Week 3: Live Better on Less

When my kids were little we bought a yellow rubber boat to use on the nearby lake. We used it twice. We stored it next to the Ping-Pong table and the croquet set that we hardly ever used. Those were next to the stationary bicycle (you know, the one I never use). I'm not exactly sure where the greater problem lay: the fact that we didn't have time to use those things or the fact that we thought we needed to buy things in order for the family to have fun together.

This story probably sounds familiar to many of you. We, as Americans, just have too much stuff. And I'm not talking about essentials: clothes, comfortable furniture, or food that we enjoy eating I'm talking about stuff that we just don't need. Let's face it, many of us are collectors. We often buy things because it's on sale. We often shop out of habit instead of necessity. And we buy items that we think will make us happy such as the croquet set and the yellow rubber boat I mentioned above.

Which brings me to this week's topic: living better on less. There is an inevitable chain reaction when you have the constant urge to buy things you think you need or want. Simplicity is about zeroing in on what matters most. It's not about buying unnecessary items that we think will make our lives simpler. It's about figuring out what really does make our lives simpler and happier, and cutting out all the excess spending. Once you do that, you not only reduce the stuff piling up in your home, you also reduce the stress - and related complications - of debt.

One aspect of living better on less is really an extension of last week's topic -- simplifying your stuff. The less stuff you have, the more manageable your space will be. If your space is more manageable, you will spend less time cleaning and organizing. It's a domino effect.

The objective this week is to look at your spending and collecting habits clearly, carefully and honestly. I want you to reach a balance point for yourself where you are happy with the stuff you have and feel okay about spending less money on new items.

Let me stress that this is not an overnight exercise in living better on less. Tomorrow you are not going to wake up and find yourself with 25 creative ways to save money and be happy. It will not work to simply deny yourself things either. This week I want you to look at your spending and collecting habits clearly, carefully and honestly. I want you to get a better understanding of yourself so you are happy with the stuff you have and feel okay about spending less money on new items. It's like going on a diet -- sooner or later your system starts to rebel, and as with diets, you binge. You have to learn how to transform your buying habits slowly.

I also understand it can be challenging to find ways to "make do" instead of just going out and buying something. Buying something, actually, can sometimes prove to be the easier, quicker route. But there is a certain satisfaction in figuring out how to avoid spending money, and by spending less you will learn to develop your ingenuity. The person who whips dinner up from what's available in the cupboard is being admirably creative. The person who knits her husband a scarf for Christmas is also being admirably creative.

Holidays and Gift Giving
Holiday gift giving is always a big topic when it comes to spending less money and simplifying. For most people it's a struggle every year. I understand that you want to preserve traditions. You remember when you were a child, getting up on Christmas morning and coming out to see all of the presents under the tree. You probably want to create that same tradition and feeling for your kids. But you can do that without giving too much stuff.

Living better on less this holiday season may mean buying fewer gifts, creating homemade gifts, or buying used items. You may want to draw names from a hat and swap presents with only one friend or relative. Or you may decide to limit the number or the price of presents given. Granted, it's not easy to make changes in gift giving. People come to expect certain things, particularly your kids. Just talk to your family and friends about your plans. Remember that part of living consciously is talking with others about your decisions -- just as you are doing in the simplicity circle on the Simplify Your Life message board.

If you're interested in learning more ideas on how to simplify your holiday season, check out how to have a $100 holiday from frugal expert Bill McKibbin.

Thinking/Journal Entry:
A lot of our shopping is just habit. It's something we do without thinking. To start living better on less, I want you to understand these habits and take a look at where you are spending your money in this week's journal exercises.

  • Is there anything you bought this past year that you regret, such as a unused juicer or bread maker, or a skirt that you never wear?
  • Why did you buy this item or items? Was the item a reward for something good, or a consolation prize for a bad day at work? Did you buy it simply because it was on sale?
  • How do you feel about holiday shopping? Are there parts of holiday spending you feel you can give up without feeling a loss?

Taking Action/Weekly Exercise:
Like most of people, you probably spend $5-$20 a week on something that you just don't need. Whether it's junk food, coffee drinks, clothes or magazines, stop spending that amount for one week. Ask yourself at the end of the week: Did you miss buying the item(s)? Did you make do without? Could you see yourself giving up that item or items for good?

Learn other small ways to become aware of your purchasing decisions and your shopping habits:

1. Don't Shop as Entertainment
Never go to a shopping area just to pass the time. Even if you just plan to walk around the mall to pass the time, chances are you won't leave without buying something. When you do go because you need to buy something, take a list and stick to it.

2. Take a List
As just mentioned, it's important to make a list before you head out to shop. How many times have you stopped by the store for a loaf of bread and a quart of milk and ended up spending $50? A shopping list will stop you from buying things you don't need.

3. Develop Your Own Personal Slow-Down Strategy
Let's say you want to buy something, but you have hesitations. To give that lust-to-buy feeling a chance to wear off, put an X on the calendar one week from the date you want to buy the item. Take a look at the X in a week. If you remember what it's for and still want to buy the item ? then go for it.

This might not sounds like the most honest way to shop, but some people I know manage their shopping by buying only at stores that take returns. They leave on the price tags and wait one week. When they reconsider the purchases a week later, they often end up taking them back.

I'd like to make it clear that I'm not suggesting you stop spending altogether. Some things you purchase do save time and therefore make your life easier to manage. But if you have trouble deciding what you should and shouldn't buy, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Do I really need this? Is there anything I can use instead?
  2. How will this item affect the quality of my life?
  3. Can I borrow it, rent it or buy it used?
  4. Is the cost of the item worth the amount of time it takes to earn the money to buy it? (For instance, how many hours do you have to work to afford your daily fancy coffee drink? Is it worth it? You may say yes, but at least you've thought about it.)
  5. Can I buy this with others (family, friends) and share it?

Get advice about on how to change your shopping habits with help from the simplicity circle on the Simplify Your Life message board. Also, share ideas about how spending less can really work.

Since the holidays are fast approaching, I'd like you to also learn about, then share alternative holiday ideas. Are you stuck on how you'll handle the holidays? I'm sure you're not alone. Ask for ideas and support. Let's make this a group effort and help each other find a balance.

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