From Riches to Rags, Happily

From Riches to Rags, Happily

2,100 square feet holds a lot.

Three bedrooms means three beds. Dressers, night tables.

A stacked kitchen. Two living rooms includes two big screen TVs, two sectional couches and tables.

Then there’s the decoration. Paintings, statues, flair. Books, DVDs, candles, electronics. You name it, we had it. And probably a few more of it, stuffed in a closet somewhere.

Plus a two-car garage, without an inch to spare. We had it all, plus a bit more.

And then, a revelation. A forced awakening, brought on by a series of tragic events, the kind that impose questions of how and why. The kind that speak to the brevity of life, the importance of imagination, and provoke an acute compulsion to change direction. It was too powerful to be ignored. We were ready, oh-so ready, to act on it.

But, we were bound. Controlled by 2,100 square feet filled with these things. We were slaves to the debt to pay for them and to the seduction to want to better them. To the comfort they provided – the nest, the stability.

It was a giant leap off that mountain of procured goods, of those things that defined us. My collection of designer shoes and bags stacked on top of my husband’s golf clubs stacked on top of the foreign vehicles. Our target for landing was unseen. It was a future completely undefined, sometimes blinding with the light of possibility, but also dark with the absence of security.

We got rid of it all. All of it. And after three and half years, have never looked back.

The Trade-Off

Those designer shoes and bags became adventures across the Sahara desert and the glacial landscapes of Patagonia. We traded cars for plane tickets and our own beds for backpacks. We stuffed what we needed into 130 litres of space and found that in the absence of “things”, we discovered freedom.

The road spread out infinitely before us, forking in all directions. We chose South America first, sharpening our Spanish and learning valuable lessons about privilege and survival. From there to Europe, back to North America, to the Middle East. The vast country of Turkey perhaps surprised us the most by worming it’s way deep into our hearts and minds. The unrivalled hospitality and pure benevolence of the Turks won us over quickly, and we toyed with the idea of growing roots there.

But the freedom of the open road was too tempting. There are too many places to be explored, to many foreign cultures left to see, taste, hear, and soak in. Setting roots would mean buying things, buying things would mean responsibility. To find space for them, to care for them, to upgrade them – all for the cost of our freedom.

The Lifestyle

It sounds exotic to some, downright scary to others. And the questions about our assured inheritance or lottery winnings are forever forthcoming. What people can rarely grasp is that this lifestyle of travel is actually less expensive than the corporate North American life we left behind.

Without a house we have no mortgage; with no vehicles, no payments or insurance. We spend most of our time house-sitting, which not only allows us to live very cheaply, but immerses us in a local culture like no other mode of travel. We partially fund our travels through the savings from the sale of our mountain of procured goods, but are getting closer every day to our goal of completely sustaining ourselves with online businesses.

We’ve had bed bugs, migraines from long travel days, and some clothing stolen. But we’ve also para-glided off of mountains in Argentina, swam with sea turtles in the Galapagos Islands, and tasted cannoli made by hand in Sicily.

Ask us if we think it’s worth it.

The Rub

No, not everyone can (or probably wants) to do what we do. There are plenty of people who are satisfied with their annual two-week vacations or that one-year career break around southeast Asia, and that is fine.

But, consider this:

Downsizing from 2,100 square feet to 130 litres of “stuff” has taken us from a moderately satisfying, prescribed corporate and suburban life, to one that routinely leaves us breathless with excitement. By becoming less reliant on “things”, we have freed up our life for unforgettable, and previously unfathomable, experiences.

We’ve traded goods for adventure, perceived stability for ultimate happiness. It doesn’t have to be done in one grand scheme, but tiny increments of less reliance on things can mean big positive changes.

What are you willing to trade?

Photo by H o l l y.

Dalene Heck

Dalene and her husband Pete sold everything in 2009 to travel the world. They have since traveled to 32 countries and have no plans to settle down. You can follow their journey at HeckticTravels.com.

Latest posts by Dalene Heck (see all)

32 Comments

  1. I try to live minimally, so I understand the mindset. Staying with it is the hard part for me. I slowly slip back into my more traditional ways, which are still pretty simple by many’s standards, but too much for me.

    Reply
    • I know of many travelers who take an extended career break around the world, vow to change, and then slip into old habits quickly upon return. It’s not easy – as a society we are constantly bombarded with being told what we “need”, and we all like to keep up with the neighbours. (I think we probably have it easier because we are traveling constantly and so have to keep it to a minimum.) However, pose yourself this question: “What am I giving up to BUY this thing?” Maybe the answer will help guide your way! :)

      Reply
  2. Hi Dalene

    What a great post. My partner and I did a similar thing 3 years ago. We had a choice between buying a house or seeing the world. Experience beat possession and we spent 18 months travelling the world having the experience of our lives. The best bit is that it completely set us free. Even though we returned to London we promised ourselves not to get job despite the recession.

    We kept our promise and have been pinching ourselves on a weekly basis for the past year.

    We’re on our second month of a three month trip to Asia and we have a permanent grin on our face.

    It’s wonderful to connect with other couples who have done the same.

    Reply
    • Ah, that is so great Karen! Good for you guys! It may seem like a big leap for some people, but we live our life with constant grins on our face too – and who DOESN’T want that? It’s easier than most people think.

      Reply
  3. I loved this article, I travelled for years with just a suitcase and iPod and loved it all, now with a growing family and home , My mind still wanders to those days! Enjoy it :)

    Reply
    • Hopefully you can get your family to pack their suitcases and you can relive those days again too! :)

      Reply
  4. Thanks I so needed to read that …..I totally need to down size. I live alone in a 2500 sq ft house filled with stuff. How do I start?

    Reply
  5. I understand the article, yet not so sure. I suppose it’s all well and good absence children,.
    Travel by air is also horribly destructive to the environment. Enjoy your travels. :)

    Reply
    • Our travels are definitely much easier without children, however, we have also met many families along the way who travel this way as well!

      And you are right about that – travel by air. We typically travel quite slow, to lessen our impact we stay in places a lot longer and don’t jet around. We also try to travel overland when we can! Cheers!

      Reply
  6. This type of entry is so common in articles and on blogs about making positive changes in your life. The author seems well meaning, but it still comes across as a lecture from an overly privileged person on how we could all do so much better with less. It is easy to live with less when you can afford anything. If you’re already living with less (paycheck to paycheck) this is just tiresome.

    Reply
    • Hmmm…DCFem, I apologize but I’m not quite sure I understand your comment…”It is easy to live with less when you can afford anything.” We can’t afford anything, and have to be quite strict with our choices in order to make our lifestyle work. And, we have learned to live very very cheaply. Part of it, of course, is choosing to have less.

      Reply
  7. Kathy – The decision to start is the biggest part of it. The hardest part of it, for sure.

    I’m going to plug a book here by my friends Warren and Betsy – they followed a similar life path to us and are now inspiring people to do the same. Their book, “Getting Rid of It” may be a great place for you to start: http://www.marriedwithluggage.com/getting-rid-of-it/

    Reply
    • Thanks for the shout out, Dalene. It takes time, effort, and discipline to budget and downsize your way to this lifestyle. It took us 2 years to make it happen for us, and we spend a fraction of what we spent to live before, just like you and Pete.

      What I noticed more than anything, though, was how much money we were spending before on things to soothe ourselves because we were tired, grumpy, or feeling deprived. When you start living in a way that eliminates those feelings, you’ll find a lot more money (and opportunity) available in your life – whether you want to travel or not!

      Reply
      • Ditto to that, Betsy. While my hubby and I are not travelers, we drew a hard line in the checkbook, and said, “No more!”. We learned to love budgets, and intentionally spent our money where it was the most important. We learned that we had been spending to soothe, just as you said. Once we understood that stuff was, well, just stuff, we broke its hold over us.

        Now that we are debt free, we have so much more peace in our lives and so much more opportunity to spend time on what is important. We live on much less than we used to, and I was able to leave a job I really disliked. Learning to take the financial reigns in your life will lead to doors opening you couldn’t possibly imagine when you were up to your eyeballs in debt and stuff!

        Reply
    • Thanks so much I will read it.

      Reply
  8. Wow Dalene, that sounds incredible!

    I’ve often thought of a perfect life as one being filled with adventure. It looks like you two have found the secret. It’s very intriguing and I must say I’m a little bit jealous :)

    Reply
    • Thanks Michael! I think we have found the secret, at least the secret of what works for us! :)

      Reply
  9. Good on you both! I have just left a job in the corporate world after 18 years and having time to contemplate has made me view life in a totally different way. Whatever you want to do can be made possible and you two are living proof.
    Everything in your life good or bad starts with a thought in your head and it is up to you to take your life in whatever direction you want. Anything is possible, especially today. If you are in despair it is because you have attracted that despair. Take it from me I did that for many years and wore the T Shirt!
    I take responsibility for everything that has ever happened to me and equally will do the same moving forward, the difference being I understand what I think brings me good or bad. Sounds simple, but it isn’t easy. Good for you realizing what is important and grasping it with both hands.
    By the way you have a beautiful writing style.
    Enjoy your travels and carry on making the most of your life.

    Reply
    • Joan, thank you for your beautiful comment, and your kind words. Congratulations to you on making positive changes in your life – taking responsibility for what makes you happy is so important! Difficult, but important! :)

      Reply
  10. Dalene, I loved your post. My husband and two sons ages 7 and 4 are renting out our house and heading to Kenya this summer for a year (or more) travelling eastern and southern Africa. I’d love to glean any advice from you about finding house sitting opportunities?

    Thanks!

    Kelly

    Reply
    • Hi Kelly! House-sitting gigs in Africa are quite rare, they are mostly situation in Europe, Central America, and Australia and New Zealand, although the concept is catching on in many places. If you are interested in looking at those other areas, then I’d suggest you check out our site and eBook (http://www.hecktictravels.com/housesitting) for help on how to get started! :)

      Reply
  11. Thanks for the great post. I luv it.

    Reply
  12. Dear Dalene,
    I am from India. There is a tradition of saints and sadhus ( wandering monks ) who do not stay at one place. They move from place to place with minimal belongings and almost no money. All that they get in exchange for some words of spiritual wisdom is some sparse food from some religious minded people. They sky is the roof over them, some roadside tree is the place of rest and running water for quenching thirst. They are care free, least demanding and subject themselves entirely to the divine will.
    Your beautiful post affirms that one can live with less also provided it is a voluntary and conscious decision. No doubt it may involve some pain and suffering also but joy of freedom is the compensation. Choosing such a life is all the more creditable for those, like you, who have lived in comfort and affluence , much like Gautam Buddha, who left his palace and family in search of Truth.Thousands have adopted this way of life in some quest.

    Reply
    • Mahavir, wow – thank you so much for your amazing comment. :)

      Reply
  13. Wow, Dalene, that’s a great story and very cool lifestyle. I take some of your thinking into my admittedly more conventional life. My wife and I sold a 2000 square foot home and lots of the items that go along with it, and now we just rent–sometimes an apartment, other times a house. We have a car, but only one, and it’s nothing fancy, just a Toyota Yaris. We feel lighter now, and we’ve lived in a few different cities since making that change. In fact, I’ve worked for myself for the past 15 years, and I’ve lived in six states during that time. Anyway that we can put some freedom in our lives turns out great, at least for me. Thanks for sharing your story!

    Reply
    • And thank you for sharing yours Brian! Your story is just a slightly different version of ours…you still traded in a lot for the freedom to move like that! Love it.

      Reply
  14. Hi Dalene,

    I loved your story. When I got married in 2009, I was working with a MNC and was earning in six figures. But post marriage I had to move to a small place and I happily did that. Gave up my job and settled with family on a beautiful island. I can totally relate to your feeling of ‘getting rid of it’ :)

    Thanks for this post. We need such posts to be reminded that less is certainly more. Have you been to India?

    Reply
    • What a freedom, right? It seems so scary at the time, but in the end, what a great story for you and your family.

      We haven’t been to India yet, but it is high on our list. :)

      Reply
  15. Wow Dalene, this story is so inspirational.

    I’ve always wanted the traditional “security” of a house and one place to live. That comes from our habitual moving around when i was growing up. but I’m beginning to think whether the security is just a false lure, trapping me into a multi-year mortgage payment and working long hours to pay it off. I already have a big student debt, and starting to think that I don’t want to add more!

    the “what if’s” are featuring strongly, what if I was brave enough, what if I could travel the world, what if….

    You’ve inspired me to think a bit more about what kind of lifestyle I want, BEFORE being trapped by credit card debt, mortgage, a nice car. hmm.

    Thank you

    Reply
    • Oh Linda, you’re so welcome! We were caught in that false sense of security as well – it’s hard not to be when you’re “told” by society that it is what you want and need – a good job, a nice home, and who cares if you have to go into debt for it, that’s just “what you do”.

      It doesn’t have to be that way. There are so many examples nowadays of people choosing a more mobile lifestyle – it doesn’t even have to be fully nomadic as it is for us – see UpbeatBrain’s comment above. You can design it however you choose. :)

      Reply
  16. Dalene,

    I admire your courage and wisdom to understand a shift was necessary. You are an inspiration as I begin planning my own rags to riches story.

    Best,

    Alex

    Reply
  17. Well I’m late to the party here, but I love this story. Every now and then I get the urge to minimalize my life, but so far have not taken the plunge. Sound like you guys have found something special through the process. Major kudos to you for the change.

    Reply

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