Feel good about giving

In a post on Becoming Minimalist, Johsua Becker describes the American gift-giving season this way:

Over the next several weeks, new possessions will enter homes at an alarming rate. The new possessions will arrive in stockings, gift bags, gift wrap, and envelopes. And the new products will come in various forms: electronics, clothes, books, toys, jewelry, gift cards, video games, decorations, DVD’s, and cookware. In America alone, over $600 billion dollars will be spent on retail goods during the months of November and December.

Some gifts will meet legitimate needs. But most gifts during the holiday season are purchased to satisfy wants: another new doll for your daughter, a new video game system for your son, or a K-cup coffee maker for the parents. Worse yet, many of the gifts we give will satisfy neither needs or wants—instead, they will only satisfy an obligation.

Sound familiar?

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can instead choose to give “gifts of meaning,” as New York Times editorial columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote, by giving a gift to someone who truly needs it.

To make things easy, Kristof shared a list of nearly a dozen American and international non-profit organizations that he thinks are truly improving people’s lives. If you want a third-party opinion on another charity, CharityNavigator.org rates the financial health and accountability/transparency of organizations based in the U.S. You can read more about Charity Navigator’s methodology on their web site.

A goal we could only achieve by simplifying

Three years ago we were fortunate to be able to leave our jobs for a few months and live in another country. That experience, and the fresh perspective it gave us, was the spark that ignited our efforts to live better with less.

Now we are once again living outside the country, this time for a school year. It’s a dream that was only possible because we’d freed up time (for planning and preparation, for extra hours at work), reduced our living expenses, and reduced the amount of stuff we needed to put into storage during our absence.

It’s been interesting to keep working toward our goals while living in a totally different context. There are many things we just don’t have to think about. For example, before our move we went from two cars to zero, which automatically reduces our carbon footprint and our monthly expenses, and ensures that we get outdoor exercise every day. The higher cost of energy where we’re living is helping us be more mindful of how we use electricity and oil. And we’re figuring out how we can buy locally grown and organic food products in our new city. We’re also willfully unemployed, which for us means an exchange of job-related stress for ample sleep, exercise, community education classes, and volunteering. Like I said, it’s a dream.

Although our return to the U.S. is still a ways off, we’ve started talking about what else we can change once we’re back. A priority will be choosing a place to live (renting again) where we can use public transportation and our feet to get around so that we only need one car. I’ll also be looking for a job where I can prioritize my mental and physical health. My hope is that we can offset a lower salary (assuming that will be a compromise) by reducing expenses in ways that connect back to our goals, for example by cooking more at home and having only one car.

What goals—daily or long-term—are you trying to achieve by simplifying?

We get to choose

Today was TBS (throwback Sunday). On a gorgeous summer afternoon, my husband and I were sweating and dodging cobwebs in a stinking basement, trying to make sense of stuff. Our stuff.

If you’ve been reading this blog from the beginning, you may be scratching your head. Didn’t I proclaim a while back that I was now in the “maintenance phase” of reducing our stuff? Well, yes. And the best explanation I can offer for this last unaddressed storage area is “out of sight out of mind.” We are finally dealing with it because, thankfully, we have a deadline imposed on us.

It’s probably good to have a throwback day. To feel resentful about having to deal with stuff. To feel guilty about what we are putting in the trash and into the Goodwill pipeline (will anyone want a single wine glass from a vineyard they’ve never visited? a sand-caked Frisbee?). To feel ashamed that our prosperity has allowed us to acquire so much stuff—the cost of which, in many cases, has been subsidized by people working in other parts of the world—that we can’t wait to give it away or throw it away.

In case I’ve bummed you out, I’ll hurry up to the good part:  stuff comes into our lives because of choices we make, and it is fully within our power—each of us—to make different choices.

Today and tomorrow, I will choose less.

Wherever you’re at, simplifying is worth it

I have not given up on simplifying, in case you were wondering about the lack of recent posts.

The good news is I’ve gotten over the hump—and it sort of snuck up on me after nearly two years—of getting rid of stuff. It’s easy to write about getting rid of stuff and less easy to write about what comes next.

The really good news is that I’ve been busy spending my time doing important things I didn’t used to have time for. Things like reading books and enjoying time with friends and family and not running over pedestrians.

So this is a cheerleading post to say that wherever you’re at in your simplifying journey, it’s worth it!

Here are some aphorisms that have helped me—I hope you find them useful too.

Your priorities are what you do.
(what a simple tool to check in with yourself on whether you’re living as you want to be living)

Simple is not necessarily quick or easy. 
(did you read the beginning of this post? TWO YEARS of getting rid of stuff)

Simplifying is a journey.
(that sounds greeting card-sappy, but it’s a good reminder not to look for a finish line)

 

Simplifying at work

Back in January I decided that simplifying should be doing more for me. I was in the midst of some exhaustingfrustrating thing at work and confused about why someone who’d made so much progress simplifying at home could feel so stressed out. Clearly I wasn’t doing my best thinking. But I did start looking for ways to apply what I’d learned about simplifying to my work, and it’s making a difference.

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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).

Kick-starting simplifying

I am not good at winter. Too much indoor confinement and lack of daylight and exercise fosters a predictable slide from self-reflection into angsty navel-gazing and then lethargy.

Now that we’ve passed the spring equinox, I’m more than ready to be done with lethargy, and the best way to do that is to just do it. If you’re also in need of a kick-start, here are two suggestions. (I actually started my anti-lethargy plan by scheduling some fun gatherings with friends. Priorities!)

Kitchen

Because of its daily use and tendency to serve as the heart of the home, decluttering and simplifying in your kitchen has big potential for impact. If your goal is to cook more, you’ll be more successful if your kitchen is a clean space where supplies and tools are easy to access and you can maximize work surfaces.

1. Start at the top. Consider removing things stored on top of your cupboards. Get rid of or find other homes for those dusty decorative items, and get rid of or look for cupboard space for functional items.

2. Aim to reduce your stored food. I grew up with a food pantry kept stocked at all times, but for most of us this is unnecessary and takes up space that could be better used. Go through each food cupboard and make a plan to eat or donate the food in the next two weeks. Discard expired or stale food and spices. I tossed colored sugar and candy decorations used to make my son’s preschool birthday cakes (with no anticipated future use) and discovered a lifetime supply of cream of tartar. Go through your freezer, too. The situation may be different if you have a high-quality freezer, but in my experience even commercially packaged frozen foods grow a coat of ice crystals and become dried out after a few months. Then address the refrigerator—condiments and pickles are long-lasting but not forever, so give a hard look at anything that may have been opened more than a year ago.

3. Look for ways to reduce inventory. If you’ve combined households, inherited items, or gone through an entertaining phase (now past), you may have more serving dishes, cookware, and gadgets than you want to continue storing. Start at one side of the kitchen and go through everything asking yourself if you have used it in the last year. If you haven’t used it or if it’s a duplicate or if you already know that it doesn’t belong in your kitchen anymore, put it in a box. If you need more time to make your decision about keeping or selling/giving away those items, set the box aside for 30 days and then re-review the contents (this great idea is from Be More with Less).

You may decide that a single set of dishes is enough and that you don’t need a set for everyday use plus a set or more for special occasions. You may come to accept that you don’t need that charlotte pan (Is it really about the memories?) and that you don’t need all those coffee mugs, even though you feel a fondness for and remember acquiring each one. Or you may decide that you have just the right kitchen tools to be making your own food, and that you have one less barrier than you thought to doing more cooking.

Don’t forget your cookbooks, recipe box, and loose clippings. Have you looked at that stuff in the past year? Are you looking at paper these days or cooking from recipes you find online? Last summer I culled about a dozen cookbooks and cooking magazines, and now I’m ready to give away another book with beautiful pictures and stories because, in almost six years, I have never sat down to look at it and I know I won’t be cooking from it.

Do you have a kitchen junk drawer? Make sure it’s the only junk drawer in your house, then be ruthless. Unless you regularly use rubber bands, twist ties, and matches, get rid of your stash. How many pens do you want to store? Business cards? Enter important information in your online contacts and then recycle the paper. Are you storing empty key rings and broken pieces of stuff and refrigerator magnets?

Speaking of the refrigerator, consider limiting its outside use to displaying one piece of artwork per child OR serving as family command center with only timely and important notes and bits of paper. Remove unused magnets.

Lastly, look at your supply of storage bags and wraps. Be intentional about using what you have before buying more, and consider ways you can store food without using disposable containers. If you want to get rid of unused aluminum foil, plastic storage bags, paper lunch bags, wax paper, plastic wrap, paper plates, and plastic cutlery, can you donate them to your workplace, or church kitchen, or your child’s school or summer camp for crafts?

4. Relocate? As you are going through each cupboard and drawer, consider whether your high-use items are easy to reach and near the places where you tend to use them.

5. Clean the insides. As you are going through cupboards and the refrigerator, take everything out and wipe down the insides.

6. Clear the countertops. As much as possible, keep your countertops free of appliances, decorations, mail, keys, school forms…a cordless drill (<– looking at my own kitchen counter). This takes daily vigilance and effort on the part of everyone in your household, but keeping the counters relatively clear creates an instant sense of order and means that when you walk in with a bag of groceries the space is ready for you to begin work.

Bathroom

If the kitchen seems overwhelming, start with this other high-use room.

1. Reduce inventory. Even though I am committed to not buying ahead, I do still buy one big package of toilet paper at a time (I have the storage space, know we’ll use it, and I’m saving a small amount of money). Everything else—tissue, shampoo, soap, floss, toothbrushes, shaving cream, sunscreen—I try to buy only as needed.

Look through your inventory to see what can be combined or tossed (empty bottles?), and make a plan to use up the rest before buying more. If you’ve got vitamins, over-the-counter or prescription medicine, and sunscreen, look at the expiration dates. Here are instructions on disposing of medications at home that will probably work where you live—because of water pollution, it is not advised to flush medications down the toilet.

Look too at your cleaning supplies and your collection of linens. I have been really pleased with how easy it is to make my own bathroom cleaning supplies, and how this is helping me eliminate potentially toxic chemicals from our home. As for linens, we are down to one bath towel each plus two hand towels, not counting a few towels designated for beach or gym use. We have one set of sheets plus a few wash cloths for my son, and our two sets of sheets for the master bedroom are a legacy and not necessary (it’s probably clear that we have our own washer and dryer). We do have a healthy set of large and small cloth rags, for which a recent plumbing issue made me grateful.

And makeup? If it’s old that means you’re not using it, so toss it. If it’s newer but you know you’re not going to use it, toss it.

2. Clear the countertop. If you’re lucky enough to have counter space in your bathroom, consider whether any of the things stored on surfaces can be removed completely or stored in a drawer or cupboard without sacrificing access to items you use daily.

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The reality is that even if you’ve already been through each of the steps above, you can probably repeat them in six months or a year and find more ways to reduce stuff or otherwise improve your spaces.

If you have other ideas for the kitchen or bathroom, please share them!