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The pleasures of thrift

Brown-bag your lunch, shop second-hand and discover the joys of a simpler lifestyle

By Anne Bokma

"The trouble with winning the rat race," comedian Lily Tomlin famously pronounced, “is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” Ten years ago, I was part of that race. I had a full-time career in publishing in downtown Toronto, a husband who also worked full time, two kids in daycare, and I spent more than two hours a day commuting. When I got home at the end of the workday, it was hard to find a moment’s peace — there was dinner to prepare, mountains of laundry, two kids clamouring for my attention, household repairs to manage and bills to pay. Sometimes when I dropped into bed at night, I felt like my head was going to pop right off my body and go flying into another universe altogether. But it never did. Instead, I would get up in the morning and start the whole rigmarole over again. I realized — as I was huffing and puffing on a spinning wheel that was going nowhere fast — that there were plenty of similarities between me and that rat. 

But all that changed when both my husband and I decided to work part time. We each negotiated three-day workweeks with our employers and, despite the reduced pay, barely felt the difference. We paid less tax, said goodbye to daycare expenses and the cleaning lady, bought fewer work clothes and cooked more meals at home. Sanity was restored, and we had more time to hang out with our kids. Working less meant living more.

Plenty of Canadians are longing to put the brakes on lives that feel out of control. They feel time-starved and cash-strapped and are desperate for that elusive work-life balance. Some are re-examining their lives and finding ways to reduce stress and increase meaning. They want to spend less time in pursuit of material things and more time in community. They want to simplify instead of complicate. Be happy with less instead of always clamouring for more. Here are some ways to do just that.

Live in an immaterial world 

Jennifer Dawson and her husband bought their first home in Hamilton for $100,000. They managed to pay off their mortgage in 10 years by living simply — they make their own lunches for work, rarely eat out and don’t even buy takeout coffee. They wear second-hand clothes, have only one vehicle and never carry credit card debt. Two years ago they sold their home (for a tidy profit) and upgraded to a bigger house. The bank told them they could get a mortgage for up to $600,000. “We just laughed,” says Dawson. Instead they bought a home in an inexpensive neighbourhood for $195,000. With a household income of about $75,000, the couple sets money aside every month in RRSPs and RESPs for their two teenage daughters. When Dawson’s husband was recently laid off from his job for six weeks, they managed to weather the storm because they had plenty of savings socked away. “Living simply is more a set of values than a strategy,” she says. “I don’t feel we live a life that is sacrificial at all.” 

Avoid unnecessary debt 

“Show me your credit card receipts, and I’ll show you a window to your soul,” says Rev. Kevin Little, a minister at St. Luke’s United in Upper Tantallon, N.S., who is passionate on the topic of living simply. Like Dawson, he has managed to avoid debt by having only one family vehicle, buying second-hand clothes, not eating out and buying one of the most inexpensive houses in his neighbourhood. He never buys books or rents movies, opting instead to use the library, and he refuses to give in to the “house lust” that he says is driving the craze for budget-busting renovations. “I don’t know why people feel they have to have a house that looks like a showcase,” he says. While he carefully weighs all purchasing decisions, he says there are some pleasures he simply can’t live without — including his laptop and takeout fair trade coffee. “Living simply forces you to ask the question every time you buy something — ‘Is this something I really need?’” he says. “I have great peace of mind knowing that I’m not wasting money on things that don’t really bring me pleasure.”

Toss the TV 

Nothing ratchets up our desire for more stuff than advertising, and TV is the worst culprit for driving consumption by flashing images of bright shiny things that we seemingly can’t live without. It’s also a huge time waster — the average person spends about nine years of their life planted in front of the tube. In a 500-channel universe, it may seem downright revolutionary to cancel cable, but that’s exactly what Winnipeg’s Mark Burch, a simple living proponent and author of Stepping Lighty: Simplicity for People and the Planet, advises — and did when his kids were young. “Too much TV can overstimulate kids, and it creates an atmosphere of frenzy and speed. I felt as a parent it was important to deliberately counteract that.” 

Shop second-hand

Two years ago, Tom and Malora Mulhern of Calgary took a “spiritual fast” from consumerism by not purchasing anything new for one year. If something broke down or wore out — or they just had an urge for new clothes or gadgets — they bought it in thrift shops or second-hand through sites such as Craigslist and Kijiji. They found cloth diapers for their newborn, Jude, and an electric razor for Tom. Malora dug out her sewing machine to make and mend clothes, and they also made handcrafted items for birthday and holiday gifts. They planted a vegetable garden and blogged about their new lifestyle at ourcompactlife.com. Because of their frugality, they managed to sock away thousands of dollars in savings. (Their household income consists of the $48,000 Tom earns as a youth pastor.) The end result? “We learned we just don’t need that much stuff to be happy,” says Malora. Adds Tom, “I’ve learned to be thankful for what I’ve got.”

Don’t acquire too many possessions

Reducing our dependence on stuff allows us to eliminate both material and psychic clutter from our lives, which, in turn, allows us to focus more on experiences and people rather than acquiring the latest gizmo. When his daughter was three years old, Little instituted the “Lucy Rule” in his house. As one of only three grandchildren, Lucy, now eight, is showered with gifts. Little decided that for every new item Lucy receives, she must give one away. “At first this was seen by both Lucy and other parents as cruel, and I was heavily criticized,” he admits. “But now Lucy has come to see the merits. She can actually see all of her possessions because they aren’t piled up, and she finds joy in the fact that another child is enjoying something she has grown out of.” Little also fastidiously lives by this rule himself. “For every item I’m given, I give another away, whether it’s clothes, books or CDs.”

Build relationships

One of the reasons Burch made an effort to reduce TV viewing in his home was because it took him and his kids away from the important things in life. “Our greatest asset is community and each other, and we need to rebuild the bonds with those around us. We don’t do that by sitting around watching TV,” he says. Dawson agrees. She says one of the areas where they spend the most in their family budget is on entertaining, because they regularly have folks over for dinner. “It’s probably the cheapest form of entertainment, but one we are happy to invest in,” she says. That’s because the rewards — strong bonds with friends and family — are well worth it. “I’d rather put time into building relationships than buying things.”

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