Simplicity challenge

Paring down our family's belongings

G’s shelves, as of this morning.

We watched a TV show last night that challenged families to live with minimalistic limits for a while and take note of how their lives changed, for better or worse. Some of the families were obsessed with name-brand clothes, some were in tons of debt, and some were major wasters of food.

The show’s challenges applied strict limits where each family felt them the most. The mom with the designer shoe obsession had to keep just a functional pair or two and pack up the rest. The coupon-obsessed family — with the miles of  shelved rice packets and granola bars, but fridge full of hundreds of dollars of expired food — was forced to spend a quarter of their usual food budget and actually use up every perishable before buying more. Whatever was a crutch or acquired through either wasteful or habitual behaviors, they removed and put in storage for the duration of the experiment. For some families, that was a week; others signed on to make the change for three weeks or several months.

Every family had its own Achilles’ heel to be addressed, but overall, the basic rules stayed in common.


  1. Keep the family food budget to under $100 a week,
  2. Limit kids’ access to TV,
  3. Eat in together instead of out,
  4. Walk, not drive, to wherever you possibly can,
  5. Get rid of any extra stuff, and REALLY evaluate what “extra” means.

From the far corner of the living room, our four-year-old G, who hadn’t really seemed to be paying attention, piped up and said, “We should get rid of all my toys, too. I don’t really need them.”

So, following much after-dinner discussion, we’ve decided to give it a shot. Most of the things, we already do. We had a crappy few years in recent history, and when that was going on, the limits came naturally. As we’ve rebuilt, we’ve kept them on purpose. We spend $50-100 a week for our family of three (and we’re a blended family, so some weeks, it’s a family of five); we’ve always had G watch just an hour or so of TV a night, and that’s prerecorded shows without commercials, most times; and we almost never eat out unless it’s with friends or extended family. Maybe once every two weeks, at the most. Walking everywhere we go isn’t realistic for us, since we live in the sticks.

Stuff, though?

Oh, that.


It’s still a problem. Watching this show, we realized, okay, maybe we don’t buy vast amounts of stupid stuff the way we used to, but we also haven’t parted with as much as we could stand to, either. There’s much room for improvement.

The other changes served us well when we made them a few years ago, so why not?

SO, we’re paring way down for seven days, and seeing how it goes.

One of the families on TV was allowed five toys per kid, and there were two or three kids in the family, total. G kept an even dozen, plus three stuffed animals (he sleeps with the same ones every night; they’re a single comfort-object unit, really.) He put everything else in big boxes and shipped it out to the garage. I’d have liked to go even smaller (I’d been thinking ten or so), but upped the number for a couple of reasons. For one thing, he’s an only kid, so it’s not like he can play tag in the yard like the kids on TV did with their extra time. Secondly, he JUST got all of it for Christmas, and he bravely let go of loads and loads. I figured twelve was already less than the zillion that had been in there previously; he’ll get the point. It will be a major adjustment, and that’s the point.

His room looks completely empty, comparatively speaking. The echo in there has even changed.

I kept feeling guilty, even though this had all been HIS idea.  (Jerry kept laughing at me, and reminding me of that.)

Obviously, I’m more of the problem than he is. I’m the purchaser. He’s the four-year-old. But whatever.

For my part, I hoard clothes. Most don’t even fit me, but I’m so paranoid of not having exactly the right thing to wear that I keep them just in case. I’m not a fashionista by any means. I have zero style. Seriously, ask anyone. But since I don’t trust myself to know the rules that well, I’m always afraid to part with anything in case I find out I should wear it with this outfit or that.  I never know, so I keep it ALL. (It’s lack of education, really.)

The point is, the clothes have now taken over my whole bedroom.  Piles. Everywhere.

So, in keeping with the spirit of the experiment, since those are hard for me to part with, that’s what we picked for my sacrificial collection. I threw most everything into laundry baskets and Jerry put it out with the toys. This morning? There’s still plenty on the rack; I’m in no danger of going naked. It’s all in my head.

We’re on day one, and there have been exactly two toys G has mentioned; a stuffed duck and a plastic sword. He didn’t dwell. It was just, “Huh, I don’t have those anymore. Guess I’ll play with this, then…” and he moved on.


  1. Halloween bucket half-full of Legos
  2. Small bag of Pokemon (he owns a truly giant bin of them, which was removed)
  3. Nabi tablet
  4. Angry Birds blocks
  5. Play kitchen
  6. Small bag of hot wheels
  7. Gumball machine (the little plastic kind)
  8. Robot guy
  9. Building truck (erector-style type, changes into different things)
  10. Cash register
  11. Imaginext castle
  12. Foam block puzzle pieces (AKA “ninja stars”, which we throw at each other and war with as a family at least on a daily basis. We’re weird.)

Typing all this out, it sounds like a lot. It doesn’t look like it. His shelves are pretty bare. (But then, maybe we have too many shelves?)

It makes me wonder.

What do most kids have?  How many toys is average?

I know the number of I toys my sister and I had as kids is way more than most people have. We were savers of things, and we had tons and tons of stuff, in a million different categories. My husband?  He said just about everything he owned as a young kid would have fit inside one half-size laundry basket. Some Christmases, he got one big present. I always got seventy or so, including one huge one (one year a stereo, one year a bike, etc.)

I am sure most people are in between. But the two of us are coming from completely opposite ends of the spectrum. We have no idea where to land, but we want to land there intentionally.

So tell me. I really want to know. I need some help here, as we think about all this.

What did YOU have when you were a kid?  How much stuff do your kids have? And most importantly, what are your thoughts on that? What’s too much?  Is there such a thing as too little?


6 Responses to “Simplicity challenge”

  1. Linda says:

    My first thought after reading this was: “Empty shelves?! More books!!!” but that’s not helpful, is it?

    I was a pretty spoiled kid when it came to toys, but I didn’t have all that much compared to kids these days. We had an Atari and Nintendo but only had about 5 games for each set. Books, on the other hand, are my Achilles’ heel.

    Moving back home really put into perspective just how much crap I had in a one bedroom apartment…which was quite a shock considering I routinely do “spring cleaning” twice a year–in the fall and spring. Most of it is paper–receipts, tax filings, health documents and the like. It would be nice to scan it all to my computer, but I think that’s still hoarding.

    My goal for when I move out again is to be a minimalist. I don’t know how successful I’ll be but I do want to try. The thing that keeps me focused on this goal is looking at all the trinkets my mom has around the house. It gives me nightmares, seriously.

    • Tracy says:

      We left the books on our bookshelf. I could never take those away. We weed them out twice a year, but only barely. I’m a sucker for books, too.

      Interesting point about digital hoarding. I definitely do that! I’ve consciously switched to hard drive clutter instead of physical clutter. I know it’s just as bad, but it’s easier to clean up when someone’s coming over, that’s for sure.

  2. Lily says:

    Um, what’s your husband giving up????
    Just curious. Not as many toys EXISTED when I was a kid. I had some dolls. I had some books. So did my sisters. We mostly played with those when it rained, because what we really liked was playing outside. We made up a lot of games. We put on plays. We rode bikes, and roller skated. Watched about an hour of tv a week. It was a different era.

    If I were to give up something now I think it would be clothes and reading material. I feel overwhelmed by both and just might try your experiment, too. Great food for thought.

    • Tracy says:

      Wow, Lily. Sounds like you had an idyllic childhood, in terms of pastimes! We didn’t have most of the toys my kids have now, but we made up for it in quantity of ’80s junk. My Little Ponies, Barbies, Construx and other building sets… it was insane.

      We didn’t play with the neighbor kids because we lived on a highway and weren’t allowed out of the yard. Everyone else — EVERY SINGLE ONE — lived on the opposite side of the street. They all played together, and we could see and hear them, but we couldn’t go over. Once in a great while we could convince someone to come to our yard, but that’s hard to do when you don’t actually know them yet.

      If you DO try a similar experiment, keep me posted! I’m fascinated by humans and our attachment to things. I would love to know how it goes for you.

      Your question about what he’s giving up made me laugh. I asked him the same thing yesterday. He said, “Procrastination. Tomorrow.”

  3. Donna Powell says:

    Tracy, growing up, my toy/play memories are this: My mom bought me REALLY good dolls – Madam Alexander was the brand of my favorite doll….BUT, she had a rule. No dolls that walk, talk, chew, cry, etc….She felt that is what our “imagination” was for. By the way, I still have my doll, “Angela”. She happily resides in a box in storage for now. She is minus patches of hair, due to the hours of “beauty shop” I played with her. She still wears a dress sewn lovingly by my sister, who was 13 when she made it for my doll. I WAS allowed to have barbies (back then we didn’t give a HOOT that she had an abnormally small waist and abnormally large BREASTS). My 3 best neighborhood friends and I would play for HOURS with Barbie and her BFFs Ken, Midge and Skipper. My bicycle allowed us to play “cars” as we would mark the street(yes, we played IN the street – and had enough sense to LISTEN/watch for cars AND the neighbors had enough sense to WATCH FOR KIDS PLAYING IN THE STREET! lol )and sidewalks with chalk lines for our “traffic lanes”. We would go to a dime store called M.E. Moses and purchase a carbon receipt book for .10 cents. We took turns being the “police” and finding “traffic infractions” made by the “motorists” (fellow kids on bikes). We would write them a ticket out of the receipt book and they would take their monopoly money to pay the fines to get out of jail. Yep, our monopoly games were ALWAYS short of money & other game pieces. 🙂 We also played red rover, jacks, jumped rope, played with our footsies (ya might have to google that one!) and put on neighborhood plays that we made up ourselves. Oh, and we LOVED playing school. (I loved it only when I got to be the teacher, though!) We DID watch a lot of tv, apparently, as I remember FAITHFULLY watching Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, Gilligans Island and the Dick Van Dyke Show every day. How DID we manage to get our homework done??!! We didn’t have a lot of toys but we did have a lot of books. I’m forever grateful to my parents for that. Anyway, that’s my walk down memory lane for the day.
    p.s. I like the list of toys G kept. Those coupled with his BIG imagination will keep him playing for a long, long time! 🙂

    • Tracy says:

      Thanks, Donna! I love hearing your list of memories… that’s what it’s all about. And if we never have any time to just sit and make those memories, what are we going to be left with? Glad yours are so imprinted, they sound like treasures.

Leave a Reply to Linda Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *