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!

What we have here, I think, is a perfect example of putting too much emphasis on the wrong things. Voluntary simplicity is NOT about depriving yourself, and it is NOT about learning to live poor… and unless you make it that way, voluntary simplicity is not a limiting lifestyle. Perhaps it is my New England background speaking, but I have never understood why consumerism, debt, and the rat-race mentality are considered the norm when a simpler, more deliberate life offers so much more.

Putting so much emphasis on “stuff”… and it doesn’t matter if you’re buying it or purging it… makes “stuff” more important than it should be. The same is true of extreme frugality… an obsession with saving money that infringes on the rest of your life can be just as detrimental as reckless spending. A sensible, more relaxed approach to both is much easier to implement and live with long-term without burn-out.

Voluntary simplicity “works” when you choose a lifestyle that fits you and your values and is based on the things that are the most important to YOU. I believe the “secret” is a balance of consistency, moderation, and flexibility, and the goal should be a lifestyle that is joyous… exciting… and fulfilling. There is nothing restrictive or negative about really LIVING your life instead of just existing day to day.

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Comments

Dave

The stuff doesn’t matter. It never really does. What does matter is how you live and who you surround yourself with like your family and friends. I would rather spend an evening at a campfire in a backyard then out spending or wasting money. Like you said though, it’s a personal preference. It’s not living poor, it’s the opposite!

Phil

Amen, Brother (sister.) Not having cable, or leather heated seats in my car, older out-of-fashion appliances, letting nature dry my clothes – all these things I can do living in an urban high rise and walking to work or reading a book on the bus. Living simply doesn’t have to be Mother Earth News – not that I wouldn’t love to be chopping wood and feeding chickens. But for now, this is my life and I don’t have to buy in to the electronic plugged in lifestyle.
Thanks for the post. We need reinforcement sometimes to resist a consumerist society.

Philippa

Shirley,
I totally agree with you. I have also seen this negative slant. People who think voluntary simplicity is about “living poor” don’t understand the richness that is gained after eliminating consumer clutter and debt.

Beth

‘learning to live poor’? If people think simple living is all about deprivation they are missing out aren’t they? Walks in the woods, playing board games with the family, going to free concerts in the park, enjoying a sunset are all things that don’t cost a thing, but make your life richer. Definitely – it’s all about using your money for what you value. I don’t buy a lot of clothes or stuff because we choose to go to plays, museums and travel. We would choose experience over stuff any day.

Diane

I love this quote.. to me, it sums up the essence of voluntary simplicity:
“To live content with small means; to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion; to be worthy, not respectable, and wealthy, not rich; to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly; to listen to stars and birds, to babes and sages, with open heart; to bear all cheerfully, do all bravely, await occasions, hurry never. In a word, to let the spiritual, unbidden and unconscious, grow up through the common. This is to be my symphony.”
William Henry Channing
1810-1884

DAS

Thank you for creating a website that speaks to a topic that seems to scare so many in our society-simplicity. I grew up in a middle-class community but always wondered why people chased after money and things, both of which are not lasting. When I got my first job I started down the same road; make money so I can buy stuff to make me feel secure only to feel insecure so I would try to get more money to buy more stuff, and on and on. My goals today are to slip the ties to this losing cycle and live, purposely. Thoreau and Emerson taught this so many years ago, and countless others figured this out thousands of years before them (Patanjali, Lao-Tzu, Jesus), yet we still question the wisdom.

Jacquelyn

Well said! I think it’s unfortunate when people who live consciously are lumped together with those who live desperately. My lifestyle choices make me feel so rich, it would just be weird if someone tried to label me as ‘poor’ because I am so much less of a consumer than I ‘should’ be.

Jaz

I didn’t know that there was a name for this philosophy on living. I just know that after presuing a life of “sucess” as I had been taught through society, I found my life to be as much of an illusion as “the emperior’s new robe”. I am excited and a little scared to be making the lifestyle change as I know little to nothing about sustainable living. I am currently looking for a property and a community that are living a simple quality life. I have been looking mostly in the southeast U. S. mostly due to climate and cost of living. I am a little apprehensive about being close to nuclear power facilities (or downwind). Anyone with advise about simple living contacts will be greatly appreciated.

Jon in France

There are some very strange people out there who genuinely and sincerely believe that happiness can be attained only through material wealth. They find lifestyles such as ours and yours incomprehensible.

If I was given to smugness, I’d feel sorry for them.

Amaris

I really appreciate the explanation this article gives. As someone who has always been attracted to this lifestyle this is very encouraging. I grew up in a highly consumerist home and that habit can be a comfort to people. Like anything in life, the familiar family habits come back to us whether we like them to or not. A lot of people end up with the feast or famine view on life. If we can’t buy stuff we are depressed and just wait for more money so we can spend it. We end up throwing 75% of the stuff away and feel bad when we look at the things we invested in foolishly. It is a very hard transition to living simple. And it’s not because we don’t want to, or at least our intentions are ready to go, but the unfamiliarity is what throws people back. Consumerist life is a common comfy couch if it’s all you’ve known. But hearing the way you write about voluntary simplicity gives one encouragement. Perhaps you have some tips for folks looking to make the transition, one step at a time. Our core values should come from an inner agreement we have with our ideals, commitments and opportunities, not someone Else’s. We can’t ‘guru’ize this way of life. We can admire others achievements, but essentially need to apply our own desires and dreams. We need it to see it as an improvement, not a self abasement. And it’s not so we can become part of some club or impress our friends and neighbors with a pompous and rigid lifestyle. No one likes that kind of party (lol) ! Well I for one look forward to hearing more about your ideas. Thanx!!

Amy

I just found your blog today and thoroughly enjoyed this post!

Thanks for a great post! I completely agree with your prospective of living simply. One doesn’t have to live “without” just to live a simple life.

I’m adding your blog to my blogrolll so more can enjoy your writing!

Danielle

Thank you so much for being a voice for this lifestyle. As a college senior already overwhelmed by consumerist society, the “rat race,” etc, and already in credit card debt and worried about my future, this is a voice of hope. The past few months have been very difficult for me and blogs such as yours provide me with an alternative view of my future- a simpler, more wholesome, more rewarding future.

M.L.

I LOVE having the opportunity to be around other people who “get it”!

A few years ago my kids questioned me about whether or not we were poor because we don’t have a lot of “things” like other people. It was a great opportunity to teach them this exact lesson. I simply explained to them that we were not poor, but, rather, that we spend our money in other ways that are more important to us. It was wonderful to see that light bulb go off in their heads.

We have also taught them our philosophy on technology and how we decide how much technology we are comfortable allowing in our life. Simply put, we do not like it when technology comes in between real life relationships and living life, taking out the real/reality of life. So, we have raised our kids with limited tv, computer, cell phones, etc., not because we are opposed to advancements in technology, etc., but because it’s important to maintain control over how much it consumes and/or takes over our lives, instead using it to support those things that are most important in life.

Camille

All the comments on this post were good and made so much sense! My husband and I have always tried to live within our means – when my daughter was born I stayed home to raise her and we planned our finances with that in mind. I wouldn’t have missed raising her for all consumer goods in the world! Our house is now paid off, we have no credit card debt and this makes for a more serene existence. (while I see other people I know struggling because they lived in homes they couldn’t afford) and we can send our daughter to the college she always wanted to attend, and we can buy things if we choose to, but the older we get, the less we seem to need.

DK

Wow. It’s nice to see we’re not alone in our deliberate choice to sidestep “consumerism, debt, and the rat-race!” Cheers! DK

Willow

Thanks for raising this topic for comments. Voluntary simplicity is making choices to have ‘this’ and not ‘that’. Sometimes we don’t have the material possession, sometimes we do. What simplicity allows for my family is the freedom to travel when we wish, to purchase one better quality item that will be used and cared for, to not be bound by debt or others’ expectations. What a rich and full life!

Jannie Funster

That’s pretty sad because what you are actually doing is liveing RICH, more richly than most can ever imagine. True rich, in harmony with nature. Can it get any sweeter or richer than that??

doug

I’m really liking this website! And all the points you make are extremely valid. But I guess I question a little bit on “Voluntary Simplicity” on definition. We are currently (and have been for a few years now): “living debt-free, living close to nature, working from home, living green and without chemicals, cooking from scratch”. And I would have to say that it is NOT simple. Living green and without chemicals is very difficult. Society is consumer-based, and everything is geared towards that. Living in “voluntary simplicity” is like swimming against the current and really isn’t simple… it’s complicated. EVERY purchase, every action must be scrutinized and possible alternatives must be sought. It adds an entire new level of decision making to what most people just take for granted. It really is much ‘simpler’ to go along with the hive mind and take what they give you, do what they want you to do.

Having said all that, the sustainable lifestyle IS better… much better in terms of quality of life and fulfills my ethical and political ideals. And it certainly is not poor.

finallygettingtoeven.com

I think unless you are living the life you really don’t have a true understanding. A lot of comments are made out of ignorance and lack of true knowledge and understanding. Those of us here already know the difference and I think that is really the only thing that matters. Let the others continue to live in ignorance….

Linda Woodrow

I’m not at all sure that voluntary simplicity is a good label. There’s nothing very simple about it! I love living a complex, resilient lifestyle that is true to values that seem to me much more self-evidently valuable. I often say that if I didn’t garden,I would feel both deprived and irresponsible, and I think that applies to most aspects of the life of “voluntary simplicity”.

Dream Mom

Such an interesting post! I find the whole concept fascinating. I gave up a full time, well paid job to stay home with my severely disabled son nine years ago since there wasn’t any daycare for him and I could never, ever think of putting him in a home (I was recently divorced.). As a result, I had to live a lot more frugally. What I gained (in addition to the joys of taking care of my son and giving him a good life) was so much…I learned to cook (make most from scratch and still learning), live close to nature, learning to live green and without chemicals, etc. When I do buy something, I’ve researched it more and thoroughly enjoy it my purchases. When I have a nice event to go to, I spend money and purchase a pretty new dress and prepare for it. I take nothing for granted and life feels richer. I also like to think having no debt is akin to freedom. It’s funny because typically when people simplify or give up the fast paced lives, more often than not, most people enjoy it. Do I miss the money? Yes, at times, but if push came to shove, I’d never want to give up most of the things I have now. When my son passes, I’ll have all the time in the world to go back to full time employment but I doubt I’ll give up simple living.

HGTV used to have a series many years ago about people giving up their fast paced lives and moving to the country and starting businesses, etc or just plain simplifying. What I noticed was how content people were but more than that, you never hear of people in the country, getting tired of it and moving to the city. Makes you wonder?

Gerard

Many years ago, my father taught me about simplicity, unintentionally….I think. I asked if he could buy me a car. Instead, he took me to buy the newspaper so I could look for work and save to buy my own car. “Not having” taught me two things. First, working for what we DO have feels so much better. And second, it taught me the most important thing about simplicity……to value and feel good about the things we do have. Dad’s simplicity might not have been “voluntary” at the time but it taught me to be aware. And that’s what I strive for now. It has been my greatest lesson.

Kathryn

I just found this site and I love it. I have been living what is now called either voluntary simplicity or sustainable living for a long, long time. I didn’t know there were “names” for such living until the past few years. I am only living as my parents and their parents. When my children (now grown and living the same) were babies I was told I was “spoiling” them by making my own baby food, etc. I was only doing what I believed in, only wanting the best for them. The best food, the best morals, values, beliefs. No, it isn’t simple or easy, but anything worth doing isn’t.

Jesse

Shirley,

I feel late coming to the party. I am an American expat living in Southern Chile. I stumbled upon your site while looking for a something on a post about starting fire in wood heaters and stoves. I love the site and am subscribed. It is interesting how this is the NORMAL lifestyle in much of the world. I have been blessed to influence people I love to make this kind of change in their lives and the benefit it has had for their family. I am email a link to this article to others and will be linking to your site soon. Thanks for caring enough about others to share.

Nan

Shirley,

I live in the deep south. We, like your family, live in a very rural area on land that has been held by family for generations. We live clean, we eat clean, we live simply. We at one time used the farm for our “hunting camp” as we lived in a 5000sq ft house in the CC “in town” 45 minutes away. My husbands industry was hard hit in the recession and we we struggling keeping up with the house and the “Joneses” and one day after spending a weekend at the farm,we got tired of the stress and said,”what are we doing?”… Four happy years later we are still here- happily living simply. What began as a financial stress reliever turned into a lifestyle of enjoying our lives more, putting more emphasis on happiness and living and less emphasis on what now we personally view as unimportant. We are debt free,living and eating clean and happy with our kids. Our kids cyber/home school and enjoy the freedom. My husband lost his job 3 weeks ago, and this has put stress on us…but not nearly as it would be if we hadn’t changed out life to a more simple one. Our freezers are stocked with vension, fresh vegetables, and our pantry is stocked with enough natural, healthy ingredients (baking etc) that we can live well for a very long time. Simplicity is certainly not living poor…but when you have to live poor to have the skills earned from living simply, those skills are priceless.

Jude

What a stimulating article. We have similar views.

We live in Costa Rica where we can live more closely to our values, simplicity being one of them.

I’ve noticed here there is a big difference between being poor and living simply. Poor means there’s not enough food or medical care. Living simply is a choice about what to consume and what’s important. We’ve learned a great deal from the Costa Rican people, about priorities in life. For these people, family is number one. From the family there is always food and shelter. And in this developing country, everyone has medical care and everyone has an opportunity for education.

We feel like very well treated guests in this very special country.

Roisin

It’s a bit sadly ironic, because after you write this lovely piece, you still get people crediting purging of possessions or refraining from spending for their happiness! Unless I really misunderstood your post, in which case please accept my apology, this seems to be exactly what you were cautioning against.

I really see what you mean, though. Between the minimalist-til-you-bleed scene and the consume-til-you-suffocate camp, there seems to be precious little out there in your vein of balanced, friendly, humane attitude. I know I’ve been missing it really badly, because neither of the above suits me!

In fact, I rather feel like these extremes have been damaging to me personally because having quickly discovered that extreme minimalism was a pretty joyless way to live, once I began to have any real disposable income I ended up veering too far in the other direction since it was the only alternative I ever saw around me. I never got into debt over it or end up with a houseful of clutter, much less having these bad habits get in the way of more meaningful things like a trip or a class, so I was lucky that way. But it still left me with more tangible items than I can really enjoy. It’s only in the past couple of years that I am finding my feet again in a more balanced way, but disposal of the excess does take up time too!

I am trying to approach even that disposal with the same kind of level-headed, clear-eyed attitude you describe, for instance by letting go of the pressure to find a way to sell these things, since it would be a lot of work with no realistic chance of making enough to recoup what I paid initially. Instead, I am simply putting things out on the curb or a park bench for someone to collect who needs it…and as the area where I live has been absolutely crippled in this recession, maybe some of it will make it so someone doesn’t have to live quite so deprived when they don’t want to (most of these things are good quality items, almost all in excellent condition).

I think I will be coming back here! It certainly cleanses the palate from places like Unclutterer :-/ Thanks for sharing this!

Judith Deason

I just found this site and love it. I have always lived this way. I am probable older than most of you. My parents lived through the Depression, so we were raised to buy used, reuse, and make do. I never felt deprived. If there was something we really wanted we learned to earn the money and save for it. Not only did we get the personal satisfaction of earning it, but so much more. Children learn what is really important to them. Do they want that latest fad thing or save for a car. We took care of what we got, because we worked for it. We learn to be fiscally responsible, and to live ‘well’ within our means.

I don’t care what you call it. I believe it is not just a change in lifestyle, but a change in attitude. You learn what is really important to you. Instead of believing what someone else tells you, you should want.

Maggie

I just realized this week that there was a “name” for what we are doing! The closer we get to this life, the more it just feels right…but it was nice to see that others were out there doing the same. The more we see and feel the right way to live, the more foreign the rat-race world seems to us now. I’m happy to stumble upon others with the same ideas! We’re living on a boat in Southeast Alaska with our two kids, and we’ve learned that the simpler our life, the happier we all are.

Don W. Douglas

Just a note to say I believe in simple living. From 1972 to 1982 I lived on a ranch in the southern panhandle of West Texas. I was just a young man then. We lived ten miles from a town with a population of about 500 people. Six of the ten miles was dirt road. We grew a garden and had plenty of beef to eat. How I long for those days again.