Our crude civilization engenders a multitude of wants… Our forefathers forged chains of duty and habit, which bind us notwithstanding our boasted freedom, and we ourselves in desperation, add link to link, groaning and making medicinal laws for relief.
John Muir, Kindred and Related Spirits
I know a guy who came from a third world country and is now making a substantial amount of money in his 20’s. He’s free of all consumer debt. In the last 6 months of 2015, he and his wife paid off $55,000 of debt, paid cash for their wedding, and have built up a comforting emergency fund. Not only are they maxing out their Roth IRAs and company investment programs but they’re also contributing to others through donations at their favorite charities.
For him, it wasn’t always this way.
He grew up not having much. After moving to the states, things got exponentially better relative to where he spent half of his childhood. Still, his family qualified for government cheese and reduced price school lunches. He didn’t have much for toys or brand name clothes growing up but at that point in his life, it didn’t seem to matter. What did matter were the family camping trips, roller-skating, and summertime water gun fights.
Then, he started earning money.
At the age of twelve, he landed his first job—corn detasseling. For a month, he worked ten hours each day and was paid more money than he’d ever seen. This was a turn in this boy’s story. Without knowing any better, he walked through a doorway that changed his life forever.
The money made him rich. He bought Nikes and clothes that didn’t come from K-Mart. He bought a watch—the kind with a bezel that spun and clicked.
At the same time, the money made him poor. As he dressed like the popular kids, he found that his paycheck could only take him so far. Some years however, he did better than simply keeping up. His sophomore year in high school he was nominated and crowned as the “Best Looking Guy”. His senior year, his efforts were validated again when he won the title “Best Dressed”. He was proud of these superlatives.
Fast-forward to life after college, this young man landed a job he liked with a paycheck he liked even more.
The money fueled his addiction to materialistic living. Each month was the start of the accumulation cycle:
- Buy things ($40,000 car, $14,000 motorcycle and gear, $5,000 on guns, $5,000 on photography equipment, $4,500 on guitars, German knives, leather couches, entertainment systems, and even more on clothes, watches, and shoes…)
- Feel ashamed but so high at the same time
- Once the money ran dry and the high wore off, he’d then create a list of what to buy next month
For three years, this continued. Thirty-six months of the accumulation cycle did a lot of damage.
At the end of 2013, he found that doorway he walked through back when he was twelve years old. He stepped through it again and this time his life changed for the better.
What a relief because as some of you know, the guy in the story is me.
I’m not telling you this story from a holier-than-thou standpoint. That’s far from my intent. I tell you this story so that you can avoid making the same mistake. If you’ve walked through the same doorway I did at twelve years old, may the following pragmatic steps to simplifying your life give you hope.
Step 1: Understand Why Things Need To Change
I had two key motivations to change my materialistic lifestyle.
One, the accumulation cycle was exhausting. I felt like I was always looking for some thing to feel complete. After every purchase, the high would wane and I would be consumed in my search for the next item all over again.
Two, I was getting serious with my then girlfriend, now wife. I didn’t feel it would be fair to bring my cluttered state into the next phase of our relationship. It had already taken its toll on my life and I didn’t want my mess to spill over into hers.
Step 2: Stop The Bleeding
This meant adding no more possessions into my life. One of the best moments of my life was the semester I spent studying in Spain. I had nothing but a laptop, camera, and a suitcase full of clothes. What made life great weren’t the things I owned—it were the experiences I had during my stay. I didn’t need any thing in order to have those memories. All that was necessary was curiosity and an open-mindedness to whatever adventure I stumbled upon along the way.
The next time you have the itch to buy something, try this—wait 7 days. If after 7 days, the item still has a reason to be in your life, buy it. If not, save the money or spend it on experiences with someone you love.
Step 3: Cut The Clutter
I’m not saying you need to sell, donate, or throw away all of your stuff until you’re left with nothing but your favorite pair of underwear and flip flops. But I am asking you to be real with yourself. What do you possess today that’s not serving a purpose or bringing you joy? My favorite example of this is my $40,000 car. When I first bought it, I spent four Saturdays in a row washing and waxing the thing. Not only did my water bill shoot up but I also didn’t do other things I enjoyed like mountain biking or hanging out at the lake.
My approach to cutting the clutter was drastic. I used the spare bedroom as the dumping ground for all things superfluous. One-by-one the pieces of clutter migrated from closets, drawers, and shelves. As they entered in, I snapped mug shots to post on Craigslist and eBay.
Your approach doesn’t need to be as aggressive as mine was unless that’s how you want it. For starters, I’d suggest that you give yourself a few months to comb through your house. Maybe just pick one room at a time.
When I realized how much of a baboon I had been for all those years, I felt guilty. It took me some time to find the redemptive perspective of my mistakes. Since then, I’ve reframed it as a (very expensive) lesson that has taught me this:
Eliminating the nonessential things in my life isn’t about having less stuff. I simplify in order to make room for my relationships, health, and all the matterful stuff that lights me up.
How about you? Find your reason. Stop the expansion. Make room for what matters.
Cheers to a life spent chasing dreams instead of the stuff in an Amazon shopping cart,