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Many Turning Toward a ‘Simpler Life’

Shrinking paychecks and rising environmental concerns are prompting Americans to pare back their lifestyles.

"Perhaps the silver lining (of the recession) is that people are coming to realize they can live with less and their lives are richer for it," says Michael Maniates, professor of political and environmental science at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa.

A third, 32%, say they have been spending less and intend to make that their "new, normal" pattern; 27% say they are saving more and plan to continue, according to a Gallup Poll in April.

Nearly half of consumers, 47%, say they already have what they need, up from 34% in November 2006, according to the 2009 MetLife Study of the American Dream.

"People are feeling forced and inspired to get back to what is core to them," says Julie Morgenstern, author of Shed Your Stuff, Change Your Life. She says they're valuing objects less and experiences and people more.

Eric Dykstra, pastor of Crossing Church in Elk River, Minn., read Morgenstern's book, then ran across a blog by Dave Bruno of San Diego. Bruno launched a "100 Thing Challenge" in November and says he pared his own possessions to fewer than that.

Dykstra began encouraging members to reduce their personal possessions to 100 items. They took on the challenge - although some counted treasures such as a shoe collection as one item.

"People have really taken this to heart," Dykstra says. They donated so much to charity - boats, furniture, snowblowers - they filled a warehouse.

"The purpose was to break the hold of materialism," he says. He went from five suits to one, from a dozen ties to two. "It was very freeing."

Other signs of change:

Enrollment in "voluntary simplicity" courses promoted by the non-profit Northwest Earth Institute in Portland, Ore., is up 50% in the past year.

"It was a perfect time to show people they're really not giving anything up" by buying less or eating at home, says acupuncturist Deborah Waddell, who hosted a course in February in Long Valley, N.J.

Hundreds of schools have shown a 20-minute film, The Story of Stuff, on the environmental costs of consumerism, and more than 6.6 million people have viewed it online since December 2007, according to the Tides Foundation in San Francisco.

Websites on living close to nature are getting more traffic. The Thoreau Society, devoted to naturalist Henry Thoreau, got 400 members in its first two months this year. The non-profit Simple Living Institute in Orlando has seen online hits double in the past year, says founding member Shirley Silvasy.

Bruno says, "The recession is like a wake-up call."

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