Living a More Efficient Lifestyle with Simple Living’s Wanda Urbanska
June 22, 2011
Wanda Urbanska is a well-known greenie who hosts her own TV show, Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska, and has authored many eco-flavored books, including her latest, The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life.
Urbanska specializes in living simply and efficiently. She has been a self-touted “simple living” guru for more than 20 years, and offers effective solutions for others to live with a lower economic base, which in turn lessens consumption and saves money.
Urbanska suggests that people need to start their path to simplistic living by focusing on financing and financial independence. “I suggest that people live frugally, pay their bills immediately and get a real road map of where you stand financially.”
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re excited to have with us today Wanda Urbanska on from Raleigh, North Carolina. Wanda’s the author of The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life. Welcome to Green is Good, Wanda.
WANDA URBANSKA: It’s great to be on your show. Thanks for inviting me.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re a well-known personality. You’ve been on Oprah and CBS and NPR, and you’ve written many, many books. Talk about your latest book, The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life. Why write that book now? Why do our listeners want to buy it?
WANDA URBANSKA: It’s interesting. I have been writing about simplicity, simple living, sustainability for more than 20 years now. When I first came out with it, people were like, is this really the right thing for us? Could this be bad for the national economy? There were a lot of skeptics, but since the recent downturn, everybody’s been asking how do we do it? They’re not asking should we do it, they’re saying simple living is a lifestyle I want to embrace. The Heart of Simple Living really is a roadmap to how you can get on with the simple life, realize that living with a lower economic base can actually be good for you. You can learn to connect with community, you can be more thoughtful about your consumption patterns, and you can get on the path to financial independence. All of these things are the upside of the downturn. People are getting excited about it.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wanda, you’ve been doing this for 20 years, so obviously you were ahead of the curve. But now, it seems as though the times have caught up with your message. Is this theme of chosen simplicity becoming really mainstream today?
WANDA URBANSKA: It really is. It’s as mainstream as apple pie. Americans are embracing this all over the place, and one thing that the media has really not caught onto, except you guys, of course, is that there have been so many positive developments. Americans are saving money at a very rapid pace, and this is despite the fact that many of us have experienced job loss or cuts in pay. We’re still managing, as an aggregate, to save about 5% of our income. In terms of housing size, we’re moving into smaller houses. The average house size has declined by 10% in two years, which means that Americans are stopping to live the grandiose dream, and starting to get on with what is obtainable and what is actually pleasurable.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is interesting. What we love to talk about on this show are the basic tenets of sustainability, people, planet, and profits, and also what Mike and I always like to do is give action steps to our listeners. We want our guests to give action steps because it’s fun to teach, but it’s also fun to give opportunities and windows for them to step through. What are your top three suggestions? Since you are the simplicity expert, what are your top three suggestions for our listeners out there to really simplify their lives?
WANDA URBANSKA: I think you have to start with finances because finances and financial troubles are what give us so much trouble. If you’re not able to pay your rent or your mortgage or worrying where your next paycheck is coming from, it’s hard to live simply and have a clear vision of what you want to do. So, in terms of the first path to simple living, is financial independence. I suggest that people start to live frugally, pay their bills immediately, get a real X-ray of where you stand financially, and get a roadmap to that. Start to replace recreational shopping with thoughtful consumption. Another tip is to find housing happiness. I think there are three key components to that — small, green and paid for. Americans are really working overtime to try to pay off their houses. If they’re in something too big, they want to figure out a way to get out and to get something smaller and something paid off. In fact, I was having a conversation with my realtor today, who was just in that situation. She said, “I have a huge house with a swimming pool. I don’t need it anymore. My husband is no longer working, so we’re both surviving on my salary. I want to sell it and move into a small home and pay off.”
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. How about green? Talk about the green part of housing.
WANDA URBANSKA: The green part of housing is getting homes that are either retrofitting the home you have, which is, of course, the greenest thing you can do rather than building new, or if you are building new, making it as energy-efficient as possible. Most of us are, at the current time, staying put. What we’re putting our dollars into is retrofitting, putting energy-efficient windows in, putting in insulation, things that you can’t necessarily see. Fuel efficiencies are the new green, and I think in the very short-term future, houses will come with stickers, just like cars do that tells you miles per gallon and that sort of thing, houses will have energy efficiency stickers and people will be taking that a lot more seriously. While we all love the granite countertops and the frills, it’s these energy green components that are really the more important decision. You can get your granite countertops a couple years down the line.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: It’s sort of like a LEED certified. Homes are going to be built LEED certified, and people are going to be able to basically appreciate that and spend money buying those because they know it’s going to be a great ROI on that.
WANDA URBANSKA: Exactly. Not only will it future-proof them against surprises in energy prices only going one direction, that’s up, they have to look down the road five, 10, 20 years down the line, but also if and when they sell that home, I think that’s going to be increasingly important. The future would-be buyers are going to be looking at those efficiencies. Do they have a tankless water heater? Those are the things of tomorrow that are really, really going to count.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. What’s the third thing? We got homes, we got financial independence, and what’s the third thing?
WANDA URBANSKA: In terms of work, I really think that finding meaningful work is an important part of the simple life, the good life. A central part of that is really developing strong and significant relationships with coworkers, whether they be subordinates or superiors. I think we’ve had such a rush-rush lifestyle and so competitive, that we haven’t taken out time to develop those really crucial networks that can make the difference between happiness and unhappiness in the workplace. If you’re not in something you really love doing, though you may not just want to turn in your resignation until you find something else, start focusing on what you really want to do with your life. Sometimes it’s not always the highest paying job. I have the book, The Heart of Simple Living, is full of stories who’ve made lifestyle shifts. For instance, a salesman who decided that he really wanted to teach, and that was his passion. Simple living is about finding your passion and finding a way to reduce your financial needs, so you can do what you really want to do and not neglect humanity in the process.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. In the home, everyone has a home, whether they rent it, whether they buy it. Talk about freshening up your house or streamlining your house or making it more efficient without spending a lot of money. This is something I know you know a lot about.
WANDA URBANSKA: You know something? That is something that is so easy to do. If you can find an afternoon, whether you’re male or female or a couple, you can go through and say that we’re going to do a streamlining game. Most people have too much stuff, quite frankly. How do we get rid of stuff? You can set a limited period of time, an afternoon, even an hour would help, and just go through a designated area. It might be your living room. What is it we don’t need in here? What can go out? Take as much out and then clean and then put it back in, and see what things you can either give to Goodwill, give to charity, consign if you want to make a few bucks. If you’re really super motivated, you might want to have a yard sale and generate some more dollars. Streamlining is probably number one. Then adopting a mindset of I don’t want to bring in something unless I really know I need it and that I can pay for it, then I’m going to make a long-term commitment to it. Stop buying the cheap stuff that ends up in the garbage six months later, and start making quality commitments towards merchandise that you really need and will commit to for a lifetime, quite frankly.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That makes a lot of sense. If you just joined us and you have your laptop or iPad open like Mike and I do or you’re in front of your desktop, we’ve got Wanda Urbanska on with us. She has a wonderful website also, www.simplelivingtv.net. Explain what Simplelivingtv.net is, and also we know you’re on Hulu. Explain what you’re doing on Hulu.
WANDA URBANSKA: Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska is America’s first nationally syndicated program that is advocating sustainable living. We started back in 2004 in the Dark Ages of all this. We’ve had four seasons of production. The show originally aired on PBS stations around the country, and now it’s available on hulu.com. Simple Living, you’re asked to define it, and the way we define it at Simple Living TV is it’s a table; it’s got four legs. Those legs are environmental stewardship, thoughtful consumption, community involvement, and financial responsibility. All four are interlinked. The good news, John and Mike, today, is that Americans are really embracing simple living in amazing record numbers. People are gardening. The numbers of people who are planting a garden this year are skyrocketing and have done so for the last several years. As mentioned, people are looking for smaller homes, so that there’s less to take care of, less to heat and cool, and just an overall cozier aspect to life. People are also reclaiming the kitchen, wanting to cook more these days and get away from fast food and move into slow food.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. That is really interesting. On your website, I see this term, SUI. There are so many acronyms in this world, I can’t keep up, Wanda. What does SUI mean?
WANDA URBANSKA: It’s so funny. I think I’ve actually coined one, and that is the Single Use Item. America is overflowing with single use items, that is throwaway cups, bags, we’ve even come to think of cars or furniture as disposable items. You see furniture out on the curb, People are just throwing it away. I have a campaign against the single use item. Now, very occasionally, they’re needed, like I think for medicinal or hospital uses. But really, can’t we all carry our own travel mug with us? I mean, it’s something we could really do, and we are. We’re starting to do so. We’re also carrying bags into the supermarket. If each of us does a little bit and makes a habit shift, we can do so much for the planet and even the economy. I think that that’s what SUI is all about, and we’re going to have a big SUI sign and a bar over it.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is funny. We’re talking about reducing our personal waste stream in our home. We’ve had some of the greatest leaders of the green cleaning products on our show, some amazing people. What are some of your best practices in terms of cleaning our homes and living a simpler life?
WANDA URBANSKA: The first thing when it comes to cleaning our homes is think about the products you use, the substances you use to clean your home. Think about our rates of cancer and disease. I personally think I would rather clean with something I wouldn’t mind eating. Wouldn’t you rather clean with lemon juice and baking soda and vinegar, those things that our great-grandmothers used when they cleaned their houses? With some of these products that have unpronounceable chemical components, we don’t know what they do. They are largely unregulated. Really, it’s getting back to the simple notion of hot water and simple soap. If you have a clogged up garbage disposal, you might want to put some ice cubes and lemon in there, which could help clear it out. I think getting back to basics is good. I think, also, getting away from the standard of perfection in our home is another thing that can sort of simplify the way we approach our health. Reducing your personal waste stream, did you know that the average American throws out 4.5 pounds of garbage per day on average? That is an astronomical sum, especially when aggregated throughout a family in a year’s time. Reducing your personal waste stream is about trying to find ways to reduce, limit the amount of waste that you bring into the house. When you get into it, it can be really fun. You can compost your organic waste. That would be peelings from fruits and vegetables and that sort of thing, and it makes wonderful fodder for your garden in terms of the compost. Again, it saves money. You won’t have to buy soil supplements and that sort of thing if you do it yourself.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. Let’s switch topics at the home from cleaning to now eating. You have some strong feelings on eating and family and sit down and meals, etc. I’ve read that in some of the notes here on your great writings and on your great website that I’m here in front of. Again, for our listeners, please go to Wanda’s website. You’re going to learn something, which is always wonderful. www.simplelivingtv.net. It’s a wonderful website. Mike and I are on it right now. I’m on it on my iPad. Mike’s on his laptop. It’s simply beautiful, well done, and it’s very informational and resource-based. Talk a little bit, Wanda, about your thoughts about sit-down meals and why they’re so important.
WANDA URBANSKA: It’s very interesting. A number of sociologists have studied and have looked into what is the most important thing you can do for your kids if you have kids at home, or if you’re married or have a significant other, what is the single most important thing you can do? The answer is sit down and eat a meal with them as often as you can. If you can do it once a day, congratulations. You’re in the top 5% of Americans. Sitting down with those significant people in your family, breaking bread and doing it in a thoughtful, non-rushed manner without distractions, this is not taking phone calls at dinner, checking your cell phone or watching TV. It’s really focusing on the person who’s sitting there with you and enjoying that food together. A ritual that I do in my home is we talk about what’s the best thing that happened to you today. That’s a way of allowing folks to share what happened to you today that you feel blessed about. Developing a ritual is part of what simple living is about, is thinking through our lives and redeveloping a construct to our lives that makes it good. It’s a matter of changing habits. We weren’t a disposable culture. We weren’t a group of people who stood in front of the refrigerator shoveling food in 100 years ago, 50 years ago. You can say, “You know what? I’m only going to eat sitting down.” Just making one little shift like that, and then checking in with yourself. How does that feel? Does it feel better? Do I feel like I’m really taking my nutrition in more consciously? Maybe I’ll eat a little bit less when I do so. Those are the ways you get shifts in your life, little steps. We say nothing is too small to make a difference, so start small.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: We like that. Mike and I love that. That’s spot on. We’re eating, we’re cleaning. Talk a little bit about outside, gardening. Mike and I, we’ve had a lot of people on that say that the gardening trends are going up now. Is this true? Are people gardening more, and if so, why?
WANDA URBANSKA: Americans have become concerned about our food security, quite frankly, especially what are the big agribusinesses putting in our food? It’s really concerning to some people the GMOs, the genetically modified materials that are getting into our food crops. What can you do to beat that? You can take control of your own food source by having a vegetable garden. If your neighbors all do it, you can grow different things and swap, and then you’re building community in the process, as well as relocalizing your economy and your food shed. So, yes, the interest in gardening is just skyrocketing, up 20% from 2008, and the numbers continue to go up. Again, it’s because people are concerned about money, that they save money, and also just taste the food, the enjoyment of food. Again, I say start small. If you think, “I can’t have a garden; I’m too busy,” start with one tomato in a pot on your front porch or your back porch. I think the pleasures of it will get you to doing more. If you live in the city, community gardens are available. Check them out. It’s a great way to meet people as well.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking about community gardens, that is a growing trend. You see it everywhere that you read about the green revolution. Just like urban mining is a huge trend, urban gardening has also become a massive trend here in the United States and around the world.
WANDA URBANSKA: Exactly. You read about kids who were troubled teenagers, who were in trouble with the law, drugs, whatever. One of the best therapies for them is to set them down with an eggplant. Let them take care of the parsley. They suddenly, actually, I’m laughing, but it’s very seriously therapeutically beneficial to everybody, including kids. It’s a good way for people to reconnect. One of the trends that we’ve really seen in recent years with Americans has been isolation. We have been isolated. We’re staring into our computer screens, we’re avoiding eye contact, we have fewer people whom we call friends. Things like gardening get you outdoors, get you connecting with nature and other people, and it’s really a wonderful thing.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is just great. Like I shared with you while we were off the air, I just got to spend time in your wonderful community in Raleigh recently. Talk a little bit about ritual and community. You live in a beautiful community, one of the greatest communities in this country. Why is that so important?
WANDA URBANSKA: It’s interesting. I have not been living in Raleigh long. I recently moved here, and I found the most fabulous neighborhood. I moved into a smaller home. It’s close to downtown, and it’s a walkable, friendly community. That is what I would recommend to anybody who has the opportunity to make a change in their lives. If you’re having an opportunity to move, I would say you can give up a large, large yard if you can find a wonderful, hospitable community in which neighbors look out for neighbors, in which you have a lot of streetlights, in which people walk around or bike around, that is really great. For instance, when I moved here this year, I was out walking my dog around the neighborhood, and I made friends with a fellow person who had dogs, and next thing I knew I was invited to Christmas dinner at that person’s house. That’s what you’re really looking for, is those kinds of connections. I think simple living, slowing down your pace, and making some changes in your life, as I recommend in The Heart of Simple Living, will get you going in that direction.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wanda, we’re down to the last minute or so. Can you just share with us your final thoughts as we sign off here, as to the shifts in lifestyle in America? Is simple living now a fad or is it really a trend that’s here to stay and the wind is at your back?
WANDA URBANSKA: You know, it’s so interesting because I remember radio interviews 20 years ago, when my first book came out, and they were so combative. Now everybody, like you, is so friendly, and they want to know how to get onboard. I think the trend is here to stay, even the retail analysts at Walmart are saying that people are more discriminating, they’re not parting with their dollars as easily. They’re really thinking through their purchases and bringing more consciousness to their lives. That’s what simple living is all about. I’m going to put my money on the fact that it’s here to stay.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, please buy Wanda’s great book, The Heart of Simple Living: 7 Paths to a Better Life. Please also go to her beautiful website, www.simplelivingtv.net. Wanda Urbanska, you are simply the best and truly living proof that green is good.
WANDA URBANSKA: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.