Thursday, February 18, 2010

Living Simply

I have a print-out of the ELCA’s 40 Day Lenten calendar focused on hunger taped to the dining room wall. There’s an activity for each day designed to help me stop and think about those in need, to remain aware and prayerful, to discern where my own choices can make a difference and how I can be of service to the greater world. For today, the suggested activity is to write about the struggle to live simply. Since I’m committed to this daily blog, I get to kill two birds with one stone. I’d say I’m off to a good start in the area of simplification.

Over the past five years, I have taken very deliberate steps to simplify my life and that of my family. Perhaps most drastic was my decision to quit working outside the home. Suddenly there was enough time to get everything done, including resting sufficiently. What there wasn’t any more was extra money. It’s amazing how you spend to your available income. We have to say “no” a lot more, but it’s clear we really didn’t need all that other stuff we’d been wanting.

In fact, it became clear that we really didn’t need most of the stuff we already had. With the kids in school and more time to myself, I systematically began downsizing all the junk in the house. Room by room, garage sale by garage sale, I got rid of a truckload of “stuff,” and found that I could get at things more easily in my kitchen, hang clean clothes in closets with room to spare, and see the floor of my kids’ bedrooms. I think maybe twice in the past three years have I missed something I’d chosen to part with. Not too bad. But I’m not fooling myself. I have more junk than anyone could possibly need.

This afternoon, I went to Ikea for the first time. I wasn’t terribly impressed, to be honest. Dan and I picked up a couple of things we actually did need and then just had fun traipsing through all the staged rooms. It felt good to say, “that would be nice, but we don’t need it,” a few dozen times. It felt even better to escape the place having dropped less than twenty bucks.

That being said, Dan and I treated ourselves to a very nice dinner at Red Lobster—frivolous to be sure!—and then spent the rest of our ‘date’ grocery shopping at four different places to the tune of $600. Now that’s enough dog, cat and human food to keep us for some time, but it sure didn’t feel like living simply.

I remember one staff discussion when I worked at PRISM. The case workers were wondering what a reasonable monthly grocery budget was for a family of four. The amounts tossed around the room were in the $200-$400 range. I almost choked on my lunch. Dan and I are exceptionally frugal (or, as Dan likes to say, “Scottish,”) when it comes to grocery shopping, even with my special food needs and three pets, but our monthly grocery budget is more in the level of $500 to $600 a month. Are we not living simply enough? Or is it unreasonable that a family should be able to feed itself for half of what my family spends?

I’ve no wise conclusions to draw from this exercise, except that living simply isn’t easy, but it is possible, and no matter how far I scale back, I will still have an embarrassment of riches compared with the vast majority of people in this world. So it’s worth it to continue pushing out of my comfort zone in the area of cutting back, knowing that I have more than enough.

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