I’d be hard-pressed to imagine a less simple life than the one we lived in our last few years of work, before we retired at the end of last year. Nearly every moment was scheduled, we were glued to our screens virtually the entire day, and we relied on things like convenience foods to keep us fed when we were too busy with work to shop or cook.
We knew we were this close to reaching our dream of early retirement, but we felt very far from living the life we aspired to live.
Of course we had some big things going for us that made it all feel worth it, not the least of which was being able to save so quickly thanks to above average incomes and none of the expenses that come with kids. Surely the lightning-fast progress made it all more tolerable. As did living in our dream spot in the mountains. Even on the most dreary conference call, I could look out my window and see a tiny sliver of Sierra granite and those majestic Jeffrey pines. And the drive I called my “commute” — from our home in Tahoe to the Reno airport, for the flights I took every week — really couldn’t be more beautiful. That stretch of I-80 that traces the Truckee River canyon is spectacular, and I can’t imagine ever getting sick of it. Plus there was that whole matter of having erased all money stress years earlier after we’d accumulated enough to count ourselves as financially secure.
So things for sure could’ve been worse. Really, they weren’t even bad, except during the worst of 2016. But we still felt a distance between our then-present life and our biggest priorities:
Time to unplug. Time to get outside. Time to spend with friends and family. Time to be present with each other.
Everything we yearned for was about time, but also about prioritizing what was most important to us with the time we had, something we weren’t always great at while working in our careers.
What we craved most truly was a simpler life, a concept I resisted for some time. I’ve never liked trendy concepts like minimalism and militant decluttering and hygge and [insert any other buzzword that makes good clickbait here]. But there’s no other way to describe it. We wanted to have days when we could be entirely offline instead of having seven hours of back-to-back calls, or a 3 a.m. wake-up call for a 5:30 a.m. flight followed by presentations at 9 a.m. and noon, a client lunch, a client coffee, a client dinner and then a midnight flight home. (I am not exaggerating. I had dozens of days like that.)
It’s the same thing so many of us crave in response to the ever-increasing pressure to be more and more productive at work, a trend that is unsustainable unless we all turn part-bionic. And that’s what I finally realized: our desire to slow down and make time for our priorities didn’t have to fit the mold of some Instagram buzzword to be valid.
It was up to us to define for ourselves what our simpler life should look like.
Psst. I finally made an archive page for Our Next Life where you can peruse every single post on the site. You can see posts by month and year, or scan the whole list of posts, including in the early days when they were all lowercase! Check out the archive here.
Simple Living Isn’t About Perfection (Though It May Seem Like It Is)
This is something I had to come to terms with myself. First, there’s the conflation of simple living with minimalism, the concept that some interpret to mean having as few possessions as possible, an idea that interests us very little. We have more pieces of outdoor gear alone than the number of possessions many minimalists own in total, and that’s before you’ve even left our garage. We aren’t uber-consumers and never have been, but we like having books around, for example. And we value having a space in which we feel comfortable. The concept of minimalism has never felt like it fits us, even if we do adhere to so many of its tenets, like not spending money on things that don’t add value to our life, and not being wasteful generally. Mostly minimalism just felt too prescriptive (and too judgy if you don’t “do it right”), and so by extension, the notion of simple living felt like it wasn’t for us either.
A big part of that is the imagery that’s out there. Almost all the pictures you see from people professing the value of minimalism or simple living fall into two categories:
1. Pristine white decor with no clutter whatsoever
2. Everything beautifully homemade
In other words, perfection. Either perfection in austerity or perfection in handcrafting your entire life, neither of which felt achievable — or desirable — for us. We love making things, but we don’t want to have to make everything. I’ll happily pay someone else to make me mittens that are waterproof and that will keep my icicle fingers warm when I’m skiing, even if they’re less beautiful than hand-knitted mittens would be. And I’ve made my own almond milk and tofu before, along with countless other staples, and I get no deep joy from it. (Also, it’s a terrible value. It’s so much cheaper to buy those things. Growing your own sprouts, however? An incredible value.) As for that perfect, clutter-free interior? Sure, maybe I could achieve that if I spent all my time cleaning and tidying instead of doing the things I actually value like getting into the mountains.
In other words, aiming for someone else’s definition or depiction of simple living or minimalism would actually pull us farther away from the simpler life that we craved, which was about giving ourselves more time even if that meant buying some things we could make and letting a little dust pile up.
That was my light bulb moment that it was up to us to define our own simpler life.
Simple Living Is Whatever You Decide to Make It
A few years ago, I wrote a post called Living Simply with Plenty of Stuff, which was my insistence that you can live a simple life without having to give away every nonessential belonging and move into a 200-square-foot tiny house. Because I really do believe this: there’s no one right way to live simply.
The only way to do it wrong is to aim for someone else’s definition and to toss out your own priorities in the process, like if I’d focused on decluttering instead of skiing more.
The way I started thinking about it is: Simple living isn’t about how your life looks, it’s how it feels.
It may not look perfectly Instagrammable or hashtaggable, but if you feel like you have time and space to breathe and time to spend on what’s most important to you, that’s all that matters.
For Us, It’s Simpler Living, Not Simple Living
Like with everything in life right now, I expect this definition to keep evolving for us, but right now we’re not aiming for simple living at all. We’re aiming for simpler living. The certainty of the “simple” descriptor feels more fixed and finite than we want right now, and we like that “simpler” suggests more of a continuum, an acknowledgment that this will be a long and ongoing process to improve and refine our life to strip away the non-essential in favor of what we value most.
Having lived all those working years at pretty much peak unsimplicity (that’s totally a word), getting a little simpler each month of early retirement feels like a big win for us. Barely looking at our phones in Taiwan was definitely movement toward simpler. Not setting an alarm clock most days is much, much simpler. Having whole days with no scheduled commitments and many fewer deadlines and constraints feels like peak simplicity for now, even if we still have a long way to go to really feel fully retired.
In some ways, at this moment in our early retirement, we’re suffering from too many options. On a given day, I could write for the blog, read a book, bake some bread and make some soup, go skiing, meet up with friends for coffee, go grocery shopping or any other of a multitude of potential tasks. When we were working, our choices were more limited and our imperatives were more clear. We could only ski on the weekends, so of course we’d ski if there was snow. Or perhaps we were out of food and had no choice but to go shopping. Now, nothing is ever imperative (except skiing on a powder day, of course!), which ironically feels less simple because we have to make more choices. They’re good choices, and choices we are excited to make, but it’s an important reminder to stay focused on what we value most instead of letting our old work habits dictate what we do when. It’s a reminder that simplicity isn’t a fixed state, but rather it’s a choice you keep making every day, one decision at a time. We’re working on retraining our brains to make the choices that support our life vision.
So for now, we don’t expect perfection and we know we won’t get this right all the time. We’re just looking to simplify bit by bit, a little at a time. Maybe not simple, but simpler.
The Giveaway: Liz’s New Book!
My friend Liz, who many of you surely know as Mrs. Frugalwoods, has written a memoir about her and her family’s journey to financial independence through — as the theme of this post has already given away — simple living. It’s not a how-to guide, but a deeply personal telling of how Liz and her family came to live out their dream of a simple life on a homestead in the woods of Vermont, complete with much more backstory than she’s shared on Frugalwoods. And while they may be self-professed frugal weirdos whose frugal ways may look at times to be awfully perfect, Liz’s goal in writing the book is to provide inspiration for how you can live more simply and achieve your dreams your way, not to dictate that theirs is the one right way to do it.
One of the ways that I always plan to spend according to my values is to buy books written by friends, even if they also want to give me a copy as Cait did. (My actual rule: “Never be so cheap that I won’t support a friend, especially when we’re only talking about the cost of a book.”) So I happily bought Liz’s book, and if you want to as well, here’s a link. (<– affiliate link, FYI)
And, I’m excited to share with you guys that Liz’s publisher has decided to give not one, but TWO, copies of the book to Our Next Life readers, because y’all are the best and you deserve it.
To enter, all you have to do is comment on this post. (And if you want to comment and don’t want to enter, just mention that.) The contest will close Friday, March 9, at midnight Pacific time. The two winners will be randomly selected from entries received by that time. You know how this works. :-)
UPDATE: The contest is now closed, but commenting is still open.
How Do You Define Simple Living?
So let’s discuss — what does simple living mean to you? Or do you see it as we do, that it’s more of a progression, and an ongoing effort to simplify, not a fixed state? (Simpler instead of simple.) And do you see your definition of simple living as something you can live while working and saving, or does it require you to be financially independent first? Why or why not? Any other thoughts on simplicity, minimalism and all the related trends that you’d care to share here? All thoughts welcome in the comments!
Want extra Our Next Life content? Get the e-newsletter!
Subscribe to get our periodic newsletter with tons of top secret, behind-the-scenes info we'll never share here on the blog.
Categories: we've learned