Whenever I get into a particularly busy season of life — like exam week, interview season, or when I’m tackling a huge project at work — I convince myself I have streamlined and simplified my life. This is rarely the case. Even if time constraints demand I cut back on a lot, rarely am I actually living simply.
In my busiest seasons of life, I spend my limited free time the most carelessly. I convince myself I am too busy to make plans with friends I love, but I can stream an entire sitcom alone in my room within a week. I order things without care, setting up deliveries for a concerning number of packages because somehow that will balance out my stress, right? I spend more time on social media than was good for me, endless hours scrolling because to do anything else seems too much on top of the rest.
These things keep me sane and happy enough, but when the busier times wane and I regain some balance in my life, it becomes clear something is missing. I can see that there was a void in me that I was trying to fill.
The essence of living simply is noticing that void, that restlessness, and being intentional about how it drives our relationship to material things — and then taking steps to prioritize human relationships. All too often, we mindlessly fill that void with distraction or consumption, which leaves us feeling more empty than before.
I don’t set out to end up emptier, but I’m human and I like the easy way out. The quicker dopamine hit of a social media post is ultimately fleeting. It’s like drawing from a cracked jar of water, not a deep well. I want a simpler life to build up that lasting joy — I want the slower but more rewarding sense of a life lived in greater balance with my relationships, the community in which I live, and with the planet.
What might a more simple lifestyle look like? Is simple living just about a budget? What is the relationship we have to material goods, and is it helping or hindering our flourishing? Here are three key categories to address to make intentional, authentic choices — and find more joy.
How do I spend money?
When I spent a year in volunteer service, we had a limited monthly budget that facilitated a simpler lifestyle. We gave up the potential of a real salary and disposable income in order to live in greater solidarity with those on the margins. We weren’t pretending to have less, but we made intentional choices about what money and extravagance was for. We didn’t have much — but we had everything we needed.
Simple living at its best exists entwined with solidarity. Buying the cheapest coffee might be good for the budget, but making room in your budget to ensure you can buy fair trade coffee prioritizes spending that promotes justice.
How do I spend the limited time in my day?
The classic young adult moment of offering beer and pizza in exchange for a friend’s help moving is sort of a cliche, and might look like the simple actions of someone who can’t justify spending money on professional movers. But there’s something here that resonates with one product of simple living: a reliance on community and the desire to support one another. It might prove exhausting to help someone move instead of taking a lazy Saturday or going on some weekend adventure, but it offers us a way to find joy through deepening friendships.
How do I think about objects?
Simple living helps me properly order my relationship to material goods. They aren’t bad or evil, they just are never as important as another human being. Living simply means asking, To what end am I using this tool?
For me, the desire to live more simply involved examining my use of technology. The conscious interrogation of my connection to technology is something that was lacking in my life, as I’ve always lived with the internet and cable TV. So digital media holds way too much power over me. It can shape my mood and my day, rarely for the better, and I am not gaining enough genuine connection for them to feel worth spending the amount of time scrolling that I have been lately.
Simple living is never cut-and-dried — it usually involves careful reflection of almost every situation — but it lets me separate out what is truly good for me from what I want, and what I want from what I need.
As a young person now on a grad student’s budget, living simply can make a strict budget easier to bear. But it isn’t just about a budget — it’s about applying intentionality to the way I spend that budget. Ordering takeout to support a local business and share a meal with my roommates isn’t a bad choice just because it means spending money. And I can prioritize and direct my spending to make room to support local mutual aid funds, or make sure I give away old objects instead of tossing them.
Pope Francis speaks a lot about “throwaway culture,” the undervaluing and disregard for both people in our human family, as well as wasting material goods and damaging the Earth, our common home. Simple living, for me, fits nicely into this invitation from Pope Francis to properly order relationships and objects. It allows me to prioritize human relationships, align my values with the way I spend my money and time, and detach from habits that don’t actually bring me any joy.