Live with less: lessons learned from downsizing

Some space, please, Mom! Thanks.

This post, while being a general discussion on downsizing and living with less, does not offer and tips or how-tos. For real, practical advice, read a past post I wrote, entitled, Eight Easy Tips for Downsizing and Planning Your Travel Adventure. Below, my thoughts about what I’ve learned since I made the decision to start downsizing. Enjoy!

My ten year old, who was once a person who regularly invaded my personal space, is requiring more of her own. What happened to bring about this change?

Until recently, we lived in a gorgeous loft in the hipster enclave of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. For six years, we enjoyed being located just a few blocks away from the East River, the Williamsburg Bridge and busy Bedford Ave. My bedroom had windows wrapped around two sides, eastern and southern exposure bathed the space in light for the entire day, and my daughter’s bedroom was a fairy kingdom, with a sunny treehouse-like loft area that looked out over a tree-filled park below. She’d sit up there for hours, daydreaming and making up stories, while I stayed in my room writing, or at my enormous dining room table (oh, the dinner parties!) working on art projects or editing stories. While the loft was filled with color and a host of gorgeous, sweet-smelling plants (at one point I even raised citrus trees!), my room was a sparse, white haven, making me feel as though I was sleeping in clouds. Indeed, looking out of my enormous windows at night, I often felt no difference between my space and the stars. It was, despite the multiple stresses of New York, a magical life.

C'est moi, at one of our fun theme parties. Yep, I play the ukulele.

My place was to be envied, as I found out when visitors, entering for the first time, gasped, “This place is amazing!” The space, light, airy and welcoming, was filled with art and walls of books. People came in and out, visitors were abound. Some of our dinner/holiday parties were epic, going down in history as being some of the best days of my life.

Yep, home sweet Bat Cave (ahem, home).

In December, however, I made the decision to downsize (read here about how, exactly, I downsized and prioritized or here or here to understand the impetus), moving from Williamsburg to Bushwick, getting rid of the majority of my things and putting the rest into storage (an 8 x 8 space). It was a difficult move. My room is no longer sunny. Indeed, I share space with a water heater (curtained off, but still), pipes overhead (the permanent bump on my head is testament to this fact) and, sadly, no light. For the first couple of months, I called my room the ‘Bat Cave’, and while certain comic book aficionados might have loved it, I cried myself to sleep, wondering, what the hell have I done?

I made the best of my situation. When I moved in, my new loft was unpainted; my bedroom, a combination of raw plywood and black sheetrock. I spent two nights on a ladder, painting everything in sight, trying to cover every bit of darkness I could find. I even painted the front door. After a month, I hung up a few art pieces. I watered the few plants I had brought with me, and tried to breathe light into the place.

Then it dawned on me. Change is hard, but only as hard as a person makes it. It hadn’t been my situation that was unbearable- I was making it unbearable. So I no longer lived in a loft sent from the heavens. I still lived in a loft, and was lucky to have it, too. My rent was tolerable, I was starting to pay off some of my debts, and I was living with less, a lot less. Because most of my things were in storage (including many of my clothes), I had said goodbye to skyhigh heels and had, gasp, started to wear practical shoes (my feet were thanking me). Whereas in my old place I could only work in my bedroom or at my dining room table, I had learned to work anywhere, with loud noises and music from my neighbors blaring.

I had been humbled. It was a good thing. It helped me start planning my travels and prioritize my life. It made me realize that I don’t need to have constant dinner parties (what an expense!). I can, instead, work like a dog, finish my second book and take care of business. There’s a time and a place for everything, and right now, it’s time for me to grow the f*$k up. I’m 35 years old and, contrary to what I might once have thought, I won’t live forever. Sayonara, Peter Pan, I want to plan a life that I will enjoy now, not work only for retirement, thinking I will be given some sort of second youth.

Home is a place to hang one’s hat. While it used to be a place for me to socialize, network, cook big messes, watch movies, etc., it’s now a place for me to work and sleep. I do my socializing elsewhere, effectively seeing much more of the world. Therefore, in only eight months, I’ve gotten to know my Bushwick community better than I got to know Williamsburg after many years of living within its borders (a post about this, soon).

A little less natural light, but our new place is lovely all the same

But let me bring this back around to my daughter. My sweet girl has been changing. Our life, pretty comfortable before, is actually pretty fabulous now that it’s been pared down. In June, I lost my job and started a writing, editing and marketing business. It has allowed me to spend a lot more time with my daughter. So much time, in fact, that my daughter, so craving in the past on the rare quality time we had, is now so accustomed to it that she feels comfortable asking for space. She can entertain herself for hours while I work. She’s more independent, more appreciative of what we have. While she’s always been sweet and kind, she’s growing into an intuitive, helpful person. I think our situation has helped our relationship. We rely on each other in new, interesting and practical ways, rather than for attention. See, we now have the attention of each other, now it’s up to us to learn how to gracefully ask for space, make inexpensive meals together, appreciate every day for what it is. Our situation, so difficult at first, has become a gift. It’s not only preparing us financially for our future travels, but is providing us with daily joy.

The coolest change I’ve seen in my daughter is her ability to now ask for what she wants. Whereas before she was too exhausted to think, now she asks me on a regular basis for me to give her space (which often just amounts to us sitting in the same room doing different activities) and, alternatively, to sometimes do fun things together. Today I’ll be taking her to various places around the city (she’s asked today to visit the YMCA). My kid knows what she wants, and is able to politely ask for the things she is not yet able to provide. How great is that?

So, what exactly have I given up in order to live with less? Here’s a partial list:

1) Overpriced loft – the total price of my apartment is half of what my old place used to be.

BBQing on the cheap at Prospect Park

2) Expensive dinner parties and nights on the town– does one really need to spend a couple hundred bucks to be entertaining to friends? Nope, I don’t think so. I’ve had a couple of BBQs in our new shared courtyard and spend a pittance to do so. Good times are about the people you’re with, not the glitz. In addition to giving up hosting big dinners, I also decline nearly all offers to go out to eat with friends. I figured this one out about a month ago when, thinking that I would spend under $20 for me and the kid to splurge on a night out, I ended up spending $70. I can’t afford this. Therefore, I have people over for potluck-style dinners, visit them for the same, and enjoy meeting them all over the city for free activities. Has this made it difficult to see some of my friends who are in the position to spend more cash? Sure, but I don’t think it’s become so bad that our friendships are on the line. I’ve figured out how to have fun in New York on the cheap. Here are a couple links detailing INEXPENSIVE (yet fun) activities: Enjoy Five Great Summer Nights in New York City for $1.00 to $5.00 and How to Escape New York Without Ever Leaving the City. Who knows- you might find a few ideas for your next NYC visit!

3) An over-abundance of space – too much space only makes one want to fill it with crap. With all of my furniture, art, books, plants and clothes, I could have been on one of those reality shows about hoarders. Now that I’ve limited myself to a storage unit (which I’ll slowly go through to see what’s really important), I’ve found that I really don’t miss any of the crap I used to own. Impermanence, baby, is the way to go. With stuff out of the way, I’ve found it’s much easier to think of others, devote myself to living, feeling and being in constant wonderment. Go figure.

4) Enormous grocery bills from overpriced Williamsburg groceries have been slashed in Bushwick. Finally, with minimal effort, I’m clear on my expenditures for food.

5) Movies -once every few months we’ll go to one, the rest of the time, we rely on the Internet.

6) Working too many hours while never having any family time

7) Sleepless nights -while I used to average 3-5 hours a night, I’m now averaging 7-8.

8.) Weeping fits – I had these a lot the last stressful year in my old place, and, while I had them for the first month in my new space, I’m now happier and healthier than ever.

9) Depression/despair – amazing how acceptance, planning and change can transform one’s outlook.

10) Books – Did I really need two walls of books- thousands of volumes- to make me happy? Nope. A book at a time is all one needs.

11) Cosmetics – Yes, folks, I was one of those terrible people who spent a fortune on cosmetics. Shiseido products made me weak in the knees- still do- but do I need to spend over $60 every time I need new facial cleanser? Nope. When I really sat down and looked at my expenditures, I realized how much I was spending on cosmetics and cringed. Honestly, I’m not a big make-up person, but something about running to Macy’s to pick up a new Mac eyeshadow made me happy (even though I only wear it once in a blue moon). Going through my stuff, I realized I really only used a small handful of items- face lotion (with an SPF), cleanser, shampoo and conditioner. So, I decided not to ever buy make-up again and traded in the ridiculously expensive products I used for, well, less expensive stuff. Luckily, those products work just as well (or rather, ALMOST as well) as the pricy stuff. And they’re often organic/Earth-friendly. Bonus!

12) Relying on providence to change my fate – nope, I’ve realized it’s up to me, folks, not some magical wand that picks random happiness lottery winners.

Some of the above items apply to my daughter. For her, I would add:

1) Toys– we got rid of most of them when we moved. She now has a few dolls, a few small stuffed animals, her computer and art supplies. That’s it.

2) Too large a space for a kid to maintain. My kiddo’s old room was too big and filled with crap to keep clean without my help. Now that her bedroom is the size of a sardine can, she can keep things neat.

3) The assumption that ‘stuff’ is important. My kid watched me get rid of furniture and put my beloved books into storage. We’ve given a lot away. The idea that all we need is ourselves gives her a lot of confidence. Her friendships now seem based on creating stories and active play rather than racking up ridiculous Barbie dolls, musical instruments and costume jewelry.

4) A school that imprisoned my daughter for at least nine hours a day. Living with less and having more time together made me realize that public schools were endangering my child having a wonderful childhood, and that they had made her a nervous, tired wreck. She is now enrolled in a neighborhood homeschooling program, and is the happiest I’ve ever seen her. (Read about my decision to homeschool, here.) Let me stress that I never would have made this decision without downsizing. I would’ve, instead, remained trapped into thinking that the status quo was right and true.

How to end this post? Hm. I suppose my overarching point is that life is what we make it. I’m not yet traveling the world, but even living in New York, I’ve found that paring down my belongings, figuring out what I really need to survive and spending a lot more time sticking to my goals, makes me a happier person.

**This post was part of a writing exercise on ‘what it means to live with less’.**

See what some other amazing traveling families have contributed!! Their experiences differ greatly from mine. Some of them are already on the road means, which means that, that in addition to ridding themselves of belongings, they’re also living out of backpacks, without homes, like true 21st century nomads. Talk about living with less!

For now, even though I’m not living out of a backpack, I think that downsizing in New York, one of the most materialistic, consumer-driven cities I can think of, is a feather in my ‘living-with-less’ cap.

Without further ado, here are the stories:

Worldschool Adventures: Getting rid of stuff

Family on Bikes: Enjoying life with less

Around the World in Easy Ways: Living With Less

Family Travel Bucket List: Living with Less and 5 Kids? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

Carried on the Wind: Living With Less

Our Travel Lifestyle: Does having all our gear again really make us happier?

Livin On The Road: Four Kids and Almost No Toys

The Drop Out Diaries: Anchors Aweigh

Discover Share Inspire: 1 Truck, 2 Continents, 7 People – How We Live With Only 321 Things

New Life on the Road : Living With Less Stuff 

Got Passport: Less is More: George Carlin Had a Point About All That Stuff

Finally, I sure would love it if you’d continue to follow my adventures! Please ‘like’ my Facebook page, join me on Twitter, and forward to your pals. Thanks! Oh, and please, leave a comment! I want your advice, opinions, hate-mail, love-mail and the ilk.

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