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Find joy -- and savings -- in the simple life

Many times, simple is hard.

That's especially true when we talk about overspending on stuff, which can lead to debt and stress. It's easy to say you'd like to simplify your life and buy less. But how do you do that? How do you harness the desire for material things? How can you simplify without feeling deprived?

Danny Kofke's family of four has lived for years on his teacher's salary of about $40,000, yet he doesn't feel deprived. He has a 50-inch, high-definition flat-screen television, and he has taken his daughters on vacation to Disney World. But he doesn't have many other things his neighbors do.

It's a choice, said Kofke, author of the book, "A Simple Book of Financial Wisdom: Teach Yourself (and Your Kids) How to Live Wealthy With Little Money."

"We have nice things; we just don't have it all," he said.

Wanting less means he can afford to keep his teaching job, which he loves. And his wife has been able to stay home with their children. He doesn't understand when people say he's "trapped" in a low-paying job.

"I have the freedom to do what I want to do," he said.

He's confident he could have a big house with BMW vehicles in the driveway if he wanted to. But it would mean he would have to choose a different profession working long hours, and his wife would probably have to work too. He would be forced to make different choices. Instead, he chooses to simplify, which might mean date night with his wife involves a Subway sandwich and a Netflix movie at home.

If you have found that keeping up with the Joneses has become an all-out sprint and you're tired of it, here are some notions that can help.

*Contentment. Simplifying is foremost a mind-set. Many Americans are on what economists call a "hedonic treadmill" in the game of life. As they earn more, they want more and consume more. They never get closer to their goal of contentment, as if they were on a treadmill.

The rules of the treadmill game are, "Whoever dies with the most toys wins." The notion of the simplifying game is, "It's not about having what you want, but wanting what you have."

*Enough. When is enough, enough? What's the dollar figure at which you feel you earn enough? How many pairs of shoes are enough? How many televisions in your home are enough? Too often the answers aren't numbers. The answer is "more." By definition, that means you can never be satisfied.

"Unless you've asked how much is enough for you, how will you ever know when you've arrived, when you can call off your own personal war-for-more and be happy?" said Jeff Yeager, author of "The Cheapskate Next Door: The Surprising Secrets of Americans Living Happily Below Their Means."

(Calendar trick. Brainstorm a list of what's truly important to you. Then open your calendar and your checkbook (or credit card statement). How did you spend your time and money during the past few months? The answer is evidence of what has been important to you in the past because that's where you spent your time and money. How does that match up with what you want to be important in the future?

If you're having trouble coming up with what's important, imagine yourself on your deathbed contemplating life's regrets. It can start with, "I wish I " Rarely would the finish to that sentence be, "bought the latest smartphone."

Your list of important things becomes the basis for goal setting. When you have goals, it makes saying "no" to immediate purchases far easier, mostly because you have a specific reason to tell yourself "no."

*Fiscal fast. Conduct an experiment to determine what it's like to live with less. Start cutting expenses, especially optional ones that show up on your credit or debit card statement every month, such as subscriptions. You might cut all spending for a period.

"If you go for a week without spending money, it reminds you of how much stuff you already have," Yeager said.

If you're unwilling to cut expenses right away, at least track your spending for a few months to learn exactly where your money is going.

Subtotal expenses into categories. Or, as you prepare income tax returns, look back at 2011 expenses and do a "what was I thinking?" examination, Yeager said.

Look for spending trends and triggers for overspending. When you learn you spend $800 a month dining out, ask an important question, "Is that what I want to spend money on?"

*Temptation. Don't make simplifying harder than it needs to be. Stay away from advertising and try to eliminate temptations. That might mean unsubscribing from retail emails and catalogs or staying out of the shopping mall.

*Inventory. Cool your desire to buy more by taking stock of all you already have: school supplies, groceries, cleaning products, party supplies, clothes and personal care items.

"We're so quick to run to the store that we don't stop a minute and see what we have," said Annette Economidies, co-author with her husband of "America's Cheapest Family Gets You Right On The Money." An exercise: Every night before you fall asleep, recall everything you bought that day, Yeager said.

*Use cash. Some find it helps to use a simple system of putting cash in envelopes for a few common expenses such as groceries and entertainment. When the envelope is empty, you stop spending.

"If you don't have the cash, you just say "no," Kofke said. Spending cash incurs a greater psychological pain than buying on plastic, academic studies show.

*10-10-10. Before making a big or complicated purchase, ask yourself how it will affect your life in 10 minutes, 10 months and 10 years. Espoused by Suzy Welch in her book, "10-10-10: A Life-Transforming Idea," it makes decisions less impulsive and more deliberate.

*Cool off. When you're hit with a desire to spend on a discretionary purchase, wait. Some say wait a day for every $100 in purchase price.

*Hours worked. Calculate how much you earn per hour, after taxes -- basically your net pay divided by number of hours worked. When considering a purchase, consider how many hours you will have to work to pay for it. For someone earning $20 per hour after taxes, it would take 30 working hours -- every dime earned for nearly four days -- to buy a $600 iPad.

*Simple simplicity. If all that advice is too complex, consider this advice: Identify what's important to you. Eliminate everything else. Kofke said simplifying his spending makes all the difference for his family.

"I think we have it good, and we have enough," he said.