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Living With Less: The Upside of Downsizing Your Life

  • Mark Tabb Author
  • 2006 31 Jan
Living With Less:  The Upside of Downsizing Your Life

But I Live in The Real World

You have nothing to show for all the money you’ve earned over the past twenty years except a heavily mortgaged house; a car that you owe twenty-seven more payments on, even though it’s already showing symptoms of Fatal Transmission Disease; numerous malfunctioning appliances; huge mounds of books you never read; records you never listen to; clothes you never wear; and membership cards to health clubs you never go to; and – somewhere in the depths of your refrigerator – a year-old carton half-filled with a substance that may once have been mu-shu pork.

— Dave Barry," Dave Barry Turns 40"

To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life – that is indeed a gift from God. People who do this rarely look with sorrow on the past, for God has given them reasons for joy.

— Ecclesiastes 5:19–20 (NLT)

Books like this one often do a great disservice to readers. We authors tell you to radically alter your lifestyle. Stop depending on material possessions for your security! we shout. Trust in God instead. Then we tell you to stop hoarding and instead adopt a lifestyle of generosity. And be content, we add. Accept God’s just enough as enough, for contentment is the key to really enjoying life. Above all, we tell you to move your focus off of the world of time and place it squarely on eternity.

However, if I stop here, I haven’t done you any favors. Something is still missing from the equation. Talking about focusing on the eternal is great and wonderful and all of that, but, you and I still live in the world of time. We need to know what all of this will look like in the real world. How do our lives need to change to put this into practice?

If I don’t answer that question, this book will most likely lead to greater frustration and guilt rather than genuine freedom. Yet, by exploring the answer I also risk steering you onto a path that isn’t any better than the lifestyle of consumption most of us are already trapped in. When discussions of simplifying our lifestyles, especially our financial lifestyles, turn to practical lists of “do this” and “don’t do that,” we risk turning this entire enterprise into mechanical legalism. You can do everything I mention here – and the list is far from all-inclusive – and still miss the point of this book.

The Bible says everything that does not come from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23). That means you can live a good life and be the nicest guy the world has ever known, but if you don’t live by faith in the God of the universe, your good deeds don’t mean a thing. The same is especially true here. You can get your financial house in order, but if everything you do doesn’t begin with a faith relationship with God and a lifestyle of trusting in Him at every moment of every day, your efforts are for naught.

The goal of bringing order to the life you live in the material world goes back to what we really want out of life. Your life and mine can be used by God to touch and change generations. Our lives can matter when they are spent on that which lasts. That is why we need to bring order to our checkbooks and the growing pile of stuff filling our pantries, closets, attics, and garages. We still have to live in this world of time, which means we will still have to pay water bills and electric bills and all those other bills we would rather live without. But by making some basic changes in our daily lives, we can keep the demands of the physical world from blocking what we really want to do in this life.

With this in mind, we now proceed cautiously. Again, none of what follows are meant to be taken as rules carved in stone. Nor should these insights be seen as a standard of spirituality, as though by clearing out closets for the poor, you are somehow more spiritual than the person who doesn’t.

These are suggestions for getting your life in order. Hopefully, many will seem difficult. At least they seemed difficult to me as I wrote them. I’m struggling right beside you to put them in place in my daily life. These suggestions should seem hard, for they all flow out of Jesus’ command to deny ourselves. Saying no to ourselves is never fun. As Francis Schaeffer said, “We are surrounded by a culture that says ‘no’ to nothing. When we are surrounded with this sort of mentality, in which everything is to be judged by bigness and success, then suddenly to be told that in the Christian life there is to be this strong negative aspect of saying ‘no’ to things and ‘no’ to self, it must seem hard. And if it does not feel hard to us, we are not really letting it speak to us.”1

With that in mind, I now offer the following ten suggestions for making simplicity a vital part of your daily life.

1. Live below your means, rather than beyond them

Years ago while sitting in small-group Bible study, one couple asked the rest of us to pray with them about a decision with which they were wrestling. They’d just had their first child, and the wife desperately wanted to stay home with the baby. But she had a good job and, they told us, it took both of their incomes to make ends meet. Everyone in the room nodded as they shared their request. We all knew what they were going through. We were all young and no one had been married for more than a few years. Those of us who didn’t yet have children knew we would face the exact same choice. It was just a matter of time.

But all of our smiles and empathetic nods were disrupted by a voice from the small-group leader. “So lower your standard of living,” he said. “Then you will be able to get by on one income.” An audible gasp filled the room. These words were so blunt, they caught all of us by surprise. Yet I’ve never forgotten them, because he was right. If this young middle-class couple from a nice suburb in Dallas, Texas, were really serious about not taking their child to the baby-sitter every morning, they would do whatever it took to make their desire a reality, even if that meant doing without many of the things to which they’d grown accustomed.

Isn’t that true for all of us? I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to de-stress their financial lives. Most of us feel stretched to the absolute limit. The checkbook and bill drawer fills our hearts with dread and our lives with fear. But at the same time, we don’t want to do without many of the things in life we take for granted. The bottom line is this: we cannot have it all. Bringing order to our financial house means doing without some things we want to gain that which we absolutely need. And that demands living below our means rather than beyond them.

I know, this is easier said than done. However, most of us waste a great deal of money every month without realizing it. Look through the checks you write each month and ask yourself, How much do I really need this? I know ESPN or HGTV feel like necessities, but is the monthly cable bill really worth the stress it places on your monthly budget? The same goes for the grocery store. Something as simple as using a list and placing a strict limit on what you will spend each week can save you hundreds of dollars a year. My oldest daughter taught me to shop for groceries with a list in one hand and a calculator in the other. Once she reaches her weekly limit, she either stops shopping or she takes things out of her cart that she could live without. Following her example has allowed my wife and I to reduce our weekly grocery bill by $35. That may not seem like a lot to you, but it comes out to $150 per month, or about $1,800 a year. When things get tight, that money comes in handy.

Living below our means forces us to reevaluate every purchase from light bulbs to cell phones to cars to houses. Rather than stretching your budget to the limit, pull back. Spend less than you make. Remember, the average American spends $1.22 for every dollar earned. For most of us, simply living within our means will demand cuts in our lifestyles. Again, it all comes down to a simple question: What do you really want out of life anyway? When a lifestyle of consumption robs us of fulfilling our purpose for living, cutting back on things like eating out or buying clothes is an easy choice to make.

2. Buy things for their usefulness rather than their status

When Bill Clinton first came to office, he was criticized for wearing a Timex Ironman Decathlon watch rather than a Rolex or some other more “presidential” watch. Clinton’s Timex now sits in the Smithsonian Museum. Most people don’t care what kind of watch our president wears, just as long as he gets where he needs to be on time. That should be our attitude about all of our possessions. People may judge us by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, even the watches we wear, but at the end of the day, who cares what they think?

We all have to buy some necessities for life in this world. When you do, buy things for their usefulness rather than the status they may convey. Look for value, not trends. I’m in my midforties, which makes this easy for me to say, but it is still true. Buying a car because it will impress the neighbors is absurd. Choose a car that will give you the most for your money. That doesn’t always mean you should buy the cheapest thing available. Cheap doesn’t always translate into value. Get the most out of your money and buy what is useful, not what will impress people you don’t know or like.

3. Don’t believe the hype

“You want everything, don’t you?” an ad in my favorite magazine reads. That pretty well sums up the approach of all advertisements in America. Ads tell us what we want, and they have a way of turning that want into a need. That’s why an army of eight-year-old boys like me talked our mothers into buying us P. F. Flyers during the 1960s. I, for one, absolutely had to have some P. F. Flyers, because I needed to be able to run faster and jump higher. Every eight-year-old boy believed that’s what a pair of P. F. Flyers on our feet would help us do, because the ads that ran during reruns of Leave It to Beaver told us just that.

The only way to fully escape the consumer culture surrounding us is to tune out or turn off the barrage of ads coming our way. Take all of their claims with a block of salt. Look through the clever marketing routines and examine the real message. Most ads try to convince us our lives will be somehow happier if we buy their product. Don’t believe it. I know a family that yells, “Yeah, right!” back at the television every time an ad makes an outlandish claim. I don’t know if talking back to the television is the best way to deprogram ourselves from the constant sales pitches coming our way, but it can’t hurt.

4. De-accumulate

We live in a culture of accumulation. Therefore, the best way to escape its grip is to do just the opposite. Rather than buying more and more, begin de-accumulating. Give things away. Cleaning out the mountain of clothes and other things you no longer use is a good place to start, but don’t stop there. Discover the joy of giving gifts from things that you still use. One of the greatest gifts I ever received was a set of books that was no longer available in hardcover. A close friend gave me his set as a going-away present when my family moved to California. When he handed them to me, I asked, “Won’t you still read these? How can you give them away?” His response still rings in my ears more than fifteen years later: “I would rather give them to you.” That’s the spirit of de-accumulation.

De-accumulating also means not buying things unless and until you actually need them. Compulsive purchases rarely translate into a wise use of resources. When you buy things, use them until they need to be replaced. Most of us use things until we get tired of them, even though they are still very useful. That’s how a woman I know ended up with ten bottles of shampoo under her sink. Use what you buy and once it has outlasted its usefulness, get rid of it. Sure, that fried-chicken bucket with the picture of a NASCAR driver on the side might be worth something someday, but do you really want to keep it around for decades to find out?

5. Spend wisely. See your money as God’s possession, not yours

During Thanksgiving last year, I learned a check I thought would arrive at that time would not be mailed until late January or early February. Since I am self-employed, that was like walking into my boss’s office and learning I wouldn’t get paid again for the rest of the year (and that all Christmas bonuses had been canceled). Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly good news.

Since I was preparing to write this book at the time, I had to actually put into practice everything you’ve been reading – things like trusting God and letting His enough be enough. I suspected God might be trying to teach me something in the same way that I suspected that the Colts’ play-off loss to the Patriots would keep them out of the Super Bowl.

I was still trying to come to grips with all of this one Sunday morning when one of my daughters (who loves cereal) informed me that we were out of milk. I had all of three dollars in cash, which I needed to stretch as far as I could, but I also knew the breakfast of champions required milk. The day before, my wife spoke at a women’s retreat and shared how during a similar period in our lives years earlier, God miraculously provided a box of Cocoa Pebbles for my three girls when we could barely afford groceries.

So with all this swirling around in my mind, I trudged down to the local convenience store with the cheapest milk prices to buy a gallon of milk with my last three dollars. When I walked up to the counter, I pulled out my “milk card” for the clerk to punch. The card gives you a free gallon of milk after you buy ten. With this gallon I would be up to four punches. But the clerk informed me that they no longer used the milk cards. Instead, the station had a new rewards program, and because I didn’t yet know about the change, she punched the rest of the slots on my milk card, gave me back my three dollars, and handed me a free gallon of milk. It was God’s way of telling me He was aware of even my smallest needs.

This episode had a strange side effect. At least it seemed strange to me. The three one-dollar bills took on a whole new significance. For years I’ve talked about how God owns everything we possess, but for perhaps the first time in my life, I attached this truth to three bills in my wallet. I couldn’t spend them on just anything. This was God’s money. Since He gave it back to me, I felt He must have some purpose for it. Keep in mind that I am a father of three teenagers. Cash doesn’t last long in my wallet, especially during the school year. But one week after the milk episode, those three one-dollar bills still sat in my wallet. God again told me He would make what He gave us last during this dry time as we waited for my check to arrive.

This long story has a point: we should spend our money wisely, treating it like it belongs to God, since it does. I can blow money with the best of them, but when I look into my wallet and see God’s money sitting there, everything changes. I may be able to waste my money, but I don’t want to waste His.

6. Leave room for extravagance

I know a man who spent more than  three hundred dollars on a miniature dachshund puppy for his wife’s fortieth birthday. Having grown up in a family that always had mutts that never cost us a dime, I thought this was a little nuts. I asked him, “How can you possibly justify spending that much money on a dog?”

He replied, “I didn’t spend that much money on a dog. I spent it on a gift my wife has always wanted.”

Needless to say, he bought her the perfect gift. Did he waste his money? I don’t think so. Using our resources wisely does not mean we never splurge. God sometimes splurges on us and there are times we should splurge on others.

7. Invest your resources in people, not stuff

People mean more than plasma televisions or new cars. If this is true, then we should invest our money in them. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:21). The best way to have a heart for people, then, is to invest our treasures in them.

For families, this means spending money on things that will draw you closer and build the bonds of love between you. I believe there is no better way to do this than by going on vacation together. Take trips that will enable you to build memories and help you get to know one another better. The trips do not have to be extravagant, but they should be memorable. I’ve found it is better to do without some extras throughout the year to save money for a family trip in the summer.

Another way to invest in people is to set aside money that can be used to answer someone else’s prayer. Save and listen closely to the people God places in your life. When you hear them share genuine needs or an opportunity God has given them, use what you’ve saved to invest in them. Send someone on a mission trip they’ve longed to take but cannot afford or secretly give them the money they need to get a new business off the ground. Let your imagination run wild and look for creative ways to allow God to work through you to meet the needs of others. As you do, check your ego at the door. Don’t invest for thanks or praise. If you find you crave those things, give anonymously so all the credit goes to God. Put your money where your heart is, and when your heart longs to make an eternal difference in the lives of others, what better investment could you possibly find?

8. Give to your local church

God owns everything. He doesn’t need our money. However, we need to give to Him as an exercise of faith and an expression of our dependence on Him. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were to bring one-tenth of their income to the Lord. This was a called a tithe. The New Testament doesn’t use a percentage to tell us how much we should give. Instead we find we are to give generously and cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:6–7).

9. Enjoy what you have as a gift from God

“Every generous act and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights,” James 1:17 tells us. And that is how we are to view everything we have. Whatever you have, enjoy it as a gift from God. Often when we focus on using money wisely, we forget to enjoy what we have. Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:13, “And people should eat and drink and enjoy the fruits of their labor, for these are gifts from God” (NLT). Looking at everything you have as a gift from God leads you to a life of constantly giving thanks rather than longing for more. Paul had this in mind when he wrote, “Rejoice always! Pray constantly. Give thanks in everything, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess. 5:16–18).

10. Avoid becoming a legalistic jerk

Remember that the way you use the material resources God places in your hands should reflect faith, generosity, and contentment. When we begin to see our lives as superior or more spiritual than others because of the way we use our money, we haven’t simplified our lives; we’ve just made ourselves unbearable to be around. Richard Foster wrote, “Of all the Disciplines simplicity is the most visible and therefore the most open to corruption.”2 Always keep that in mind and be on your guard. Life consists of more than our possessions, and our spiritual life must consist of more than the way we use them.

This list is far from exhaustive, but I’ve found these ten suggestions keep me very busy in my effort to clear every obstacle out of a life that matters. Nothing trips us up like our material possessions. However, bringing these under control brings us closer to the life that matters. The next step may be even more difficult because it requires even more discipline, even more saying no to ourselves and those around us. We need to spend our money wisely, but even more so, we must spend our time wisely. That’s the next stop on our quest toward a life that matters.

1Francis A. Schaeffer, "True Spirituality," (Wheaton, Illinois:  Tyndale House Publishers, 1971), 19.

2Richard J. Foster, "Celebration of Discipline:  The Path to Spiritual Growth" (New York:  HarperCollins, 1998), 85.

Excerpted from "Living With Less: The Upside of Downsizing Your Life" by Mark Tabb.  Copyright © 2006, Mark Tabb.  ISBN 0-8054-3296-5.  Published by Broadman & Holman Publishers.  Used by permission.  Unauthorized duplication prohibited.

Mark Tabb is the author of ten books including "Strike Zone" (with Andy Pettitte and Bob Reccord) and the ECPA Gold Medallion finalist, "Out of the Whirlwind."  He lives in Indiana where he is a volunteer firefighter and fire department chaplain.