100 Things: How One Family Discovered That Less Is More

Here's how one family pared down their personal belongings to 100 items each—and are happier than ever

By Bonnie Schiedel
From the print edition, September 2012

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Photography by Carlo Mendoza

We’ve all cursed the amount of gear that accumulates at the back door and in the family room, in the closets and in the cars and in the kitchen cupboards.

In a bold move, the Timmons family has done something about it: they’ve whittled down their personal possessions to 100 items each, plus the absolute bare minimum of furniture and kitchen gear.

Parents Jenni and Gary, along with nine-year-old Cristian and five-year-old Emmi, have always had a fairly no-frills lifestyle. “We even moved from Toronto to Thunder Bay, Ont., in 2005 to live a simpler life with a lower cost of living,” says Jenni, a nurse manager who is now working toward her PhD in health innovation and leadership.

After the move, Gary, a carpenter, stayed home with Cristian until he started school, and the pair painstakingly restored the rundown, three-storey century home they had purchased. But despite these changes, the family found they were accumulating too much stuff again.

Time for a Change
In 2010 Gary read an article in The New York Times that profiled a woman who had gotten rid of most of her possessions and found greater joy in a pared-down life. The article also came at a time when the couple was re-evaluating what was important after their daughter was diagnosed with a rare genetic disorder.

“I felt like I had worked hard on this house, but if it burned down, it wouldn’t faze me at all. I wasn’t attached to any of it,” says Gary.

Jenni agreed.“I grew up in Finland, with four people living in a small apartment. The attitude at home was more about having a few good things, not a lot of junk. If you bought it, it lasted a lifetime.”

Ultimately, she says, they felt like their stuff and work was weighing them down and holding them back from travel and time together. “The more stuff you have, the more you have to work and usually that means not enough time to live,” notes Jenni.

So, with the kids on board, the family began unloading their possessions, such as toys, clothing, books and the baskets and organizers that held all their stuff, through garage sales, donations and by setting up a Facebook page for friends and family that listed the items that were up for grabs. Jenni says it’s been easy, emotionally speaking, to jettison items like serving dishes and bookshelves. Technology helps too: books are on the e-reader; documents, photos, games and TV shows are on the laptops; and schedules, clocks and cameras are on the smartphones.

As Jenni points out, “You don’t have to own it to love it. If we need some kind of outdoor equipment we don’t have, we can rent or borrow it from another family.” The kids get books from the library, ride their bikes, play tag, watch one rented movie a week and create their own games. When Jenni asks Cristian if there’s something he really wants that he doesn’t have, he thinks hard, then announces, “A baby shark!” which makes his mom laugh.

What Made the 100-Things List?
What made the 100-item cut? Clothes and shoes, carpentry tools, bikes, cross-country ski gear, a large abstract painting created by Emmi and her friends, a few toys like a basketball and Lego, and one pair of earrings for Jenni. They each have one towel and one set of bedding, and if one of the kids soils their bed, well, they get to sleep with Mom and Dad or make do with the spare duvet cover.

Laundry can be an issue, Jenni admits. “Cristian does run out of clothes. He sits there waiting for his socks to dry!” And as for all the handmade kid stuff, like bookmarks and Popsicle stick frames, Jenni and Gary admire the work, occasionally take a picture and then (gulp) put the item out in the recycling bin. Birthday and Christmas gifts tend to be about experiences, like a weekend away or a trip to an amusement park, or something the whole family goes in on together like a mountain bike for Cristian. The result? More free time because they don’t have to care for, clean, organize and put away a great deal of belongings.

Getting down to 100 items turned out to be part of a much larger lifestyle shift. This past spring, Jenni quit her job. They sold their house and moved to a small apartment in Montreal, where Gary works at his brother’s bike shop and Jenni is continuing her doctoral studies full-time. Come January, they are heading to Brazil and Argentina for a month or two.

In the years ahead, the plan is to move to Finland for a time (“we’ll just go with the flow,” says Jenni), homeschooling when needed and providing health care consulting and carpentry services to pay the bills. “Our family life is way better now,” says Jenni. “Living more simply made it easier to make the decisions about what we wanted to do: sell the house, move, change careers. We’re more aware; our focus has shifted from everything and everybody else to our family. For us, it works.”

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