What are the minimal possessions with which the average person could reasonably live?
October 1, 2007 9:13 AM   Subscribe

What are the minimal possessions with which the average person could reasonably live?

I know that quite a few people have tried to live with the minimal amount, for different reasons - to avoid clutter, simplify their activities, etc. Has anyone done this in an urban area while attending school/working a typical job with the average amount of need for computers and other technology? This question is really general, so any advice or relevant links? Thanks.
posted by hypervenom to Society & Culture (38 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
Mattress. Pillow. Sealed plastic container for clothes. Basic toiletries. Use a computer lab at school. Actually, I knew someone who did live barely above this level; she had a computer on a chair and sheets on the mattress, but nothing else.

Note that I'm ignoring kitchen supplies, and the girl I knew also did have a more 'standard' living room, with sofas and a TV supplied by her roommate.

A more 'reasonable' minimal set might be:

Minimal bedframe to keep mattress from being damaged/insect-infected; sheets; pillow; chair; small desk with computer; toiletries; phone.
posted by Tomorrowful at 9:21 AM on October 1, 2007

It depends how you define "average." I think the average Westerner would find such a lifestyle very much alien to them, whereas people in many parts of Asia would even see a mattress or pillow as being an extravagance.

But as a Westerner if you lived in hotels and ate out all the time, you could probably survive on no belongings at all except your clothes and mandatory papers (ID, passport, birth certificate, etc).
posted by wackybrit at 9:28 AM on October 1, 2007

I used to have a housemate in grad school who refused to own more than could be moved in one trip in his small hatchback car. He had a bedroll, his clothes and toiletries, his computer (this would be even easier in this era of laptops), a few grocery bags' worth of especially beloved books, and a few items to use in his hobbies and interests. When he found places to live, he did scavenge free stuff to use and then leave behind when he moved again; I think when I lived with him, he had a small table and chair in his room that fell into this category. I also think he had some minimal cooking supplies but since we had a well-stocked kitchen he could have done without them.

There's so much surplus around that answering this question depends some on whether you're concerned with what a person could do without owning or what a person could do without having access to. My housemate owned very little but by having roommates had access to a fully-furnished living room, dining room, and kitchen; a yard and tools for maintaining it; a basement full of old furniture that could be scavenged; and so on. I suspect if he had chosen to live alone, even in a small efficiency apartment, he would soon have had to own quite a bit more.
posted by not that girl at 9:30 AM on October 1, 2007

Buddhist monks "own" only the proverbial / traditional three robes and alms bowl, and rely on the charity of others for everything else. Not many could live such a life, however -- but they are certainly at one extreme of the range of possibilities you're talking about.
posted by aught at 9:35 AM on October 1, 2007

Have a look at Material World. Enlarge the cover for a sample.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:37 AM on October 1, 2007

I just moved from Arizona to Florida. I live with as little as I can. I have no TV just a computer and a desk. Hell I took pictures to show my parents if you care to see what little I live with look here. Most of the stuff I own is kitchen stuff so that I can cook.
posted by blackout at 9:38 AM on October 1, 2007

Survive or live? I could probably survive indefinitely without a mattress, as in continue to breathe, but my back would hate it.
posted by desjardins at 9:49 AM on October 1, 2007

There's a huge trade-off between owning your own stuff and paying other people to own it for you, as well. You can own a washer and dryer or you can pay for a laundromat. You can own pots, pans, ovens, plates or buy your meals out. There's a point at which you add complexity and expense to your life by simplifying too far.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:56 AM on October 1, 2007

Easy, just eliminate anything you have two of, and anything that is work more than $100.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:57 AM on October 1, 2007

worth, not work.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:57 AM on October 1, 2007

If I had to live with the bare minimum but still have an enjoyable life, I'd go with the following:

Bed with sheets.
A bedside table to hold my clock and bed lamp.
Computer with desk large enough to lay down books and study, plus a pair of speakers.

A set of drawers to store clothes and shelving unit to store smaller objects and maybe books.

A washing machine is always useful.

A fridge with enough food, plus a few plates/bowls/cups/utensils/glasses for making food for me and others if need be.

A stove (maybe even a portable propane stove)

Rollerblades (but that's just me)

A living room with couches and a table to relax and have friends over.
posted by PowerCat at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2007

While I was an undergrad, I lived in a tiny studio apartment. The total furnishings were a small desk and chair, a twin mattress (on the floor), and a bookshelf. It had a tiny kitchen with some cabinet space, a small closet, and a bath room with a shower (no tub). There was a nice porch on the house where I could hang out on nice days and study or read.

It worked just fine for me at the time, as I only needed a place to sleep and read. There were plenty of places on campus, less than a block away, to hang out and study. It really taught me economy and order.
posted by wheat at 10:07 AM on October 1, 2007

There was a Greek Cynic philosopher, Antisthenes, who had only a cloak and a bowl for eating, drinking, and begging. The cloak protected from the elements, and folded double provided a place to sleep.

Once, Antisthenes was walking by a river when he saw a boy drinking from his cupped hands. He threw away the bowl.
posted by nasreddin at 10:14 AM on October 1, 2007 [4 favorites]

You could get along with very few items I guess.

I am a modern normad myself. I love books and if I aquire too much I ship them to Europe to my parents house (no, my parents are not too pleased about this). In general I don't need much. My laptop, my clothes, a few personal items and some nice but transportable artwork. Also you should try to make a habbit out of getting everything in electronic form instead of paper if possible. I always try to buy very cheap furniture that I can throw away in a blink of an eye without regrets.

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.


("Precious things lead one astray" is translated in German to "Who possesses a lot is also possessed " or "The things you possess also possess you")
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:17 AM on October 1, 2007 [2 favorites]


Actually, it was Diogenes AFAIK
posted by yoyo_nyc at 10:27 AM on October 1, 2007

When I moved from Seattle to Tallahassee I sold everything that I could and gave away much of what was left over. My goal was to take with me only what I could carry (I took the Greyhound. It was horrible). I left my two guitars with a friend and hit the road.

My guitars were mailed to me and I began again to accrue goods. Now I have far too much to carry around, but I'm far more able to cook lavish meals/record my own music/manipulate the photos I take with my camera/dress for a variety of situations and activities, &c. Priorities are key here.

I knew a grad student (thermodynamics) who had almost nothing at all beyond his clothes and toiletries. He used the public library alot. I've known kids who only had two sets of cloths and a puppy. They smelled horribly.

If I'm understanding the question properly, I'd say that a person could potentially survive with no possessions whatsoever, but only in fairly specific and unusual circumstances. For instance, if one owned no clothes one would have to sequester oneself away from the scrutiny of society at large by moving to an island/a hippy commune/the jungle. If one had no pan one would have to be in a place with a ready supply of foods that are edible raw or grilled. And so on...

If one wants to live in a city in America with as many possessions as that person can do without, then can do without quite a lot that people regularly take for grasnted. But if that person wants to work somewhere, they will need soap, a comb, shoes, &c.

The needs are defined by the goals.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:53 AM on October 1, 2007

You're not going to get a consensus answer because "reasonably" is in the eye of the beholder.

I can't reasonably live with an internet connection.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:04 AM on October 1, 2007

For awhile, everything I owned fit into my car. I had a futon matress, pillow, several milk crates of books and cds, portable cd player/radio, a box of kitchen stuff, a couple of suit cases and duffle bag full of clothes and shoes, a toiletries bag and a laptop computer. When I moved into a studio apartment, the milk crates provided storage for the books. I used the stacked up suitcases for a table/computer desk. When people came over we all sat on the futon and the floor.

It was kind of liberating to live without many possessions.
posted by pluckysparrow at 11:13 AM on October 1, 2007

Ask, "What must I be able to do? As Pecinpah said -- the needs are defined by the goals. Beware of viewing items just as possessions; instead, see them as means of doing important things. A microwave could save someone a LOT of money and time and allow him/her to eat hot food. For one person I know, a tv and dvd player are essential -- to others, those would be frivolous. Maybe you need music late at night. Don't be dogmatic about your choices.
posted by wryly at 11:27 AM on October 1, 2007

Spend some time backpacking, then you'll find out what you really need. I spent from Feb 2001 until May 2003 on the road in various parts of the world. What my backpack held at the end was radically different from what it held at the beginning. I found that once I settled down (that being a relative word in my case), my habits of not owning much continued. TV? Who needs it? More than a couple of changes of clothes? Not necessary. The knickknacks that people seem to accumulate in their houses? I've not had any since then. One pair of pair of sneakers, one pair of flipflops. Didn't carry a laptop traveling but when I'm not, it's my TV, DVD, stereo, entertainment center etc. I've got books spread all over the world, it's hard to part with them. One day, when I settle somewhere for good (dreams!) I'll have them all shipped to me!
But what works for me doesn't work for many other people. Make your own choices, see what works for you.
posted by conifer at 11:45 AM on October 1, 2007

the average amount of need for computers and other technology?

That varies widely. I have no cell phone, no cable, no electronic games, no car, minimal clothing. Life is much better without that stuff. For me.

Start with your goals and then think about how specific items affect those goals.

If time clutter is a problem, dump the television (or at least cancel the cable and watch only the occasional great DVD) and discover many more hours in your week. You do not need to watch the crap that's on TV tonight. Without it, you'll be able to improve your time management and productivity and health and social life.

If physical clutter is a problem, don't buy anything unless you actually need it to replace something that is no longer functional. Put the credit card away (don't carry it) and stop all forms of recreational shopping -- if you're going to the store for one thing, walk in, buy it, and walk out. Become an aggressive saver (of money, not things) instead of an aggressive spender. If you get the urge for books, go to the library. If you are sure you need new clothes, first get rid of something equivalent -- give away (Red Cross, Goodwill, Salvation Army, relative, friend, street person, etc.) your worst shirt before buying a new one or, if you can't bring yourself to do that, maybe you don't need that new shirt. If you have lots of shoes, figure out which shoes you need for which occasions and outfits, then give away the rest, even the ones you spent too much on and then wore only once. If you have boxes and drawers full of stuff, gather the stuff you never use (and perhaps have already replaced) and give it to someone who might be interested in that stuff (electronics to a gadget head, kitchen junk to the amateur chef, etc.). Sell or give away or trade away uninteresting CDs and DVDs. If you run out of ways to get rid of stuff, put it out on the street on trash day and hope someone else picks it up. Make your old clutter someone else's problem, then fight not to replace it with yet more clutter.
posted by pracowity at 11:52 AM on October 1, 2007 [4 favorites]

You're not going to get a consensus answer because "reasonably" is in the eye of the beholder.

Yeah, I know every situation is different so I wanted everyone's individual answer. They're really great so far!
posted by hypervenom at 11:58 AM on October 1, 2007

I know a guy who's a practicing doctor in the UK, making really good money, and whose possessions at any one time amount to a couple of paperback novels, a kitbag, mattress and bedding, toiletries and clothes, maybe half a dozen changes. He got taken aside by his bank manager after a couple of years of this ascetic lifestyle and politely informed that he really needed to think about investing some of his money, because he'd spent virtually nothing and was setting off all sorts of money laundering alarms.
posted by Happy Dave at 12:04 PM on October 1, 2007 [3 favorites]

Within the confines of the original question (modern urban life), you can analyze this by function. A lot of it comes down to unanswered questions like "how much stuff-ownership are you willing to outsource to other people?" You could do without a single fork or knife if you took all your meals out, but that would be uneconomical and (IMO) somewhat contrary to the underlying principle of simplicity.

- Clothing & Shoes: Let's say one week's basic clothes, a sweater, a coat, one or two pair of shoes.
- Hygiene: If you're militant, you can get this down to a bottle of Dr Bronner's, a nailclipper, a toothbrush, and a towel.
- Cooking: A mixing bowl, a pot, a pan (you might be able to combine pot and pan), a spatula, a big spoon. Refrigerator. Food.
- Eating: Bowl (plate? who needs a plate?). Fork. Knife. Spoon. Cup.
- Being at home: Bed w/ linens. Chair. Table. If you want to keep things minimal, use an air mattress and folding chair/table.

Apart from a few items, you can easily get this all in a big backpack. Certainly get it into the trunk of a car.

Apart from special requirements like medicines, everything after that is pretty much discretionary. Fortunately we live in an age where a laptop and Internet hookup can provide you with a bounty of different media (assuming you don't count each digital file as a separate possession).

If you count your shelter as a possession, a travel trailer would be the most minimal shelter short of a tent (which is generally discouraged as a lodging in urban areas).
posted by adamrice at 12:12 PM on October 1, 2007 [2 favorites]

Clothes, toothbrush, rental money for communal living. For real extravagance, add an alarm clock.
posted by Idcoytco at 1:29 PM on October 1, 2007

This is roughly what I have been carrying around in my backpack for the last year: laptop, mouse, camera, discs, 4 books, notebook, 3 shirts, 2 pants, extra shoes, 2 pairs socks, nail clippers, toothbrush and paste, oblique strategies, paint and brushes. Still alive! But I am neither average nor reasonable.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:39 PM on October 1, 2007

I lived for about 3 months in my apartment with only a bed in the bedroom and a table in the living room, plus appliances and a few personal effects. I enjoyed it at time and I still don't have too much stuff but I don't think I'd want to pare down like that unless I was traveling. I like my place to be my center of gravity in the city. Funnily enough though, those months completely weaned me off television, a year later I still forget I own one (a gift).
posted by teststrip at 1:45 PM on October 1, 2007

adamrice's list reminds me of my missionary days. Add a sewing/mending kit, first-aid kit, books for study and reference, shoe polish, an address book, a notebook or two, and eyeglasses or medications, then expand the Clothing and the Hygiene departments somewhat. For the Cooking, Eating, and Being at home departments, we usually used whatever the apartment had in it, and left it behind when we transferred. The mission ensured that each apartment was outfitted with a water filter, but I subsequently lived in the same country without one. Most people also wound up packing some souvenirs. The rule was, use at a maximum two suitcases and a shoulder bag, and be able to schlep them yourself (including onto/off of the trains).

There are other things, of course, that are going to vary from locale to locale. People who served in the tropics did not carry so much cold-weather clothing as I did, but then, I didn't carry a permethrin-impregnated mosquito net or deworming pills, so ... trade-off.
posted by eritain at 1:48 PM on October 1, 2007

I basically own a bed, one suitcase of clothes, toiletries, a laptop and an iPhone. I live in New York City and seem to get along just fine. I moved to Berlin just under two years ago with only what I could take in my carry-on and when I moved to NYC earlier this year, I decided to not take on any new things except for the bed that my friend gave to me.
posted by atomly at 2:17 PM on October 1, 2007

The backpacking/camping idea is a good example: Shelter(tent), bedding(sleeping bag, pad, pillow if desired), lantern;
Cooking (pot, skillet, tongs, strainer, big spoon, big fork, knife, can opener, potholder), dishes(plate, bowl, mug, utensils), water container, stove, grill;
Consumables(matches, condiments and food);
Toiletries(shampoo, conditioner, soap, razor, comb, brush, deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrush);
Medications, 1st aid supplies (aspirin, bandaids, etc.) glasses, sunglasses;
Towel, washcloth;
Cleaning cloth, clothesline & pins, sewing kit;
Clothing, underwear, shoes(can be extensive or minimal);
Recreation(books, radio, musical instrument);
Tools(can be extensive or minimal)

I've lived out of a suitcase or backpack for up to 6 months at a time. If the weather varies a lot, more clothes and coats are needed. Jobs have different clothing requirements. I can turn out a good meal with backpacking gear. I can stay clean and presentable as long as there's running water, and I've had to prove it in a couple of airports.

There are plenty of people who live with just these minimal possessions. People who live in McMansions with exercise rooms, and a gazillion appliances may be missing out on the benefits of community. I own a lot of books, but I still love using the Library. I like taking the dog to the dog park to play with other dogs. I can make good coffee at home, but I love hanging out in a coffee shop.

Interesting question.
posted by theora55 at 2:35 PM on October 1, 2007

Also check out the hexayurt project, it's an emergency shelter that is easy to build, can be small or large and I'm sure you could seriously live in this thing for a long time.
posted by PowerCat at 3:57 PM on October 1, 2007

I've slept on a cloak before and I would deem it non-sufficient for anyone who's used to a bed. Also, a cloak generally will not be large enough to both keep you warm and pad the ground underneath you...you're better off skipping the cloak and going straight to a blanket. A sash, on the other hand, is invaluable--you can tie up small valuables inside it (in lieu of pockets) and use it to hang things from.

An inflatable mattress is also not worth bothering with. If you sleep on them every night, they have a maximum life span of two to three months until they stop holding enough air to keep your body off of the ground for a reasonable time span (even with lots of patching). Duct tape, by the way, is also insufficient as a patching material. Running the pump every three hours during the night is unacceptable (or, gods forbid, hand pumping!). And if you happen to be sharing this mattress with someone else, it'll just be worse, since the lighter person will continually be rolling down hill during the night. (I know this from sad personal experience.)

Owning both a fork and a spoon seems to be overkill, especially if you're already eating everything out of a bowl. You could get a spork, or just one or the other really. A pocket knife would also serve admirably, knife and fork, and possibly a few other tools, all in a compact package.
posted by anaelith at 4:52 PM on October 1, 2007

I have a retreat far away on a Scottish island. It is kind of similar to this and sits sheltered on a hill overlooking the Atlantic. It's nice to disappear there for a week or two, think, reflect, meditate and read a book or two. Very little is needed to get by here compared to my city living.

Inside is a simple stove, a chair and a wooden storage trunk which holds all the stuff below when I'm absent and serves as a table, footstool, seat when I'm there. There is also a raised platform bed with a hemp mattress, cotton sheet, wool stuffed duvet, Harris Tweed blanket and a buckwheat pillow.

Cooking is done outside by fire or inside by the stove. I have a bashed and blackened mug / pot / kettle and a fork and spoon by the same company. A good sharp knife completes the set. A Grey's Missionary fly rod and reel bring dinner to the table from nearby lochs most nights. Otherwise I'll have whatever I brought with me, usually bread, cheese, cured meat etc. Water comes from a hill stream.

Wood is gathered from fallen branches, natural peat is cut and stockpiled once a year. A large candle and the stove provide light on darker evenings. A large box of matches helps things along.

Clothing depends on the weather but I try and keep it to one set of clothes while I'm there, ripstop cargo shorts regardless of weather, one pair of warm woolen socks if it's cold, a cotton tee, a thick woolen cardigan with hood and a water resistant jacket and a pair of light hiking boots usually cover it. If it's warm, no socks or shoes required. And no underwear whatever the weather :) If anything needs washed I'll do it before bed and hang it on the chair by the stove. It'll be dry by the morning.

Hygiene, I'll dry brush teeth and wash in cold water. The pot will wash fine in water warmed on the stove. Biodegradeable toilet paper is very good.

If my girlfriend joins me the bed is just big enough for two. She brings lots of her own camping stuff but I'm a little more ascetic. In addition to the above I'll bring a couple of books and a bottle of malt whisky and possible a wee battery powered radio. The reception is lousy but it's nice to have some music sometimes.

A safe shelter, somewhere comfortable to sit and sleep, a fire to warm and cook, fresh food and water in your belly and the clothes on your back. If you have that you can be happy.
posted by brautigan at 5:08 PM on October 1, 2007 [4 favorites]

Hmm, I lived out of a backpack for 2 months without mooching off of others and at the time felt I was "really living."
Bedroll (thermarest & blanket)
Sleeping bag
One pair of pants (zipped off into shorts)
One other pair of shorts
3 t-shirts
1 pair of long underwear pants
1 long-sleeve midweight shirt
1 long-sleeve wool sweater
a warm hat and gloves
3 pairs of socks
sandals that doubled as dress-up shoes (yeah, I wasn't appearing in court or anything)
a dress
hiking boots
camping stove with fuel
camping pot
camping knife with can opener
water bottles and iodine (I guess I mooched off municipal water 90% of the time)
toothbrush, toothpaste, hairbrush
this herbal bug repellent that didn't work
eco-soap that doubled as shampoo and laundry soap
a paperback or two
a harmonica
a sketchbook and pen
posted by salvia at 5:21 PM on October 1, 2007

These are NOT average people, but my friend was in Mother Teresa's religious order, the Missionaries of Charity.

Each nun could only own:

Three saris -- one to wear, one to wash, and one to mend.
A pair of sandals
Two sets of underclothes
A rosary
A small crucifix pinned on the left shoulder.
A metal spoon and rimmed plate
A canvas bag, and a prayer book.

The site I got the info from also notes "Coats and umbrellas are also available, but do not belong to one particular sister. "
posted by GaelFC at 7:07 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

Take a look at some of the N55 manuals, especially the snail shell system and spaceframe. Kind of like the hexayurt mentioned above, I suppose. The whole project is aimed at allowing comfortable living with a minimal use of resources.
posted by komilnefopa at 7:21 PM on October 1, 2007

This won't really help you with what the average person would need to live, but here is the minimum that I take with me on a long biking trip (excluding bike, related equipment, tools, etc.) With these items, I could go indefinitely, stopping for groceries, laundry, showers, and to replace consumables.

tent, sleeping bag, inflatable mattress
bowl, swiss army knife, fork, spoon, water bottle, stove, fuel, pot, lid/pan, lighter
toothbrush/paste, soap, insect repellent, painkillers, sunscreen, lip balm, glasses
shoes, pants, shorts, long-sleeve shirt, short-sleeve shirt, a few underwear & socks, mini towel, rain gear
book, headlamp
posted by ssg at 8:02 PM on October 1, 2007

I don't think this person wants to know how to leave the world entirely behind. The parameters are "in an urban area while attending school/working a typical job with the average amount of need for computers and other technology" -- not how to live under a bush while dressed as another bush.

Bathroom = toilet paper, shampoo, soap, toothcare items, and any required medicines.

Bedroom = small bed and bedclothes.

Kitchen = nothing if you eat elsewhere or eat takeout for every meal. Otherwise, a pot, pan, plate, bowl, fork, knife, spoon, stove, sink, and trips to the grocery.

Clothes = a week's worth of your typical clothing requirements plus maybe a little extra to get you through weather extremes and so on. Wash at the laundromat.

Plus, as stipulated, a computer with internet connection, and probably a cell phone. Put that in your bedroom, which could also be your living room.

Depending on your need for privacy and personal cleanliness, you could share the bathroom and kitchen. This would be a bedsit or SRO, a lot like college dormitory life except you may be sharing facilities with a more interesting variety of Homo sapiens.
posted by pracowity at 10:20 PM on October 1, 2007 [1 favorite]

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