How I Went from Stinginess to Simplicity

Simplicity

The other day, my husband caught me darning my underwear. The pair had a hole near my hip. They’re a few years old, so I had thought about tossing them, but pulled out my needle and thread instead.

This frugality runs in my blood. My mom grew up poor, her mother was a child of the Depression, and I, an anxious child who didn’t much like shopping anyway, learned from both.

Mom would cut the rot off strawberries and serve the good parts. She faithfully reused plastic bags and containers (once, my birthday cake, stored for a few hours, tasted of detergent, because the bag she put it in had previously lived in the laundry room). We were pretty well off, but our sound system and TV stayed old.

Simplicity, then, comes naturally to me. But for a very long time, it did not feel like a blessing.

It felt stingy. I struggled to tithe because I was afraid of not having enough. I did not buy nice things because nice things felt like a waste. And I felt ashamed of my incredible privilege.

So I tried to do with less. I bought my clothes on sale, and always felt a little anxious about shopping at all. Always put off haircuts, and always felt a little shabby. I thought I had to pursue any practice where I’d save more, spend less, and do with less rigidly. That if I did not cut corners, I was lazy, profligate, and ungrateful.

It was as if I were trying to make all my needs disappear.

My life did not feel spacious. I worried about my stinginess—both towards myself and towards other people. I knew very well how to say no to myself. And I was honestly a little tired of it.

And then, a few years ago, I started focusing on saying yes. I called them little yeses at the time: small choices to choose joy, and use my gifts, and be present.

As part of the process, I thought a lot about what yeses to say. What made my heart joyful? What brought a little bit of beauty into my life?

Those intentional choices transformed my life.

To my surprise, I started doing way less with my time.

Instead of couponing and volunteering and cloth diapering and buying everything I could used and trying to prepare everything I could with organic produce, I started focusing my energy only on those things that really made me feel joyful.

The volunteering—for a role that wasn’t a good fit—went out the window. I got some disposable diapers when we moved abroad because it was more rational. The couponing—well, with pursuing real passions, and my lack of real savings, I decided not to bother.

Instead of fifteen dutiful, grim obligations, I focused on writing, on being present with my kids, and on developing friendships, especially cross-cultural ones. Everything that did not meet those priorities fell by the wayside.

Can I tell you how different my life felt? Instead of an endless grind to do less with less, I felt like I could do more with very little.

Every time I evaluated a purchase, instead of asking myself if it was wasteful, I asked myself if it was joyful. I’d usually end up not buying, but the reason felt like self-care, not self-denial.

With that lens, I noticed how shopping made me anxious and the clutter of new stuff made it harder to keep house. I noticed how cooking fresh food from our CSA box made me feel rich.

I liked the practice of avoiding disposable items, but bought new cloth napkins to replace my old, threadbare ones. Now, every time we sat down to eat, the table was lovely.

My husband and I laugh at our dearth of seats—guests often sit on pillows on the floor since we only have one small couch and no armchairs—but our choice to not buy furniture is because our kids skate inside and I like being able to paint on our wide-open floor-space.

And I still buy my clothes used, and have many less of them than I used to, but I am better about buying pieces that make me feel beautiful.

I still struggle with stinginess. I still struggle with shame (as well as healthy guilt) about money. But though my journey out of shame is ongoing, simplicity has become a way to invite joy into my life, instead of shutting out generosity.

Real simplicity is about choosing. It means prioritizing and selecting only stuff that brings life. It means knowing yourself and your values. It means trusting that our lives are full without busy schedules and lots of stuff. It means paying attention to how the influence of our culture’s consumerism numbs us and separates us from issues of justice.

I once tried to live simply because I thought I didn’t deserve the alternative. But now, I realize God invites me to live simply because a simple life, well chosen, is the richest option there is.  

Image credit: Danielle MacInnes

Heather Caliri

Heather Caliri

Writer at A Little Yes
Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego who uses tiny, joyful yeses to free herself from anxiety. Tired of anxiety controlling your life? Try her mini-course, “Five Tiny Ideas for Managing Anxiety," for free here.
Heather Caliri

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  • Love your perspective here Heather. One I’m going to work on adopting. “Real simplicity is about choosing.”

  • This is something I am working on, good words for me today. We have to be choosy out of necessity but so often it feels like a burden. I love what you say about choosing things that make you feel beautiful. I do all my clothes shopping used too but so often come home with things I never wear because it’s just what I could manage to get (and I, too, hate shopping) and I rarely feel joyful about it. I needed these words today – want to really choose what brings joy, what has meaning.

    • I’m sorry, Nicole, not enough money is stressful. And it’s hard to have a good attitude and feel joyful in the middle of that. I pray God would be opening doors to contentment and to financial peace for you guys.

  • Joanne Peterson

    Heather, this is a lovely piece. This reminds me of Edith Schaeffer from L’Abri in her books Tapestry, and from her book The Hidden Art of Homemaking. She and her husband Francis Schaeffer had to live frugally their whole lives,but Edith created beauty wherever they were, traveling, home, making things out of ordinary objects to become functional, lovely wholesome food. She valued creativity and beauty since our God is a creative God and created beauty. It would be too long to describe here. This is a good reminder, and have gotten away from creativity, and beauty and the nourishment of my soul, and then ultimately the nourishment of my family’s atmosphere in our home, or wherever we are. It takes thought and intention to live in creativity, beauty, and simplicity. It also invites other people to feel welcome in hospitality, and love. Thank you for writing this piece, it causes me to re-evaluate what I am seeing and doing in my choices. Blessings, Joanne

    • Hey, thank you, Joanne. Yes: usually I feel best and most joyful about my frugality when it leads to ingenuity, creativity, and art. Like using old cardboard boxes to make DIY shelves or making my own art instead of buying it. It’s fun, and it makes our house unique. And we’re meant to be makers. I firmly believe that the more we give ourselves chances to make do, the more we invest in enoughness and contentment.

  • Rebecca

    Thank you for this. I really identify with the feelings of guilt and shame that come from having “more than my fair share”. We have a large house and no children. I haven’t been able to furnish or decorate it with anything more than Craig’s List finds. I can barely tell you what my style is, because my whole life has been self programmed with the message, “that money could me better spent doing something more ulteristic than decorating”. With the recent purchase of a “grown up” dining room table (second hand by choice the chairs are antiques with a great story), I thought I was making progress. However in my heart and actions I was still felt ashamed and was ignoring it (not sitting at it, not dusting it, resenting its lack of high chair space for non-existent children). Richard Rohr and Henri Newan along with Brene Brown have been helpful authors in this journey. Through their work and yours I am reminded to live in gratitude, (beginning to) intentionally simplifying until I am surrounded by life giving, joy sustaining items and activities that align with my truest self and allow me to authentically reflect and receive the love of God in all of my interactions and relationships. (This morphed into quite the lengthy comment, but really all to say thank you; this was very timely)

    • Oh, Rebecca, this moves me. Yes, its so easy to punish ourselves with things, or the lack of things. And it’s so hard to know when we’re being simple and when we’re being punishing. I’m with you on that journey. And also, your dining room table sounds lovely 🙂 ours is from the 20s and a little rickety, and stained from my daughter’s art projects, but it makes me happy.

  • Beth Pandy Bruno

    Maybe this is book one? 🙂 An Experiment in Little Yeses.

    • 🙂 Thanks for the encouragement. I feel a little weird writing a whole book on simplicity–mine is definitely a choice, rather than a necessity, which makes me feel like a dilettante. But maybe that’s just the shame talking. I do think choosing more simply is an antidote to the consumerism and environmental degradation of the first world.

  • Pingback: From Stinginess to Simplicity: For The Mudroom - Heather Caliri()

  • Anny

    Ooh, I relate to this one a lot. Trying to find a simplicity that is more about being generous and less about shame/obligation/scarcity.

  • Kate

    WOW! Thank you so much for this piece. It spoke to my heart. This sentence may change my life forever if I let it – “Every time I evaluated a purchase, instead of asking myself if it was wasteful, I asked myself if it was joyful.” Having resources and being privileged is something I too have shame about and results in my being very stingy with myself, less so with others. Thank you for sharing your experience and giving me inspiration.

  • Rachael

    This is lovely! I grew up with never having enough and always having to make things work. It was fine then because it was necessary. But I brought that mentality into adulthood and then I also got tired of being stingy, and always being the one in my marriage to say “no, we don’t have the money for that.” I eventually just gave in and quit saying no and now just feel guilty when I spend money. I’d love to live simply and only buy something if it gives me joy. Your story gives me hope that I’m headed in the right direction!