'Tis a Gift to Be Simple

For the past three years I have worked 70 to 90 hours and seven days a week,” says Kenneth, a West Coast financial executive. “Although I complained about it, I secretly enjoyed it. Working long hard hours was contributing to the rapid growth of our company. It also showed I was an important person. People were impressed that I worked so hard–often until midnight.”

Whenever Kenneth had some free time he would never admit it. “I would just tell people, `I have a lot of control over my schedule right now.’ If you tell them you’re not busy, it erodes their confidence in you”was his rationale. Materially, the hard work paid off. Kenneth and his family live in the most affluent section of their city. Their home has a three-car garage, a sports court in the back, and a swimming pool, and they own three luxury vehicles.

In spite of material success, Kenneth became uneasy and unhappy with his life. “Over the past year or so I noticed that, except for work, I had little else in my life: few friends, no contact with the city in which I lived, and no community involvement. Worse, I would become furious if I was kept waiting by store clerks, delivery people, or work colleagues.” After a period of evaluation Kenneth made a profound and drastic decision. He quit his job and sold off the cars, replacing all three with one used but reliable utility vehicle. Kenneth and his family relocated to the small town where he grew up. There he found a less stressful position that gives him plenty of time for himself and his family.

An increasing number of people are like Kenneth. A major survey recently released by the nonprofit Merck Family Fund found that a majority of Americans, alarmed by materialism and greed, rank among their deepest aspirations such nonmaterial things as more family time and less job stress. More and more people are coming to the conclusion that the American dream is not simply about a large house, expensive cars, and exotic vacations. It’s also about peace of mind and being part of a community. They recognize the wisdom of Henry David Thoreau’s declaration: “Our life is frittered away by detail. . . . Simplify, simplify.” Here are suggestions for living more simply.

Stop Chasing the Almighty Dollar
The Bible issues this clear warning: “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income” (Ecclesiastes 5:10, NIV).* Drop out of the rat race by living with less to enjoy life more. A bigger house, a newer car, more possessions, and the latest fashionable clothing create tremendous stress to generate a large and larger income, but do not lead to happiness and fulfillment. Benjamin Franklin wrote: “Money never made a man happy yet, nor will it. There is nothing in its nature to produce happiness. The more a man has, the more he wants. Instead of its filling a vacuum, it makes one. If it satisfies one want, it doubles and trebles that want another way.”

Follow Your Calling
Scripture reminds us that life is too short to waste doing work that does not bring meaning, satisfaction, and fulfillment: “Why spend . . . your labor on what does not satisfy?” (Isaiah 55:2, NIV). Many people in highly paid careers are fundamentally unhappy with their work and, consequently, their living. The solution is to make a change and follow your calling. Ask yourself what the ideal life and work would be for you. Then examine ways to make that dream a reality.

“It’s never easy to leave a career in which you’ve spent much of your lifetime,” says Michael Dainard, author of Breaking Free From Corporate Bondage. “It’s even harder if you’ve reached a high level of success and are locked in by the golden handcuffs of a large salary, benefits, expense accounts, perks, and prestige.”

Dainard speaks from personal experience. He was director of marketing for CBS television stations but left his lucrative work to follow his calling. “I wanted to be a writer, my dream since I was a child,” he explains. “I’m now following a path to realize that dream. I’ve already published two books and 14 screenplays, and I’m working daily on writing projects. My family life is considerably richer. I’ve never worked harder, but it no longer seems like work because I really enjoy what I’m doing.”

Don’t Buy What You Don’t Need
Although this sounds relatively easy to do, most of us have a habit of cluttering up our homes with things we “simply can’t do without.” Before making your next purchase ask yourself two important questions: Is this an item I will use regularly? Have I had some need in the past for this item? Will this purchase enhance my life now?

“You always find people buying fancy kitchen gadgets like a Mr. CrepeMaker even though they’ve never needed to make a crepe in their lives,” notes Aaron Ahuvia, Ph.D., assistant professor of marketing at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Likewise, many people purchase expensive exercise equipment, hoping it will motivate them from a sedentary lifestyle to one that is more active. “But if they never managed to take even a 15-minute walk in the past, there’s no reason to believe they will use some fancy equipment now,” Ahuvia says. “Many are the home gyms currently being used as coat hangers.”

Get Rid of Clutter
“People tend to underestimate how much clutter contributes to their stress.” says Jann Jasper, a professional organizing consultant in Jersey City, New Jersey. Today her job is to help others make their homes more simple and serene. However, only a few years ago she was a veteran buyer of flea market treasures. Jasper accumulated so many possessions that eventually she had no place to display or store them. Unwilling to part with them, she piled them–still in boxes–in her living room, with just enough space between them for a path. “It felt lousy to live that way. Just looking around at all my stuff made me feel stressed,” she recalls. So she got rid of the clutter, and the pleasure of being in her home returned.

Keep the Car You Own
“Cars are the largest expense over a family’s lifetime,” declares Larry Burkett, author of Debt Free Living. He notes that people spend more on cars than they do on a house, because car interest rates are higher than home interest rates, and they are replaced more often. Burkett recommends driving your present vehicle longer rather than trading it in on a newer model. “It’s always cheaper to drive the car you already own. It may not be as popular or as much fun, but it’s always cheaper to fix that car than to go buy another car.”

Vacation on a Shoestring
Whether your vacation is a week or a weekend, that vacation does not need to be a budget-buster. With some careful planning and a little creativity you can enjoy a memorable vacation without assuming huge expenses. Kevin and his wife like to vacation at winter destinations in their summer off-season times. “Many ski resorts offer summer activities, but with large discounted lodging prices. We are able to hike and bike through the hills and mountains.”

Other ways to cut expenses include: flying at “off-peak” times such as weekends or late nights; riding the rails (often children under age 2 can ride free, and children up to age 15 can get half-price fares when accompanied by an adult); driving to a vacation spot. Using your car is not only the most economical way to travel, but it offers the greatest flexibility and best scenery.

Celebrate Holidays in Thrifty Ways
Don’t let a major or minor holiday slip by without thinking about ways to observe it in more thrifty ways. Here is an example from one Pennsylvania family who found a creative way to simplify Christmas. “My husband and our four children have begun to question the commercialism and materialism connected to this time of year,” explains Cindy, the mother. “So we came up with the idea of buying one small gift for each person, which is given on Christmas Day. Then we hit the after-Christmas sales and buy gifts at up to 75 percent off. Our family gathers again during the first week of January for a second festive party, when we exchange presents again. This is something we’ve done for three years now and find we enjoy a more peaceful Christmas by avoiding holiday shopping crowds and cutting down on expenses. The money we save is given to a local charity.” The lesson from this family: Look at your holiday celebrations–Hanukkah, Kwanza, Easter, birthday and wedding celebrations–and think about creative but thrifty ways to celebrate them.

Designate a “Poor” Month
Pick a month, and designate it as your “poor” month. During those 30 days, buy only the absolute basics, and do not use charge cards. Keep all transactions cash only. This tightening of your financial belt accomplishes three goals: first, you will see how easy it is to reduce and simplify; second, you will save money that can be banked, applied to other debts, or donated to a worthwhile charity; third, you will be sensitized to how freely and carelessly money is spent and purchases are made. After living through one “poor” month, you will be more financially cautious and sensitive in the ensuing months.

As you begin to cultivate a simpler lifestyle, don’t become discouraged. Remember that developing the simple-living mind-set doesn’t happen overnight. For most people it is an evolutionary process. It’s done one step at a time. As you take each step you gain more confidence and discover new ways of doing things.

*Texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.