Fourteen years ago my husband and I were still spending most of our time at work running a thriving business we had created. Financially everything was great... the store we owned and operated was in a wonderful location, it was an attractive and newly renovated space, and the comfortable, extra large office made our store feel that it was "almost" a home away from home for our entire family. Unfortunately, our success meant we had little time or energy left for anything other than the business... and it was obvious that we never were going to have that time and the freedom we yearned for as long as we had the store. Still, letting go of the store was almost unthinkable because we had worked so hard to get to where we were.
Every time I see interviews with survivors of the floods, wildfires, earthquakes and hurricanes... and more recently the devastating tornadoes... I am reminded once again that the people dealing with these disasters now have one huge thing in common. Suddenly their most fervent wish is to somehow be able to go back to the life they had "before"... back to that very ordinary life they probably took for granted and perhaps even felt dissatisfied or unhappy with. Facing the possibility of losing everything changes perspectives and priorities in a big hurry, and I often think that this stark realization of what really counts is a feeling we should all try to hold on to.
I think the most wonderful thing about voluntary simplicity is that it means different things to different people. There is no one way to do simple living right. Everyone has a different concept of how they want to live, what is most important to them, and what they need to make them happy. Trying to live someone else's idea of simplicity will never work.
It's important to save for retirement. It's sensible to have an emergency fund. It's essential to live within your income and not go into debt. But where did the idea come from that people who are frugal and live simply... can't... or shouldn't... have nice things? Or that they should feel guilty if they buy something new?
We had been living a simple life for many years before I discovered there was a name... voluntary simplicity... for the way we have chosen to live. Obviously, our version of voluntary simplicity... living debt-free, living close to nature, working from home, living green and without chemicals, cooking from scratch... is based on OUR personal choices, so I wouldn't expect it to be exactly like anyone else's version of the lifestyle.
However... earlier this week I was disappointed to see the voluntary simplicity movement described by one author as "learning to live poor." Equally disappointing was another author's insistence that anyone wanting to live simply must completely stop spending on wants and limit spending only to needs. Combine this with the focus on extreme purging and eliminating everything except necessities, and simple living sounds pretty grim, doesn't it? I know I wouldn't want to live that restrictive a lifestyle!
Have you ever noticed how many of the same people who are trying to promote a simple lifestyle make frugality into a negative concept... or how they routinely equate frugality with being cheap or miserly? Somehow frugality has become almost synonymous with deprivation and denial, and understandably, this kind of negative frugality turns most people off. It turns me off too...
The good news is that true frugality isn't like that. When frugality is based on your own values and what YOU want out of life, it can only be a positive influence. It's also important to remember that true frugality isn't just about spending less money... how you choose to spend your time and how you choose to conserve other resources should all be a part of the total equation.
I have serious objections to much of the frugal advice that is being offered these days, especially the focus on quick-fix extreme measures. Extreme frugality is like a crash diet... it's unhealthy and almost impossible to live with long-term... AND it will set up feelings of deprivation that will almost certainly end in a bout of spending. The money that hurt so much to save gets spent impulsively when you can't stand feeling deprived any longer... and suddenly you're back to square one. This yo-yo cycle of deprivation/splurging, deprivation/splurging is not LIVING frugally... it's PLAYING at frugality... and it's not a good way to live.
Most of us would agree that a materialistic life is not a fulfilling one. More clothes, bigger houses, the latest electronic gadgets, newer and flashier cars... these things might bring temporary enjoyment, but a life based around acquiring things can feel pretty empty. The reason is simple... "stuff" doesn't equal happiness.
I love the concept of voluntary simplicity... consciously sorting out those things in my life that are important to me and my family... intentionally eliminating or minimizing those things that cause us stress... and intentionally maximizing those things that bring balance and joy to our lives. It's extremely empowering not to just let events or society dictate how we live. So that's why it still surprises me that the lifestyle I find to be so natural and normal seems scary and intimidating to so many people. Many of the messages I receive though my contact form are from readers who tell me they desperately want a simpler life but are afraid to take that first step. They yearn for simplicity but they tell me they're afraid they couldn't live "that way."
On our wedding day, my husband and I were both just out of school. Neither of us had any savings or anything of any value to bring to our marriage, but I don't remember ever worrying about finances then. My husband had just started a new job and we had rented a small furnished cottage. We had student loans to pay off, and a car payment to make. We bought a bookcase and a sofa bed and signed up for monthly payments on them. We managed to save a small amount each month and we never accumulated a large amount of debt, but still almost every cent of every paycheck had a place to go even before the check was cashed.
Life today for most people moves at a hectic pace. A surprising number of people are convinced that they always have to be "doing something" and are so afraid of boredom that they deliberately fill any free time with activities and planned events... multitask to take advantage of every single minute... and then wonder why their lives still feel empty. Feeling that you're just existing instead of really living each day is a horrible feeling... but life doesn't have to be like that.
Reader question... "Can you tell me the difference between 'simple living' and 'voluntary simplicity'? I see these terms used all the time and I can't seem to find a definitive answer about what each one means. Are they just different words for the same idea or do they mean two different things?" --Isobelle T.
Anyone can learn new skills. It's easier if you have someone to serve as an instructor, but "how to" books and videos work great too. An elderly uncle showed my husband how to do electrical wiring, but he learned how to do plumbing completely from instruction manuals. Both skills were learned out of necessity when we had an empty shell of a brand new house to finish and no money to spend on hiring professionals. The carpentry skills my husband learned grew out of the same necessity, with trial and error being his best teacher. My husband has shingled the roof, installed doors and windows, and learned how to make a perfectly smooth wall or ceiling. I have refinished furniture, painted, upholstered, made soap, cheese, slipcovers, curtains, and baskets. Together we have built porches and sheds, framed rooms, installed drywall, carpet, well pumps, bathtubs, toilets and sinks... first learning how, and working slowly and carefully until we could see we had it right. One of our proudest accomplishments is the way that we took a wild, wooded landscape and rock-filled soil and turned it into a lovely yard with a series of gardens and paths.
One of the first things most people discover when they try to live a frugal lifestyle is that extreme frugality is almost impossible to live with long term. It's a lot like dieting. You can cut back on what you eat in a sensible way that you can live with happily for the rest of your life, or you can go on an unhealthy starvation diet that will make you miserable and is impossible to maintain. Some people try to save money by cutting so much out of their life that they end up feeling very deprived... the reason, I think, why some people get so burned out... they try too hard and deny themselves too much... almost guaranteeing that they will end up feeling impoverished and very dissatisfied with their new lifestyle.
Downshifting means working towards simple living by making conscious choices to leave materialism behind and move on to more sustainable living. It does not mean simply cutting back and trying to live the same life only with less money. Downshifting requires prioritizing, an adjustment in values, and a totally different mindset... not just a change to a more frugal way of living.
Some people think that voluntary simplicity means frugality, but voluntary simplicity and frugality are actually two different things. Although frugality is an important part of voluntary simplicity, frugality is a tool that makes the simpler lifestyle possible... not the goal. Voluntary simplicity does not mean you have to live in poverty or practice a lifestyle of self-denial. It means quite the opposite, in fact, because once you develop the habit of being frugal where it really counts, you will be able to enjoy a happier and more meaningful lifestyle, with more discretionary money and time, plus the freedom of being able to decide what to do with both.