Archives: Seasons 1-5
Segment | People

Extreme Green: Minimalist Lives With Just 50 Things

[Mike Roberts: Right, this is our bathroom here, and, out of this whole bathroom, one drawer belongs to me.
Val Zavala: One drawer.
Roberts: Yeah, so let's open that up there. This is it.
Zavala: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine. Nine here.
Roberts: Right.
Zavala: Okay, we're up to nine.
Roberts: Okay, so we're at nine.
Roberts: This is my room I share with my seventeen year-old son.
]

Zavala: Mike Roberts lives in Camarillo, he has two teenage kids, and lives a life that would put a monk to shame.

[Zavala: Are you serious? This is what you sleep on?
Roberts: This is what I sleep on right here.
Zavala: It's not like even a big, cushy yoga mat? Are you comfortable? It doesn't hurt your back?
Roberts: Oh, it's the best. No, it feels good for my back actually.
Zavala: That's about seventeen so far.
Roberts: Right, we got seventeen?
]

Zavala: Mike is an extreme minimalist.

[Roberts:...wardrobe section. You can see I have something for all occasions...]

Zavala: He has only 50 things to his name.

[Roberts: Underwear.
Zavala: Underwear. Two pair!
Roberts: Two pair, right.

Roberts: And then we go to our next drawer here, which is our shorts.
Zavala: Got it.
Roberts: So, like, when I'm doing laundry on laundry day I'll wear these.

Roberts: This is it, right here.
Zavala: That's incredible. Two pair.
Roberts: Two pair.

Roberts: This is my junk drawer. I would go so far to say...
]

Zavala: Actually, he has fewer than 50 things.

[Zavala: Pockets?
Roberts: Let's see. What've we got? We got a hanky.
Zavala: 44.
Roberts: Phone.
Zavala: Oh, very important.
Roberts: Right, gotta have that.
Zavala: 45.
Roberts: And wallet.
Zavala: 46. That's it!
Roberts: We did it.
]

Zavala: He doesn't own a car, so every day, he bikes to work, but even the bike is borrowed. He works at an organic farm. Mike's life used to be a completely different kind of extreme. Five years ago, he was working two jobs, maintaining four homes, and spending lots of cash.

Roberts: I remember sitting in my home office. I had a large house, and I sat there and I finished writing the checks for the month, and it was $20,000 dollars was my overhead every month. And I said to myself, "Whew, is this all really necessary?" And that was about four or five years back, and I slowly started taking myself from there, which was super excessive, a lot of it wasn't needed and a lot of it actually added tension to my life and stress to my life, and I took it all the way down to where I only actually owned ten items. And that was the, that was probably the peak of my minimalism experience. And I started to realize that I was kind of suffocating in this world that I had built.

Zavala: His money came from an online sports gambling business.

Roberts: The biggest week we ever had was over $80,000 cash in a week. It became very lucrative.

Zavala: What happened?

Roberts: The business that I was in was an illegal business, and that business, I knew that I couldn't live that life forever. I knew that that life doesn't end well, and I had a family, and I was, I knew it, so I knew that I had to walk away from that.

Zavala: Still flush with cash, Mike took his family on an eighteen-month around-the-world life-changing trip.

Roberts: Once you travel, you know, you have to get it all into, you can't carry everything. And then, by the time I got back, I realized, "Hey, I don't have too much stuff. Let me see if I can take it all the way down to ten."

Zavala: He also began to meditate. After he slowed down, he started asking himself some deeper questions.

Roberts: What do I really need to own? What do I really need to have? What can I borrow? What can I reuse? Why have more? If that's kind of my thing is...

Zavala: Well, because you live in America, and everything's about more, more, more. You know, America's about the higher standard of living, and that's usually measured in how much stuff we have.

Roberts: Sure. And I definitely have a ton of experience with that — lots of houses and cars and all those types of things.

Roberts: It forced me to think about every single item that I had, which I thought was a really cool exercise, very challenging though because every time I had an item in my hand, there's a part of me that says, "I'm gonna need this. I'm going to need this for something."

Zavala: He has no house, no computer, not even a TV.

Zavala: Your monthly bills must be almost nothing.

Roberts: They are nothing. There's no bills, zero.

Zavala: Well, you rent. You rent the room here.

Roberts: Yeah, well we do that in trade. So, I take care of my nephew full-time, and then while I work on the farm in the night, so...

Zavala: Zero bills. You do not write out a check or pay monthly anything.

Roberts: Nothing.

Zavala: But the simple life hasn't been easy on his family. The drastic downsizing put a strain on his marriage that ended in divorce.

Roberts: It's been very, very painful for my children and my wife at the time.

Zavala: So, I assume that had a lot to do with the divorce.

Roberts: Absolutely. You know, you marry one person, and then this guy is not the same man anymore. It's not what she signed up for, so that was, again, I just, I did things in such an abrupt way, there was no sugar-coating anything, no — it wasn't gentle. My kids, they grew up, I would say, well off, you know. The kids went to private schools and had anything you could want. What I didn't realize is that this is also very painful for them. This is also incredibly horrible, you know, to go from one life to all of sudden, you have another one. And I realize now it was a very cruel thing to do.

Zavala: Mike's sister and mother admit they don't always understand him. They remember the time he went on a 30-day fast and lost 22 pounds.

Sister: He definitely has gone through so many phases, and I'm hoping this is just a phase, 'cause I just, I really, I don't agree with it, you know.

Zavala: Why don't you agree with it?

Sister: I just think that his kids need more.

Mother: If it was just him, my husband and I both would understand a lot more.

Zavala: Mike's kids have certainly had to make sacrifices. His son Nicholas has a few prized possessions, including his guitar, but he would like more space to call his own.

Nicholas: A place where we really don't have to, like, it's kind of like your place a little bit. You know, you can go in the kitchen and do whatever, go lay on the couch. It's kind of space, I guess.

[Roberts: Brothers, a little teamwork there.]

Zavala: It's farmer's market day, and Mike is selling the farm's produce.

[Roberts: Can I tie it up for you?]

Zavala: He admits it might be time for an apartment.

Roberts: Our goal is to get our own place. That's what we're moving towards right now, and we're excited about that. So, how that's gonna work, we'll see.

Zavala: Mike realizes he's taken simplicity to an extreme, and that living with only 50 things would be impossible for most people.

Roberts: Definitely, less is more, for sure. You know, a few more pairs of underwear would be nice, you know, if I wanted to splurge, you know, I'd probably do that route.

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