THE BLOG
11/08/2013 11:33 am ET

The Freedom of Simple Living

Every Saturday my Dad would sit down with a tall lined book that said "ledger" on the front and enter all checks written and receipts saved by his wife. (Today we'd do it on a screen.) The tense exercise would always end with Dad being annoyed if not angry, calling his wife, and informing her that she had spent all the money they had, and with her telling proudly about all he bargains she had found and just couldn't resist. Did he want to short-change the kids?

I was about 12 when I realized that if just 5 percent less were spent, every Saturday would be an occasion of joy. Would the family have been deprived? On the salary for an engineer who was also vice president of a small manufacturing company, we had a leafy back yard, a dishwasher, an early TV. No reason my parents couldn't save even 10 percent and spend a moment of their weekends envisioning all the treats this would some day make possible.

Given levels of prosperity in the U.S., we could have been happy at any level above poverty, except for one thing. The newspaper, magazines, billboards, shop windows, radio, and that TV were all carrying ads for stuff to buy. If the civil religion of the country had a short motto, it would have been progress, defined as economic growth. If we were ever tempted to moderate our relentless consumerism, we had friends against whom it was natural to measure our success. We could not afford to "fall behind," to "lower our standard of living."

It did not help that my mother's dad, the happiest man I knew, was living on much less. He could have told me the story of the Mexican fisherman (though I had to wait years to hear it from a California entrepreneur). Here it is: A gringo hires a boat in Cabo San Lucas and gets friendly with the captain. Over the bait pail, he advises the Mexican to take out a loan to acquire another boat, hire a crew to run it, and build up a big fishing business. The captain asks where this would lead. The gringo says that the Mexican could eventually make a million (dollars, not pesos). "And what then?" asks the captain. After a moment they both laugh. The obvious answer is he'd retire and go fishing. My grandfather used to take me fishing, in a small boat we'd had the pleasure of building.

Even when the purchasing power of the middle class began to fall, we in the U.S. naturally compensated by (a) women going to work, (b) buying cheap stuff made by folks abroad who were given jobs that had been American, and (c) taking out loans on our plastic. One household in 10 even rents a self-storage unit for stuff that won't fit in the attic or garage. What we did not do is buy less.

As Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin showed in their book Your Money or Your Life, the money used to buy this stuff does not come free; it costs the part of our lives that we work for the necessary income. Some of the time some of the workers do not like their jobs, but they have bills to pay. In effect, they become indentured servants to a system that promises happiness but delivers mainly stuff. The stuff brings brief happiness, which then fades: better get something more.

It is contrary to commercial and financial interests to talk of living on less rather than more. We're taught that progress is getting more. But this definition of success is the bait on the hook. If you think the system through, we even pay to be taught to consume, because the cost of ads is folded into the price of the product.

A minority has long doubted the merits of this system. For example, Thoreau said that wealth is knowing how much you can do without. Some people are famous for living simply, as the Nearings did. Even so often, somebody writes about the joy of "voluntary simplicity," as Duane Elgin did in 1981 at the start of the Reagan era. Today there are relevant websites called, for example, "simpleliving.net" and "bemorewithless.com." But living on less than you earn is relentlessly countered by all the ads and reinforced by peers subjected to the ads.

After watching the results of a program of infinite growth on a finite planet, Herman Daly, the former chief economist of the World Bank, writes in favor of a "steady-state" economy

Here is something the individual can do. People who feel powerless to alter official policy about climate change can nonetheless decide how much of their personal income to spend. What would happen if even a substantial fraction decided to find value in something other than stuff?

One objection to simple living is that the economy would shrink if everybody adopted this practice. Perhaps you could reframe that argument as an observation that people would not spend more of their lives making and selling stuff that nobody really needs. We'd have less stuff, more time.

Simple living produces much lower stress and need for anti-anxiety medicines and leads to a feeling of freedom. This feeling is not dependent on income level. I've known rich people who feel inferior to friends who are even richer. The key is spending less than we earn, growing other values, and just ignoring (or laughing at) all the blandishments of an economic system dependent on our cravings every last thing we can get.