Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links of products I have tried and recommended.
We live in a frenetic, consumeristic world inundated with advertising that can get overwhelming at times. Too often we find ourselves having or wanting too much stuff, often resulting in more clutter and less time (due to working harder and longer to acquire or maintain those things) and fewer dollars to do things we truly would rather being doing.
A way to solve this problem, therefore, is to simplify our lives, which is not living in poverty or deprivation, but focusing on doing and acquiring only things that are most important to us. Often it also means reducing or eliminating certain things we have in order to prevent wallowing in disorganization, debt, time-consuming maintenance, etc.
Below is a list of tactics I practice (or am trying to practice, and hence am listing them here to remind myself). Many are original ideas; some are from John December’s Live Simple e-book. This list is constantly growing. If you have some ideas of your own, please leave a comment at the bottom of this page.
Tips for Simple Living
- Use online bill-payment. It often does not cost much more than stamps and envelopes (with a free account at a credit union, it actually costs less!) It sure saves a lot of time plus you are less prone to forget payments, especially since you can automatically schedule recurring payments such as mortgage payments. If the payee claims to not have received your payment, you will have an electronic record (plus a third party: your bill-payment online service) to prove it was sent.
- Never buy anything you do not really need/want regardless of how inexpensive it is. Avoid the sales and coupons trap.
- Do not favor discount stores like KMart and MacFrugals except for the most basic/innocuous things like paper and laundry detergent. The really low-end stores tend to sell low-quality crap that breaks or does not work very well (wasting you time and dollars) and are made in sweatshops. Strive to have less things, but things of high-value and quality.
- Ditch your bank and use a brokerage and/or credit union instead. Banks like Wells Fargo not only charge for almost every little service, but return at most a meager 2% interest on a savings or money-market account, and usually nothing for a checking account. In contrast, a brokerage (e.g., Scottrade) does everything a bank does, plus allows you to invest in stocks, mutual and index funds, and set up an IRA account. In addition, all of your uninvested funds (i.e., dollars not tied up in stocks and funds) can be invested in a money-market account yielding ~5%/year (sometimes automatically, depending on the brokerage). You can write checks and make ATM withdrawals from of this account too. Credit unions don’t offer the ability to invest in stocks and funds but almost always offer lower fees, higher interest rates, and better service than banks.
- Only have one credit card. In addition to receiving less statements and having to keep track of less accounts, having only one credit card makes one less prone to running up huge debts. It also helps your credit score significantly (very important when you are applying for, say, a home loan). Just get a Visa or Mastercard, which is accepted in more places internationally than American Express or Discover.
- Drink water, not coffee or soft drinks. First of all, water has no calories or caffeine, and is arguably healthier than the other beverages. (It also doesn’t stain teeth like coffee, tea, and cola, or cause cavities.) Secondly, water from the tap is free. (If you don’t like the taste of tap water, get a Brita filter). If you replace your $3 morning coffees and, say, $3 worth of other drinks (Coke, juice, etc.) during the day, that’s already $42/week or $170/month savings right there. What I do is buy a 1.5 liter bottle of sparkling water (for $0.80), bring it to work, drink it, and each day for a couple of weeks just refill it with filtered water at work. I replace it with a new bottle (another $0.80) every one to two weeks just to prevent infestation of germs. (Zapping them in the microwave for 30 seconds also would probably do the trick.) Not only is it economical, it helps me drink the eight glasses of water or whatever doctors recommend people should drink each day. And filtered water tastes great! (Added 2/2003)
- One of the biggest time-wasters is grocery shopping. Strive to get enough groceries at one time so you don’t have to do it more than, say, once a week. Get groceries on your way home to conserve time and gas.
- One of the biggest sources of clutter is paper. Hence, go paperless. This can be accomplished by asking yourself, “Do I really need to save this?” and if so, scan it into your computer. Scanning often takes less time than filing, and electronic documents take no physical space, plus allow for much easier searches in the future. (Just do a keyword search on your entire hard drive). If you have a lot of documents to scan, you can outsource this to a local document scanning company (e.g., in Fort Collins we have ReproGraphics, Inc., which can scan letter-sized papers for $0.06/page in black and white). I did this for numerous tax documents I had from the 1980s and early ’90s.(Revised 6/2007)
- The same principle can be applied with music. Hook up your computer to your home entertainment system, and not only can you do away with (e.g. sell) your separate CD player(s), but also the CDs themselves! Convert ONLY the songs you like, save them on your hard drive, and then never have to fast forward past songs you don’t care for. Afterwards you can sell or give away the CDs. (I donate them to the library, which by the way, is another great source of free music). Save no more of just a handful of your favorite CDs to play in, say, the CD player of a rental car. (For my car I just burn a few hundred songs onto a single CD and play them in my MP3 receiver… much better than a CD changer.)
- Wash dishes as soon as you are finished with them. This is when they clean most easily as food hasn’t dried on them yet. You won’t have to deal with a huge pileup of dishes in the sink, attracting ants. Also, this helps eliminate the need to use the dishwasher, which hogs up power, water, and sometimes destroys silverware.
- Turn off your computer when you are not using it. Leaving it on leaves you prone to checking email or browsing the internet too often. It also causes noise pollution (if it’s as noisy as mine) and consumes energy.
- Once in a while go through your closets and drawers. Get rid of items you have not used in a year, preferably by selling them on Ebay, Craigslist, etc. Otherwise, donate household items and clothing to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, books to the local library, etc. (and always get a receipt for tax-deduction purposes). Failing that, give them away, or as a last resort, throw them away (preferably, recycling them).
- Only check your mail one to three times a week. Most of it is just bills or junk mail, and can wait until a dedicated day. Junk mail gets thrown away immediately without reading it, and bills get paid promptly via online bill payment (above). To reduce junk mail: check out these tips–I tried them; they work! Also: to stop getting the Pennysaver or Stopwise ads, call the numbers on the address postcards that come with the ads, and leave a message asking them to take you off their mailing list. That works too! (Added 2/2003)
- An old trick that everyone knows about, but not too many people in the U.S. seem to do—take off your shoes upon entering the house! This greatly reduces the amount of dirt brought into the home, saves the carpet, and dramatically cuts down on the need for vacuuming. Taking off your shoes just takes 10 seconds to do and, personally, I think it is MUCH more comfortable to walk around the house in socks or barefoot than in shoes! (Added 4/2003)
- Minimize your household cleaners. For example, don’t go out and buy: Comet, Fantastic, Windex, Lime-Away, etc., or any of the gazillion household cleaning products out there (that mostly end up being accumulated under most peoples’ sinks, never being used). Instead, just use… soap and water! (with a sponge, or a Scotchbrite or similar abrasive pad for more agressive stains). First of all, it is far less toxic and does not lead to antibacterial resistance. I like to use Palmolive dishwasher soap, which claims to soften hands while you wash. I get the type that smells like apples. (Can Comet make that claim?) My attitude is, if it’s safe and effective enough to use on greasy grimy plates, surely it’s good enough to use on the counter, floor, bathtub, best flushing toilet, etc. Also other ideas: vinegar/water for glass. Baking soda and/or borax for carpet cleaning. (Added 4/2003)
- Don’t watch or listen to the news. News fed to you is largely “bad news” or impacts your life in no way except to stir up paranoia, depression, or insecurity. Is the news an accurate reflection of life, which (I like to think) is largely positive, or a portrayal of, generally, freakish occurrences? If you must get your daily dose of news, read a newspaper or web news instead: at least you have greater control over what you read, in contrast to being fed whatever a news editor feeds you.
- Reserve books from the local library. Instead of buying books from the bookstore you will only read once (or, much worse, not at all) that will clutter up your home, use a free resource that has many times more books than any bookstore: your library! Especially with today’s intra-library loan systems, even obscure books can be found this way. What I do is go to my library’s online web page, search for a book, and then place an online reservation for it. Then after work I just stop by the library, go directly to the circulation desk, present my card, and the library staffer gets me the book. I am usually out of there within two to five minutes. The three weeks of lending time usually is ample enough for one book and if not, I usually can renew it (or be a little late paying a 10 cent fine per day, which is still a whole lot less expensive than buying a book even if you are 10 days late!) (Added 2/2003)
- Use a PDA (Personal Digital Assistant). I use a Palm m100, which is small and easy to use and is almost disposable at $50 on half.com (as of 8/2002). It is better than a paper organizer since you can sync contents with your computer (so if you lose it, you have a backup; also, you can easily cut and paste large amounts of text, like driving directions, into it), and your data stay up-to-date much more easily. Helps eliminate paper.
- Use a digital camera instead of film. Never stand in line to get film developed again. Save a lot on development costs. Never wait to finish a roll of film again. And who needs prints (which add to clutter) when the best way to show/distribute pictures is online? Save time from having to scan pictures or sending in negatives. Get higher quality pictures than scanned images. You do not need an expensive, high megapixel camera to achieve this. I use an Olympus D-100, which is just 1.3 megapixels and was $78 on half.com in September 2002. However, I only use its lowest resolution mode (680X420), which is great for web photos (and can take ~164 shots/16 MB flash card). All of my photos from mid-August 2002 to mid-2007 (when it finally broke) have been taken with this camera; those before then are scanned photos taken by either my Olympus Stylus Epic or Minolta XE-7 SLR, both film cameras. You can see/compare the photo quality for yourself!
- The California Car Duster really cuts down on the frequency you need to wash your car. It has wax-impregnated cotton strands that quickly pick up dust from your car without scratching your paint. A minute or two every two days or so is all you need to keep your car looking good! I have been using it for many months now, and there was a period of two months I didn’t have to wash the MG! Note: be sure to shake it out vigorously for five seconds after every use, and don’t use it if your car is extremely dirty (which—in theory—risks dragging dirt across your paint, which is somewhat abrasive). Replace it every year or so to ensure that it doesn’t create microscopic scratches in your car’s finish if you are paranoid about that. It only costs about $12 at Target. (9/2015: Or use my $1, 1-minute car wash method instead.)
- Ditch the printer. It only takes up space and increases the amount of paper in your home (see home tips below). Use a PDA instead to “carry” data. For stuff you MUST print, use the printer at work (if that would not be frowned upon by management) or Kinko’s. One can also usually print documents at the public library for about 10 cents/page.
- Only have one phone. There is no need to have a land line, cell phone, and voice-over-IP concurrently. Pick one of them. Whereas many years ago I only had a land line, I think cell phone reception and the calling-plan costs have improved enough where they make a lot of sense. Especially since I travel a lot, I ported my land line to a mobile phone recently and discontinued the land line. For even lower costs (and if you have wireless broadband already), consider replacing both with Skype. Skype costs next to nothing and if you got a headset or Skype-compatible phone, you can use it on the road wherever there is a wi-fi signal. (Revised 6/2007)
- If you have a cell phone, be selective as to when to answer it. Yapping on it in public (or when you are talking with someone) is often rude and annoying to others. The temptation to answer the phone while driving is dangerous! Don’t let others dictate your time or interrupt you and whomever you are with (who should be the most important person while you are with him or her) by fumbling around those wretched gadgets. (Revised 6/2007)
- Consider cancelling your cable. I cancelled mine for two reasons: (1) I hardly watched TV (like 1 hour/month), (2) I wanted to prevent myself from watching TV, which is probably the world’s #1 time-waster! Example: After the Columbia space shuttle disaster in February 2003, I caught myself glued to the set for 1.5 hours listening to Dan Rather say the same things over and over again. After that 1.5 hours, I realized that I could have easily learned as much in 1.5 minutes by just reading a few articles on the internet. And most other shows on TV tend to feed your brain much more garbage than Dan Rather. (Added 4/2003)
- Never watch a movie alone. I came up with this rule for myself because I often feel bad for not spending as much time with my friends as I’d like, esp. when our hobbies may be different (e.g., for some reason very few of my friends seems to be interested in going out for 200-mile bike rides). Movies, however, are one of the few universal things, besides eating, that people can do together. So I figure that the time I spend watching movies can also be the time spent with other people. (Added 4/2003)
- If you are bombarded at work, don’t answer phone calls; let people leave a message. Also, don’t return all phone calls (good judgment required) right away: often, someone will find an answer for himself with time. Phone calls too often ruin the flow of work, preventing you from getting anything done. (From Tori.)
- Refuse to do personal email or web surfing at work. From 2003-2005—when I was a full-time employee—I limited all of that and estimated I saved at least an hour of time, helping me achieve my goal of getting 50% more done in 10% less time (and getting out of work sooner). Instead I did almost all of my personal email right before I went to bed or right before I went to work, striving for a 1-day turnaround time. (Added 2/2003)