How I Became a “MINImalist": Learning to Live With Less While Couch Surfing Through L.A.

We all have baggage. It's how much we carry that makes the difference.

In the winter of 2009, I lost my job, then my apartment, as I could no longer afford my rent. I also had $99,000 worth of student loan debt. So I decided to move out of my place and start couch-surfing, living with a different friend each week, while giving rent money to the Department of Education instead of a landlord. I put most of my belongings into storage, but I couldn't quite let go of everything. I saved as much as I could lug from couch-to-couch, nine bags to be exact.

Here they are in my friend's trunk:

My first few couch hosts did not seem to mind all my bags, as long as I kept them shoved into the corner versus spread all over their living room, i.e., my bedroom, like some modern art display. Friends kept asking what was inside of them. I honestly wasn't sure.

Having grown up with a hoarding gene, I just knew it was a potpourri of things that I could not live without. You know, things like two suitcases' worth of notebooks I had yet to transcribe onto my flash drive (I tended to write by hand first), purple tights from a friend I swore I would wear sometime though the tag had been on for months, and my heavy wool coat in case there was suddenly a blizzard (in L.A.).

Here is an example from when I was packing:

But as the weeks went on, I realized it wasn't necessary to carry so much… stuff. Especially not all the clothes, for I was living with a different person each week. Who cared–or would know–if I wore the same shirts and jeans week-to-week? Or if I wore the same outfit to different interviews? That's what Woolite was invented for, right?

I also discovered that I was rarely opening all nine suitcases, making me question why they were taking up precious space in my MINI Cooper (emphasis on the “mini"). Dragging so much around was certainly weighing on my car–and myself. Not to mention, I could barely see out the windows when all was packed and done; couch-surfing as a pack rat was becoming a safety hazard.

While driving to a new couch one night, it was so hard to see out my back window that I had to call a friend to put a couple of my bags into his car. As we transferred one into his trunk, the zipper broke, spilling sweaters, a broken cell phone, rusted batteries, and an old Curious George stuffed animal onto the street, my life on display for all to see, suddenly making me feel very exposed.

I knew I had to do something: Get a bigger car… or learn to live with less.

I decided the experience was a sign to go through each and every bag, to finally lighten my load, become a “MINI"-malist, if you will. At the same time, I had just finished working on another TV show and their end-of-year “crew gift" was a carry on, airline-sized rolling suitcase (instead of the usual tee-shirt, fleece, or baseball cap). Yep, I took this as another sign; even God wanted me to travel more efficiently.

So now I had the perfect bag to travel with and live out of–but the question was, what to put inside?

Going from nine bags to one didn't happen overnight (it's hard to let go!), but this is how I did it.

1-I determined wants vs. needs…

I wanted to carry around nine bags, so I could dig out anything at a moment's notice, but I only needed one. Yes, I wanted to have a variety of jeans on hand: some with fashionably placed holes, without holes, bootleg, non-bootleg… just in case, right? But I only needed–and could wear–one pair at a time.

2-I started with one suitcase at a time and set nightly/weekly goals…

When someone's on a diet, it's more manageable (and less overwhelming) to lose five pounds at a time instead of fifty, just like it's easier to shed one piece of luggage at a time instead of all nine at once. So each night or two before I went to bed, I vowed to go through another suitcase by morning, separating wants from needs. And it worked!

3-I used good will and Goodwill…

I donated my extraneous items to friends or those in need–starting with all those unworn jeans. The great thing about “lending" clothes (or anything, really) to friends is that: You know where they are if you need them (okay, want them)… though you will probably forget about the items and see that you're surviving just fine without them, which soon turns your loans into gifts. It's a win-win.

4-I celebrated…

With all the extra room I now had in my life–and car–I had no excuse not to have a party (once I found a couch host willing). Of course, it had to be potluck… and BYOB… and BYOG, Bring Your Own Glass (since I had gotten my couch host into minimizing, too). The goal of the party was to bring something to give away. Most people ended up bringing a few bags' worth of items versus just one, and we donated them all to a local shelter.

Now, I'm happy to say that I travel from couch-to-couch with only that one airline-sized suitcase and a sleeping bag. (The laptop fits in the suitcase, but since it's like my security blanket, I feel better carrying it in my hands.)

Here's my “Couch Kit":

My one suitcase can be safely stowed under a couch host's coffee table instead of several bags scattered throughout the living room:

Last week's couch host asked me how I can live with so little. I laughed, thinking about how, over the months, the more I travel with fewer things, the less I think about all the items I no longer carry.

If I became a “MINI"-malist, so can you.

This was a guest post by Natalia Lusinski, a freelance writer/couch-surfer. Over two years ago, in an effort to reduce her gargantuan student loan debt, Natalia gave up her apartment and started couch-surfing through L.A., living with a different friend each week. In the meantime, she started writing a memoir about her journey, 52 Weeks, 52 Couches: How I Slept my Way Through Hollywood (Without Sleeping with Anybody). When not on a couch, Natalia freelances in TV, script coordinating from show-to-show. Her credits include Desperate Housewives and Hung.

See where Natalia's sleeping this week via her 52 Weeks, 52 Couches Facebook page, her blog, or on Twitter.