Living simply is a lifestyle choice. We have made slow changes over the past ten years or so to live more simply. We have experienced an increase in life satisfaction by pursuing a simpler lifestyle and living simply is one of the factors that has allowed us to retire at 53 years of age and travel the world full-time. Our lifestyle might not appeal to everyone. My goal is not to convince you that living simply is the only way to go. What I do want to encourage you to do is to realize that you should live life consciously. Don’t live your life according to what your friends, neighbors and co-workers are doing. Don’t live life according to what the advertisers of Madison Avenue want to sell you. Live a life that is important to you and your loved ones and consistent with your values!
What does living simply mean to me?
There has been a growth in the popularity of choosing a simpler life; the tiny house movement, numerous magazines, blogs and websites dedicated to living simply, growth in interest in minimalism, etc. Living simply can mean different things to different people. To some, it focuses on self-sufficiency; growing your own vegetables, churning your own butter, etc. Others approach it from a spiritual side; eschewing earthly possessions, becoming more like Jesus Christ, Buddha, Gandhi or whatever philosophy they choose to follow.
I am all for self-sufficiency and drawing closer to God, but for me, the aspects of living simply that I find most satisfying are the aspects of reducing possessions, living our own life to our own goals rather than trying to keep up with my peers, and focusing spending time and money on experiences rather than on acquiring things.
How many of our possessions do we really need?
Arriving at the concept of living more simply has been a relatively long process for me. My wife has been on board with this lifestyle longer than I, but I think she finally convinced me. One event that sticks out in my mind is when our son moved out of the house permanently at the age of 19 to live with his friends and go to college.
When our son moved out in 2006 we were in a 3000 square foot 3-bedroom house with a basement and two car garage. I traveled quite a bit for work and so the majority of the yard work, leaf raking and snow shoveling was done by my son and my wife while I was out of town. We had purchased the house because it was in a great school district and the large basement provided a place for my son and his friends to practice for their band. With my son gone, we no longer needed to be close to a good school or needed all that room for a band practice area. My wife made some pretty strong arguments for downsizing, like that with such a big house for just the two of us, I was going to have to take a greater role in the yard work and house work (I hate yard work). So, we decided to sell and “downsize” to 3 bedroom rented condo a few miles from where I worked.
We moved ourselves across town with the help of a few of our friends. One moment that sticks out in my mind is moving numerous sealed boxes that still had moving company stickers on them from two moves previous. The sticker was put on by the moving company when we moved from Denver to Calgary and the box remained unopened in Calgary and was then moved from Calgary to Pittsburgh and had sat unopened in our basement in Pittsburgh. I didn’t have a clue what was in the boxes. Whatever was in those boxes, we hadn’t needed it for over seven years. We (or my company) had spent a significant amount of money to move hundreds of pounds of our stuff thousands of miles and I didn’t even know what it was. It started to seem crazy to me.
We were not alone in holding on to stuff that we didn’t need and even forgot about. Even though Americans have some of the largest houses in the world from a square footage perspective, that space still isn’t enough to hold our stuff. “The amount of rentable self-storage space in the U.S. (currently, 2.3 billion square feet) would cover Manhattan more than three times over. That is enough square footage for every man, woman and child in America to stand under the collective roof canopy of U.S. self-storage facilities.” (Colliers Article) So, not only does the average American have way more stuff than they need or can use, they often spend thousands of dollars a year storing this stuff in warehouses.
We didn’t use a self-storage unit, but we had to “downsize” to a 3-bedroom condo with a two car garage to hold all of our stuff that we didn’t and couldn’t use. Like many people, we were unable to use our garage because it was full of stuff. Since there were only two of us, we really only “needed” a one-bedroom condo, but we ended up renting a 3-bedroom condo with a two car garage to store all the stuff that we didn’t use.
We did eventually downsize to a one-bedroom apartment and sold or gave away all the stuff that we never used and was just taking up space. During this process there were a few times where I felt some apprehension getting rid of some of our things, “I paid a lot of money for this. What if I need it again?” But I can tell you, there is great sense of freedom and relief in downsizing.
Not only does it cost money to acquire stuff, but it costs money to keep stuff – whether in forking out monthly fees for a storage unit or buying or renting a bigger home than you really need just to keep your stuff.
Keeping up with the Joneses – absolute versus relative poverty
As we began to travel more often, I saw first-hand the lifestyle that people in the rest of the world lived versus what we in the Western World enjoy (Canada, USA, Western Europe). Compared to the rest of the world, even the poorest American or Canadian has an income many, many times greater than billions of people in the world. According to the Worldbank, in 2012, 2.1 billion people in the developing world lived on less than $3.10 USD per day. So, it is hard to argue that there are very many poor people in the USA or Canada on an absolute basis compared to the rest of the world.
(I would agree that there is income inequality in the USA and Canada and our goals should be to narrow that inequality. I am not trying to suggest that anyone in the USA should be “happy” living on $3.10 per day. I am just trying to point out that the cost of “living” – having enough food, water and shelter to stay alive is way lower than what we define as poverty level in the USA.)
In my post http://ournomadicexperience.com/visit-rural-paraguay/ I describe my visit and interaction with a couple of families in rural Paraguay that live in houses without indoor plumbing, subsist on what fruits and vegetables they can grow for themselves. They live a lifestyle that, as an American, I would have trouble comprehending myself living. My income was easily 100 times the income of this family. And yet, was I 100 times happier? I don’t think so. I wouldn’t trade my lifestyle for theirs. However, they seemed relatively happy to me. They might even be happier.
I am all for ambition and hard work and feel that this has contributed to my ability to retire at 53 years of age. However, as the saying goes, “Money can’t buy happiness.” I think most people would agree with that statement if you ask them, but most people’s actions don’t always support full belief in this statement. We seem to struggle with continuously improving our lifestyle no matter what income level we happen to find ourselves.
If we look at the data on credit card debt levels in the USA, we see something that should sound crazy and counter intuitive. You would think that as households earn a higher income they would have less need to borrow money on credit to support their lifestyle. Right? Logic says that the greater the income, the less credit card debt a household would carry. In actual fact, the opposite is true. The greater the income, the greater the credit card debt!
According to March 2016 data, households with incomes from $25,000 to $44,999 per year carry an average of $3900 in credit card debt. So, it those families could just earn $3900 more per year they could wipe out their credit card debt in one year and live debt free, right? Wrong! This same data shows that families with annual incomes greater than $160,000 per year carry $11,200 in credit card debt! Data shows that the more you earn, the more credit card debt you hold!
If you are like the average American, unless you break this cycle of increasing your spending at a faster rate than your income increases, you will never get ahead. I am embarrassed to say that at one point in our lives, we too were caught up in this cycle. I had an income that was higher than 50% of Americans and yet we had tens of thousands of dollars in credit card debt.
Through making some significant lifestyle choices, we were able to reverse this trend and live a very comfortable lifestyle for far less than my peers. We moved from the large house in the suburbs to a one-bedroom house downtown in a walkable neighborhood. Our housing expenses decreased significantly, my commute time shortened significantly, our quality of life and happiness went up. While my peers at work typically had a luxury car and a late model SUV to tow their boat, camper or atv, we downsized to one electric car for the two of us. (Housing and transportation expenses are typically the two highest expenses for a household.) We were able to significantly reduce those two major expenses and save and invest the difference in order to retire 13 years earlier than the official retirement age of 66 years old.
We lived a very comfortable, but much simpler life than my peers earning a similar income.
Focusing on experiences rather than things
Our downsizing journey that began in 2006 started to teach me that for the most part, our possessions only provide us temporary satisfaction or happiness. We grow used to things, they lose their novelty quickly, they go out of date and become obsolete, they wear out and are thrown away. However, memories of experiences can last a lifetime. They can create lasting feelings of satisfaction and we can relive the enjoyment years after the event occurred.
In recent years there has been a fair amount of scientific research on the psychological reasons why experiences typically bring us more happiness than things. I will follow up with a future post diving into some of the psychological findings of how experiences provide us with much higher levels of long term happiness and satisfaction.
In 2013 we changed what we did for Christmas as a family. Our son now lived in Dawson Creek, British Columbia and we lived in Salt Lake City, UT. We decided that rather than exchanging gifts between the three of us for Christmas, we would travel to some place in the world and spend Christmas together. I used frequent flyer miles for most of the airline flights and we either stayed with friends, used Airbnb or stayed in low to medium cost hotels, so the trips were not as expensive as they might sound at first. I don’t think I can remember what I gave my wife and son for Christmas in 2012, nor do I think they can remember what they gave me, but the memories of our Christmas trips to Paraguay in 2013, Turkey in 2014 and Peru in 2015 will stay with us forever.
We significantly reduced our expenditures on things and replaced them with experiences with friends and family and there is no doubt that we obtain more happiness through this than we ever did through acquiring things.
So that is what living simply means to me:
- Downsizing our possessions
- Not comparing our lives and possessions to others and trying to mimic their lifestyles
- Focusing on experiences rather than things
Living simply is one of the factors that has allowed us to retire at the age of 53 and travel the world full-time. It is not the only thing, but certainly plays a key role in our ability to pursue our current lifestyle.