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Simplifying Simplicity With Five Simple Questions

in Money Basics

This is a guest article by Flexo from Consumerism Commentary. Flexo is currently on a ten-day, ten-venue guest-posting tour.

I like Baker’s 42 Ways to Radically Simplify Your Financial Life.  Each one of the suggestions in his article is absolutely relevant and rewarding on its own, but together the tips form the quadragintaduo-fecta of financial simplicity. Although I love the number forty-two for reasons obvious to Douglas Adams fans, doesn’t it seem a little, well, complicated for a theory of simplicity?

Simplicity boils down to one concept: eliminate anything that is unnecessary. If you take this mantra to heart, build your personal philosophy around it, and keep it in mind when you make every decision, there is no reason to follow a list of suggestions. The answers will be obvious — any choice that fits the philosophy will be the correct choice to make.

I’m not an expert in the concept of simplicity. All I have to do is look around my apartment and evaluate my life to see that much of who I am is overly complicated. But I’m not someone who believes in extremes. Any philosophy can be taken to that point, but for what advantage? I suppose I could live the life of a hermit in the wilderness, finding my own sustenance and operating outside of and independent of society. With this life, saving as much money as possible wouldn’t be a goal because no money would ever be necessary.

If we accept the premise that simplicity as an overall concept is a good idea, we can use it as a guide rather than an absolute rule. We then decide the level of simplicity that is acceptable to us. Now that we have simplified simplicity to its core, “Eliminate anything that in unnecessary,” we have to decide the meaning of “unnecessary.” And thus, we add a layer of complication.

Here’s what you need to ask yourself to achieve this:

  • What are my values? Values are broad concepts that explain how to behave. Family, faith, and independence are popular values, but there are many others, like education, joy, reputation, health, and meaning.
  • How do I prioritize my values? Some are more important than others, so more time should be spent concentrating on the values at the top of this list.
  • What aspects of life directly conflict with the most important values? Here is the first set of candidates for elimination. If health ranks highly for you, it would be a good idea to put down the cigarettes and the doughnuts and get in shape.
  • What aspects of my life do not correspond to any of my values? Reading trashy novels makes sense only if mindless entertainment is one of your values. If not, eliminate.
  • What aspects of my life correspond to my values but can be replaced or reduced? It’s possible to do too much. I admit that entertainment, though not mindless, is not my top value but it is an important part of my life. But I do watch too much television, and I would benefit from watching much less.

There we have five questions to help guide someone on a path to simplicity. Following this path will help us achieve success financially and spiritually. The concept of simplicity should be true to itself, with just the one theme of eliminating all that is unnecessary. Breaking down the concept into detailed steps or suggestions can be helpful, even if a little ironic.

As with any major concept, a goal of simplicity is only a guide and will never be attained in its fullest measure. Each step on that path will bring us closer to the goal, so don’t wait before enjoying the journey.

Baker: For those of you that don’t know, Flexo is one of the oldest (started in 2003) and most well-respected members of the personal finance community.  In particular, his transparency in his monthly Net Worth updates (going back forever) inspired my own financial transparency.

photo by lbolognini

{ 23 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Jabs January 20, 2010 at 11:44 AM

I would like to give a testimonial for simplicity.

My wife and I have been simplifying out lives for over a year now. We have never been happier. There is much truth in the statement, “You don’t own your possessions, your possessions own you.”

The more we eliminate the unnecessary from our lives, according to our values and our goals, the happier we are. Take it from Flexo, Baker, and me… this is a *simple* concept (pun intended) worthy of your attention and adoption.

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Betsy Talbot January 20, 2010 at 12:09 PM

I’ve said it before – when you eliminate the junk in your life, a whole new world opens up. We’ve simplified far more than most people would (mainly because we are leaving to travel full-time), but for those not doing that I think the simplest way to simplicity is in waves, going a little deeper each time.

We didn’t do it all at once either, and it made it easier to adapt this way. There is no way I would have given up cable at the beginning, but when the time came last summer I was ready and now I wonder how I ever wasted so much time in front of the television. It took simplifying in some smaller ways first to help me see that.

Small steps taken one right after the other will get you there. It doesn’t have to be dramatic or all at once. Like you said – enjoy the journey.

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Kevin M January 20, 2010 at 12:50 PM

Simplicity is definitely “in” right now, but this seems like the best approach – live by your values and ditch as much of the rest as you can.

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Andy Hough January 20, 2010 at 1:43 PM

This is a timely post. I just blogged yesterday about getting rid of stuff. My life is already pretty simple but there is still progress to be made.

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Tyler Karaszewski January 20, 2010 at 2:27 PM

I’m bored with all the talk of simplicity and the equation people make between simplicity and possession count. It’s all so subjective and poorly defined. What adds more complexity to life — electricity and the corresponding electric bill, or a box of wood and a daily wood-chopping session to provide heat and light? Which one of these options requires more work? Which is “simpler”? Why are possessions viewed as anti-simplicity even when they make life easier (would you life really be simpler if you got rid of your kitchen utensils)?

Does simplicity really mean “prioritization” like this article implies? It doesn’t, but the article’s suggestions make more sense than the focus everyone has on simplicity. Maybe we should focus on conscious prioritization instead of simplicity. After all, the simplest life is either one where you live in the forest and forage for food, or one where you’re in a coma, depending on how you look at it. Neither of these are a pinnacle of virtue to me.

Complexity isn’t the enemy. If it is, why are we sitting here using machines that do millions of calculations per second and can transmit messages around the world in less than a second. Pen and paper is much simpler. Maybe we should all be pen pals with Baker for the sake of simplicity. Medical researchers could give up their complex jobs to work as ditch-diggers or custodians. Those jobs are much simpler.

We’ll all agree that idea is preposterous, and that complexity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and so what we’re seeking isn’t simplicity but prioritization. Put the important (even if complex) things at the top of the list, and then cut the bottom off the list. This is “fewer”, sure, but not necessarily simpler.

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cindy January 20, 2010 at 5:26 PM

I have to agree with Tyler. Less is not always more if the priorities are not in place first. I don’t feel guilty for owning multiple cast iron pans and a bunch of mixing bowls. I love to cook and bake so I buy tools that will make the job easier. While I don’t feel the need to own most of the those “As Seen on TV” gadgets, I would like to buy a kitchen aid mixer. This may seem extravagant or unnecessary to some people and I have made due without it, but it would be nice to have another set of “hands” available at any time. It’s important to ME. Now, if you walk into my living room, you will find a couch and coffee table. That’s it. I rarely cook for more than two people so furniture is not a priority to me. Cable TV is not important to me either (thanks PBS!) but owning whisks of varying sizes matters in my home.
To prove Flexo’s point, you will find every kind of infomercial whoosits/whatsits known to mankind in my parent’s kitchen. They eat out almost every night; the whoosits are usually pushed off on an unsuspecting visitor and the whatsits end up at a garage sale within six months.

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Flexo January 20, 2010 at 8:00 PM

Great points, Tyler, and a good illustration of what I was thinking when I wrote, “We then decide the level of simplicity that is acceptable to us.” Simplicity doesn’t necessarily have to mean living off the land, eschewing technology — but it can for some people. Technology certainly makes life simpler, and I see nothing wrong with possession or ownership. It’s a personal approach, hence the importance of prioritization.

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Sarah February 6, 2010 at 3:25 AM

Actually Tyler my life would be easier if I got rid of some of my kitchen utensils. Namely the silverware – why you ask, because they I would not have to spend the time, energy and water on washing the five spoons my husband used in the three hours he’s been home from work or the seven that end up on the floor from my kids throwing them at mealtimes. Dang, I end up feeding them with my fingers anyway so why not just have four people wash their hands instead of a sinkful of forks, knives and spoons at 10 pm when I finally get a minute to myself. ; ) What’s simple to one is not simple to another.

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Bobby January 20, 2010 at 10:43 PM

Tyler,

I think that simplicity is necessarily correlated with possession count and (for the purposes of a blog aimed at personal improvement) ought to be subjective. these are guides to help each of us individually and therefore subjectively interpreted.

It isn’t that electricity doesn’t make life easier (because obviously it does) but that life without it (backpacking, traveling to 3rd world countries, living in a cabin outside Missoula) can present a peaceful, get-away-from-the-rat-race, respite from what the modern world considers “normal”. The point isn’t that we need to get rid of electricity, but to examine what we really do need. As for kitchen utensils, yes, forks and knives are good, but is it really better to spend $150 on a free standing, CO2 powered, robotic wine opener/aerator or will a $3.99 waiters key suffice? Must I have the Keurig Gourmet Filtered Programmable Single Cup Coffee Pod/Disc/Packet Brewer and the Italian Espresso Maker on the counter or can I live more cheaply with a French Press and a teapot?

As for the computer vs. pen and paper analogy, yes the computer in it’s internal operations is a quantum leap in complexity over writing by hand, however, it is easier to open Mozilla and type a few paragraphs, then to pluck a feather from a goose, split the nib, mix some water and powdered ink together, scrible a bunch of lines, sprinkle sand to blot the ink, and seal with wax. Let’s not even get started into the differences between the Pony Express and Gmail.

I don’t think that Flexo was advocating simplicity in an extremist Mother Theresa or Dalai Lama-esque fashion, but rather the philosopy of choosing what is important to one’s life and sense of contentment and eschewing the rest. Complexity is not inherently antithetical to happiness, but it can get in the way of or distract from finding true peace in one’s life.

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Terrah January 21, 2010 at 12:40 AM

eliminate anything that is unnecessary. Love this.

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Richard | RichardShelmerdine.com January 21, 2010 at 5:24 AM

Another great one is “What 20% of things that I don’t use are creating 80% of my clutter?”. Sort them out and most of the task is done with minimal effort. Great post.

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Ken January 21, 2010 at 6:51 AM

Great point. Unless we define our values we don’t really have a direction for our life. I love the point about reducing what conflicts. We are all about excess sometimes.

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Tanner January 21, 2010 at 4:47 PM

Awesome timing on this post as I just sat down to rethink the Values of LifeDestiny.net and my life and realized I needed to add Simplicity as one of them.

I am also learning about Simplicity and Complexity in one of my classes. Complexity is not something we want, but it always creeps in. My advice would be to reevaluate certain aspects of your life once a week or once every two weeks. That 1 hour will save countless number of hours.

I also just did a post @ http://lifestyledesignforyou.com/2010/01/free-up-lifestyle-design/ on the 80/20 Pareto’s Principle.

HAIL SIMPLICITY!

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Ryan @ IQ Test January 21, 2010 at 5:48 PM

If you are a man of extremes like me, you don’t want to start getting rid of stuff or you will get rid of everything. Just kidding. I think it is always good to consolidate anything you can. You don’t need all the extra stuff.

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Zengirl January 21, 2010 at 11:21 PM

I like these ideas as well Baker’s 42 suggestions. Many people have different idea on what is simplicity. Volunteer simplicity is different than deprivation of fun. When your possessions start owning you, that might be a problem. I have got rid of lot of things, but yet I still have books and dvd collections (smaller one) but still there. Do what works for you.

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The Financial Blogger January 22, 2010 at 6:26 AM

Great article!

I would actually add a 6th question:
Who do I want to become in the next five years? Which values are required to change into this direction?

For example, if I want to be comfortable to speak about my feelings in the next five years, I must prioritize values such as friendship which will help me become a more loquacious individual.

@ Tanner,
I just love the Pareto Principle. It actually rules my entire life!

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Broke by Choice January 22, 2010 at 6:13 PM

These questions are great. I lead a fairly simple life. My friends somethings thing that I don’t do or have enough. What they fail to realize is that get great satisfaction from the few things I do and have becasue I value them. I will share these questions with my friends.

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alster January 23, 2010 at 2:11 AM

I like these ideas as well Baker’s 42 suggestions. Many people have different idea on what is simplicity. Volunteer simplicity is different than deprivation of fun.

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Robert January 29, 2010 at 3:54 PM

Simplicity, to me, is slowing down and doing the major things that make you happy. Confusion is trying to do everything in a little amount of time. Whenever I get confused or flustered, I ask myself, “Is what I’m doing really necessary?” Once I can reach that point, I see simplicity and can live a simple and happy life.

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Justin February 5, 2010 at 10:08 PM

I’m presently in the process of approaching simplicity gradually. I just moved and got rid of a good 25% of my personal belongings. Doing any more than that seemed like it would maybe have the opposite of the intended affect. I know it’s just “stuff,” but I worry that if too much of it disappeared at once, I’d miss it horribly…just losing a quarter of it was easy to get over. Maybe I’ll be a bit more bold on the next move.

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FinanciallySmart February 6, 2010 at 9:25 AM

Eliminate the unnecessary. What a wonderful reminder and a very informative topic. Hug that cute daughter for me.

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Jessica February 8, 2010 at 3:46 PM

Great article. I read the theme, eliminate the unnecessary, to my two home-schooled teens and it provoked the most amazing personal discovery for all of us. Home schoolers, by definition, are notorious for taking on too much and living in the midst of the chaos that ensues. My sons and I were able to isolate the ‘necessary’ and really see what we want do in order to be happy. -Thanks!

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Paul February 12, 2010 at 2:43 PM

This post made me think and review where I am and what to literally change in my life today.

Thanks for making me think, I am better for it.

Cheers,
Paul

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