Living on Less

I was as guilty of a super-sized life as the next person — we crammed our schedules full of activities, took vacations, had new cars and our shopping list often contained non-essential purchases. Then came the “dot bomb,” and we faced three years of tech-induced layoffs. We didn’t have a choice — we had to downsize.

Since then, things have picked back up, but one thing hasn’t changed — we learned that living on less really does mean more. Fortunately, you don’t need to go through layoffs to downsize your life and reap the benefits.

Living on less can be boiled down to a two-step process: First, evaluate what really matters to you. Second, whittle through all the excess accoutrements and hang on to the essentials.

“You have to ask yourself what really is important to you,” says family and marriage therapist Karen M. Barry. If your priority really is spending time with your family, focus your efforts on things that give you time to spend with your loved ones — for example, having dinner. “If you’re skipping dinner together because someone has softball, or someone has soccer, or piano, or dance, ask how that fits your priority,” Barry suggests. “By skipping family dinner for dance class, does it look like dance has a higher value? It’s not that you want to rob your children of experiences, but do you want them to have more experiences—or more time with you?”

Some suggestions for downsizing the possessions and time-gobblers in your life:

• Consolidate your gadgets — make one work for two. Skip the bread machine if your mixer has a dough hook or do it the old-fashioned way, getting the kids together to knead. And before you balk (“I don’t have the time for that!”), check out bread recipes. They don’t take as long as you think to mix — and bread rises peacefully, all by itself, while you tend to other things.

• No need to have different sets of plates — it’s the food and conversation that take center stage, not the platter the food rests upon. Keeping it simple in your cupboards means less to clean and more glorious space.

• Not only does simplifying your food menu save you money, it’s generally healthier, too. Try throwing a couple pieces of chicken on the grill and skipping the boxed, breaded chicken nuggets. Offer a side dipper of honey, and the kids won’t miss Mickey D’s.

• Sure, it’s tempting to buy a new car with better fuel economy when the price at the pump makes us shriek. But really — if your current car is paid off, what’s the real savings when you start making car payments again?

• Ask yourself what you really need for a family vacation. Could you find a cabin here in North Carolina to fit the bill for far less than a trip to Disney World? “Kids aren’t nearly as impressed with the big vacations as the parents are with giving them,” says Barry. “When you ask them what was really memorable, it’s something funny that happened, or some moment you shared.”

• Look around North Carolina to see what’s going on locally — dive into a local festival or museum. Pick up an NC travel book from the library — you may be surprised at what’s right around you.

• It costs you time and money to cram everyone’s schedule full of “enrichment.” How about choosing one or two that really are important, and postponing the rest? Fill your extra time by going to the library and reading together as a family, or even doing fun home improvement projects together — painting your tween’s room or creating a backyard oasis.

• Think twice before getting giddy over new technology. iPhones, Blackberries — just because technology allows you to stay in contact with anyone, anywhere, at any hour…does that mean you have to? Or that you must?

• If you purchase trendy clothing, you’ll find yourself constantly stocking and re-stocking your wardrobe. Consider investing in some classics and leave it at that.

• Stay focused on “less is more” when you’re prepping for the holidays. The kids aren’t going to remember what they got, when they got it. What they will remember is how they felt, spending the holidays with you.

• Consider giving a couple of gifts to your children, then focusing on family fun as the main event. Cancel the five-course holiday meal, and replace it with a 1,000-piece puzzle spread out on the dining room table, assembled over a couple days with everyone hanging out together. Or choose a family board game, creating great memories with mini-tournaments.

• Snip the shopping list in half, then fill in with lots of family-oriented activities; making holiday crafts or baking together and take the fruits of your labor to seniors’ homes or local shelters.

When your family eliminates the extra “stuff” — both possessions and time-munchers — you not only simplify your life; you release yourself from its stranglehold. You end up with more — much more — of what really matters to you: time with family, time with friends, even time spent by rediscovering yourself.