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.
“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 Freecycle.org, and trying out zwaggle.com” (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.
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.”
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.
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, Listasaurus.com. “Even if I am giving something away, Listasaurus.com 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.”