How I Did It: Simplified My Life to 100 Things

Until 2006, I lived a pretty normal life with my husband and daughter in Utah.

I was working full time (and then some) in advertising sales and had racked up $40,000-$50,000 in debt from student loans, car loans and credit cards, not to mention my mortgage. But it didn’t really worry me at the time–I thought it was just how life worked.

Then I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

It was the last thing I was expecting. It never crossed my mind that I could get diagnosed with something like MS. In fact, when I was diagnosed, I was training for a bike ride to raise funds for MS research!

As I started learning more about the disease, it became clear to me that my excessive lifestyle—spending too much, running around like crazy—had contributed to my illness. So I started changing things. First my money, then my lifestyle.

Phase One: Money

First, I looked at our money situation. Our lifestyle simply wasn’t sustainable. I couldn’t figure out how my husband and I could both work full-time jobs and still live paycheck to paycheck. We had 401(k)s and were paying our expenses, but we also had a lot of debt.

Because we were working so much (my husband is a service director in the automotive industry), we had this mentality that we deserved to be rewarded. I was constantly spending on clothing and accessories; my husband and I would treat ourselves to dinners out and expensive vacations. Otherwise, why work so hard?

Sparked by my diagnosis, I made the decision to simplify my life, and paying down our debt was one of the first ways I did it. We stopped using credit cards and started saying no. Recently, we were invited on a European vacation with our family. In the past, we might have just charged it, but instead we stayed home.

We started chipping away at over $30,000 of student loans, car payments and credit card debt by paying off the smallest debt first, then used that momentum to keep paying the rest. My diagnosis means I do have significant medical costs, but we use a Health Savings Account to stay on top of that.

And our measures have paid off: As another benefit of living debt-free, I was able to leave my job in 2011 to concentrate on my writing, photography and business consulting.

Phase Two: Downsizing Our Possessions

Next, I started paring down my clothes. That effort was connected to my project of saving and paying down debt, since a lot of my money was going to clothing and accessories and gorgeous purses I thought I couldn’t live without.

I started Project 333 through my blog, which encourages participants to scale down their wardrobe to 33 items for three months at a time. I chose the threes because a) I live in a four-season state, so thought it made sense to plan three months at a time and b) I wanted to choose a number that was low enough to challenge me and blog readers, but not so low that it seemed too extreme.

With my own pursuit of Project 333 going so well for two years, I came across Dave Bruno’s 100 Thing Challenge, in which he challenged himself to pare down his possessions to only 100 things, to break free of American consumerism and prove that he could live with less.

I amended his rules to suit my own life (which he encourages) and decided to take part in the 100 Thing Challenge, myself. My version of the rules were:

  • As long as the total is 100, it’s okay to lose one thing and gain another–I can change my list any time.
  • If someone gives me a gift that I mean to keep, it must replace an existing item.
  • Underwear collectively counts as one item and so do another few groupings, like electronic chargers.
  • I would only reduce my personal items to 100 (clothing, makeup, accessories, gadgets), not household items.
  • I’ll continue to live within the parameters of Project 333, as I’ve been doing for two years.
  • If it’s too much, then I’ll modify it further or discontinue. Though after about four months, I still haven’t had to!

If you’re interested in which 100 things I chose to keep, you can see the complete list on my blog.

How Living With Less Changed My Family

People always ask how my family dealt with my paring down, and I answer that you don’t force your family to come on board—they have to make that choice themselves.

My daughter is 17, and one of the best things that’s come from this is the open dialogue about money in our family. She will be heading off to college soon, and we’re being realistic about what we can and can’t afford, and what kind of grants and scholarships we might need. Student loans are a non-option (it took me almost two decades to pay off my student loans, and I don’t want that for her). With our new spending habits, my husband and I can put my daughter through school at a reasonably priced institution.

My daughter knows that I budget every two weeks, and if she wants or needs something within that time, she has to talk to me about fitting it into the budget. A lot is going to change for her as she becomes an adult, but hopefully we’ve instilled the lesson that you spend what you have, and no more. (Inspired? We have tips on setting up your own budget.)

This change is exciting for me, because I never thought that I’d live like this. I always thought I’d have a car loan, that I’d have way more shoes than I needed, that I’d work for someone else. But each of the small steps away from that has been miraculous and turned into a lower-stress lifestyle with more genuine happiness. The possibilities seem endless.

My family is closer, too. I’m more present and engaged than I was when I was working so hard, and now we all see that there is great opportunity for happiness in living with less. We live small so we can live big.

But We’re Not Done Yet …

The next step is to pare down our living space. When we moved into our home, we thought it would be ours forever. Since then, we realized our best memories aren’t attached to our home–they were created outside, when we were biking or hiking or just taking a walk. With a smaller house (and smaller bills), we’ll have more money and time to do those things more often. We don’t yet know where we’ll move or what our house will be, but we hope to cut our living expenses by 50% over the next 5 years (much like my friend Tammy did with her 128-square-foot house).

My whole journey has taught me to see the value of everything in my life and move away from “what if.” I’ve stopped asking, “What if my MS is progressing? What if I wake up tomorrow and can’t see? What if this terrible thing happens, or that one?” and instead I think about where I am now, and of something that makes me grateful. When I switch from “I’m worried about this” to “I’m so grateful for this,” I calm down.

(LearnVest tip: If you, too, are looking for balance, here’s how to count your blessings with a gratitude list.)

I’m not saying I don’t get worried about things, but I put them in perspective. The things we don’t worry about might just happen anyway … so why waste our energy on things that likely won’t?

Courtney Carver writes about her quest to simplify her life at her blog, Be More With Less. She is the author of a book with the same name and the founder of One Million for Good, a site that helps fund MS research and other good causes through sales of limited-edition photography. Follow Courtney on Twitter @bemorewithless.

  • DB

    I am sorry to hear about your illness. I am glad that you were able to turn it into a positive into your life. I myself am practicing  minimalism. I am also a spiritual person and was surprised to see how you equated your illness with over consumption. This is mind blowing because a lot of people do not realize that what they do in their life does affect their health as well. God bless and keep up the good work!

  • Shamika Thomas Ellis

    Excellent article as I really enjoyed reading this.  I completely agree, scaling down makes a huge difference and the extra space in your home, pockets and mind will be happier for it.  Very well done. :)

  • Cameralinz

    Kind of confused why the author attributes her MS to stress and the link goes to an article saying that stress has very little to do with it….

  • http://fitorama.wordpress.com/ Lauren Lever

     I feel like a bit of a hoarder now, I don’t have many things, but I have about two huge plastic boxes of go-go outfits that I would hate to give up, even though I don’t really dance anymore, the thought of giving them up frightens me! 

    • Kay_plmr

      KEEP WHAT YOU LOVE (even if you dont use it).  Anything that you use, wear or love is worth keeping.  The rest are just “things”

      • http://fitorama.wordpress.com/ Lauren Lever

         Haha, that might be a problem.. Hoarders love the things they keep..

        • Stacey

          Don’t know if this helps, but I have a small collection of boxes, I call them ‘memory boxes’. There are four moving box-sized boxes. If it can’t fit in one of those or I’m not using it, I don’t keep it. I also make scrapbooks and put pictures or scaps of beloved things in there; looking at the scrapbooks to me is a more valuable way of reliving those memories.

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Holding on to something like that doesn’t make you a hoarder. ;) It might make it easier to let go if you know they have a  good place to go. Is there a local dance studio or an organization in your community that could use them?

  • Sara

    While I congratulate the author on finding a way to productively manage her illness, as a healthcare provider I think it’s irresponsible for an advocate for MS as herself to perpetuate a false theory that stress causes MS. It can exacerbate some of the symptoms, but while stress in our lives and material things and debt can cause many things, MS is not one of them! Best wishes for health to you, Courtney.

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Sara, Thanks for your comment. I was not the author of the post, but instead interviewed. I do believe that stress, busyness and my lifestyle contributed to my disease progression but didn’t mean for the article to imply that stress is the cause of MS or any other condition. 

      There are many changes that I made more directly related to my healthcare that are not covered in this article. 

      Thanks for your concern,
      Courtney

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/WX6B7HNGHHMJPADBNKABERF7U4 Daniel

      I was thinking very much the same thing. She says “It became clear to me that my excessive lifestyle…had contributed to my illness.” I’m far from an expert, but my mother has MS, so I’ve looked into much of the research into the disease. While theories are out there, I’m pretty sure no one really knows what causes MS, and stress is not one of the better-supported or more likely hypotheses. Author Courtney Carver has done great things to address a major problem in her life, but that problem and MS are, so far as I can tell, completely unrelated.

      • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

        Hi Daniel,

        Again, It wasn’t my intention to imply that my lifestyle was the actual cause of the disease, but it certainly contributed to how I was able to handle it. 

        Sorry for any confusion.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/WX6B7HNGHHMJPADBNKABERF7U4 Daniel

      I was thinking very much the same thing. She says “It became clear to me that my excessive lifestyle…had contributed to my illness.” I’m far from an expert, but my mother has MS, so I’ve looked into much of the research into the disease. While theories are out there, I’m pretty sure no one really knows what causes MS, and stress is not one of the better-supported or more likely hypotheses. Author Courtney Carver has done great things to address a major problem in her life, but that problem and MS are, so far as I can tell, completely unrelated.

    • Roza lee

      I have ms since 12 years now. And every time I have got a relapse it was after a big stress(deat,accident,getting fired) . I am tired of the people telling me stress don’t give relapse. I know my body and I can say that yes stress made me sick. Maybe no doctor can proove it but no doctor can give me the cause of my ms. :) I wish  courtney to have a wonderfull life and to keep her good spirit 

  • Katherine

    God Bless you…your illness have created this powerful, beautiful woman.  It’s not that you weren’t before; you are greater than what you ever thought you could be.  You ideals, points are so right on, especially in this day and age that we live.  I checked out your website…very nice.  Your services that you offer are very beneficial to “soloepreneurs” such as me.  Until we talk again, I wish you and your family nothing but Gods blessings!  He has blessed and will continue to do so.  Why, because with so much going on with yourself, you are giving yourself to others to help them.  Thank you. 

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      I hope we have a  chance to work together Katherine. Thanks for your kind words.

      • Katherine

        I think we will Courtney in the very near future.  And you are more than welcome.  :)

  • Callie Leuck

    This is one of my favorite LearnVest Daily updates in such a long time. I’m still very young (mid-twenties) and finishing grad school while in my first job, and unwed. I really appreciate people like Courtney sharing their experiences, because it gives me a realistic idea of the financial problems I’m likely to run into. Nobody expects to suddenly be diagnosed with MS. 

    Courtney, I really appreciate this article. I think it is very nonjudgey (and it certainly could have been superior in a “I am so free from the worldly possessions that drag you mere mortals down”). Particularly since I’ve been trying to figure out why I have “so much crap” and how to live with less, I really like your discussion about downsizing your possessions and your explanation of the process you went through. I think I might try this too. I’ve noticed that a lot of my “stuff” tend to go unused for months or even years at a time before I run across it and think “Oh, I forgot I had this, but I *can’t* throw it away…I might *need* it.)
    So I think I’ll try this method. I could never live with only 10 books though. “Books” will have to be a group :)

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      I love books too! I thought I would hold onto my books forever until I read this quote: 

      “You have a garden. If you ever get sad that you don’t have a garden of your own, remember that you have hundreds of beautiful gardens all over the city and all over the world. Try to erase the language of “want” from your head. You have everything you need.” – Jaime Morrison Curtis

      It reminded me not only of gardens, but libraries. ;)

    • Karen C

      Oh no Callie, we’re so similar. I’m so obsessed with skin care and books. I had recently moved to a new city and  I bring everything with me. Those books are untouched for so long and some even unread. There are times I am so upset yet I still buy new book that I find interesting in store with “I might not be able to find such good read”. Let’s put our effort on this.

  • Jenny H

    As a regular LearnVest reader who is currently participating in Courtney’s Project 333 community, I was so thrilled to read this here. For other LearnVesters, I highly recommend Project 333, and the best part of it is that you can just think of it as a 3 month experiment– you don’t even have to get rid of anything. Anyway, I was not aware of Courtney’s health struggles. Keep up the good work, Courtney and I wish you the best health possible.

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Thanks Jenny!

  • Engchik

    Books and clothes- i have hundreds and hundreds. But for me to weed out items to just one pair of yoga pants or one book means now i have to wash my pants every couple of days, find quarters, go to the laundry…with many clothes, i can go thru a whole month w no washing til i run out, so thats better on my money and time. same w books. I’m a writer, so i have a huge library meaning i don’t have to run out to the library constantly, wasting time and gas. and I live in a small condo that has everything situated perfectly. plus i sell non-needed items at yard sales. glad your minimalism works for you and controlling your illness is working.

    • Engchik

      I also have zero debt, b/c i stay within my means.

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Thanks Engchick. We all have to find what works best for our individual lifestyles. It’s so great that we can read about what other people do, but when it comes down to it, happiness in our own lives looks different. 

      Sounds like you have found happiness and that is what really matters.

      • Engchik

        Courtney, I’m trying to, anyway! ;)

  • PalB.

    I am an avid LV reader and when I see my own thoughts pen down by some contributor my heart just jumps with joy! My mother has actually brought  me and my sister up  in the same manner that you are now nurturing your daughter. I am so glad to see that despite my mother and you being worlds apart (she is in India) you guys share the same ideology. I always try to apply one year rule at my own household. If my husband and I haven’t used anything for around an year, chances are that we won’t use it anytime soon. So we try and give it away or donate. Same goes for clothes and other stuff, which comes out during spring cleaning or shifting seasonal clothes.
    Thanks a lot for compiling all the great ideas/habits in one article. 
    God bless.
    Pallavi

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Thanks Pallavi. It’s nice to see that you appreciate and learn from the way your mom raised you.

  • ducktapegurl

    Great article! I loved reading it and I am really going to try the Project 33 idea!  I’m sorry that you came upon this idea and lifestyle after receiving your MS diagnosis but you really keep positive and that is admirable.  Best wishes to you and your family!

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Let me know if I can help with Project 333!

      • ducktapegurl

        Thanks!

  • Trich801

    I agree that stress can have a negative affect on life but MS is NOT caused by excessive liefestyles and stress. 

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      agreed, although no one knows for sure. There are theories but no known causes or cures.

  • Ijeoma N.

     Great story! Less is really more.

  • Beverly

    Sorry to hear about your illness and may the Lord Jesus bless you and keep you healthy.  I am already a minimalist and still looking to downsize…I have even given up cable and now wondering if I should just sell my TV.  I am now decluttering my closet.  I have sold my dresser and my dining table.  my little flat was furnished but because i had furniture i asked my land lady to move her stuff out.  But now I am using her writing desk for a dining table and her chest of drawers, and with the money i made from selling my furniture…i paid of my school fee for this term.  My stuff was big, so now my little flat looks spacious and I give the Lord Jesus thanks.  I really enjoyed your article and I thank you so much for sharing.

    • http://bemorewithless.com/ Courtney Carver

      Congrats on making such great progress and thanks for your kind words.

  • Amber

    Thank you so much, Courtney, for sharing! It is so easy for me to get wrapped up in the “more, more, more” mentality but then feel overwhelmed about money, even though our finances are stable. Your article has really encouraged me to start living a more minimal lifestyle by taking small steps to start. I really like how you pointed out that it’s the memories we create with our family that are the most important – not how big of a house we live in. God bless you!

  • Kievjaguar

    Dear Cortney,

    It is a great article!

    I have a male friend who suffers from MS and I know that stress is responsible for worsening its symptoms. I am not a doctor, but it is an auto-immune disease, and many of them are aggravated by stress. I think stress is what is responsible for all our health issues from the flu to cancer.

    I came from the Ukraine and found out that Americans who I met have big houses. My husband calls our 2,400-square foot house small!!! We do not have a huge debt and l love that our 4 acres are situated on hills,  a sanctuary that  helps me meditate. However, when spring and summer come, it a grass-mowing season. Oh, so much time and resources wasted just to keep the grass low!!!!
    And cleaning the house is a huge chore for me. I do not like it, but if I do not maintain some order, I do not feel well. A big dilemma… The husband is not willing relocate. For all 15 years we had all kinds of excuses. After being unhappy for a long time, I decided it was OK. I would enjoy whatever is given to me right now since I cannot change the situation. :)

  • Pam

    You’re courageous and inspirational. I am saying a prayer for you right now, that you will feel well for a good long time to come! Thank you for your article!

  • Roza lee

    My husband and I decided that I will work only part time after I was diagnosed with MS . In exchange we both have to watch our spending. We both want to have a house cause we don’t know how ms will act on me. That is why we decided to move from paris to scotland where the house are cheaper . And the qualty of life better. Right now we are paying down our debt living a frugal life. Some people look at us like crazy  cause we are watching our money lol My life is better now. I am travelling (my passion with finance) and I am seing my familly. Thank you for your post I feel less lonely as a sick person trying to save :)