13 February 2012

Step 10: Learn to Live With Less And Enjoy it

A full list of the Simple Living Challenge steps can be found here.

Now that The Simple Living Challenge enters into its second half, it is time for us to step in the realm of what has always given me shivers - shopping, wants and needs, debt, consumerism... in other words financial life.

The definition of how much exactly is enough seems to be part of an eternal argument and varies from culture to culture and from person to person. But one thing is sure, if we challenge ourselves to live with less we will always find a thing or two more to get rid of and we still will be happy. What, then, makes us hold onto possessions and define ourselves through our belongings?

The person who will help us find the answer to this question is Vanessa Williams. Her blog A simply good life is where she explores how lower standard of living doesn’t mean lower quality of life and it has been a place of inspiration and encouragement for me. With each post Vanessa looks into the luring and dangerous grounds of the consumerism trap and offers a solemn and wise account of her real life experiences on the quest to finding what truly matters in life.

My name is Vanessa... and I’m a shopaholic.

Growing up, like many teenagers, I spent significant time at the mall. This habit didn’t change much when I graduated from college, and broke out on my own.

Suddenly I had an entire apartment to fill with things. I went into debt acquiring stuff, telling myself “It’s ok, I NEED this!” or worse, “I DESERVE this.”

I dug myself a hole so big that eight years later I am still digging out. My story isn’t unique - many young Americans make the same mistakes that I did. Looking back, I honestly can’t tell you what was so important about having certain things. Other expenditures, like travel, I think were worth it.

The wake-up call
Although I became more money-savvy as I grew older, not a lot changed until I was served a rude wake-up call in 2009, when my husband, the primary breadwinner in our family, was laid off. This wound was deepened when six months later I lost my job as well, and we were to spend the next five months unemployed together. It was a long and hard fall for a high-middle-income family.

I was completely panicked. There were many tears shed in the HR office. I didn’t know what to do. I had come a long way from my frivolous days post-college, but I still had a lot to learn.

Since that time, we have both had several job transitions, putting us on a rather unsteady, tumultuous path. Currently, we are both laid off again from work. We’ve learned to take things day by day, month by month because planning ahead has proven ineffectual.

I share this story not for pity, but for the fact that in today’s day and age, it’s particularly common. Sudden income loss or layoff can happen to anyone, at any time. For most people, many of us will get laid off within our careers. We just have had the privilege in our household of having it occur multiple times.

Looking back, and even living it day to day now, I definitely would not have chosen this for my life. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I have learned so much over the past two years.

Less is more
What panicked me most in those moments in the HR office was not only what we were going to do, but what I might have to give up. Meals of Ramen noodles at home flashed through my mind. What I know now is that “giving up” is actually gaining more.

Photo: Liz West

How much happiness can money buy?
When it boils down to it, what a lot of us want in life is freedom. Freedom to do what we want, when we want. Freedom to spend time with our friends and families. Freedom to do, see, explore. Freedom to pursue our lives’ passion. This is what ultimately makes us happy.

Many of us are under the impression that money can provide this freedom. I certainly was under that impression. And to an extent that’s true. Those basic needs must be met - food, clothing, shelter. Interestingly though, studies show that once those needs are met, money literally doesn’t buy happiness. In the United States, the magic income number seems to be $50,000. People who earn more than that are not significantly more happy.

So what gives? Well, I like to tell people that although I may not have a lot of money in the bank, I am wealthy in time. Being unemployed has let me focus on things I truly care about, and pursue my life’s passions. Wait, wasn’t that the promise monetary wealth was supposed to deliver? Well, yes it is.

The never-ending hamster wheel
We have let work dictate our lives in this country. Our consumerist culture has us always pursuing the next big thing. That house in the suburbs, the new car, the flat screen TV. These are things we tell ourselves we need to have. Once we get them, we may feel some sense of accomplishment or joy, but usually this feeling is short lived. Then we’re onto the next thing. And to feed this desire for more we need to earn more, which generally means work more, until we are on this never-ending hamster wheel.

Many of us, like me, go into debt to accomplish these goals, obligating us to a certain income even more. Eighty percent of us are unhappy at our jobs - why? Because we have created a lifestyle that is so cash-strapped we have not allowed ourselves any wiggle room to take a risk and pursue what we really love.

Slow down
Our lay-offs put an abrupt end to this cycle. When we were working, we were stressed, and it put a strain on our relationship. The layoff forced a life slow-down. We focused on each other - “We’re in this together.” - and our marriage deepened and strengthened.

We have used our time wisely, taking friends up on their offers to have us visit. We’ve attended free community fitness classes so our health didn’t suffer. We’ve taken up new hobbies, and are learning new skills. Our household “to do” list is getting tackled.

We make delicious home-cooked meals with fresh foods from the farmers’ market because we have the time. We don’t have to quickly microwave something when we come home from a long day’s work anymore.

I have the ability to drop everything and help a friend in need, and have done so on occasion. I also can pursue my love of writing, and have launched my blog - something I’d always wanted to do, but could never find the time for it.

I’ve found a community of like-minded people who are there to support me and learn with me. All of these things have lead to a happier, more-fulfilling life.

Opt out of consumerism
Looking around our home, one would not pin me as someone who can talk about living with less. Most of our closets are chock-full. I am certainly not a good example of zen habits - I still enjoy my things. However, I have opted out consumer culture in a number of ways.

I’ve learned to let go of labels. Do I follow fashion trends? Yes, but now I am more focused on being a trend-setter. I have a style that is uniquely my own. Half my wardrobe is pre-loved, and I get equal compliments on new and used things.

More than half of the furniture in our home is used. You know why? Older things are built better; they are built to last. New items are designed with planned obsolescence. Older things were meant to be passed down. Better still, I have fond memories attached to some of the useful items - like my grandmother’s kitchen table. Every day she gets to be part of my routine in a small way when I have my coffee in the morning, or dinner at night. This is something special that I wouldn’t trade for even the newest fabulous model at Ethan Allen.

When we need something we don’t have these days - we ask friends first if we can borrow it. This works well when we need a second vehicle for example. Borrowing or renting something often makes more sense than owning it. If that doesn’t work, we opt next for Freecycle, a community where people post things they are giving away. Conversely people can ask for things they need. We received a food dehydrator absolutely free this way.

But perhaps what I am most proud of is that instead of a few times a month, you can find me at the mall only a few times a year. This is not something I have done consciously, but has occurred through finding other ways of doing things. Finding cheaper or alternative means to meet our needs has proven better for our family.

Photo: another.point.in.time

Embrace change
I know this knowledge and experience will stay with me for the rest of my life. The past two years have had a profound impact on my thinking. It’s as if I have been re-calibrated. New habits will stick with us regardless of how much we are earning, and I know that regardless of what the future holds for us, I will always put myself and my family first.

In the end, living with less allows you to focus on what matters, and ultimately to live a happier life.

Share your experience: How much money do you personally need to feel happy? To what extent do money define your happiness?

See also: 
Step 1: Embrace Your Imperfections
Step 2: Simple Living as Men's Trait
Step 3: The Rules of Simple Home Organization
Step 4: Simple Crafting for Happy People
Step 5: Simple Scheduling and Planning Routines
Step 6: Spend More Time With the People You Love
Step 7: Spend More Time Alone
Step 8: Connect to Your Inner Self 
Step 9: How to De-Stress
Step 11: Start a Debt-Free Life
Step 12: How to Overcome Consumerism
Step 13: Declutter Your Life
Step 14: Get Rid of Toxic Cosmetics and Reclaim Your Natural Self 
Step 15: Wean Off Plastic  
Step 16: Celebrate Your Story  
The Final Step: Gratitude 

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  1. What an awesome and relevant post. Living the Unemployment life as well, does teach alot of lessons about what you need and what you think you want. This is a really motivating read. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Indeed, it is amazing how being forced to scale down our mindset shifts and we manage to concentrate on what is truly important. The strength this gives us is immense!

  2. The times I have been most content have been when "stuff" was temporarily put aside and my surroundings have needed the minimum amount of tending. we spend so much time taking care of our "stuff."

    1. And every so often we get enslaved by this relationship, don't we?

    2. Yes! There is so much energy and time put into things! Scaling back let's us maintain less.

  3. We recently sold our second car. I drop my husband off at the train station everyday and pick him up, so his car was sitting around for weeks at a time, not getting used. It just didn't make sense for us to keep paying for it. Whenever we told people we were going to sell it, they would automatically assume we were getting another one to replace it. It was funny how baffled some people got at the idea of two adults sharing one car. The horror! Ha ha.

    So now we plan ahead a little more, and if we really feel like we need a second car (if I drive to visit my sister, for example), then we can rent one for a day or two. It's so nice not to worry about two of them anymore.

    1. We have been a one car family for six years and counting. It takes a bit of an adjustment, as you noted, but not impossible.

    2. Ok, we too have been using one car for the past six years and we have a new rule to not use it on weekdays, just on the weekend :) So you can imagine how much we are saving. Yes, we've chosen walking/biking to driving.

      Though I realize not everyone lives in the same conditions as us (we live in the forest but we are at a 10 minutes-walk to town) I believe that we can all adjust to less driving!

  4. This post is a GREAT reminder. Everything Vanassa says is so true. And though not unemployed at this moment I am in constant fear of it happening. I am one of the 80% that is not happy with my job. This year is my year to get out of debt (I hope). Student loans and car with some credit card left overs from another life. I have committed to not buying one new thing in 2012. I have always shopped at thrift stores. It is like a treasure hunt. I have found that going to thrift stores in affluent areas is a gold mine because the rich seems to discard even the most current brand name clothing and house wares on a whim. Almost all of my business clothing is from the thrift store and much of my home decor is also second hand. Sometimes when the weather is cold I go walking loops in the mall. It is a RUDE awakening to watch people's buying habits. Our country is tanking and STILL people are buying obscene amounts of STUFF. I was not aware of Freecycle...must check it out! Thanks for reminder and great tips. I so appreciate your wise words and warnings. It keeps me on track with what is important.

    1. Thanks Julia! Thrift stores ARE a gold mine if you know where to look. The consumer culture we have built is quite jarring once you choose to remove yourself from it. I have a unique perspective since my professional background is in PR/Marketing. I know what messages are out there to entire people to buy more more more. It's just pure craziness sometimes.

    2. Julia, I cannot agree with you more, Vanessa has resented us with a masterpiece of modern downscaling. I've been re-reading her post and every time I see a new point that I'd like to keep.

      People like you two are so precious for the experience you have and the way you have handled life's challenges and I enjoy your comments to the fullest.

  5. I've never been much of a shopper, in fact I just recently I brought my teenage girls to the mall for the first time that they can remember. ;) I do, however, love the ease and freedom of shopping online. For most of my life I decided that I would be happy if I had "enough money to pay all the bills". And so, the Universe responded and gave me 'just enough'. Everything was always paid, but without much extra. Along the way, I discovered that I would get exactly what I asked for, and so realized that asking for more, brought me more. Money is more like a toy now to me, yes it pays the bills, but it also is fun. I know this sounds flippant, especially to someone who has to struggle to get by, but by shifting my perspective, my whole world changed. I don't NEED money to be happy and I don't blow money with wild abandon. That just doesn't suit me. But it is fun to have and once I stop seeing it as evil (like it was bad to want more) or a source of happiness it becames more of an accessory to life. Scott makes the money in our home but I don't live in fear of him losing his job. If he did, we'd manage, we could get by on much less. As long as I had enough money to continue eating the way that we do (someday organic will be the norm...) I'd be happy. With a little extra for crafte supplies... ;) Yet another great post, I'm off to check out Vanessa's blog! :)

    1. Melinda, I've been implementing that same approach you are talking about and honestly, when I realized that everything I ask for is coming true I got scared at first. It is unbelievable, after taking in too much of modern culture and present day beliefs.

      But when I started concentrating on my inner voice, I started hearing! Ask and you shall receive. Simple as that.

      Thanks for yet another great input.

  6. I love living the simple life. It is so much more fun to find treasures in older well made things. I love reading and the library is free . It has an endless amount of entertainment for me. I don't need or want more "stuff". Joy comes from the time I spend with loved ones. Those are the things I will remember at the end of my life, not what I possessed.

    1. Laura, you made me remember that the "stuff" I love most at home is either found or pre-loved. It is no wonder that hoarders lack love, they are trying to get love but of course, they are doing it the other way around so it cannot work.. You feel attached to an object because it has sentimental value. If you create sentiments around an object things start getting out of hand.

      And, on the other hand, I have been getting rid of sentiments to stuff in the past few years, I kind of prefer to concentrate on sentiments to people :)

      Thanks for your emotional comment!

  7. It sounds like your loss was actually a huge gain. I was also a shopper when I was younger but I think that tied into the mentality of "trying to fit in" which is quite normal when you are young. As I got older and cared less and less about what other people thought - it got easier to live on less because I didn't feel like I needed anything.

    The thing about money is that it is such hard work to earn it. I think twice before parting with now that I work for myself. Although I miss having a steady income, I enjoy the freedom that working for myself has brought to me. I spend less so I can be free - it works out.

    Wonderful article, thank you for sharing your story!


    1. It is so interesting to connect your comment to Vanessa's post, Brandi. She is talking about the misconception that money buys freedom and here you are, developing the idea by saying that freedom is, in fact, hidden in spending less and having more time on your own.

      I believe it is a great challenge to bring up children nowadays with all the consumerist bombardment coming in from all sides. You literally need to live in the forest without TV to make sure your kids will live ad-free and consumerism-free. And yet, is this the way? It is easy to be righteous when you are a hermit. We should be able to live in the world and resist, or rather embrace all its challenges and turn them to something positive!

    2. I love what you said in the second paragraph. I'm struggling with this challenge daily. :)

    3. Brandi -

      High fives to you! Working for myself is something I have been kicking around for a while. Not sure where my path will take me, but I'm keeping my options open. :)

  8. You know what? My family has had to learn this step, because a couple of years ago, hubby (the sole wage-earner) went on disability due to a work injury...It's amazing to think about how many times we used to go to the store and bought things we just did NOT NEED!
    I've really enjoyed your posts on the steps. I've missed some, so I'll have to go back and read them all, because they are all so helpful. Even reading the comments that people are leaving with their stories. The steps can be done, even if it's little by little, one step at a time! =)
    from Blogging Buddies

    1. Hi Kim, have you noticed how, when your mind shifts about a subject you look back and cannot grasp your previous behavior? I've experienced this before and I get what you mean when you say that you used to buy things you didn't need. Thankfully, we manage to keep each other straight and regardless of finances to stick to things we need.

      Yes, you are right, we can take the steps. One at a time!

  9. Yay! This is such a great post! We are having to make-do right now because I am working so much less than I'm used to. And last week, after I left work, I got a text from my boss telling me to not come in on Saturday because they couldn't afford to pay me because it's been slow. That means I worked only 8 hours last week. It was very frustrating to hear (read?) that, but I understand where they're coming from. While I can see it from their side, it doesn't make me feel any better. ;o)

    I'm happy that we have been living frugally in our household the past month and a half. This means that, while only working 8 hours last week sucks, it's not the end of the world and I will still be able to pay all of our bills. I can only imagine what it would be like if we were living a more consumerist lifestyle! I would be pret-ty sad to not be able to do the things I have been liking to do!

    1. I love what Melinda wrote earlier,
      "I decided that I would be happy if I had "enough money to pay all the bills". And so, the Universe responded and gave me 'just enough'. Everything was always paid, but without much extra. Along the way, I discovered that I would get exactly what I asked for, and so realized that asking for more, brought me more. Money is more like a toy now to me, yes it pays the bills, but it also is fun."

      I am sure it is frustrating to get such news from your job and then again, when one door closes (even for a week) another one opens. I hope you see it soon!

    2. Yes! It actually worked later in the day! I met up with a new friend who hired me as a contractor to help her make jewelry, something that I really enjoy doing but for other people. (I've worked for other jewelers before.) I'm really excited to have spent time with a new friend and learned some new things. I think this is the beginning of something awesome. :o)

      I think also being a positive person, which Melinda obviously is, also helps. When you consciously think, "Something not-so-great is happening right now, but it is only a temporary thing and awesomeness will come again soon," it always does! Just gotta have the right mindset!!

  10. thank you so much for sharing your story!
    I must admit I don't have enough money to be happy (but I have a lot of happiness in other areas). I don't wish for things (not even a car which could save me many hours of daily travel). but I wish not to be dependent upon others and to live on my own (I would be in heaven if I could afford to rent a little flat). I wish I could buy healthier food. I wish I wouldn't have to calculate every day if I have enough money left to visit lectures at a university. I wish I wouldn't be cold all the time cause the heating is so expensive. etc. I know I have a roof over my head and food to eat but I think I don't have enough money to be really happy. I think I'm modest but sometimes money issues make me cry.

    but on the other hand, this situation brought me here (=blogosphere) and introduced me to amazing people. it pushes me to think more creatively. it motivates me to try out what other office workers think impossible. so I guess I will be thankful later. :)

    1. Masa - I totally hear you. It's really tough when you're just scraping by - I've been there.

      Getting creative is really a great solution. We eat less meat now, shop seconds at the farmer's market and manage to eat well. You also might want to check out mamabake.com where moms get together and cook large batch meals for everyone. It saves everyone time and money.

      You might want to consider a co-housing scenario. Sharing an apartment, or even staying in a room rent free, in exchange for helping an elderly person out in their home. You'd be surprised at how much this recession has opened people up to new and different possibilities.

      And of course there's always assistance, which can help you out with things like that heating bill.

      Stay safe.

    2. Maša, you are so brave to admit all this and yet to be able to see the positive side of it! I admire you for that and I know that even sooner than you think you will have everything you need. It will happen because you just wrote everything you wished for! And that, indeed, is the first step to your dreams coming true.

      Vanessa, wow, what an amazing sources of information you are! I am impressed at all ideas you came up with!

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Wow, you pretty much just wrote my financial life which is what I've been having trouble doing! I know almost exactly what you mean and I have the same wishes. I also hate the feeling of needing to rely/be dependent on people for some of the big stuff (housing, car insurance etc.). I know they do it because they love me, but I really want to be financially independent myself. Hard for a part-time student, part-time worker (looking for long-term work) who's paycheck pretty much goes straight into student loans and not much else.

      My friend does the co-housing scenario and is on assistance, but she's also on disability so I know it frustrates her to no end that she can't do most work, which makes earning enough to be independent very very hard.

      "Something not-so-great is happening right now, but it is only a temporary thing and awesomeness will come again soon,"

      I need to ingrain that mindset into my mind! And be patient with myself while letting others help me. Reading your story, Step 10 and Step 11 (yes I jumped into the future haha) give me hope and encouragement and I thank you all!

    5. Sonya, thank you for your kind words.
      Vanessa, these tips are great!
      Erin, I just want to hug you. :)

  11. Wow, what a fantastic post! Thank you so much for sharing your story, Vanessa - it was great to read, and it sounds like being laid off taught you a lot of great lessons. Not least of which, how to simplify your life! And aren't "pre-loved" belongings fantastic? ;)

    It's so true that you don't need money to be happy...in fact, most of my hobbies don't require much expense at all! Even reading - I'm able to get many of my books at the library. :)

    Thanks for sharing what you learned with us!

    1. Thanks! Yes I have rediscovered reading - I love to read but could never find the time. Now I curl up with a good book.

    2. I'm glad you've got time to read now! It's so nice to spend an afternoon on the couch with a good book. <3

    3. And I have discovered listening to audio books, which you can do while knitting! I have crossed that out of the multitasking list, so I can do it without feeling guilty, while still making sure I'm in the simplicity vibe.

    4. I don't really listen to audiobooks all that much...we did listen to one while we were on vacation last September, but it just about ruined the Twilight book and we never finished it. (Haha, some people might argue that Twilight was already bad, but I'm one of the people who actually enjoyed reading it...but wow, the audiobook was weird!) Most of the time, though, I just devour books in the traditional sense. I think if I were to listen to a book while doing something else, I just wouldn't get as much out of it, you know? And if I'm going to focus on a book, without anything else going on, I figure I might as well be reading it. But who knows, maybe I'll try audiobooks someday and like them. We'll see. ;)

    5. I love listening to audio books. I go through a couple books a week, listening to them when I cook, clean, and make jewelry. Taylor Lynn you would think it would be difficult to do something else while listening to a book, but that is not the case. If you are doing simple tasks, it's easy to let your mind wander and get sucked into the story. Give it a try one day.

  12. PS Great new header, Sonya! :D

    1. Thank you, Taylor! So sweet of you to notice :)

    2. You're very welcome! <3

  13. I think of all the topic's this one is my favorite. I love how you have made lemonade out of lemons and that the taste in your mouth because of your experience with both of you losing your jobs is sweet and not sour! It's great to be positive and even better to grow and challenge ourselves to be more than we ever believed we could be ... with less...This challenge has certainly gotten me to thinking more deeply about simple living too and I'm already convinced! Thank you for your inspiring post!

    1. Staying positive is what keeps me going. Good luck on your own simple living journey!

    2. Sometimes it is so challenging to keep a positive attitude. Thanks to Vanessa though, I think I've taken one step further. Thank you ladies!

  14. I'm glad you mentioned that basic needs like food must be met. It seems that a lot of times people forget that when they say money can't buy happiness.

    1. It is so easy to take for granted what we can easily have, isn't it!

  15. Great post! We have been cash strapped for years, and I am very tight about spending. I have learned over the years to buy only what we need when we need it(except for an occasional book or two).
    Everyday Inspired