How Living with Less Can Give You More

Discover how people improved their lives by paring possessions, forgoing certain conveniences and downsizing their homes.
November 17, 2014
"The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers..." 
–William Wordsworth

 

Who owns just five pairs of underwear? Three chairs? Two forks, one necklace, zero televisions?

Who refuses to go shopping? Spurns social media or Starbucks? Lives with a fellow human and two cats in a home the size of a tool shed?

If your answer involves the words Amish or monk, think again. Over the past few years, thousands of men and women—non-Amish, non-monastic—have embraced such Spartan ways. Unlike people forced by layoffs or other misfortunes to scale back, they’ve done so by choice.

Their belief: For every object, square foot or convenience they give up, they’re gaining something far better.

Related: 6 Tips to Create a Balanced Life

Joshua Becker started thinking this way as he cleaned up a cluttered garage in 2008 and realized he’d much rather be spending time with his 5-year-old son, who was playing alone in the yard. “What I noticed that morning was not only are possessions not making me happy, but they also distract us from the very things that do bring happiness, fulfillment, meaning,” says Becker, who lives in Peoria, Ariz., and has written books such as Living with Less: An Unexpected Key to Happiness. “Nobody says, ‘My goal in life is to own a lot of stuff,’ and yet most of us live life that way. We try to find jobs that pay a lot of money, and buy bigger houses and faster cars, and that’s not really what we most want out of life. We want to make a difference. We want significance. We want to be good fathers and husbands.”

With such epiphanies in mind, Becker and his frugal peers have launched a movement that many call the New Minimalism. They’re purging not just possessions, but, in Becker’s words, “anything that distracts me from the things I most value.” For some, this means not Facebooking after dinner or binge-watching House of Cards. For others, it’s resisting the siren call of eBay.

Though the particulars are modern, the ideas are hardly new. “Almost every respected religious leader from the beginning of time has been talking about this, calling on us to stop focusing on physical possessions and focus on spiritual things, love and hope and peace,” Becker says. Minimalist groups have sprung up throughout history—the Epicureans of ancient Greece, for instance, and admirers of Henry David Thoreau at the turn of the 20th century. Today minimalists name a host of reasons for simplicity’s resurgence, including climate change, economic anxiety, a search for spirituality, and inventions like the Kindle that make it easier to own fewer objects.

The new minimalists are drawing millions of readers to blogs about lean living. They’re joining online groups like “Use everything and waste nothing!” (nearly 7,000 members) and “Freecycle New York City” (more than 56,000 members). They’re quoting Wordsworth and Thoreau. They’re bringing back the Murphy bed.

And they’re discovering that, all in all, streamlining your life is easier than you might expect. “You don’t have to downsize dramatically like we did to live more simply,” says Tammy Strobel, who moved with her husband from a 1,200-square-foot apartment to a 128-square-foot house in Northern California. “Just be thoughtful. If you can look at the big picture, the simple lifestyle will emerge from that.”

That picture and lifestyle will vary from person to person, Becker notes: “You talk to different minimalists, you discover that people are free to pursue whatever it is they want to pursue.”

Family and Flexibility

Back in 2007, Strobel’s job in investment management made her feel like a drone. “I was working like 10 hours a day and commuting two hours a day,” she says. “I wasn’t getting enough exercise, and to cope with stress I was shopping more, drinking more. So my husband and I started talking about ways we could downsize our lives—not only for me to shift careers, but also to pay down debt, get healthier, and be there for friends and family members.”

Over the next five years, Strobel and her husband, Logan Smith, thinned out their belongings. They moved to smaller and smaller spaces in Oregon and then wound up near Yreka, Calif., in the 128-square-footer they call the Tiny House. Designed for them, it has a sleeping loft, kitchen, half-bathroom with a composting toilet, and an outdoor shower—all for $33,000, what many people spend on a car.

The more Strobel downsized, she found, the more her life improved. On the relatively minor end, there’s been much less cleaning to do. “I don’t miss having to vacuum all the time,” she says. “And even when everything in our closet is dirty, we can get it done in two to three loads.”

On the major end, Strobel’s expenses shrank enough for her to switch to lower-paying jobs in social services and then finally to writing, teaching and photography. After her father had a stroke, she had the flexibility to shuttle between Oregon and California to care for him. “I would not have been able to do that if I were still in the investment management industry,” she says. “Just to have that opportunity to help care for my dad and to be with him as he died. It was really hard, but it was also a gift.”

Other gifts of simpler living: having time for gardening, hiking and traveling; playing with cats Christie and Elaina; and feeling a lot healthier and happier overall.

“I’ve tried to make a shift to just paying attention to what my body needs in terms of rest and exercise,” she says. “I’m eating better. I’m not drinking a bottle of wine like I was when I was really stressed-out. I also think that living simply has helped me bounce back from really tough circumstances, particularly my dad’s illness and the grief I experienced after his death. If I were still working in investment management, I would have had the tendency to want to numb all the negative feelings” with alcohol or shopping, she says. “I’m just really aware of how I’m conducting myself in the world.”

Change and Confidence

On the surface, Mary Carlomagno’s life 10 years ago was peachy. She had money. She had a good job as a marketing executive. She had plenty of friends. Even so, she knew something was missing. “I was living a very privileged life, but I wasn’t happy,” Carlomagno says. How come? As Carlomagno recalls in her memoir Give It Up!: My Year of Learning to Live Better with Less, she was “literally hit over the head” by a clue: an “avalanche of designer shoeboxes” that fell from her closet one  morning.

Within hours, she realized her problem was mindless consumption. “I wasn’t changing anything in my life, just going on day after day—Oh, I’ll have another double latte and another martini and buy another pair of shoes,” she says now. “I was just adding all these things on that didn’t necessarily have a lot of meaning. I decided to start giving more thought to what I was doing.”

Each month for a year, Carlomagno curbed or cut something she saw as a personal weakness or vice—from recreational shopping, restaurant meals and taxis, to coffee, chocolate and booze. In almost every case, she discovered new talents and strengths (making risotto, resisting peer pressure to drink) and ways of enjoying life (reading poetry, navigating Manhattan on foot).

“What I learned was not only could I  live without a lot of things and be happier and more fulfilled, but also I could make a change instead of just accepting things,” she says. “And change kind of begets changes. So for me, just giving up chocolate or questioning that third cup of coffee led to revolutionary change in my life—changing careers, starting to write, moving apartments, realizing this man I was with was the one I should marry.”

Now a home-organizing expert in New Providence, N.J., with a husband and two kids, Carlomagno is “more moderate” in all respects. “I learned that many of the things I thought were making me happy didn’t make me happy. I learned a lot of people I was surrounding myself with weren’t doing the things I wanted to be doing, and I also learned the difference between what my wants are and what my needs are. Before, I thought everything was a need, like, I need those shoes; I need that bag, and now I can very easily let go of things.” Her year’s experiment taught her to “put less emotion onto material things and put it more on experiences and relationships and things that really feed your life.”

Location and Luxury

Only 675 square feet for two adults, a toddler, and a baby on the way? If you had told Jacqueline Schmidt five years ago that such numbers would make her happier than ever, she’d have thought you were nuts. She was, after all, the illustrator and designer whose beautifully furnished, 1,200-square-foot loft had been featured in magazines; the world traveler who owned thousands of dollars’ worth of art books and adored decorating with just the right piece of coral or taxidermied bird. That Brooklyn, N.Y., loft was bound up with her identity, she recalls; it stood for her thriving career.

Then she married small-space design expert David Friedlander, and the couple agreed to downsize. In the beginning, Schmidt felt anxious.

She had the idea that a pared-back lifestyle “meant less success, less opportunity, less validation,” she says, and then laughs. “What a joke! I have so much more now than I ever did.”

First, there’s the vibrant slice of Brooklyn outside the family’s new apartment. By choosing a smaller home, Friedlander says, they could afford “a neighborhood that’s generally reserved nowadays for rich people”—complete with Prospect Park, countless family-friendly businesses and good schools for their 2-year-old son, Finn, and baby-on-the-way.

Second, there are the splendors inside the apartment: Organic waffle-weave towels. Carrara marble tiles and countertops. Oiled European oak floors with a special, rough-sawn finish that hides scratches and dirt. In a larger place, Schmidt says, such touches would cost a fortune—and indeed, in her more sprawling days, she was forced to use cheaper materials. Now she has everything the way she likes it, partly thanks to the cash she got from selling dozens of possessions on Craigslist, eBay and Etsy.

Recently, Schmidt says, her mother confessed that when she first heard about her daughter’s downsized digs, she felt sorry for her. Then she visited. “She said, ‘I want your apartment!’” says Schmidt, sighing happily at the memory. “She kept using the word luxury.”

Giving It a Go

Feeling inspired but unsure what to trim from your life or how to do it? Minimalists are full of ideas:

1. If you want to stop doing things that don’t make you happy…
Answer some key questions. For instance: Do you look forward to your day at work, or dread it? Is there something you want to do instead? What hobbies do you want more time for? How do you actually spend your free time? What would your ideal family life look like? This should help you figure out your goals and what’s been stopping you from achieving them.
Watch your bank and credit card statements. That’s partly how Carlomagno realized she was spending too much money (and time) shopping for shoes and sushi.
Keep a daily log. After Strobel started one, she was shocked to find she’d been watching TV three hours a day. “Not that watching TV is bad in moderation,” she explains, “but that was time I could have been spending downsizing or just going for a walk.”

2. If you want a smaller place but aren’t sure how small to go…
Consider how much of your current home you actually use and find one closer to that size. Studies suggest that for many families, some rooms see little if any traffic.
Choose a home that meets your daily needs. “People tend to design their homes around worst-case scenarios,” Friedlander says. “What if my in-laws and my parents come and the neighbors stop by at the same time? People will spend an extra hundred grand on their home to prepare for a contingency that will come up maybe once a year rather than actually design their homes around how they’re used 95 percent of the time.”
Don’t let your furniture limit your housing choices. “When we were on a hunt for a rental after the sale of my 1,200-square-foot space, we turned down a lot of amazing and reasonable apartments because we couldn’t see how our stuff would fit into the apartment,” Schmidt says. Only later did the couple realize that if, say, they ditched their 9-foot dining table for a shorter one, it would increase their options dramatically.

3. If you want to kill clutter…
Be honest. Will you ever use that olive pitter? Do you notice that vase anymore, or is it just something to dust? If an item isn’t useful, beautiful or meaningful to you, give it away or sell it.
Unclutter one room or closet at a time. “If you look at the whole [home], it’s just so overwhelming and easy to get defeated,” Strobel says. “When you focus on one area at a time, you can really see progress.”

4. If you want to buy less…
Share more. Maybe you and a neighbor, instead of each buying a chain saw, can buy one together and take turns with it.
Make a pact. In 2005, Sarah Pelmas and several friends formed the “Compact”—a vow not to buy anything new for a year, aside from necessities such as food and medicine. If they absolutely needed anything else, they borrowed it or purchased it secondhand. “There was a lot of pride about finding something for someone else. It took two Compact members and a couple of connected friends to find me a [used] shower curtain, for instance,” says Pelmas, of Washington, D.C. “But I think also there was a little friendly competition, which made us less likely to give in or give up if it was hard to make something work.” The Compact now has more than 10,000 members worldwide.

Finally Free

Peeling down to the necessities has its challenges, minimalists admit. If you own just one pair of socks, for instance, you’ll be washing those socks daily. If your home lacks an indoor shower, you might find yourself driving to the gym in the dead of winter to shower there.

“It was definitely challenging being in the Tiny House when Logan was on his sabbatical,” Strobel recalls. “I work at home, and he was working at home, so we had to have some conversations about quiet time and having our own little areas.”

Perhaps hardest of all is the introspection that minimalism tends to bring. “By about the fourth vanload of things to Goodwill, I became very self-reflective,” Becker says. “Why did I have four vanloads of things that I didn’t actually need? Was advertising really having that much of an effect on me? Was I trying to impress people with the things I owned?” On and on, the questions rolled. “Having to search through that was difficult, painful.”

Even so, minimalists say, such moments are a small price to pay for the new lightness they feel.

“After my stuff was gone, it was like, Oh my God, I’m free,” Schmidt says. “I don’t have to do this anymore. I don’t have to acquire any more stuff. I can go to a library or a museum and be around these things in other ways, but I don’t have to own them.”

As for Becker, minimalism has fostered more time with his two children and the chance to explore his love of writing. “Those are such a greater fulfillment for me than just spending my time watching television or shopping for clothes, or taking care of things,” he says. And now and then, there’s the joy of doing nothing at all.

“As you remove yourself from this consumer-driven rat race of always needing more and wanting more and trying to earn more to buy more, you find you don’t have to be busy all the time. You can find some calm in life.”

Material things don’t feed your life—but relationships can. Find out what 8 traits define a healthy relationship and start working on one today.

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