How Simplifying Your Life Can Save You Mental Energy (and Money)

by Sophia Bera on August 21, 2019

Any time you move to a new city or travel for awhile, it gives you a new perspective on your life. I just returned from doing a bit of both. A few months ago, I finished my lease on my apartment in Austin, sold off much of my stuff, and put the rest in storage. I spent a month each living in Santiago, Chile; Lima, Peru; Medellin, Colombia; and Mexico City as part of a Remote Year program, and now I’m back in the U.S.

By the end, I actually missed life here — as a Minnesota girl, I love a good trip to Target! But other countries don’t have the abundance of stuff for sale that you have here in America, so it forced me to not only adjust to having less choice available to me, but to actually grow to like it. I ended up with so much more mental energy, and I want to keep applying these newfound life-simplifying principles now that I’m back.

Now, I don’t think you have to leave your home and sell most of your possessions to have a breakthrough. But it’s always good to periodically question what you spend your time and money on, just in case you’re wasting mental energy and money on something that doesn’t actually make your life any better. 

Ask yourself: Is there a big, scary life change I could make that would end up saving me money and improving my life?

I’ve lived a more “typical” life as a home- and car-owner with a desk job … and now I don’t have any of those things! As a single woman without children, what works for me may not work for someone in a different life situation. But here are some ideas about big things in your life to reconsider:

Having a Car

After spending the last three years living in Austin without a car, and then four months abroad, I realize how much simpler my life is without a vehicle. I used to think that having wheels meant I had freedom, but now that I can push a button on my phone and have a car show up a few minutes later, I feel like I’ve freed up a lot of money and mental energy by not having a car payment, car insurance, stress about parking, maintenance costs, and repairs. I’m amazed by how many people are living paycheck to paycheck and wish they could spend more money on travel, but who drive expensive vehicles and just see this as a “normal” part of life.

Many Americans can’t go totally car-free because many cities here lack good public transit, but maybe your family can go car-light by ditching one of your two cars. This is more doable if one of you walks or takes transit to work already, or if you work in the same neighborhood and can carpool. If one of your cars is parked at home more often than not, why are you making a monthly payment on it?

Living Alone or Buying a Huge, Expensive House

I’ve been living with roommates for the last few months. Sometimes there were four of us in a three-bedroom, two-bath apartment, and guess what? It was great! We cooked together (OK, they cooked for me), we shared a bottle of wine (I bought the wine), and we had incredible conversations (they are all smart and ambitious!). After living on my own for the last three years in my own one-bedroom apartment, I was a little nervous about living with different people every month, but I actually loved it. Some of my favorite memories from this trip were the incredible conversations I had with my roommates. When I get back to Austin in September, I’m going to be renting a room from a friend of a friend until the end of the year and I can’t wait to live with a dog again!

It’s made me think a lot about how much wasted space there is in the U.S. How we think that we need these huge houses where half the rooms sit vacant except during the holidays when our family is visiting. As humans, we are meant to live with others and have communal experiences. I found that it’s easy and affordable to find a room to rent, and it allows me the freedom to continue to travel and not get stuck in a 12-month lease.

You may not be looking for the freedom to travel. Maybe you already own a home and are putting down roots in your community, but it would be nice to bring in some extra income and do something with the space you don’t really use. Can you rent out a room in your house or Airbnb it? You might find that you make friends with the guests who come through.

It’s expensive to maintain a big home that you’re not fully utilizing — costs include cleaning, heating and cooling all that space, and keeping a yard alive if you have one. If you bought a big house and now find it totally overwhelming, consider downsizing. (It’s not just for retirees!) Could you sell your big house and downsize to a smaller house or even a condo? How much stuff and space do you actually need? A smaller, less expensive home may even make it possible for you to switch from a 30-year to a 15-year mortgage, so you’ll pay less in interest over the life of your loan.

Simplifying Your Priorities and Freeing Up Cash Flow

Housing and transportation costs are often the most expensive items in our monthly budgets. By reducing these costs and simplifying your life, you can free up cash flow for what’s really important to you. This is how you can start to shift your money to match your values.

For example, you may really want to take a six-month maternity leave, but have to take that time off unpaid (don’t get me started on how much we need paid parental leave for everyone!). But you’re also trying to save up to buy a house. Instead of rushing to buy a home before the baby comes, what if you stayed in your apartment a little longer, took the time off with your little one that you really desire, and bought that house after you went back to work and were able to save money again?

Change Is Hard, But Think of it as a Change of Perspective

If your life and finances are feeling out of balance, take the time to really think about how you’re living now. What big expenses do you pay each month on autopilot, without wondering whether or not that monthly bill pays for something that actually makes your life better? We get stuck on a lot of “have to’s” — adults over a certain age have to live alone, families have to have two cars, people have to buy a house once they have a baby, you have to buy a house with a guest room. 

What if you ditched the “have to’s” and instead think about what you actually want? You may want a smaller home that’s easier to maintain, or a job that you can walk to so you don’t have to sit in your car for 90 minutes a day. You may want to fill your home with a community of roommates instead of living on your own. You may actually hate hosting overnight guests, so why buy a bigger house to host people and stress yourself out? 

This isn’t about avoiding spending money and denying yourself things that are important to you. It’s about examining where your money goes now, and rerouting it to where it can better serve you.