January 23, 2012

Can Simple Living Become Silly?

Hold one, what has happened? Haven't I been a major proponent of downsizing, simplifying, and eliminating waste and unnecessary clutter from a satisfying retirement? Haven't I written numerous posts in favor of simplifying one's lifestyle? Have I suddenly undergone a change of heart?

Absolutely not. Simplesizing, right-sizing, or whatever term you like for matching your resources and needs with your capabilities remains a driving force in my life. What I want to draw attention to is the mistaken interpretation of a simple life being one that lacks color, vibrancy, and well, life.

Consider these representative definitions of the word simple: without additions, consisting of only one part, common, ordinary. None of those phrases or words match what I hope my life is like. My goal isn't simple living...it is a full life lived simply.

To some, simple living can mean cutting back to the basics, maybe even a bit beyond. Like you, I have read of some folks who want to get rid of virtually every possession. They want to retain a very limited amount of clothing, live in 200 square feet or less, have no transportation (not even a bike), and give away all books, music, DVDs or whatever else may be considered entertainment. Even electricity and running water are impediments to what they view as the best way to live simply.

If you think I'm making this up, look at some of the links at the end of this post. There is a fellow who only owns 15 things....total. One of the actors on the hit TV show, Mad Men, lived without a toilet and was thinking about giving away his bed. Or, how about the family, with four kids, that has lived in a car/pop-up camper for 11 years?  The last link includes a video tour of a 12x12 foot home with no electricity. I'm sorry, but to me, living like these folks (and thousands of others I didn't list) borders on silly. It certainly isn't a goal I aspire to. That isn't simple living, that is fanaticism.

A full life, lived simply, is what I am striving for. I don't want my possessions to define me or how I live. I try to avoid the siren call of Madison Avenue as much as humanly possible, though I really love Netflix! I invest my money cautiously and take few risks. Do I miss a potentially quick gain by staying away from trying to play the market? Sure. But, on the other hand I am less seriously hurt during sell-offs.

I have no mortgage because I bought my current house for cash (average U.S. mortgage debt is $175,000). I have no credit card debt (average U.S. debt is $6,500). I have no car loan debt (U.S. average is $15,370). Because of this I have no real worries of foreclosure or bankruptcy. Of course, a major medical disaster could put us in a deep hole. Even with insurance I know that my wife's health company would look for any way possible to avoid paying its share. Even though they collect almost $9,000 a year from her in premiums, that buys us nothing if they decide to stonewall me at a time of need. Even so, my financial life has been simplified. 

I spend less than $600 a year on new clothes. Jeans, T-shirts, polo shirts, underwear, socks, and athletic shoes are my major clothing purchases. I gave away 10 suits and sports coats last year when I cleaned out a closet. I buy virtually no new books or movie DVDs, never buy new music, and go to a movie theater maybe 8 times a year. Even so, my life is filled with music, reading, movies, and documentaries. My clothing and entertainment life have been simplified.

I  live quite well in a  comfortable, warmly decorated home the suburbs of a major American city. My backyard is an oasis of plants, running water and calm. I am living my passions and dreams. I have simplified my life but I don't lead a simple life. There is a huge difference and it makes the difference between a retirement and a satisfying retirement.

How about you? Do you approach simplicity as something to improve your life, or has it taken on a life of its own? Do you have an easy time purging, or can't you bear to get rid of the stuff you haven't needed for years? Are you after a simple life, or a full life lived simply?

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  1. Hmmm...

    In the early seventies my family and I were part a hippie movement called "Back to the Land."

    We grew our own food in huge organic gardens, had chickens, and lived in a small hand built cabin with no electricity or running water. We even lived in a teepee for a while.

    We did it for about 5 years.
    It was wonderful but also hard. It was not silly. We entertained ourselves with home made music and games. We were tightly knit with our neighbors who were also "back to the landers".

    We had all come from places in the suburbs where life as our parents lived it was unsatisfying.

    I now live in a condo in the city with electricity etc. But those years helped me appreciate things like turning on a light switch and a faucet. I still grow my own sprouts all winter by the sink, and I still bake my own bread.

    My children have fond memories of that time and also appreciate what they now have.

    I do agree, that having only 15 possessions seems a little over the top, but I would never think any of it is silly. It just isn't. We need to be ready for whatever may come at us. Most people are very spoiled.

  2. We never have lived off the grid or grown our own vegetables, but 35 years ago we moved to Vermont from Massachusetts, thinking we'd stay for a couple of years while my husband earned his Masters degree, then return to Massachusetts.

    But we're still here, and we raised our family here because we grew to embrace the simpler lifestyle and slower pace of this place. We liked knowing our neighbors, we heated our home with wood for many years, we met like-minded families who did not live in McMansions or drive Hummers, and we appreciated the values of the hard-working but mostly tolerant people of the state.

    Yes, there are big box stores here now, but people still make eye contact with you on the street, cars stop for pedestrians, and shopkeepers know the meaning of customer service.

    We have everything we need. We'd welcome some warmer winters, but it's a reasonable trade-off to shiver a little for parts of the year while enjoying a lifestyle that we find very satisfying.

    But, I'd never give up toilets or indoor plumbing. Are people who do so preparing for some kind of Apocalypse? I'll take my chances and keep flushing, thank you very much!

  3. Roberta,

    I am on jury duty today so I'll comment on your comment when I am released for the day!

  4. "... easy time purging, or can't you bear to get rid of the stuff ..."

    This is a major issue. Read your entire article and appreciate its emphasis.

    From what I have seen, your above quote really does define a major issue that in its turn often defines how different personally types use the resource "space". To create and maintain "space", we expend a lot of resources -- it costs (often a lot of) money.

    One person of a certain age that we talked with recently was explaining how they have managed being the family's favorite repository of space consuming stuff: Items are condensed and preserved in photos and notes. Then the items are sold or donated. I imagine that this creates a journal, database, or library of fileable information in much less "space".

    I also imagine that this method of storage would not be with its detractors. Maybe even persons that are not happy to only have a photograph and journal entry of their possessions that were sold


  5. Bob,

    My favorite comment in your post is "I have simplified my life but I don't lead a simple life."

    That sums up everything my husband and I have been moving toward over the last 12 months. We pause before making any significant purchase in order to review and ensure it will add rather than detract from our life. That includes looking at the life energy necessary to maintain and service the item, where the item will be stored, and it's likely lifespan.

    We've also been clearing out closets and drawers for the last several months. It feels wonderful, and really does bring home the reality of how much money has been wasted on things that have no intrinsic value.

  6. Hello, Bob,

    Lurker delurking here to comment. I've subscribed to your blog for a few months, and I enjoy it very much. My husband and I are very close to retiring, this year (2012) and we're finding the necessary downsizing quite difficult. Its good to have your encouraging words. I request even more frequent posting. :-)

    My big question is, so you have this money saved up for retirement. Its all over the place, IRAs, Roth IRAs, investments, annuities, some real estate. How does one intelligently turn this into an income stream for the next 30 years? Its one big giant spreadsheet, I'll tell 'ya!

    Also, we're having difficulty budgeting for retirement (subset of above difficulty.) Too many factors are just up in the air. So, I gnaw at this problem like a dog gnaws at a bone.

    I've got more things I want to do than you can shake a stick at. My husband, not so much. This is worrisome to me.

    Thanks again for your blog. Keep it up.

  7. Bob,

    Jury Duty was last year for me.
    Anyway, I agree with simplifying too, but not to the 12x12 foot "house."
    Did you see the article about a family with one years worth of trash all in one gallon size container?
    Also I downloaded an e-book called "Simplify" by Joshua Becker. It's a good start on how to do it right.

  8. We are purging the areas that we do not use- like the clothes. My school has gotten used to me showing up in jeans! Unfortunately, with a nephew's wedding coming up, we may have to un purge and get my husband a suit coat. I am thinking, "one day- how about Goodwill? We can re donate it in Phoenix and it doesn't have to come home!"
    Our house is larger than we need- but we have figured out ways of closing off unused rooms until the "kids" get home. No need to downsize right now.
    Getting the kids to come and get their things is going to be the next purge (that includes family silver and china). Since they are on the moving track, we just purge to the barn and let the stuff gain dust there!
    To answer your actual question- we are going for a full life lived simply.

  9. Sorry Bob, but I'm also not seeing any silliness here. As a matter a fact, I want to BE those people in the car, for at least six months out of the year.

    As for the other's they've obviously all made choices that work for them, and they probably did not make those decisions lightly. The couple in the small house live that way because they like it. Quite obviously if one looks at the video.

    Im not a minimalist, but I hve friends who live by choice with wood stove heating, and know a quite a few folkx who have paired down thi thirty items of clothing. they get there somewhere and it works for them.

  10. Ok, back from jury duty and time to respond to all you fine folks:


    The title of this post was meant to be provocative and generate reaction. It seems to have worked.

    The "Back to the Land" movement was one I remember hearing of. Appreciation for what we have now is certainly heighened by experiences like that. That type of simple living certainly doesn't qualify as "silly."

    But living, by choice, with only 15total possessions (including clothes), or no toilet and bed in an apartment in L.A. transends simple living. In my view that has entered into the area of fanaticism. I would be afraid that someone who wants to simplify sees an extreme case like that as the ultimate goal for all. Nothing could be farther from the truth.


    Vermont is a beautiful state. I have visited many times and like everything about it but the winters. My wife and I would like find a smallish town "where everybody knows your name" but still close to our family and with warm weather.

    We have come up empty so we create our own small community by forming strong relationships with folks at church and volunteer projects. It is possible to "live small" in a big city.

  11. QwKDrw,

    We have an entire linen closet filled to overflowing with at least 40 huge photo albums. How I wish digital photography had been perfected 30 years ago.

    I could spend the rest of my life scanning them all into the computer but my wife would never agree to getting rid of the originals. She has had 2 hard drive crashes and is very gun sky about not having origianl photos of our early life.


    As I am typing this my wife is in the midst of cleaning out and organizing closets in the laundry room and dining room. She has wanted to do this for at least the last year but things kept getting in the way. Even with regular purging of stuff we don't use anymore, things still accumulate. It must be dealt with or it takes over.

    Simplifying my office is next on my list. Between blogging, reading, ham radio equipment, and management of our finances, two computers, two printers, a large desk and two filing cabinets it is threatening to ooze out of the door and into the hallway. Not good.

  12. KEL,

    Thank you for leaving the bushes and "unlurking!" You've started out with an excellent series of questions.

    In fact, rather than attempt to answer them here you have given me an idea for a post that discusses all these points (and maybe more). Your questions about simplfying, income streams and budgeting are top worries of many pre-retirees.

    Give me a few weeks and I'll have a post that I hope will answer your questions and be beneficial to others. And, keep those questions coming.


    With you splitting time between Kansas and Phoenix you have a doubly hard task. Add in kids who want some of the stuff, but not now, and you have your hands (or barn) full.

    I kept 2 suits and 5 sports coats after getting rid of my regular working wardrobe. While the normal day is jeans and a T-shirt, there are times when I need a more "grown-up" wardrobe.

    I have found Goodwill-type stores excellent for shorts and T-shirts. With half-price Saturdays once a month it is hard to go wrong.

  13. Barb,

    Different strokes I guess. Living in a car/pop up with two young children for 11 years crosses the line of normal for me. Now, if it were just me or me and my wife and it was a small RV I'd like to live like that for part of the year.

    Just for the heck of it, I counted out 15 clothing items and found I couldn't do it without having to run the clothes washer at least twice a week. That would seem to defeat the purpose.

    Maybe 30 items is a bit more doable, but our summers and winters are different enough I do need two different wardrobes. That would be very tough.

    And, it sort of begs the question, why? Simplifying my life doesn't mean depriving myself or making life harder just to do so. It means ridding my existence of things that don't add to the quality of my life.

  14. Sonia,

    I spent the morning waiting to be selected for a jury in a civil case. I wasn't the "right" type for one of the lawyers so I was released. Now I'm free for at least 18 months from being called again.

    I'll look into the book you mentioned. I'm a sucker for that type of how-to.

  15. Bob. Off topic, but re the phots. Dont scan them to the computer, take them in and have them scanned onto discs.....and remember their are photo album storing places such as picasa (albums do not have to be public) where you can just go online, see the pics and even copy them again if you desire. My father inlaw just sent us three pto slide shows on disc

  16. Barb,

    We do back up all digital photos on Carbonite which was a life saver when her computer crashed the last time. Scanning the old analog photos onto disc is a good idea. I'll check on the cost.


  17. My husband and I found the perfectly small-sized home in the neighborhood we wanted to live in. It is almost half the size of our old home. We had the rare luxury of buying the home without having sold the other one. The husband and I packed up exactly what we needed or cherished and moved it here.

    I brought in an estate sales company and not only received a very nice check but the house was completely empty and clean. What didn't sell was donated or hauled off by the estate sale staff.

  18. While I can understand the desire to have a simpler life, I do not want a simple life for my wife and myself. When we moved from one state to another about 15 months ago, it did give us the chance to get rid of a lot of unnecessary things. But moving into a much larger house meant getting more stuff, and having four acres of land to take care of meant buying a lawn tractor and so forth to handle it. In many ways I think we have nearly as much stuff as before, but most of it is what I would call necessary, whether for our everyday living or whether it is to furnish rooms for others when they visit.

    In some ways the movement to an extremely simple life, exemplified by very small homes and the like, is a reaction to the economy on one hand, and the trendy thing to do on the other (exemplified by any Hollywood-type that purports to live it.) Mark my words - as soon as the housing market and the economy in general turn around, this "movement" will get tossed aside quickly. In the meantime, if anyone has any high quality merchandise they want to rid themselves of, in the interest of simplifying their life, I will be more than happy to take it off your hands (just don't ask for them back when your situation changes!)

  19. ChuckY,

    There is a tendency among some people to become extreme in whatever they do: extreme mountain biking, extreme dieting, extreme plastic surgery, whatever. Extreme simple living is the same thing.

    Personally I doubt if "regular" simple living will go away when the economy improves. It seems more like a lifestyle change to me than a fad. I know I will live the way I do now even after inheriting my father's decent size estate at some point in the future. My wife and I are very comfortable with small, uncluttered, and eco-friendly surroundings.

    4 acres? I don't envy you that maintenance.

  20. I liked this one a lot Bob. Living simply does not mean we can't do it with a lot of style and beauty! In fact, I learned on this trip we took to Vietnam that people with nothing find a greater need to surround themselves with bright colors and beautiful artwork of their own making. We could take a lesson from that kind of culture.


  21. My favorite line is: "A full life, lived simply, is what I am striving for."

    We try to live simply in the suburbs, but it's hard to do -- not b/c we're trying to keep up with the Joneses, but we want to go to the theater in the city; we want to redo our kitchen; we want to help support our kids; we want to go on vacation. We want to go out to dinner and go dancing and meet new friends.

    Sometimes I just throw up my hands and admit: Life is complicated!

  22. Anonymous,

    That's perfect! You were lucky to be able to handle the two house shuffle without a problem. I hadn't though of using an estate sale company as an elegant solution to the cleaning out situation but it does make things nice and neat.


    The folks in the Caribbean and in much of Africa have the most colorful and joyous clothing even if some of the rest of their environment leaves a lot to be desired. I think it is quite possible that bright colors in clothing and housing helps their overall attitude. If I am feeling somewhat down I'll put on an Aloha (Hawaiian) shirt with lots of bright colors and feel better.

    Isn't living well largely a function of attitude?


    Yes, doing the dance of life is not easy! We are so blessed to have the opportunities you describe. None of them must be avoided in a full life, lived simply. Again, I return to the key point that a simple life is defined by each of us differently.

  23. Retirement has not meant down-sizing for us but having extra time has allowed me to sort through excess 'stuff' and give it to Goodwill or throw it away. It feels great to have enough space in a closet to properly hang clothes and enough room in cupboards to store dishes and kitchen appliances that are used regularly.
    Like you, I don't want to let simplicity rule my life -- I prefer to think of my lifestyle as 'the common sense approach to stuff' or 'moderation in all things'.
    PS -- It's great to have some time to enjoy all of the toys I have accumulated over the years.

  24. Jeanette,

    Moderation in all things, including moderation. Common sense says it all. Thanks, Jeanette.

  25. I just read your post and it was great. That is exactly the way that I would choose to live simpley in retirement. The day that I can look in the mail box and there are no bills except for the basics such as electric, and etc. the better for me. You are living my dream!

  26. Working Boomer (Ann),

    Living this dream can be achieved. Based on what I've read by you there is little doubt your mailbox will be as empty as mine someday.

    Your "Not Doing List for Retirement" looks good to me!

  27. I think my goal of simplification and getting rid of stuff is to have my kids appreciate the effort when it's time to help my wife and I go into assisted living if that happens. I've been through two sets of parents making that transition when in one case I literally had to have a rolloff dumpster in the driveway followed by an estate sale. Besides, I've learned to just get rid of stuff I don't use. The wife, eh, not so much.

  28. Allan,

    That is an excellent point. When my father in-law died we took out dozens of trash bags full of receipts, scraps of papers, and magazines from 20 years earlier. He had never decluttered, even after his wife had died 8 years earlier, so we had a big job.

    After my mom died in late 2010, my dad pretty much emptied his house of everything of hers and a lot of "their" stuff he knew he'd no longer need. Goodwill and his retirement community were the immediate beneficiaries, but in the long run he made the job much easier for his sons.

  29. You put this so well. I would also like to add that sometimes it *does* seem like a competition out there to eat better and live greener and question everything.

    1. There is good competition and pointless competition. In this case, "competing" in the field lowering /changing consumption would qualify for the latter.

  30. We're doing an ongoing redirection in material things, but there is no way I am giving up my collection of Harris Twead jackets. I am suspect of the urge for sudden change, and things leave only after careful consideration. What has slowed is acquisition. The local library gets a visit at least every other week, and I do much of the local shopping with a rucksack and a very small (100 cc) motorcycle. I had to put the 4runner on a trickle battery charger because it sat unused for weeks between travel trailer adventures. Retirement is a return to sanity, I no longer face pathological fellow managers or clients that expect small amounts of money to un-do years of inadequate investment. I have learned to believe in successful outcomes again, and enjoy the freedom to craft original solutions to problems.

  31. Retirement is a return to sanity...amen! As you note it is a time to believe in successful outcomes again.

  32. Hi Bob....just found this post and had to say how you are living is what my husband and I call "Right-Sizing"....it is taking the simple living example and using it to create a simple, happy, purposeful and stress free life. We still work (although we are self-employed so we make our own schedules) and we are completely debt free. We've been accused of being "rich" and out of touch with what many people are going through but much of it was very much a planned out event....that's why I write about rightsizing and simple living a lot on my own blog to help promote the idea and to let others know it is not only possible--but such a GREAT way to live. Thanks for helping spread the word. ~Kathy

    1. Thanks for finding this post, leaving your thoughts, and providing a link to your blog. Right-sizing is certainly an excellent way of referring to what we are both writing about: making the life you have be the life you want.

      I'm off to check out living365.

  33. Making the life you have be the life you want...love it! There are certain things I've downsized: after a cross country move, I swore off paper books. Never again was I going to accumulate books that I had no prospect of re-reading. Between Kindle & the library, I've stayed pretty faithful. My wardrobe is wash & wear, mostly casual, shoes are sandals and tennies. However, I bought a set of expensive china and sterling for 8 that I craved for probably 20 years. Love it & claim it will line my casket. I've always been frugal which has allowed me a reasonable retirement, for which I'm grateful. I do find that after a lifetime of frugality, it's hard to break the habit.

    There are still things I crave (a tablet), but it is a fairly simple life. I cherish flush toilets, tap water, electricity, a remote control, so I doubt I'll dip into yurt living, Whatever floats your boat, I guess.

    1. Occasionally I see tepees or yurts at the RV campgrounds we frequent. For the life of me I don't understand why someone would choose to stay in one, but obviously someone does or they wouldn't have them.

      Like you, I use (some say overuse) the library instead of buying a book. Kindle comes in handy when a book I want isn't available at the library and I'll spend the money on an e-book, but it isn't very often.

      I'll admit we did take a dozen paperbacks on our 2 month RV trip this summer since the library wasn't an option.

  34. I can't add anything to this that hasn't been beautifully stated already! Wonderful blog and thoughtful readers!

  35. I say it's not. My ability to spend millions of dollars to deny the peaceful end of a wonderful life existence, http://livewellspendwell.webs.com/

    1. I am not sure what your comment means, Jade, but I have posted it anyway.


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