Simplifying: Living With Less Can Leave Us With More

Freeing oneself of unnecessary possessions and financial commitments can eliminate stress and open up time and energy for the more important things in life- involvement with family and pursuing meaning in one’s career. Here are two people who have done it, and some advice for us all.

Fight Club’s Tyler Durden had it right (well, not the whole blowing up a city thing, but still): “The things you own wind up owning you

The third rule of Fight Club: "The stuff you own winjds up owning you" (official movie poster)
The third rule of Fight Club: “The stuff you own winds up owning you” (official movie poster)

1. Graham Hill and the 460 square foot apartment

Hill sold his Internet company during the late 90’s boom and was an overnight twenty-something multi-millionaire. He bought lots of expensive stuff that didn’t bring him any satisfaction after the initial “wow” and soon had a mansion in Seattle and a huge loft in NYC. As he puts it (in his NYT oped piece):

My life was unnecessarily complicated. There were lawns to mow, gutters to clear, floors to vacuum, roommates to manage (it seemed nuts to have such a big, empty house), a car to insure, wash, refuel, repair and register and tech to set up and keep working. To top it all off, I had to keep Seven [Hill’s personal shopper] busy. And really, a personal shopper? Who had I become? My house and my things were my new employers for a job I had never applied for…. Somehow this stuff ended up running my life, or a lot of it; the things I consumed ended up consuming me

He met a woman and moved with her to Spain after her visa ran out. They lived in a tiny apartment in Barcelona, and Hill realized he didn’t need a fancy place or lots of stuff to be happy. He began to get rid of the inessential things he had collected, and sold off most of his stuff as well as his two homes.

Hill now lives in a 420-square-foot studio apartment. He owns 6 dress shirts, no CDs or DVDs, and 10% of the books he used to have. Hill says that he now “lives a bigger, better, richer life with less.”

As he sums up: “Intuitively, we know that the best stuff in life isn’t stuff at all, and that relationships, experiences and meaningful work are the staples of a happy life.” Hill feels that, by clearing the clutter of possessions, he’s better able to be happy.

2. Debra Jordan and the 320 square foot house

Now, you may be saying that it’s easier for a rich single guy to live that kind of life. That may be true, but now consider the Jordans- a family of three living in a 320 square foot house (that’s 16’x20′- the room you are in may be bigger than that).

Interior view of the Jordan's 320 square foot house. Photo from their website
Interior view of the Jordan’s 320 square foot house. Photo from their website

The Jordans have taken simplification to an extreme. Debra and Gary had been self-sustaining missionaries in Ecuador for 9 years, so simplification probably came easier to them than to most.

But they went from a regular sized house with a mortgage to their tiny fully-paid-for one. If you look at the pictures of their house, it is really quite charming. They also home-school their high-school-age son and run a business (making baby blankets and gifts) out of a second 320 foot cottage on their fully-paid-for property. Everyday living expenses are minimal. The little cottage is easy to heat (one small wood stove), clean, and stock. Imagine how freeing it would be to have no mortgage or heating bill, and minimal household expenses.

As Debra puts it, after making the transition from a 2000+ square foot house, with all of the stuff that came with it, to a simplified life, “the reading on the Happiness Scale is so much higher now. It is like being overweight and losing pounds and inches (which we are also doing). The physical feeling of relief is tangible in every way.”

I admit that I am not brave enough to take such a leap. Plus, I like a lot of my stuff just fine. But most of us reading this blog have more stuff/money than time at our disposal. Freeing oneself of financial commitments can eliminate stress and open up time and energy for the more important things in life- involvement with family and pursuing meaning in one’s career.

Further, the pressure to provide, buy nice big things, and then keep up with those payments can keep us away from the lives we’d like to live and the paths we’d rather pursue. (This has been a consistent theme on this blog, see On Prioritizing Time and Money, Are Your Finances Foiling Your Job Flexibility?, How to Buy More Time With Your Family and the Sharing Experiences series for examples)

I doubt many of us could, or would even want to, go as far as Graham Hill and Debra Jordan in terms of extreme simplification (who wants to live with just 6 shirts anyway!). But maybe their examples can help us think of a few things, large or small, we can do to simplify. We’d all be better off for doing so.

Off the top of my head (and from a quick google search), here are a few things we could consider:

  • Go through your books, DVDs, kitchen stuff, clothes, and your kids’ toys, and gather up at least 1/4 of the stuff to donate. You won’t miss a thing, and you’d be helping out others
  • Rethink and downscale gift-giving. For example, a few years ago, my sister and I agreed that we’d only give Christmas presents to each other’s kids, and no longer to one another and our spouses
  • If you are looking to buy a house, don’t max out what you can afford. Make sure your future mortgage payments aren’t a big source of stress
  • Drive that car another year or two before considering a new one
  • Think about buying fewer, better things instead of lots of cheap disposable things
  • Finally, before any purchase, ask if it is a need or a want. Treat yourself sometimes, but at least consider your purchase. For example, if your iPhone4 is working fine, do you need the iPhone5?

Have you tried simplifying? How could your life be different (career, use of time, more fully living your priorites, etc.) if you could eliminate a large chunk of your financial commitments? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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15 thoughts on “Simplifying: Living With Less Can Leave Us With More

  1. Very timely post because my wife and I are in the process of looking at houses right now! I’m excited but also conscious of the financial commitment and my desire to limit stress as a result of the mortgage.
    I frequently try to simplify my life and you gave some great ideas. I could easily handle the 6 shirt idea but I could never part with any of my CDs or DVDs. My car is a 2000 model that has been fully paid off for a long time.
    I remember my Dad talking about one of his wealthy friends who owned multiple homes, and how it truly seemed like running a business (as described by Graham Hill). The maintenance, repairs, and personnel required were ceaseless, and my Dad said he would never want to deal with all that stress. And I’d wager that those deluxe homes added nothing to the quality of the family’s lives and interactions.

    • Hi Mark- Thanks for the comment. When we were looking at houses, the world seemed to want us to max out our finances to do so. We had to resist that temptation. We own a nice house in a neighborhood we love, but do not have nearly as big a house as most of my friends and colleagues. So, stay strong! (also remember that we academics, unlike those in most other careers, have salaries that stay at the same plateau for long stretches, as opposed to steady increases).

      As Suze Orman says: “People first, then money, then things”. I think she’s right

      • Suze Orman is brilliant — I’ve read two of her books and used to watch her TV show. She gives very direct, practical advice.

  2. Great post! We, too, are in the process of looking to downsize our home and stuff.

    I love your idea of “down-sizing holiday gift giving” – we did that this past Christmas (no gifts for adults, only 1 gift from each family for each kids at a fixed $ amount). The difference was amazing. The kids remember what they got, we had more time to enjoy the day, and I felt so much better about not having to store unnecessary gifts.


    • Thanks, LBD! After years of buying stuff my siblings and their spouses didn’t want (and receiving stuff we didn’t want in return), I nervously proposed this to my siblings and my wife’s siblings. To my relief, they all LOVED the idea as they were relieved from the burden of buying uninspired gifts and figuring out what to do with stuff they didn’t need.

  3. Thank you for featuring us, Scott! I must add that this was a five year project……I felt like a big human diesel truck as it scales down to approach a stop sign. It was not easy, I do not want people to think that living in such a small space is easy…..but it is so liberating, such a relief. We have been in our tiny house for almost three years now, and we still reflect daily on how it has changed our lives. We are more grateful, we have more TIME to be grateful.

    What great advice about unneeded/wanted gifts…….being the oldest of eight siblings, it was a gift to my grandparents and other relatives when we decided as a family to not exchange gifts anymore. We gave time…….

  4. Tyler Durden, huh? I would have gone with Thoreau (“We don’t ride the railroad, the railroad rides us”) but I’m sure Tyler Durden had better abs! =)

    In all seriousness, this is a great article and you make some fantastic recommendations. I’ll propose you take your holiday gift giving one step further and consider donating to charity in honor of your loved ones rather than giving gifts (of course this doesn’t work for kids). By finding a cause that’s meaningful to each individual I get to know them better, and supporting that cause rather than giving a gift takes the unnecessary thing and turns it into something that someone else really does need. Everyone wins!

    As for houses (or apartments) – I’ve found that stuff expands to fill however much space you have. If/when we next move I’ll find a smaller place just to get rid of some stuff. It’s sad that the entire housing industry seems to encourage everyone to live in the biggest space they can possibly afford. When you add up all the costs of cleaning, maintaining, plus all the things that seem to creep in to fill the space, it’s tremendous cost and could definitely be better applied to other things.

    Thanks again for bringing up this great point!

    • Thanks, Ernie. That is a great suggestion and a win-win.

      I’ve heard of Parkinson’s law- the amount of time it takes to do something is directly proportional to the amount of time you are given. There must be an equivalent law anout stuff and available space!

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