Redefining simple living: what it isn’t

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About Tsh

Tsh is the founder of this blog and lives in Bend, Oregon with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

One of the main premises in my upcoming book, Organized Simplicity, is that we need to redefine the phrase “simple living.” To me, getting a true and right definition of this term is crucial to any goal we might have in — well, living simpler. This is such a trendy concept these days, it’s not too hard to find scads of information on the Internet about 10 steps for living simpler, or to clutter up your bookshelf with a whole row of nothing but books on decluttering.

Trust me, I’ve seen the section at the bookstore where my book will be — there are already a lot of books out there on simple living.

My guess is that if you like to read this blog, you probably already have a vested interest in living simpler. I do, too. And I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert here — I’m just a wife, mom, and friend, doing my best to keep life all about the essentials.

It was early on in writing the book’s manuscript that I had my “aha!” moment, when my mind tripped upon the real definition of “simple living.” And as soon as I found the right words to define it, my book took an entirely different direction, and I wrote with fury.

What simple living isn’t

In chapter two of the book, I discuss a bit about what simple living isn’t. This is important, because it’s easy to buy in to a lot of our culture’s perceptions of simple living, when at the end of the day, they really aren’t very realistic. Here are some examples I share:

1. Living on a homestead, off the grid, or without electricity or cars

It’s true, there are a few hardy, modern-day homesteaders in the western world who manage to live without a refrigerator, who ride a bicycle everywhere (kids included), and who reuse their toilet paper. It’s what they want, and best wishes to them.

Most of us can’t voluntarily swallow that pill. Our luxuries may not be necessities for survival, but they sure are nice, and in some cases they make simple living easier. A bulk freezer can definitely help some families with their meal planning. A fuel-efficient car makes errand running fast enough to enjoy the rewards of a simple home. And I probably don’t need to tell you that electricity makes home life just a little easier and more pleasant.

2. Only for the cuckoos

The phrase “simple living” can sound a bit… out there. Like it’s for the granola-types, or the families who live in a tiny town—or even worse, it’s for the people without kids and real-life commitments. It’s easy to hear this phrase, and wonder — who on earth can live like this?

When simplicity is married to reality, it is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s quite possibly the best way to live life.  Your children’s childhoods will thank you, as well as your stress level and sanity.

Simple living doesn’t mean giving up those things you love, or those things that make twenty-first century living possible. It simply means simplifying your life. And everyone can do that. When you simplify, you have less stuff to contend with and more time for things that matter.

So what is the real definition of simple living?

C’mon… Did you think I would reveal my book’s apex here in this post, did you? You’ll have to wait a few more weeks for the answer when the book comes out. But I will tell you this — you probably already know this definition, to some degree. Something in your gut tells you that this is the best way to live, the realistic and freeing and most meaningful way to live out your days. Your heart tells you “yes” when you believe what living simply really means.


Photo by moncheri

And indeed, there are benefits galore to this “living simply.” Too many to count. Here are just a few:

1. More time for people

When we have more stuff, we usually have less time for relationships with other people. Our homes and our calendars are filled to the brim, and someone has to take care of those things. If we’re responsible, we’ll do our best to keep our homes sanitary and honor our commitments. But it’s a bummer when being responsible means being chained to our stuff and our schedules, instead of enjoying relationships in a slower paced way.

People are always more important than things. When we live simply, it’s easier to see that — and it’s easier to live as though that’s true.

2. Improved health

Our mental, emotional, and physical health is taking a serious toll because of our cluttered lives. We’re stressed, we’re easily overwhelmed, and we’re not sleeping well because our homes are too crowded with stuff. We walk into our messy homes, and we’re discouraged and defeated before we even start, not knowing where to begin.

Hours and hours of busyness usually result in an exhausted body. Who has the time to make a healthy meal from scratch, or to even enjoy those luxuries we’re working so hard to have?

We’re a rather sleep-deprived culture. Because of our long work days, our evenings spent carting our kids to their activities, and the more than eight hours per day we spend as a family parked in front of the TV, we’re going to bed late and getting up early to start it all over again. Not enough sleep means an increased chance of depression, weight gain, high blood pressure, and perpetual grouchiness.

Our heads are swimming in responsibilities. A cluttered home is a difficult place to relax, especially when all you have to do is look around and see things that beckon a mental to-do list for upkeep. It’s stressful, it’s physically debilitating, and it’s all you can do to not crawl into bed in the fetal position, hoping it will all somehow go away.

You will physically feel better when you get rid of those things you don’t need. Your health will improve when you have more time to take care of your body. And because your body is in better health, you’ll be happier and more productive.


3. Financial well-being

As a culture, we are spending far too much money–-money that we often don’t even have–-on things we simply don’t need. We never feel like we have enough money. Even when we budget every month and use a cash-envelope system, it seems like there’s usually more month than money. But this shortfall usually occurs because we’re spending and not saving.

If we free our homes of things we don’t need, we’re saving money down the road, because we don’t need to upkeep those things we never loved to begin with. If we have 200 DVDs, and we only truly enjoy half, then selling the extras means we don’t need the hassle of finding storage for those 100 sub-par DVDs.

If we have less clutter, we can find things we’re looking for. A decluttered kitchen is a much saner place to prepare meals, which means less eating out and less money spent on bloated entrees at restaurants. When we toss the paperwork we don’t need, we’re able to find important papers, making it infinitely easier to pay bills on time, store useful coupons, and remember appointments without paying a penalty fee.

And we shouldn’t write off the emotional freedom that comes with decluttering our homes, which directly affects our financial wellbeing. You’re more apt to remove the emotion from things, so it’s easier to rid your home of all but what you love—selling more things means earning and keeping more money, and keeps you from buying needless stuff in the future.

4. An ecological step in the right direction

Our landfills are overflowing. The vehicles we use to cart all our stuff have created the worst air quality in history. It’s not a scare tactic, it’s the truth—if we want a decent life for ourselves let alone our children’s children, we must be much better stewards of our possessions. Our dependence on superfluous stuff has meant damage to our air, our local water, our soil, and our oceans, both for us and for our neighboring countries.

When we get rid of the things we don’t need and either donate them to charity or sell them second-hand, we’re providing someone a way to reuse something, instead of buying it new. We’re supporting the reuse part of the three R mantra of environmentalism.

When our households have less stuff, we don’t need as much space. Less space means lower utilities, which is both financially savvy and ecologically sound. You’ll use less electricity, less gas, and less water to keep your place running.

I’m not arguing that simple living is not buying stuff, or not appreciating beautiful things, or even not having fun. It’s about saying no to the things that don’t matter, so that you can say yes to the things that do. It’s saying ‘no’ to the thousand little opportunities to whittle away your free time, so that you can say ‘yes’ to that coffee date with a girlfriend or a weekend away with your family. It’s about saying ‘no’ to those 10 so-so bath towels on clearance, so that you have the funds to say ‘yes’ to investing in four beautiful ones that will last for years.

Realistic simple living is for you and your family. It’s the best way to live life. It means that all the parts of your life are pointed in the same direction, a direction that has purpose and vibrancy. Don’t waste another minute wishing life were simpler. Make it happen.

What is your definition of simple living? Better still, what’s your definition of what simple living isn’t?

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Comments

  1. I’m so excited about your book, Tsh!!

  2. Tsh, I’m also excited about your book!

    I just asked this very question on my blog yesterday :)

    http://takechargesolutions.org/blog/2010/10/10/what-does-living-a-simpler-life-mean-to-you/

  3. I love this. So much. Can’t wait for the book to come out!

  4. You know I am a big fan of yours, Tsh, but I do define simple living as “Living on a homestead, off the grid, or without electricity”. I am not insulted by it, but I think the way it is written comes across a bit condescending or even elitist. (and that is not to say that you are those things). Doesn’t much of the world live by growing their own food and living without electricity?

    We are a ridiculously wealthy nation whose lifestyle is no longer due to our own hard work, but that of foreign nations and future generations. We borrow money from other nations who treat the very workers who make our cheap stuff abominably. And we are destroying future generations by our mindless consumption.

    I am not saying that you can not redefine simple living, we all define terms as we see them. I am saying that perhaps we need to redefine our perception of the way of life we should have and where our food, energy, and homes come from.

    • Shannon, I TOTALLY hear you on this. I think it’s way too easy for people, myself included, to rationalize their way out of truly simplifying our lives. Quite frankly the earth cannot sustain the way North Americans and Western culture lives. A lifestyle that promotes death, destruction and exploitation (the purchases we make on American soil often exploit people in other places) is not simple living.

      I’m preaching to myself here. I am not about to live without electricity anytime soon and the way that most electricity is generated is well… destructive.

      But I feel we’re moving forward and making changes that take us closer to a less destructive, and truly simpler, lifestyle.

    • Hi Shannon,

      Thanks for your perspective, and my apologies if it came across elitist. It’s not what I meant at all.

      I completely, 100% agree with you about how other cultures in the world live today. I myself have lived quite a bit of time outside the U.S. — even wrote the book’s entire manuscript outside the U.S. in the Middle East — and so I definitely have seen first-hand how many different places live. And you’re right, we (meaning North Americans and other Westerners) live above and beyond what most other cultures live with, when it comes to advanced technology and material possessions. I touch on this a bit in the book as well.

      My predetermined assumption is that most of my readers are Westerners, and probably most don’t have a desire to live off the grid. When I make the point here that I do, I simply mean that ‘simple living’ doesn’t have to be this way. A lot of people might think so, and think there’s no middle ground or happy medium that fits their family values well. Therefore, they toss in the towel of even trying to live a bit simpler.

      Believe me, the entire message of the first half of my book is that simple living doesn’t look the same for everybody, and that it’s important to find out what it looks like for you. So if simple living indeed means living off the grid and making a homestead, then that’s great. I know it means that for many, many people.

      Thanks, Shannon.

      • Tsh, you have a good point about who you expect your audience will be. And simple living will look different for everyone, even Renee above who agreed with me. What I was trying to say is that yes, simple living will look different for everyone. But maybe instead of adapting the current western lifestyle to be more simple we should change the way we live. Really appreciate your thoughts on this, though.

  5. “It’s about saying no to the things that don’t matter, so that you can say yes to the things that do.” That’s my new mantra. Thanks, Tsh! I’m excited about the book!

  6. For me simple living has a lot to do with valuing quality over quantity. When I buy stuff I always ask myself the following four questions: Is it reasonably priced? Do i like the design? Does it work and what are the chances it will still work next year? Will I use this enough to justify the cost? Only if all answers are positive I will consider buying the item.

  7. I don’t have a definition (I could come up with one if I tried I suppose) but I do know it is the path we’re on and on all 4 accounts you mention I am happy about where we are and the direction we’re moving.

  8. I for one will order your book – I am working hard to get to a simpler life and less hassle. Love your blog too!

  9. I love this post Tsh! I’m on the road to simple living. What you say is so true I have been bagging up all kinds of things and the air is feeling clearer in here. I want to be able to just quick clean up and go and since I have been getting rid of
    so much we have more time for friends and family too. I can’t wait to read your book.

  10. Wonderful post Tsh! I’ve been reading your blog for about two years now and am always so inspired and reminded of what life is really about from your site. Can’t wait to read your new book. Congrats on that!

  11. Yes, simple living has become a trend. Unfortunately. Because trends do come and go and living simply (aka spending your life on your priorities rather than your distractions) is such a great way to live!

  12. I’d love to simplify to a trailer- but give me an airstream :)

    • I’m with you! The top photo is one of my in-law’s trailers from our family gathering in Montana this summer. They slept there, my husband and older kids camped in the front yard, and the baby and I slept inside in my sister-in-law’s home (there were 13 of us gathered at a 1,400 square-foot house). It was great.

      My mother-in-law’s dream is to own an Airstream. :)

  13. I can’t wait to read your book, Tsh! Congrats on all of your success!! xo

  14. You said “Something in your gut tells you that this is the best way to live, the realistic and freeing and most meaningful way to live out your days.” This totally resonates with me. I recently quit my part-time job to stay home with my kiddos and every day, I know without a doubt, this is the best choice for our family. Life is slower, I’m enjoying little things I rushed through before, I don’t worry if all the errands don’t get run because hey, there is always tomorrow to run errands. I’m looking forward to reading more in your book!

  15. I read this post, grabbed a trash bag, and started throwing stuff away!

  16. Tsh,
    Congrats on your book! I am so looking forward to reading it. Your blog has been a huge source of inspiration and truly a sanity saver for me these past two years. Due to my husband’s job promotion, we have very recently found ourselves “forced” to simplify our lives more than ever before! Seven years ago we were living a fast paced lifestyle in Los Angeles and today we are in a tiny town (population 3,000) in Northeastern Montana….literally in the middle of nowhere, lol. I am depending on your book to help me make this an easy transition :-) But seriously, I’m so excited for you and will eagerly anticipate November!

  17. Looking forward! And I 100% agree that living simply means, in most cases, a more relaxed pace of living – more time for making connections and better health.

  18. Love this post!!! Sometimes I just need someone to jump out and tell me to live the life I want to be living rather than adding all the “foo foo stuff” into it that everyone is expecting me too!!! Little things like I have to reinstate our afternoon quiet time – it has kind of wandered off as we pack ten more things into a day… I need it back!!!

  19. I recently started my simplification journey. I just totally de-cluttered my youngest sons room. It was so freeing!

  20. Love the post and totally agree with you. I live in a country where living simply is easier than it probably is in the West. We home cook meals from scratch every day all the time, wash dishes by hand, line dry our clothes and use cloth instead of paper where ever we can. However, even then, I find landfills filling up dangerously, rising stress and anger levels and an increasing desire to modernize as much as possible. Just shows that everyone, everywhere still has a long way to go when it comes to living simple or at least realizing the benefits that it has.
    I look forward to your book, Tsh.

  21. I can’t *wait* to read your book, Tsh!
    You mentor me in countless ways…

  22. “It’s about saying ‘no’ to those 10 so-so bath towels on clearance, so that you have the funds to say ‘yes’ to investing in four beautiful ones that will last for years.”
    This statement is one that I really try to follow. I am much more geared toward quality over quantity. However, I often find it hard to discover those things that will last for years any more. Cost alone does not guarantee quality items.

  23. Great post! Have you read Graceful Simplicity by Jerome Segal? He has a similiar premise that simple living isn’t off the grid, but about more purposeful living within smaller communities (rather than sprawl) and less hectic calendars, etc. It’s a great book if you haven’t read it.

  24. This post is great. We’ve had to seriously cut back and redefine what is important to us this year. With our third baby on the way in less than a month and my husband only working part time we moved into the finished attic of a friends house. Two rooms to make a home, plus using another person’s kitchen. It can be discouraging sometimes, but I found that selling and donating tons of our stuff really felt great, and did seem to lift something in my heart. When one of us gets discouraged I just try to remember the bigger picture: We’re not going into more debt, we’re able to share our lives with our friends, and we’re teaching our children an important lesson. Now when we move into more space I’ll have such a different perspective on filling it!

  25. Simple living, the freedom to do what I want when I want, helping others, and feeling more or less stress free. What is not a definition of simple living, limiting one’s self to cheapness or extreme frugality just for the sake of keeping things simple.

  26. Wow, you put a lot of great information in this post. There surely are a lot of great reasons to live simply. I like that you took the time to define what simple living is, at least to you. Homesteading might be simple but it’s a lot of work.

    I like the idea that simple can mean more time for people.

  27. My boyfriend’s dad is the epitome of someone who works everyday all-day, and doesn’t get to spend much time with family. He owns several apartment complexes and unlike a lot of landlords, he actually gets to tenant complaints almost instantly (and they complain A LOT), and is always turning over apartments every week, and working on his own home, and etc, etc. He only gets about 4 hours of sleep a night. We’ve told him to turn off his cell on the weekend, but he just doesn’t do it. He is one of the nicest guys you could meet, but it’s going to give him a heart attack one day. O_O He is someone who could really use some simple living, and I know he wants it, but he cares so much about his job.

  28. Can’t wait to read the book, Tsh!

    I think “simple living” is doing what I need to do to make sure I can live each day as focused and present as possible. Eliminating clutter (both physical and mental), getting enough sleep, making time for relationships, and being realistic about how much I can realistically accomplish in a set time. Not easy in our culture.

  29. Simple living to me, is letting go of the things that are not part of my family mission statement.

  30. Simple living to me is living without a car. When my husband and I were laid off in 2009 we couldn’t afford our car any longer. In April 2010 he found a living wage position. He wanted to go right out and buy a car. I’m so glad I vetoed that idea because he was laid off after 4 months.
    Having no vehicle gives us peace of mind, better health and more time to get to know our community.
    Our teens have mastered the bus system. And with their monthly bus passes they can get around our city very well.

  31. I was glad to find out that I have been living simply…. no wonder I am SO HAPPY!

    I can’t wait to read your book!

  32. Great article Tsh.

    I really believe simple living is much more than a ‘simplified life’. Just calling it simple living makes it sound like a retraction from modern life, but it’s really about living the best life possible.

    I think of simple living as a flourishing life – a life focused on everything that matters most.
    Si

  33. Mary, making personal and family mission statements has been the BEST help in my pursuit of simplicity and sanity. :o) I wish more politicians would work toward simplifying life. Look forward to reading your book Tsh.

  34. I find that just the phrase “simple living” is like oxygen to my soul. When I look around and see “thing” stacked and waiting for my attention it’s such a drain on my energy. I’m sure I won’t get there quickly but I look forward to the journey of
    simple living.

  35. Oh this is going to be so, so great… I love the balance!!! Well done on getting this written I can’t wait to read it!!!

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