Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Yellis family embraced simple living. Now, they’ve discovered that valuing simplicity prepared them to weather the storm with minimal disruptions. Interview by Josie Ortega.
I met Rebekah and Nathanael when we were neighbors in a DC apartment building, where our firstborns, who were still relatively tiny, enjoyed their closet bedrooms. (No joke!) It was clear to me then that the Yellises did things differently. I was constantly purging and organizing, and thinking through ways to make our minuscule space function better for us. Meanwhile, Rebekah canned tomato sauce, taught her daughter to put her toys back nicely into the basket and back on the shelf, and enjoyed homemade cocktails on the balcony with Nathanael. Her life seemed so much smoother than mine.
I kid—a little bit. It's true that I've admired the Yellises and enjoyed keeping track of them through the years. They now live outside Boston, where Nathanael works in the tech industry, and Rebekah homeschools their four kids. Every week, I find an enjoyable and informative piece from Nathanael's Recommended Reading e-newsletter, where he curates articles that generally have to do with technology, marketing, culture, and you guessed it—simplicity. In a recent edition, he shared one of his own essays —"Simplicity: Building a Life that COVID-19 Doesn't Disrupt"—detailing and commending a simple, pandemic-proof lifestyle. Reader, I clicked. The idea fascinated me, and I had to know more.
Nathanael, you wrote an essay that I loved about simplicity and COVID-19. In it, you describe the life and choices you and Rebekah have made for your family. Obviously, you weren't embracing simplicity in order to prepare for coronavirus (I don't think!?), but the upshot has been that not much has changed for you during the pandemic. How did the two of you come to agree upon simplicity as a guiding principle for your marriage?
During business school in 2008, I did one of those hokey “values-finding” exercises. I think it was designed to keep us from participating in the next Enron. But during the exercise, a lot of the answers kept pointing me back to a value that was something like “frugal” or “enough” or “limits.” From that emerged this idea of simplicity, which frames those ideas more positively. Part of it was that my life at the time was bare-bones, another part was realizing that the flexibility this enabled was something worth preserving.
It was a habit for both of us before we met, so it was a natural fit for us. Our first year of marriage was also a bit of forced simplicity. We moved to a new state where we didn’t know anyone so we had to build a life completely from scratch. That did enable us to make more intentional choices about how to implement the value of simplicity in our lifestyle.
Your family and mine are fortunate in many ways. When it comes to decisions within your control, which of your choices do you think has carried you the furthest toward a calm life?
Yes, we’re privileged. In 2009, when we were about to marry and I couldn’t find a job, my dad gave me one. And that’s not the only thing to have been stacked in our favor. But, as our income has grown and we paid off those student loans, the big decision has been to keep our lifestyle and its budget lean. That’s paid off in minimal debt and other sunk cost commitments, and maximal flexibility.
Three things come to mind:
We’ve always been committed to living within our means and on only one income. This is not easy, but it does make living simply easy as things that fill up your calendar and your house tend to cost money. We are now reaping the benefits of our very strict budgeting early on in our marriage, so we have to be more intentional about making sure what we spend our money on lines up with our value of simplicity.
Choosing where to live has been important for us. This is one area where we’ve been really fortunate; not everyone has the mobility that we’ve benefited from. We prioritized living near work to cut out commuting time, and living in a place we like to be. These places have always had a more expensive cost of living so we have not prioritized space — we’ve lived in some pretty tiny homes (our daughter’s first bedroom was a closet, and we lived with two kids in a house that was 11 feet wide). Neither of us enjoys commuting by car, so walking to work or to a train station allowed us to cut out what would have been a stressful and time-wasting part of our lives. Living in smaller homes also requires us to pare down our belongings, and live lives less full of material clutter.
We prioritize rest in our family. We try to work hard when it is time to work, but then recognize that our bodies need time to rest and recharge from our labors, or even from our play! This looks like Nathanael coming home from work most nights in time for dinner with the family. For me, this looks like stopping a task when it’s not finished because I know I’ve worked on it enough for one day. On the weekends we often make sure that if we’ve scheduled one day out of the house we have one day where we stay at home. For our kids, it looks like a regular time of “quiet time” during the day and a relatively early bedtime.
On the flip side from major life decisions, can you think of mundane choices or habits that propel your simple way of living?
I’ve packed a sandwich to school/work every day since 2008. Let’s say that saved $4 per workday. That’s more than $12k, adding interest it’s easily $12,001. [Ed. note: In case you hadn't noticed, Nathanael has humor. You get used to it.]Also Rebekah has cut my hair ever since I spent $20 on a terrible haircut. And I don’t look super awful most of the time! This DIY spirit sometimes costs time, but it has a sensibility that feels right.
We are both introverts, so we are naturally inclined to saying “no” to things that would fill up our calendars. But spending time building meaningful relationships with people is important to us, so we often invite people over to our home rather than meeting at a restaurant or public place. It’s calmer, more intimate, and cheaper!
We tell our kids they are responsible for “making their own fun.” We have the kids help us with our activities (like cooking, gardening, or woodworking), and I of course teach them their school subjects, but we don’t feel compelled to always give them things to do or direct their days. We think boredom breeds creativity and that kids need time to explore their world at their own pace without always having scheduled activities. Also on a practical side, there are four of them, so we don’t have the energy to schedule too much for them! We tend toward activities that involve the whole family or have each child pick one activity they’d like to do at any given time.
What's your advice to those of us who have been slogging out this involuntary homeschool semester during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Aside from having children in the first place, the commitment to homeschool them has, thus far, been the biggest thing we’ve (Rebekah has) done. Doing something like it involuntarily seems like a nightmare. In order to make this manageable you probably need to hack it. Teach your kids to make their own breakfast and clean up and entertain themselves and call it school. The actual schoolwork, unless they like it, probably doesn’t matter anyway. (I teach nothing to our children and this advice should probably be ignored.)
[Ed. Note: I love this.]
What you are doing is exponentially harder than homeschooling! You are doing school at home, not homeschooling. Your kids’ school and curriculum wasn’t set up for that and most of it does not translate easily to solitary work. I spent all summer preparing a curriculum tailored to the context of homeschooling; and your kids’ teachers had to move school online in a matter of days! Homeschooling is fun. School at home is just hard!
So first, give yourself and your kids grace. Second, read, read, read! Read aloud, listen to audiobooks, have kids read to you. Read classic, well-written literature, at least an hour a day. If possible, have your kids tell you back the story they read after every chapter. (This is actually what most of our homeschool day looks like!) Your kids are resilient, and they will catch up on math in the fall. But reading opens up a love for exploring ideas that will stay with them their whole lives.
[Ed. Note: I love this even more!]
For those of us who may be re-examining our lifestyle while we've been staying at home, Nathanael's essay provides food for thought, including several areas to start. What's your advice or encouragement for simple living beginners who are learning, as you charmingly phrased it, to "be comfortable being at home"?
Until we had all of these children, it seemed like everyone wanted to meet up at bars and restaurants. (After the third or fourth kid, those invitations dried up.) Insofar as possible, we tried to convince our friends to come to our porch or yardor dinner table. It’s great to see people, but having them in your space seems a whole lot more authentic and honest. If you’re a person used to going out all the time, why not try to have the meal or the activity at home? My hunch is that your friends probably feel the same way. Our neighbors sure do: the quarantine grounded the frequent flyers, and the street at night is becoming a real hotspot. Being home doesn’t mean being boring and isolated, but it does mean becoming comfortable with you who are and welcoming people into that space.
Make home a place you enjoy being. For us, that means living in a place we like, and spending a good percentage of our income on doing so. Once, we were enticed by the low cost of living in another area and we moved to a place that was far from all the things we enjoy (the city, the ocean, snowy mountains). We quickly learned that having more money to spend on other things wasn’t worth it for us.
For me specifically, it means having a clean and functional house (we live in small spaces, after all). We’ve trained the children to clean up well out of respect for the other family members they share their spaces with, and we limit the amount of toys they have to things they can reasonably be expected to keep organized. We try to make sure each person has a comfortable space in our home to pursue their hobbies. When not in the middle of a pandemic, inviting people into our home is also really important to us. (But this could be its own essay!)
Thank you, Rebekah and Nathanael, for sharing your wisdom and lessons learned. (I especially appreciate the homeschooling encouragement.) Here's hoping the day comes soon when we can all come over to your house!
I'm inspired to use the Yellises' lens of simplicity—to help narrow priorities, create flexibility, and enjoy rest and relationships. Perhaps we can allow the forced simplicity of the pandemic to gracefully yield into an intentionally calmer lifestyle. From deciding on budget priorities to packing a sandwich, to homeschool, or socializing in our own homes, we all can find ways to choose simple living, enjoying what we have is enough.