Simplify Your Life

* Elaine St. James is the author of "Simplify Your Life" and "Simplify Your Life With Kids."

Sometimes we don't choose simplicity; it chooses us. I've heard from many people who discovered the joys of a simpler life only after losing a job or experiencing some other personal crisis. Instead of wallowing in despair over what they'd lost, these people learned to appreciate what they'd found.

If you're wondering how to turn a crisis into a blessing, you might take heart from the experience of a San Francisco woman. She was 57 when she lost her job. She desperately tried to find a new job that would allow her to maintain her previous fast-paced lifestyle.

As the months went by with no prospects, her savings dwindled. Finally, she realized something had to change--and fast. She sold most of her possessions and moved to a tiny cabin on a small plot of land up in the hills near a national forest. She had purchased the property with the idea of eventually building a small cottage on it when she retired. Her retirement came much sooner than she'd planned. She wrote to me of her experience:

"I lived there full-time for 14 months on the amount of money I would have spent in three months in my old life. To do so, I practiced this sage advice bequeathed by folks who survived the Great Depression: Use it up, wear it out, make it do, do without. For life's absolute essentials I used my savings, bartered whenever possible and worked at minimum-wage odd jobs that occasionally presented themselves.

"I caught up on my reading. I wrote letters. I knitted afghans for all my children and friends. I got in touch with nature more closely than I had ever imagined possible. I meditated. I sat. I thought of my 95-year-old aunt saying: 'Sometimes I sit and rock. And sometimes I just sit.' I had the most peaceful, serene, meaningful time of my life."

Health problems forced her to return to the city, where she lives and works for the time being. But she has not returned to her former city ways. The simpler life comes naturally to her now. She's planning to go back to her small piece of land as soon as she has sufficient funds set aside.

Not every person who loses a job or experiences a financial crisis has this woman's option of taking off for the boondocks. But everyone, no matter how tied down to families, mortgages, schools and jobs, can learn to do with less. You don't have to wait for a crisis to force your hand. Begin exploring your options now.

Here's one way to start. Sit down with your family and do these imagining exercises:

1. You suddenly find that you must move to a house that is half the size of the one you now inhabit. What items will you take with you?

2. Your paycheck has been reduced by 25%. Where can you cut back?

3. You have $100 to spend on food during the next month. How will you plan your meals?

4. All of your belongings were destroyed in a fire. What are the absolute necessities you need to replace in order to function?

These mental gymnastics are more than just a game. Once we can imagine something, it becomes possible. Then, anyone can simplify.

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