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Less stuff = more freedom

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

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Christine Harmel, an Internet technology specialist, finds that used goods are even gaining status. “Friends in their 30s and 40s are swapping stuff instead of buying,” she says. “There’s less stigma in giving people things that are ‘vintage.’ ” Eight months ago Ms. Harmel made a radical change in her own life. She sold her three-bedroom, 3-1/2-bath home in suburban Charleston, S.C., and moved to a 600-square-foot duplex in Austin, Texas. “I sold almost all my stuff on Craigslist,” she says, calling the process liberating.

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Now her priorities include a rich social life, hobbies, friends, church, volunteering, reading, and creating new businesses. “It’s amazing how much mental freedom you get from traveling light,” Harmel says.

Even before the current economic downturn, Lillian Brummet and her family in southwestern Canada realized they were burdened with far too many belongings. “We started to downsize, one cupboard, one drawer at a time,” she says. “Anything we had not used in the last year was up for debate. We donated several truckloads worth of goods to a variety of charities over the years. It was a wonderful feeling to help others within our community to extend their budget while we benefited from the relaxed frame of mind that we now have at home.”

For some families, paring down brings another benefit: extra money. Cherie Pinto of Lake Worth, Fla., sells or gives away items at a free classified website, “Even if I am giving something away, pays me 25 cents an ad up to 50 ads a month,” she says. Last month she earned $12 from those ads.

“Every little bit helps these days,” Ms. Pinto says, explaining that her family lost their house to foreclosure. “Getting rid of things brings me a certain amount of calm. It also teaches you to be frugal and appreciate what you have.”

Other signs of a new frugality are evident at Todo es Custom Decor, which makes custom slipcovers in Laguna Hills, Calif. “We have seen an increase in calls from people who have either just received used furniture from their in-laws or are buying furniture at thrift stores or garage sales,” says Sallie Segal. “In many of these cases, I’m sure they would have just bought new furniture before. Now, for economic reasons or concern for the environment, they are recycling.”

When a niece in college needed furniture for her first apartment, Alicia Rockmore and her family gave her some of theirs.

“My husband and I have also been teaching our daughter that while ‘things’ are nice to have, family, friends, and experiences are more valuable,” says Ms. Rockmore, coauthor of “Everything (Almost) in its Place.” “These changes have given us more freedom to focus on growing as a family instead of spending for individual gains.”

For Barbara Bartocci, author of the forthcoming “Grace on the Go: Powerful Prayers to Ease Money Worries,” learning to distinguish between wants and needs provides valuable lessons. She says, “There is something very gratifying when you learn that you can live a perfectly happy life and be less extravagant. ‘Freedom from want’ takes on a whole new meaning.”

Without minimizing the challenges many people face today, Susanka takes a hopeful approach to the fledgling trend toward simplicity and generosity. “Often if you could look back at this time from 10 years’ perspective,” she says, “you would see that this is the moment where everything changed for the better, but in ways that we can’t imagine at this point.”