Buy what you need, not what you want 5

Packing light

How light can you pack? Do you really need all this stuff?

For the past week I’ve been pretty busy, so there haven’t been any blog updates. I’m expanding one of my affiliate sites to other countries. I think there are some profitable, yet untapped markets out there, of which I want to take advantage. So I’m working on a strategy for that, and hiring people to make it happen. Exciting times!

I also had a CouchSurfer staying over: Sunny from Taiwan. She was my first guest in my new flat in Budapest, and it was great to host her. Two months earlier she had taken leave from her job, and embarked on a seven-month journey through Europe and South-America. We talked a lot about travelling, it pleasures and drags, and how to deal with the limitations of luggage.

Measure and weigh

It turned out that Sunny is an even more rigorous packer than I am. Her whole outfit for seven months fitted into a carry-on-size backpack that weighed less than 12 kg. That included a laptop, toiletries, and some medicine (stuff that is notoriously heavy when travelling). When I asked her how she managed to travel so light, she told me: “I measure and weigh every item I pack“.

CouchSurfing backpack

My couchSurfer and her backpack

Her t-shirts would come in at 80 grams each. Underwear would be enough for a week, but no longer. Her camera weighed less than a cell phone, and was old enough to be tossed if necessary. She had measured out 80 ml. of soap for the journey before leaving home. That was the amount that she was comfortable carrying and could take on board a plane. If she’d need more, she would buy it on the road.

For each item Sunny had literally weighed the burden of carrying it against the benefits of having it. This was definitely one step further in travelling light than I have taken. I would always carefully decide if I needed a certain item, but then just pack the type that I could get my hands on. For example, I have carried 250 ml. shampoo and shower gel bottles around Southeast-Asia, or 500g. bags of pasta through the Swiss Alps. Just because that’s what happened to be available in the grocery store.

Of course, all those heavier-than-necessary items add up, and at some point I ended up hauling way too much luggage. In Switzerland it got me a minor knee injury. In Asia I ended up cursing my backpack in the 37 degree humid heat. Sunny’s method of packing can help you take that extra step towards a super-light backpack, which will still be sufficient wherever you end up on your journey.

Do you want it or do you need it

Another topic of my conversation with Sunny was what to buy and what not to buy. When I told her how all my belongings should fit into two bags and a suitcase, sunny summed it up in one elegant sentence: “You buy what you need, not what you want.” I think that’s a great way of putting it.

There are many things that we want. Western consumerist society and its marketing instruments are designed to make you want more things. It works even on me: whenever I’m in the supermarket, or see a tv commercial, or hear a friend talk about a new gadget he bought, it will often make me want it. It is hard to suppress this desire, and probably quite pointless.

But it is good to ask yourself whether you really need something before you draw your wallet. Will it make your life so much better that you’re missing out if you don’t have a certain item? If the answer is ‘yes’, than you do need it, and you should buy it. If the answer is ‘no’, it is better to stay away. Acknowledge that you want it, but tell yourself that it’s not reasonable to buy it. And I would add: err on the side of caution (i.e. when in doubt, don’t buy).

Of course it is not always obvious whether you need something or just want it. Before I owned a smartphone, I dismissed it as a superfluous toy. After all, I had a normal phone, and anything more advanced I could do on my laptop. But after owning an Android phone one for two years now, I realise that it has made my life a lot easier, and that I wouldn’t want to go without one. I did need it after all.

But just reflecting on this makes me understand better what I want and what I need. If you do the same, you can reduce the amount of stuff you have even further, and live a happier, more worry-free life.


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5 thoughts on “Buy what you need, not what you want

  • Mo

    You say:”err on the side of caution”. I’d like to add as an anxiety expert to this: whenever fear is the reason being in doubt: do the thing you fear! 🙂

    • Martijn Post author

      @Mo: Thanks for your thought. I think that our society has shaped us in such a way that we feel safe and comfortable with having many things: a big house, a car, lots of devices and gadgets. And we fear being without: what if my friend suddenly visits me and wants fresh orange juice, and I don’t have a juice maker… aargh! In that case I completely agree with you: don’t be afraid of not having something, and just give life a try without it. Oh, and if you decide to come and visit me at my house: I don’t have fresh OJ.

  • Tímea (birge)

    I don’t really get the idea. If she is planning to buy stuff – like soap – during the trip and the wrecking of this soap is 200 ml, then what will she do with the rest? Throw it away? Give it to a fellow backpacker? Either way it is about spending money on stuff you won’t use.
    Or is this strict packing just for the beginning of the trip?

    • Martijn Post author

      @Tímea: That’s a very good question. I didn’t ask. My personal opinion is that it’s not so bad to give away some surplus stuff that you have to other travellers. And sometimes they will give you some of theirs. Either way, nothing is wasted. But if you really care about the monetary cost to yourself (as is something I’ve learnt both the Dutch and the Hungarians do 😉 ), this isn’t ideal.

      In general, taking any supplies in a non-standard amount is more expensive, whether you take special ‘travel-size’ units or just throw away half a bottle of shampoo. One way to deal with this, I guess, would be to refill your soap bottle from a hotel room, or from the dispenser in a restaurant, or asking a CouchSurfing host if you can buy half their bottle of shampoo from them. I’ve never done this, and I can imagine it might result in some strange looks, but it does minimize both the waste of natural resources and monetary cost of resupplying.

    • Sunny

      Compare to paying luggage fee for flight, buying small or traveling shampoo or soap is cheaper. And when I pack my things, all if them are under 100 ml, so when you finish shampoo, you clean the content and buy 200 ml one, refill to the content, others you can share to host or travelers for free or for pay, its up to you. And if you will take flight after one month, not now, you also can use the big one till you are leaving. Like me, I am in Europe for 3 months, just have 2~3 flighs, sometimes I will not take flight for 1 month long, so I can buy standard one, or you can account when will you take flight, and choose to buy or not, or borrow. If you just leave to take flight after 4 days, maybe you should borrow. Sometimes, giving to hosts or travelers will make you happy or they will appreciate you.