The Simplest Way to Live Simply — And Cheaply

I moved this summer. Before packing, I did some decluttering, and took a lot of books to the used book store. And what I got rid of were my simple living books. Because, really, simple living is simple. It doesn't take a dozen books to explain it. It doesn't even take one.

I started buying books on simple living twenty-odd years ago. I was undergoing a minor crisis in my life. I was moving then as well, plus having some financial problems. I was having to reevaluate my whole future, and simple living was looking pretty appealing.

I read the modern classics like Duane Elgin's Voluntary Simplicity and Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez's Your Money or your Life, and Amy Dacyczyn's Tightwad Gazette, and re-read the older classics, like Thoreau's Walden. (In the end, the only one I kept was Dolly Freed's Possum Living — and that one mainly for the chapter on moonshine.) They came at just the right moment in my life. They helped a lot. But I eventually figured out that there's a problem with writing a book on something as simple as simple living: It's so simple that you can't fill a book, unless you add a bunch of other stuff.

Because simple living is really simple. There's really just one idea: Prioritize the few things that really matter, and put aside everything else.

Beyond that, everything you're going to read about simple living is just tactics — ways to figure out what matters, ways to optimize your acquisition and use of those things, ways to get by without the other stuff, ways to fit into a society where you're something of an oddball.

And while simple living isn't complex enough to fill out a book, it's just about right for an article. So here's how to get started.

Figure Out What Matters

This is the core of the whole enterprise. In one sense, it's easy: What matters to you is what matters to you; what you want is what you want. Simple living isn't about wanting other stuff, and it certainly isn't about wanting less. It's about finding the essential core and focusing there.

Even so, this doesn't turn out to be an easy step, for a lot of reasons.

First of all, a lot of people don't know what really matters to them. Some people are deeply unsure about what they really want, and even people who have a pretty good grasp on it can still confuse what they want right now with what they really want on a deeper, more fundamental level.

Second, almost everybody needs to take other people into account. What matters most to you has to take into account what matters most to your spouse, your kids, and possibly other relatives as well. To some extent, you probably need to allow for what matters to non-relatives as well — your neighbors, your boss, teachers, students, people who work for you, and people who care about you. The balancing act of figuring out how much the desires and expectations of other people should affect what matters to you is necessary, even in those cases where the decision ends up being to go with your own thoughts on the matter.

Finally, what really matters to you isn't a fixed star. It changes over time. It changes as you learn and grow. It changes as your circumstances change. It changes as the world changes. So, you're always going to be dealing with a moving target.

Having said all that, here are some thoughts on figuring out what matters to you most, and focusing on those things.

The most crucial step is simply to think deeply about what matters to you. I wrote a post with some suggestions for how to start called Find Your Passion. That post includes a list of related links at the bottom.

Another thing that's worth doing is to Reverse Engineer the Best Time of Your Life. That is, think back to the best times of your life, and figure out what it was about those times that made them the best.

Yet another is to experiment outside your comfort zone.

Finally, it helps to be honest about what you really want, by recognizing that it includes things you may be taking for granted — such as a place to live, clean water to drink, and food to eat. I talk about figuring this stuff out in If Budgeting Isn't Fun, You're Doing It Wrong.

On negotiating this stuff with your family and others, I want to suggest two posts, one called The Line Between Frugal and Crazy, and one called It Takes a Frugal Spouse to Make a Frugal Home.

Optimize That Stuff

Okay, you've made the decision that simple living — this idea of simple living, where you focus on what's most important — is the way to go. And you've decided what is most important to you. Now what?

Well, now you live a life rich in whatever you've decided is most important.

That seems simple enough. Even easy, in a sense — what could be easier than doing whatever you want? But, of course, it's not that simple. You probably need to earn a living. You also have longer-term goals, and meeting those will depend on not doing whatever might seem most attractive right now.

Your key tool for successfully living the life that you have chosen is a budget. Besides the one I mentioned above, about how budgeting is fun, I've got two other posts on creating a budget: One called Refactoring Your Budget Categories (because how you categorize an expense makes a bigger difference than you might think), and another called A Better Way to Create a Budget.

The key is to remember that your budget isn't a constraint. You do have constraints, but they come from the real world. Your budget is a tool for helping you live a life of joy in the face of those constraints.

You can't go back and change the past, but except for the decision to have kids, there are almost no decisions that can't be revisited. Given time and effort, you can completely redesign your life — you can move, change jobs, change careers, go back to school.

You can alter every aspect of your life. Don't hesitate to do so, in your search for a life that's as fun and fulfilling as it is simple.

Get By Without the Other Stuff

There are many reasons for making do with less, and for some things, doing without is better than making do. But wherever you draw the line below what's most important, there will be things that just barely miss the cutoff. Those things are pretty darned important, but you've decided that, to live a simple life, you'll let them go. Deciding that is one thing. Living out your decision is something else.

The most common strategy among ordinary folks — folks who haven't chosen a simple life — is not to have that line at all. Instead of a sharp line, they have a long tapering off, where they have some of the stuff that's less important, just not as much than they really want. This strategy is, I think, a source of great misery. They don't just have less than they want of everything below the line. To pay for those things, they also have to make do with less of the stuff above the line — the really important stuff.

The point of simple living is that you get enough of all the most important stuff. Once you make that mental shift, the rest is easy. (There are plenty of mental tricks for dealing with the things that don't make the cut.)

Never forget that simplicity is not the same thing as being cheap.

Of course, you still have limited resources that you need to allocate. Wise Bread is full to bursting with suggestions on ways to do that effectively. I wrote one called Borrowing, Renting, Substituting, and Doing Without, and another called Five Ways to Live Better Without Spending More.

Fit In When You're an Oddball

Finally, there's the problem of being strange.

There are the internal aspects — you're bound to sometimes get grumpy when poor folks have better crap than you.

And there are the external aspects — your friends and family will sometimes find it tough to deal with your simple life. Your choices here fall into two general categories. One is Passing for Middle Class. If you'd rather not — if you'd rather just appear to be the oddball you are — one way to make it easier for others to accept is to Choose a Luxury Eccentricity.

In the past, I've sometimes cast simple living in terms of needs and wants: You satisfy all your needs, and then you satisfy your most important wants. But I think even that might be more complex than necessary. It's simpler to say: You get enough of all the most important stuff.

That's my idea of simple living. Not enough for a book, perhaps, but just about right for a Wise Bread post.

What are some of your ideas about simple living? Please share in comments!

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The Simplest Way to Live Simply — And Cheaply

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Guest's picture

This sums it up nicely. I have to agree; sometimes we make living simply, well, not simple. Living a life of voluntary simplicity or minimalism is merely one aspect of developing a larger "Philosophy of Living", which is what I focus my blog on. It is a key element, but sometimes I think that all that needs to be said about it has been said. Now it is more about passing along the message to those interested. Thanks again for the post. Enjoyed it.

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