A while ago I stumbled on a YouTube video about a guy called Rob Greenfield who, at the time of recording, was living his life with only 47 possessions. I find the concept quite fascinating and I generally agree with the anti-consumerist sentiment but I find that the video lacks something. Rob admits in the video that his lifestyle is extreme and he makes sure to point out that he’s not advocating for other people to live like he does. However, he fails to explain how it’s possible for him to be so extremely minimalist.

Now I can of course not say exactly how Rob manages it, but I’ve made a few observations while watching the video. His only cooking utensils consist of a spoon and a pot, he doesn’t even have a knife or a cutting board, so save for cooking porridge or heating up soup, he has to rely on other people for cooking food. He has a pillow but no cover or sleeping bag meaning he relies on sleeping in places that provide bedding for him. He doesn’t have a single cleaning tool meaning he has to live in places where someone else cleans for him. Judging by the fact that his only shoes are a pair of sandals, he must live in a place that’s warm all year round meaning he can have a lot fewer clothes than someone living in place with bigger yearly temperature differences. Rob is also a man, so he doesn’t need any menstrual protection which a woman would. Additionally, he doesn’t face as much societal pressure to be beautiful as women do. An average woman would “need” to have at least some basic makeup – increasing her number of possessions. Simply put, he has reduced his number of possessions in ways that wouldn’t work for everyone.

There are also a few aspects of Robs life that have a less direct impact on the number of possessions he needs. He makes his living as a public speaker, most likely self employed, which means he can manage his time better than the average person person working a nine to five job, and can thereby enable himself to borrow things he needs more easily. At the same time, unlike many freelancers or other self employed people, the only tool he needs for his work is his computer so that only increases his possession count by one. As far as I understand Rob is also single, or at least he seems to live on his own. That means he is free to pursue his minimalism without negatively impacting other people. If you’re living together with someone who isn’t as dedicated to minimalism as you are, you’re bound to end up with more stuff than otherwise. Rob has also put certain limits on his free time in the name of minimalism. He can only partake in hobbies and activities that either don’t require any equipment, or where you can access the things you need by joining a club or renting stuff. Depending on where you live, the latter two options aren’t always available. One general aspect of a minimalist lifestyle, not just related to Rob, is the fact that you will have to interact a lot with other people in order to get the things you need in life, be it borrowing stuff, sharing a kitchen, or sleeping on someone’s couch. The problem with that, is that not everyone is cut out for social interaction on that scale. A lot of people, myself included, would rather buy something we need, then ask someone to borrow it. What I’m trying to say here, is that Rob’s level of minimalism is unlikely to work for the average person.

Fascinating as the video is, I think it would be interesting to see how a normal person could adopt a minimalist lifestyle. So, I have created a little thought experiment to see how to create a minimalist system that would be reasonably feasible for the average person.

Let’s start with some basics. In this context, my criteria for an average person are as follows:

  • They live in a town or city, it doesn’t have to be big but big enough to have the basic amenities. The reason is, someone living in the country side would have to take care of a lot more on their own and therefore need more stuff.
  • They are a normal employee with a normal job, The specific type of job doesn’t matter much, the key is, they’re not self-employed, they don’t own the company and they’re also not unemployed.
  • Their job provides them with all the tools they need to perform their work
  • They rent a room or small apartment that is fitted with some basic furniture.

Rob never made it clear in the video, but there must be some rules for how to define a possession. Here are mine:

  • If an item comes with one or more accessories that are necessary for it to work properly, and those accessories cannot be used for any other item, the accessories don’t count as possessions. For example, my laptop would be useless without the charger, and since the charger isn’t used for anything else, the laptop with charger would count as a single possession. A phone charger however counts as a separate possession since it can charge multiple items.
  • Things that are clearly made as a kit, for example a first aid kit, count as a single possession even though they may consist of several items.
  • Important personal documents don’t count as possessions. Granted a full binder would definitely be a possession but something like a birth certificate doesn’t count.
  • Things that are only used as decoration for other items, e.g. stickers on a phone or laptop don’t count as possessions.
  • Digital files, be they pictures, music, e-books, movies, games, or documents do not count as possessions. If we one day end up spending most of our time in Mark Zuckerberg’s Metaverse I think they should count but luckily we’re not there yet.

My goal for this thought experiment is to have everything you need to live an ordinary life, based on the rules above, while keeping the total number of possessions under 100. Here’s my list:

  • I don’t want to do laundry too often so let’s take 5 sets of T-shirt, socks and underwear which puts me at 15 items
  • I’m a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy so let’s go for 2 pairs of jeans.
  • 1 pair of normal street shoes plus 1 pair of sandals. I think I can manage without winter boots
  • 2 pairs of shorts for the summer
  • 1 lightweight jacket for spring/autumn and 1 thick jacket for winter
  • I’ll have to manage with a single hoodie
  • 2 scarves/bandana things to keep my neck warm
  • A pair of decent gloves
  • A pair of swim trunks.

That puts me at 28 items just for clothing. It would be nice with a few more options but I doubt I can keep things under the limit. Clothing done, I also need some toiletries.

  • Two shower towels plus two hand towels. I Need to be able to wash one set while using the other.
  • Normally I would have separate bottles of shampoo, face wash and so on but I think in order to keep possessions to a minimum I will go with a single bar of quality soap for all my hygiene needs.
  • Hair wax
  • Deodorant
  • Toothbrush plus toothpaste
  • Beard trimmer including charger
  • I wear contact lenses so I need 1 bottle of fluid, 1 storage/cleaning container and one box of lenses for each eye. Total four items

That’s 14 possessions just for hygiene and other toiletries. The amount increases much quicker than you think when counting every single thing. So far the total is 42 items. Lets move on to bedding.

  • Most furnished apartments come with a bed but not necessarily a mattress so I need one of those.
  • A pillow
  • For laundry purposes I need two sets of bed sheets, duvet cover and pillow case
  • I need two duvets/blankets, one thin and one thick.

That’s 10 items for the bed room, putting the total at 52. I think I’m actually doing OK so far. In my experience all the big heavy things like stove and fridge come with the kitchen when you rent an apartment but small stuff like pots and pans are not included so let’s move on to the kitchen.

  • A cutting board and a kitchen knife
  • A pot with lid and a frying pan
  • A spatula, a pair of tongs and a large spoon or ladle.
  • I could get away with a single set of dishes and utensils but I think it would be handy to have two in case someone is joining me for dinner. That means 2 bowls, 2 glasses, 2 forks, 2 knives, 2 small spoons and 2 big spoons for a total of 12 items
  • I don’t think food should count as possessions but spices are another thing. I’m not a very advanced chef but I need some basics: salt, black pepper, garlic granule, chili powder, paprika powder, dried rosemary, Italian seasoning, cumin powder. Eight items just for spices might seem like a lot but food is too boring without them.

That’s quite a lot of stuff for the kitchen but I think it’s necessary. In total this puts me at 79 possessions. Next up, electronics:

  • My laptop computer including charger
  • Wireless mouse
  • USB hard drive or memory card for backups
  • Smartphone
  • Good Bluetooth headphones
  • USB charger including cable
  • A power bank
  • I enjoy reading but my book collection is far too big to add here and I don’t have any good opportunity to borrow or exchange books (at least not the stuff I like to read). Since digital files don’t count as possession I’ll take my Amazon Kindle instead.

That puts me at 87 possessions. I had almost forgotten to add cleaning stuff to the list but it’s utterly necessary to have a few basic things that’s coming here:

  • Broom and dustpan
  • Sponge or brush for washing dishes plus a bottle of dishwashing liquid
  • A rag for wiping tables, countertops etc.
  • A toilet brush

At 93 possessions it’s getting really close to my limit now. I firmly believe everyone should have at least a few basic tools for repairs and simple DIY so that’s next.

  • A high quality multitool, for example a Leatherman Charge or similar
  • A medium size adjustable wrench
  • A roll of duct tape
  • A package of cable ties
  • A hammer

That’s a total of 98 items so far. I’m almost done but I still have a few miscellaneous things I need to add to the list. I realize this will bring me over 100. While I could remove an item here or there just to stick to that number, I think it’s more important that this list is realistic. So, let’s find out what the final number will be when I add the last few things.

  • A water bottle
  • A pair of sunglasses
  • A folding umbrella
  • Unless you live in a city with good public transportation you will need some kind of vehicle. In Europe it would be a car but here in Taiwan it’s going to have to be a motorcycle plus a helmet.
  • A Swiss army knife for traveling/hiking and so on
  • A first aid kit
  • A flashlight
  • A messenger bag or other small bag for short outings
  • A backpack for travel and hiking.
  • A notepad and a pen
  • Basic personal documents including ID card, passport, and driver’s license. Remember, none of these count as possessions.
  • Now, I really enjoy photography (but I’m not very good at it) so even though I can live without it, I’m going to add my camera – including an all purpose lens, a memory card and battery charger – to the list because having it makes my life that much more enjoyable.

End result: a total of 111 possessions to cover everything I would need to live a normal life. I would like to have a few more possessions, mainly clothes, to make things a bit more convenient but I could definitely make do with just these 111 items. So the question is, why don’t I? The simple truth is me and my wife own an apartment which brings with it all the furniture and appliances and such, plus we have a small child; it’s just not possible. I guess I could somehow transfer ownership of the furniture and all that to my wife but it wouldn’t really matter since I can still have direct access to everything in the apartment; technically minimalist but with zero impact on my life. Some years ago, before buying the apartment, I would definitely have given it a try.