Before we even get started, let’s define what I’m talking about. Voluntary simplicity, in its widest context, refers to living an examined life; in other words, one in which you have determined what is important for you and your immediate family and discarding the rest. This can take many forms, but most of them revolve around a very significant reduction in spending and a selection of all activities (work, play, etc.) that are directly in tune with personal values. The Simple Living Network provides a great overview of different expressions of this philosophy.
I grew up in a home that practiced voluntary simplicity. We grew, raised, or caught much of our own food, lived in a small, older home, and simply didn’t have many of the trappings of typical 1980s and 1990s life. We didn’t regard it as a movement as such, but my father was a major believer in self-sustaining lifestyles – among his very few splurges were subscriptions to Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening and, to a degree, some of that philosophy is now starting to show up in my life.
It’s incredibly inexpensive We could literally go months paying only the electricity and telephone bills, insurance, a tiny amount of tax, and a bit of auto maintenance, which we often paid for by selling what we caught and grew. There was no need for money at all; we only splurged on “fun stuff” when there was an excess of cash around. My father worked at a factory some of the time, but when he would be laid off, he would basically shrug his shoulders because it just meant more time to do other things he wanted to do, like work in the garden or go fishing. We had years where our household income was in the four figures and it only rarely felt like we were strapped for cash.
It’s not stressful With my significant income now, I have to worry about taxes, investment choices, debt, and so on. The consumer options available to me are endless and often overwhelming. With voluntary simplicity, none of it matters. You usually don’t earn enough to worry about taxes or investments beyond a savings account. You don’t have to worry about getting the latest gadget or cell phone or keeping up with the Joneses because it doesn’t matter in the least. Most of the stress of modern life vanishes for me whenever I go back to the homestead, because almost all of it simply doesn’t matter.
You can choose your own life aesthetic Such freedom from money and stress enables you to easily make lifestyle choices that might be difficult otherwise. You can convert half your home into a painting studio. You can choose to be a nudist. You can build a grotto out of cement and junk in your backyard. The lifestyle choices open to you are much greater if you aren’t stuck in some degree of conformity due to financial need.
You lose some modern trappings Depending on how involved you get, you will lose some portion of the modern trappings you may be used to in your life. Elimination of cell phones, television, new cars, a lot of clothes, and so on are often choices that are very difficult to make.
There’s a lot of work involved Can you imagine producing all of your own food, or even a sizeable percentage of it? It involves a very large garden at the very least, and perhaps some small-scale livestock farming. What if you went even further and installed your own windmill and solar panels to generate electricity, as some have? These enable you to be self sufficient, but it’s an incredible amount of work to get it started and keep it going.
There may be social constraints This is the biggest thing that keeps many from trying it. To make such a radical shift in life philosophy will almost require an alienation of most of your social network, because you’ll be making lifestyle choices that are alien to many of them. This is of varying importance to different people, but for some, this will be enough to prevent voluntary simplicity from being an option.
Is It Really Worth It?
Clearly, there are huge financial benefits to voluntary simplicity, but the drawbacks are significant as well. To me, the choice hinges on your personal values more than the financial benefits: is the financial benefit and the lifestyle freedom enough to outweigh the work and the other material and social losses? Close your eyes, and imagine what you would do if money didn’t matter – what would you be doing? If it’s something that doesn’t cost much money, voluntary simplicity may be a very prudent financial and personal choice for you.