According to a study by the UCLA Center on Everyday Lives of Families, “contemporary US households have more possessions per household than any society in global history.” Let that sink in for a second. There’s a reason Marie Kondo’s Netflix special, Tidying Up, is so popular. We need her help desperately because apparently we’re drowning in our own stuff. Many of us feel the overwhelm and are looking for ways to simplify.
But what is simplifying? I think it depends on who you ask. People have different definitions and even call it different things. Some call it minimalism, others call it simple living. You can probably lump green living into this as well. As a matter of fact, there are lots of lifestyles that have simple living as a goal. Although there are differences in how they go about simplifying, they all have some overlap in terms of focusing on what matters and living with less. They may all have different reasons for doing it but the end result is the same.
But even if you have no interest in assuming any of these labels, sometimes there are life situations where having less just makes sense.
1. Less Stuff = More Time = Less Stress
If you’re familiar with the Minimalism movement, then you’ve probably heard about Joshua Becker. He’s the author of several books and a blog about Minimalism. One of the stories that struck me was the one about how he began his minimalism journey. In a nutshell, he spent a whole day clearing stuff out of his garage when what he really wanted to do was spend time with his son who was playing by himself in the backyard. With some help from his neighbor, he decided that having less stuff would free up his time to do things that were important to him.
I think this example nicely sums up why having too much is a real pain. Things need to be dusted, cleaned, maintained, looked after, stored, moved, etc. The more stuff you have the more time you’re going to spend doing all of the above. At some point it’s just a math exercise. If you have x number of things you’ll be spending y number of hours on maintenance and upkeep. We all need stuff but when it becomes more work and takes up more time than it should we have to start questioning if it’s worth it.
Then, there’s the stress… When you have more than you need and can store things can really get hairy. Even if your house doesn’t look like an episode of Hoarders, having too many things in one place can create just enough visual clutter to cause stress.
Researchers from the same UCLA study went into the homes of 32 dual-income families and made some pretty scary findings. They found homes overflowing with toys, clothes, food, etc. And all this stuff was actually causing high stress levels in the mothers. They took saliva samples and found that the mothers in many cases had elevated levels of cortisol. But I’m sure you don’t need a study to tell you that when your house is cluttered it’s super stressful. Having too many things can be downright overwhelming! Having enough but not too much can lead to better emotional and mental health, especially for moms who feel it’s their job to keep the house tidy.
2. Improved Social Life
This kind of relates to the first point. We’ve all been there– someone calls and announces they’re coming over and we go into full-on panic mode. That may be a sign that there’s too much stuff, most likely clutter, in your house. Listen, modern life can be pretty isolating as it is. More people are working from home or don’t have enough free time to socialize outside of work or take care of little ones and don’t have a network of moms to lean on. If on top of that, we have so much stuff that we don’t even want to have people over then it’s time to reconsider the situation.
Some may argue that if you’re organized enough you can keep all your stuff and still have a tidy home. In theory that is possible, but it’s going to take a lot more effort to keep that up. Life can get really busy and hectic. The last thing you want to do at the end of a long day is spend any more time than you have to straightening up your house. Going back to point #1, the more stuff you have the more time it’s going to take to maintain it. In the meantime, it may be preventing you from spending as much time as you’d like socializing in your home.
3. Less Stuff = Less Work
There’s another really popular movement that has people living way below their means so that in time they can become financially independent and retire early (FIRE). Followers of FIRE use books like Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robins and Joe Dominguez to really take stock of what they have, how much they make, and how much of it they spend in order to create a budget that will allow them to reach their FIRE goals.
One of the major advantages of this system is that you’re very aware of what you’re doing with your money. The goal is to understand that the purchases you make are costing you a certain number of work hours or “life energy.” Once you calculate that, you’ll be able to decide if spending money on a particular thing is worth the hours you’re spending at work to pay for it.
When you look at it from this perspective it becomes clear that spending less, which in the end means buying fewer things, can ultimately help you to either cut down on your work hours or not work at all. And if, like most of us, your job isn’t your favorite thing to do, simplifying your life and finances can finally help you escape it. Or allow you to do something you really love that maybe doesn’t pay as well. That sounds like a pretty good trade-off to me.
4. Moving for Work
You either know someone or have yourself experienced the effects of the current crappy economic situation. Jobs aren’t as stable as they used to be. Sometimes people just get laid off for reasons they have no control over. Ideally you want to find another job in the area but, depending on your field, that isn’t always easy to do.
My family has been in this situation more than a few times. First my husband was laid off, then it as my turn. Those were scary times. Thankfully, we always landed on our feet but we have friends who had to make major life changes because of a job loss. A close friend had to sell a home and move to a different state for a job because it was taking too long to find a local one. Thankfully, she and her husband didn’t have a lot to move, making the whole situation a bit more manageable. But if they hadn’t been living simply already this would have been a major ordeal. This same friend has just recently moved again for another job opportunity.
For some of us moving for work will just be a fact of life. The more we move toward a gig economy the more common moving for work will become. When you don’t have lots of extra stuff this process is a little easier. Moving isn’t fun, but not having to ship truck loads of stuff back and forth can ease some of the stress.
5. More Travel
And then there are those who live for travel. You’ve heard about them: the bloggers who live as digital nomads, the Youtubers who move from country to country and record every second of it, the people who live out of their vans and travel the country. If you’re familiar with any of these lifestyles, then you know they all have one common theme. In order to spend this much time traveling, they have to pack lightly. They can only carry what will fit in a bag, or a van, or an Airbnb.
It turns out these full-time travelers have discovered something really important about living a fulfilled life. Research shows that those who are happiest tend to spend their money on experiences rather than things. Millienials, especially, tend to see material things as commitments and burdens that can limit their freedom and mobility. This is a shift from their parents’ generation that considered houses, cars and other material things signposts that proved they were successful. The younger generation defines success differently and that definition isn’t tied to how much stuff they have.
6. Treading Lightly on the Planet
Lately, every time I buy something I think about what will happen to it when I’m done using it. Thinking about this really makes you question every purchase. But sometimes there are things I just need to buy, like food and it kills me that so much of my food comes in plastic wrap. Yeah, plastic is a hard one for me because I know it’ll take about 600 years to breakdown. Crazy, right?
Wanting to be kinder to the planet, and not leave a ton of garbage that takes forever to breakdown, is one of my main motivators for consuming less. Every item has a life cycle, some longer than others. And although many of us don’t even think twice about the disposables that come into our lives we probably should. Once we’re done with these things they usually end up in landfills which sooner or later make it into our oceans. And at this point there are literally giants patches of garbage floating in the Pacific. These patches of garbage are so big they have an official name, The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Kind of like big storms, you know things are bad when they have a name.
And yes, while many of us are responsible about recycling, unfortunately sometimes that just isn’t enough. In the US, we only recycle about 9% of the plastic we produce. It’s pretty shocking. It made me take a long hard look at what I buy and now I’m trying alternatives so that I don’t rely on recycling as much.
Then I ran across something called the zero waste lifestyle. The goal with zero waste is to basically reduce the amount of waste you produce by either buying things that are biodegradable or reusing/upcycling as much as possible. For most of us this may be challenging but it’s definitely worth looking into. I plan on doing more research into this myself and will be looking for products with more biodegradable packaging or swapping out disposables for items that can be reused. I’ll keep you posted on my progress.
Simplifying our lives and owning less has lots of benefits. Maybe not all of these are compelling or relevant to your situation, but a few are things we should all be thinking about. Less stuff really can lead to more time, more money, and more enjoyment of what matters most to us.
Simplifying is a process and takes a while but I’m willing to make some changes that may be inconvenient. I think the challenges are totally worth it.
If I’ve missed something or you have more reasons for simplifying to add to this list please share them in the comments below.