What I Learned from Living with Less - Keep Thrifty

What I Learned from Living with Less

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To an outside observer, it might look I’m going through a midlife crisis.

In the past 2 years, my wife and I have tried some “non-conventional” things:

  • blocking off 1/2 of our 1900 square foot house, forcing our family of 5 to live in, essentially, a 900 square foot house with 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom
  • ditched 2 of our TVs (and the remaining one isn’t even hooked up to an antenna, let alone cable)
  • jettisoned all the dressers from our house
  • scaled back our wardrobes to the point that all I have is 5 button-down shirts, 2 pairs of jeans, 2 pairs of dress pants, undershirts, underwear, socks, a hoodie, and one suit
  • stopped using our dishwasher and cut our dinnerware, cookware, and silverware by more than half
  • brought 500 worms into our house where they lived in the kitchen for a few months before being moved to a longer-term home in the basement (worm composting, people — it’s a thing)
  • and, most recently, sold our Prius and didn’t replace it with another vehicle

Why would I do all of this to myself?

I could go through the detailed story on each of these, but there’s an overarching theme that I think we too often miss in the “success”-driven world we live in today:

There’s incredible value in doing things outside your comfort zone with the biggest being the benefit of proving to yourself that you can.

Have you ever found yourself reading or hearing about someone else’s story and saying to yourself “yeah, but I could never do that”. You ask why I’d do all these crazy experiments — I ask why you’d ever talk down to yourself like that.

If your daughter told you she wanted to be a doctor when she grows up, would you turn around and tell her “I hear you, but you could never do that”?

People learn to key off the people that surround them and make assumptions about life and their limitations.

We see everyone around us buying bigger houses because “the kids are going to need their space” and assume that what we’ve just heard is a fact and that it applies to us as well.

We fill our wedding registries with 8 each of 6 different types of glasses because the lady at the registry desk told us that “this is the standard minimum that people order”.

We have to start questioning what we see; so much of the world around us is artificial. We have to stop assuming that the way things are is the way things should be.

Get uncomfortable

So much of what we are sold on is how to make our lives more convenient and more comfortable. At what point did we decide that “convenient and comfortable” necessarily meant “optimal”?

Whenever our family tried new, unconventional things in the last 2 years, we found benefits that far outweighed the inconvenience and discomfort.

Disaster preparedness

If you lost your job tomorrow and couldn’t pay your mortgage, what would you do? It’d be a real challenge to have to sell your house and move into something smaller while also dealing with the stress of job loss and finding new work.

Could you and your family make the change?

What challenges or adjustments would you have to make?

Because of our experiment in April of last year, my wife and I are confident that we could move our family of 5 into a thousand square feet space with 2 bedrooms and 1 bath and make it work.

We know what adjustments we’d have to make and how to find joy in our situation no matter what. We may never have to execute on this plan, or maybe we’ll go that direction because of the benefits (significant reduction in living expenses, etc).

Either way, we don’t have to worry about whether we could make it work — we already know we could.

Building our confidence

That whole statement of “yeah, but I could never do that” loses its power over you when you prove it to be false through actual application.

Grit and confidence are key traits to a meaningful life but you have to work to develop them. You don’t gain confidence by wishing for it or having someone tell you “I know you can do it”.

I can’t state it any better than this story: Confidence is a result of action.

We bought a worm composter in an effort to reduce our outbound garbage and recycling. If we can return the nutrients in our food scraps and paper to plants that feed us, it seems like we’re making the whole system a bit more efficient.

That said, I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching how to do worm composting and learning from our mistakes. Now that we’ve been in it for months, I feel good about what we’re accomplishing even though the whole process was a bit daunting.

Building on that momentum, I’ve got added confidence to take on other new things.

Learning that many things are reversible

One of the biggest barriers to trying to make positive changes in your life is fear — “What if I choose the wrong thing?”. One of the biggest benefits to experimenting with life changes is demonstrating to yourself just how reversible things are.

Decided to go vegan and realized you couldn’t balance your foods to get enough protein? No problem — stop being vegan and start eating meat again. Maybe you’ll try again someday or maybe not; either way the experience taught you something.

In the summer of 2014, we intentionally kept our Prius parked in our garage for about 6 weeks and pretended we were a 1-car family. We got all the joys (the smiles of my daughters when they dropped me off at work and picked me up) and the challenges (coordinating logistics during last-minute schedule changes) and ultimately decided that it wasn’t the right change for us at that time.

We learned that we could make things work in our family with just one car but we weren’t ready to go there yet with our oldest daughter just starting preschool and needing transportation mid-day. We ended the experiment and went back to being a 2-car family.

Now a year and a half later, we’re more comfortable managing the logistics so we recently sold our Prius and finally went down to being a voluntary one car family.

What’s our worst case scenario here? If we decide we can’t make things work with one car, then we’ll buy a second one again.

In all, we know we’re not making permanent decisions — just going with what we believe to be best at the time and stretching to learn more every day.

How to start experimenting

The best advice I can give is to just get started now. Challenge yourself to do something in your personal life that you don’t have to do. Here are some thoughts to get you set up:

  1. Start small — you don’t have go crazy and shoot for the moon. Do something simple that’s just a bit outside your comfort zone. Give 1 thing to Goodwill every day for a month; commit to only drinking coffee between 8 and 9 AM for a week. Take your small wins and use them to build confidence and momentum
  2. Make your experiments time-bound — set a limit for yourself on how long you’re going to run your experiment. Knowing there’s an end date makes it much easier to get through. When you’re done, you can always decide to continue if you feel that the change was positive.
  3. One at a time — similar to start small, don’t try to change too much at once — especially at the start. Take one step at a time and you’ll quickly find yourself comfortable with more and bigger changes.
  4. Share your journey — find others to try things with you and use each other for support and encouragement.

You’re capable of a lot more than you give yourself credit for and you make assumptions about your limitations and the “facts” of life and the world around you. Start challenging yourself and you’ll start to challenge those assumptions.

As you go through, I hope you’ll share your story, successes, and lessons learned — I’d love to hear them.