For a while there, in the early 2000s, Americans went on an extended spending spree, living beyond their means and buying bigger houses, fancier cars and far more stuff than they really needed. The financial crisis of the past two years served as a powerful wake-up call, though, and today many people are looking for ways to change course.
On the whole, we’re choosing to save more and consume less — and we’re being more thoughtful about the purchases we make. Meanwhile, we’re making more time for family, community and spiritual pursuits. And we’re taking new interest in life-enhancing personal routines, such as exercise, sit-down meals — even the lost art of housekeeping.
In short, we’re turning our time and attention toward living well instead of living beyond our needs or means.
If you’re interested in getting on the path to a simpler, happier, more harmonious life, I have some suggestions for you. As a 20-year simplicity advocate and host and producer of the first national television series on sustainable living (Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska debuted on PBS stations in 2004), I have personally witnessed some amazing transformations take place as the result of some surprisingly minimal lifestyle adjustments.
In this — the first of a three-part series for Experience Life — I draw on material from my latest book, The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause, 2010) to lay out seven paths to simplicity that anyone can begin taking today. Let’s get started!
Putting your financial house in order is the most basic path to simple living. The simple approach to finance is based on three central concepts: Live frugally; save liberally; retire debt as fast as you can.
Start by reexamining your relationship with money. This may involve adjusting your definition of success — basing it on solvency rather than the appearance of affluence. Wrap your mind around the concept that less is more.
Whenever you feel the urge to acquire something new, ask yourself: Is it a need or a want? In the wintertime, I need to buy my son a pair of warm boots, but his desire for a cell phone is a mere want. Likewise, rather than rushing to buy new versions of gadgets, appliances and furnishings, relish what I call your “things that refuse to die,” and work to further extend their longevity.
Work You Love
Have you noticed that people who love their work tend to immerse themselves in it, regardless of how much they’re paid? Finding work that challenges you and carries inherent satisfaction is important, because it will naturally reduce your tendency to overspend as a way of compensating yourself for doing work you don’t like.
If your paycheck is your primary motivation, you should look elsewhere. No paycheck can compensate you for a meaningless work life, and you’ll live happily on less if you are genuinely enthusiastic about what you do.
Rethink Housing Choices
During the last two years, Americans have begun to embrace the benefits of the “not-so-big” house. If the home you have is more than you need, consider downsizing, sharing housing, or renting out a room or two.
No matter the size of your current home, you can seek residential simplicity by making streamlined, eco-friendly remodeling and updating decisions. It’s far wiser, for example, to invest in high-performance insulation or energy-saving windows before investing in new countertops, since the former will pay monthly dividends for life with reduced power bills.
The simple path also calls for retiring your mortgage as quickly as possible. Paying just one extra payment each year can take as much as six years off the life of your loan!
Many Americans today are so overworked that they have dropped homemaking from the “to-do” lists of their lives. Some people delegate the task to pricey cleaning services; others throw up their hands and turn a reluctant blind eye to the dust bunnies roaming across the living-room floor.
Caring for something — a pet, a child, a garment — attaches us more closely to it. This is true for your home, as well. When you make housework your friend, you’ll find that your home becomes your sanctuary.
To reclaim homemaking, carve out a small amount of time each day for domestic routines — and then elevate them to daily ritual. You can start with simple things, like opening your curtains to welcome the first light of day, making your bed and folding your couch throw “just so” to invite use at the end of the day.
A simple and effective way to organize your domestic rituals is by time increment: daily (make the bed, do dishes, vacuum), weekly (dust, do laundry, clean the bathroom), and monthly (scrub floors, wash windows, clean out the fridge).
Food and Family
Relish the pleasures of the table by staging healthful sit-down meals. Turn off the TV, electronics and phones before sitting down to eat. Earmark time for cooking meals from scratch, involving family members whenever possible. Even one homemade item adds caring and dimension to a meal. Breaking healthy bread together on weekends is a primary family ritual that will let you reap delicious rewards now and create intimate memories for a lifetime.
A Garden of Your Own
Have you ever noticed that whenever you bring fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and flowers into your home, they steal the scene? Everyone loves the beauty, the aroma, the connotation of care.
Farmers’ markets are a wonderful source of all this fresh produce, of course. But better and more satisfying still is growing your own goods in your own yard. It’s more local, less expensive and healthier: You soak up vitamin D from the sun, get some exercise and let your mind slip into a meditative state. And did I mention harvesting the actual fruits of your labor? That’s the sweetest thrill of all!
You can start small: Just one tomato plant on your patio will net you an unexpected bounty (enough for several pots of homemade chili!). And while you’re at it, cultivate beauty with flowers and plantings. Nothing man-made quite compares.
Reclaim Community Life
We live in a culture where self-containment is seen as a life-simplifying strategy. We think that keeping our distance will help us avoid complicating variables. And yet perhaps you’ve noticed that striking up an impromptu conversation with a neighbor or stranger at the supermarket can lift your spirits in surprising ways. That’s because human beings crave connection with each other, and we long for a sense of community.
A great way to engage more in community life is by joining and regularly participating in a civic group, house of worship, book club or professional organization. You’ll begin to look forward to the regular meetings, and a host of benefits will follow. (For more on the benefits of community, see “Community Matters”)
It’s easy to let our lives become consumed with unnecessary busyness, worry and distraction. But when we walk down each of these seven paths mindfully, our steps will feel lighter, our spirits refreshed.
Wanda Urbanska is a sustainability activist and author of The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life (Krause, 2010). She is the host and producer of the television series Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, which airs on select PBS stations nationwide. Visit her Web site at www.simplelivingtv.net.
Here are four practical ways to take your experiments in simple living a little further:
1. Try Transuming. Take a break from your role as consumer and join the new group of “transumers” who prefer borrowing or renting items rather than buying them. This applies to vacation homes, road bikes, even high-end handbags.
2. Barter. I once swapped the preparation of an artist’s résumé for one of his original drawings. With barter, no money changes hands, and you feel as if you’ve gone to market and come home again — with your wallet intact.
3. Couch Surf. Instead of paying for a hotel room next time you’re traveling, reserve the couch (or spare bedroom) at someone’s home. The CouchSurfing network (www.couchsurfing.org) offers safe and convenient lodging in nearly 62,000 different cities around the world. Couch surfers enjoy more memorable experiences with the places they visit and also become part of a global community.
4. Break your car habit. Going car-free or sharing a vehicle can enhance your life. People who’ve tried it report reduced stress and surprising savings. If you need a car only occasionally, consider car-sharing services like Hourcar (www.hourcar.org) or Zipcar (www.zipcar.com).