One of the main premises in my upcoming book, Organized Simplicity, is that we need to redefine the phrase “simple living.” To me, getting a true and right definition of this term is crucial to any goal we might have in — well, living simpler. This is such a trendy concept these days, it’s not too hard to find scads of information on the Internet about 10 steps for living simpler, or to clutter up your bookshelf with a whole row of nothing but books on decluttering.

Trust me, I’ve seen the section at the bookstore where my book will be — there are already a lot of books out there on simple living.

My guess is that if you like to read this blog, you probably already have a vested interest in living simpler. I do, too. And I’m the first to admit that I’m not an expert here — I’m just a wife, mom, and friend, doing my best to keep life all about the essentials.

It was early on in writing the book’s manuscript that I had my “aha!” moment, when my mind tripped upon the real definition of “simple living.” And as soon as I found the right words to define it, my book took an entirely different direction, and I wrote with fury.

What simple living isn’t

In chapter two of the book, I discuss a bit about what simple living isn’t. This is important, because it’s easy to buy in to a lot of our culture’s perceptions of simple living, when at the end of the day, they really aren’t very realistic. Here are some examples I share:

1. Living on a homestead, off the grid, or without electricity or cars

It’s true, there are a few hardy, modern-day homesteaders in the western world who manage to live without a refrigerator, who ride a bicycle everywhere (kids included), and who reuse their toilet paper. It’s what they want, and best wishes to them.

Most of us can’t voluntarily swallow that pill. Our luxuries may not be necessities for survival, but they sure are nice, and in some cases they make simple living easier. A bulk freezer can definitely help some families with their meal planning. A fuel-efficient car makes errand running fast enough to enjoy the rewards of a simple home. And I probably don’t need to tell you that electricity makes home life just a little easier and more pleasant.

2. Only for the cuckoos

The phrase “simple living” can sound a bit… out there. Like it’s for the granola-types, or the families who live in a tiny town—or even worse, it’s for the people without kids and real-life commitments. It’s easy to hear this phrase, and wonder — who on earth can live like this?

When simplicity is married to reality, it is possible. Not only is it possible, it’s quite possibly the best way to live life.  Your children’s childhoods will thank you, as well as your stress level and sanity.

Simple living doesn’t mean giving up those things you love, or those things that make twenty-first century living possible. It simply means simplifying your life. And everyone can do that. When you simplify, you have less stuff to contend with and more time for things that matter.

So what is the real definition of simple living?

C’mon… Did you think I would reveal my book’s apex here in this post, did you? You’ll have to wait a few more weeks for the answer when the book comes out. But I will tell you this — you probably already know this definition, to some degree. Something in your gut tells you that this is the best way to live, the realistic and freeing and most meaningful way to live out your days. Your heart tells you “yes” when you believe what living simply really means.

Photo by moncheri

And indeed, there are benefits galore to this “living simply.” Too many to count. Here are just a few:

1. More time for people

When we have more stuff, we usually have less time for relationships with other people. Our homes and our calendars are filled to the brim, and someone has to take care of those things. If we’re responsible, we’ll do our best to keep our homes sanitary and honor our commitments. But it’s a bummer when being responsible means being chained to our stuff and our schedules, instead of enjoying relationships in a slower paced way.

People are always more important than things. When we live simply, it’s easier to see that — and it’s easier to live as though that’s true.

2. Improved health

Our mental, emotional, and physical health is taking a serious toll because of our cluttered lives. We’re stressed, we’re easily overwhelmed, and we’re not sleeping well because our homes are too crowded with stuff. We walk into our messy homes, and we’re discouraged and defeated before we even start, not knowing where to begin.

Hours and hours of busyness usually result in an exhausted body. Who has the time to make a healthy meal from scratch, or to even enjoy those luxuries we’re working so hard to have?

We’re a rather sleep-deprived culture. Because of our long work days, our evenings spent carting our kids to their activities, and the more than eight hours per day we spend as a family parked in front of the TV, we’re going to bed late and getting up early to start it all over again. Not enough sleep means an increased chance of depression, weight gain, high blood pressure, and perpetual grouchiness.

Our heads are swimming in responsibilities. A cluttered home is a difficult place to relax, especially when all you have to do is look around and see things that beckon a mental to-do list for upkeep. It’s stressful, it’s physically debilitating, and it’s all you can do to not crawl into bed in the fetal position, hoping it will all somehow go away.

You will physically feel better when you get rid of those things you don’t need. Your health will improve when you have more time to take care of your body. And because your body is in better health, you’ll be happier and more productive.

3. Financial well-being

As a culture, we are spending far too much money–-money that we often don’t even have–-on things we simply don’t need. We never feel like we have enough money. Even when we budget every month and use a cash-envelope system, it seems like there’s usually more month than money. But this shortfall usually occurs because we’re spending and not saving.

If we free our homes of things we don’t need, we’re saving money down the road, because we don’t need to upkeep those things we never loved to begin with. If we have 200 DVDs, and we only truly enjoy half, then selling the extras means we don’t need the hassle of finding storage for those 100 sub-par DVDs.

If we have less clutter, we can find things we’re looking for. A decluttered kitchen is a much saner place to prepare meals, which means less eating out and less money spent on bloated entrees at restaurants. When we toss the paperwork we don’t need, we’re able to find important papers, making it infinitely easier to pay bills on time, store useful coupons, and remember appointments without paying a penalty fee.

And we shouldn’t write off the emotional freedom that comes with decluttering our homes, which directly affects our financial wellbeing. You’re more apt to remove the emotion from things, so it’s easier to rid your home of all but what you love—selling more things means earning and keeping more money, and keeps you from buying needless stuff in the future.

4. An ecological step in the right direction

Our landfills are overflowing. The vehicles we use to cart all our stuff have created the worst air quality in history. It’s not a scare tactic, it’s the truth—if we want a decent life for ourselves let alone our children’s children, we must be much better stewards of our possessions. Our dependence on superfluous stuff has meant damage to our air, our local water, our soil, and our oceans, both for us and for our neighboring countries.

When we get rid of the things we don’t need and either donate them to charity or sell them second-hand, we’re providing someone a way to reuse something, instead of buying it new. We’re supporting the reuse part of the three R mantra of environmentalism.

When our households have less stuff, we don’t need as much space. Less space means lower utilities, which is both financially savvy and ecologically sound. You’ll use less electricity, less gas, and less water to keep your place running.

I’m not arguing that simple living is not buying stuff, or not appreciating beautiful things, or even not having fun. It’s about saying no to the things that don’t matter, so that you can say yes to the things that do. It’s saying ‘no’ to the thousand little opportunities to whittle away your free time, so that you can say ‘yes’ to that coffee date with a girlfriend or a weekend away with your family. It’s about saying ‘no’ to those 10 so-so bath towels on clearance, so that you have the funds to say ‘yes’ to investing in four beautiful ones that will last for years.

Realistic simple living is for you and your family. It’s the best way to live life. It means that all the parts of your life are pointed in the same direction, a direction that has purpose and vibrancy. Don’t waste another minute wishing life were simpler. Make it happen.

What is your definition of simple living? Better still, what’s your definition of what simple living isn’t?