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.
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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.