Stuff takes on a different dimension when you’re moving into a minibus. Every item, like slippers or a backpack, takes up more space, relatively. You can’t have backups of anything. There is minimal storage and minimal space, so not only do I not want clutter, I literally can’t fit anything extra in.
I had plenty of time to prepare for such a significant downsizing, as it took me six months to build the bus. A few people have asked me for tips on decluttering, since I’ve done such an extreme version of it, so here’s what I did. Perhaps some of it might be useful.
I didn’t ask if things spark joy, because that isn’t a useful metric to me. Instead I considered whether I was extremely likely to use something, if it would cost a lot to replace, or if I loved it. If I loved something, I allowed myself to keep it, no matter what the reason was that I like it so much; whether it was sentimental or just because it looks nice. Decluttering isn’t meant to be agony. We’re allowed to want some stuff.
The deeper into the process I got, the easier it became to want less, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t attached to anything.
I had one simple method for deciding what clothes to get rid of. If I put something on in the morning, and took it off again, it went in the op shop pile. Easy.
It wasn’t a weather related choice, because I wouldn’t put something on in the first place if it was inappropriate. It was a matter of “does this feel good?” and the answer was often no. It was a momentary reactive decision-making process.
I watched a video (I can’t remember who or where, sorry) where the person said that everything in their closet was an option. It didn’t make sense to me at the time, but now it does. There isn’t anything in my clothes drawers that isn’t an option to wear on any given day. It’s all an option. Having one small set of drawers to store my clothes in forced me to give up on the things that might fit one day, or the several sets of activewear that I didn’t use, or the things that are pretty but not useful in my everyday life.
Were there clothes that I hesitated over? Of course – for me it was all my dresses that I used to wear when I was younger, slimmer, and went dancing on the town fairly regularly. Letting go of my party dresses was momentarily painful because it was a tangible acknowledgement that that part of my life, which was often enjoyable, is in the past. But both my life and my body have matured and changed since I wore those dresses, and that’s not a bad thing. I don’t need to store pretty dresses in my closet just so I could avoid the brief sting of remembering I’m no longer in my 20s.
I have a lot of books. I love books. If anything was to be my decluttering downfall, it’s books. Unlike with my clothes, where I made mostly instinctual decisions, I was more conscious with my book choices. My first purge saw me get rid of nearly 200 books. I tried to sell them on Facebook, and did sell a few, but the return on secondhand books wasn’t worth the time and effort for me, so I ended up donating them to a friend’s school fair.
The books I kept are the ones I love. The books I got rid of were mostly from book fairs. I’d buy bags full of books at once, because book fairs are intoxicating, and so cheap! Then, for the most part, those books would sit around unread until I supplemented them with another huge pile from the following year’s book fair. In general, when I want a specific book and seek it out and purchase it, I read it. If I buy a bunch at once because they’re cheap, they just end up on an eternal to-be-read list. Those ones were out the door.
Then I did a second cull of books, because I have only one bookshelf in the bus, but I do have a storage unit. Books that went into storage are ones I like and value. About half of the books that made it to the bus are at the top of my to-be-read list, and about half of them are either favourites that I reread, or reference books that I do actually refer to. I also have a Kindle for new books I want to read, although I wish I had a Kobo instead and could just get books out from the library on it.
Hot tip if you want to be super organised when putting stuff in storage: I have a spreadsheet that contains a list of all the contents of all the boxes in storage. So if I want to retrieve a particular book I can look it up and go straight for Books box 7. If I want my stick blender, I can go to Misc box 3 rather than looking through every single box. It makes the storage unit more useful for the period of time we’re living in the bus.
I also had a lot of craft gear. Like books, the resale value of secondhand craft items was very low compared to the cost of buying new. In fact, that’s how I ended up with a lot of my craft stuff in the first place – someone like me would be moving and need to get rid of a lot of random crafty items, so I’d get a big stash for very little.
The other thing with crafts is that often you just need a tiny bit of something for a project. So it’s hard to get rid of a piece of ribbon when you know a project might call for exactly that type of ribbon, and it’s annoying to go and buy one piece of ribbon. But again, I had to be more brutal this time. A larger storage unit costs more money, so I wanted to store only what I absolutely knew was worth keeping.
I kept paints, inks, and pens that were still fresh, good quality, and in full sets. I kept good quality paper. I kept tools. I got rid of half empty packets of feathers or beads or other random small items. I kept my sewing machine but donated the overlocker to a refugee resettlement organisation. I kept smaller things like zips and pins and the good Gutermann threads, but donated most of my fabric.
Basically I kept stuff that I do actually use, and got rid of stuff that was leftover from projects I’d completed or abandoned, bigger things like fabric and stacks of paper, or stuff that I’d been given or acquired during someone else’s de-stash.
I just want to take a moment to be outraged at how many “beauty” items I had. I’m not someone who spends a lot of time and thought on my appearance, I wear minimal makeup, I don’t know anything about various serums or conditioners or hair removal products for skin or hair or body. It’s just not my jam. Even so, I had a bathroom cupboard full of potions. There were six bottles of sunscreen, because I’d forget to take some and have to buy more once we were out. (I know, I know, but I have ADHD. Sometimes I just forget things.) There were a bazillion different skincare products for when I was trying to sort out my pimple-prone skin (turns out antibiotics was the only thing that helped).
This stuff was the easiest to get rid of in terms of attachment, but also the hardest in terms of waste. I wasn’t attached to the third bottle of sunscreen, but I was conscious of how wasteful it was to throw it away. Clothes and books can be donated, shared, reused, but no one is going to buy a half used bottle of foaming facial cleanser in an op shop. It was easy to trim my supplies down to what I actually regularly used, but I still feel bad about sending the rest to landfill.
The flip side of decluttering to such an extreme is realising how much unnecessary stuff I’d acquired, and how difficult it is to get rid of things. I paid $350 to a rubbish removal company to get rid of all the stuff I couldn’t pass on to others. That’s so much money, just to get rid of stuff. That included furniture that wasn’t usable just because I’d left it in the carport where the weather had gotten to it, instead of selling it or giving it away when it was still usable. Sorting and then paying for rubbish removal – because I had so much rubbish I couldn’t just take a car load to the tip or put it in council rubbish bags – really makes me think harder about what I buy in the first place. Even though I try to be environmentally conscious, consumerism still got the better of me, and it’s something I’m determined to get better at. Partly because I have to – I can’t fit much more in the bus. But partly because too much stuff ends in landfill and I don’t want to consign a truckload of rubbish to the earth in one go ever again. I’m not trying to be zero waste, but the best way to not have too much stuff is to not buy it in the first place.
How did I get so many towels? Why? Am I really just bracing myself for a night of vomiting? (That did happen recently and we only needed one towel because my kid is old enough to aim into a bowl now.) I kept one towel each in the bus for Caspian and myself. Donated a bunch. Used some of the nicer matching ones from when I had an AirBnB room to wrap some of my fragile items in storage boxes. Donated all our spare bedding. We don’t need any of it, not even spare sheets. For a long time I’ve only used one set of sheets and bedding each, because I wash and dry it in one day, and that won’t change (it’ll just be at a laundromat instead of at home). Linen was by far the easiest thing to declutter. Most of mine was in good condition and in matching sets (because I haaaate sets that don’t match), so I donated to the op shop, but if I’d had older towels I would have given them to an animal shelter.
I found it easy to get rid of a lot of kitchen stuff. In the bus, Caspian and I have one plate, one bowl, one mug, and one glass each. We have two sets of cutlery each. (Why not one? I don’t know. They’re small, I guess.) It’s easier to keep our tiny kitchen clean when we hardly have any dishes, and needing to clean them in order to eat the next meal is a great motivator, now that we don’t have a dishwasher anymore.
I donated a huge pile of cutlery, wine glasses, water glasses, plates and bowls, many utensils, and pots and pans. I kept only the things that I regularly use, or things that can be used for more than one purpose. I donated my set of knives (to be fair they weren’t top quality, I get that people would keep really good knives). I now only have one sharp knife. I kept my slow cooker and breadmaker, and put a few kitchen items into storage, like the food processor.
Kitchen stuff can take up a lot of space, so it felt good every time I took something off the bench, or out of cupboards. Another thing to not have to wash. Another tiny decision I don’t have to make. I only have one mixing bowl and one spatula, only one cast iron skillet instead of a few frying pans. I don’t have to decide what to use because there’s only one option. These tiny things all add up to mental clutter, and I am loving the increased cognitive space that I have already.
And now to the various items that make up a life that defy categorisation. Spare charger cords? Binned. Three spare pairs of scissors? Donated. That cool but broken string of flamingo lights? Binned. There were things I hesitated over but for the most part I donated or binned a lot of the miscellaneous items that we just accumulate and don’t need, or can replace easily. I put things that are important to me but not necessary for everyday life into storage, such as a few iconic baby clothes, photo albums, and writing from when I was younger and still wrote on paper. I sold most of my plants but kept quite a few, because plants just look so lovely and homely.
I didn’t restrict what Caspian could put in storage, because this whole living-in-a-bus thing was my idea, and I didn’t want him to feel like I was getting rid of all his stuff. Turned out that he was less attached to a lot of his stuff than I expected. He brought some of his favourite books, some art supplies, and things like kinetic sand and putty to play with in the bus. And of course his computer and Nintendo Switch. He got rid of a lot of his stuff quite easily, which makes sense now that I think about it, since most of what kids have is gifted rather than things they choose or work for themselves. Plus they grow out of clothes and toys and books so quickly. He only put a few things in storage – some of his books, a container full of drawings, a few bits and pieces.
I sold all our bookshelves and both of our desks, and a handful of other furniture items too. They were things that were useful, but bulky, and I wasn’t attached to them. I kept our couches, which a friend is using, and the piano, which another friend is using. I put our beds and mattresses into storage because they were less than two years old, and I figured if for some reason we have to move out of the bus sooner than planned, beds are both necessary and also expensive to replace. I also put a coffee table that I’d made into storage, plus some drawers and lockers that I just really like and want to keep.
I also put my fridge, washing machine, and dryer in storage. They were less than a year old, and in perfect condition, but secondhand whiteware doesn’t fetch anywhere near what I’d have to spend to purchase them again once we’re back in a house.
Tools and outdoors
I sold my table saw, as it had a good resale value and was large to store. I’ve put all my other tools in storage, plus some of my leftover timber from the bus construction. Although power tools actually can get a decent amount if you sell them secondhand, unlike many of the other things above, I decided to keep mine, as I really enjoyed building. I’d like to do more of it one day (maybe I’ll build furniture rather than a home, though) and I don’t want to have to buy everything again.
I sold my outdoor table and chairs, and gave away Caspian’s trampoline, because it wasn’t an expensive one, and I just wanted someone to take it away. Same with the miscellaneous garden stuff I had, including quite a few bags of compost. After trying to put in gardens at rentals, I’ve accepted I won’t have a garden for a very long time, so I gave most of my garden stuff to a friend who actually gardens instead of dreaming about it, and who helped me a lot with building the bus.
I think that covers everything! I thought I didn’t have a LOT of stuff, partly because I’ve moved twice in the last two years, and got rid of things each time I moved. But then I accumulate more stuff without even fully realising. It will be fairly easy to not buy or accept gifts of too much stuff while we’re in the bus, because we simply can’t fit it in. Makes it easy to say no to myself, and no thank you to others. But I also hope to build up a habit of conscious and ethical purchasing while we are living tiny, rather than the subconscious consumerism that capitalism demands of us.
There is significant privilege in minimalism, which I want to acknowledge. A lot of minimalist tips are about not storing things that you can easily buy. Not everyone can go out and buy what they need, so if someone gives you some secondhand towels, you hang on to them. In the past when I was poor, I would have found it a lot harder to get rid of things. Now that I have a decent job, it’s easier to let go of things, knowing I can replace them if I need to.
Every time I got rid of something I felt a little bit lighter, and a little bit more free. I had a powerful motivator that most people don’t – living tiny – but I’m glad for the experience of having to be deliberate in every choice about what I own and what I use.