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Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Simple living: do it your own way

Tammy Strobel, Flickr

As my readers know, I've been interested in simple living (also called minimalism, or voluntary simplicity) for a while. In fact, I read my first book on the topic, La simplicité volontaire (Serge Mongeau - click here) more than 10 years ago. The seed was sown; I was gradually going to make choices that were consistent with the ideal of simple living.

That being said, I think it's important to note that I did NOT sell all my stuff, become a penniless artist, start raising goats and move into a tiny trailer (or whatever your stereotype of simple living is).

You see, simple living can take many forms. 

Myth #1 To live simply, you have to be poor

First of all, simple living is, by definition, a choice. You do it because you want to, not because you have to (although a large section of the population has been forced into it). Second, embracing simple living does NOT mean demonizing money. Money is not evil in itself. Money is a great tool when used properly. It can provide access to freedom and comfort and pleasure, which are valuable endeavors of the human life. There is nothing wrong with having money... as long as this money does not come at the cost of something else that is important to you. Two examples that come to mind are 1) making a lot of money by working too hard at something you don't enjoy (and missing on life as a consequence), and 2) making a lot of money at the expense of other people. 

The big question here is: can one really make A LOT of money by doing something meaningful and without exploiting others? Is it acceptable that so many people will never be able to afford a concert or hockey game because the tickets are too expensive, all the while professional singers and athletes are so wealthy? You'll tell me it's the way capitalism works, supply and demand and blablabla, but still. As for "traditional business": according to Forbes, "CEOs earn 331 times as much as average workers, 774 times as much as minimum wage workers" (click here for article). And that's without mentioning the effects of globalization on pay and work conditions. Who's comfortable with that state of affairs? Not me!

Oh, and speaking of being poor, who's the poorest, between the one who owns a lot but who's in debt, and the one who owns little but has not debt? Food for thought...

Myth # 2 To live simply, you have to DIY

If that was true, I would be in deep trouble since neither D nor I are very handy. As I like to say, we mostly live in our brains: many great ideas, but no clue how to actually do or make or build things. We do grow fruit and vegetables, but we're far from being self-sufficient. Very far. We highly admire our friends and neighbors who show resourcefulness when it comes to manual work. To be honest, we are almost envious of them. But we won't let our flaws detract us from living simply.

Myth # 3 To live simply, you have to renounce life's pleasures

If it was the case I would be the last one to embrace simple living! But rather than renouncing pleasure, simple living reorients it toward things that might be less material and more meaningful. Simple pleasures are less expensive and less complicated, like really taking the time to admire a sky, or borrowing some good books at the local library (two of my free guilty pleasures). I also love listening to the silence or to nature sounds (real ones, not on a tape!) When was the last time you did this? Embracing simple living might also mean spending the money you do have on things that really mean something to you and have more chances of making you happy in the long run. In my case, that would be traveling (on a shoestring, indulging only occasionally - and NOT bringing back any souvenirs! The experience and the memories are the source of pleasure, as opposed to anything tangible.) By moving pleasure from the material to the non-material sphere, not only do we lower the risk of becoming encumbered with stuff (which usually requires space and maintenance), we also get to focus on what matters. I remember my father-in-law mentioning an acquaintance of his whose main topic of discussion is usually his latest material acquisitions: "Look at my new car!" "Did I show you my new back splash?" "Wait 'till you try my new jacuzzi". There's nothing wrong about being excited about stuff you like, until it becomes your central interest in life.

When you simplify your life, a funny thing happens: you start enjoying things that you used to not even notice. Life's pleasures take on a new meaning. Currently, most of us are deafened by the "noise" of abundance and constant stimulation, so much that we often are unable to appreciate the simplest things in life. As a consequence, we need a lot to remain happy and entertained (or sedated from our daily frustrations): purchases, activities, electronics, media, alcohol and other drugs to name but a few. Simplifying has taught me that well-being is inside of me, not outside, and that the most basic things can fulfill me. As I said to D recently while we discussed wilderness camping plans: as long as I'm warm and dry and fed, active, learning new things and having meaningful human interactions, I will be happy. I don't need much else.

Kyle Taylor, Flickr

Practical exercise # 1:

Here's a little exercise for you: for a month, refrain from talking about your stuff at all. You are not to mention any shopping you've done or anything else you own, including clothes or decorative objects or things you got for your kids. Instead you will talk about non-material topics. Let me know how long you last!

Truth # 1 Simple living changes your life completely... for the better

Because I refused to hop on the bandwagon of materialism, I have made choices that maximized my quality of life. Unlike the majority of women of my generation, I did not focus on my career and send my kids to daycare. Coming from an ambitious and capable feminist, this decision struck some of my friends as peculiar. I had to remind them that feminism has given us women the option of either having a career or not. When my youngest child entered school, I started instilling some more time and energy into my career, and I have been upping the input ever since then. But freedom and quality time with my family has remained a priority. Sure, I am not where I would be (career wise and money wise) if I had focused on paid work from the start, but believe me, I have never regretted my choice. I did what felt right for me (I understand that other women might feel differently) and enjoyed it aplenty. 

Other non-conventional habits I have are to avoid TV and women's magazines like the plague, because they are the modern "sirens" who lure us into consuming and consuming and consuming. I am also wary of shopping malls and stores in general, because I know how they make me feel: they make me feel like there are so many things I want (or worse, need) when in fact I had never thought of them before seeing them in shop windows!

Truth # 2 Simple living is environmentally friendly

I feel like by consuming less, I'm doing some good for the environment. I buy less, reuse more. Speaking of which, I have recently started shopping at thrift stores and I am amazed at the discoveries I've made. I knew I had to try when I realized the most stylish friend I have shops almost exclusively in thrift stores. There, high quality items (that look new) for a fraction of the price await the keen eye. You should give it a try! (Keeping in mind that shopping is not a pastime, but rather something you do when you really need something.)

Truth # 3 Simple living means making informed choices that are consistent with your personality and values

We are bombarded with temptations to consume. If we were to trust the media on it, there is so much we need in order to finally be happy! I refuse to fall prey to advertisement. I also refuse to fall prey to keeping up with the Joneses. Whatever I acquire, I acquire it because I am certain it's worth the price, and certain that I will like it and use it a lot. Interestingly, when you really take the time to stop and evaluate your purchases, very few of them answer those criteria. Truth is, we can make without most things. We already have all that we need, and the only reason we are looking for more is because it will provide us with a short-lived thrill that has nothing with long-term happiness.

Here are examples of things D and I don't have that 90% of our friends have:

  • a smart phone
  • a second car, TV or phone
  • high-end appliances (they're rather low end if you want to know)
  • kitchen accessories in duplicates or that we don't use on a daily basis
  • a collection of innumerable cosmetic products (with one exception, see below)
  • a finished basement
  • a garage
  • a paved driveway (we live in the woods anyway!)

Honestly, I don't miss those things the least. 

On the other hand, and since this is a work in progress, I probably still own too many:

  • workout clothes
  • bathing suits
  • lip balms
  • earrings
  • pens
  • books (although I have slowed down drastically and made public libraries my best friend)

I could probably go for a very long time without buying any of those. And many other things, come to think of it.

What do you think you have too many of, and what do you think you're doing a great job at keeping in check?

Practical exercise # 2:

Here's another little exercise for you: for a month, refrain from buying anything at all, with the exception of necessities such as food and toilet paper. You are not to acquire anything new. Instead you will focus on finding your pleasure in the non-material sphere. Let me know how and when you become enlightened!

How does it feel to live simply?

By consuming less and by focusing on the simple, meaningful things, I feel

  • light
  • peaceful

A wonderful feeling for sure!

Practical exercise # 3:

These next months, try (or bring back into your life) a simple activity that helps you feel light and peaceful. I have just registered for a series of meditation sessions and for outdoor yoga classes, but those are only 2 examples. What are your examples?

The million dollar question:

Here is a new twist to the eternal "lottery winning question": If you had little money but all the free time in the world, what would you do? To me, things that come to mind are:

  • spending time with family and friends (without having to watch the clock)
  • reading to my heart's content
  • writing to my heart's content
  • listening to music
  • listening to the birds or to the rain
  • running
  • hiking
  • doing yoga
  • sitting on the beach or by a campfire
  • volunteering for causes that I find important
  • cuddling with my dog
  • just daydreaming

All things that I do right now, but not quite as much as I wish I did.

Some final inspiration

Before we part, I would like to recommend this short video of a couple who's chosen to live very simply. Those people (especially the young woman) were tired of commuting for 2 hours every day, doing a job that's not fun, feeling the need to drink every night and being rather unhappy. Without becoming as extreme as them (unless you feel like it, then why not), their testimonial is refreshing and inspiring. Some quotes:

"Time is a non-renewable resource that you don't get back."

"Do you really want to spend your time working at a job you hate to buy crap that you can't afford?"

"What I do for money now is fun. I don't think a lot of people can say that about their job. The only reason I got here is because I made really conscious choices."

You can see the video here (click on link): http://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/372029/the-american-dream-is-alive-and-its-really-tiny/


  1. Such a great post!! I'm guilty of having and buying way to much stuff. Growing up we were super poor and so we didn't have extras - then Chris and both worked hard to get to the point where we could and I might go overboard on occasion.
    I like the simple exercises and think I will give them a try!!!

    1. I think most of us grow up with the idea that a high socio-economic status is success. And what is the first sign of socio-economic status? Stuff. For me, it was only once I had reached a certain level of financial comfort that I realized how superficial it all is. I backed up right away. :-)

  2. Such an interesting post and great practical tips. I need to implement more and more of this into my life. I definitely appreciate qnd enjoy lifes simple pleasures that are free, but I am in the habit of buying more than I should. We went through a period where we were extremely low on income and it forced me to downsize and simplify. It is always tempting to go out and spend once more money comes in.

    1. I agree with you on that, when money is flowing it is very hard to refrain from spending! But then you find yourself overflowing with stuff you didn't really need. One step at a time, we'll become detached from the material sphere! :-)

  3. I just had this conversation with my husband that owning so many clothes produces so much laundry. If we narrowed our clothes down, we'd have more room, less laundry, more of a simple life. I want that all over my life.

    1. Me too! Clothes and accessories are nice to have, but they take up a lot of space. Plus, the more you have, the more time it takes to get ready in the morning; you don't know what outfit to pick!!!

    had to share that.


    1. I'm so glad you did! Come back to share your insights any time you feel like it! :-)

  5. This is a wonderful piece, Julie!

    VS is really key to making the world a more hospitable place.

    For me it just feels right.

    Better a smart person with a dumb phone :-)

  6. PS: In Florida, if you dig a basement, you get an indoor swimming pool, lol!

  7. You simply can't have too many books !

    Well yes, I suppose we can ?

    I just love books, art, music involved in my lifestyle whether it be simple, balanced or at times somewhere in between.

    All the best Jan

    1. I used to think so too. :-) With my Master's in French Literature you can imagine that I have many classics and then some. I'm glad I do because my daughters will get to read them in the original version even though we live in an English province. However, given the amount of space they take and the fact that some of them will only be read once, I try to buy less now and instead read what I can find at the library or trade with friends.

  8. We just moved and after a month of buying new things to make our new space beautiful and set up my home business a bit better, I feel so done with STUFF. While I am so happy with our new space, I do feel a bit overwhelmed and I am excited to try your first exercise, to not talk about this stuff anymore! To just enjoy my space, but to focus on the atmosphere and memories we are creating rather than the decor.

    1. That sounds like a wonderful plan! When we moved (7 years ago), I was excited to fill this house with memories and cooking smells (it was a new house, nobody had ever lived in it). It feels more homey now. :-)

  9. This is great! In my opinion, a simple and intentional life is a happy life! I have edited out alot of my belongings but I have a long way to go - I realize that more so now that I am moving! Thanks for the post!