How to backtrack after chasing the American Dream

Photo: inhabit.com

I recently wrote an article on how living in Italy changed my idea of minimalism and it had a lot of wonderful responses and questions. The main question: how can we live like this without actually moving to Europe? Obviously, we can’t live exactly like this because we don’t have control over billboards or shopping malls but we do have control over our homes, minds and where we choose to shop.

After we moved back to the United States we dived head first into the American dream. We bought a house that was too big for us, furnished the rooms that we didn’t have furniture for, acquired all the maintenance items ‘needed’ to upkeep the house, including a power washer, snow blower and leaf blower AND we bought a new car. What. Were. We. Thinking? Honestly, we weren’t thinking. Consumerism had taken hold of our minds and bodies. Even my eldest daughter would go into meltdowns when she couldn’t get something she saw in a store, which had been completely unlike her in Italy. I felt her pain, I wanted it all too. All the big, shiny cars, houses, clothes and furniture.

In January of this year, I started digging ourselves out of the hole we had dug. I’m still digging but I have a goal in mind and that is what pushes me forward. Europe left its mark on me, I had only just forgotten about it for a short time.

4 ways we are putting a stop to the American Dream:

1. Selling the big car for a smaller one

Europeans drive small cars. Large families cram into small cars and yes, it may be uncomfortable for the duration of the ride but they learn to work together to get where they need to go. It’s called teamwork and it takes a lot of understanding and patience but it’s a life lesson, a life lesson that we are forgetting quickly in America. So the big ole’ mini-van is on its way out and I’m back to a Prius (just like I had in Italy, ironically). We are a family of four, who fit very comfortably in a Prius, no one is complaining.

2. Playing the ‘We are moving’ game

I love this one. My husband and I have been playing this little game on the weekends. We will ask, “If we were moving to a 2-bedroom apartment would you take this?” We like to imagine we are moving to a 2-bedroom condo or townhouse, (eh-em no yard work), in Florida or another warm state! So far, we decided, the huge dining room table we bought is going, as is our second tv stand. Why I have two tv stands…I don’t know, seemed like a good idea at the time, so we could all watch tv separately, which never happens and is completely frivolous now that I think of it.

3. My kids will learn to share their stuff

Sharing is a fact of life. There are a few instances when you never have to share, but for the most part, we need to share our lives with others. I have to share a room with my husband (and a bathroom, sigh) but I’ve always had to share with my sisters, then with my roommates, etc. etc. We do not need two individual bathrooms for my husband and I and arguably we do not need double the amount of toys so that each of my children has one of their own. If we can learn to share we won’t have double of everything, all while teaching great life lessons to our kids. Some minimalists go as far as owning close to nothing and borrowing a lot of things they need, like a lawn mower, or blender but it’s okay to own one of these if you use it often!

4. I refuse to go into department stores or malls

Too. Many. Choices. The noise, the lights, the smells. It’s all too much for me to go into big box stores or department stores anymore. When you live without them for years, it can really make your head spin when you return. I had an actual panic attack in a mall when we returned from Italy and I had a moment of decision paralysis when I had an entire aisle of juice to choose from in the grocery store. It’s insane the number of choices offered in just about any store in America. I now limit my choices extensively. I only shop at Trader Joe’s because they only have exactly what I need and nothing else (I promise I don’t spend more than at the regular grocery). I have considered ordering my body products online, as Target has become a death bed for my wallet and I try to shop at only locally owned shops when available. I’m so looking forward to our new, specialty, in town coffee shop that doesn’t sell Starbucks or dunkin’ donuts!

What are you doing to downsize your big life?

Is this Happiness or Pleasure?

Many people talk about slowing down, getting out of the rat race, retiring to Florida, downsizing, or becoming minimalist, but why? The answer is to be happy but if we don’t define happiness we can mistakenly replace it with pleasure and find ourselves in the exact same boat we were in before we slowed down.

It should seem that giving up commitments and removing our clutter would make us feel immensely better and it does for a moment until you want that one thing you got rid of and now your life is a little more complicated. You may have to improvise or ask someone to borrow something, which makes us just a little uncomfortable or can annoyingly take us a little bit longer.

Maybe being happy doesn’t mean having everything we want.

Does being happy mean we are never uncomfortable? Resoundingly, No! We can have an incredibly happy life, content with where we are, who we are and what we have. Happiness comes from the knowledge that it’s not always going to be easy and it’s not always going to be perfect and we will still be okay. We will actually be more than okay, we will learn lessons and become a better version of ourselves because of the experience. We can even have the expectation that we will be uncomfortable and just that knowledge can make us happier when we find we aren’t as uncomfortable as we thought we would be.

Pleasure, however, is a different beast. Seeking pleasure is, by far, not the same thing as seeking happiness. Pleasure, in most cases, actually will decrease our happiness. See, the pleasure meter you experience when you get something new is off the charts, but then just days later you’re already less excited than you were when you first received it. It’s like buying a new car, or a new pair of shoes, after the first use your pleasure meter starts to go down and you can become unhappy when the car isn’t everything you thought it would be or the shoes don’t hold up as well as you expected.

There are three different variables in the happiness meter: Pleasure, expectation, and contentment. Pleasure has high-risk factors for decreasing happiness overall. If we seek only pleasures in life we will eventually come to expect them. Expectation is the root of all discontentment, we become incredibly discontented when our expectations are not met. And here is where we find unhappiness.

So the formula seems to suggest that we actually stop seeking pleasure. Which would be a pretty boring life, but what if for the sake of argument, in our overly abundant, consumerist, first world country, that we just stop seeking so many pleasures? Sure I’ll still seek the beach in the summertime and ice cream on the first day of spring but maybe I’ll stop seeking the $5,000 vacations and the brand new vehicles. And without the need for expensive houses, cars, and vacations, I may find I have to work less and that wouldn’t be too bad! What if we seek happiness right where we are, with the people we are with?

Arguably, our culture sets us up for unhappiness. Expectations in the U.S. are unreasonable. We see ads everywhere that include the perfect (but outrageously expensive) vacations, perfect hair, flawless skin, the fastest cars with heated and cooled seats, and bigger and bigger and bigger houses (though cheaply built). While, Instagram and facebook surely, don’t help us set lower our expectations either. We are set up for failure and that sucks. But we have the option to see through the smoke screens and remind ourselves of what makes us happy not what is purely pleasurable.

What pleasures have you sought because you thought they would increase your happiness?

Some of mine are: a new minivan (we are the only country in the world where every parent drives a minivan, no matter the number of kids), a bigger house than I really need, perfectly renovated bathrooms, expensive shoes for a theoretical career, and a Caribbean vacation. I’m sure that list could go on. When I really think about it, those things have not brought me happiness, just short, intense pleasure. I would have been just as happy (or happier), in the long run, going to the Outer Banks with my family, wearing shoes from TJ Maxx, a bathroom that functioned but wasn’t super pretty (so I had more money to give, or to take my family to the beach), and I would have been way happier with a used, smaller car that I didn’t’ feel worried my kids would ruin with their lollipops or chocolate milk!

For my downshifted life, I’ll be taking steps this year to recognize what is happiness in my life and what is simply pleasure.

Minimalist Gifts for Your Love Language

There are five love languages and it’s not hard to figure out which one you are by taking a simple test. The five languages are Acts of Service, Quality Time, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, and Receiving Gifts.  It can be difficult to know someone else’s love language and give them a gift that truly speaks to them unless you ask them to take the test.

If you know the person really well, such as your spouse, child or good friend, you can usually guess one of their top love languages. Furthermore, it can be difficult to buy gifts for minimalists who view physical objects as obtrusive to their lifestyle and happiness. Here’s a short guide to overcoming gifting problems.

1. Everyone has a secondary love language; utilize it.

My love language is Quality Time but my secondary language is Words of Affirmation. If you aren’t able to offer me quality time, because you live too far away or are too busy, then please write me a beautifully written note or letter about how you feel about me.  If you MUST buy me a physical gift then I would prefer something useful (like a specialty tea) or something that’s ‘just so me’!

Gifts for the Words of Affirmation type: a letter or note, a list of things you love about the person, a book you made especially for them, a homemade meme about them (here’s an app for this), have a cartoon drawn of them, a CD or iTunes combination that they would like. The key to this language: being creative and knowing their best qualities.

Gifts for the Quality Time type: Invite them to wander around a city or town together, tickets to a show or play, a night with no phones and no screens – just the two of you, a pass to take a class together, or as a big gesture take the whole day off of work just to spend with them. The key to this language: no phones. This person feels really hurt when you look at a screen instead of them.

Gifts for the Acts of Service type: Take the kids and allow them some personal time, buy them a car wash or house cleaning service, plan out a trip to take them on or make a list of things to do in their area, make them dinner (that’s freezable), make them a calendar and take the time to write in all the important family birthdates and holidays. The key to this language: know what they do often and find a way to do it for them.

2. When we don’t know the person well enough to know their love language. 

When we don’t know the gift receiver well enough then Quality Time, Physical Touch and even Words of Affirmation are really off the table because let’s be real, that could get awkward. As a minimalist it’s hard to buy this person just random junk we know will be trashed or donated. What a waste.

Focus on their occupation: for a gift for an acquaintance or friend, figure out what they do all day. Teachers love gift cards and fun school/art supplies and they will never go to waste, bonus points if you can put it in a super durable, useful organizer. Stay-at-home moms can always use coffee or tea, a nice sweater or leggings (gift receipt please) and if you’re really ambitious, a home-cooked meal they can freeze or free babysitting. If the receiver has a long commute buy them a book on audible, a subscription to a magazine or newspaper, or make a CD/iTunes mix just for them. The key to finding the right gift that won’t go to waste: utility and ways to make their life easier.

3. The hardest love language to please when you’re a minimalist: Receiving Gifts

Receiving Gifts, as a love language, is usually hard for minimalists to follow through on. Why buy something they aren’t going to keep or that will clutter their lives? But Receiving Gifts is a real love language and lots of people actually view love in this way; arguably, this is how most people express love in our culture. How can you do this in a productive, non-wasteful way?

Gifts for the Receiving Gifts type: a basket of consumables (think jam, candy, flowers, wine), a book you know they’ve been wanting to read, a gift card or catalog telling them to circle what they want, a photo album of your favorite memories with them, a journal with prompts, a kindle, iTunes gift card (for apps or music), something related to their birthday month (ex. birthstone earrings). The key to this language: buy them a gift that reminds you of them or you know is their favorite. It doesn’t have to be expensive but it has to be about them and not junk!

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4. Kids and the never ending Legos.

Children receive so much STUFF, between holidays, birthdays and general visits to the grandparents, it seems to never end. You would think a child’s love language is always Receiving Gifts, but I urge you to think about why children love receiving gifts so much. Does your kid ask you to build legos with them all the time or do art projects with you constantly? I’d say their real love language is Quality Time. Is your child super happy when you’ve cleaned their bedroom for them or made them their favorite meal? Maybe your little one’s love language is Acts of Service. I don’t know a child that doesn’t love to hear Words of Affirmation. How can we limit the amount of junk that comes into our homes through these other love languages?

Ask grandparents to take just the birthday girl/boy on a day just for them; they could take them to the movies or out to dinner and really get to know them one-on-one. Try to emphasize how important days like this are over physical objects.

Here are some presents we all wish you would buy for our kids but never do: museum passes, zoo passes, movie tickets, amusement park passes, jump or play zone passes, musical instrument lessons or money towards any lessons, and subscriptions of any type. Live far away? Buy them a personalized stationary set and ask them to be your penpal. Snail mail is so fun and the world is quickly losing good writers!

For kids birthday parties: Gift cards to kid-oriented restaurants or ice cream shops are always fun. Project boxes that kids can do on their own are a blessing to parents and kids alike (I have a stack all ready for when they are ‘bored’ this summer). Think outside the box, we all have enough Legos already. Some great building projects are kiwi crate and Creativity for Kids. Outdoor equipment is also a pretty safe bet, like roller blades, scooters, beach toys, or gardening sets. If all else fails, gift cards are always welcome!

5. Physical Touch as a love language should be saved for your immediate family. Enough said. 

There isn’t much need for explanation in this category but if your spouse’s love language is Physical Touch make sure you’re extra loving on their birthday and throughout the year. A cuddle here, a kiss there, make sure you pay extra attention. Again, put down the phone and hold their hand! This type of person will also love a massage gift certificate or mani-pedi.

How Living in Italy Changed my Idea of Minimalism

I’ve always been a minimalist per se. I’ve enjoyed scaling down to exactly what I need to make my life calmer and more aesthetically pleasing. Then we lived in Vicenza for three years and even had a baby there! Living in Italy was a perfect chance to observe how the quintessential Europeans live versus consumerist Americans. Here are some of my thoughts:

1. Europeans don’t know they are minimalists.

Europeans don’t really know that they are, what American’s consider, minimalist. They have lived this way their entire lives, making it much easier to continue on the same path of simplicity. Even the gear happy, Germans don’t purchase half the amount of stuff that we, middle-class, Americans do. Their homes are simple and they buy the highest quality items of what they use every day.

They also don’t have a problem living in closer proximity to each other. Even single family homes are much closer together than our ever-sprawling lawns that separate homes in the American suburbs. In Italy, we lived in a townhouse and almost everyone I knew also lived in a townhome, apartment or home that was less than 20 feet from the home next to it.

Household items are also limited, compared to American standards. Good friends of ours, in Germany, have a very fancy espresso/coffee maker. I know this to be a prized possession because it is literally the only thing on their kitchen counter – except for fresh fruit. It is used every day to make high-quality coffee at home, arguably better than any Starbucks I’ve ever had.

There are NO closets!

You read that right…there. are. no. closets. The government actually supplied us with wardrobes when we moved in. Think IKEA wardrobes that you build yourself. If you need a way to downsize your clothes, this will do it. We also each had a dresser but it was still very limiting and I learned to dress with less pretty quickly.

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2. There are fewer advertisements and options.

Billboards stamped over every last square inch of the highway just isn’t seen in Italy, or Germany or Europe for that matter. There are small ads here and there, but the majority of them I saw in cities. However, even the cities have about half as many adverts as we have in the U.S. I’m not sure if there are laws about billboards (like in Vermont) or if it’s just not culturally acceptable to have flashing lights in your face, everywhere you turn? I’d prefer if it was the latter.

Options are far, far less! There are a limited amount of stores that are selling what you want. In Italy, the largest number of stores I saw were bicycle shops, I kid you not. There are about two-three bicycle shops for every small town. Suffice it to say, Italians are big into biking, as are most Euro countries. But options are limited, only two types of children’s fever medications at the pharmacy, only seasonal fruits and veggies in the markets, and only two stores that carried clothing I would actually wear (although that may have been a personal problem).

Lake Garda, 2014

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3. Everything is not open, all the time.

The most difficult adjustment to shopping habits: stores not being open all of the time. Most stores are closed on Sundays in Italy and this includes many stores in the mall. Malls are not everywhere in Italy and you usually have to drive a good distance to find one, when you do finally arrive, you learn that they are closed on Sundays. It brings a whole new meaning to the Sabbath if you know what I mean. When you are forced into a day of rest you take it.

Photo by Narumi Nuber

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4. Their culture is not built on speed (except the Autostrada!)

There is a well-known fact about Italians if you live in Italy; Italians do nothing fast except drive. They do just about everything slow, it took me over a month to order a baby bike seat from one of the many bike shops in my town (this was a normal time frame apparently). Furthermore, it can take over 30 minutes from the time you order your meal until you actually start eating – they are probably cooking it from scratch so it’s usually worth the wait and you can drink plenty of wine during this time.

Italians are built to be slow.  They practice ‘reposo’ – afternoon time to relax or take a nap – the equivalent of siesta. Espresso, although sometimes drank quickly, is never taken ‘to-go’. I tried for months to figure out the word ‘to-go’, in Italian and it never seemed to work. I’m not sure if the Italians didn’t understand me or they just refused to allow me to take my coffee out the door. Even McDonald’s does not have to-go coffee cups in Italy, you can have your Big Mac in a bag to go but definitely not your cafe.

Agriturismo near Lake Garda: Please research agriturismos before visiting Italy, your trip won’t be complete without one.

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Basically, Europeans are forced into a life of simplicity and slowness. Europe is not perfect, they have their own political issues and economic problems, but I don’t think most would argue that their lifestyle is better for the soul. Italians live some of the longest and healthiest lives on the planet (see Blue Zones and Mediterranean Diet) and other European countries live some of the happiest lives on the planet (see Denmark).

Maybe you’ll see another post on how to apply these principles while living in America – but I’ll have to figure that out for myself first!

Why I Don’t Rotate Toys

As parents, we have lofty goals of giving our kids the best of everything. Most times, this equates to a complete excess of everything! In truth, it’s unhealthy for kids to have 200+ toys, even if they are the best quality. If you haven’t read the book Simplicity Parenting, by Kim John Payne, then rent a copy because it will change the way you look at toys, activities, and media for your kiddos.

If you want to do what is BEST for your kids, have less toys, less clothes, less commitments and less noise around them!

I often get asked which toys should be kept, which should be donated and what can be ‘rotated’?

First off, you’re the parent, and you know what your kid’s favorite toys are. They are the ones that they drag around the house and ask you to play with ALL. THE. TIME. So box up the rest! Secondly, I don’t rotate toys. I tried to rotate toys and you know what happened? I boxed up all the ‘rotatable’ toys and put them in the attic and they never came down again, except one stuffed animal.

Reasons those toys didn’t come down:

  1. They weren’t asked for.
  2. They don’t require creativity or imagination.
  3. They are, in reality, junk.

It’s hard to be honest with ourselves when toys are really just junk. Here are some questions to help decide if it’s junk or not. How much plastic is involved? Can your child engage their imagination with the toy? Do you already have multiple of the same toy? Was it a gift that they never really asked for in the first place?

Want to know what made the list of toys we keep?

  • Dress up clothes (limited to three dresses each and a small basket of accessories)
  • Blankets (used for forts, baby dolls, capes, etc. – Montessori practitioners use play silks for the same thing)
  • Play kitchen and play food
  • Baby dolls and baby doll bed
  • Art supplies
  • A few board games
  • Favorite Stuffed Animals (stays in their bedrooms)

I have two girls, and so we don’t have trains or cars. But if I had a boy we would have his favorites, which would be more boy oriented.

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(although this is plastic, ‘pretend play’ toys tend to stick around!)

Sometimes I worry when friends come to visit that we won’t have enough toys for everyone to play with. However, I’ve never had a problem and not one child has ever said they are bored when they come over. Since all the toys are new to the visiting child they always find something exciting.

My favorite article on why kids need less stuff is by Denaye Barahona over at Becoming Minimalist: Why Kids Need Minimalism

Personally, I have a goal, similar to The Minimal Mom, to buy one toy organizer from IKEA and anything that doesn’t fit in that goes. It works for her and her 4 kids actually thrive using the system. The Minimal Mom – Toy Storage

A Guide to Saying ‘No’

Saying ‘no’ is so hard to do. I haven’t perfected it but in the past few years I’ve really learned some tactics that help limit my use of ‘yes’.

  • When someone asks you to do something, no matter how tempting it is, give yourself some time to think about it.
  • Use responses like: ‘I have to check my calendar’, ‘I’ll get back to you when I know’, or ‘Let me talk to my husband(partner) first’.
  • These phrases aren’t giving a direct ‘no’, but they are allowing you time to decide what’s right before committing to anything.

These tactics allow you to truly check your schedule and check in with yourself! Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is this something I truly want to do?
  • Do I have the money to do this?
  • Will this enrich my life or someone else’s?
  • Does this align with my goals?
  • What will I be giving up in order to say ‘yes’ to this?

Everything is a trade off. You may be saying yes to an opportunity but at the expense of making dinner for your family that night, spending time with your kids, or even something enjoyable that you like to do – like reading, running, or painting.

I even try to teach my children this trade off. For example, my oldest girl may say, ‘I want to go to Target and buy Pokemon cards with my birthday money’. My response is usually, ‘If we go buy those Pokemon cards we won’t be able to go to the jump zone on a rainy afternoon or go to the movies next weekend because you don’t have enough money to do both’. They get to decide and whatever they decide is met with positivity but when the weekend rolls around and they don’t have money for something fun then they learn a good lesson. It’s not cruel, it’s realistic, they are learning the trade off and frankly, so am I. Sometimes I regret my decision and have to live with it, but the next time I definitely make a better choice!

What would you rather be doing than going to an ‘opportunity’ that you could have said ‘no’ to?

Put on your Best Face

I’m old enough to know what make-up I like by now. I’ve had plenty of experimenting over the years. But I’ve settled on a very selective few products that I love and use every day.

My favorite room to declutter with my clients (I’m a professional organizer) is their bathroom. I ask them to put their daily make-up on, that they wear every day to work. Then, I ask them to add the products they would wear for a night on the town or for a wedding or special event. They look beautiful and sexy and ready to go, even though we are still in our cleaning clothes! But it’s really fun to see what people choose.

Then we get rid of the rest!!! Even if they just love this one item, if it’s never used, it goes. Sometimes we love certain make-up just because we love to look at the colors but it doesn’t actually look good with our skin tone or eye color. Sometimes we feel guilty because we spent too much money on something that just isn’t right for us. Same goes for clothes. Let go of that guilt.

Here’s a sneak peek into my make-up (and yes this is ALL of it).

 

The first photo is my daily make-up. It all goes into the striped bag you see in the photo. I use almost all of this every day. Included are concealer, face powder, blush, eyebrow powder, mascara, eyeliner, and Burt’s Bee’s lipstick and chapstick. Plus the brushes that go with each item. I planning on converting the eyebrow powder to a pencil, which will eliminate the small brush.

My special event makeup is everything in the striped bag plus an extra foundation, a shinier eyeliner, and an eye palette. I keep this all in my special event clutch. I know where it is and I keep it out of my everyday wear (put away in my closet) so I don’t have to think about it until I actually have a special event!

I’d love to see your pared-down make-up. What are your favorites and where do you keep your dressy make-up?