In the 25 years following my decision to downsize from a house and full-time job, I've reflected on the choices I have made. As a way of giving you an overview to this material, I would like to share what I have found to be the most helpful choices I've made to simplify my life.
I've lived in walkable urban areasFirst, my choice to live close to my regular destinations in a walkable urban area throughout this time has been the best decision that I've made. (See "Optimize Your Place.") This has allowed me to fully concentrate on graduate studies, writing, or just simply living. I've gained years of life versus spending accumulated years of my life commuting. I have improved my health and engagement with the world through living close to my regular destinations. Specifically:
- My regular work or study destinations during this time (graduate school, my own work) have been within about a 1 km walk (about 10 minutes). This greatly simplified all the transportation time I would have otherwise spent in traffic or in a car.
- My most basic need I have for shopping is for groceries. During all of this time, I've had at least one grocery store within walking distance--from just over 1 km to just 400 meters away. Presently, I have two good grocery stores within 800 meters of where I live. This has built walking right into my routine and has allowed me to get the basics at any time--including during snowstorms that partially closed roads.
- My need for transportation for all of this period has been met with walking, biking, or bus stops within 200 to 500 meters of my home. This has given me the ability to get to destinations in the metro area as well as connect with regional bus and Amtrak trains. I have literally traveled world-wide during this period using these transportation modes in addition to air travel.
- My location within a walkable urban area has given me easy access to club, organization, or business meetings that in most cases have met within walking distance of my home, because I've chosen to live in places in the central core of the metropolitan area, and these are often the common-ground places that are chosen for meetings.
- My location within the central area of the city has given me direct, walking or short bus ride access to many of my regular needs. My present location has a WalkScore of 91 (rated as "Walker's Paradise"). I have within 3 km (about 30 minutes walking): three very good grocery stores and several other alternates, walking and bicycling paths that take me along a lake and river, two public library branches, ten county parks, one state park, one Great Lake, many coffee shops including excellent independents, two branches of my bank, a great bakery, hardware stores, probably over 100 restaurants, four college campuses including one of my alma maters, a downtown shopping arcade, churches, movie theaters, live performance theaters, shops for office supplies, printing and package shipping services, discount drug/general stores (three Walgreen's for example), two post offices, bus and trolley stops, historic districts and buildings, medical services, dental services including a dental school, the bus station, the Amtrak station, new and used book stores, four art museums, other museums, hotels, the convention center, festival grounds (site of multiple summer festivals), several sports arenas/performing arts centers, a public market, probably a half dozen health clubs (none of which I need because I walk everywhere), and government offices and services at the federal, state, county, and city level.
- My location gives me access to places for recreational walking, including a riverwalk, and the lakefront.
- While my location gives me access by bus to many shopping areas, I have found that over the 25 year period, I went from ordering nothing online (the start of this period was before the World Wide Web was invented) to ordering almost all of my clothing, household goods, small appliances, camera and computer supplies, and other items online. In fact, I no longer need access to "big box" stores (which are mainly in the suburbs anyway) because I prefer to order almost everything online. This has greatly simplified my search for a place to live, as I no longer have to worry about shopping nearby for many goods. I definitely seek a place to live where I can walk regularly to fresh food, restaurants, cafes, and some services like a library. Other services I need to access less often can be a bus ride away or walking distance if possible: printing, mailing and shipping, medical care, dental care, haircut, eye doctor, blood donations, accounting services, some banking, investment, or other professional services.
I've lived with less stuff in a small space
Second, my choice to live with few possessions has helped make it possible to live in a small apartment close to a city center rather than in an area further out or an apartment too big for my budget. In a way, this second choice has helped reinforce the first--I can afford a walkable urban area by choosing a small space (a studio apartment). (See "Choose your home.") Having few possessions has greatly helped me by reducing the amount of time I spend fussing with stuff--I don't have to spend time in all the work of buying, storing, handling, sorting, or otherwise dealing with material objects. I have reduced my financial outlay in renting, heating, cleaning, and maintaining my living space. (See "Rule your stuff.") A small living space (about 28 square meters) means I don't have room to have a lot of stuff, therefore I don't seek to get more. This has allowed me to just focus on what I want to do and experience versus what I have. I've never felt deprived by the lack of space or stuff. On the contrary, I have felt more free to just read, study, write, explore the city, and live my life.
The small size of my studio apartment has never seemed too cramped. I spend much of my time out doing things--school, the library, a cafe, meetings, museums. The whole city is my living space. So when I come home, in fact, I appreciate my studio's small, cozy size.
During this time, I've chosen to rent rather than finance a home and pay a mortgage. I know some people are ideologically opposed to renting a home, but for me, the reduction in worry about maintenance tasks, outdoor areas, walkways, etc., garbage, etc., has saved me so much time and stress that I've been able to concentrate on things that I want. I have spent 0 hours on shoveling snow, raking leaves, worrying about painting the walls, painting the walls, cleaning hallways or common areas, cleaning or repairing rain gutters, yard mainentance, or worrying about what day is trash day or contracting with a trash service. My rent has also been far below what I would have been paying in mortgage debt and other fixed costs of "owning" a condo or house. This cost savings has been crucial in being able to develop my own business rather than get an outside job. Renting has been the best possible decision for me in building financial resources and stability.
I've lived car-free
The third biggest decision is one that I don't think is absolutely necessary for everyone, but I would be remiss if I did not mention it as an important factor that has simplified my life: my choice to live car-free. (See "Question the need to have a car.") I did own a car for 4 years, and I don't regret that, but I know now that not having to have a car for the past 25 years has been so much of a relief. I have spent 0 hours parking, fueling, financing, paying for, maintaining, driving, or otherwise dealing with a personal vehicle for the past quarter century. I've never had to buy tires or an oil change! I can walk to most of my destinations or take direct public transit or a regional bus service or an Amtrak train. The money savings (estimated at $200,000) have, in addition to the tremendous time savings, been perhaps the deciding factor that has allowed me to have my own business and live independently rather than having to work for a particular company or full-time. Quite simply, I am so grateful that I've lived my life separate from car ownership, rather than working to support a car. Again, this is not for everyone. Many people live in a car-dependent area and have no way to earn a living without one. Note that car-sharing is another way to live a "car lite" lifestyle and use a car only when you need it and avoid owning one.
I particularly would advise college students: avoid car ownership during your studies. Live close to campus or on-campus and spend your time and energy participating in the life of the campus community rather than commuting and worrying about parking. The savings in money could be the difference between completing your studies in a short time and graduating or not graduating because of money problems or the time-sink of commuting.
I've worked to make sure routine things run smoothly
The fourth biggest decision for me has been an an overall effort to automate or smooth out as many routine tasks as possible. I have, in some sense, "theme days" in which I focus on one particular task. In my accounts and business dealings, my goal is to make the work accurate, secure, and truly "boring" in the sense of minimizing surprises or complications. (See "Hone your routine.") Ideas in this category include:
- Automating payments for utilities, insurance, Internet services, routine shopping, banking, or other routine tasks. This is easily accomplished by having Web-based accounts for just about every service or shopping task possible. The widespread use of the World Wide Web by the mid-1990's and into the 21st century has made this much easier. Many people born in the 21st century might not know of a time when these routine tasks had to be done in-person or through paper checks or paper postal mail.
- Having a regular day for shopping; this has changed somewhat in later years as I buy more fresh fruits and vegetables as part of my diet, and so my once-weekly shopping trip has become food shopping trips two or even three times a week (this is greatly aided by having a good grocery store 400 meters from where I live).
- Having regular practical shopping destinations for routine, "boring" items. I've found that although I order many things online, there are are some routine items that I can stock up on for a reasonable cost at specialized edited-selection stores such as Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Big Lots, or ALDI. These include things like soap, shampoo, greeting cards, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deoderant, gift wrap, paper, envelopes, dish soap, laundry detergent, cleaning supplies, and other regular household items. When I go to these stores, I can buy enough to last me many months, and that greatly simplifies running out of a routine item and requiring a "run to the store." (See "Take care of your time.")
- Having a regular day for some screen-free (no computer use) time. (See "Take care of yourself.") This is tremendously important to providing a break from the Internet for at least part of one day per week.
I've kept my mind on the whole point of simple living
Finally, but not the least important, I never have lost the the whole point of simplifying my life--which is to make choices so that my time, stuff, and place where I live supports me in what I want to do rather than get in the way. (See "Live your dream.")