The Year of Less

Happy first day of 2018, folks! Thank you so much for your readership and all of your support over the past year, and especially the outpouring of love and encouragement following my last post on the struggle that was 2017. I'm happy to report that we're on the up-and-up, photo of us smiling in Hawaii as proof. 

Today marks the beginning of a year-long project that I am calling "The Year of Less" because it is focused on subtracting things and activities that are not adding value to my life in order to achieve a few objectives that are important to both me and Wes. It's a long post, intense with lots of bullet points, most of it written in my iPhone notes over the past several weeks. Some of you have reached out to me via email or Instagram that you're taking steps this year to reduce your own consumption. I encourage you to share your thoughts and approaches in the comments on this post for the other readers of this blog who might see a need to cut back in their own lives, but the approach I am describing here might not be an appropriate fit for what they may want to accomplish. That said, here's the post:

What The Year of Less is all about

If you read my last post on happiness and living life to the fullest, you may remember that there was a nod to the idea of living beneath your means. An idea that honestly used to tick me off, growing up with frugal parents who made me babysit and do odd jobs to earn money and ride around in ultra-uncool cars.* Basically, my parents were extremely wealthy and we wanted for nothing: my dad was a corporate litigator for the largest power utility in the country, my mom stayed home to raise us, we lived in a 6-bedroom, 4-bathroom McMansion that they custom-built in a community so elite that the village property taxes paid by individual families regularly hit the 20 to 30 thousand dollar mark and the high school student parking lot was filled with Range Rovers.

In the midst of this abundance of wealth, my mom and dad's strategic approach to parenting was to convince us that we were dirt poor, a giant Irish Catholic stereotype plopped into a bubble where we didn't belong. They provided the basics and routinely reminded us of this fact: roof over our heads, three square meals a day, the necessary clothing, shoes and accessories for our lifestyles and various extracurricular interests, etc. My dad was notorious for telling us that he owned everything, including the shirts on our backs, and that our home was not a democracy but a dictatorship. Our room and board was contingent on successful completion of daily and weekly chores that were cruel and unusual punishment: making our beds and cleaning our rooms, clearing the table and doing dishes after dinner, sweeping the floors for the former, and Saturday morning yard work** for the latter.

Three things happened to me as a result of this parenting style:

  1. I learned what it took to make money, and how much the non-necessary things I wanted cost in both money and the effort to make that money.
  2. I developed expensive taste and love to spend money on beautiful things.
  3. I married a CPA who routinely goes to lunch at Costco to eat a $1.50 lunch of hot dog and soda.

My point is, this concept of living frugally despite having plenty of money is sort of embedded in my psyche. It was probably one of the subconscious reasons I was attracted to and then married Wes, because he embodied this value my parents prioritized yet I detested growing up and my subconscious mind figured he would keep point #2 above in check.

Although it took some time to land on a balanced approach to spending versus saving versus investing our money, Wes and I made it a priority to strike that balance early in our marriage. (For more on our approach to money management and building wealth, read this post.) In 2017, we were faced with a few major challenges but money was never part of our decision-making process because of the fact that we had been consciously living beneath our means and had a generous cushion of savings.

In reflecting on the past year, I've come to recognize a few things as true and important that need to be a bigger priority in my life:

  1. Wes and I have enough, of everything. More than enough, in fact, in our home and in our closets and in our lives.
  2. We have done a bad job of appreciating and valuing and using the more than enough that we have, and spending time and money on things and activities that aren't adding value.
  3. Because of point #1 and point #2 above, we are effectively bloating ourselves, complicating our lives, and adding unnecessary stuff and stress and weight and spending money that would be so much better used to grow our investments and savings.

This is a problem, people. Maybe you can relate, or possibly Wes and I are alone on this. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you'll remember that I did a "no new things" challenge where I cut out shopping for wardrobe-related things for an entire year. It was the best thing I ever did to hone my personal style: it totally revamped my approach to how I thought about spending related to my wardrobe, allowed me to fully inventory my closet and make best use of what I already owned, and enabled me to make some amazing, thoughtful, formerly cost-prohibitive investments in a select few pieces to fill gaps or add a fresh element that I'll use for years. It worked, and fundamentally changed how I thought about and made purchases.

The objectives for the Year of Less

For 2018, Wes and I have decided to partner on a project to subtract the activities and things that are not serving us. It will be an expansion of the "no new things" challenge mentioned above, covering much more than just wardrobe purchases in order to accomplish the following objectives:

#1 Appreciate, value and take better care of what we already own

There are only so many opportunities in a 365-day period to actually use an item that you own, be it a zucchini noodle slicer or a pair of leather leggings. From a home perspective, we have a list of at least 50 little projects that need to be completed but will be left untouched and the supplies collecting dust if our focus were to remain on acquiring new or different décor or gadgets. From a wardrobe perspective, having too much stuff paradoxically cramps your style because it distracts you from using the items that you love, that are your favorites and deserve more repeat wears throughout the year but fall to the wayside when you introduce alternatives that you don't need or really love as much.

Absolutely all of our basic needs are covered, and then some, for the next year. Forcing ourselves to use what we already own will keep our focus on the abundance we enjoy in our home, and our life in general. Constraints inspire creativity, after all. Personal style, an amazing home and a fulfilling lifestyle all require thought, planning, and originality. They also require love, in the sense of caring for and appreciating the elements you're using to build your style, design your home or create a more purposeful life.

Yet we don't consciously take the time to consider all of the elements we have in our closets or our homes, and ask ourselves if they are truly adding value and serving our lives in the way we thought that they would when we bought them in the first place. In The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy (one of the best books I read in 2017), I learned about the "5X" principle: if you want to truly understand the cost of something you are purchasing, take the price and multiply it by 5 - it will give you the approximate value of that money had you chosen to invest it.

Before you start asking things like "After how many years?" or "What type of investment are we talking about?" or "What if the market were to crash?" or "Isn't this an oversimplification?" let me just say that I appreciate the 5X principle as a framework and a way of better evaluating what we purchase by contrasting it with an approximation of the potential value of that money if applied differently. We will be using that principle to evaluate everything we currently own, and everything we buy after this year of less.

#2 Develop the mental strength and habits to drive better outcomes in our lives

If you read The Baby Post, you'll remember the easy-yet-in-utter-disarray life that I described. So this is a big one for us. Despite the fact that I was consciously cutting back from a wardrobe perspective, I still bought more than I needed this year while already having too much in my closet. From a home perspective, we're still overwhelmed with so much STUFF and it is actually causing stress. And even amidst this overwhelm of stuff and stress, we're making thoughtless impulse purchases, shipping Amazon Prime boxes to ourselves and keeping the 7-Eleven down the street in business.

If you study up on the psychology of purchasing decisions, the general perspective is that we buy things we don't need for one of two reasons:

  • We feel pleasure when we spend money: it "scratches an itch," so to speak, by altering our mental states from a place of discomfort - same goes for eating, drinking alcohol, etc.
  • We believe the thing we are buying will solve a problem that we are currently struggling with: it's a a quick fix, so to speak. For example, gained weight and don't feel good about yourself? Why not solve it with a new pair of pants in a different size that make you feel better? Or, insecure and feeling unloved? Why not purchase a designer bag that will cause others to envy or admire you?

It's so crazy, right?! But absolutely true. For me, and for Wes, impulse purchasing has been a mental crutch to supposedly solve for a whole bunch of problems. We'll have a few drinks to escape the uncomfortable mental state we're in after a stressful day at work, or run out to buy some unnecessary snacks from 7-Eleven because we're watching a movie, a bit bored and it's a thing to do. Then we think that we could stand to lose a couple of pounds, so  we order some fitness products on Amazon Prime that we will definitely use instead of stick in a closet to collect dust / remind us that we have still not broken our drinking and / or snacking habit.

My point is, the thoughtless spending is a mental problem. It requires self-awareness and mental strength to recognize what's driving your desire to consume something, and then rise above it. Keeping our focus on the abundance we enjoy in our lives and using what we already own will put our minds in a better place of appreciation and contentment.

The rules and guidelines for The Year of Less

In order to accomplish the objectives of taking better care of what we already own and developing better habits, we will be implementing the following rules for all purchases we collectively make in 2018:

  • Eliminate all retail shopping entirely, including Amazon Prime, with the only exception being for groceries, health or skincare-related necessities (i.e., supplements, medication, SkinCeuticals, etc.)
  • Eliminate all wardrobe-related purchases, including eBay, vintage and thrifted pieces allowed in the original challenge, and live with existing wardrobe for the next 365 days
  • Eliminate all non-social eating out (e.g., Starbucks runs, buying lunch at work, our new habit of eating at restaurants 3-5 nights per week due to disorganization and lack of planning)
  • Eliminate all home-related purchases, except for improvement projects that add resale value (i.e., refinishing floors, updating fixtures or appliances, etc.)
  • Donate or sell every item in home not used by 12/31/2018.

Sticking to these rules will force us to create better habits, including:

  • Planning out our meals and buying groceries in advance to prevent emergency dining out scenarios (if you already do this, would love any tips / advice)
  • Inventorying everything we own, and organizing our home to support using the things we find worth keeping to test how value-added each item truly is in our space
  • Updating our nightly and morning routines to include eating breakfast at home, packing lunches and preparing dinner
  • Planning out my outfits on a rolling 30-day basis to rotate and use all of the elements I own, and prevent the illogical desire to buy something new.

Although I am sure this sounds slightly crazy or extreme to many of you, I am honestly feeling a little relieved to get started. It's going to be uncomfortable, and difficult. But we needed something drastic to break our patterns that have created many of our unnecessary struggles. It will also help to dramatically grow our cushion of savings, beef up our investment strategy and give our future selves a gift of better habits, more wealth, an improved mindset, and an appreciation of the blessings in our life that have manifested as stuff we currently have in our possession.

If you've made it to the end of this post, thank you so much for reading and I hope you found some value in it. Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to shoot me an email. I'll be sharing a lot of bonus posts about our full journey and lessons learned throughout the course of the year. If you're interested in access to all of these posts, feel free to join the newsletter. If not, you can check back here for some of it!

*To be specific, these two cars were either a maroon Ford Taurus sedan (the preferred option) that deteriorated in a compounding manner as each of my five siblings gained a driver's license and proceeded to get in minor scuffles with inanimate objects in parking lots and spill every single beverage that entered the car's gray polyester interior, or a giant Ford Clubwagon van that we referred to as "The Church Bus" for its cavernous capacity and ability to hold all eight of my family members. These cars instilled in me a deep love of walking and public transportation, and later led me to purchase a BMW X5 to compensate which I deeply regret every time I fill the tank with premium gas or have to pay to get it serviced.

**Even when there was no raking leaves or lawn mowing that needed to be done, my dad would make up jobs for the sole purpose of waking us up early and keeping us busy. He got particularly bad about this after I challenged him multiple times, accusing him of having 6 children so we could do all this work for him. He laughed for a solid five minutes. Later, after observing that no other family on our block had a gaggle of children raking leaves or mowing the lawn, I suggested that he outsource to one of our neighbor's landscaping companies, mentioning that I knew he could certainly afford it. Eventually I gave up and just did the work without protest, and took a job working at a bakery in town the moment I could be legally employed. I'd get to work at 5:30a on Saturday mornings as a 15-year-old in order to avoid yard work and eat as many cookies as I wanted.