threshold that’s held me back before.

    The suitcase shot of your most important belongings got to me…

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Hi Colin,

      Thanks for reading and your comments. The ‘suitcase of stuff’ was borne out of necessity more than anything else. The road is a great teacher and learning to live with less is one of it’s best lessons. When you’re forced to live with only what you can carry, you don’t have any other choice and you get used to it after a while.

      I’ve also struggled to get rid of all my things in my house, and it’s definitely a process. Keep at it!

      Bren

  7. Hey Bren,

    It’s Cindy from LDC, it was really cool meeting you in person! I just read this post and found it really inspiring and will definitely be spending less where I can. I’d say it’s easy not needing materialistic things if your life only consists of travel however it’s hard not to need things while you’re in one place working a full time job. For example needing a car, clothes for work, kitchen appliances to cook etc. One thing I want to ask you however is what are your long term plans? Do you think you will end up saving for a house and starting a family?

    PS nice one with the affirmation note you took ages to write ha!

    1. Hey Cindy – thanks for writing 😉

      You might remember in my book I discussed minimalism also and how that was really important for me to be able to save up enough for my travel fund, even while I was working. Downsizing your wardrobe and shoe collection and nights out at the club – that worked really well for me but was definitely difficult. Slowly cutting your spending bit by bit and selling off small things you don’t need is the trick. A good rule is to sell something every time you buy something new – harder than it sounds. As for my long term plans, that’s kind of a long answer. I’ll try answer it in person next time I see you 😉

  8. I don’t get how this would work if you had or planning to raise a family. No matter what you do need to save money for the future of your family. You might not have expenses for yourself but families cost money and you need savings for at least tuition. But I don’t see as working for your family as being a slave to your family though. I see it as an act of love. There’s nothing wrong in working hard so that you can finance your kids’ dreams. I do admire your values though but I do believe people still need to save despite not having a lot of current expenses. If one ever decides to get married, someone with this lifestyle would not have any savings to finance expensive trips to the doctor, tuition, accidents that necessitate leave from work etc. I have a healthy salary and it feels great to be able to donate more to my favorite charities. For me, it just seems a lot more fulfilling to earn money for others than to earn nothing because I don’t spend anything. But I very much agree that possessions should not be the goals in life. Thank you for sharing that.

    1. Hi Leslie, thanks for your comments. Of course – I would never suggest compromising your family’s needs for your own travels. But I’ve met full-time travelling families out there who make it work, and the reason is they don’t indulge in meaningless possessions. Most people I’ve met who use “family” or “children” as an excuse for travelling are still guilty of the same things I detailed above. They own iPads. They own 10 pairs of shoes. They drive expensive cars and live in houses with extra bedrooms and big TVs. “Family” is the convenient excuse, but I think the real reason is they simply cannot give up their lifestyle. It is true that minimalism may need to be exercised to a different extent based on our circumstances, but it can benefit us all, regardless of where you are in life.

  9. Hi Bren. I just found your blog today, and I’m gobbling it all up! Thank you for sharing your adventures and all you’ve learned. You mentioned in this post that if you had to settle down, you would choose “Asia.” Where exactly in Asia? Very curious! Thanks again, Michelle

    1. As a bachelor I would probably choose Bangkok or maybe The Philippines (I was living in that region for most of 2013), but I’d also be open to somewhere like Bulgaria or Colombia. Hard to say, really.

  10. Hi Bren, congratulations on having the wisdom of travelling light in life at an early stage of one’s life and thanks to the exposure gained from travels, isn’t it? I too used to own an apartment by the water, a nice European car, nice clothing’s and shoes. After a while, I felt burdened and enslaved spinning the same wheel of life the society expects. Gradually the light of contentment dawned on me to live simply, minimally and thankfully. Now, I live in a one-bedroom housing co-op, take public transit, practise reduce, reuse and recycle in all that I use. I no longer have the desires for things I do not need. So long my good basics are in place, I have everything! I stop and smell the roses, I practise mindfulness (sometimes I stumble but the consciousness of not being mindful brings me back on the path again), pursue inner peace, better myself through reading and self-introspection, do random acts of kindness regularly and able to travel more from the income generated through a full-time profession. This lifestyle has given me a sense of freedom and liberty from the shackle of over-consumerism. I’m pondering how I could work less and live and travel more comfortably. Bren, if and when you are in Vancouver, Canada, l would love to chat with you over a bowl of delicious noodle soup, if you’d like too, that is. Cheers 🙂

    1. Hi Amy, thanks for sharing. Noodles sounds great. If I’m ever in Vancouver, or if we ever cross paths out there somewhere 🙂 Until then keeping live the good life.

  11. Bren, great article!

    Your article resonates with me and my desire to simplify my life and just travel. My husband and I are in our 50’s and think about all the material possessions that own us. My husband and I would love to leave our jobs, sell our possessions and just travel, but have a disabled daughter that lives with us. How do people in our situation travel to other countries for extensive periods. Our daughter is capable of travelling, but requires daily meds and what do you do if a trip to emergency is required?

    1. Hi Susie,
      Could you share what disability exactly? And which areas of the world you’d like to visit? Feel free to send me an email if you’re more comfortable.

  12. Hi i just read your article, and i don’t usually leave comments but i wanted to say your article is very inspirational. I think you have truly found yourself and are truly living. I get really happy reading or hearing about people like you who travel a lot and don’t need a lot of materialistic things to be happy. I wanted to know how is it that you got to travel to so many places if you don’t mind. Does your job just require you to travel or do you save up your money and travel places? Also do you go on your own? It has always been my dream to do what you do 🙂

    1. Hi Ashma, thanks for taking the time to comment. I used to be an accountant and travelled on savings for about 2-3 years, after that I started my online freelancing/blogging career to keep me sustained. You can read more about my story on my About page. Cheers!

  13. Très bel article. J’ai eu la même réflexion que vous l’an dernier, et cela a été une libération pour moi. J’habite maintenant une tiny house sur roue, et je vis ma vie en minimaliste ainsi. C’est par contre un exercice constant, de jour en jour, que de se rappeler que nous n’avons pas besoin de ces «choses». Cette idéologie de vouloir «toujours plus» est parfois difficile à oublier lorsque nous sommes entourés d’images et de propos montrant que le succès s’acquière par les biens matériels.
    Merci pour votre article.

    1. Hi Cam, sorry my French isn’t great, but I think I understood 🙂 Glad to hear the journey into minimalism has been fulfilling for you also. Thanks for sharing.

  14. Hi Bren, thanks for a great article!
    Its not the first article on the topic I’ve read though and most of them don’t discuss how that lifestyle would be compatible with an old age. Its much harder to earn even little money for old people to sustain themselves and if e.g. one don’t have a house he’ll also need to pay rent etc… What’s your take on this? Are you going to rely on NZ superannuation? Should be more than enough to live in e.g. SE Asia I guess..
    Thanks!

    1. That’s quite far ahead for me, but check out Duncan and Jane at To Travel Too, they’re both travelling permanently on their Australian pension!

      1. Oh my!
        “Daily budget: AU$165”
        I see australian pensions are getting very close to my full-time salary! 🙂
        Luckily I don’t need that much – last year I was spending ~NZ$45 daily, thats living in Auckland and including a few months of travel abroad (and airtickets are expensive!).
        Thanks for the link though!

  15. Go Bren!
    …and go now while you are young and carefree! As a sixty year old free spirited artist, I’m glad I travelled as much as I did when I was younger living on a shoestring.
    Things can change with aging/ family responsibilities, health, etc.

  16. Simplicity, patience, compassion.
    These three are your greatest treasures.
    Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
    Patient with both friends and enemies,you accord with the way things are.
    Compassionate toward yourself,
    you reconcile all beings in the world.

    Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

  17. I totally agree with you. Thank you for sharing your thoughtful and worth reading realization. it really makes sense. Just like you, I always thought about wanting more before. but when i start traveling and be with nature, I start to appreciate and admire beauty in it’s simplest form. And I realize I already have all the things that i needed. 🙂 Thank you again, this inspires me more to continue living a simple life.

  18. I remember when my dad got hospitalized and I had to sell my car to help pay the huge medical bills, I didn’t think twice of selling it. And it was one of the best decisions I’ve made.
    Friends would be very sad to hear that I don’t have a car anymore, but it was just fine with me. First, it was used for a good purpose for my dad’s medical bills (he passed away after a month ) I will do everything for my family. Second, you’re correct, the car has owned me in so many ways. I remember the pressure of keeping up with the maintainance and all. Of how I would be so stressed when I need to fix something.
    Having no car and having a simple life has been very liberating for me. I love the Swedish proverb, “He who buys what he does not need, steals from himself.” I can totally relate.

    1. I’m not suggesting people shouldn’t buy a car or boat. I’m suggesting people shouldn’t buy three or four cars or boats. Because then where would it end? You’ll be chasing cars and boats forever. That’s my experience.

  19. In a country like Nigeria. If I decide I want to live “simple” life. I quit my job, where do I live? Ok I put my savings together by a mud house in the village. One night men come in, rape and slice me into different parts. Wow that fairy tale took a harsh turn….

    In my world getting more material things has become a necessity; Either buy a big car of walk on bad roads knee deep in water get sick and spend money on hospitals. Go to a cheap hospital you’ll get fake drugs which will make you more sick then spend more money on hospital bill. You don’t have the money? Spend the rest of your life sick. Wow now you can’t work, btw on a visit to hospital they took out your kidney and you don’t even know it yet….. goes on

    1. Hi Lola, thanks for your comment. This article only meant to show perspective. Not to convince everyone to live exactly as I live. I only wanted people to think about their consumerism. The point was not to live without a house or a car. If you want or need a house and car, that’s fine. But once you have a house and car, do you need any more? Most people keep working to buy a second house, and a second car, and then upgrade them to even better houses and cars. It’s a hamster wheel, and most people never get off. I’m not advocating poverty as you imply. Acquire whatever you need to live. Nothing more nothing less.

  20. Revisiting this article to get inspired again. I have a wife and four kids, so globetrotting full time isn’t really in the card, but I still love to travel. I ask people to not buy me things for my birthday or other holidays. If they feel they must, make me something or buy me something I can eat or drink. My two weakness are dressing nicely and camping. I feel like stuff has started to build up again so I plan on paring down. Thanks for the inspiration.

    1. Hey James, I am exactly the same way and whenever I start accumulating stuff I need to take a reality check and start downsizing again. I bought some clothes recently, even though my backpack was already packed with far more than I need. It’s an ongoing challenge for all of us!

  21. Impressed and realized by ” I’ve learned that when you stop buying things, you stop needing a lot of money, and when you stop needing money, you no longer need a regular job, and when you no longer have a regular job, you have time, and when you have time, you can literally do whatever you want.”

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