What is Simple Living and Why Should I Care?

By Sarah Winfrey on 23 October 2009 (Updated 3 November 2010) 19 comments

Even with predictions that our economy is turning around, the current financial climate isn't exactly what most people would call "good." In fact, for some of us, it's downright rotten. Regardless of your personal situation, the last year could be construed as an alarm clock, buzzing and beeping until we look around, see the excess in our lives, and eliminate it.

While it's true that not everyone feels the pull to cut back, overall there's something attractive about empty space, whether it's in our decorating, how we spend our time, or some wiggle-room in our budgets. Now that we have the financial motivation, it seems like a good time to figure out what we want, why we want it, and how we're going to get there.

Part of the allure of simple living is its mystique. What do you think of when you think of the simple life? Tibetan monks in a monastery on a high, frozen Himalayan mountainside? American pioneers, whittling their possessions down to whatever fit in a wagon so they could haul it across the country? Your parents or grandparents who, during the Depression, got by with so little that they still tell stories about it?

While all of these people definitely lived more simply than we do today, none of these portrayals is realistic for the average American. But what does simple living look like in today's modern, convenience-filled world? I think it looks different depending why and what's important to you. Why?

Because simple living is about priorities.

What is important to you and how can you ensure that those things get done, bought, and followed through on? Or, on the other hand, what isn't important to you? What could you easily do without? And what's in the middle? What is nice to have around you except when it gets in the way of those higher priorities?

Simple living means clearing out the space of our lives, in terms of time, money, and psychological space, so that those things that are the highest priority are ensured a place. It means living deliberately, not getting caught up in the infamous tyranny of the urgent but learning to keep our eyes on a higher goal.

Since we all have different priorities, simple living will look different for each one of us. Sure, we all have the same basic priorities...food, water, shelter, clothing, but even with these basic needs, different ones of us are willing to accept different types and kinds of provision. Beyond those, our priorities are very different, and that's ok.

We can learn to live in such a way that, whatever our priorities, they are almost always adequately provided for. It means making changes, even sacrificing some of those items in the middle so that the ones on top have more space. But the best thing about simple living?

In the end, we have the life we want.

Sure, things happen. And nothing's perfect. But we can make choices today that give our priorities the best possible chance of being met. Does it mean making changes? Almost certainly. Cutting back? Most likely.

But in the end, we reap the rewards of that work. We get to live lives that are full of the things we value and carry a minimum of the things we don't. How satisfying is that?

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Guest's picture

Sarah,
Very insightful article. When people look back upon their lives, their regrets are never related to things. They regret missing out on certain experiences, or not mending a relationship that turned sour, but not having more money or objects. Simple living is an excellent way to discover and focus on what is important in our lives. Too many people are weighed down by their things to really enjoy living.

-Rex

Guest's picture
Guest

and speaks to exactly how I have been feeling for a while now. Finding what's *really* important to us leads to a great sense of freedom. My favorite quote - and for good reason:

And, yes, no doubt to others, our ways seem quaint, but, today of all days, it is brought home: It is no bad thing to celebrate the simple life. ~~ Bilbo Baggins

Guest's picture
Thea

Thank you Sarah for this gentle and lovely reminder about what is important.

Guest's picture
Guest

A teacher used to tell us "to simplify our lives".

However he latter added that a psychologist/psychiatrist warned him that some people simplify their lives to the point of not leaving their homes.

Sarah Winfrey's picture

Thanks for your insight, everyone. Over the coming weeks, I plan to post a few more of my thoughts on simplicity, so I look forward to our continued conversations!

And I love the Bilbo quote . . . he really is one of the best, isn't he?

Guest's picture
Olivia

I'm a slowly reforming packrat so your thoughts are quite timely.

Guest's picture

Simple living, minimalism.. in the end, it's all the same in regards to cutting back and setting priorities in your space and life for what you want to do the most

Guest's picture
Kristina

Lucky us, that we live in a time/place where this is even a topic of conversation.

Guest's picture

Most of us would be living simpler lives but for the influence of the big corporate marketing machines. They get us hooked, starting with our children, on consuming and striving for the next new thing. This needs reigning in and kids should not be used in this way. Rather they should be made more aware of the hang-ups of consumerism and be influenced and educated on true life values, at home and perhaps in our schools.

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GuestPam McCormick

Grampa Ken your comment so resonated with me.My husband and I are 56 and I so wish I still had my grandparents for wisdom(parents of no use) our values much more like theirs.We have tried to instill this in our daughter and son-in-law...time will tell

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Emily

I love this article. When I talk to people about money, I like to bring home the importance of spending your money on things you value and not spending it on things you don't. My husband and I really try to do this.

Guest's picture
Guest

just curious. Are there any good books out there on this subject? mostly I'm looking for things that also include minimizing living space (getting rid of clutter, etc).

Guest's picture
Steven

Here are some of my favorites:

Living the Simple Life by Elaine St. James
Simple Living by Elaine St. James
The Simple Living Guide by Janet Luhrs

I'm sure you can find these books at your local library or bookstore.

Guest's picture

As Everyday Minimalist said, Simple living is about priorities (to me, at least). With less material stuff to hold you down, the more you can focus on what is truly worth focusing on in life. I admit that I'm only beginning this whole simple living "lifestyle", it's certainly freeing to the small degree that I've taken it.

By the way, wanted to let you know that I linked to this article on my blog: [http://afellowshipoffollowers.blogspot.com/]

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Guest

1. You can only simplify if you have room to simplify. About 10 years ago there was a craze for simplifying one's life. Turned out all the people being publicized as having simplified--gone from 2 incomes to 1, so there'd be more time for the kids, less paid in child/house/etc care, moved to smaller houses, etc.--were people who started with a household income in the mid- to high-six figures, and a 3K+ sq ft house. Of course they could afford to simplify--no one needs that much money or that much space unless they've got 8 kids (and even then--my dp's father came from a family of 8 kids, grew up in a house with 1 bathroom, maybe 1500 sq ft--somehow they all survived and thrived).

2. Not all of us think empty space is desirable. Wilderness is one thing, but a great expanse of nothing in your house is another. Personally, I find the former wonderful, the latter anywhere from just plain boring to absolutely stultifying. There's nothing better than a house crammed full of books and well-loved and used possessions, signifying that people actually _live_ there. This isn't the same as maintaining a house full of things you never use, just for the sake of saying you have them.

3. Simplicity is in the eye of the individual. What's simple for you isn't necessarily simple for me.

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Travis

Not only does simple living add to our overall happiness in my opinion, but it's a much easier lifestyle to maintain and enjoy. After all, what's the point in living and having everything at your fingertips if you can't ever take 5 seconds to just breath and enjoy it?

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Ninja

Personally I believe the minimalist gig is a trend right now. Like the iPod. That doesn't mean that it isn't important or that we shouldn't be simpler, just that it's the newest "cool" thing.

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objecpers

Great article! I think that the more stuff you have, the more you have to worry about. Most of the stuff that we own we use rarely. I try to keep things if they are used often, and the more purposes they serve, the better. A great minimalist tool I use is my iPhone. It has all of my music, audiobooks, movies, compass, gps, gaming device, flashlight, weather, numerous science applications, notebook, guitar tuner, and many many other things, in a device that fits in my pocket. That is one of the most beneficial aspects of technology, in that by combining many technologies into one, we can reduce the amount of stuff we own. Although, the iPhone does carry a lot of digital stuff. I try to minimalize that as well, having only apps that I frequently use.

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Clayton

I am a big fan of what your talking about. It's important to keep the main thing, the main thing. If you fill your life with items and hording money, you'll miss out on all the other things that make life great.