I feel deeply fortunate. I have close-knit family, friends, health, beautiful surroundings, work I love, and financial security. In a word, I have Enough. But there's something that brings me perhaps as much happiness as Enough, and that is I don't have Too Much. I don't own too many cars, appliances, sports equipment, kitchenware, furniture, clothes, books, household goods, or knick-knacks.
I just turned 59. Most of my peers have accumulated much more than my husband and I have. I don't envy them. We love our cozy, $695/month 750-square-foot apartment, which allowed us to buy and remodel an old house in Mexico. We travel a lot and never worry about theft when away from either home. Having Enough frees me from worry — but not having Too Much also frees me from worry.
For me, the key to living simply has been getting to know and accept myself. Here are five values that have, over the years, led me to minimize consumption.
- The less time organizing, the better. Order doesn't come naturally to me. “A place for everything and everything in its place” sounds great — but it's not who I am. I organize things from time to time, but soon lose interest, and end up with little puddles of mess here and there. Every so often I ask the natural organizers in my life for tips, but my tendencies don't change much long-term. Instead of fighting my nature, my solution is to have less to organize in the first place.
- Fewer decisions make me happy. I can agonize over even simple decisions. One day I woke up with a brilliant realization: Stuff entails decisions. (Duh!) Should I buy this? Where should I buy it from? What is the best make? How do I find out? How can I be sure it's worth it? What if I don't like it? Where do I put it? How do I make sure I can find it? Just listing all the decisions involved in acquiring tires me out. My solution is to accumulate less. Fewer things = fewer decisions.
- It's easier for me to say no to something before than after. Once something's mine, I become attached, and I can almost always come up with a justification to keep it. I don't throw things away easily. My rule of thumb is to stop Stuff at the “point of entry” — not to acquire it in the first place. Every time I consider buying a non-perishable item, I remind myself that it will take up space, require upkeep, and compete with other objects for my attention. Am I sure I want it? Once I've factored all this in, I usually find myself saying no. True, a moment of wistfulness takes hold of me as I give up the perfume of ownership. But I've learnt that the whiff does pass, and I'm left with the far sweeter scent of freedom.
- I'll take access over ownership. I'd rather swim at a community pool than own a private pool. (Actually, I've done better than that: Rather than drive six miles to the nearest public pool, I bought a shortie wetsuit and now save money, gas, and time by open-water swimming in Humboldt Bay, a three-minute walk from our door. The photo above shows where I swim.) Recently I was invited to renew my subscription to a fitness magazine. The publisher threw in a second magazine with the $20 renewal price. I hesitated. Hard to turn down a deal! Yes, I'd enjoyed the magazine — but how much? Suddenly I hit on an idea. I called my local library and asked if they'd like the two magazines as a gift subscription. They were delighted. Perfect solution! I can still read the magazine — and meanwhile am contributing in a small way to my community.
- I balance practicality with sentiment. My mother died over 30 years ago, and the Meissen china I inherited from her is emotionally important to me. But I sold 90% of it to an antique dealer many years ago. I still have enough for a small dinner party, and I think of her whenever I use it.
That last point deserves a little more discussion. I agree with J.D. that our financial decisions are more emotional than logical, and for me, the same holds true for Stuff.
Most people I know have family photos on display in their homes. When I visit my sisters, I look at our family photos and feel a pang that few of mine are anywhere to be seen. But pictures on tables create dust, and I'm not a great housekeeper. Plus, after awhile I stop noticing the photos anyway. I love my family, but I don't keep many photos of them on display.
I had cartons of old journals dating from age 11. In theory, I respect the value of documentation, but in practice I'm just not that invested in my journals. On the rare occasion when I dip into one, I usually feel morose. After years of inner wrestling, I decided I would selectively let some go. This was a difficult decision (and I hate decisions!) Was I destroying valuable records? Maybe 100 years from now someone might come upon my journals and read with rapt interest what life was like in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, just as we read diaries of the pioneers.
A page from one of Louisa's journals.
But, on the other hand, I didn't want to feel defined by my past. So I kept the early adolescent ones, and all the journals up to about age 30, but after that era I chose about 15 to give to my husband. (I tried to sell them on eBay, but had only one query from a buyer who never bought). The agreement I made with my husband was that if within a month, I had not asked for them back, he would ‘release' them (the phrase ‘throw away' was too harsh for me). Out of respect for my earlier self, I tore out random pages and have collaged them into my art journal. So who-I-was-then continues to exist in my life, in a different form. (Note: I never did ask him for the journals. I forgot all about them. So they have met their maker!)
Remember earlier I mentioned buying a house in Mexico? That's where I am now, as I write: in our 150-year-old adobe home. Surprisingly, in some ways it's been more of a challenge living simply and economically here in Mexico than in our California life. But that's another story…
Louisa Rogers is a consultant who provides leadership, management, and communication coaching and training to businesses.