At one point in her life -- when she owned a two-bedroom condo, two cars, and enough wedding china to serve two dozen people gazpacho at the same time -- Tammy Strobel, 31, asked herself if all that "stuff" actually made her and her husband, Logan, happy.
Apparently she's not the only woman to feel less than euphoric an hour after making an impulse buy: A story about her new un-material-girl lifestyle
is currently the most popular piece on the New York Times website.
After the jump she tells Lemondrop what exactly she gave away, what she misses most, and why she and her husband are happier than ever living on ... half their former income.
Then, you tell us, which life would you choose -- Tammy's before or Tammy's after?
She worked as a project manager for an investment management firm in Davis, Calif. and netted about $40,000 a year. She and Logan also had $30,000 in debt.
After reading up on the simplicity movement (she blogs about it at rowdykittens.com
), they started donating to charity like fiends.
Out went sweaters, shoes, books, pots, pans. They even put the TV in the closet as a trial run, then decided they could part with it. Then they sold their cars, too.
Next, Tammy found the 100 Things Challenge
, a grassroots website/movement that encourages consumers to pare down to just 100 items. And, from underwear to albums, she did.
Three years later, Tammy and Logan live in a 400-square-foot apartment in Portland, Ore. She owns four plates, three pairs of shoes and two pots. They're still car-free -- in fact they self-published an e-book, "Simply Car-Free", about life after oil dependency.
She works as a freelance web designer and writer, making about $24,000 a year, which, she says, covers their bills. Logan is getting his doctorate in physiology. The couple is now debt-free.
Because she doesn't work as much, Tammy has more time to travel, spend outdoors, be in nature, and volunteer, which she spends four hours a month doing at Living Yoga
Lemondrop: When and why did the "100 Things Challenge" first strike a chord with you?
I've been interested in the voluntary simplicity movement for the last four years. Dave Bruno's 100 Things Challenge
came along about two years later and I think it was the simplicity of the challenge that made it so engaging and helped me reevaluate what I need in my life. The point of the challenge is to reduce the number of personal items you own to under 100 items. Methods of counting range from person to person. In my interpretation of Dave's 100 Thing Challenge, the exercise is less about counting up stuff than it is about asking ourselves larger questions like:
-- Where was my stuff made?
-- How was my stuff processed and where does it all go when I'm done with it?
-- Why do I shop so much?
-- Do material things really make me happy?
-- If I have less stuff to worry about, will I have more time to give back to my community?
Being aware of how stuff affects our physical and emotional health is empowering. More importantly, making small changes in our own lives leads to a greater awareness of the connection between environmental, economic, and social justice issues.
Before this, your life seemed to look a lot like a lot of ours. You were newlyweds, with an apartment, two cars, and a full-time job. What did you mean when you said you felt trapped on the "work-spend treadmill"?
I was going to work to earn money to buy stuff I didn't need. And that's not a healthy pattern. I didn't feel like I had control over my time or finances. By downsizing, I've gained control over both.
What did the conversation look like when you decided to part with the majority of what you own?
Our downsizing process took about two to three years. So, there wasn't one particular conversation that I can point to.
And we're not done downsizing. We want to build a tiny house. I'm hoping the folks at Portland Alternative Dwellings
can build something for us in the next few years.
Can you give us a partial list of what you parted with? What was the hardest material thing to leave behind?
Some of the items we parted with included a lot of books, furniture, clothing, our television, and cars. The cars were the hardest to leave behind. We slowly shed cars over a period of three years. We started out with one car and one truck that we drove daily, and now we don't own a car. After we adjusted to car-free living, we asked ourselves, "Why did it take so long to sell our cars?"
When I think about how much money we spent on them, I don't miss them at all. Especially when you consider the financial strain of car ownership.
Even if you've paid off your car, do you really know the true cost? According to the book "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car":
-- Americans spend one-fifth of their income on cars.
-- An American Automobile Association study pointed out that the average American spends $8,410 per year to own a vehicle. That's $700 per month. (The figure includes car payments, insurance, gas, oil, car washes, registration fees, taxes, parking, tools and repairs.)
You told The Times your mom thought you were crazy ... at first. When did she come around, and how did your friends react?
Initially my mom thought I was crazy, but she was still supportive. I think she thought it was a fad. We are lucky that friends and family have been incredibly supportive throughout this process. Once we showed everyone how the downsizing process got us out of debt and gave us greater freedom they even started incorporating some of our strategies into their own lives.
I think a lot of women fantasize about jettisoning their entire lives to have the time to do the things you seem to now: volunteer for something they love, set their own hours, take a vacation without worrying about vacation days. How do you feel different than you did before?
I have so much more motivation now than I did before! Learning how to love life and not stuff was the game changer. Clutter gets in the way of living a full and happy life. Valuable time that could be spent with family, friends or volunteering gets sucked up with too much time in the house cleaning or in the mall shopping, or results in financial strain from overspending.
I'm not perfect and still have consumer tendencies. However, I've taken note of my trigger points. If I'm feeling lonely, I don't go shopping anymore. I head outside for a bike ride, read a book or volunteer for a nonprofit.
How does your workday look different than it did? And your income?
I don't have a "typical" workday. The beauty of working from home is that I can work when I feel creative. So sometimes I stay at home. Other days, I'll cafe hop or work at Powell's (the local bookstore) for a few hours. I love supporting local businesses. For example, Portland is known for it's yummy Stumptown coffee and I go local cafe's that serve the good stuff.
My income level has been cut in half. Now I'm making about $24,000 a year, which is plenty for our lifestyle. We're able to pay our bills, save a little money, donate to good causes, and travel by bike. We've been doing a lot of bike camping this summer and it's been so much fun, and it's very inexpensive!
You also told The Times you and Logan had about $30,000 in debt before you started giving your stuff away. How do you think you amassed it in the first place? And how DID you manage to pay it off while earning less?
Three years ago my expenses were out of control. We were living paycheck to paycheck and the notion of leaving my day job to work less and do freelance writing and web design sounded silly and trite. Spending less is typically much easier than working more. Without simple living, there is no way I could have transitioned out of my day job.
Our debt was a result of student loans and cars. We paid off our debt while I was still working a traditional day job and before we started voluntarily reducing our incomes. Thanks to simple living, my partner and I downsized to a smaller apartment, sold our cars, and realized that buying more stuff wouldn't satisfy our pursuit of happiness. By reducing our expenses we saved more and paid down the debt rapidly.
Along the way, you wrote a book, "Simply Car-Free," about the beauty of car-free living. That must have really been an adjustment.
Our lives have changed for the better since we've been biking. I'm more fit and have lost weight. Also, cars take up valuable time. Now we don't have to worry about scheduling car tune-ups, coordinating pickups from the dealership, parking tickets, minor accidents or car break-ins.
Occasionally we rent a car to go visit family. Renting is the way to go for us, and it's in line with our simple living philosophy to outsource occasional needs. Spending $200 on a car rental for occasional weekend trips is an excellent money-saving strategy.
The biggest reason we advocate alternative transportation (biking and walking) is to save money and improve your health. Our nation is suffering under record loads of debt and an obesity epidemic and going car-free is how we have personally chosen to solve to this problem. I mentioned earlier that Americans spend about $8,000 a year per vehicle. Even if you can't go car-free, consider going car-lite. For more on car-lite living, read: How to Go Car-Lite
Do you think most Americans are victims of conspicuous consumption? What's the one thing that you think would surprise them most about freeing themselves from the stranglehold of "things"?
That's a really tough question. I think a lot of Americans have been conditioned to buy more than they really need. I think it's time we all take a step back and look at our individual consumption patterns and our economic model. For example, is Gross Domestic Product (GDP) a good measurement for "growth?" Or should we transition to a model based on Gross National Happiness (GNH)
Are you happier?
Yes, we are both happier. Without the burden of stuff or debt weighting us down we have less anxiety and more time to spend with friends, family, and give back to our community. I know a lot of folks probably think we're crazy. But really what's crazier? Living with less or living solely to pay for a large house to store your stuff in?
Tammy Strobel blogs at Rowdy Kittens and Rented Spaces.