Simple Living is Hard Work!

After spending 45 minutes working out a meal plan and grocery list for our recent camping trip, I completely understand why so many folks opt for convenience. Tossing a meal in the microwave (or a hot dog on the grill) is so much easier than trying to figure out three balanced meals a day plus snacks for a week at the beach – in a primitive cabin, with no refrigeration.

You’re probably thinking: Why are you meal planning for your vacation?? Because that’s what we do. We love to go places but with a very limited budget we have to be quite frugal if we want to maximize the experience; so we often opt to camp wherever we go and prepare our own meals. If we’re traveling to an area known for a particular cuisine, we do try to sample it, but if our adventures take us to just another suburban fast-foodscape, dining out rarely makes it onto our list of activities.

Side note: According to ValuePenguin, the average cost of a 4-night vacation in the US is $541 per person (which includes a healthy budget for food and alcohol). We spend about 35-40 nights per year away from home, so at that rate, we really would go broke rather quickly.

With our list complete, we set off for the grocery store on Sunday night to pick up our supplies. As we were walking in to the store, I made the remark to Angie that “simple living is not so easy”. As usual, she came back with one of her short but profound quips, “Yes, but easy isn’t nearly as much fun.” Of course, that set my mind to pondering the many ways each day that we choose simple over easy.

We handwash all our dishes. Our apartment does have a dishwasher. We just don’t use it. When we downsized the number of dishes in our cabinet, I found that using the dishwasher was a pointless endeavor. Everything we wanted to use was always in the dishwasher waiting until we had enough to wash, which was never going to happen, since we only had a few dishes in the first place. See…pointless. Personally, I enjoy the process of washing dishes. Angie washes and I dry, while we talk about whatever crazy thing or idea may have come up that day.

We make our own cleaning supplies. The process of mixing Borax, washing powder, and soap flakes in the blender to get it small enough to dissolve in cold water can be a little time consuming, but well worth it in the end. We can usually make a year’s worth of laundry soap at once. Along with laundry soap, we make all our household cleaning supplies too, using just 4 ingredients.

Angie’s birthday dinner: spinach lasagna and pineapple cake. Better than Olive Garden!

We (usually) prepare 3 meals a day at home. And snacks too! Though we both love to cook, there are times when I just want to grab a bag of tacos and call it good. But we don’t. We’ve learned (through experience) that eating fast food or processed convenience meals all the time can have a very negative effect on your health and your wallet. Cooking at home takes some time and effort but, in the end, I’d rather have one of our meals than one prepared by any of the world’s finest chefs.

We take water and snacks with us every single time we leave the house. To be completely honest, this is Angie’s rule and it drives me crazy sometimes. When I’m ready to walk out the door, she’s filing the water bottles. We don’t even go to my mom’s house (8 miles away) without water. “You never know…,” she says. And usually she’s right. There have been times when we’ve gone for a walk after leaving mom’s house and were glad we had the water. There have also been times when we’ve been out all day and were glad to have granola bars and peanuts in the glovebox for a quick pick-me-up snack.

We do haircuts at home. If you’ve followed us for a while, you know this one by now. We have been cutting our own hair for the past 5 years, playfully calling our makeshift salon, Outdoor Clips. Over time, the process has gotten easier, but it still takes 2-3 times longer to cut hair at home (considering cleanup) than it does to go to a real salon. Is it worth it? Yes! The last time I went to the “real salon”, I ended up wearing a hat until my hair grew back.

We manage our own money. Sometimes I think we watch our money like a new mom watches her first child. Okay, maybe not quite that close, but we do know where our money is invested because we’ve chosen each investment ourselves. From the funds inside our IRAs to our non-retirement investments, we’ve researched and selected each one on our own. No broker to help us choose the “right path to retirement”. No CPA to do our taxes either. It’s not easy but we’ve learned that the only people who are ever really invested in our success is us.

Making oatmeal with the coffee pot.

We try to fix things when they break. Last week, I mended a sock…for the third time. Not because socks aren’t cheap but because it is my favorite and I don’t want a new one. Today, I’ll be working on our camp stove. It stopped working midway through our trip. Yes, that means that all the aforementioned meal planning had to be reconsidered but luckily there are still ways to cook without a stove (like making oatmeal in the campground’s coffee pot). This weekend, I’ll be repairing my kayak. The folding fin fell off when I hit the beach on Sunday. For $50, I could send it back to be repaired or I could take an hour, some hinges, and a little marine glue and try to do it myself. Easy? No, but I know afterwards I will feel like a million bucks for doing it on my own.

Recently, we’ve been watching Alaskan Bush People. I know, I know…reality shows aren’t all that real…but then again, neither is the news these days and at least this is entertaining. Anyway, as we’ve watched the show, we’ve noticed that these folks work pretty darn hard to stay simple. They build houses out of tires. They hunt and fish and chop their own wood. They make delicious looking cakes without an oven, for goodness sake! And despite the fact that they work sun-up to sundown just to survive, they are all HAPPY! In fact, in the brief times they have had to deal with modern conveniences, their happiness level has plummeted (one so much so that he began drinking to cope).

All of this has made think, once again, that simplicity really is the key to happiness. Yes, it is harder to wash dishes by hand and more time consuming to cut our own hair. Yes, it would be 100 times easier just to grab take-out for dinner or stop at a convenience store for an afternoon snack. And yes, it would have definitely been easier to buy a new computer than to spend 3 days figuring out the problem with mine. BUT…

We wouldn’t have the skills, the increased self-esteem, and the confidence that comes with doing something for ourselves. Or the memories that are made when you tackle a challenge. And as Angie so aptly said, it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.

Lessons from our 2017 Happiness Project

2017 was the year of the “Happiness Project”. When we conceived this idea more than a year ago, we were at a place in our lives where we were struggling to stay true to our own wants and needs. We were surrounded by new people, in a new place, and it seemed that everywhere we turned someone wanted something from us. All. The. Time. It was more than a little bit overwhelming.

Our goal for 2017 was to reconnect with the things that made us happy and find balance in how we dealt with our new responsibilities to family. The first thing that I did to kickstart the project was to cut my work schedule by one day a week. This allowed for some much-needed space in my schedule to focus on what really mattered.

Our second step was to make a list of all the things that made us happy. That list looked something like this:

  • Travel
  • Enjoying quiet time together reading, writing, coloring, or watching TV
  • Being outdoors
  • Letterboxing
  • Being resourceful – figuring out how to do things for ourselves
  • Saving money and finding bargains/freebies
  • Cooking and/or trying new foods

Around this list, we crafted goals and set about the mission of finding our happiness again. For the most part, it worked. We spent a lot of time outdoors this year – camping, hiking, letterboxing, swimming, gardening, and hanging out in our hammocks. We traveled. We read (64 books between the two of us). We watched a lot of documentaries, learning new and fascinating ideas around the things we were already interested in (like plant-based eating, food waste, and living with less). We even began entertaining the idea of sticking around Tennessee for a while, perhaps reconsidering the notion of a tiny house. And don’t even get me started on freebies! I swear, our list of found foods has grown to the point that I may have to take a full day off just to categorize and tally it all. Who would have thought that we’d find so much food?? Then again, who would have thought at the beginning of 2017 that scouring the dumpster of the grocery store next door would be something that would make both of us really happy.

But happiness is like that. It comes in the most unexpected forms. When you chase it, you are likely not to find it at all. When you just do your own thing without regard to where it is, well…that’s when happiness likes to sneak up on you most.

Though we did not accomplish everything on our Happiness Project Bucket List, we certainly learned a lot along the way, including:

1) Happiness is…minding your own business.

It’s easy to get wrapped up in other people’s problems, especially when those people are your family. It’s natural to want to protect them from hurt and heartbreak and share your “sage advice” about the way out of the bad situation they are in. Don’t do it! We learned very quickly this year that trying to solve other people’s problems doesn’t help. Staying out of it, on the other hand, works perfectly every time. They get to practice independence and resourcefulness and you get to remain stress free.

2) Happiness has very little to do with money.

We cut our household income by nearly $8,000 this year to buy back 416 hours of our time. We never missed a single cent of that income. During the whole year, we never felt like we had less than anyone else. In fact, I always felt that we had more – more time, more freedom, and more options. And though it may sound cliché, the best things in life really are free.

3) Being present is the greatest gift you can give someone…including yourself.

You will never truly know someone if you don’t take the time to listen to them – the good, the bad, and yes, sometimes the completely inane things that they may want to share with you. Trust me, I understand how very easy it is to get distracted, especially when the subject is the latest episode of some obscure reality TV show (like 90 Day Fiancé). But…for me, giving my family members my full attention has made for stronger relationships and a deeper understanding of both them and myself. If we listen attentively to the small stuff in each other’s lives, we build trust in the fact that we’ll also be there to hear the big things.

4) It’s not possible to maintain happiness when your mind and body are scattered in all directions. 

There were times during the year when I needed to be at work but instead we were dealing with a family problem. There were times when we both wanted to be in the garden but instead I was catching up on work or tied up on the phone. The stress of not being where we needed (or wanted) to be when we needed (or wanted) to be there was rough. I wish I could say that we came up with a solution, but this remains a struggle. We try to tackle one thing at a time and say no more often to things that don’t align with our priority. Speaking of which…

5) There’s only one priority.

By definition, a priority is the single most important thing in the group. We can’t have multiple priorities. We can have multiple ideas, multiple things to do, or multiple choices…but only one can be the priority. When we try to make everything a priority, we live our lives as if we are on fire – constantly trying to accomplish some arbitrary something. When we establish our one priority – that one area of our life that brings us the most joy – then we no longer feel scattered and stressed. For some folks, the priority is family. For others, it’s a career. For us, the priority is simplicity. Pursing greater happiness this year served to highlight that for us. We are most happy when we can live each day in the simplest of ways.

A few final thoughts:

Within our happiness project, we tried multiple ways to improve our wellbeing. We tried eating better. We tried reading more and learning more new things. We tried new hobbies. We tried going places. We tried decluttering (again). Our attention was scattered in a lot of different directions and sometimes it seemed as if we were working on absolutely nothing because of it. I think the project would have been better if we had focused on one aspect of happiness instead. Perhaps our focus should have been improving happiness by saying no more often or reconnecting with one another through 52 weekly dates. With that in mind, our project for 2018 will be much more defined.

Wondering what that project will be? Stay tuned to find out.