The Simplicity Movement: Living on less and liking it
A small but growing number of Americans are saying “Enough!” and scaling back, paring down, doing without.
Group housing: Alan Seid and wife Tricia King, both 26 save on rent by sharing this Seattle house with three others and shopping for bargains at consignment stores.
After five years of living simply – accumulating $75,000 – Alan has taken an extended leave from his job as a courtroom interpreter.
RANDY AND SHERI Padal had everything a successful young couple is supposed to have these days: two well-paying jobs, a big house with a lawn, a guy to cut the lawn for them, and two healthy kids.
Everything, that is, but the time to enjoy it. Between commuting to their jobs at General Motors near Chicago, shuttling the kids to day care and maintaining their five-bedroom home, the Padals say, they had no time for simple pleasures like riding bikes or reading.
“We were being sucked dry,” says 27-year-old Sheri. “We said, ‘This is crazy.~ ‘ The couple found an answer in “voluntary simplicity.” a growing grass-roots movement that encourages people to do more with less.
Two years ago, the Padals moved to a much smaller house across the street from the school of sons Theodore and Benjamin. They pared down their possessions, getting rid of nearly two-thirds of what they owned. Randy left a $55,000 GM position to join a start-up mail-order firm, a job that pays $15,000 less but offers more flexible hours and a short commute. Sheri began working the night shift — 10 p.m. to 6:30 a.m.— at GM so she could be home with the children during the day.
That may sound like more work, not less, but the trade-off is family time vs. rush-hour commutes and the day-care shuffle. “We’re reading the whole Little House on the Prairie series to our kids in the evening, and they’re loving it,” says Randy, 29. The loosely knit voluntary simplicity movement began in the early ‘90s in the Pacific Northwest. Now an estimated 10-12 percent of U.S. adults practice some form of voluntary simplicity, and that number will rise to 15 percent in the next two years, says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute.
“People of all ages and income levels are asking, ‘Is my life only about making more money and spending it?’ ” says Celente. ‘And a lot are answering, ‘No. This is insane.'”
Simple – Not Sacrifical
Voluntary simplicity has its roots in 18th century “Yankee frugality” and in Henry David Thoreau’s urge to “simplify. simplify.” Today, that message is gaining a foothold in bookstores, where titles such as Simple Abundance. The Simple Living Guide and Your Money or Your Life are top sellers, and on TV, where the PBS special Affluenza spawned a sequel this month,Escape From Affluenza.
It even has caught on among those whose lives seem enviously uncluttered. By living simply, Seattle resident Alan Seid saved$75,000— enough to take an extended sabbatical from his job as a Spanish-language interpreter. He and wife Tricia King, a student, also see planetary benefits in cutting consumption. “On a global scale, we don’t live very simply, but compared to the people you see on TV we do,” says Alan. “A lot more people my age are finding time to do the things that matter to them.”
Still, their group home is by no means barren: They have a color TV, a drum kit and a 1995 Honda Civic.
The Seids and other “simplists” insist simplicity is not austerity. It means buying the things you really need rather than the things you think you want. “I don’t deny myself or live a monastic existence,” says Peter Mui, 36, of Berkeley, Calif. “But I don’t do lavish things on the spur of the moment. I get satisfaction from banking money instead of spending it.”
Mui had a well-paying, but stressful, job in book publishing that had him working 12-hour days and checking his e-mail and faxes in the middle of the night. Now, working a variety of part-time jobs, he lives on far less by curbing impulse spending and visiting garage sales weekly. Now he has time to do things that matter to him, like starting a community basketball league and volunteering at a museum.
Downsizining: The Padals of suburban Chicago moved from their 2,000-square-foot house to this 888-square-foot one with a smaller lawn.
Results: easier maintenance, fewer appliances, one less car.
Car-free: Peter Mui of Berkeley, Calif., rides a bike so cheap he doesn’t have to lock it up. He once earned $75,000 a year publishing. Now he lives on $16,000-$20,000 from savings and consulting.
But How Practical Is It?
Still, some skeptics question whether voluntary simplicity is realistic. “I can understand the appeal, because so many people feel their time is constrained by things out of their control,” says Peter Kivisto, a sociology professor at Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill. “But I can’t see many people being successful breaking out of their routine.”
Others see voluntary simplicity as an elitist movement. One tip in Elaine St. James’ Simplify Your Life is “Sell the damn boat,” which assumes you have one in the first place.
The movement is partly a reaction to today’s economic stresses, says Jean Sherman Chatzky, USA WEEKEND’s personal finance editor. “There’s so much fear in the air about whether you’ll be able to make it financially, pay for college for your kids, pay for retirement for yourself, take care of your aging parents, not to mention generally keeping up with your neighbors.” For most people, she says, cutting back in small ways is more appropriate.
Of course, those with children have additional complications in scaling back. “You don’t want to disadvantage your kids,” says Sheri Padal.
“Children miss a lot of personal satisfaction when they’re wrapped up with this consumer culture,” says Carol HoIst, who directs Seeds of Simplicity, a Los Angeles-based program that helps parents teach simplicity.
Simplists caution those who wish to join them that “simple” doesn’t mean “easy.” Realigning your daily life with your values requires tough choices, hard work and discipline. But the rewards, they say, are worth it.
It’s a daily struggle,” says Sheri Padal. “But it’s nothing like it was before. It’s such a wonderful feeling to have a sense of control.”
Less complicated than you think
Switching from two incomes to one: 28 percent of people in a recent national study said they had voluntarily made changes in the past five years that resulted in making less money. Tips from Valerie Young, publisher of the newsletter Changing Course. for two-income families who’d like to get by on one income:
1. Make sure everyone is on the same team. Be certain you share the same goals financially and personally. The time to discuss living on one income is before anyone gives two weeks’ notice.
2. Start spending less now. Try living on one income for three months while both still are employed. Make a plan to eliminate credit-card debt and get into the habit of paying cash for purchases.
3. Set a target date for taking the leap. Besides motivation, “D-day” lets you know when you have to have your financial house in order.
4. Make major purchases before you leap. It’ll be easier. But make sure you don’t rack up debt.
5. Don’t burn your bridges. Sure, it feels great to leave, but you might want to come back when the kids are older. And former employers are often the first source of freelance work.
Sources for simple living: Voluntary simplicity may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but financial security surely is. Several books on simple living and frugality offer suggestions adaptable for anyone trying to live within a budget —and save for the future:
- Tame your Impulses. Getting a Life by Jacqueline Blix and David Heitmiller has good ideas about cutting back on impulse buying, including a “Buying Binge Emergency Card” that includes questions like “Is this purchase in alignment with my values and goals?” and “Would I buy this if I had to pay cash?”
- Inspire yourself to invest. “To get yourself fired up about how much you can earn by investing, use the Rule of 72,” Janet Luhrs advises in her new Simple Living Guide. This tells you how long it will take your money to double. Divide 72 by the interest rate you are getting… If you invest $5,000 at 10 percent, you divide 72 by 10, which yields 7.2 years. After 7.2 years, you will have $10,000.”
- Learn to share. “Both a borrower and a lender be,” Juliet Schor advises in her new book, The Overspent American.“Instead of joining the stampede for expensive riding mowers, what if you and a dozen of the families on the street got together and bought a couple of mowers for everyone’s user?”