How Many Things Don’t You Want?

Henry David Thoreau

Because life is simpler in the wilderness, most people learn quickly that taking too much gear with them on, say, a backpacking trip, is dysfunctional and potentially life threatening. With diligent planning the solutions are usually obvious. For example, if you are feeling cold in the wilderness you can put on every single piece of clothing you brought with you. If you are still cold you can eat. If you are still cold you can make camp and get in your sleeping bag. Unfortunately, because civilization does not have such fast feedback loops it allows us to continue with dysfunctional behavior far longer than in the wilderness. While the consequences of such behavior are not so immediate they can be just as life threatening.

As a financial planner I have seen many clients struggling to support large expensive McMansions and lifestyles to match, and suffering from a range of stress related illnesses and/or relationship problems. Because civilized life is more complicated (family, work, school, peer pressure, neighbors, social networks, religious affiliations etc.) it is often difficult for clients to conceive what it would be like without much of the ‘stuff’ that currently supports their lavish life style.

At this point it often becomes clear that the ‘stuff’ is an obstacle to change and growth and  that rather than the client possessing ‘stuff’, the ‘stuff’ is possessing the client. This inverse relationship was clearly recognized by the early Christians. In one of the most striking images in the Bible, Jesus told his disciples that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for the rich young man, whom he loved, to enter the kingdom of God. This was not, as is generally thought, because the man was comfortable with his worldly goods but because he refused the invitation to give them up i.e. he had become dependent on them, no longer self-sufficient, no longer autonomous.

Socrates had long ago made a similar point. In reply to criticism that he eat food and drink of the worst kind and wore cheap clothing, Socrates replied that he did not receive money for his conversations and consequently was at liberty to talk to anyone. As for his diet: “he who eats with most pleasure is he who least requires sauce.” In other words Socrates chose to dress and eat simply, because by doing so he could remain free and autonomous, not beholding to anyone.

Along the same lines Henry David Thoreau saw that the luxuries and comforts of modern living had become its necessities and that people were making slaves of themselves in order to pay for them. His solution, like Socrates, was to see how many things he could live without. For Thoreau the richest person was not the one with the greatest accumulation of goods but the one with the largest amount of free time. Thoreau recognized that we are our own worst enemy, Most men, he said, “lead lives of quiet desperation,” because rather than living modestly and trying to experience life to the full, they strive to own more than they need and so find themselves on a treadmill that leaves no time to smell the roses.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms,”

Thoreau also walked the talk:

“I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

“My “best” room, however, my withdrawing room, always ready for company, on whose carpet the sun rarely fell, was the pine wood behind my house.”

There is no need to live like a hermit to learn that ‘ less’ means ‘more’. A few days spent hiking or backpacking in the wilderness is cheaper than counseling, therapy or financial planning, and certainly much more enjoyable.


“If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill


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66 Comments on “How Many Things Don’t You Want?”

  1. The Sicilian Housewife Says:

    Beautifully written and full of wisdom. Thank you Malcolm! This needs sharing….


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you for the wonderful feedback. I really appreciate it.


      • Kim Rosenberg Says:

        Malcolm I am a financial planner too and I have a similar value system you conveyed in your recent blog ” how many things don’t you want”. Do you have any suggestions on how to give financial advice with the concept of “less is more ” to clients? I would love to hear your thoughts.


        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Kim, thank you. As you know planners generally aim to work within the client’s own value system so the objective is not to affect changes in values but to help clients achieve their goals. However, the wilderness has a way of being its own teacher, and as I frequently take clients and/or friends with me on my wilderness trips, it’s rare that I don’t see some sort of transformation in line with the ‘less is more’ philosophy. Please feel free to contact me off the blog if you would like to discuss this further.

        • Kim Rosenberg Says:

          How wonderful that you take your clients on wilderness trips!! They are so lucky. Please tell me the best way to contact you

  2. NicoLite Великий Says:

    consumerism does tend to turn into obsessive-compulsive behaviour in a lot of people, especially when they are more concerned with status than what is really useful to have


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. Yes, a large part of consumerism does have to do with status although it’s also just about what we get used to. For example, if you never travel by public transport it’s easy to invent a multitude of excuses as to why it would not be a good idea to sell the car and travel this way.


  3. John (Zoli) Varady Says:

    “Then for a time in the age’s after-glow…. slowly the machines break down, slowly the wilderness returns. Oh distant future children going down to the foot of the mountain, mourn your own dead if you remember them, but not for civilization, not for our scuttled futilities.”


  4. A Gripping Life Says:

    Perfect. Such a simple and truthful message. Well done, Malcolm.


  5. Kevin Richardson Says:

    Brilliant – Yes – I am determined to get rid of approximately 10 pounds of stuff a week so as to be nimble! SO far so good. I’ve shaved about 5 years of junk recently and keep going! ! I won’t be admitted into the “100 item club” but I’d like to get things down to about 300 items. Also, getting rid of something takes about 3x more work than getting it in the first place.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kevin, I’m so impressed that you can even count your ‘stuff’. I would not know where to begin. For example, do thousands of books count as thousands of books or as one item, ‘books’?:)


      • mattreamy Says:

        If you’re looking to use the Express Lane at the supermarket, thousands of books count as one item. Unfortuantely when you’re moving, they count as thousands.

        An excellent article that verbalizes a mentality and thought process I’m adapting to some extent over this past year of my own life (later in life, I’m finding, than I’d’ve liked).



        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “a mentality and thought process”

          Exactly. That is what simplicity is all about – a frame of mind through which we automatically filter our decisions. Once you have the filter in place you have no problem in seeing ways to simplify your life in all sorts of ways. It’s also very liberating to know that you can do without virtually everything in life except for food, water, shelter and, for some, indoor plumbing and the internet:)

  6. aurorawatcherak Says:

    My husband and I have significantly downsized our life over the last few years. Not so much items as services and utilities. We can actually live without cable television, for example. We’re constantly having to weigh that “what you’re used to” aspect. F


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you. I have found myself giving up subscriptions to magazines and newspapers that I rarely refer to, as virtually anything one can want to read is now available for free on the web. What a boon that is.


  7. Mish Says:

    “The less I have the more I am.” Roma Rola


  8. Robert Sachs Says:

    I certainly agree with the overall sentiment, and it’s consistent with one of my own observations: we are all waiting to die, and seek to amuse ourselves in the interim. That is why we accumulate stuff.

    The metaphor I use is the cart. The more stuff you have, the bigger the cart you need to haul it around, the more energy (mental, physical etc.) you consume just in the act of hauling (i.e., earning the money, paying the bills, managing the cart).

    We see symptoms of over-stuff in the observation that most people don’t park their car in their garages, since the garage is full of extra stuff that does not fit in the house. Drive down any suburban street on a weekend and look into open garages.

    And while I’ve not done the research, I bet the personal storage business has grown considerably over the years.

    Lately, we’ve undertaken to get rid of a lot of stuff, and have donated many carloads of clothing, furniture, household items, etc. to charity, in addition to giving away things on Craigslist. I tend to give away large items that I can’t haul. Recently gave away a $2500 (new) desk, a $3500 (new) sectional couch, and a horse. When I do something like that, I impose a condition on the recipient, and select the best response. For example, when I gave away the desk, the condition was to write a poem about what the desk would be used for.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Bob, thank you for these comments. I like your metaphor of a cart and also your idea of a Sachs poetry contest for the things you give away:) However, I do wonder why you bought a new desk and new sectional couch that you did not need?


      • Robert Sachs Says:

        To be clear: These were the prices new, circa 2002. They were used when I gave them away. While I could have sold the item for several hundred, perhaps more, I enjoy giving them away.


  9. Boris Zaretsky Says:

    I can give up many luxuries of modern living, but let me please keep indoor plumbing. Not that I can’t live without it, but I would prefer not to.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Boris, thank you. Indoor plumbing is very overrated but certainly recommended in urban environments.


    • Robert Sachs Says:

      The odd thing is that technology has a way of making luxuries into necessities in our culture. Fifteen years ago a mobile phone was certainly a luxury, as was a personal computer. At best a given household had one of each. Twenty years ago, TV was free over the air, and a tiny percentage of people were connected to a WAN. Now you–and everyone in your family over the age of say 10, must have a cell phone, most of their own computers, and everyone is online. We pay for TV because there are 1000 channels, when there used to be 13. Not only that, but everything gets better faster, so we have to replace the car, cell phone, TV, computer, tablet, etc. every Nth month, rather than every Nth year.

      We also have a culture in which instead of fixing things that break, we replace them. Very rarely does the service department at your car dealer actual fix something that is broken, no matter how easy the repair would be. Instead, the part is pulled and a new one inserted. The same is true in the overwhelming majority of consumer products. Blame all this on the product liability lawyers.

      The only good news in this spiral is that the technology predictions of the 1950’s *did not* come true. Otherwise, we’d be replacing our personal robots and flying cars as fast as we replace our televisions, and that would take up a lot of room in our garages.


    • aurorawatcherak Says:

      Indoor plumbing is one of my MUSTS for everyday living. I don’t mind not having it for short periods, but not for long term. My husband and I are building a cabin out in a remote valley accessible only by off-road vehicle or our feet. That may be our retirement home … and a retreat if society goes the way it appears to be going. We’ve got a plan for providing water and getting rid of waste without electricity or having to haul honey buckets. Fortunately, there’s lots of technological experiments here in Alaska to borrow from so we will have indoor plumbing. Now if we can figure out Internet ….


      • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

        No downside to a retreat in today’s environment. If you don’t need it you have your well-stocked retirement home.


        • aurorawatcherak Says:

          And, hopefully, our well-stocked town home that’s been paid for (that’s the plan anyway) and turned over to one of our kids who will leave a light on for us in exchange for paying part of the ongoing bills. Part of what drives our materialistic consumerism today is an insistence that we should never rely on our children for our retirement and that our kids should be able to afford their own homes not long after college graduation. That wasn’t how it was done in past generations and there was a a very valid reason for that. It’s not sustainable.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Exactly. That’s what happens during a 70 year period of credit expansion. House prices keep going up so why shouldn’t everyone jump on the bandwagon? Everything works fine until the credit expansion turns into a credit contraction.

  10. Robert Sachs Says:

    Regarding Socrates: “As for his diet: “he who eats with most pleasure is he who least requires sauce.”

    A great Philosopher no doubt, but not much of a food theorist. I have been developing my own theory for many years, Sachs First Law of Gastronomy, which states that “All solid food is a mechanism to transport Sauce into the Body.” Like Darwin himself, I have spent many, many years collecting and analyzing thousands of samples. For example, consider french fries. Those of you with children know that they will dip a fry into the ketchup, and then suck the ketchup off the fry, and repeat this several times over before the fry loose structural integrity, at which point it will be eaten.

    Consider potato, corn, pita, and other types of chips. Plain, these are cellulose wafers, and about as interesting as cardboard. With sauce, they become irresistible. Indeed, next to me at this very moment is a pile of pita chips, some red hummus, and a jar of pineapple salsa.

    Consider chicken, and the myriad sauces-wine, cream, BBQ–that are used to smother it. Indeed, but for sauces, everything seems to taste like chicken. (Sachs’ Chicken Corollary)

    Salad: No normal person eats salad without dressing. Raw food aficionados in Los Angeles do not count as normal.

    Bread: it may be the staff of life, but without butter, jam, jellies, spreads, etc., it would is boring.

    French food is practically synonymous with sauce. And can you imagine a Chinese dish that was sauceless?

    Field investigations have confirmed that the ordinary household has on average over 120 different sauces on hand–typically several salad dressings, multiple mustards, generous collections of jams and jellies, bottles of BBQ sauce, etc. In some demographics (e.g., male college students) over 99% of the contents of the fridge are sauces (excluding alcoholic beverages; there is strong line of reasoning which suggests that these are “sauces” are well, but my research needs to continue).

    Even dogs prefer food with sauce to “dry food.”

    Returning to Socrates then: His statement is at odds with both Greek food culture and his personal life. Greek food is heavily sauced. Finally, Socrates ended his life with a sauce.

    Thus Socrates was quite wrong (or at least disingenuous). Sauce it was makes food pleasurable.

    It has been said that the Germans eat to live and the French live to eat. Apparently, Socrates was German. That explains a lot.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Interesting theory. I can only say that as a vegan (or as my daughter more accurately says, a cheating vegan), my sense of taste is far more acute than that of the average sauce lover. Plainer foods are not so plain and vegetables can be savored for their own intrinsic flavor. I suppose that makes me German.


  11. Jon Sharp Says:

    Enjoyed your post Malcolm, and enjoyed reading the comments. After three moves in four years we are definitely in a post-acquisitional phase 😉


  12. Kevin Richardson Says:

    Here’s a book that’s on topic:


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kevin, thank you for sharing this. I just checked out the book on Amazon. Forget about Socrates and Thoreau, this author’s philosophy is simple, “If you want to grow, you gotta let go”.


  13. Ernie Grafe Says:

    Thanks for this reminder, Malcolm. I liked a remark by David Brooks (I believe from his book) that we’re often the happiest after simply having dinner with friends. I know that’s true for me. (Although yes, I particularly appreciated indoor plumbing at 20 below in South Dakota.) But your post also reminded me of a story I heard a while back; here’s a more complex version I found online:
    A tourist was at the pier of a coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside were several large yellowfin tuna. The businessman complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them. The Mexican replied only a little while.

    The businessman then asked why he didn’t stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The businessman then asked, but what do you do with the rest of your time? The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take a siesta with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine and play guitar with my amigos; I have a full and busy life, señor.”

    The businessman scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and I could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats; eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman, you would sell directly to the processor and eventually open your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City where you would run your expanding enterprise.”

    The Mexican fisherman asked, “But señor, how long will this all take?” To which the businessman replied, “15-20 years.” “But what then, señor?” The businessman laughed and said, “That’s the best part! When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions.” “Millions, señor? Then what?” The businessman said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take a siesta with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

    The fisherman, still smiling, looked up and said, “Isn’t that what I’m doing right now?”
    The version I heard originally was simpler (more oral) and less obvious, with a tourist kind of offended by this lazy guy fishing FROM a dock. The tourist asks if he doesn’t have something better to do with his time. “Like what.” “Well, get a job, make something of yourself, and save your money.” “Why?” “So someday you could afford to retire and do whatever you want to do.” “Like what?” “Oh, I don’t know, like . . . fishing.”


  14. erin Says:

    Great post, and very true words.

    As I near 30, I find that most, if not all, of my friends are concerned with amassing financial wealth, so that they may purchase cars, stocks, and houses (as well as the nice things to fill that house).

    I’m not motivated by money. Sure, I have ‘things’ that might not have been considered necessary in the past. I wouldn’t consider being without my smartphone, tablet, or computer, but these are the tools that allow me to gather the knowledge that I measure my wealth by. I don’t often buy things just for the sake of it; I try not to be frivolous with my purchases, and attempt to put ethics before the temporary fulfilment of buying something new. Experiences – vacations, meals with friends – are more important than things.

    I especially liked the backpacking analogy. I’m currently planning a couple of months away in Europe. I’ll pack light and live cheaply so I can afford to do the things that I really want to. There’s no need for excess.


  15. sally1137 Says:


    You may have already heard of this book, but your link to The Age of Spiritual Machines, the discussion of internet implants, and the discussion of consumerism reminded me of the book “Feed” by M.T. Anderson.


  16. Jim Finn Says:

    Malcolm, thank you for this thought-inspiring piece. I was out bicycle riding today (from my house to beautiful Sugarloaf Ridge State Park – home to a 2700 foot mountain I climb regularly), one of my most satisfying activities, and thought of your writing and how much I get from this activity for relatively little money. I gain both physical health as well as mental peace; this must be the most cost effective therapy I have ever engaged in! It really is true that we put ourselves on a work-spend treadmill, and expend our invaluable time-of-life on things really of ultimately little meaning. I remember the natural beauty when I visited Walden Pond many years ago, but wondered why anyone would live such a meager life voluntarily. Life experience has helped me to understand the answer. I hope to find my Walden Pond someday soon.


  17. Tom Tobin Says:

    Really liked your article about “things” and backpacking. Simple but profound. I have been on a backpacking trip every year since 1964. (They are getting shorter!)


  18. TAE Says:

    I often think “they do not consume, they are being consumed” when I watch people watch TV (we don’t have TV). I completely second your well-written thoughts.


  19. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Nancy, thank you for the trackback and kind words. I also liked your post referencing the origin of the term ‘Eye of the Needle’.


  20. Robert-preneur Says:

    Malcolm, it is always good to visit your corner. I’m trying to catch up on my reading of my favorite blogs and yours I find a deep well of intellectual and spiritual stimulation. One of my frustrations is that circumstances don’t allow me to get to the wilderness and it’s rhythms anywhere near enough. Solitude, silence, the sounds of only the wind and the birds are necessary to the health of our souls. My students have a very hard time with silence and their frayed lives show it. Simplicity is freedom but can our economy survive unless we borrow excessively to consume voraciously? Those who herald the message of simplicity must bear the wrath of the gods of commerce. But I would rather stand with the prophets than drive a Lamborghini with the devil. I will share this post with my students and reblog this my friend. Take care.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Robert, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

      “can our economy survive unless we borrow excessively to consume voraciously?”

      Our economy has already started the painful, perhaps multi-decade transition to a less-leveraged economy. This process is inevitable as credit contracts through either default or inflation.

      “Those who herald the message of simplicity must bear the wrath of the gods of commerce. But I would rather stand with the prophets than drive a Lamborghini with the devil.”

      You write well. This is beautifully said.


  21. necessaryandpropergovt Says:


    If I sense your core philosophy correctly, I’ll bet you’d be able to write some interesting thoughts in a followup article along the lines of “How Many Things Don’t You Want From Government?

    Here’s a taste of my views in that area.

    – Jeff


  22. Robert-preneur Says:

    Reblogged this on Teacher-preneur and commented:
    Whether you agree or disagree with Malcolm over at Malcolm’s Corner, he always makes you think deeply from a heart of warmth, goodness and simplicity. This post particularly resonated with me because of the profound spiritual malaise that affects our society rooted in the dysfunction that Malcolm diagnoses correctly in my opinion. Christ spoke of it in the words, “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” We have a society with its heart in the wrong place. Thanks Malcolm.


  23. Bonnie Marshall Says:

    Hmm….causes me to wish that destructive images were as easy to dispose of as garage clutter, though perhaps we need those images for wisdom. What do you think, Malcolm, is there a poem there someplace? Such a thought producing post.


  24. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Putting on the hiking boots, walking in simplicity and solitude makes wonders as does deep friendships and inspiring exchange. There are times having a witness to our own lives expands our understanding of what we are about and there are times when withdrawing is vital (in my case at least) for creating the space to let it all sink in, tie up knots that no longer serves a purpose, re-calibrate and further accumulate and fine-tune the symbolic tools for living life the truest and to the fullest whatever this means to each of us. We are not always the same person returning after such withdrawal, something that might take the surroundings a bit by surprise until they get used to the constant of this change.

    “For Thoreau the richest person was not the one with the greatest accumulation of goods but the one with the largest amount of free time.” In this regard I understand I am wealthy beyond measure…

    There is strong resonance (not surprisingly) with this post too, you are a great writer with much to say, I’m grateful you are sharing your gift with us.


    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Hanne, thank you for your kind words and keen observations. I think you will like this quotation from John Stuart Mill:

      “Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could do ill without.”


  25. Malcolm Greenhill Says:

    Thank you for the linkback.



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