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Less stuff = more freedom

In this economic downturn, many people are simplifying their lives by getting rid of excess stuff.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer / February 8, 2009

Heather Mitchell shopped recently at Beanstalk Consignment in Hingham, Mass., where she says $60-$100 boutique brands go for $18-$24. Across the country, many are finding ways to live less extravagantly.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff


Two months ago, Beth Dunn of Atlantic City, N.J., embarked on a quiet mission at home. Feeling overwhelmed by possessions her family no longer used, and keenly aware that many Americans are struggling financially in the recession, she began paring down and giving extra items – clothes, toys, books, DVDs – to charities.

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“Cleaning, donating, and not replacing things gives me a sense of control during this economic upheaval,” says Ms. Dunn, a novelist and the mother of two sons. “Charitable donations are down. It’s important to give to people in need, even if you can’t give money.”

That attitude is rippling across the country these days as people seek ways to simplify their homes and calm their lives amid economic turmoil. No longer under the spell of retailers and economists who urge them to shop, shop, shop, some are renouncing excess, reordering priorities, and looking at possessions in careful new ways. In the process, they are experiencing a welcome sense of freedom.

“It’s finally percolated into the culture that we don’t need all that stuff or that big a house,” says Sarah Susanka, an architect in Charlotte, N.C. It’s a message she has been preaching for a decade in a series of bestselling books bearing titles such as “The Not-So-Big Life” and “The Not-So-Big House.”

At the International Builders’ Show in Las Vegas last month, the trend was also toward smaller, better designed houses. “Not-so-big thinking is taking hold in the mass market,” Ms. Susanka says. “It really takes the focus off trying to outdo the Joneses and brings it back to what has meaning for an individual. That automatically brings a certain kind of balance into the system.”

Susanka herself experienced an “enormous urge” at Christmastime to let go of extra possessions. “There are many people who need what I have more than enough of,” she says. “It was like an upwelling of wanting to share. A lot of people are feeling that right now. On one level there’s a redistribution of goods going on.”

For Jamie Novak, an organizing specialist in Chicago, that redistribution is taking many forms. “I am editing what we own and sharing with others in a variety of ways,” she says. “I’m dropping things off to local charities, liberally using, and trying out” (where participants receive points for giving their used items to other families and then use those points to obtain things from other members).

She takes pet goods to animal shelters, dresses and items that can be used as props to community theaters, and makeup and personal items to women’s shelters. Arts and crafts supplies, including yarn, go to assisted-living facilities. Ms. Novak gives stuffed animals to police stations and family-services groups. She donates bags, boxes, and packing material to thrift stores for use in wrapping purchases.

“The less stuff we have to care for and worry about, the more time we have for the important things in life,” Novak says.

Bonnie Russell, a legal publicist in Del Mar, Calif., shares that attitude. “I feel a great relief at cleaning out my closet to donate to the less fortunate and not replacing things,” she says.

Part of Ms. Russell’s decision to pare down and share with others had its roots in what she calls “good, old-fashioned guilt.” As she read news stories about people having less, “I realized I’m sitting around plenty of unnecessary things,” she says. “One day I looked around and realized I didn’t want to have a life of stuff. I wanted to have a life of experiences.”

One recipient of Russell’s generosity stands on a street corner near her home to look for work. “He’s there at 7 a.m., six days a week, and has helped with handyman chores for years. I give clothes and other things to him directly because I know they’re more apt to find a thankful or needed home.”