Updated on 01.07.11

Review: Lighten Up

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

lighten upNo, this isn’t a weight loss book. The subtitle, I think, explains it well: Love What You Have, Have What You Need, Be Happier With Less.

In other words, Peter Walsh’s Lighten Up focuses on minimalization and living with less stuff in your life, which has a lot of financial and personal benefits.

In large part, his argument rests on the idea that the problem isn’t the stuff itself, but the emotional relationship we have with it. We tie far too much feeling to stuff, resulting in emotional entanglements that leave us wanting more and more stuff, a connection that hurts our finances (for starters) and can damage other aspects of our personal lives. I couldn’t agree more, actually.

1. The Life You Imagine for Yourself
The book opens in the right place: visualizing the future and setting specific goals. One angle I really enjoyed from this chapter was the idea of “for life or from life?” In other words, if you’re making statements like “I need this couch for my living room,” you’re likely focused on accumulation. Instead, focus on things that involve the word “from.” What do I want from my career? What do I want from my friendships? What will I get from this item that actually adds value to my life? It changes the value equation. If you’re getting stuff “for” someone or something else, you’re just accumulating. What are you going to get from it? What are you going to get from a new couch that you’re not getting right now?

2. What Makes You Happy
What in your life actually makes you happy? When are you the happiest? What makes you sad in your life? These questions can help you piece together which aspects of your life lift you up and which ones bring you down. They help you figure out where you should put more of your time and energy and where you should put less. Most people find their happiness comes not from stuff, but from other people and from experiences. Thus, putting more of your energy and time into other people and experiences and less into stuff can only have positive effects on your life.

3. The Personal Audit: Your Life
Walsh spends the middle portion of the book focusing (in turn) on three areas to simplify: your life, your money, and your home. With your life, you’re mostly looking at the ways you choose to spend your time and who you choose to spend that time with. Here, Walsh moves you through something of an audit of your time, evaluating the relationships you choose to engage in and the activities you choose to spend your time on. A big part of this is seeking out the sources of tension in your life. What relationships or activities cause you stress or tension?

4. Create Space for What Really Matters
Actually solving those things sounds good, but so often we fill our lives with excuses for why we can’t be bothered to fix it. Walsh spends this chapter walking through a lot of those excuses, like “there’s no time” or “it’s too broken to fix,” and offers a lot of solutions for getting past those excuses. The big thing, really, is to just let go of the things that aren’t really important in your life. If you fill a lot of hours with things that really don’t matter, then you’re squeezing out a lot of the things that do. Instead of watching TV tonight, place a call to someone that you have a fractured relationship with and mend it, for example.

5. The Financial Audit: Your Money
Here, Walsh does something of a personal finance audit, trying to get a grasp on the true financial situation of a person as well as how a person chooses to spend their money. Most of this stuff is pretty standard personal finance: recording your spending, reviewing how you felt about that spending after you’ve done it, looking at what debts you have, figuring out what you have that you can liquidate, and so on. Although this is useful, I don’t think it’s the reason to pick up the book. If this is your area of interest, read something like Your Money or Your Life.

6. Face the Financials
What can you do with all of that data? It’s usually a call to make some life changes. Look at the things that are offering you a poor value for the money you spend and minimize or eliminate them. Instead, focus your energy and time on the things that give you a high value for your dollar. This can involve eliminating activities and items from your life and it can also involve some significant changes to your personal schedule and your buying habits.

7. The Home Audit: Your Stuff
Here, Walsh turns his eyes to the physical items you have in your home. Your closets. Your decorations. Your overstuffed cupboards. Your garage. All of the places in your home where you put stuff that you rarely use. Why do you have these items? What items are truly valuable to you? We’re not talking about financial worth – we’re talking about the value they add into your life. If something isn’t adding much value to your life, why do you still have it?

8. Change the Way You and Your Family Measure Happiness
These chapters describe a lot of change. It’s a movement from stuff to experiences, from accumulation to enjoyment of what you have. If you do this alone, there’ll be a lot of resistance. The best approach is to incorporate your entire family in this. Have family meetings where you talk about these things. Would you rather have yet another game when you haven’t played the ones you’ve got, or would you rather contribute that money to a family activity? Should everyone spend tonight in solitary activity, or should we all do something together? These are the questions that should be asked.

9. Checkup and Maintenance
It’s great to have a big ball of energy to start with, but every great initiative leaves the honeymoon period and runs into some trouble along the way. The best way to ensure long term success is to plan specific goals with milestones that you can check on regularly. Keeping those milestones and goals in mind every day is the best way to keep this change moving forward in your life.

Is Lighten Up Worth Reading?
This book hits the very topic it claims to hit – it focuses in deeply on accumulation of excess, why people do it, and how they can get past it. If you’re an accumulator, there’s value in these pages.

One particular factor worth noting is that this book includes a lot of self-diagnostic questions that are intended to help you dig through your own situation. Quite often, these seem to exist in books to prove an author’s point, but in this book, they actually are very helpful in terms of being food for thought for the reader that is questioning their relationship between themselves and their stuff.

I found the book to be quite enjoyable (even valuable, you might say) and would recommend it to anyone who has more stuff than they can adequately or realistically use.

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  1. Jeanette says:

    As a huge fan of Peter Walsh, who has read his other books, I’ve found his work invaluable in helping to streamline my own life and that of the family.

    However, it’s one thing to engage in voluntary streamlining. It’s another to be forced, as many are today, into doing with “less” because they simply have limited financial choices.

    True, we don’t need as much stuff as we might think, etc. But there comes a point where we don’t have enough to actually enjoy the life we envision.

    An example: A family with say two kids who are under strong financial restraints due to loss of job and no near-term employment options who has used up its savings. The parents can no longer afford even the basic school activities for the kids. This changes the whole social dynamic for those kids and not in a positive way, when they can no longer engage in sports and other activities cause their parents literally cannot afford it.

    And what about single people or couples whose income is so severely reduced that they cannot afford even one night out a month to eat out with friends. Nor can they afford to entertain someone more than once a month and then not in the way the friends are accustomed. You can no longer literally afford to socialize with a lot of people once your income is severely reduced or non-existent.

    The long-term effects of involuntary streamlining are very very tough in the social area. Something very few people talk about. And we’re not talking about wealthy folks hanging out with other folks. We’re talking real people with middle-class lives. The other issue is that you often get left out of things when it becomes clear that you can no longer afford to do them with others.

    This world where people stay home and watch DVDs and play board games as Trent talks about? That simply is NOT the social life of many people, especially in cities, around the country. Even with free events, when you can no longer afford tickets to a play, musical, music event, etc., you can no longer hang out with certain people. And they move on to the friends who can share those things with them.

    This kind of loss, of socializing opportunities, is the downside of “less” that people rarely talk about but that is very destructive to one’s social life in the aftermath of job/income loss.

    Plus, a lot of people simply don’t want to know you once you’re unemployed. They’re afraid it’s catching.

  2. Joyful says:

    I have to agree with Jeanette in regards to the downside of having less as it relates to one’s social life. I too have found that the friends I enjoyed are no longer in my life as I no longer have the funds to do dinners out, classical music, concerts and plays. I enjoyed these activities but I can longer spend funds on these activities when I want to put my money toward charitable causes. Still, I do miss the social side of those activities I once enjoyed.

    Now back to the main issue which is your book review. Thank you for taking the time to review the book. You’ve given me an excellent idea as to its contents. I am an accumulator. My issue is not nearly as extreme as many I know but it is still enough to warrant my trying to stem the flow of funds toward things and redirect them toward things that I really value. I’ve never read Peter Walsh’s books but I’ve learned a lot from watching him on various television programs.

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