Four weeks, 6,518 miles of air travel and 5,312 miles of cross-country excursion later, we are back “home” – or at least close to where we will be for the next 11 months.

During our travels, I saw this exhibition in the California Trail Interpretive Center that echoed my recent relocation experience.


Living the life in Foreign Service, we don’t travel the world as light as backpackers. We stay in one place long enough to take root, and bring with us the weight of emotional bonds that come in the form of not just memories, but also physical possessions.

Although we no longer toil by wagon to our next destination, the cost of international transport dictates the need to choose what to take whenever we depart; (and as a result, what to accumulate when we are relatively settled.) In fact, this prompted me to write the previous blog post regarding making decisions.

Then I traveled for four weeks with a carry on size suitcase, while most of our possessions are in storage or transit, and was reminded again how little I really need- just like the travelers on the California Trail.

We tend to overestimate what we need. I think the reason is that if we survive on the minimum level of things that keep us functioning, we feel deprived. So we always want a little something extra to make life better, to differentiate ourselves from others, to show the world who we are. However, the more we go down that route, the more we come up with scenarios where things might be “necessary”. Like the protagonist of the movie “Wild”, carrying the backpack with which she can barely move.

Fundamentally, everything we possess, consume and invest in is a value judgment. On this blog we talk about the technical knowledge of how to be better with our money, but our relationship with our possessions is equally important. What do your possessions mean to you? What does your behavior tell you about the role your possessions play in your life? The answers to these questions will greatly affect how you handle your finances.

So how do we assess what we really need, whether we take our possessions around the world or not? In Foreign Service, it is recommended that we keep a “Go Bag” ready, in case we need to be evacuated from our home with very short notice. It contains everything we need to start a new life somewhere else- our identity, access to cash, basic personal/medical items in the short-term, and our family (not in the bag of course.) Everything else is just “stuff” that we can’t take, whatever physical or sentimental value we place on it.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t own anything other than a Go Bag. Below are a few guidelines that I know many globetrotters adhere to. Whether you move often or not, they may help you evaluate what to add to the essentials:

#1: More liquid assets, fewer physical possessions

Wherever we go, we will want basic things that make our lives “livable,” like furniture, appliances, and electronics. However frugal we try to be, we will accumulate things. Take a mental inventory of everything you own. Most of the physical things you own may have no resale value. All you can hope for is giving them away. The more “things” you accumulate, the more you are replacing something with value (like cash) with something without. So you need to make sure every physical possession you own brings you high utility.

 #2: Trade or replace, not buy and accumulate

After your assessment, you may decide what you own is at the optimal level. Then invariably things break, better technology comes out, or fashion changes. If you need to buy something, do so because you need to replace something you already own. Trading your unwanted things with others will also extend the life of those items and prevent yourself from accumulating more.

#3: Go for small pleasure, not status

On top of the living necessities, there are things that are pure fun to have and make you happy. It’s healthy to have some of those, but keep it to a small percentage of your overall possessions. If you travel as much as I do, you may also have the desire to bring things home that remind you of the places you’ve been. I still do, but limit my purchases to things that are light, small, and special. Get things because they mean something to you and your family, not for making impressions.

What other tips do you have to keep the amount of possessions at your ideal level?

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