Maxed out on modern life? Discover the rewards of simple living
Ever wondered what it would be like to have a real sit-down family dinner, one that’s not eaten in the car while shuttling your kids to and from ball practices, music lessons and dance performances? Are you tired of working so hard, yet still struggling to pay the mortgage and car and student loans, never making a dent in your ever-increasing credit card balance? When you’re living life in the fast lane, it’s hard to find time for the things that really matter, like reading to your children or socializing with friends, not to mention healthful activities like yoga, meditation or regular exercise. Not to worry. You’re far from alone.
Today, everyone seems to be overworked, overscheduled and over-frazzled. And the feeling is real. Americans recently overtook the Japanese as the hardest working people on the planet. In the last 30 years, we’ve added nearly a full month to the hours we log in at the office annually, according to the Center for a New American Dream, a non-profit group in Takoma, Md., that promotes a less materialistic, more sustainable lifestyle. Debt is up, the average credit card balance is more than $8,000, and rising. And leisure time is down, just 19.8 hours a week—a 25 percent drop since the early 1970s. And the pace of keeping it all together is exhausting. This explains why fatigue ranks up there with the flu as one of the top five reasons we call a doctor, and why nearly one-quarter of us suffer from periods of exhaustion that last longer than two weeks, according to one medical study in the Annals of Internal Medicine. No wonder we yearn for a saner, simpler life.
Surprisingly, it can even be simple to do, if you’re willing to make changes in your lifestyle. And a surprising number of Americans are—as many as 25 million, according to the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.
They’re people like Mike and Linda Lenich. After amassing a debt of nearly $50,000 in the early 1990s—mostly from buying a nice house, two sporty cars, tropical vacations and dinners out—the 30-something couple finally tired of trying to keep up and reigned in their over-spending. Their strategies weren’t anything special—trading health club memberships for walks around town, dining out for eating in, book buying for library cards—but they reaped big dividends. Within three years, the Leniches had paid off their debts.
Then there are the Zeenders. After moving through a series of corporate jobs in the 1990s, Jane and Ryan realized that what they wanted wasn’t status and creature comforts, but time —to raise a family without the help of day care, be with friends and family and train for the triathlons that had long been their hobby. So they moved from the West Coast back to the Washington, D.C. area—their roots—and scaled back their budget to live on Ryan’s salary as a government patent officer. This included moving into a tiny, one-bedroom apartment within walking distance of Ryan’s office, purchasing a used car (for which they paid cash) and buying food in bulk. Their more modest lifestyle allowed Jane to quit her job with a pharmaceutical firm and stay home to care for their son Marcus.
Or take 67-year-old Jeanne Clark. In the late 1980s, she simplified her life by plucking produce from her small backyard garden, pushing a powerless reel mower over her lawn and living in a small house along the Massachusetts coast. Such downshifting enabled Clark to walk away from her job as a Boston-area nurse, relocate to the seaside town where an ailing parent and a beloved aunt and uncle lived, and care for them in their own home during their twilight years.
The Leniches, Zeenders and Clark are all part of a growing wave of “simplifiers:” people who are stepping back from their frenetic, frantic and frazzled lifestyles to create a slower, balanced way of life. This almost always involves logging fewer hours at the office and taking fewer dollars out of the wallet. But it doesn’t mean these simplifiers are leading poorer lives as a result. On the contrary, the vast majority of them will tell you that what they lose in stress and gain in time to pursue their passions more than compensates for a smaller annual paycheck.
A Value-Added Lifestyle
For many of us, the “simple life” calls up images of plain-clothed Amish travelling rural lanes in horse-drawn carriages or of retirees dozing in backyard hammocks. There’s some truth to those romantic stereotypes: Simplifiers do tend to have fewer possessions and more free time than the rest of us. But that’s not an accurate picture of what the simple life is all about.
Those who really sign up for this lifestyle don’t do so just to gain leisure or acquire a Zen sensitivity. They do it to live richer, more meaningful lives. “Simple living is not about any one particular lifestyle,” says Janet Luhrs, author of The Simple Living Guide (Broadway, 2000) and publisher of The Simple Living Journal, a quarterly magazine. “It’s about choosing the kind of life you want to live—consciously and deliberately designing your life so it coincides with your values."
What exactly those values might be varies from person to person. For the Zeenders, it’s family time; for others, it might be having the freedom to travel, volunteering time and talent to a worthy cause or just living more lightly on the planet by buying only what’s necessary. In its survey of simplifiers, the Merck Family Fund—which awards grants to organizations that work to improve the quality of the natural environment and of urban communities—found that the No. 1 reason people scale back their lifestyle is to live more balanced lives, followed by a desire for more free time, less stress and the chance to be more involved in caring for their children.
Unfortunately, the things we care about most are too often the ones we give the least attention, according to Betsy Taylor, executive director of the Center for a New American Dream. “We devote the bulk of our time and energy not to our passions,” she says, “but to keeping pace with the hectic American lifestyle,” with its 50-hour-plus workweeks, endless social obligations and non-stop accumulation of creature comforts we can barely afford.
Taylor adds, “In the last three decades, we’ve worked harder than ever, yet we have consistently rewarded ourselves with material possessions that require constant ‘upkeep’ instead of opting for a shorter work week and more leisure time.” The cost is exacted every day in our exhaustion, debt and lack of personal time.
It’s Trade-Off Time
Some say that to live simply is to reclaim your life from the rat race. That’s easier said than done. It’s laudable to want to spend more time with your children or travel the world, but you still have to work to put food on the table, a roof over your head and clothes on your back. How do you manage it? The answer is scaling back the things that are least important to you so you can have more of what you really want. “It’s a matter of figuring out what you’re willing to give up in exchange for your freedom, your ideals,” says Luhrs.
What’s sacrificed will be different for every person. “There’s no rigid set of rules about how to live more simply,” says Linda Breen Pierce, author of Choosing Simplicity (Gallagher Press, 2000), a review of the simple living movement, which is based on her survey of 300 simplifiers. “Everyone does it his or her own way.” Pierce did find, however, that simplifiers tend to start small, with minor changes—perhaps reigning in spending to eliminate debt and stress or sacking superfluous possessions. Bigger steps, such as scaling back work hours or jettisoning joyless jobs, often come later.
That’s how the Leniches did it. “We always thought that success was about having more,” says Mike Lenich. “But even with my promotions and salary increases, we never seemed any happier than before.” Then Linda stumbled upon a copy of the Tightwad Gazette, a monthly newsletter on how to live on less, and she convinced Mike to give frugality a try.
On a chart posted on the refrigerator, they recorded every penny they spent, then worked to bring their expenses down. The strategy paid off almost immediately: In the first month, the Leniches slashed their spending by 25 percent.
Inspired by their success, they cut further, buying groceries in bulk, brown-bagging lunches, borrowing books from the library. Expenses dropped another 10 percent. At first, the savings went to pay off the cars and the mortgage; when that was accomplished three years later, the money went straight into savings.
By 1999, fewer than 10 years after they started, the Leniches had socked away enough money for Mike to retire.
Today, he volunteers his time in community service—recently assisting local senior citizens with their tax returns—and plays guitar in a bluegrass band at the local coffee shop. Linda, a longtime quilter, works at a small fabric shop in town and sells her handcrafted quilts.
The Price of Plain Living
Changes in work life—by reducing job hours, changing to lower-paying jobs or quitting them altogether—are among the biggest modifications that simplifiers make, according to the Merck survey. That’s what Luhrs did. The single mother of two quit her law practice so she could be home with her kids and take up freelance journalism. How does she swing it? A big chunk of her income comes from the money she gets renting out an apartment in her basement, an arrangement that covers two-thirds of her home mortgage payment.
You may choose to be systematic when simplifying your lifestyle, but you don’t need a plan to get started. “Just do something,” says Luhrs. “One step leads to another.”
Elaine St. James, author of Living the Simple Life (Hyperion, 1998), found that out when she decided to go through her house room by room and toss everything she hadn’t used in the last year. She ended up freeing up so much space in her 3,000- square-foot home that she was able to move into a condo one-third as big.
A life that puts time and meaning before work and income does come at a cost. And, according to the Merck Survey, 35 percent of those who do choose it admit to missing the money they used to earn. Still, it’s wrong to equate the simple life with deprivation. “You may have less stuff, but the simple life is a beautiful one,” says Luhrs, because you’re free to do what you love.
In fact, in living out their values, simplifiers may end up choosing to spend more money to support things they believe in. The Zeenders drive a used car but don’t scrimp on good food, paying an extra 25 percent for organic produce because they believe it’s better for their child and for the planet.
Path, Not a Destination
Simplifying your life doesn’t happen overnight. Like any life-changing endeavor, it’s a process that takes years, maybe even a lifetime, to refine. Even then, you never really achieve total simplicity. “No one’s ever finished; there’s always more you can do,” says Luhrs.
Jane Zeender, who gave up a prestigious, six-figure income and many of the accoutrements of the American Dream to stay home and raise her son, counts herself among the contented majority. “We don’t have a lot of the possessions our peers have: the nice cars, the big house with a back yard, the new furniture,” she says. “But by simplifying, we’ve gained so much more. We have peace of mind, good health and time for each other, our child, our family and friends. What else do we need?"