Honestly, I never had a massive load of stuff. At least not as much compared to many of my friends and family members. I would have called myself a moderate consumer before. Nevertheless, I developed a habit of buying very exclusive and expensive things. In the long term, it hurt my wallet and my mind. And I was far from being a minimalist and even further from being frugal.
But in 2018 everything changed when I came across the word minimalism. This was also the start of a life-changing journey.
But first things first.
In my mid-twenties I had a car and lots of tech gear for my work as a graphic designer and photographer. I also felt that I needed a motorbike, so I bought one. Very unnecessary in a city like Vienna where public transportation is almost perfect, but what the heck! I deserved it! I lived in an expensive apartment, paying about 900 Euros a month. I went eating out and having drinks with friends at least twice a week.
I spent so much money and I realized that my apartment slowly but surely was getting fuller. But this didn’t stop me from accumulating more expensive stuff. I used to compare myself with others. Which area in the city did my friends live in, how big were their homes, what cars did they drive and what else did they have that I didn’t? It unconsciously became a race of possessions. But it even got worse after I discovered a new hobby.
In 2008, after losing a bet with a dear friend, I participated in the Ironman Austria competition, a long endurance triathlon including 3.8km swimming, 180km cycling and a marathon on top of it. The preparation was hard and the race even more brutal, but crossing that finish line felt immensely rewarding. I fell in love with the sport and stuck to it for almost a decade. It forced me to stop smoking which was one of the best decisions in my life. On the other hand, I fell into the next trap and bought additional gear.. of course an expensive one!
I already had everything I needed but after every race I felt the urge to reward myself with something new. New running shoes here, a new helmet there, and of course, I needed another heart rate monitor watch and to top it all, just 2 years into my triathlon “career”, I bought a second bike. Gosh it was beautiful! It was made of carbon, had a matte black finish, the best gear-shifting technology and weighed only 6kg. I thought, hell yeah, I deserve this and I need it to become a better athlete. I mean, who doesn’t need a bike worth 9.000 Euros? Did it make me faster on the track? Probably by 2 minutes, but not worth mentioning for a hobby triathlete. A 1k Euro bike would have done it as well. The joy of having it lasted for just a few weeks.
Fast forward 10 years later I became a workaholic. Aside from my freelance job as a graphic designer I had a part-time job as a broadcast technician at a local TV company. I also launched a small photo booth rental business and gave personal fitness training. Let‘s say, I liked staying busy. But the truth was I had to sustain my lifestyle. The more I earned the more I spent. Work was running smoothly, but free time was close to zero. Mostly I was worn out and to reward my hard work I kept accumulating expensive stuff.
Additionally I bought an apartment in one of the trendiest districts in Vienna, which was, you guessed it, super expensive. Thinking it was the right thing to do, I saw myself as an investor, not knowing that I got a mediocre deal, which I would regret later. By that time my bank account was crying, putting me in the situation of living from paycheck to paycheck.
Soon my lifestyle started suffocating me. I had all this stuff, a big mortgage to pay, I was stressed out and unhappier than ever. Although I was still buying less than others, I realized that many of my possessions and decisions made me miserable.
At least I kept my physical health by exercising regularly but mentally I was struggling big time. I felt anxious about money and debt and that led to bad sleeping disorders. Being a workaholic and having sleep disorders is a toxic combination. Staying awake for 2 days in a row was not a rarity. I needed change.
Normally I would say that I am an advocate for avoiding spending too much time on social media but if it would have not been for Facebook I would have never met my lovely wife Maya. And if I did not have Instagram, I probably would have never scrolled through feeds of people who practiced a simple life, lived in tiny houses or vans. I would have never found Joshua Fields Melbourne and Ryan Nicodemus aka “The Minimalists”. Therefore I’m glad, that I did not shut down my social media accounts.
But I’ll get more into that later. After getting fed up working long hours and having difficulties balancing my life I started spending my little free time searching for alternative lifestyles. Before getting burnt out Maya and I decided to take a 6-month leave to travel the world. Luckily my boss agreed. To completely have stress-free mind I put my freelance jobs on hold as well. Renting out the apartment would help us cover mortgage payments for the next months. We promised each other to make the following 6 months the best time of our lives.
We started searching for ideas on Instagram. Feeds of travelers and van lifers gave us ideas about where to go and what to do. By the end of 2018 we sorted out a plan. The first half of our journey we would backpack around the world and the second half we’d road trip around Europe with a camper van. We already had a van that we used for our photo booth business so all we needed to do was transform it to a home on wheels.
We were pumped and spent the ice-cold winter weekends of 2018/19 transforming the van into a rolling home. Not knowing anything about woodwork and building anything we managed to install a pull out bed, a tiny kitchenette and a small closet – everything was pretty basic but to us it looked pretty awesome.
We finished the camper van build right before the start of our world trip in January 2018. Selling unnecessary stuff and working longer hours helped us to save enough money for the upcoming months. It was exhausting but we had an aim and we knew everything we did would be worth it. We were thrilled that our dream was becoming true.
A new adventure awaits
And off we went with our backpacks filled with around 10kg of clothes and traveling gear. All I had with me were 7 t-shirts, 2 pairs of jeans, 4 pairs of shorts, 2 sweaters for the colder countries, my laptop and some camera equipment to capture all the memories ahead of us.
We traveled from Europe to Asia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, the US, Belize, Mexico and Cuba. Although our travel itinerary was tight, we enjoyed every bit of our journey. We also knew that we would have more time to relax while living in our van later. We realized very soon how little we needed for living. I didn’t miss any of my other stuff.
I appreciated and loved every piece I had with me and I enjoyed wearing the same clothes over and over again. We learned to be more present. We understood that we could live a life with less and no longer want to be part of the vicious circle of consumerism.
While traveling lightweight we experienced so much joy and freedom and we asked ourselves why not also live lightweight? With less possession, less clutter to worry and care about Wouldn’t it also bring more freedom to our lives?
3 months and 10 beautiful countries later we returned to Vienna. Our van was waiting for us to hit the European roads. And again, we left with only the basic things for a living. We had food, a rolling home, clothes, each other and of course enough savings for the upcoming months.
Now that we had no flights to catch and no other tight schedules we were more flexible with our time. We used the slow pace to reflect and dig more into the topic of a minimalistic and simple lifestyle. We stayed longer in places we liked and left places sooner that we disliked.
The slow pace and living simply had a big positive impact on our mood and my sleep. At some places the wind would wake me up at night, but for a long time I experienced deep and sound sleep. I only experienced anxiety and stress whenever work hit my mind but mostly not as hard as at home.
We knew that such an opportunity was not likely to happen often in life and we made sure that we did not take it for granted. Our adventure was exactly what we needed and we were grateful for lots of joyful and fulfilling experiences together.
One day, during a beautiful sunset in Spain we both looked at each other and agreed that life was beautiful to us. That our journey together was a blessing and that whatever happened after that would be ok. Also if we suddenly left our bodies, we would leave happily. It would be alright.
Big life lessons
During our road trip around Europe I started to read books and blogs and listening to podcasts about living life simply and intentionally. My first read on this trip was The Big Five for Live by John Strelecky.
Now, this is not a book about minimalism but in my opinion a must-read to understand the importance of finding meaning and purpose in what we do. This inspirational fiction’s key message is to identify both a personal and corporate “Purpose for Existing” which should always be aligned to promote productivity and fulfillment.
The “Big Five” of the book’s title are the five things that we want to do, see, or experience in our life before we die. It encourages us to reflect and to find our core values that serve as guides or directions on our journey to our goals. A beautiful approach to planning a meaningful and fulfilling life, right? This meant for us to dig deep and find out what we wanted in life.
The least of us take the time and effort to ask what kind of life we want. We don’t set particular goals and I know it’s hard, but nobody else is going to figure it out for us. Not having a goal or direction is trying to solve a hard puzzle game without knowing the final picture or hitting a target you can’t see.
We need that picture or target to have a direction to follow. This doesn’t mean that the picture will not change on the journey but it will provide us meaning and power to go on. This was a major shift in our mindset and it gave us hope in designing the life we wanted in the future.
During our van life I also stumbled across Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus online. These men are helping millions of people to live a meaningful life with less through their website, books, podcast and documentary.
Their documentary “Minimalism – A documentary About the Important Things” was a complete game changer for me. I didn’t know much about minimalism before and I used to think that becoming a minimalist was nonsense. I thought it was living a life with deprivation, with no fun, constantly reducing things until you don’t own anything at all.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. As The Minimalists say: ”minimalism is about aligning your short-term actions with your long-term values.” This encouraged us to think more about our daily actions and their effect on our lives in the long run. Even the smallest actions have a big impact on how we live. Therefore it’s crucial to reflect on our actions if we want to change our lives. I highly recommend their inspirational books Everthing that remains and Minimalism to anyone who want to start their journey towards minimalism.
As everyone has a different approach to minimalism, it’s totally up to you how to embrace it in your life, in small increments or from one day to another. It is not the ultimate goal and it will not solve all your problems. Think of it as a very useful tool to achieve a more meaningful, joyful, and liberating life.
Like in many cases in life it’s always the question, “how bad do you want it?”. If you make it a priority, you’ll most probably move forward much easier. It became easier for us when we made the following decision: getting rid of the excess things that we didn’t need or that didn’t serve a purpose in our life to make space for the things that do. Knowing that we had enough and that excess consumerism will no longer be a part of us was one of our biggest lessons that changed our lives.
Getting back home with a different mindset and an array of new learnings, we went on pursuing a minimalistic lifestyle. We learned to love this simple philosophy. It just made so much sense and its benefits soon had a big impact in our daily lives.
We decluttered our home, sold over half of our possessions and started working hard on our personal growth. Today, we don’t own a lot, but what we own serves a purpose. Owning and wanting less material things reduced our stress level immensely. And this applied not only to material but also to mental clutter.
Avoiding unnecessary tasks in our calendar allowed us to go easier. The slower pace of our daily lives gave us more room to breathe. We still kept our day and freelance jobs but we no longer had the desire to accumulate more stuff and tasks just for the sake of staying busy. Instead we filled our newfound space with joy and intentional living, leading to more physical and mental freedom.
Now we feel less stressed, less anxious and less fearful. And we wish that everybody would experience the minimalism journey. Because life can be so wonderful when you live it lightweight!