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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