#ROW80 check-ins, simple living

Living with Intention

I just finished reading a book titled Choosing Simplicity by Linda Breen Pierce. It’s a collection of case studies of people who’ve drastically simplified their lives. Some still work nine-to-fives but live in smaller homes; others have scaled back their expenses so much that they’re able to focus on volunteer work or pursuing a passion.

But one thing all of these stories have in common is that each individual, couple, or family who shared their story was living a life of intention. They knew what they valued in life and pared away the excess until they could focus on what really mattered to them.

The idea of simple living has always appealed to me, but my lifestyle is hardly minimalist. In some ways I’ve simplified my life. My husband and I share a paid-off car, though we both take the bus to work, for example. But our recent move showed me just how much stuff we own—and all of that stuff is weighing on me.

Earlier this year, before the big move, I started getting rid of 10 things every day. These could be as small as a sheet of paper or a pair of socks. And I got rid of a lot of stuff, mostly papers I didn’t need anymore. I went from having two file crates full of papers to one file crate only halfway full. I got rid of other things, too, but letting go of those papers was especially freeing.

So I’ve decided to embark on another quest for minimalism—or at least as close as I can get. I’m going to get rid of five things every day for 100 days. At the end, my home will be 500 things lighter than it was when I started. Yesterday I got rid of five books—a couple of anthologies that were similar enough to others I already owned that I won’t miss them, and some books from my college days that I realized I was keeping because they reminded me of a very happy time in my life, a time full of knowledge and beginnings.

I recognize that I carry those things with me. Every book I’ve read, every class I’ve taken, every place I’ve been…All of that is inside of me, and I don’t need to keep every object associated with those times to remember them fondly. And then there are the objects given to me by people I love. Those will be harder to part with. On my entertainment center, for example, are several plastic cartoon characters that arrived one day in a box from my brother. It was a moment of spontaneous gift-giving, and looking at them makes me smile. Do I part with them? Or, since they take up so little space, do I hang onto them? I haven’t decided yet.

I’m changing my life in other ways as well. I’m trying to do some form of yoga, t’ai chi, or meditation every day, even if only for a few minutes. I’m working on spending less money, whether at Target or the grocery store.

Simple living is about intention. It’s about living with purpose as much as it is about living with less. And that’s the journey I’m on.

And now for a very brief ROW80 check-in:

Writing: Nothing impressive so far this week. I’ve written 595 words so far this week in A Prince in Patience Point. I’m a little stuck at the moment—probably a few thousand words away from the ending, but not sure how to get there. I might try reading through what I’ve already written and seeing if that helps me figure out how to end the story.

Reading: Read Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World by Linda Breen Pierce and Downsizing Your Life for Freedom, Flexibility and Financial Peace by Claire Middleton. Choosing Simplicity was extremely inspiring. Reading stories of how people have changed their lives for the better is always appealing. Downsizing Your Life for Freedom, Flexibility and Financial Peace didn’t do much for me. I think the target demographic was baby boomers and empty-nesters who’ve raised their children and are now looking to downsize. It was mostly about why you should downsize, not how to. I’m still searching for a good book to help me with the process of decluttering and simplifying. Any recommendations would be much appreciated.

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. Click here to cheer on fellow participants.

What about you? Does the concept of simple living appeal to you? How would you simplify your life? How do you manage all of the stuff you own?

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simple living, the seasons

Black Friday: Good business sense or capitalism gone wild?

Remember when people used to wake at 5 a.m. and brave the traffic and the crowds the Friday after Thanksgiving in search of good deals?

photo accessed at stock xchng

So many people kicked off their holiday shopping season after a day of family, football, turkey, and cranberries that merchants began to call that day “Black Friday” — a nickname in honor of the day’s massive profits. Friday morning seems to come earlier every year. This year, Black Friday is actually starting Thursday evening, with Wal-Mart opening at 8 p.m. and other stores, such as Target, close on its heels.

Every year, the stories emerge. People spend their entire Thanksgiving camped out in front of big-box stores. Reports emerge of store employees being trampled by mobs of deal-crazed shoppers. So, I have to ask. What about you? Do you think it’s worth it?

My brother works at a major retailer, and he’s worked several Black Fridays to date. We spoke this weekend, and I asked him: Honestly, is it worth it? Are the deals that good? How crazy do the crowds get? He said while it’s intense, he’s never seen any fights in his store, and none of their employees have ever been injured opening the doors for the waiting stampede. Still, he laughed at my idea that stores should hire professional football players to open the doors. A friend lamented that the Great Recession hasn’t dampened our nationwide case of stuffitis.

I do know that many workers have to arrive much earlier than opening time to put up displays and prep the inventory for one of the year’s busiest shopping days. Perhaps some of them don’t mind, but I can’t help but think it’s unfair that they have to celebrate abbreviated Thanksgivings so stores can make headlines and money. Perhaps I’m being rude, but I have to question the priorities of someone who would spend the Thanksgiving holiday camping in front of a store instead of making memories at home with their families. Maybe in their own way, they’re making memories. Maybe it’s about the adventure, not the deal itself.

It’s true that many stores make huge profits on Black Friday and in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. One could argue that Black Friday shopping provides a strong footing for stores throughout the rest of the year and that employees benefit from their employers’ financial stability. Still, how much additional dough do those hours between 8 p.m. Thursday and 6 a.m.–or even midnight–on Friday? Wouldn’t most of those shoppers would be there regardless of opening time?

Personally, as an individual consumer, I’ve never seen the appeal. As far as I can tell, retailers are selling the same merchandise they sell every other day of the year, with some of it discounted. There are a few good deals, mostly on electronics. Perhaps because most of the goods I buy as gifts–books, food, and locally made goods–aren’t notable Black Friday steals, I’ve never been tempted. Perhaps if I had children, I’d be more willing to go out in search of a Black Friday deal on this year’s hottest toy or gaming system.

Has Black Friday–a moniker that honors money, not the spirit of the season–turned the season of giving into the season of getting? Is the frenzy of shoppers made rabid by crowds and sales really the best way to honor the holidays? We turn quickly, immediately from Thanksgiving, a holiday of gratitude, to Christmas, a season of giving. That’s why I was moved by this story, from CNN.com, about a woman who organizes a group of shoppers to purchase goods to donate. Last year, they bought $10,000 worth of merchandise for $2,000–and donated all of it to needy families. Now, that’s the season I prefer to think about.

As for me, I’ll continue to honor my Black Friday tradition, by eating leftovers, baking cookies, and decorating my Christmas tree. I’ll eventually venture out the following week, scooping up  a few toys to donate to Toys for Tots and buying presents for my family gift exchange, my hubby, and my friends. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fight over a discounted TV set or Blu-Ray player; there’s no shortage of those things in our stores throughout the year.

What about you? Are there any deals that will entice you to brave the madness? Do you see the appeal? Or do you think we’ve gone too far? Should stores remain closed on Thanksgiving? Where do we draw the line?

frugal friday, personal finance, simple living

4 Common Factors in Simple Living

In many ways, simple living is about mindset more than anything else. For one person, simple living might mean minimalism in a 300-square-foot studio in Brooklyn, from which she bikes everywhere she needs to go. For another, it might mean a renovated farmhouse in the country, where he grows tomatoes, cans tomato sauce, and raises chickens.

What simple living has in common in every case, though, is intentionality. It’s a life where the excess is constantly pared away, like dead branches pruned from a tree, to allow the more meaningful parts of our lives to flourish. Only when we know what’s important to us can we begin to work our way toward simple living. Generally, it doesn’t happen overnight. Simple living is more often a gradual process of moving toward a life where the focus is our values.

Regardless of the shape the “simple life” takes, I believe we can find some common factors:

1.) Simplicity and debt don’t mix. Often, a huge chunk of the excess that needs to be pared away is in the form of debt. This can be personal loans, car loans, student loans, home equity lines of credit, credit cards, you name it. Debt comes in many forms, some better or worse than others, but it puts a constant pressure on us. Debt creates inflexibility. We might want to spend more time with our children, but we’re forced to work more to pay the mortgage, the car loans, the credit card payment. Being debt free might allow us to move to a home more in line with the lifestyle we want to lead, to save up for a vacation that helps us expand our horizons, to fully fund our children’s college fund, to freelance and work for ourselves. For my husband and me, becoming debt-free is the first step in our journey toward simple living. If you’re struggling with debt, I recommend Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover or Financial Peace University. His debt snowball is hands-down the best way to beat debt.

image from istockphoto.com

2.) We have to know who we are–and be okay with that. When we’re not okay with ourselves, we start searching for something to fill that void. That “something” often comes in the form of excess stuff. We might buy expensive clothes to shore up our self esteem, or treat friends to expensive meals because we’re afraid they won’t stick around if we don’t constantly impress them. Excess stuff often comes from trying to be something that we’re not. We might not really know who we are and what we stand for, so we buy a little bit of everything, trying to keep up with the status quo. We might be afraid of being who we really are, so we hide our truth with stuff. To simplify your life, you have to know what you value. What are your core values? What defines you? (Hint: If it’s stuff, you’re on the wrong track.) What are the most important things in your life? It could be family, friendship, art, teaching, activism, faith, community. When you know who you are, you can ensure that your life revolves around what you value–not things.

3.) For the sake of simplicity, something is sacrificed. Simple living always means sacrificing something. It could be that we love to eat out, but to simplify, we scale back our spending on restaurants and take-out. It could mean giving up that fancy car or the big house. It could mean that you attend a state university instead of a private college in order to remain debt free. Simplifying means we don’t get everything that we want. Because of that, we often find a greater sense of gratitude for the things we do have, a higher sense of purpose in our lives, and a stronger sense of appreciation for each purchase.

4.) Simple living is value-based. As we simplify, gratitude steps in to fill the void left by excess stuff. Since it’s November, this month is a perfect time to think about what we value and what we are most grateful for. To truly be happy with our newfound simple life, we’ll have to wake as often as possible with a sense of gratitude. We’re grateful that because we’re debt free, know ourselves, and have made sacrifices, we can live a life in line with our values. This might mean having more money to travel or donate to a worthy cause. It might mean having the ability to take a year off work to backpack Europe. It might mean being able to start our own business or strike out as a freelancer. It’s not until we truly know who we are and what our values are that we can align our time, energy, efforts, goals, and money with our dreams. It might take time to get there, but even the small victories are worth celebrating when we know we’re on the right track.

What about you? Where are you on your journey toward simple living? What factors would you add to this list? What would simple living allow you to accomplish in your life? As we enter the season of giving thanks, what are you most grateful for?

frugal friday, simple living

Frugal Friday: My Frugal Fails

photo by Rebecca Barray at WANA Commons

As many of you know, I’ve been attempting to turn over a new leaf and embrace frugal, simple living this year. It’s not exactly that I was being frivolous before, but that, since my husband and I have really articulated our financial goals (paying off student loans, saving for a house down payment, etc.), we’ve been really determined to make the most out of our money.

We’re a few months into our frugal living adventure, and I’d like to share some of my “frugal fails”—experiments in thrift that went awry, sometimes even having the opposite effect.

Here are a few of my frugal fails.

1.)    Wasted food: True, maybe papayas or squash were on sale this week. But if the items bought on sale go to waste and end up in the compost pile or the trashcan, it’s still a waste of money.

Solution: Meal planning, so that I don’t buy tons of produce or other foods that won’t be eaten. Hands down, meal planning has been the best way to save money at the grocery store.

2.)    Wasted time/energy on coupons: I’m still getting the hang of this whole couponing thing, but I’ve spent way longer than I needed to sorting through coupons (sometimes in the frozen food aisle) and trying to decipher sales. For example, I might have a coupon for Cheerios, but if Frosted Flakes are on sale, even sans coupon, they might be the better deal.

Solution: Extra research on sites like Money-Saving Mom, where I’m learning how to better use coupons (combining them with sales, for example). There’s an art to couponing, and it’s not learned overnight. My biggest lesson, so far, has been to sort out which coupons I’ll need before I get to the store. Meal-planning and list-making help with this process. I also read through the sales fliers that the grocery stores post on their websites, thus helping me to combine my coupons with sales discounts.

photo accessed at stock xchng

3.)    Not fully utilizing my garden: I currently only have a tiny container garden on my balcony—enough space to grow cherry tomatoes, peppers, and some herbs and flowers. I neglected to plant a fall crop of lettuce, cilantro, and other cool-weather-loving plants. I already have the seeds, containers, and potting soil, so I missed out on an opportunity for homegrown produce. I also neglected to dehydrate some of my herbs, which could’ve saved me from having to restock mid-winter.

Solution: I always have seeds leftover, so when I plan out next year’s gardening, I’ll account for that and expand my growing season. I’m also looking into Window Farms, so I might try growing some herbs indoors. Thus far, my mischievous kitties have thwarted my attempts to have houseplants, but a hanging indoor garden might be a feasible solution. If I decide to try it, I’ll be sure to chronicle my attempts. 😉

What about you? Have you ever attempted to be frugal only to find that you ended up spending more in the end?

personal finance, simple living

8 Ideas for Cheap — or Free — Date Nights

Popular culture tells us that nothing says “I love you” like a dozen roses followed by dinner at a fancy French restaurant and a bottle of champagne. But when you’re trying to save money or pay down debt, caviar and cocktails might be the furthest thing from you and your significant other’s minds.

When my husband and I were engaged, a friend offered a piece of advice for marital bliss: Make a weekly date night. We’ve tried to adhere to this advice, but now that we’re really serious about living debt-free, we’re trying to cut the price tag.

For those trying to cut back their spending or live a life of frugality, there are plenty of ways to have fun and romance on the cheap. Here are a few to kickstart everyone’s creativity:

1.)   Home-style dinner and a movie: Restaurant dining takes it toll on our wallets, so why not make a romantic candlelit dinner at home? You can try a meal you’ve always wanted to try preparing or one with special significance to the two of you (an Italian dish if you spent your honeymoon in Italy, or replicating one you shared on your first date or anniversary), or fix your sweetie’s favorite. (My guy’s a sucker for pizza followed by ice cream sundaes.) Thanks to Netflix and Crackle, hundreds of movies are at available to us within a few clicks. You won’t be able to catch the latest movie that everyone’s raving about, but you can settle for an old favorite, a romantic classic, or simply a film you’ve both always wanted to see but haven’t yet. Add in a bowl of popcorn and your favorite movies candy, and you’re set for a night of snuggling and movie watching.

2.)   Picnic in the park: Ants aside, an evening at the park can be just as relaxing and romantic as dinner at the fanciest restaurant in town. If you don’t have time prepare all the fixings, stop by a grocery store or deli to pick up a few favorites and head out to the park to dine and watch the sunset.

3.)   Free events: Many cities, especially in the summer, offer a number of free or low-price events for residents. This can be anything from free open-air concerts to low-cost art exhibits or movies in the park—allowing you a great experience without having to bust open your piggybank.

4.)   Reconnect over a hobby: Do you and your partner have a shared interest that you really connect over? It could be anything as serious as photography or as silly as laser tag, but hobbies provide us a way to reconnect. If you both love tennis, many community centers offer up their courts for free or at a low cost to residents, for example. The sky is the limit, so use your imagination.

5.)   Take a class: Many community centers offer free or low-cost classes on everything from yoga to ballroom dancing to cooking. Taking a class together expands your horizons and gives you a chance to learn something new about yourselves and each other. Plus, think of all the fun you’ll have showing off your newfound dance moves at a wedding or trying out those tasty dishes in your own kitchen.

6.)   Take a hike: Or a brisk walk—whichever works for you. Many state and national parks offer well-maintained hiking trails for all skill levels, so put on your sneakers, grab a backpack and your water bottles, and start walking.

7.)    Stargazing: Why cough up all that dough for an evening of glitz and glamour when nature has its own nightly spectacle waiting for us? I grew up in the country, and I spent plenty of nights staring up at the sky, trying to identify as many constellations as possible. On a clear, star-filled night, why not grab a star chart, or simply a blanket, and spend a couple hours lying under the stars together?

8.)   Complimentary wine or food tastings: Availability varies based on location, but many wine and gourmet food shops offer free tastings. It’s a good way for the businesses to draw in customers, and good for anyone trying to live on the cheap—as long as we don’t leave with armloads full of gourmet goodies. (Please note that I don’t advocate wandering into local merchants’ shops on a regular basis and devouring their free goodies without ever purchasing anything.)

What about you? How do you and your significant other find ways to go on dates together without going broke?

decorating and organization, simple living

Defining “simple living”: In the 21st century, does it exist?

photo from istockphoto.com.

In the complicated, super-speed era of the 21st century, does such a thing as “simple living” still exist? I recently stumbled across a quote from Henry David Thoreau, transcendentalist and spokesman for the simple living, “Walden Pond” lifestyle. Thoreau said, “Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end.”

As we cross the street without glancing up from our iPhones and spend most of our evenings staring at one or more “glowing boxes” (TVs, laptops, iPads, cell phones, iPods, etc.), Thoreau must be rolling over in his grave.

I’m not advocating for people to sell their worldly possessions and move to a small cabin in the Massachusetts countryside, idyllic as though it may sound. The 20th century brought us hot-water heaters, dishwashers, washers and dryers, and air conditioners, among many other creature comforts. And I certainly think a number of these inventions do improve people’s lives. Think how much more time we have thanks to washing machines. Think how many more books are written and connections made through computers and the Internet. (I’m still not sure how smart phones are improving our lives, but I’m open to suggestions.)

So, how do we simplify our lives? If, as Thoreau also said, our lives are “frittered away by details” and we must “simplify, simplify!” how do we go about that? In short, in an era of Twitter, when we have dogs to walk, bills to pay, doctors appointments to make, “House” reruns to watch, and kids to chauffeur off to gymnastics or soccer, where’s the simple in living?

I think today’s take on simple living has several main aspects: one, work-life balance; two, sustainability; three, paring away the excess to focus on the true heart of our lives.

I work two jobs, and my husband works full time in IT and goes to school part-time. Much of the time, work-life balance doesn’t seem to be in the cards for us. We work hard to carve out time for our relationship, though I’m not sure how we would do it if we had children. I think we’d have to sacrifice some of the work (one job, not two, for example) for more of the life.

So, is work-life balance imaginary? In some ways, perhaps it’s a privilege to even discuss seeking balance in our lives, but balance is a key ingredient in simple living. When we “pare away the excess,” it’s easier to achieve balance. This can mean saying no to yet another project, having a yard sale or donating unused items to charity, or paying down debts so we can live a life more in line with our values. I guess I would say that work-life balance could begin at work, but it also begins at home, by “clearing out clutter” whether mental, financial, or physical. And when we buy fewer items, waste less food, need less space to store that excess stuff, and use the items we have until they’re worn out, we ask less of the earth, allowing us to live more sustainably. That sustainability isn’t just good for the planet, but for our fellow human beings and ourselves. It saves us time, money, and energy.

For example, a key value for my husband and me is travel. We travel for pleasure, but also for knowledge and self-improvement, because seeing new places helps challenge our preconceived notions in ways both small and large. Yet we’ve cut back on our traveling to focus on saving and paying down debts. Most of our debt is education related and, while it’s not stifling, we’d sleep better at night knowing it was paid off. By living debt free, we could not only travel more, but also start saving for one of life’s biggest adventures: homeownership. We’re both pushing 30, and our wanderlust is starting to yield to the urge to put down some roots (even if we’re not sure where).

Simple living is simple when our actions and energy are dedicated to the things that matter most to us. That’s what Thoreau meant. The Internet is a great place to waste both time and money. Think of all those collective hours spent staring at cute pictures of cats or fantasy shopping on Zappos. But the Internet connects us to like minds, provides new ways to access endless reams of information, and creates new avenues for sharing art and knowledge.

So, what is distracting you from your core values? Do you wish you had more time to spend with family, more money to pay for travel in cash instead of wasting dollars on credit card interest, more time to dedicate to a hobby or career path? What’s the “excess” getting in your way?

Here are a few ways we can simplify our lives:

  • Identify your big time-wasters. Is it online shopping, video games, or reality TV? What would you rather be doing? Make your alternative specific. The next time you catch yourself watching the cooking channel, why not turn off the TV and try to whip up a healthy dish?
  • Practice gratitude. Our lives so often get lost in the business of acquiring, to the detriment of our values, our wallets, and our planet. Shop in your own closet and try to pull together an outfit from what you already have instead of buying a new one. Start a small garden and find a sense of contentment in the fact that you’ve grown healthy food for your family from the earth. Enjoy what you already have instead of grasping for more.
  • Clear the clutter. Go through one drawer, box, closet, or shelf per week and get rid of the excess. It’s less to clean, less to haul when you move, less to worry about all around. Not only will you make space for new, but you’ll make your home feel more open.
  • Find little ways to give back. With a newfound sense of gratitude and plenty of open space in your life (both physical and mental), serve your community. Volunteer one Saturday a month, or donate to a local nonprofit. Consider your values. Are you an animal lover or a fan of the arts? You’ll connect with like-minded people and experience the rewards of giving your time or money to others who have less—offering yet another opportunity to practice gratitude.

How would you define “simple living?” What steps are you taking to simplify your life and pare away the excess?

Writer’s note: This post is part of the “Frugal Days, Sustainable Ways” blog hop over at Frugally Sustainable. Click here for more posts about living a simple, frugal, and sustainable lifestyle.