A different American dream

wildflowersIn the U.S., owning your own home is seen as a personal marker of success and security. Owning property—especially the land on which a building sits—is a big part of the “American dream” we inherited from Europeans and others who came to the U.S. to start a new life. And despite all the upheaval in American real estate markets and the exposure of deceitful lending practices by banks in the past 10 years, owning a home is still touted as a safe way to invest money.

More than a year ago, my husband and I started to question some assumptions we’d made about home ownership. Ultimately we decided that it made sense for our family of three to rent the condo where we live now rather than own and maintain a single family home. That’s not a choice that would work for every household in every housing market, but I do think that making intentional choices related to housing has a big impact on all of our efforts to simplify.

Here are some of the questions we asked ourselves a year ago when we began to imagine an American dream that didn’t include home ownership. 

  1. Do we want spaces for occasional use?
    Every room in our condo is used every single day. We no longer have a dedicated guest room or home office or dining room. Hosting more than six or seven adults for dinner causes polite guests to start using the word “cozy.” Do I occasionally visit other people’s homes and gape at the charming century-old woodwork or feel grateful that they can host a party with 20 or more adults? Yes. Do I want to clean and furnish and heat and otherwise maintain a space like that? No.
  2. Do we want to keep paying money to “make money”?
    When people talk about the benefits of owning versus renting they often cite equity. An easy definition of equity is the difference between what you could get for your house if you sold it today and how much you still owe the bank. In our case, we needed to continuously maintain our house plus make improvements so that we could enjoy living there and also build equity. Every year there were projects costing thousands of dollars, sometimes for very unglamorous or hidden things like a new sanitary sewer line. Whenever we could, we did house projects ourselves to keep the costs down, which meant we spent a considerable amount of our time doing what felt like work.When we sold our house—in a desirable neighborhood in a seller’s market—we calculated that the equity we’d built over 13 years was almost as much as what we’d spent on home improvements not including any of our time or labor. Huh.
  3. Where will we put stuff?
    We got rid of more stuff than we realized we owned when we moved from our house to our rental condo. Some things, like most of our tools and items related to exterior home maintenance, were no longer relevant. Many other things were just extra or mysteriously accumulated. We don’t miss any of the stuff we got rid of.
  4. What will we do without the mortgage interest tax deduction?
    The U.S. government provides an incentive to home ownership by allowing people to deduct the amount of interest they pay on a home mortgage from their federal taxable income.The U.S. government also provides an incentive to save for retirement by allowing people to contribute pre-tax income to a retirement account such as a 401(k), 403(b), or IRA. Without the mortgage interest deduction to lower our taxes, the choice to contribute more to our retirement accounts was easy: we could “lose” money each year to taxes, or we could put it into mutual funds to grow and pay our future retired selves.

    Kale and potatoes

  5. Will we miss not having a yard?
    I really enjoyed tending flower gardens and hearing and watching birds at our old house. Taking care of a yard was also good exercise and a nice way to be outside and chat with neighbors. Our compromise was finding a condo with a small patio and supplementing that green space with a plot in a community garden about a mile and a half away, where I’ve met some very nice fellow gardeners. I’m okay with trading the size, beauty, and convenience of our former yard for a lot less work and expense.
  6. Will we miss having a place that is truly ours?
    If we owned the condo where we live, we would have replaced the washer and dryer right away with high efficiency ones, and we would have seriously considered upgrading the refrigerator and dishwasher. We would have installed undercabinet lighting in the kitchen to make the space more usable. We probably would have painted all of the walls since they show wear and tear, and we might have started talking about a variety of other cosmetic projects. Even though we haven’t done any of those things (sigh of relief), we still consider the condo home. It’s where we go to relax and take care of ourselves and each other, and where we host friends and family. Our things are here too to mark this place as ours.

What are your thoughts about housing and simplifying? Are you considering a move to a smaller home, or renting versus owning?

* * *

March 9, 2015: we just did our taxes for 2014, our first full year without the mortgage interest tax deduction, and even though we significantly increased our pre-tax retirement contributions it was not enough to save us from having to write a check now for last year’s federal taxes. For 2015 we’ll make larger paycheck contributions to federal taxes so that we don’t have to pay a lump sum at the end of the year.

For those who argue that this particular tax issue is another reason to own rather than rent, I would clarify that the comparison is between being a mortgage holder/paying interest to a bank and not having debt (people who own their homes free and clear also miss the mortgage interest tax deduction).

Conflicted about consumption?

I missed the original hubbub about a TV commercial Cadillac ran during the Superbowl in early February, but I did see an editorial in The Atlantic comparing the Cadillac commerical to a follow-up commercial by Ford.



At least some of the conversation about the commercials can be boiled down to this: Cadillac is materialistic, even jingoistic, and Ford promotes environmental stewardship and standing up for the little guy, who may be a no-nonsense business woman.

Beyond the fact that some critics of Cadillac seemed to miss the point—Cadillac created a commercial that met its performance objectives by holding people’s attention, sticking in their minds, and causing a lot of buzz and sharing—I think the two commercials highlight how conflicted we are about our consumption.

Is it okay to buy a new car if you also talk about reducing your environmental footprint, but not okay to buy a new car if your goal is to enjoy your ride to work? Note that even though the positioning is different (luxury brand versus eco-friendly brand), both commercials feature hybrid electric cars that probably have similar performance attributes.

In her conclusion, the author of the Atlantic editorial touches on how smart marketing can assuage our consumption conflict (we are different! we are idealists!), allowing us to continue buying stuff.

“…in the small bit of wiggle room Ford allowed itself for toying with Cadillac’s message, we see a different vision of America—one that values its idealists, not its crass materialists,” writes Rebecca Rosen. “As long as they buy cars, that is.

Simplifying is not about achieving perfection

I may have been born a perfectionist. And if I wasn’t born that way, challenging circumstances growing up—along with certain cultural messages aimed at women—helped develop that trait in me. By the time I was in high school I was telling myself that if I worked to become better looking and did everything right I could protect myself from criticism and rejection. Hah!

Becoming a parent has helped me loosen up, but I’m aware that I still have tendencies, and that’s why I occasionally acknowledge a niggling question: how much of my effort to simplify is about me continuing to strive for the outward appearance of perfection? For a living space that always looks clean and well-ordered? For the appearance of not being rushed or stressed?

Intentions are important, because I’m pretty sure I could organize the heck out of our stuff and eliminate clutter and still not get to living better. That’s why I need to keep checking in on my stated goals—be more generous, invest in important relationships, use my creativity, reduce my environmental footprint—and not get stuck at reducing stuff in order to make things look better.

On the theme of abandoning perfectionism in order to live better, I recommend listening to both of the talks below by Brené Brown. After years of researching shame, perfectionism, fear and vulnerability, Brown is now writing and talking about how to live a “whole-hearted” life by embracing vulnerability. She notes in the shorter talk that Americans today are more indebted, addicted, obese, and medicated than ever before, in part, she thinks, because we are trying to numb feelings of vulnerability. If you haven’t heard Brown speak before, she’s smart, funny and engaging.

TEDx Houston
October 6, 2010

On Being
December 5, 2013

Is there a simplifying personality type?

Just like people who are interested in collecting inkwells, it makes sense that people interested in simplifying are a self-selected group.

For one, “minimalism is a luxury,” begins a quote I found somewhere, “much sought after by those who have everything.” I’d be willing to bet the people “who have everything” are strongly positioned in the middle class by their education, professional achievements, and social network, and are therefore able to willingly forego some material possessions in the name of a Life Philosophy without losing social status. That’s me, for now.

As long as I’m playing behavioral scientist without a lick of training or validated evidence, I’ll also posit that simplifying may be more attractive to people with certain temperaments and personality types.

Thinking versus feeling

Some people would have difficulty parting with high school yearbooks or things received as gifts, for example, because those things represent (however remotely) important experiences or past or current relationships. When I think about how easy it is for me to get rid of stuff (and let me be clear, I have kept many things with sentimental and family historical value), I think it’s because I tend to approach decisions from an analytical rather than an emotional perspective. (If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, I come out stronger on “thinking” than on “feeling.”)

Need for novel stimuli

A friend of mine admits that she spends too much—and has too much stuff—but finds it hard to stop buying. Her enviable creativity is visible in the way she furnishes her home and plants and decorates her garden, in her clothing, and in her jewelry, much of which she makes herself. She also loves to try new restaurants, see movies in the theater, try new gadgets, and sample exercise trends. She’s a smart woman who works as an accountant, so why is she spending more than she wants while filling up her house?

In “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking,” author Susan Cain writes about sensitivity to stimuli as a temperamental trait. She cites the results of a longitudinal clinical study that found infants who were less sensitive to novel stimuli (low-reactives) not only carried this trait into adolescence, they also tended to be seekers of novel experiences. They were able to handle, and likely required, more stimulation than high-reactives who risked feeling overwhelmed from too much novel stimuli. (Reactivity is germane to the book’s topic because more low-reactives are also extroverts and more high-reactives are also introverts).

I would not be surprised to learn that my friend is a low-reactive who buys new things in order to reach her optimal balance of stimulation. I don’t think I qualify as a high-reactive, but I can definitely be satisfied with less stimulation than my friend—how convenient!

Extroverts and introverts

Citing a variety of other research, Cain writes that “extroverts seem to be more susceptible than introverts to the reward-seeking cravings of [the emotional and instinctive part of the brain called the amygdala]” because the dopamine pathways in extroverts appear to be larger and more active than in introverts. “Like anyone,” writes a psychologist named Daniel Nettle quoted in the book, “[introverts will] be drawn from time to time to sex, and parties, and status, but the kick they get will be relatively small, so they are not going to break a leg to get there.” Perhaps introverts, with their internal focus, have an advantage when it comes to simplifying and seeking rewards that don’t come from stuff.

To conclude my armchair theorizing, a simple life with less stuff is probably pursued by people who didn’t care as much about stuff in the first place. If someone like my low-reactive friend really wanted to pare down possessions and spend less, she would likely need to find a way to replace the stimulation that previously came from buying things. And as an analytical type, I have to be on guard to not get rid of something I’ll later regret—and to consider the feelings of friends and family members who hear that I am not opposed to giving away their gifts.


Yesterday I talked with someone about our process of getting rid of stuff, and she asked if I’d given up things that had been gifts. I don’t think I answered the question with enough sensitivity and I woke up this morning thinking I must have sounded heartless and ungrateful.

If something given to me as a gift is not being used or displayed, I’m probably not thinking about it either. Merely possessing something somewhere in my home is not honoring my relationship with the gift giver. Beyond that, we’ve all probably given and received gifts simply because there was a gift-giving occasion, not because the gift was otherwise meaningful.

Celebrating with people important in my life was the best birthday present.When I turned 40, my husband P. organized a wonderful backyard celebration. He invited my best friend and her husband, who had recently had back surgery (I was touched that he made such an effort to celebrate with me, although in hindsight he should have stayed at home recuperating). P., who is not typically a shopper or cook, prepared a delicious meal, and my friend brought a fancy cake. P. had a bouquet of fresh flowers in a vase, a card with something sweet and flattering written inside, and a festive balloon, and he’d set all of this up so that it was ready when I came home from work. The pièce de résistance was that P. had delivered the child to another friend’s house so that we could have a rare grown-ups only meal. I can’t imagine a better birthday present.

I am fortunate to live in material comfort (<– choked a little on that, as I could just as easily describe it as an embarrassment of riches). So I tell the story of the birthday party to illustrate and remind myself that relationships and experiences are now more valuable to me, and longer lasting, than gifts of stuff.


Our move from house to condo, which I mentioned in The beginning, was delayed by a week.

On one hand, the delay gave us a healthy break from the intense activity around selling our house and the significant effort required to pack up and complete the move. On the other hand, the disruption and extra work associated with making this transition have left us feeling even farther from the simpler life we’re trying to create. We want it to be over! I wish I could draw on Buddhist teachings and offer some wise and inspirational words about accepting the journey and finding learning opportunities along the way, but what I know better is Midwestern Calvinist-, children of the Depression-style philosophy: put one foot in front of the other.

Here’s another example of how we are simplifying. All of this stemware and barware—some of it coated in a visible layer of dust—went to Goodwill. My husband brought the lager glasses to our relationship 17 years ago, and I thought we should keep them so we could serve beer properly (we and our friends drink beer from the bottle). The wine glasses were acquired for Beaujolais Nouveau parties we stopped hosting before our son was born (parties which will not be happening in our rental condo, which has new beige carpeting). We don’t drink Champagne. If you’re asking yourself “Why did they keep these things for so long?,” all I can say is “Yes.”

Simplifying at home by getting rid of unused barware

Is it really about the memories?

This is a charlotte pan. When I brought it home from my year of study abroad in France, I thought I was going to use it in my new life as a French Midwesterner.

This is a charlotte pan, on its way out the door as part of my effort to live more with less.

The charlotte pan, on its way out the door.

Over 18 years, I packed and unpacked and made space for the charlotte pan in five different places, including one with a kitchen so small I almost had to sidestep out in order to turn around.

The charlotte pan’s last home, in a kitchen cupboard up by the ceiling, was shared with an angel food pan, a roasting pan, two sizes of loaf pans, a muffin tin and two mini muffin tins, two round cake pans, a heart-shaped cake pan, two covered 9 x 12 cake pans (one a sweet gift from my uncle that says “From the kitchen of Ellen Tveit”!), and a springform pan.  Most of that bakeware is lucky to get used biennially, but the charlotte pan distinguished itself by having never been used on American soil. Not once.

So I finally gave it away. And now that it’s gone I can easily see that holding onto it had nothing to do with keeping cherished memories alive or credentialing myself as a one-time French speaker. It was just a habit.

Cleaning out the rest of that cupboard is going to be more difficult. I’ll have to be honest with myself about how much cooking and baking I’m really going to do—which is not the same as how much I think I should be doing, or how much I used to think I wanted to do.

What’s your charlotte pan?