Goodbye McMansion, Hello Simple Life: What I Learned From Thoreau

Walden Pond
Walden Pond.

The cost of a thing is the amount of what
I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it,
immediately or in the long run.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

These words hit me hard at the age of 29. It was 2008, and depending on the hour, I was watching my marriage unravel, witnessing the collapse of the financial markets from the office of my first-year financial planning business, or determining whether I was even or underwater on a 2,500-square-foot McMansion. Collectively, my husband and I were $275,000 in debt.

Walden sat on my bookshelf for years. I would open it, read a few lines, and put it away. But as I got closer to my 30th birthday, being a person who didn’t finish things bothered me more than ever. I was tired of being too busy to focus and feeling too afraid to sit still.

One day I picked up the book and read it all the way through. I looked around my home and finally understood: I was drowning in debt, and my lifestyle was making me miserable. I exhausted hours every Sunday dusting, vacuuming, and mopping. I spent the majority of my time either working to pay for things like furniture or electronic gadgets or fearfully maintaining them by obsessively dusting and scrubbing.

I could see my future, and it looked bleak.

So did my marriage. When my husband and I started dating 10 years prior, we embraced our differences and learned from one another. Now we barely saw each other, and when we did, we butted heads, often about our finances. Deciding to divorce was a heartbreaking process. I sold most of my possessions to pay off my debt and donated the rest; he kept the house. By the end, everything I owned fit into my compact car. Then, watching the financial markets implode under the pressure of greed and deceit, I realized my career in financial planning was the next to go.

Thoreau said, “Things do not change; we change,” and that’s exactly what I did.

Once the dust had settled on all the changes in my life, Thoreau’s passages continued to echo in my mind, pointing me toward yet another self-discovery: my spending habits. Up to this point, they had largely been invisible, so changing them required a burgeoning awareness and discipline. First, I listed all of my fixed expenses in a spreadsheet. Then, I began carrying around a notebook to record all of my spending. It was tedious, but the knowledge I gained was invaluable.

I was surprised to learn that the way I spent money was mostly about pleasing other people—it had little to do with my own enjoyment. In fact, I didn’t even know what I enjoyed. During the week, I had spent money going to happy hour in order to network with the affluent business crowd. On the weekends, I had gone out with my husband to eat dinner or see live music. Instead of feeling thrilled and pampered, I just felt stressed and guilty about spending money I didn’t have. I was busy consuming and spending, too busy to feel alive.

Seven years have gone by since I left that lifestyle, and so much has changed. I now make about half the annual income I once did, teaching yoga, writing about health and wellness, and waitressing part-time. I have good days and bad days, but I no longer feel controlled by debt. I take 12–16 weeks off each year and one winter spent four months on the Big Island of Hawaii, eating homemade dinners on the beach and listening to the trumpets of humpback whales. In moments like those, when the magic and wonder of the world offer themselves so vividly, I experience so much gratitude for simply being alive.

But, of course, it hasn’t been easy. At first it was scary for me to move away from the crowd. I felt vulnerable saying no when I had spent my life saying yes. I had lived to please others and had struggled to fulfill their expectations rather than my own. But now, true to Thoreau, I’m less inclined to exchange my life for trivial things, and I have become richer for it. My relationships are more authentic, my health more vibrant, and my time more precious. Instead of cleaning a McMansion on Sunday mornings, I call my mom or hike in the mountains near my home. For me, a simple life is a good life, the only kind of life I want to lead.

This post first appeared in Yes! Magazine.

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