On Paring Down, Project 333, and World Travel

The following is a guest post from Chau Le, a globetrotter (14+ countries) and avid Krav Maga addict (she’s training to become an instructor). Chau lived abroad in Taiwan and Spain during her college years, picking up languages and a love for exotic, foreign foods. She relocated to sunny California after graduating from Portland State University and is currently pursuing a career in Communications and PR.  She loves cookies and considers her move to go to graduate school in Belgium (and quitting after 10 days) to be one of the hardest and best decisions of her life.

Chau Le, The Traveling Cherub

Chau Le enjoying her European journey. 

We’ve entered a new year, and can put Black Friday, Christmas sales, and crowded January returning sessions behind us.   So I thought it would be a good time to write about how Project 333 instilled a zen-like calmness in me that helped prevent me from rushing to Macy’s at 5 a.m., possibly saving me from actual bodily harm from fighting the crazed masses trying to get the cheapest deals at the door.

The Change

My change started in my dorm room in Belgium after I’d attended just 10 days of graduate school classes. I had packed for a two-year stint, only to discover on the tenth day that being in school (again) wasn’t what I wanted after all. So there I was, having withdrawn from my classes and canceled my rental agreement, sitting and staring at a packed suitcase that weighed nearly 50 pounds and wondering what to do with everything. How was I going to drag that mammoth bag on my impromptu 2-month trip across Europe before flying straight home to the States?

I knew I had to make a choice. The next afternoon, I arrived home dragging a backpack that could barely fit one comforter and flung it next to my open suitcase.  This backpack was what I would take with me on my travels; whatever didn’t fit into it would be left behind.

Chau Le's blue backpack for her Europe trip.

The blue bag is what I took on my trip to Europe. It held only 40% of my possessions. The orange school backpack is a size comparison.

Discovering Project 333

Literally pushed to fit everything I needed for a two-month trip across the European continent into one backpack, I was forced to face the fact that I owned too much, utilized too little, and was wasting precious time in life deliberating every day over what I should wear.

I did a Google search and discovered Project 333, and knew that this was the perfect trip for me to try and take on the project. From there, I began reading about other people’s experiences and revelations from doing that project or similar challenges. A guest article by Mette Balslev Greve on this very blog mentioned that instead of going by her intuition and style, she used to buy according to fantasy and what others said she needed:

I also created endless lists of items I found on other people’s “must-have” lists on the internet. If any online expert wrote that a white shirt was a must-have, I put it on my list. Essentials, must-haves, top 10 – you know those kinds of lists. I put everything on my own list and you know what… it ended up being four pages long!”

She was spot-on in this assessment.  I’d been told by fashion magazines that a belt was necessary to bring an outfit together, so I went out and bought two.  I’d wear a belt once, quickly whipping it off in the car just two hours later because I found it far too uncomfortable. After that, I subconsciously avoided any outfit that might require a belt, because it didn’t suit my style.

The concept of Project 333 was intriguing to me because it forces participants to do some fashion reconciliation to realize who they are and how they want to dress. They then have to either make a mental effort to change (if they prefer a different style) or love and embrace what they currently own but be more intentional about it.

Paring Things Down

After learning what I needed to do to take on Project 333, I was ready to prepare for my trip.  With a wardrobe limit of only 33 items, I really couldn’t carry unused belts and white blouses around with me “just in case.” So I sat down cross-legged on the ground next to my backpack and suitcase, took a deep breath, and dove in.  The Forever 21 blouse that I’d bought for only $10? It was cute, but the cheap synthetic material was already peeling after one wash. Out. The cheap tights I bought just because they were on sale for $4? Out.  They wouldn’t last one bus ride without making me break out in a sweat.

Chau Le's traveling wardrobe

This is the bulk of what I wore on my travels across Europe (and carried in my backpack). 

Chau Le's Project 333 capsule shoes

My shoes – I mostly wore the brown boots on my travels.

When it was all said and done, I only packed about 40% of the items from my large, heavy suitcase into my blue travel backpack. What did I do with the remaining 60% of my clothes that wouldn’t fit into the backpack? Well, my roommate thought I was crazy, but she gladly welcomed the loot I left behind.  I was so glad that she could use it all (the items that didn’t fit or work for her, she gave to her friends and classmates).

Quality Over Quantity

It wasn’t the fact that I got rid of about 60% of my entire wardrobe in under an hour that was the key element of the experience. Rather, it was that I realized just how much crap I owned and didn’t need.  It wasn’t just a matter of quantity, but quality as well.  As I purged, culled, and rid my life of items that I’d worn only once or twice, I also realized that much of what I held on to were expensive, quality gifts or pieces that I’d purchased years ago that still had much more life in them.

As one example, for my 19th birthday, a friend gifted me with a small Fossil wallet that has followed me to Asia, Europe, and back to the U.S. over the course of four years. Even after all the wear and tear, the leather retained its quality, shine, and suppleness.  Outside of its sentimental value, it was simply a beautiful item that I always held with pride.

Much-loved Fossil wallet

The much-loved Fossil wallet that has followed me around the world! 

In contrast, I’d probably gone through at least three shoulder bags in the year before starting Project 333. Those bags, which cost around $20 each, were great leather imitations – for the first month.  But as they went through daily wear and tear, the stitching broke, and the skin tore.  After 90 days, it looked like I was dragging around an old attic-find that I was simply carrying out of pity!

Chau Le in Rome

Happy, light, and stylish on the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Save Time, Define Style

Project 333 helped me not only to downsize, but also to refine my closet and shopping habits. By having a limit on what I could purchase, I put more thought and care into buying anything, be it a $4 cami or a $200 coat.  Being forced to create outfits that had to work and earn their keep in my tiny backpack allowed me to get rid of the ten ugly, just “okay” tee shirts that I once thought I needed.

Dressing with less has also made buying decisions so much easier.  Last week, I bought a pair of Toms to replace my old casual slip-on shoes. If you’ve ever bought Toms, you’re fully aware that there are about 1001 colors. The past me would have gone for a candy-colored bright yellow pair. The new practical me clicked on every color, pausing on each one, and going through a mental checklist:

  • Does this go with my usual blue-hued ensembles?
  • Could I wear this color with my basic black skirt?

The list went on, and I narrowed my decision down to either navy or black. In the end, I decided on the navy pair because the black looked too washed out and would quickly become gray as I wore the shoes around.

What about choosing my next skirt? As fun as a purple and black color-blocked skirt looked, nearly all of my tops were blue.  As cute as I imagined the skirt would be with a white tee, I realized that was the only outfit I could get out of that particular kind of skirt, limiting its usage to probably twice a month. I closed my browser window immediately after realizing that.  So I didn’t buy a cute skirt that was on sale.  I just didn’t need it.

Less Really Is More

I used to think that having style depended on the variety of shirts I had in my closet; more was always better. Setting limits? Puh-leese. But after taking on Project 333 and realizing what my style was, I was forced to act creatively and place value on each and every piece that occupies my closet.

I ended up changing my mind entirely… getting dressed is so much easier with less!   I no longer glance guiltily at an impulse purchase (which I obviously regretted) and end up wearing it just to ease the guilt, only to feel uncomfortable and unhappy in my own skin all day.

Chau Le's current closet

           What my closet looks like now… Don’t be deceived by all the black!                It’s mostly dark denim and jackets or tights.

Instead, getting dressed every day has become a wonderful and perhaps too easy process.  Every shirt or pair of pants I own is a favorite that I always feel great wearing and my tops and bottoms can all be mixed and matched with each other.  Spending some mental energy in figuring out and designing a wardrobe for my current lifestyle has directly paid off in my daily life!

A big thank you to Chau for sharing her story!  If you would like to be profiled in the “Stories of Recovery” series (you can be anonymous if desired), or if you have an idea for another type of guest post on “Recovering Shopaholic,” please connect with me to share your thoughts.

16 thoughts on “On Paring Down, Project 333, and World Travel

  1. Lovely post Chau. You have inspired me. Once upon a time I also traveled though Europe for two months with only a small backpack. And like you, I found it rewarding and refreshing to learn how little I really needed, and how much joy and freedom I felt with fewer belongings. Although I have made great gains over the past few years and now own half of the amount of clothing and belongings I once had, you have reminded me of the ease and bliss I feel when not encumbered with more stuff than I need. I had a few items on my want/need list that I was hoping to acquire within the next few months, but after reading your post I threw my list away. I already have plenty, and definitely more than I really want and need.

    • Terra, thank you for your comment – and the last sentence REALLY inspired me. I too – after my back forgot the feeling of having to carry 40 pounds worth of stuff – have started a “want/need” list and after reading your comment and am reminded to practice what I preached! I am glad to meet another adventurer with the same experience and who feels the same bliss and freedom by downsizing. Thank you for reading!

  2. Enjoyed your post Chau! I am in awe of your 1 hour culling of clothes. It really is amazing how little we need to get by. Good luck to you with your Krav Maga instructor training. 🙂

    • Kim, thank you for the comment! Under the right (or wrong) circumstances, you too, can be a master culler 😉
      And THANK YOU for the encouragement, Krav Maga is definitely a big passion of mine 🙂

  3. What a mind-blowing experience for you! You literally had to change everything about your life after the decision in Belgium. Paring down the size of your backpack was no small thing, I know, it would probably set the standards for the trip and possibly also the time after that. It is very liberating to do with less, and to do it with items that go together. The fact that you gave it away… That feels so good, doesn’t it – and your friend was really happy too. Good job!

    • Mette – wow, I could not have phrased it any better! You are totally on point that yes, it was hard, and yes, it definitely set the standard not only for the trip, but for my life after. I just saved so much head (and heart) ache by letting go of the extras, and learning to live (and love!) with less. Giving 60% of those belongings away was literally and metaphorically allowing myself to leave my baggage behind (no pun intended) and to make that drastic decision to quit school and travel. Thank you so much for the kind words and for reading!

  4. Each year I visit India for a month with no checked in bags, only a carry-on backpack. And yes, it’s dusty and grimy in the tropical weather there, so I do laundry every other day. That’s the lifestyle I would like to replicate the rest of the year non the U.S.

    I too had some pencil skirts and sheath dresses and nude pumps “‘cos every girl should have some.” Nonsense. I hate skirts and dresses except the two sleeveless maxi dresses I wear in summer and also in colder weather with tights and a jacket. And I never wear anything with a heel, ‘cos it distorts my foot arch (I too am a serious martial artist).

    It also really chaps my hide to be told that I need to wear “light make-up” to job interviews to fare better. No man is required to have “light make-up”, so those who expect me to wear make-up just because I’m female needn’t worry ‘cos I don’t want to work with them.

    I feel more confident and comfy in trousers and a button-down shirt. We’re all different and these style “rules” don’t work for all of us. I love this post and Chau has sit right about following what suits you and your lifestyle rather than what others tell you you need to do.

    • Hi nutrivore! I agree with your first (all, really) sentiment – I would love to transport my traveling wardrobe and lifestyle to my life in the U.S. – of all the countries I’ve traveled t0/lived in, the U.S. is the most obsessed about constant rotation and trends. The famed French wardrobe rotates around basics a/or classics, with just one or two suits, instead of 10 – why can’t we do the same? There’s nothing wrong with wearing a pair of pants for (gasp) a 3rd day (although it depends on your climate and activity level of course, but using this as a general rule!).

      Amen to that! Just because nude pumps and dresses are staples doesn’t mean you should wear it if you don’t like it – really, do high heels make you a better person?! (High five about preserving your body for such a great sport). Who says you have to have make-up on to be presentable or capable? Fashion magazines (as fun as they are to read) constantly telling us that we need to “do this” to be “better.” Hogwash!

      Rules are great to have, but they need to be YOUR rules. Thanks for commenting!

    • Kasia, you recognize them?! Such a lovely town, I spent 3 days there, LOVED IT, definitely want to go back – and the Poznan pirogis are THE BEST.

      • Hope you get to come back some time again ^^!
        Btw, I loved your post and after reading it started wondering what I would do if I walked in your shoes 😀

      • Kasia – I’ll look you up if I ever come back, and we can go visit the goats 😉 I am so glad to hear that – the point of the post was to help others using my experience as an example. Maybe you’re not forced fit everything into one bag, but just being aware that you CAN do it is pretty cool in itself! Thank you for reading!

  5. Lovely story, thank you for sharing! It’s amazing what we can end up ‘believing’ we need. Not just in clothing, but in everyday objects and things that most of us take for granted. You’ve inspired me to begin again, asking myself ‘Can I do without it’ when attempting to pare things down- attempting to challenge those ingrained ideas about what we should have, wear, drive, and use!

    • meli22, I am so glad this post helped! You’re right, without a challenge, we often get ingrained in a certain lifestyle and take things for granted. Clothing is only one example – I hope that by downsizing my closet, I learn to apply these skills to my life as well, allowing only the simple, more positive rotations in!

  6. It’s amazing what kind of progress can be made when one’s back is up against the wall. Bravo for a successful wardrobe purge and sticking to it. I have also noticed that my preference for quality items has risen as the number of pieces I own has shrank. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • Lisa, thank you for reading! Isn’t it amazing how, after the blurry years of buying clothes for fun, you begin to realize that the things you stick to are the ones that look/feel good — and that’s usually (not all the time, but most of the time) the well-tailored, high-quality clothing. It was a hard purge, but being in a foreign country a lone with no rules turned out to be a blessing in disguise – I let go of not just my clothes, but a lot of my self-imposed ideas!

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