Have you ever wondered “What if I didn’t own all that stuff?” How liberating would that feel?
I know I did. So in late 2014, I sold almost everything. Since then, I have been living with only what I can fit into a backpack.
This lifestyle is called extreme minimalism. Think 15 items or less, no furniture, and sleeping on the ground.
In this article, you will learn what extreme minimalism is all about, if it’s for you, and how you can make the transition.
The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.Socrates
- What Is Extreme Minimalism?
- What Extreme Minimalism Looks Like
- Why 15–150 Items?
- A Note on Counting
- How Low Can You Go?
- Why There Is Nothing Extreme About It
- “Regular” Minimalism vs. Extreme Minimalism
- Crossover With Other Lifestyles
- Famous (And Infamous) Extreme Minimalists
- The 5 Reasons for Extreme Minimalism
- Is It for You?
- How To Start Extreme Minimalism in 8 Steps
- 3 Pitfalls To Watch Out For
What Is Extreme Minimalism?
Extreme minimalism is the practice of owning very few material things, usually in the range of 15–150 items.
Why would people want to live like that? The reasons cited most often are:
- spiritual development
- simplifying your life
- reduced environmental impact
- geographical mobility
The common theme here is “less but better.” Specifically, things are considered less valuable than experiences.
There are two types of extreme minimalists: those with a home base and those living a mobile lifestyle.
The former camp is characterized by owning very few pieces of furniture or none. But overall, home dwellers tend to amass a few more items, like kitchen utensils or cleaning supplies.
In contrast, the nomad owns only what fits into a backpack. To be fair, nomads often stay in fully equipped Airbnbs. Hence they can make do with even less stuff.
What Extreme Minimalism Looks Like
Imagine that you are invited to your friend’s place, who happens to be an extreme minimalist. These are the things you probably won’t see upon arrival:
- a TV
- a washer
- a dryer
- any paper documents
These are some of the things you might see instead:
- a tatami or a hammock for sleeping: easy to put away in the morning
- a Japanese-style floor table to work and dine at, no chair needed
- a capsule wardrobe: a small selection of clothes, harmonized in color and style
- electronics: a laptop as an office and entertainment center; an e-reader as a substitute library
Now, if your friend happens to be an extreme minimalist of the nomad variety, her Airbnb apartment will not look much different from what you are used to. There will be furniture, possibly a TV, a washer and so on.
But still, the apartment will seem very tidy. If you only own what fits into your backpack, it is virtually impossible to create a mess.
Why 15–150 Items?
First of all, a disclaimer. Extreme minimalism is about improving your life, not obsessing over the number of things you are “allowed” to have. Yet it helps to give people an idea of how many items they should aim to keep.
On the upper end of the spectrum, we have Japanese writer Fumio Sasaki, whose book “Goodbye, Things” has become something of a manifesto for the extreme minimalism movement. After radically dejunking his messy Tokyo apartment, he was left with about 150 items.
Then there is Dave Bruno, author of “The 100 Thing Challenge,” which chronicles his one-year experiment of living with — you guessed it — just 100 possessions. It is interesting to note that he did so as a family man and father of three, not as a single guy living in a studio apartment.
Perhaps the figure most often cited is an upper limit of 15 things. This number goes back to a 2011 ABC News Radio interview with tech entrepreneur Andrew Hyde, who traveled to 95 countries with only 15 things in his backpack. He later expanded his inventory to 39 items, mostly because he started going on camping trips.
Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
A Note on Counting
Different people count their stuff differently; one more reason to not get hung up on any specific number.
For example, the aforementioned Andrew Hyde initially used what he called the express-lane checkout rule. In his words:
If you were checking out in a grocery store, what would be counted as one item in your bag? A six-pack of beer would be one, right? I count my things as resellable items I would be pissed if someone took. Coffee cup? No. Jacket? Yes. iPhone and headphones? One thing. Simple enough?
By this logic, Hyde did not count socks and underwear, since they had no resale value. Other knickknacks, like cables, business cards, and a gym lock also didn’t make the official list.
Dave Bruno chose an even more lenient approach. Items shared among his family didn’t count, nor did tools, dishes, or cleaning supplies. Collections of identical things were counted as one item.
Personally, I count everything. Three pairs of underwear count as three distinct things in my system, not as one composite item. I count toiletries the same way.
My rationale: if I move to a new location, each additional item will take up extra room in my backpack. And I want to know exactly where things stand.
How Low Can You Go?
Logically, the most radical form of minimalism would be to own nothing. Alas, in most parts of the world, you are required to cover your body in public. So you will need at least one set of clothes.
The other thing you cannot do without is money, ideally in the form of a credit card. This allows you to pay for accommodation, food, transport, and whatever else you need.
If you like to roam, you’ll need a passport too. Many digital nomads would argue that you also need a laptop if you plan to work remotely, but I contest that. You could simply put all your files in the cloud and access them at an internet cafe.
The clothes you are wearing, a credit card, possibly a passport. That’s it. Everything else can be rented or bought on short notice, provided that you have the funds.
What We Fear
On a side note, these non-negotiables say a lot about what we fear as a society:
Clothes = controlling nudity/sexuality
Credit card = supervising property (via money)
Passport = restricting mobility
Nothing seems to rattle us more than the uninhibited individual.
Why There Is Nothing Extreme About It
Extreme minimalism is often seen as this quirk or even an obsession. It is not.
First of all, we are all born extreme minimalists. Owning nothing is the natural state of being.
Secondly, for about 300,000 years every single human on this planet was an extreme minimalist. As hunter-gatherers living on the move, we only carried a few clothes, tools, and weapons.
Only in the last 10,000 years, with the advent of agriculture, have we started to settle down and accumulate more things. It was then that our modern notion of property developed.
Thirdly, extreme minimalism is still the norm across large parts of the world. Of the eight billion people alive today, only 15 percent belong to the so-called first world. A vast number of the remaining 85 percent live under conditions akin to extreme minimalism.
All of this is to say that there is nothing “normal” about consumerism. It is a very recent invention, indulged in only by a small portion of humanity today, but is likely to destroy the planet for all of us.
That is what you might call extreme.
It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.Jiddu Krishnamurti
“Regular” Minimalism vs. Extreme Minimalism
All minimalists agree on one basic paradigm: less but better.
This is why Marie Kondo talks about only keeping things that “spark joy,” or what Joshua Fields Millburn of The Minimalists calls “the things that add value to our lives.”
But there is a risk of fetishizing these few high-quality items. People can become overly invested in designer skateboards, hand-forged Santoku knives, their organic black T-shirts —suddenly this whole minimalist aesthetic takes over.
This is where extreme minimalism diverges from regular minimalism. “Better” is never things. “Better” is ideas, skills, experiences, and people.
The idea is to minimize one area of life — the physical sphere — to maximize the value of another area: the non-physical sphere.
Because at the end of our lives, none of us will be reminiscing over designer skateboards. We will remember the things we did and the people we did them with.
Crossover With Other Lifestyles
There is a strong crossover between extreme minimalism and the tiny-house movement as well as van life culture. In each case, restricting your living space naturally leads to very few material possessions.
Off-grid living is also associated with extreme minimalism. Here the connection is more an ideological one, as the decision to go off-grid is usually due to an anti-consumerist mindset.
There is some overlap with the FIRE movement (Financial Independence, Retire Early). Buying very few things and thus saving money will help you to reach your goal of quitting the workforce much sooner.
Then there is the zero-waste philosophy. Its proponents try to send no trash to landfills or the ocean. That is a lot easier to do if you just own very few things to start with.
Last but not least, there are similarities to one-bag travel. This is in fact how many people first get into extreme minimalism: by test-driving it during a round-the-world trip.
Famous (And Infamous) Extreme Minimalists
Extreme minimalists are a heterogeneous lot. The following examples will give you an idea of the spectrum.
Rob Greenfield, Activist
Environmental activist Rob Greenfield is trying to raise awareness for waste-free living through attention-grabbing happenings. He cycled across the US on a bicycle made of bamboo, spent a year without showering, lived solely on food from dumpster diving, and built his own tiny house using only recycled materials. He owns around 44 possessions.
Daniel Suelo, “The Man Who Quit Money”
Escapist Daniel Suelo stopped using money from 2000–2016. He voluntarily lived homelessly, taking shelter in a natural cave close to Moab, Utah. Author Mark Sundeen wrote a book about him, titled “The Man Who Quit Money.” A large part of the story is about Suelo coming to terms with his conservative religious upbringing and rediscovering his spirituality.
Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), Philosopher
American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau is best known for his book “Walden.” In it, he chronicled his two-year experiment in simple living, moving to a small hut close to Walden Pond in Massachusetts. He sustained himself by casting for fish and growing his own vegetables. His “back to nature” message later influenced the counterculture movement.
Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916)
Charles de Foucauld started out as a cavalry officer in the French army, then became an explorer and eventually a priest. Living an ascetic life, he settled down with the Tuareg in Algeria, making a study of their language and customs. In 1916, he was assassinated by tribal raiders. The Catholic Church considers him a martyr.
Ted Kaczynski, “The Unabomber”
It’s not all love, peace, and harmony among extreme minimalists. Case in point: Ted Kaczynski, aka “The Unabomber.” The former mathematics professor turned eco-terrorist sent out booby-trapped packages for years, killing three people in the process. Before his capture, he lived in a cabin with no running water, no electricity, and few possessions.
Chris Knight, “The Stranger in the Woods”
Chris Knight is another controversial example of extreme minimalism. He entered the woods of the North Pond area in Maine at age 20, hiding there for 27 years. During this time, he committed around 1,000 non-violent burglaries to supply his minimalist camp. After his capture, journalist Michael Finkel portrayed Knight as “The Stranger in the Woods.”
Extreme minimalism comes with several tangible benefits.
No More Tidying Up
As an extreme minimalist, tidying up is a thing of the past. If you own 15 things, even if you scattered them all over, your place will never appear messy. No more putting things away, no more organizing.
You know how you always have to move stuff around before you can vacuum your place? When your quarters are virtually empty, the whole affair suddenly becomes easy. With nothing in the way, you could even get a vacuum bot.
If your furniture consists of tatami and a makeshift floor table, you can put these things away in a matter of seconds. This way, even a small studio apartment provides all the space you need. For example, I used to practice Brazilian jiu-jitsu in my tiny bedroom.
Sitting on a chair for hours on end causes tendons and ligaments to stiffen. By throwing out your furniture, you have to get comfortable in different sitting positions on the ground, like kneeling or squatting, effectively increasing your range of motion.
The average American consumer spends $1,000–$2,000 a month on non-minimalist purchases. If you were to save that money, you could put away between $12,000 and $24,000 each year.
Considering that the average American also owes $90,000, within just a few years you’d be debt-free. After that, you could travel the world. Or you could save up some more and retire decades early.
Many people use consumerism as a coping mechanism for personal issues, e.g., unmet needs and traumas. If you remove that crutch, you might finally do something about what’s holding you back.
Numerous studies correlate consumerism with anxiety. By getting rid of your stuff, it stands to reason that you will also reduce these uncomfortable feelings in your life. It certainly did so for me.
We go on multiplying our conveniences only to multiply our cares. We increase our possessions only to the enlargement of our anxieties.Anna C. Brackett
With extreme minimalism, there are also a few potential drawbacks to consider.
Not Having Everything Handy
Sometimes you will need a tool or another object to do something, and it won’t be around. So you will first have to leave the house to buy or borrow it.
A Bare Living Environment
Extreme minimalism and lavish interior design don’t go together. If that is your thing, you might miss it.
Put Off Visitors
People visiting you for the first time might be confused or even put off by coming to a virtually empty apartment.
The 5 Reasons for Extreme Minimalism
It is not easy to break away from society’s expectations. If you are considering extreme minimalism as a lifestyle, you had better know why.
These five reasons will provide a framework for that decision:
Let’s look at them in turn.
If you want to focus on your spiritual development, it is easier to do so without owning a lot of stuff. It creates a distraction-free environment that invites you to look inward instead of outward.
Religious asceticism is an expression of that. Think of the Sufis in Islam, the Sannyasis in Hinduism, or Christian monks. Many New Age communes also emphasized non-possession.
If you are put off by religion and hippies, I don’t blame you. But maybe you will still give spirituality a chance. There is something here, a sense of freedom and even ecstasy. From my limited experience, it is well worth exploring.
Every single thing you own pulls on your attention. The result is a high level of distraction.
For starters, every item comes with a complex purchase decision. Then there is the ongoing maintenance and repairs, e.g., for a house or a car.
Also, most items will entice you to do something with them. An orange juice press will prompt you to make orange juice. But is that an essential use of your time?
And eventually, everything you own will have to be replaced, starting the cycle all over again.
You can waste a lot of time this way. Or you can eliminate everything that distracts you. And then consciously pick what you want to do with your life.
The things you own end up owning you.Tyler Durden, Fight Club
We are well into the process of destroying the planet that provides for us.
Some people see extreme minimalism as the answer to that problem. If we all started to live with almost nothing, this would result in a massive reduction of carbon dioxide emissions, as roughly 42 percent of all greenhouse gases are caused by the production and use of goods.
Granted, that’s a very hypothetical scenario. Like the morbidly obese, most people would rather risk death than forgo consuming.
I would argue the true benefit lies not in starting a green revolution, but in becoming more in sync with the natural world around us. In this way, as individuals, we might experience a higher level of contentment.
Our whole system of education is aimed at giving you more purchasing power. Success is measured by how much we possess. Advertising is ever-present.
Tellingly, this is one of the few things the left and the right agree on: possessions first. They only disagree about the distribution. The truly radical notion would be to challenge our fixation on property itself.
Which is exactly what the extreme minimalist does. She questions why we should tie our identity to material things. She is suspicious of the quick rush we get from buying stuff. And she is repelled by how mindlessly people pile up debt.
Too many people spend money they haven’t earned, to buy things they don’t want, to impress people they don’t like.Robert Quillen
If you have a house or an apartment full of stuff, you are stuck. You cannot leave indefinitely because you have to pay for or at least administer that container.
In contrast, look at the nomad minimalist. He can travel at a moment’s notice. All he has to do is to throw his things into his backpack and get a taxi to the airport.
Even the stationary type of extreme minimalist is still comparatively mobile. Spontaneous trips become a lot easier if you don’t need to think about what to bring or work through mountains of laundry afterward.
This level of mobility is exhilarating. It gives you freedom. If nothing else, try extreme minimalism for this reason.
Is It for You?
As we saw, there are lots of good reasons to get into extreme minimalism. Yet none of these reasons will be sufficient if you are not on board emotionally. You’ll have to weigh eight major emotions against each other — four negative, and four positive.
The 4 Negative Emotions
Loss. You invested thousands of dollars and years of your time into accumulating what you own. Naturally, you will feel a pang of loss throwing these things out.
Inertia. Getting rid of thousands of things is a big project. Initially, it will seem like you bit off more than you can chew. Overcoming this requires discipline, and we are all naturally lazy.
Uncertainty. The things we own ground us. They make us feel at home in a certain place. If you take that stuff away, you may feel uprooted and alone.
Peer pressure. Most people close to you will not approve of your new lifestyle. Consumerism is too deeply ingrained in them. They will feel challenged and occasionally lash out at you.
The 4 Positive Emotions
Lightness. By getting rid of your stuff, you will experience a new lightness — like someone has lifted a huge burden from your shoulders that you didn’t even know you were carrying.
Clarity. The more stuff we own, the more confused we feel about our lives. By eliminating these distractors, you will more easily figure out your priorities. You will experience more clarity.
Relaxation. Biologically, we were never meant to administer an empire of possessions. It stresses us out. By getting back to your natural state, you will start to relax again.
Vitality. The moment you open up more space in your life, you will develop a new thirst for adventure. New places, possibilities, and people will all call to you. You’ll feel more alive.
Making the Call
The decision about adopting extreme minimalism comes down to this question: do the positive feelings outweigh the negative feelings? To answer it, you need to closely monitor yourself, your thoughts, and your bodily reactions.
How do you do that? By visualizing your new life. Imagine what it would feel like to come home to a virtually empty apartment, to clean your place, to have someone over, or to live out of your backpack.
Record your responses, positive and negative, by writing them down. Consider which of these emotions are the most dominant in you. Analyzing this, you will slowly arrive at a conclusion that will hold up, whether you decide for or against extreme minimalism.
How To Start Extreme Minimalism in 8 Steps
Are you ready to liberate yourself from your stuff? With the following tips, you will do so in the most efficient manner.
1. Lay the Groundwork
Ready to throw your stuff out? Not so fast. There are three things to consider first.
If you want to be a nomad minimalist and you own a house, contact a real estate agent before you do anything else. Selling a property can take a while. Likewise, if you are renting, terminate your contract now.
Next, start to practice sleeping and sitting on the ground. You want to feel comfortable there before you get rid of your furniture.
Start with a few hours per night on the ground. Set an alarm. Then switch to your bed. Increase over time.
Finally, get used to hand-washing your clothes in the sink before you give away your washer.
2. Create a Target List
There is a distinct difference between extreme minimalism and decluttering:
- Decluttering = making hundreds of choices about what to throw out. There is no clear endpoint to the process.
- Extreme minimalism = making very few choices about what to keep. There is a clear endpoint to the process.
Therefore, create a target list of the things you plan to keep. Put these things away in a box. This eliminates any ambiguity: what’s in the box stays. Everything else goes.
So what should you keep? The following two lists can act as starting points.
What To Keep (Mobile Setup):
- 2–3 credit cards (at least one as a backup)
- Laptop + charger
- Smartphone + charger
- Power bank (for long trips)
- Travel adapter
- 1 pair of pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 jacket
- 1 sweater or hoodie
- 3 T-shirts
- 1 business shirt (for the occasional video call)
- 3 pairs of socks and underwear
- 1 pair of shoes
- Toiletries (5–10 items)
What To Keep (Stationary Setup):
- All of the above
- Keys to your place
- 1 tatami/hammock
- 1 floor table (optional)
- 1 pillow
- 1 blanket
- 1 set of bedding
- 1 towel
- Kitchen utensils
- 1 large kitchen knife
- 1 small kitchen knife
- 1 pan
- 1 pot
- 2 spatulas
- 1 plate
- 1 bowl
- 1 cup
- 1 fork
- 1 knife
- 1 spoon
- Dish soap
- Laundry detergent
- Cleaning supplies for the apartment
- Basic tools (hammer, screwdriver, etc.)
A few notes for extreme minimalists of all types:
- Choose multi-purpose items over single-purpose items. For example, your board shorts might function as both your swimming and your hot weather option.
- There will be a few extra items on your list, depending on your interests. If you are a photographer, you will want to have a camera. If you are a guitarist, add a guitar.
- If in doubt, leave it off the list. You can borrow or buy most things on short notice.
- Don’t obsess over the perfect setup. Use what you already have, then replace it with a better option once it breaks. Becoming a gear addict is not the point of extreme minimalism.
3. Assess Your Status Quo
To get an idea of how long the transition to extreme minimalism will take, you should first create a rough inventory.
Start by picking a room or a category, like clothes, furniture, or books. Then guess the number of things in that room or category. Write that number down.
Now, just once, count the items one by one and note how far off you were. This factor can now be applied to your future guesses.
Guess and correct all your other rooms or categories until you have a rough total estimate.
Don’t overcomplicate this. The whole shebang should not take longer than an afternoon.
4. Choose a Method
You now have a rough inventory. Next, choose your method of execution.
The Quota Approach
Let’s say you currently own 1000 things and you want to be down to 100 items in 3 months. You will have to get rid of 10 items a day.
900 items ( = 1000 – 100) ÷ 90 days = 10 items a day
You can go higher, but I’d advise you to keep your daily quota to 10 items max. Some days, when the spirit moves you, you will get rid of many more. Other days will be slow-going. Ten items are few enough to still get it done on those days.
One Thing a Day
The bare minimum version of the quota approach. If you are busy or feel intimidated by the scope of this undertaking, start with one thing a day. You can still transition to a higher quota, or even the radical approach, once you feel ready.
The Radical Approach
Are you the type who likes to rip off the band-aid? Then this is your method. Block at least two weeks on your calendar, e.g., during a vacation. Every day, clean out from dawn to dusk. Don’t stop until you are down to your target list.
The Test-drive Method
If you are anxious about committing, pick the test-drive method. Here you put everything away into moving boxes except the things on your target list.
Then try living as an extreme minimalist, to see what it feels like. Give it at least one month. If you still enjoy it afterward, get rid of the things in the boxes. If not, unpack.
5. Dispose of Your Stuff
It’s time to get rid of your things. But where does your old stuff go? You have four options. You can:
Many of your physical belongings can be replaced with digital copies. The most obvious examples are ebooks, digital photos, and scans of your paperwork. With the latter, pay attention to mandatory retention periods, e.g., for tax documents.
For most people, selling will be their go-to choice. You can make some quick money, and your things will be reused.
I recommend selling only your big-ticket items, those things that will get you $50 or more. It is not worth your time to put hundreds of inexpensive items on eBay.
A good option for those who are too lazy to sell their stuff but cannot get themselves to just dump it. You might also help someone in need. Pay attention to possible tax deductions.
Dumping your stuff is the quickest way to get to your target list. Yes, you lose some money, and yes, it is not as environmentally friendly.
But I still recommend it over the other three methods.
Digitizing often leads to moving clutter from the physical to the digital sphere; most of us have too many files as it is. Selling can become an excuse to not get started. Donating your stuff, however well-intentioned, still reinforces the cycle of consumption.
Keep in mind that many items don’t go into the regular dumpster, either because of size or by law. So check about appropriate waste disposal sites and arrange transportation.
6. Get Support
Ditching all your stuff is a scary endeavor. Therefore, get some emotional support. Connect with others who are undertaking the same journey or have already done it.
7. Don’t Buy More Stuff
Just because we threw the junk out the window, doesn’t mean we kicked the habit. We still crave the instant gratification that comes with the purchase of new toys.
So like a recovering addict, be vigilant. Before each and every single purchase, ask yourself: is this really necessary? Of course, your answer should almost always be no.
8. Journey to New Shores
The notion of “less but better” can be applied to any area in your life, not just your physical world.
The next step could be to minimize your digital world. Do you really need those 5,000 pictures on your hard drive? Or the hundreds of old Word documents and spreadsheets?
Then there are our relationships. While some variety is important, most of us waste way too much time on random contacts. Get unapologetically rid of those.
And let’s not forget about our inner mess. If we sorted out the traumas and false constructs that hold us back, that would mean the ultimate unburdening.
3 Pitfalls To Watch Out For
Extreme minimalism can be a very rewarding endeavor, provided you avoid the following three pitfalls.
1. Not Being Clear on Your Target List
I cannot stress this enough: have an initial target list of all the things you will keep, even if this list changes a bit in the process.
Otherwise, if you just start dumping, you will eventually come to a standstill. The decisions will become too many and too difficult to make.
2. Fetishizing the Few Things You Still Own
The less you own, the more tempting it is to fixate on the few high-quality items you chose to keep. We energize these things in our minds, turning them into almost magical objects.
Don’t get caught up in this. Enjoy what you have, but don’t obsess over it. Everything should be easy to replace, especially for extreme minimalists who plan to travel.
3. Not Knowing How To Fill the Void
When you become an extreme minimalist, you free up a lot of headspace to focus on your priorities in life. But it begs the question: what are these priorities?
Embrace that uncertainty. If you hang in there, it will force you to come to terms with yourself, maybe for the first time in your life: who you are and what you truly want.
It is preoccupation with possession, more than anything else, that prevents men from living freely and nobly.Bertrand Russell
To round things up, here are some of the most frequently asked questions about extreme minimalism.