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9 Tips on Simplifying Your Life

Take these practical steps to help you embrace voluntary simplicity, reduce consumption and live your values

By Marie Sherlock

Editor’s note: This is the final installment of a three-part series about voluntary simplicity and a low-consumption lifestyle. Part One was a primer explaining this idea. Part Two was about consciously realigning your values.

The humorist Will Rogers once observed: "Too many people spend money they haven't earned to buy things they don't want to impress people that they don't like."

Little has changed in the intervening century.

A family gathering together. Next Avenue, simple living tips, simplicity
Rituals like going on regular morning walks with family or friends give us a sense of control and can help relieve anxiety   |  Credit: Photo by Sir Manuel

It's so easy to end up doing this! You're actually just "going with the flow" of societal peer pressure. Without thinking, you shift to autopilot, absorbing the norms of a materialistic culture and acting accordingly. But as we discovered earlier in this series, those aren't your norms; they aren't your values.

This installment will lay out strategies you can use to achieve voluntary simplicity. If any of these tactics become difficult, review the list of values you assembled while reading the second part of this series to remind yourself about what really matters to you.

If it lists intrinsic (nonmaterialistic) principles, research shows that regularly reinforcing those beliefs will motivate you as you try to live your values — no small challenge in our materialistic, faux-beauty-and-youth-obsessed culture.

Simplicity Basics

Here are a few overriding themes to guide you as you move forward.

Stop trying to keep up with the Joneses. Will Rogers nailed it: Most of us spend money on things not because we need them or even want them but because we want to impress others — or we just feel that societal expectations require that we do so.

Will Rogers nailed it: Most of us spend money on things not because we need them or even want them but because we want to impress others.

In our consumer society, this may be the most important financial advice you will ever receive, and it applies to nearly everything: cars (repeat after me: "Cars are transport pods, not status symbols"), houses (bigger is not better), furniture, fashion, technology — the list goes on and on.

The great thing about living where I do, in Portland, Oregon, is that Keeping Up With the Joneses is anathema to the city's unofficial motto: "Keep Portland Weird." If you live in a similar haven of low-pressure nonconformity, consider yourself blessed. You'll have the community's support if you want to be different, say "no, thanks" to consumer trends and just be yourself.

"Make it do, wear it out, use it up, do without." Internalize this Depression-era motto. People who grew up back then, including my parents, had to deal with forced frugality, so your choice to not replace perfectly serviceable clothes, furniture or homes shouldn't feel like sacrifice. It's no wonder research shows that simplicity practitioners are happier than most people.

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This environmental mantra is (more or less) the modern-day equivalent of that Depression-era motto. If you remember that the first directive is reduce, you'll be fine.

Buy used. You will save thousands of dollars if you adopt this strategy for everything from furniture and cars to clothing and books. (But buy underwear new, OK? Even I have limits!)

Be true to yourself. There is no one right way to live simply. It's going to look different for each of us. This individual approach to simplicity is crucial according to Los Angeles resident Carol Holst, 73, who says "finding my idea of 'enough' has given me the very best quality of life."

9 Practical Steps

Following are just a sampling of simplifying strategies. These are in no particular order. Choose what appeals to you; leave the rest. You should "do you" — simplified. (Google the phrase "simple living tips" to find countless additional possibilities.)


1. Keep a gratitude journal. When Vicki Robin, co-author of the simplicity bible "Your Money or Your Life," was asked for her singular tip for reducing consumption, she said simply, "gratitude."

Going a step further and taking time every day to write down what you're grateful for can deliver myriad benefits from better sleep and less stress to healthier eating and a better mood.

2. Reduce your exposure to commercialism. The average American is exposed to about 5,000 advertisements each day. Enticements to spend are everywhere: TV, email, snail mail, websites, podcasts — even the back of your grocery receipts.

One easy-to-implement solution is to install AdBlock on your devices. A somewhat more involved strategy is to "deconstruct," or critically analyze ads. Remember this basic rule: most advertising seeks to make you feel bad about yourself and conclude you are "less than" without the product being advertised.

I have yet to attend a potluck where everyone invited showed up with the same item. It's a great substitute for a spendy night out at that talk-of-the-town new restaurant.

Beware Programming, Too

It's not just ads; deconstruct content, too. HGTV, for example, encourages people to gut completely serviceable rooms and buy far bigger houses than they need. Indeed, most media normalizes and encourages trends in housing, fashion, technology, even eyebrow waxing. Just say NO.

Happiness researcher Tim Kasser urges people to go on "media fasts," unplugging for a few hours, days or weeks.

3. Substitute simple pleasures for consumption activities. Kasser also advises people to break their digital habits. "Instead of hopping on Amazon, go for a walk, call a friend, play guitar," he says.

4. One word: potluck. There is magic in this concept. I have yet to attend a potluck where everyone invited showed up with the same item. It's a great substitute for a spendy night out at that talk-of-the-town new restaurant.

5. Simplify your wardrobe. I'm sure it's partly a reflection of my age (68) but my fashion goal at this point of my life is this: To. Blend. In.

Focus on Fashion

My wardrobe consists of a handful of pairs of slacks and tops (all in the same color range) and three or four pairs of black shoes. All of these are interchangeable — that is, any top will "work" with any pair of slacks. My one (slight) nod to fashion is a selection of scarves.

This approach means I don't have to shop, which I find excruciating, and usually means I can get dressed each day in mere seconds. Bliss.

6. Join a "Buy Nothing" Facebook group. I can't say enough good things about these groups of ordinary folks offering up their unwanted but perfectly functional items for free to their neighbors. There are over 7,000 of these community exchanges worldwide — and counting. I just checked my group's page and, in the last 12 hours, there have been offers of clothing, furniture, books, art supplies, ripe figs, a wheelbarrow, an aquarium — and a half-eaten birthday cake. All of these items were claimed!

7. Use your library. You're already paying for your local libraryuse it. And whoever came up with the divine concept of placing holds on books should be canonized.

Gratitude Matters

8. Adopt rituals. My definition of a ritual is this: a routine or repeated activity that has meaning, like grace before meals and regular morning walks with neighbors. Rituals give us a sense of control, relieve anxiety and can help to reinforce our intrinsic values. And they can protect you — and your family — from negative cultural norms.

I've been observing a gratitude journal ritual (most) every morning for several years. I light a candle, take some deep, cleansing breaths and then write down one thing I'm grateful for. Quick, easy and meaningful.

9. Find support. As noted above, I live in (weird) Portland. If you live in a less-supportive environment, find a community of like-minded individuals who will support your simple lifestyle. There are dozens of simplicity meetup groups. Join one near you — or start your own.

Marie Sherlock
Marie Sherlock practiced law for a decade before turning to writing and editing in her 30s — and never looked back. She's worked as the editor of several publications and is the author of a parenting book (Living Simply with Children; Three Rivers Press). She spends her empty-nest days writing about travel trends and destinations, simplicity, spirituality and social justice issues. Read More
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