I remember a time about eight years ago when Jared and I were desperately trying to come up with a list of things we could live without.
We were broke. More than broke. We had way more month than money and a mounting credit card bill that received no more attention than minimum payments. In an attempt to create a balanced household budget, we were looking for ways to cut our expenses.
What could we live without?
The car payments had to stay, as did the student loan payments, the utilities, and the mortgage. We couldn’t stop paying for childcare unless we were going to stop working. We had to keep eating and feeding our young son, although we did decide to put a little more effort into getting invited to our parents’ houses for dinner a few times a month.
We were frustrated to realize that even if we were willing to live frugally, the bulk of our expenses couldn’t be eliminated easily. It became a running joke in our house that Jared’s solution to every financial crisis was to cancel the cable, but the truth was that was one of the only things we could easily remove from our lives, even if the impact was minor. It was then that we resolved to rid ourselves of monthly payments as quickly as possible.
Eight years later, I found myself standing beside a pay-per-load washer and dryer set outside of a bathhouse at a state park in Georgia and it occurred to me that we’ve given up a lot more than cable recently. Sure, we’d given up a house we loved, a car we enjoyed, and a whole lot of stuff as we prepared for a year on the road, but there had been (and continue to be) less obvious sacrifices as well. What struck me was how quickly we’d learned to live without a variety of luxuries that we had considered requirements for most of our lives.
What do we live without now?
Constant access to the Internet.
We’ve had Internet in our home since before we were married, and we’ve lived with 24 hour access to wireless Internet since 2004. Of course, both Jared and I can remember a time when Internet access itself was novel, but that was decades before I made my living writing online. Now, in a world where we are more reliant on the world wide web than ever, we don’t know from one day to the next how – or if- we’ll get connected. We hope for 3G signal on our iPhones to keep us in touch with our social networks and frequent libraries and coffee shops that offer free wifi access to nomadic writers. And why do we live in this wifi limbo? Because personal, mobile Internet service is a monthly payment we’d rather live without. It’s one way of keeping our bills low enough that only one of us has to work.
Baths (or long showers).
The RV we live in now is not a motorhome (motorized home), but a travel trailer that we bought used for $6,000. One of the reasons we selected this model was because it is very light, allowing us to pull it with the SUV we already owned. The camper itself was also considerably less expensive than other options. No car payment, better gas mileage, and more money in our savings came at the expense of – among other things – teeny tiny waste holding tanks. That means we can take about 1.5 showers and wash 2 loads of dishes before the gray water tank needs to be emptied. Even with the recent purchase of a portable holding tank (SO! EXCITED!) that makes frequent dumping easier, we still have to be very mindful of how much water we use when we aren’t hooked up to sewer. Inexpensive state parks rarely offer sewer service at individual campsites and even larger RV resorts offer discounted rates for sites without the convenience of on-site sewage.
In other words, no one is taking a bath in this thing.
Most working parents – and probably any adult – will tell you that learning to multi-task is the secret to “getting it all done”. One of you cooks while another one cleans. You run laundry while paying bills. The kids do homework while you get dinner on the table. Very rarely will you walk into a family home in America and find just one activity going on. And yet, our home doesn’t provide enough room to accommodate multiple activities. We’ve learned quickly that when meal preparation begins, every other activity has to end in order to make room for cutting and cooking and plating. Laundry is done in a place designated for laundry that allow for only simple things like reading or talking on the phone while you watch and wait for your clothes to get clean. We still manage to get it all done, but only, I suspect, because there is less that needs to be done.
Variety – not just in clothes, but in food, evening entertainment.
Again, we simply don’t have the room to store multiple options of anything. Our fridge is tiny, our cupboards are tinier. We purchase a few days worth of grocery at a time and pass up two-for-one deals unless we’re willing to use whatever it is up in a short amount of time. Obviously we aren’t buying anything in bulk.
Re-thinking what’s required
None of these sacrifices are particularly extreme or difficult to make. People who live in small apartments make similar choices every single day, but it illustrated for me how easy it is to change one’s perception of what is required for normal life.
There are so many things we have come to see as necessities, often forgetting the difference between a need and an expectation. I hear people talk about things like health insurance, credit, job security, and equity as if it is a foregone conclusion that these are things that have to be possessed at all costs. While none of these things are inherently bad, and all of them have the potential to make life better, they are not the unquestionable necessities they’ve been made out to be. Like cable and online shopping, they can be sacrificed in exchange for other equally optional luxuries.
The more you’re able to sacrifice, the more you’re able to gain.
The beauty is not in minimalism or living with less. The beauty, I believe, is in recognizing the difference between the things you have to have and the things you choose to have in your life.
Most of us learned in elementary school about our basic human needs. Food, water, shelter, and love can sustain a healthy human. Everything else that gets piled on top of that is a matter of choice. Understanding that, I think, is potentially very powerful. We have so many options for what our lives can look like!
What do you think? Have you ever thought about what you could live without? Could you make that list a little longer by shifting your perspective?