Economy

4 Ways to Live a Simpler, Happier Life

Living smaller is also good for the planet.

Tiny houses are the rage among people who like the idea of liberating themselves through living simple. Eschewing excess space and taking advantage of every inch, these minimalist houses are economical and appeal to our sense of personal freedom. You can get up and leave at a moment's notice, hitch your home to the back of a car and take it across country anytime you please. Tiny houses even inspire fantasies of going off the grid, becoming self-sufficient with a couple of solar panels, microturbines, a wood stove and a few rain barrels.

But as much as people love the idea of tiny houses, these structures are not realistic for everyone. Many of us are tethered to our jobs, schools, friends and families, and those attachments often anchor us to a particular neighborhood. And unfortunately, you just can’t put a tiny house anywhere on a map. Often, they don’t adhere to planning and zoning laws in the municipalities we need to live in.

The good news is you don’t need a tiny house to live the minimalist lifestyle. Here are four simple ways to live smaller even if you live a bigger house.

1.  Lose the car. While this isn’t practical for everyone, urban dwellers have fewer and fewer reasons to own a car. Public transportation systems are improving and expanding in many cities and becoming more appealing to commuters.

Public transit ridership is at its highest per capita level since 1956, the year President Dwight Eisenhower signed the law creating the Interstate Highway System, which fueled car culture in the U.S. Transit officials say this shift isn’t so much economic, but that Americans’ everyday travel habits are changing.

The American Public Transportation Association says the growth in public transportation ridership in the past several years is a result of an improving economy and expanded services offered by many transit systems. The increase in transit use correlates to a decreased number of miles driven by Americans.

“The start of the economic downturn and rising fuel prices drove a lot of people to try transit. When they tried it, they found it was really good, and they’re staying,” said Michael Melaniphy of the APTA.

Many adults, particularly millennials, are riding their bikes in much greater numbers. In urban areas, the bicycle has become the millennials' equivalent of the hippies' Volkswagen Beetle. Bikes have become part of the lifestyle, and a symbol of independence and counter-culture.

Over the past decade, a bicycling boom has taken hold, and many roads in major urban centers now have dedicated cycling lanes. Dozens of U.S. cities and colleges have implemented bike-sharing systems, allowing riders to get around quickly without the hassles of bike ownership.

Adults aren’t bicycling just for recreation; bike commuting is dramatically increasing. Since 2000, bicycle commuting has grown 61%. The U.S. Census reports that commuting by bike grew by 9% in 2013, bringing it to a historical high. Nearly 900,000 people, or about 0.6% of the commuting public rides a bike as the primary method of getting to work. 

But what about those times you do need a car? If you live in a larger municipality or a college town, it’s likely you’ve got a burgeoning car-sharing infrastructure. Services such as ZipCar, DriveNow, HourCar, Car2Go, and AutoShare allow people to rent cars for as little as $8 an hour. These services are moving rapidly into smaller metropolitan areas as well. Urban dwellers find these services attractive since they only pay for the occasional use of a vehicle and don't have to worry about overnight parking, maintenance and car loans.

On the horizon for car-sharing are one-way rentals, allowing for regional travel between cities. Without the burden of having to return a car to its original location, this might make car-sharing much more attractive for extended periods and distance trips, perhaps even for travel to urban areas, where parking is often an issue.

Overall, it's safe to conclude that car ownership is not the priority it once was, soft economy or not. America's transportation landscape has changed dramatically since the recession began in 2008. Many commuters have come to realize that car ownership is no longer the most convenient or attractive transportation option.

2. Buy used, not new. While you may already be purchasing new products that are deemed environmentally friendly, you can minimize your carbon footprint and contribute to a sustainable ecology by buying used items, especially those that take a lot of energy and resources to produce. You're also likely to save yourself a ton of cash by buying used.

There are a few caveats to buying used products: You can get burned if you're not careful. Educate yourself about any product you intend to purchase and know how to inspect it for defects and hazards. Also, learn the value of any used item that still may carry a hefty price tag by checking out similar sales at online resale sites.

Before you head out to the thrift shops, check to see if there are local reuse or freecycle resources in your area. Housing Works in New York City is a volunteer-run venue that sells used clothing, furniture, rugs, books, CDs, DVDs, and LPs and many other items they receive as donations. In the San Francisco Bay Area, the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse in Oakland promotes solid waste diversion and conservation by selling used art materials, educational supplies, furniture, and home products. You can find such an organization or venue in your area by visiting the Freecycle Network, FreeLocal.org, Resale Shopping and the Thrift Shopper.

Some products you should consider buying used instead of new include bicycles (especially for children), exercise equipment (often resold for a fraction of the price new on Craigslist or at yard sales), musical instruments, wooden furniture, dishware and utensils (stainless steel flatware is best), clothing and cars.

3. Ditch cable. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably noticed that many people around you have dropped cable television. Sick of ever higher bills and poor customer service, some 4 million Americans have cut the cord in the past few years and they’re not looking back. Instead, they’re opting for high-definition antennas to receive network television, Internet television devices such as Apple TV, Roku and Google Chromecast to stream on-demand services such as Netflix, Crackle, Amazon Prime and Hulu Plus. Premium cable networks such as HBO and Showtime plan on creating stand-alone services not tied to cable subscriptions later this year.

You also don’t have to miss up-to-the-minute news, by dropping cable. Along with regular broadcast news shows from the television networks' regional stations, 24-hour news is available from CBSN, a new CBS News Internet video service that’s only available online and alternative news and opinion from the TYT Network, which you can watch from the site or its YouTube channel.  

An HD antenna gives you all your local broadcast stations, and often even extra channels, like local weather and news feeds provided by the regional stations you can’t get with cable. In some markets, you may even receive broadcasts of classic television shows like “I Love Lucy” and “Dragnet” or receive digital subchannels such as the Game Show Network and Ion Life (formerly iHealth).

Multicasting, as it is called, allows for local stations to broadcast up to six new channels in the same space as their old one. For instance, your Channel 5 might now also include Channels 5.1, 5.2, 5.3 and so on. In the metropolitan areas of New York, Chicago and Denver, you can receive as many as 50 channels through multicasting.

A digital antenna will run you anywhere from $8-$150. However, be careful when shopping for antennae, they’re not all created equal. Consumer Reports recently did an informal test of 10 popular HDTV antennas and found that performance varied widely. The magazine cautions that not all homes will get good reception with an antenna, and factors such as environmental conditions, physical obstructions and distance to broadcast towers may come into play. Models from Radio Shack and RCA, which both cost near $35, seemed to work best overall for the magazine’s testers.

Before investing in an antenna, you should check out how your area or even your neighbors are faring with reception. There are several Internet sites that can help, including antennaweb.org, antennapoint.com and the FCC's DTV Reception maps.

4. Get rid of stuff. I know a woman who figured out that mobility was the greatest freedom of all, and she took advantage of it, changing residences and even cities at the drop of a hat. The first big move she made, soon after a divorce, followed a yard sale that did so well she started selling the items inside her house, too. This left her with enough possessions to fit into a small U-Haul trailer, and she has never looked back. Years later, when her job took her out of the country for 18 months, she didn’t have to rent a storage unit, as most of her belongings fit comfortably in the corners of two friends’ basements.

Whether you call it decluttering, Zen living or the minimalist lifestyle, people who have forsaken materialism say it's the antithesis of mindless consumption and they’re happier with less. While some minimalists admit that parting with many of their material possessions can be traumatic, they also report feeling less weighed down afterward.  

Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, authors of the book Everything That Remains, say Americans are convinced that having the latest products or finest cars will make their lives better. We’re also trained to believe that if we don’t have these things, we can’t really be happy. Millburn and Nicodemus, who also write The Minimalists blog, say they’re reformed conspicuous consumers and now they’re trying to sell the concept of doing without.

Millburn and Nicodemus are part of a burgeoning movement of consumer skeptics. Instead of wishing for things, they question why they should have them. They may ask: Why have expansive wardrobes that are tossed every few years, when you can have fewer, but better made and well-fitted clothes that will last many years?

Going minimalist might also include unthinkable things like giving up your music collection, favorite books and family photos and heirlooms. But in the age of smartphones and cloud computing, your music and books can live in the ether and are a click away when you want them. Minimalist converts also say that shedding attic treasures makes them realize that the memories aren’t stored in musty cardboard boxes after all.

Those who live the minimalist lifestyle say they’ve adapted to checking out books, music and movies from the public library rather than purchasing them. And when they do purchase something, minimalism also means buying small, living streamlined and knowing bigger doesn’t always mean better.  Who needs a stereo component system, big-screen television or row of bookcases when all your media can fit on light, portable devices?

One notable side-effect of having fewer material possessions is that you will have fewer things to worry about and maintain. Having fewer things to fix means saving money, and not spending your free time doing burdensome projects or wandering around hardware stores and repair shops. You can spend your time living, instead of worrying about your stuff. 

Cliff Weathers is a former senior editor at AlterNet and served as a deputy editor at Consumer Reports. Twitter @cliffweathers.

 

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