Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal development, personal productivity, career, or entrepreneurship book.
Since starting The Simple Dollar, I’ve gradually developed the belief that the reason many people get into financial trouble is that their lives become overwhelmingly complicated. Attempting to balance a career, a marriage, a family, relationships with friends, hobbies, community responsibilities, and so forth can pretty much drain a person, making them more susceptible to peer pressure and advertising’s influence. The end result is that they spend more than they should for a mix of reasons: emotional support, escapism, a desire to live the quality of life they think they deserve because of all of their hard work.
In truth, though, people in that type of high-pressure situation who seek some sort of quality improvement in their life are best served not by charging themselves into debt, but by dialing things back a little. Letting go of the little, unimportant things opens up the time and the emotional room for things that are really important – time with family, time with hobbies and personal passions, and time with loved ones and friends.
I know this from experience. My reaction to my early professional life – particularly immediately following the birth of my first child – was to spend with reckless abandon. I thought I should have a better life than I had because of my hard work and because of the lifestyle of my friends, so I spent money to chase that mirage. Along the way, though, I just became unhappier and eventually I found myself trapped in a ridiculously complicated life with more debt than I could handle.
The solution was simplifying my life, of which debt reduction and elimination was just one piece.
Recently, I picked up a copy of Janet Luhr’s Simple Living Guide, which basically has the same message: the best solution for the difficulties of modern life is to simplify things. It’s a pretty hefty book – nearly magazine-sized in height and width and almost 500 pages in length – but it’s loaded with countless ideas on simplifying one’s life, which often ties directly into a stronger personal finance situation. Let’s wade through the book a bit.
1 – Time
Luhrs’ argument here is that many of us have jammed our schedules so tight with stuff that on the rare occasions when we do have free time, we collapse in a heap of exhaustion and do something of little or no personal value to ourselves, like channel surfing. This arrangement devalues our time – most of the time, we’re so packed with stuff we barely enjoy it, and the rest of the time we do stuff that has very little personal value.
Luhrs suggests a different approach. Her first suggestion is to focus on one thing at a time, completing it well. Multitasking should be held to a minimum, because multitasking means that you’re only giving a slice of your attention and focus to things and are thus doing them at a low level of quality – not a standard that’s good for your sense of well-being. If this new approach means cutting some stuff out, so be it. The ramifications of this approach are pretty widespread – it leads to more pride and satisfaction in one’s work and free time and also leads to an elevated sense of quality in life. If you’re happy with what you’re doing, you have a much lower tendency to crumple and waste time at the end of the day – instead, you find ways to keep it up and spend that time on things personally important to you.
2 – Money
Debt is dangerous to a person’s spirit. It introduces living requirements into your life – you can’t lose your job, you can’t take challenging and rewarding risks with your career, and you move at a much slower pace towards the bigger goals you have in life. Debt is the enemy of simple living. Thus, in order to simplify your life, you have to boot the debt out.
How do you do that? The easiest recipe is to simply spend less than you earn and apply the difference to eliminating debt and building an emergency fund to keep crises at bay. Once that’s done, keep up the “spend less than you earn” mantra and apply that difference towards saving for the big dreams you have in life. Things are much simpler when you’ve got a fat bank account and no debt.
3 – Inner Simplicity
Mental exhaustion is another danger for many people. Jamming your mind full of complex thoughts and ideas and organizing lots of separate pieces of information constantly is a pure drain on your mental energy – and over time, you simply feel worn out by it, even though you weren’t exerting yourself physically.
Luhrs’ solution to this problem is to take time out without mental demands on yourself. She suggests meditation and/or prayer. I’ve found both to be a big help for me, particularly when it seems like I can least afford the spare time. Just stopping for a short period and clearing your mind of thought, of the mental debris of the day, goes a long ways towards making everything seem substantially more manageable.
4 – Work
For many of is, work is drudgery. It’s just a way to bring in the money to pay the bills. On a good day, it brings us a bit of joy – on the bad days, though, it’s awful, filled with politics and pettiness and other things we don’t enjoy. Yet we do it anyway.
Unsurprisingly, such an environment is a major obstacle to simple living. It drains our mental energy and saps our spirit. The best way to avoid it is to get out of debt (reducing the financial hold) and then seeking work that genuinely makes us happy. In other words, frugality becomes a gateway to the kind of happiness that we want to achieve.
5 – Simple Pleasures and Romance
Quite often, the joys in our life that bring us consistent happiness are the simple pleasures – breakfast in bed, a delicious cup of coffee, a glass of wine, an evening spent playing a game with your spouse. If we seek out these simple pleasures instead of investing tons of time and resources into enormous things that don’t generate nearly the enjoyment for the effort, we’re better off.
Of course, on the other end of the spectrum, simple pleasures become less pleasureful if they’re allowed to become completely routine. The pleasure of the morning coffee, for example, becomes an ordinary routine if done over and over again. The way to keep pleasures pleasureful is to mix up that routine. Don’t have a morning coffee every day (or have cheap coffee every day and a really good cup on occasion). Alter your evening routines all the time. Take a warm bath once for every ten showers. Simple pleasures are enjoyable because they break routines, not because they establish them.
6 – Virtues
What essential values do you hold most dear in your life? What virtues do you consider to be the most important? Living your life with these values and virtues at the center brings a certain amount of simplicity and joy from every element of your life.
If you value truth, for example, a life filled with lots of little white lies makes your life unhappy and needlessly complex. Break through this by sticking close to your virtue. Eliminate those little white lies.
The same goes for any virtue you hold in high esteem in your life. Strive to actually act through that virtue as much as you possibly can. The psychic rewards are tremendous.
7 – Families
If you made the choice to have a family – get married and/or have children – one of the most powerful things you can do with your time and energy is to spend it on them or with them. Families mean responsibility and joy at the same time, and the only way to live up to that responsibility and gain that joy is to invest in it with your time and energy.
Plan family-oriented events where everyone spends time together – I’m a big fan of “family game night.” Plan dates with your partner. Do little things to remind the people in your family that you care. Eat meals at home together, all at the same table. The reward? Better relationships with the people at the center of your life.
8 – Holidays
Many people try to “make up” for a year of neglect by going massively over the top, planning the “perfect” holiday season. Of course, the holidays are rarely perfect and thus you end up feeling disappointed and disheartened with the whole thing.
That’s the wrong approach. If you spend consistent time and energy on and with your family, the holidays no longer have to be “perfect.” Scale back on the festivities and play it more loose. You’ll find that the real joy of it comes from spending time together – and not worrying about perfection is a lot less expensive and a lot less stressful.
Yes, have traditions – they’re wonderful. But don’t make those traditions incredibly elaborate. Stick with the simple – a Christmas Eve reading of ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas, for example. Don’t worry about spending all of the holidays in the kitchen preparing some sort of perfect, elaborate meal.
9 – Cooking and Nutrition
The healthier the materials you put in your body, the healthier you’ll feel overall, both mentally and physically. That’s not to say that you subscribe to some sort of idealized diet – that adds stress – but instead that you should subscribe to just a few simple principles to guide what you eat.
What sort of principles? Luhrs offers some suggestions. I’ve found a lot of power in just following what Michael Pollan suggests in his book In Defense of Food: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. By “food,” Pollan means unprocessed food, as close as possible to raw ingredients like vegetables and meats.
10 – Health and Exercise
Want to make your health and exercise simple? Understand how your body works. Learn more about it by reading basic guides to human health. Pay attention to the feedback it gives you – if you feel tired and sluggish and overweight, you likely need to make changes. Gently push it to make it stronger – in other words, exercise without overdoing it. Take long walks. Do simple weight exercise.
Unless you want a stunning body, a gym membership and a personal trainer are complete overkill, adding complexity to your life. Most of us just need to move a little bit, and we can get that by just adding more motion to our lives through simple exercise and walking.
11 – Housing
The American ideal often seems to be the big, giant house. However, that big, giant house requires a lot of upkeep and maintenance, eating our time, physical energy, and mental energy. Instead, we should strive for just enough housing to meet our needs and not our dreams.
If you’ve got rooms that you don’t use in your home, you should consider downgrading. Why? Mostly, that extra room just means more maintenance costs and maintenance time while it’s just used to store more and more stuff.
12 – Clutter
This idea of “more housing means more room for stuff” leads right into the idea of clutter. Clutter is one of the biggest opponents of simple living, as clutter means more maintenance time, more maintenance effort, more maintenance cost, and the psychic cost of having more stuff than you can deal with.
What can you do? Focus on getting rid of stuff you don’t use. If you don’t use the item more often than once a year, get rid of it. Sell it, trade it, gift it, hand it to a neighbor. Also, keep mail and “junk” from building up in the junk collecting areas in your home.
13 – Gardening
Luhrs is a strong advocate of gardening as a significant part of a simple life. In her eyes, gardening gets a person in touch with the earth and the environment around them, requires them to work their body but allows the mind to rest (almost in a meditative fashion), and produces the freshest food possible.
My wife and I are fairly avid gardeners. We have a small garden in which we grow a variety of fruits, vegetables, herbs, and flowers and, throughout the year, we’ve been able to enjoy the products of that garden. While I don’t really have a chance to get the “Zen” nature of gardening – trust me, with a two year old and a three year old trampling around, it can be hard to lose yourself in it – I do easily see how it can arrive.
14 – Travel
The book closes with a chapter on travel, which mostly argues that for most people, travel is overbooked with things and thus the travelers rarely get the time to truly enjoy the experience. I agree – the more wide open you can make your trip, the better. When we went on our honeymoon, our plan before we went was “spend a week in London, a few days in Edinburgh, and a few days in Inverness,” and it was tremendous.
Really, though, the value of traveling is that experiences, not things, are really the spice of life. Traveling with freedom opens the door to many, many experiences which will stick with you forever, adding true value to your life. It’s also much less expensive to loosely book your trips, since you’re not throwing money at activities that you don’t really have the time to fully enjoy.
Is The Simple Living Guide Worth Reading?
The Simple Living Guide is an excellent book to read if you feel as though your life is simply too complicated and that complexity is bringing you down. I tend to think that, in modern life, that’s a fairly common complaint. I know that, for me, I spent much of the early part of this decade feeling exactly that way.
However, if you already are living a fairly simple life, The Simple Living Guide probably won’t contribute much to your life. This is really just a great “food for thought/getting started” guide for a person whose life feels like it’s running off the rails.
I did enjoy the book, but in many places I thought to myself, “I’m already living this kind of a simple life.” I think that’s a good thing.