How Living Abroad Taught Me to Simplify Life

Guest post by Tsh at Simple Mom.

Our family recently lived overseas for nearly four years. We’ve been back for one year as of this month, and in setting up a new home stateside, I’m reminded of several practical things I learned during our time living abroad:

1. You really don’t need that many clothes.

We never had closets when we lived in the Middle East, and many homes outside North America don’t have built-in closets, either. Wardrobes and armoires seriously — and conveniently — limit your clothing allotment. I was fine with one sweater, two pair of jeans, one pair of shorts, a few short and long-sleeved shirts, and about five skirts. My husband had even less than me.

My kids were fine with about a week’s worth of clothing. We stored their off-season clothing or the next size up in the top shelves of their wardrobes.

I was surprised as anybody that we were perfectly content with just these items, and I need to remind myself daily, now that we’re back in the States, that I really do tend to wear the same ten items, regardless of my myriad options.

2. Simple, healthy, in-season food is best. So is walking.

Farm-fresh food was in abundance in our host country, and we enjoyed a farmer’s market right in our neighborhood every Wednesday and Sunday. It took time, but eventually I learned a basic menu planning system for our family — simple meals using in-season ingredients, rotating every two weeks.

Eating the same meal twice in one month is no big deal. I was over-complicating my cooking process by thinking I needed to whip up elaborate meals all the time. In reality, my family is fine with semi-monthly pasta primavera. Simple recipes are easy to repeat.

Plus, we walked everywhere. Our family of four (plus one on the way) didn’t have a car until our last few months abroad when we borrowed one. Even then, gas prices at $12 a gallon meant we still rarely drove. Walking most everywhere helped us live frugally and more healthy.

3. Save your money for what really matters to you.

Living cross-culturally meant we simply weren’t as tempted by little everyday “gazingus pins” — lattes, magazines in English, shoe sales, and high-quality ice cream were so unbelievably expensive that they weren’t even an option, save a few times per year.

This made it easier to save for more meaningful experiences. To celebrate our becoming debt-free and saving up our fully-funded emergency fund, we went to Paris for a week. It was incredibly expensive, but because we paid 100 percent cash, we could merely laugh in wonder at the $100 dinner bill instead of panic.

I admit — it’s been challenging to apply these lessons learned stateside. American culture doesn’t make simple living easy. But it’s still worth it. When you don’t allow your belongings to own you, and when you know your family’s core values, you’re free to make small, daily choices that add up to a lot.

Tsh Oxenreider recovers from wanderlust by drinking black coffee, parenting three little blessings, and writing about simple living at Simple Mom. Her book, Organized Simplicity (F+W Media, 2010), shares her story of packing up her home in 15 boxes and moving it 6,000 miles away.

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Comments

  1. Shannon says

    Wonderful post! It’s interesting how we determine what we need and what we want and how often we decide that a want becomes a need because we really, really want it. Thank you because this post confirms what I’ve been trying to do – simplify.

  2. Tori says

    Great post. My family and I currently live abroad, too. Because of the poor US dollar conversion value, it is insanely expensive to live here. I am really learning to restrain myself like I’ve never done before, but at least things aren’t nearly as convenient as in the States. I’m interested to see what I’ll be like once we return stateside. I’ll have to rely on God’s strength and certainly not my own.

    • says

      Oh, I can understand completely, Tori! Where we lived, the conversion rate was awful, too, but just more expensive to live in general. Takes counting nickles and dimes to a whole new level, eh? :)

  3. carla says

    Great article! Very encouraging to me as I am attempting to simplify my life. Thanks and God bless.
    ~Carla

  4. Ginger says

    My big goal in life is to live abroad, and it’s now within reach. Lately, it’s really sunk in that every single purchase I make from here on out will impact that, even books. This is ALL stuff that I’m going to have to sell or give away or somehow unload. I have two large closets stuffed with clothes. Just last week, I decided that, other than bras and underwear, I am NOT buying any new clothes. I am losing weight, and as I go down in size I am going to “shop” from my closet (which has every size there is, practically) and then consign or donate all things that are too large. Regardless of moving abroad, I do want to simplify and unclutter my life. I’ll definitely be checking out your blog. Thanks for this nice guest post.

    • says

      Hi Ginger — Good for you in making your goal of living overseas a reality! I know exactly what you’re going through — it’s tough to make decisions about what stays and what goes. I wrote a little piece on CNN recently about playing the “we’re moving overseas game — what stays and what goes?” Except in our case, it wasn’t a game, it was reality! :)

      It’s a long, difficult process to decide what goes, what stays in storage, and what can be passed to someone else, but in the end, it feels sooooo good. And you can board that plane with so much less baggage, both literal and figurative.

  5. says

    WONDERFUL POST!!!! You’ve really given me a lot to think about… especially as we move toward spring cleaning and garage sale season. Thanks for sharing Tsh.

  6. Jeanna says

    Great Post ! Living overseas does change the way you look at things. The one thing I can’t get over and I have been home now for 10 years how much garbage we make!!!! They recycle everything!
    We don’t !!!!! Even if we think we do we don’t . We need a nation that thinks of things in the oppisite order instead of waste pick up / recycle pick up and the waste is the tiny bucket on the curb the after thought.

    • Rae says

      A couple weeks ago when we went without trash pickup for a week because of the roads. I was shocked at how much trash my neighbor accumulated after 1 week! One house had at least 10 kitchen sized trash bags stuffed full (I say at least because there could have been more behind them). I was shocked! And in this town, you are paying for curbside recycling anyway (it is charged with your water, sewage, and trash bill) so you might as well use it instead of being so wasteful.

    • Anitra says

      Our town recently made a switch-over to encourage more recycling (and control costs of trash pick-up). Our giant wheeled toters are now for recycling (still only picked up biweekly, unfortunately), and we were given a regular size trash can for trash (fits 2-3 bags, picked up weekly). I couldn’t believe how much complaining I heard from friends and neighbors the first few weeks. But now everyone is used to it!

      It’s unfortunate that there are still several kinds of things we can’t recycle from home (like any kind of plastic bags – they clog up the recycling sorter, apparently). We still don’t recycle as much as we should. Some things just aren’t worth the hassle (yet).

  7. says

    This article is so encouraging! My fiance and I feel called into full time missions, and we don’t know exactly where that will take us at this point… But keeping that in mind helps me live more simply right now. I think I need to cut a few more things out of my wardrobe. :)

    • says

      This was the same boat we were in, K. We wanted to do this line of work since we married, so we did our absolute best to keep it simple from the get-go. It was surprising, even with this filter on our minds all the time, how easy it was for clutter to still build up.

      Blessings to you!

  8. Christy says

    I have been trying to limit my clothing too. I am a teacher, so I do need work clothing and non-work clothing. Plus I exercise almost daily, so I need excercise clothing. I also need more casual options for summer. I wear my same “weekend” clothing over and over during Christmas break, but summer is longer! That being said, I am realizing I don’t need nearly what I have and have been scaling down! Just recently I got rid of lots of long sleeve shirts because they were old, shrunk, stained, worn, etc. I went out and bought 1 light weight long sleeve shirt, 2 med. weight, and 2 light weight sweaters (I kept some heavy weight sweaters and a few light weight long sleeve shirts). We live in the south, so I like to have options in the winter to layer different weights because it can seriously be 75 one day and 50 the next! Plus I have an infant so spit up/pee/poop is a reality and I often end up needing to change. I seriously thought I needed more, but got busy and didn’t get around to shopping again for a few weeks. After wearing what I had for a few weeks, I realized I have enough. So… the lesson learned is to not run out and buy a ton, try out what you have for a few weeks. If you are constantly having to do laundry because you run out of shirts (or pants or whatever it is), then go buy more, but you might just realize you have enough!

  9. says

    I recently pared down my own wardrobe to just a few simple items which I wear on a rotating basis. It really is amazing how much you don’t need. It has simplified my life immensely, not to mention cut down on the amount of laundry I do!

  10. Brooke says

    Has anybody had any success with joining the Daily Deals Sites that Crystal posted about yesterday? When you become a member, is there a lot of spam email involved?
    Thanks!

    • Christy says

      Not a lot of spam; however, they do send you a daily e-mail with the deal of the day. I personally like that because I can delete it if it is not of interest to me or buy it and I don’t have to remember to check all of the deal sights every day, I just check my e-mail.

    • Erin says

      Heads up that the site “Home Run Deals” sends you a TON of emails. Several a day. They aren’t “spam” as much as telling you what deals are available but it is a ridiculous amount. They must send from several email addresses bc although I kept sticking them in my junk folder, new ones kept popping up in my in-box. I tried to “unsubscribe” several times and finally had to send a very strongly worded email to get my name off of their list. They might have good deals but the email and lack of customer service means that I will never use them. Just my experience, hope it helps!

  11. Megan says

    What a great post, thank you! I learned similar lessons while living in Kenya. One of the most difficult things about coming back to the states is dealing with The Superstore. I nearly had a nervous breakdown the first time I visited a Wal-mart after returning to the US. Seeing that massive store filled with stuff that is just going to end up in a landfill in 6-12 months was incredibly depressing. Thank you for the reminder that we can live well on less!

  12. Beth says

    I really liked this article. It is amazing what little other counties have and “need” to live. As I type this my kids are playing with an empty diaper box :) This spring I am doing a BIG cleaning out. We’re having a yard sale, and what doesn’t get sold, will be donated. The kids have toys they dont’ play with and we have clothes we never wear. We are blessed with a big home and 3 beautiful little boys. The rest is just ‘stuff”.

    • Mary says

      I went through and got rid of almost all of my three daughters toys this last year. I realized that they never really played with them. Funny thing is, they never asked for a single one after I got rid of them. They play with blankets, boxes, sticks, they go outside and run around, they swing, they pretend. Our life has been so much more blessed since trying to eliminate the clutter.

  13. Jenna says

    Great post. Thank you for sharing. I spent a semester in China and the other ladies couldn’t believe how many clothes the Americans had- and we packed light! Great insights and reminders. Thanks!

  14. Terri says

    This is such a neat post. I find such inspiration in reading moneysavingmom.com each and every day.

  15. says

    I had an opportunity to live overseas as well (in Uzbekistan) and experienced many of the things you mentioned. It was quite liberating to realize that you didn’t need that many clothes or even choices in food to have a “quality life.” In fact, it made life a lot easier. Now we are back in the US (I have since gotten married and have 2 kids w/1 on the way), and still find myself going through things and getting rid of them, especially clothes and toys – there are just so many things that we don’t need, use, or really play with. We are hoping to move in 4 months or so, and my husband and I are both looking forward to scaling back even more. Thanks for your post!

  16. Kristen Trappett says

    Great reminder, my husband and I lived in China for a few months and YES life seamed simpler then, and we lived on nothing as we were volunteering but oh what fun it was!!!!! I still miss local food, and the simplicity. Thanks for this post it will help me remember my blessings and what is important!

    • Amy says

      Kristen,

      We adopted two boys from China and are working on the paperwork for our third little boy! I would love to volunteer in China someday. Did you volunteer through an organization? I would love to hear more! My email address is mypatzer@yahoo.com.

  17. Patty says

    I really need to downsize my “STUFF” I am sitting here with stuff everywhere. I don’t need it and still I have it and buy more. Guess I really need to rethink and reduce.

    • says

      Patty — I understand completely. I’d love it if you joined us for our Project: Simplify spring cleaning series on Simple Mom! Today’s post is all about it — five different “hot spots” in five weeks.

      No pressure, of course. Just fyi. :)

  18. says

    YES! Wonderful post – this was the first winter (in WI) I spent as a SAHM and between the bitter cold and snow we have spent WAY too much time cooped up at home. Right now, I feel like I am working for my house and not the other way around; there is too much STUFF and not nearly enough organization. But today the sun is shining and I am getting more and more motivated to simplify the way we live in order to better enjoy life :) Thanks!

  19. Anna says

    I simplify my “wardrobe” by wearing the same clothes year after year–same outfits. I grew up “poor” and wore hand-me-downs from older sisters. The clothes were always clean, pressed, and repaired if needed but sometimes had a “worn” look to it. In my current “wardrobe”, some of the clothes have a “worn” look as well. On the flip side I do try to buy things the “never go out of style”. I think in America we have made clothes too “disposable” and therefore accumulate more than needed. I personally grew up where you bought and treated clothes carefully and wore them year after year after year (excluding growing children and weight changes, i.e. pregnancy). My children think I am old fashion but that is how I am. I find I don’t have to buy a lot of clothes each year. I wear clothes until they are worn out too.

    • Robin says

      Grew up in a very similar way! My upgrades come from the local thrift store. When we do a wardrobe/season change. I donate all the stuff I didn’t wear all season, and go through the “new season” stuff. Anything that doesn’t look appealing, gets added to the donate pile. If I find, after all that, that due to changing tastes, I’m now short one or two items, I get a treat from the thrift stores. Then I get something new-to-me to enjoy, and usually for just a couple of $.

      For me, fashion is more what looks good on me, than what someone else says is the trend. and even the trends are giving advice on how to make clothes last longer! ;)

      • Anna says

        Yes, I did not mention thrift stores. Good point/thoughts. I shop at thrift stores but I keep most of my clothes till they are so worn no one else would want them :). I just believe in a small wardrobe and in wearing things over and over again :).

  20. Cindy Crabtree says

    Thanks for the thoughts on living abroad. We have also found that when we travelled to Europe, we could easily go with just a carryon suitcase. I packed them full, for sure, but easily got along with what fit in that little bag for a week and then use the laundromat for additional days. It sure made life simpler and moving from place to place so much easier. Some people I have told about this have said that would only carry their cosmetics. Just get over it and simplify your life. I still carried make up and such and got along just fine.

  21. Julie says

    When I went to Romania as a single missionary I thought I needed to ship some stuff. I was going to ship just a simple 4’x4′ container, but was told it was better for shipping purposes to go with a 4’x6′ container (as they stack better). I managed to fill the container about 2/3 full with various household and ministry items, some canned food stuffs that aren’t available over there (comfort food), my sewing machine, winter clothes, etc.

    Since my container didn’t ship till the same time as I flew out and since it was going to take a while to arrive, I packed everything I thought I’d need for the summer in my allowed bags that went with me…including an air mattress, sheets, blanket, and trinkets for my summer camp kids. It ended up taking several months for the container to arrive and get through customs and it was amazing what all of that I didn’t end up really NEEDING even then. Though I am sure that had I been there longer than a year (as was my original plan) most of the shipped items would have been put to use…as it turned out I had to give much of it away and figure out how to get the rest back to the US!!

    Which is why it amazes me when some families who are moving overseas feel the need to fill a massive shipping container with furniture and appliances…and why Americans feel the need to buy ever bigger houses to fill up with so much stuff they have to rent storage units to hold the excess!!

  22. Marie says

    I lived and worked in Romania for a year and then continued to go back for a few weeks at a time for 10 years. It was amazing how simply people lived. People tend to wear the same outfit for several days in a row and no one thinks anything of it. But the few things they have they take care of. We also walked everywhere and bought food in the market. At one point when I was there they still had lines for flour and sugar and you’d get your monthly alotment.
    The other thing I found about living overseas is that even those who had very little were very generous with the little they had. I remember going into a remote area on ox and cart and this family literally offered us there last meal!!!
    We live in a society of much and have to remind ourselves what is truely a need and what is a want.

    • Amanda Y. says

      This is perhaps my favorite point of all, that for all that we have, Americans are horribly wasteful. In addition, we don’t have that sense of care of your neighbors/guests–it’s so so sad.

  23. says

    I wholeheartedly agree with all you’ve said! I discovered the same thing about clothes that you did. (8.5 years in China.) I became more choosy with what I bought, knowing that I could only take back a limited amount of clothes. I started buying fewer but better quality items, especially shoes. Because I never had a need to dress up, I could get by with three pairs of shoes — Chaco sandals, tennis shoes, and a pair of cold weather Merrells.

    We also wear the same clothes two days in a row (gasp!). I find that in USA, my clothes are rarely dirty after a day’s wearing. Ironically, we got dirtier in China but learned to wear things a couple of days in a row, especially in the winter.

    Having fewer clothes means we do laundry MORE often, I think. But wearing them more than once (especially pants & pajamas) helps too.

    The food in season thing was a cause for great delight. When strawberries or peaches came available, it was a joyous thing! I learned to look forward to those times rather than miss the fruit when it wasn’t available. (We are so spoiled here, so we don’t appreciate as much.)

    And we, too, took nice family vacations — with cash, not credit –because of being able to live frugally overseas.

    • says

      “We also wear the same clothes two days in a row (gasp!). I find that in USA, my clothes are rarely dirty after a day’s wearing. Ironically, we got dirtier in China but learned to wear things a couple of days in a row, especially in the winter. ”

      Yes! Same with us. I think we Americans get nervous quicker about when clothes are officially dirty.

  24. Robin says

    In our family, daily-wear clothes get worn more than once. Usually twice…and jeans, sometimes a 3rd day–especially if day 3 is at home, and cleaning anyway. :) Even dress clothes, especially if they’ve only been worn an hour or two, can be aired out and put away for another occasion.

  25. says

    WOW, loved this article. We too have been getting stuff out of our home. 1/2 our garage is filled with “stuff” that we are going to be selling at a garage sale, then giving whatever is leftover to charities. I have found that I wear about 5 outfits EVER, yet my closet is just filled with TONS of clothing. Thanks for sharing this!!!

  26. says

    Thanks for the post! When we lived abroad we each took one suitcase (and my hubby’s guitar).

    Although, I DO think that there were a lot of really complicated things about living in Africa (like going to 4 places to get approval to get your own mail, etc.), so I don’t know if life was necessarily simpler there :).

  27. says

    I grew up in Africa…Raised as a typical South Indian girl..did some of my education here( in Texas) and in India…We did not have any of the liberties that kids these days in the US have…we did not have Cable, had to rely on making our own games and our own entertainment and the video rentals…living everyday life meant food shortages,clean water shortages, electricity cuts,also learnt about having a well-stocked pantry and several freezers to store food…growing a great garden and appreciating its fruits…. I am lucky in a way now anywhere in the world I know just how lucky I am growing up and seeing poverty and disease in all stages of a country…

  28. Heidi says

    After being back in the States for 3 weeks, after 8 years abroad, I know what you mean about simplifying. When I packed our clothing I donated most of it to a local charity. We didn’t have that much room to bring everything back with us and I realized how much my girls (and I) really had. Needless to say, I haven’t really missed anything yet. Plus, I am finding other ways to simplify since the cost of living (food, personal items, etc.) here is much higher than in Germany. Thanks for the tips!!

  29. Danielle says

    I have lived a couple of places abroad, when I was single. It really is freeing to be away from all the temptations to spend and accumulate that bombard us daily here in the US. Being abroad, I learned that showering daily was not a necessity (though my little sister thought it was gross) and that few outfits in similar shades are easy to mix and match. Wearing the same outfit a couple days in a row was also acceptable where I lived. After returning stateside, I had a hard time adjusting to being back in the land of consumerism. However, I eventually bought into the lies of materialism once again, especially when I started having babies and began accumulating all the baby trinkets (mostly as gifts). But some of my simple habits remained, and in recent times, I have sought to further simplify my life (my wardrobe, stuff, and the kids’ stuff). The greatest challenge these days is the sometimes superfluous gifts we get from well-intentioned relatives. I am planning to purge unnecessary items for a garage sale this spring/summer so that we can give the money to further the gospel, as I was recently challenged by a book I read by David Platt, called “Radical.” When you view life with an eternal perspective, the “stuff” loses its luster!

  30. Wendi S says

    We met a young man from Eastern Europe here in the US last year. In one conversation he mentioned going to a garage sale for the first time ever. I asked him what they do with things they don’t need, since they don’t have yard sales, and I will never forget his simple, sincere answer, “We don’t buy things we don’t need.” Wow! That was an eye opener for me.

  31. Sarah says

    This is the first baby I’ve carried all winter, but also my last, and I’ve been determined not to buy more maternity clothes just to “round out my winter wardrobe.” And the resolve hasn’t been hard at all. I just keep wearing the same stuff over and over. I had already pared down my closet quite a bit (albeit not quite as much as Crystal) before getting preggo, so I didn’t feel any issues with a transition.

    Also, without so many clothes, it’s SO MUCH easier to put clothes away after doing laundry. I have never minded washing or folding, but putting away was a BEAST! Now I just use a hanging sweater organizer in my closet- a slot for pants, shirts, sweaters, and skirts (that are not maternity, but I didn’t have to move to make room). Love it.

  32. Karen says

    I am so glad I read your post. I was just heading to the bedroom to start cleaning out closets when I decided to just log on for a moment. I am tired of having so much stuff! Our home is full and our shed is full. Of what? I don’t know. I am so ready to do away with it all! I have my minivan backed up in the driveway and if I don’t think I can consign it, Ebay it or garage sale it then I am sending it to Goodwill! Our home is way too small for all this stuff! Thanks for the extra incentive!

  33. says

    Great post!

    I am often amazed when I am watching House Hunters on HGTV and when the shows are filmed in the good ol’ U.S., people are worried about their stainless steel appliances and wall color. Then, comes the International ones and people are all “Well, the kitchen has a range! Amazing! Oh, and look at the three cupboards! How delightful!”. Seriously, we are in our own little world over here with our excess!!

  34. Tammy Rinehart says

    We lived in New Zealand for 7 months and learned soo much too about simplicity. Before we went I wondered how we were going to pack everything we needed for that time. I was cautioned that things cost more. It was not until we lived there that I realized we were ok without excess. Now I still have to remind myself to cut back or just not buy excess. Great post!

  35. says

    We lived in Germany the first 3 years we were married and didn’t have a phone. We also only had a television the last year and a half, but it only got one channel in English anyway. We made great friends and entertained each other often and traveled! Wonderful experience!

  36. Fiona says

    I live in Egypt, and even though we can find everything we need, living here has taught us to simplify our lives. For a start, junk mail doesn’t really exist here which is a real blessing. We very rarely get cold calls on our residential telephone, even though we are not on any “Don’t Call List”…
    When we head home to the UK (Scotland) it is however, a different story!
    ;-)

  37. Lisa says

    Thank you for this. I discovered my inner frugality during 7 years abroad, and even though we were in Western European capitals with plenty of shops available to us, we lived simply. It’s different over there – if you need it, buy it, but there was not the constant focus on shopping and “stuff.” I bought as many fresh groceries as i could carry on public transport ( or later, fit in the stroller basket), which was all that could fit in our tiny fridge anyway. We had no tv for the first 8 months we were abroad and didn’t miss it. Then we got one with 5 channels – plenty. We never felt deprived and instead felt so blessed to be having such an amazing opportunity. When we travelled, we loved seeing how simply people in other countries could live too and had been doing so for ages.
    No WalMart? No problem!

    We have been back in the US now for 7 years, and at first I was completely overwhelmed by the sheer number of choices available in stores. 47 kinds of toothpaste? An entire ice-cream aisle? I’ve got the stores figured out now but still have not bought into the big SUV, daily Starbucks, I-phone, nail spa lifestyle that I see around me so often. It just feels excessive for me and my family. That’s not to say we don’t have “stuff” now ourselves, but much of it is from gifts from parents/ grandparents who do not share the simple-life mindset and disregard our requests to call back at holidays…. sigh. It’s a constant struggle.

    Even though we have been back in the US for 7 years now,

  38. CJ says

    Anyone know where the photo at the top of this post was taken? The colorful houses are so interesting.

  39. says

    I couldn’t agree more with everything you said! I lived abroad for several years and you really will surprise yourself with what you can live without. When clothes, gas, and entertainment are so much more expensive, you’re really forced outside your comfort zone to explore new activities and be creative.

    In fact, I only learned to cook when abroad because premade meals, takeaways and restaurants were so much more expensive than the US. I’m still amazed at how low my food bill is here by maintaining the same habits of buying what’s seasonal and on-sale. I wish Americans would get more in the habit of inviting friends over for a simple meal rather than going out as the default.