Decoding a "simple life", Part One: Really?

My friend Marina visited recently and, over lunch on a sunny terrasse, suggested a blog topic: "How much is 'enough'? 

I smiled, knowing I'd been writing a post on "simple living". And rewriting, because the notion is curiously complicated.

People aver that they lead "a simple life", though often I think, Do they really? Do I?

Part of the problem is the definition of what, indeed, defines such a life. Wikipedia calls simple living "a voluntary practice...which includes reducing one's possessions or increasing self-sufficiency."

Probably the most-used word in the simple-living blogs and articles I've read is enough as in, What is enough for you? However, controlling quantity is only part of the approach, and, even if you get rid of superfluous possessions, simple living remains elusive.


The antonym of simplicity is not complexity, which takes us into more psychological territory, but bulk. Like the drag coefficient in aerodynamics, bulk cuts into the streamlined, light footprint sought by simple-living devotees.

My formula is: Bulk= Stuff + Habits + Income x Time, or, 
Bulk = SHIT.

You learn about all the cool stuff, the trophies and tchotkes you might possibly get; you develop habits of consumption (accepting false obsolescence, buying more than you need, buying for the endorphin hit), you spend big chunks of your income (or more). Time is the multiplier; as years pass, you devote ever more discretionary time to shopping, displaying and maintaining possessions.

We don't get a bulky life because we're greedy or dumb; we get it because at some point we literally bought a cultural message.

When I think of the messages I 'bought' during my early working life, the 1970s, they include:

1. Buying stuff is a reward for working hard. Wrapping a project, weathering a tough week or having my boss tell me he couldn't live without me = new shoes.

2. Buying with one's own money is the sign of a modern, autonomous, professional woman. I did feel powerful compared to my SAHM sister, who had to beg for shopping money from her husband. 

Though I worked for a time in the financial services industry, women were considered spenders, not investors, and scant effort was made to include them in financial education.

3. My possesions are "me"; they extend and cosset my identity. And as "me" evolves, all my stuff needs to change.

I had eras in clothing, furniture, all that stuff. Each time I thought it would be forever. Gee, sounds like my dating life, too.

4. Hiring people to perform all kinds of services for you is good for the economy. One of my friends said, "I awoke one morning and realized every dime I'd earn that day would go to someone else: government, dog walker, therapist, gym trainer, cab driver, barista...". She promptly quit everything but paying her taxes and getting her hair cut.

It took a good 15 years to break away from those messages, and at times I can still go there, especially #4. And a lot of retirees are sold an insidious version of #1: "You worked hard, you deserve this."

Faux simplicity

The simple life sounds responsible, noble, a worthy goal to have achieved by my age. But in truth, I'm only simplish.

A not-quite-earned claim to "simple living" isn't deceptive, just wishful thinking, something I intend to do like using the little gum massager the dentist hands out. 

The most common errors in claiming "a simple life" happen when confusing simplicity with

1. Minimalism
Our apartment looks spare and uncluttered, but it's a bit of a Potemkin village. Look in the bedroom and you'll see my shoes: 85%, regardless of season, are black, arranged on one short rack. Very pared-down.

Now, open a dresser drawer, and surprise! It's jammed with stuff I'd never miss if burgled:

Occasionally my troves prove useful (a summer visitor specifically requested glycerine soap), but mostly they are forgotten clots of disarray.

2. Low income
I once inferred an inverse relationship between income and simplicity, but then noticed some of the affluent women I know refuse bulk more consistently than those with modest means. 

In my struggling young-20s, I didn't have much stuff, but would have, if I could have afforded it. Somehow as the years passed, I segued from "One day I'm gonna have real bookshelves" to a basement warren jammed with volumes I hadn't opened in decades.

3. Skill
I know people who can build a house, make a harpsicord, dig a well. They are not necessarily living simply. DIY is part of the simple-living canon, but there is such a thing as too many handmade throw pillows. 

Hobbies practically guarantee bulking up, especially in the early stage of enthusiasm. Yes, you need the  tools and gear, but it's easy to get carried away. 

Sewers are a group who laugh at themselves about their pack-ratiness; don't try to tease cooks unless you want to be assaulted with a star-tipped pastry bag.

4. Age
Older people often look like they've simplified: they downsize homes, purge work wardrobes and give away stuff. But, if grandparents, they can merely  displace their consumption. As the manager of the children's department of a bookstore told me, "We love grandparents! They have no self-control."

Trimming down 

Over the summer, I dropped some services, beat back my Amazon habit, and  DIY'd various house projects. I'm bartering for painting lessons. Le Duc actually uttered the words "I'm glad I don't own a car"– admittedly, in June.

I requested "no gifts" for my birthday, which was taken by family as "she can't mean this", but their choices were non-bulky, heartfelt, and even handmade. And that Marni necklace from my co-mother-in-law? I'm so glad she ignored me!

I'm considering doing my own hair colour but last time I tried, the bathroom looked like a "Dexter" set thanks to the red dye splatters; we had to paint the entire wall times over.

So, how much is enough? I'm not sure, but find that reducing bulk has connected me far more immediately and profoundly to the beauty of the everyday world.

On Thursday, I'll introduce you to a young couple who have made a bold choice about how they live, but for now, let's hear from you!


Simplifying might be the overriding preoccupation of my life, and I love the way in which you've analyzed the complexities and difficulties inherent in the pursuit. You're a great writer, and an even better thinker!
thanks so much,
Anonymous said…

I don't find older people simplify. Maybe boomers downsize but the 80+ crowd only does it when they get dementia and are forced to move. Their houses are packed to the rafters with stuff, 30 year old shoes, Tupperware from 1970 and what have you. I live in a senior area and routinely get stuff out of these houses. For some reason their kids think I will be a good recipient of 10 year old bags of pecans and tubs of honey and just last month an entire "china owl" collection.
Susan B said…
It's amazing the stuff we hang onto out of habit, isn't it? As you know, we inherited a lot of "stuff" (on top of the "stuff" we've accumulated over the last 20 years) and I'm trying to figure out a way to sell or donate a lot of it. I will say this, though...when working full time+, it usually feels well worth the money to pay someone to wash my car, mow the lawn, patch and paint the wall, repair the toilet. When I'm (possibly) retired someday, the DIY option may look more attractive.
Duchesse said…
Janice: I'm grateful for your appreciation!

Anon @ 8:12: Three reasons why the oldest old may not simplify:

1. 80+ elders were Depression kids (or born just after that era) in families marked by scarcity and fear; they are loathe to discard "perfectly good" items, or waste anything.

2. As one becomes less vital, it is simply too much work to weed, shift, find someone to take it or donate. Inertia sets in.

3. At eighty-plus, divesting your possessions can feel like getting ready for The Big Move, an unsettling inevitability for a person to face so directly. Hanging on to the stuff, owls and all, gives the illusion one is going to be here forever.

I hope you feel free to say a polite, firm no to unwanted offers.
LauraH said…
Your breakdown of 'simple' had given me things to think about. I try not to accumulate house stuff but what about all those plants I buy for the garden? At least I've cut back drastically on my wool stash, finally acknowledging that I'm not going to be knitting lots of sweaters...scarves and gloves are more realistic and less pressure. Living car free tends to mean less buying as you have to find a way to get the stuff home.

I'm so glad that you're back writing, your blog is at the top of my must-read list.
Gretchen said…
Duchesse, this post is precisely why I adore reading you (and boy, I wish I could have lunch with you to continue the conversation). Living simply is a nice motto, but muuuch more complex to put into play. I weed out clothes, kitchen items, excess beauty products and no-longer worn jewelry. I knit blankets and scarves, but give them away. My books, shoes, and perfume?? INSANE. I will continue to try to simplify and debulk my life, and that includes no longer reading blogs that say oh, I'm simplifying but hey, look at this new sweater or bowl or makeup product. After bouts of serious health issues, unemployment (and now furloughed), stuff is far less important.
Susan said…
There is nothing like a death or a serious health issue to make you realize how unimportant "stuff" is. The challenge is how to get rid of things in a responsible way. For example, my mother, who is over 90, constantly gives me things so that she can simplify her life. The latest is a HUGE paper shredder. We've never owned one and have no desire to own one now.

Great post Duchesse. I am going back to reread it. Always something new to learn from you.
Living in a small bungalow has really helped us keep the amount of stuff we own to a minimum. There are always ways to improve though....
I am one of those grandparents that the shop keepers love!
Personally losing weight was the best way to pare down my wardrobe and buy only what I actually love and need.

Hav you showed us that Marni necklace yet? Lov to see it.

Another fabulous post Duchesse..I am going to read it again.
Anonymous said…
In my early 40s I am already wincing at the money burnt on flippery and flummery in my 20s and 30s. Spouse & I now over paying our mortgage like mad and building private pensions in addition to the work ones, which scoops up spare cash on pay day and when it's not there, one can't unthinkingly spend it. Less stuff is the result, and greater appreciation for what we do decide to purchase.
Trying to instil this approach into our children. Apparently our spending habits are set by age 7! Helping my sons prioritise, save, concept of opportunity cost, all good fun with a serious purpose. Net result, again, less stuff, ie less toys, and greater care for the ones they do own.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse, I agree with you that elders should be exempt having been traumatized by the G. Depression and so on. You have addressed so much here in this post. I always wonder as I declutter my home if I can really categorize myself as living a simple life: If I am decluttering on a semi-regular basis isn't that proof that I am not? Also, I have this ongoing battle with Costco. I like the savings by buying in bulk but detest the actual bulk! We have done a lot of downsizing in the past 5 or 6 years, things like trading in our 3 yr. old Mercedes for a pre-owned Accord, cancelling services like gym membership, gardener, cable, and the list goes on simply because it all became embarrasing to me. I think once you really become proactive in embracing frugality and simplicity thoughts of owning a luxury car or adding more tchotchkes in life fall away quickly.
materfamilias said…
Too big for me to comment in a timely manner, but I want to register how much I appreciate this analysis, obviously the product of much thought and experience.
cgk said…
"I am already wincing at the money burnt on flippery and flummery in my 20s and 30s."

Yes, me too!
Simplifying and downsizing are a continual effort in our consumer oriented society. It really takes will and conscientiousness to maintain focus. Great post!
Murphy said…
Great, thoughtful post! I continue to try to simplify, but it is tricky when some of that "bulk" belongs to another household member, or when it was a gift from someone who might enquire about it. I have discovered, though that having too little of some things can complicate life as much as having too much.
Anonymous said…
I'm going to go against the grain a bit here. While I completely understand the point of your post, agree that most people (me included) have way too much stuff, and acknowledge a certain liberation in reducing bulk: truth is, I LIKE my stuff.

My house is way too big for just two of us now; both my kids are in college as of last month, and the suite we built on 5 years ago, so my mom could have a downstairs room when she moved in with us, is no longer needed. I should mention that as the only daughter of an only daughter, I inherited quite a lot of "stuff" from Mom.

So while I am working on clearing out clothes, magazine piles, and (shudder) the kids' closets upstairs, I'm not planning to get rid of my grandmother's china service for 12. Or my shelves of books. I guess the best I'm prepared to do about "simplifying" is to make sure the stuff I do have in my house is all stuff I want and love, and (crucially) to make sure I don't fill up all the spaces in my too-big house.

---Jill Ann
Unknown said…
I appreciate this post and your analysis of the complexity involved. I'm pretty aggressive about keeping life simple, but our new sewing passion has presented challenges!
Kristien62 said…
Thank you for reminding us that there is a difference between simplicity and minimalism. I had forgotten this. My quest for simplicity in my life became almost an obsession this last year, so much so that it was causing me undue stress. No matter how much I "simplified", I wasn't able to reach minimalism in my environment. I had to step back from the exercise and re-evaluate what I actually wanted to achieve. The answer was a simpler life, not a minimalist's life. I applaud minimalists in their ability to contain their environment. I just can't seem to achieve that. Feeling guilty about it, however, is counterproductive. Being cognizant of and trying to reject mindless consumerism is, at least, a positive contribution and a step in the right direction.
Pamela said…
What a thought provoking post. As an only child, cleaning out my parents home after their passing I vowed to my own children that i would not do that to them. But, what i've had to say to them is, " if i die tomorrow I am really sorry about the mess I'm leaving behind..." think the only way the 'stuff' will get cleared out is if we make a big move out of this house.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Great point about living car free, I notice that too.

Gretchen: How I would enjoy that lunch! I can 'justify' perfume, beauty products etc because (theoretically) I'm going to use them up. But really I probably have enough lipstick for two lifetimes.

Susan: My mother said, pressing some china on me, "I couldn't' wait to get this stuff, now I can't wait to get rid of it."

hostess: No I have not, maybe sometime. I'd say you enjoy shopping (possibly a genetic gift?) and have a great eye, so that makes it harder to simplify.

Anon@12:24: You turned it around; many never do. And I admire the lessons you're passing on.

Anon@12:40: Costco is a love-hate thing. I'm eventually going to use all that toilet paper, but maybe not a bushelbasket of jujubes. I have to be firm with myself.

Notice what goes out when you declutter, that will be the key to recognizing your buying Achille's Heel.

Jill Ann: I like my stuff too! But if you have so much of it you don't see it because its in a storage locker somewhere, or packed away in bins, it's just too much nice stuff. Wondering what your ideas are re a "too-big" house.

Also, I recognize that some people like living in a visually rich, every-inch-filled home. It's more an aesthetic than a consumption habit... and I've really enjoyed those "stage sets" they create.

materfamilias: There is no one quite like a reformed big consumer!

cgk: I see that refusal happening younger than when I was in my 20s and 30s- see Thursday's post.

Susan Partian: I believe your interest has segues into a business, or is about to... that's different.

Kristien62: I knew a man who bought several spare, gorgeous 5-figure sofas in 5 years; his quest for perfect minimalism was very costly and caused both financial and relationship stress. Minimalists are sometimes shocking consumers.
Duchesse said…
Pamela: You can reduce the stuff if you have the will. There are books, web sites and even people who will show up at your house and walk you through it.

You might invite your kids to take some of the things they want (that you are willing to part with now), so you can see them enjoy it. Sounds like you have more than you need.
SewingLibrarian said…
I agree. Depression Syndrome was my father's problem that led to overbuying and never throwing anything away. What a mess he left for my mother and my brothers to deal with. My mother has been much more realistic about divesting herself of bulk, as you put it.
Anonymous said…
Duchesse: if I ever get to the point where I'm renting a storage unit, that's way too much stuff! And I don't actually embrace an every-inch-filled home, I don't like a lot of stuff on tabletops & counters, for example. But I'm definitely never going to be a minimalist. The paper-clutter is my worst problem, the mail & newspapers & magazines. Am trying to be more disciplined about that.

Not sure what to do about the too-big house. We aren't planning to move any time soon; at least 4 years till the husband retires & the youngest child graduates from college. But we really like our house, & it will be paid for by then. So does it make sense to stay here? That's something to ponder in the next few years.
Anonymous said…
Very interesting . As a post WW2 baby in the UK , things were tough & I am loathe to waste useful stuff . I do have little hoards of items that may be handy one day . Clothes & books are weaknesses but have been trying to be firm with myself & donated a lot recently , Taste changes & some of those books will never be read now . If I see anything for the home I know something will have to leave , so rarely bother unless actively updating . There are bloggers on the net who advocate a simpler life but in truth are buying very expensive items then discarding / selling at a loss to ' reduce clutter ' -I don't understand that . I don't think we should beat ourselves up too much over this though . I find if I keep busy then I shop less- perhaps it is just me ?
Philippa said…
Thank you for this. I gain so much from reading your blog.

I have always struggled with the conflicting desires for "stuff" and simplicity. Aged seventeen, coming back from visiting a friend who lives on a narrow boat, I told my mum I wanted to live on a houseboat. She laughed, and then said 'Darling you'll never be able to live on a boat. You have so much stuff!'

It is (sadly) partly temperamental. As a small child, I spent all of my pocket money on things - bright yellow plastic bears with jointed arms from the garage, a tiny white porcelain cat from a car boot sale, secondhand soft toys from other people's yard sales - while my younger sister never spent a penny. She now has some decent savings; I don't. Needless to say I neither have nor want any of that stuff any more.

Through university it was clothes - cheapish ones, but plenty of them, and some of them fairly nice but not ones I would wear now, so over the years they too have gone to Oxfam. Then things for my home - antique linen sheets, handmade pottery, which I still love but have nowhere to put - and in my late twenties (dangerously) handbags, jewellery and shoes.

I have also bought fully into (1) (2) and (3). (Not, oddly, (4); I feel extremely conflicted paying someone else to do anything I could do myself, so getting the car valeted and having a cleaner (which we did once, the week before our wedding) made me feel guiltier than spending my entire disposable income for the month on a pair of earrings).

And yet frugality, modesty, good sound sense and yes, simplicity, are what I admire and aspire to.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently. For the first time facing real unemployment (I am a trained doctor, and have finally faced up to the fact that it makes me utterly miserable), working intermittent locum shifts while I try to find a job which doesn't turn me into an ugly shell of myself, I am trying to weigh up the importance to myself of time and quality of life vs money and the ability to spend it. The surprisingly hard knock to my confidence of not having a 'proper job', while not being able to spend my way out of the doldrums, and having had (2) and (3) effectively taken away, frightens me.

I don't have any answers yet. Thank you for yours.
Darla said…
Great subject. I would just add that one way to simplify while you are trying to clear out the closets and cupboards is just don't buy more. Ask yourself if you really NEED it, most of us don't.

Duchesse said…
SewingLIbrarian: Sometimes the surviving parent is moved to do things differently; that's good.

JillAnn (Yes, I knew it was you but thanks for clarifying): paper clutter is mostly that- paper. It does not result from the same strain of consumerism that owning, say 4 TVs or 14 pairs of black pants (I once did!) does.

One paid-for house can transform into another smaller paid-for house, liberating the equity to reinvest or for other purposes. Yes there are moving costs, but there are considerable operating expenses to a too-big house. (Been there, too.)

Wendy: The something in/something out rule is terrfic; I use it too.Some style bloggers also keep searching for "their style" and therefore, purging/buying, a kind of fashion bulemia. Perhaps this is more about insecurty than not knowing what kind of skirt looks good on you. I'm hardly immune, standing before a closet before a big party thinking "Oh no, I have nothing to wear!" Not true, I'm just anxious b/c don't have to get dressed up often.

Phillippa: I hope oyuy are not too hard on yourself. Your "proper job" will come when you have identified the field- perhaps a 'cousin' like health care administration, or a completely different career. Not being able to buy "stuff" for a time is a good thing, as it forces us to stop and think; DO I really need it?

The realization that we are trading away our limited time on earth for "stuff" is at the heart of simple living, as captured eloquently by the young couple I will mention Thursday.
Rhiannon said…
I'm a huge proponent of what I call extreme discretion and it's wildly liberating. My rule is if it isn't high value it doesn't come into the house. Even with that mentality, it took an international move (and the prospect of paying custom duties on everything I owned) to be truly merciless in the winnowing of my beloved stuff and get to a point where all my worldly belonging could fit in a cozy one-bedroom cottage with another person.

It makes everything so much easier --packing for a three week trip is a piece of cake when you've only got a twenty item wardrobe-- and the money I save by not buying fast fashion or Chanel's newest "miracle" potion (the only real miracle skin product, Retin-A, is available OTC for about $3 here) means I can indulge my passion for Hermès and impressive jewelry with the end result being 99% of my stuff is awesome, reference-quality and happy-making and I still spend less than the folks who regularly pop into Target for "just one thing."
Duchesse said…
Rhiannon: A twenty-item wardrobe! Every woman reading that would like to see. (And I am thinking you have one or one and a half seasons where you live? And are not counting scarves?)
Northmoon said…
Great post. I've been on the simplicity path for a while now. Not that I'm a minimalist yet, but I am more aware when I'm thinking I must buy some item that sooner or later I will be having to get rid of it, or move it. A lot of bags have gone to Goodwill or a consignment store, but quite a bit remains.

I don't think simplicity necessarily works with self-sufficiency, which in my experience usually leads to more tools, supplies etc being acquired. If I pay someone else to knit my sweaters and hats I don't need knitting needles, darning needles, measuring tapes, wool (lots of wool!), knitting baskets, pattern books, blocking boards, and even a spinning wheel. But I enjoy the hobby so I put up with it, although spinning my own wool is probably carrying it a bit too far!
Mardel said…
It seems like I was on a "simplification" jag for a long time and my life is far from simple and there is still too much.

Somewhere along the line my perspective is changing. I'm not sure that I am trying to simplify now, but by taking greater control of my time, of giving myself permission to do exactly what I want and rethinking what I need, my perspective on so much of the bulk of life seems to be changing. This seems to include both my perspective on things and time. Many things that seemed so necessary not so long ago now seem puzzling. Maybe this is a form of mental simplification and the rest will follow. I would not be surprised.

Kudos to anyone who can manage to not get sucked into the cultural drive for more and more....
Anonymous said…
It's not only how much you buy, it's also how much you are willing to throw/give away. Unfortunately, most of us hold on to what we have but continuously want more and newer things! So in other words, the greed can be tempered with generosity (giving old things away)! This way, bulk/clutter wouldn't exist in your house.
Rhiannon said…
Fair play, it's 70 degrees in December and 77 in August, so seasonal dressing isn't especially a concern. I'm sure it would be larger if I lived in one of those fabled places with actual seasons. My 20 piece wardrobe doesn't count scarves, shoes or underpinnings. The breakdown is:
1 pair of jeans
2 sweaters
1 lynx coat
1 trench coat
5 white cotton/linen sundresses
5 sleeved modal maxi dresses
5 dresses for various occasions (cocktail dresses, evening gown, etc)

The rest is all shoes, scarves, smoke and mirrors.

I think I'm fortunate that the accessory-heavy style of dressing that suits me best lends itself to the small clothing wardrobe. Also, now that I've seen the worker conditions of the legal sweatshops here in Mexico (and my fella used to work in one as a child) I can't bring myself to wear clothes made in countries where factory worker conditions are as bad or worse than what I see every time I drive into town. It makes not shopping easy because Fast Fashion just isn't on the table.

Duchesse said…
Northmoon: Yes, you do accumulate stuff with a hobby, but as some simple-living devotees pointed out, the knitting gear also fulfills entertainment, stress-reduction, and learning needs.

It is very different from buying yet another mascara only because somebody recommended it or the umpteenth pair of pants.

Marfel: Thank you for describing a crucial category I overlooked, *time* simplicity. Lovely.

Anon@2:20: One can enter the mode at any point, the key is not re-buying what you have given away and to give to someone who can use it.

I have used the site Freecycle for things I want to make sure go to someone who needs them.

I can still see the look on the face of the young student who took Le Duc's complete set of Simone de Beauvoir as a surprise gift for his fiancée.

Rhiannon: A woman who wears a lynx coat in 70-plus weather totally rocks. Thanks for the list!
Eleanorjane said…
Great post! I'm thinking about similar issues as I've looked at fashion mags selling clothes worth thousands - surely it's not reasonable for anyone to spend that much on a piece of clothing?

It's a tricky one and an ongoing issue to negotiate - how much is enough? What's the balance between being well-presented and having too much clothing etc?
Gayle said…
Saving this good article .. I'm always trying to narrow down ..
now have a smaller home .. stuff expands to fill the space available .. (like the old saying that work expands to fill the time available) ..
Thank you for thoughtful piece!

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