Books With Impact: Voluntary Simplicity

The “Books with Impact” series takes a deeper look at specific books that have had a profound impact on my financial, professional, and personal growth by extracting specific points of advice from those books and looking at how I’ve applied them in my life with successful results. The previous entry in this series covered Early Retirement Extreme by Jacob Lund Fisker.

voluntary simplicityI was first introduced to Duane Elgin’s Voluntary Simplicity in the margins of the most powerful personal finance book I’ve ever read, Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. Given the cover and the brief description, I really expected it to be a straightforward guide to minimizing and simplifying your life.

That’s not what I got at all.

Instead, I read through what seemed to be an argument on behalf of the environment and how the everyday choices we make can benefit the environment.

That’s not to say the book wasn’t interesting and worthwhile. It just wasn’t what I wanted to read or think about at that point in my life. I was focused on improving our financial state and our career options at the time. While environmental issues were absolutely on my mind, they weren’t central to me, at least not in the way that seemed to be proposed by Voluntary Simplicity.

So I just walked away from it. I tossed it on my shelf of books that I thought were interesting enough that I might look at them again someday, but it didn’t quite make the cut of books that I regularly turn to for reference and inspiration.

It sat there on that shelf gathering dust for a while. In fact, at some point, I had made up my mind to trade away most of those books on that shelf, so I sat down to decide whether I really wanted to keep each of those books.

At that point, a year or two ago, I reopened Voluntary Simplicity. Very quickly, I realized that, somehow, I had completely internalized the message of the book. It made sense to me in a completely different way than it once had.

The book absolutely uses an environmentalist theme throughout it, but the real core message of the book is that you don’t have to overconsume – or consume at all – in areas that aren’t important to your life. If an item or expense doesn’t do something that you truly need in your life, then you don’t really need that item or expense.

Voluntary Simplicity often relates that core idea to environmentalism, which can blind some to the valuable core idea of the book. Avoiding overconsumption has an environmental benefit, but it has benefits in almost every area of life.

One | Cool Lifestyle for a Hot Planet

Simplicity means taking charge of lives that are too busy, too stressed, and too fragmented. Simplicity means cutting back on clutter, complications, and trivial distractions, both material and nonmaterial, and focusing on the essentials – whatever those may be for each of our unique lives.

The core idea of this book is that simplicity does not mean deprivation. Instead, it means actively choosing elements of your life so that you’re less invested in less important things and more invested in more important things. Each of us define for ourselves what is important, of course. Simplicity merely means that you’re chopping down the things that aren’t important to you so that they’re not distracting you from the things that are more important to you.

For example, I’ve made the choice to have a really simple wardrobe. Most days, I wear a t-shirt and simple denim jeans and walk around the house in my bare feet. They’re comfortable. They’re inexpensive. They’re easy to wash. I choose well-made items, so they last and last and last.

As a result, I spend very little time thinking about or putting effort into my clothing. I don’t have to worry about special washing. I don’t have to worry about clothes replacement very often. I rarely have to think much at all about my wardrobe choices as almost everything works with everything else. It doesn’t cost much, either. It’s about as simple as it can possibly be.

[It] is a conscious simplicity that represents a deep, graceful, and sophisticated transformation in our ways of living – the work we do, the transportation we use, the homes and neighborhoods in which we live, the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and much more.

That type of thinking can work in almost every avenue of life. I used clothes as an example, but the same logic occurs in almost every element of our lives. We can make choices that add to the complexity of our daily life or we can make choices that reduce that complexity.

Do we sign our kids up for another activity? Do we make a simple meal or a complicated one? Do we spend a bunch of money on stuff at Target this weekend or do we just buy the essentials and get out of there? What do we do with that stuff when we get home?

It’s an endless series of choices… but it’s a conscious series of choices. We actively decide which path we’re going to follow with practically every choice we make.

I really like that Target example. We live not too terribly far from a number of department stores and grocery stores. Each week when I do our family’s shopping (I usually take care of it on Friday afternoons while the children are still in school and I’ve ideally finished my writing for the week), I have the option of going to those stores and buying things without any planning while just relying on my whims and intuition, or I can spend time consciously assembling a grocery list.

The grocery list method takes some more time up front, but it results in less time in the store, less stuff in the cart, less stuff to put away when I get home, less stuff in the cupboard to dig through, and fewer items that we’ll probably rarely use. To me, a grocery list is practically a poster child for voluntary simplicity.

Poverty is involuntary and debilitating, whereas simplicity is voluntary and enabling. Poverty is mean and degrading to the human spirit, whereas a life of conscious simplicity can have both a beauty and a functional integrity that elevates the human spirit.

People often mistake “simple living” with “poverty.” While they both have elements that might appear the same to the outside world, they’re far from the same thing.

The book touches on this idea again in chapter three, so I’ll go a little bit further with it when we get there.

Two | Pioneers of Green Living

I am doing what [Buckminster] Fuller calls doing more with less. He also speaks of education as the process of “eliminating the irrelevant,” dismissing all that is not furthering our chosen articulation of value – eliminating wasteful speech as well as costume, dietary habits as well as information addictions

To me, voluntary simplicity shines because it frees up time, energy, and money in your life for the things that truly matter the most to you, no matter what those things might be. You’re called to compromise much less frequently when you have fewer things in your life that can interfere with those matters that are truly important to you.

In that way, you’re doing more with less. By reducing the time, money, and energy spent on things in your life of a lesser importance, you naturally increase the time, money, and energy you can spend on things in your life that you view as more important.

Remember that clothes example I gave above? Let’s say that those choices save me five minutes a day in choosing my wardrobe and an additional five hours a year avoiding shopping for clothes. That’s a total of thirty five hours a year that I’m not devoting to clothing. Plus, there’s the reduced expense of it all. That time, energy, and money can directly be devoted to other things.

I can spend those extra five minutes a day reading a few pages of a book that I’ve always wanted to read and, over the course of the year, finish two or three thoughtful books.

I can use that saved money to push myself a little closer to financial independence or to purchase a “buy it for life” item that will last for years and years and reduce my maintenance effort on that item or apply it to some other goal in my life.

That simple choice of “less” when it comes to my clothing becomes “more” in other parts of my life, parts that I view to be more personally important. That’s the exact recipe for a more fulfilling life and voluntary simplicity is a big part of it.

We measure happiness by the degree of growth, not by the amount of dollars earned.

It is really tempting to use net worth as a way of “keeping score” when it comes to financial growth and a move toward financial independence. I’ll be the first to admit that I keep track of my family’s net worth on a regular basis.

That number isn’t really all that important, though. It’s mostly a signifier that I’m still making good financial choices – nothing more, nothing less. It does not matter as a comparison to anyone else because no one else has the same situation as I do. It only matters as a self-comparison, a tool for evaluating how good my recent decisions have been.

Three | Living Voluntarily

It makes an enormous difference whether greater simplicity is voluntarily chosen or involuntarily imposed. For example, consider two people who ride bicycles to work in order to save gasoline. The first person voluntarily chooses to ride a bicycle and derives great satisfaction from the physical exercise, the contact with the outdoors, and the knowledge that he or she is conserving energy. The second person bikes to work because of the force of circumstances – this may be due to the high cost of gasoline or the inability to afford a car. Instead of delighting in the ride, the second individual is filled with resentment with each push of the pedals.

This sums up the difference between “voluntary simplicity” and “poverty” quite beautifully.

Because voluntary simplicity is a choice, it really has no way to elicit resentment or anger. It’s all about positive feelings because you’re choosing a path that has more benefits for you.

Poverty doesn’t involve freedom of choice. It involves forced choice and, because humans are often wired to see the greener grass on the other side of the fence, it can feel incredibly painful and bitter.

It’s also an interesting lesson for the outside world. If you see someone bicycling to work, what’s your initial reaction? Is that person poor? Is that person just making a personal choice? What about when someone is driving an old car? What about when someone has a cart full of generics and produce at the grocery store?

Often, the tools we use to make assumptions about others are completely off base. If we assume that there are people out there who choose voluntary simplicity – and there are; I’m one of them much of the time – then the assumptions that we make based on quick glances like that can easily be way off base.

It all comes down to mindfulness. Voluntary simplicity has actually reinforced a very valuable lesson for me – the idea that the first impression you get from someone or something is often a very poor impression.

To live voluntarily requires not only that we be conscious of the choices before us (the outer world) but also that we be conscious of ourselves as we select among those choices (the inner world).

What does this mean?

Let’s say you’re standing in your favorite store in the world, whatever that might be. Maybe it’s a hardware store. Maybe it’s a bookstore. Whatever it is, you’re in there and you’re holding an item in your hand that you want but you don’t need at all.

You’re looking at it and you’re consciously talking yourself into that purchase. You have lots of reasons for buying it – you have the spare money, it’s got a good price on it, you’ll enjoy it.

But on some level, deep down in your gut, there’s a question mark. You might overlook that uncertainty as you’re consciously thinking about the item, but it’s there.

If that question mark is there, you should never buy. You should always walk away.

The problem is that it’s really easy to overlook that question mark in your gut. Often, your conscious mind is running through the options in an active way and you’re not listening to that little voice deep down in your gut. That voice is usually telling you good things – I find that it sums up lots of little things that I’m not consciously noticing. It just takes a lot of work to learn to pay attention to it.

We tend not to notice or appreciate the degree to which we run on automatic – largely because we live in an almost constant state of mental distraction. Our minds are constantly moving about at a lightning-fast pace: thinking about the future, replaying conversations from the past, engaging in inner role-playing, and so on. Without sustained attention it is difficult to appreciate the extent to which we live ensnared in an automated, reflexive, and dreamlike reality that is a subtle and continuously changing blend of fantasy, inner dialogue, memory, planning, and so on.

Again, it comes back to mindfulness – something that takes time and essentially has to be trained. You have to work at it.

For me, the best approach I’ve found is to spend some time each day thinking about some of my decisions that day after the moment. Was that the right call? Did I really need to make that purchase? Did I really need to spend an hour playing Civilization?

The point isn’t to second-guess myself. The point is to really figure out if those uses of time, money, and energy were good ones and whether or not there were better ways to use my time, money, and energy. It informs future decisions.

Four | Living Simply

To live more voluntarily is to live more deliberately, intentionally, and purposefully – in short, it is to live more consciously. […] To live moresimply is to live more purposefully and with a minimum of needless distraction.

I like to think of the distinction this way.

Living voluntarily means that I think more about each decision that I make. It means that I try to be mindful about all of those choices I make each day and I strive to make those decisions as well as I possibly can.

Living simply means that I actively try to remove those decisions and choices in advance. I make choices so that I don’t have to make as many choices later on, allowing me to focus more at that later time.

Those two things work together quite well. It’s been shown over and over again that too many choices tax the brain, leading to worse decisions. By making life simpler, you have more time and more mental energy for the remaining decisions in life. This idea is called “decision fatigue;” the more decisions you have, the more tired your brain becomes, leading to poorer decisions.

Here’s an example. Let’s say I have a distracting computer game installed on my workstation. I’m living voluntarily when I actively choose not to play that game and instead choose to work. I’m living simply when I make the decision to just delete that distracting game entirely because it’s rarely beneficial for me to play it, thus eliminating that repeated choice of whether to play or not to play that game.

The bottom line is that there is a weak connection between income and happiness once a basic level of economic well-being is reached – roughly $13,000 per year per person. […] Once a person or family reaches a moderate level of income, here are the factors that research has shown contribute more to happiness: good health, personal growth, strong social relationships, service to others, and connection with nature.

Most of the readers of The Simple Dollar are above that threshold of “a basic level of economic well-being.” In other words, most of us are actually striving for those other factors in life: good health, personal growth, strong social relationships, service to others, and connection with nature. We just want money to get out of the way of those choices.

How do you get money out of the way? You get rid of debts. You spend less than you earn. You choose lower-cost hobbies and activities to fill your time. This results in fewer and fewer decisions every day that involve spending money.

That’s the truth of it: when you get your finances in order, you make fewer money decisions in an average day. Because of that, you can make better money decisions because you’re not suffering from as much decision fatigue.

Excess in either direction – too much or too little – is complicating. […] Does what I own or buy promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it promote passivity and dependence?

That’s a brilliant question to ask about every single decision you make that involves owning or buying something.

When you’re about to buy or acquire (or sell) something, ask yourself this: does that item promote activity, self-reliance, and involvement, or does it promote passivity and dependence?

This doesn’t have to be your only decision-making tool when it comes to buying something, but it’s a pretty useful one. Try using it when you’re at the grocery store – it almost always encourages healthier buying choices. Try using it when you’re buying things for your hobby – it almost always encourages productive and fulfilling hobbies.

Five | The World at the Tipping Point

Our first requirement – as individuals, communities, nations, and a species – is to step back and take a very hard look at what is happening with some key trends, such as climate change and running out of cheap oil.

This section of the book focuses on the connection between our day-to-day choices and global issues. I was actually quite happy to read that the author touches upon issues that are of concern to almost every area of the political spectrum. In this sentence alone, Elgin touches on both climate change and peak oil, which are global concerns for somewhat different groups (although there is overlap).

The specific issues that Elgin raises are not the point, though. Regardless of what issues worry you at night, his point is still the same.

As individuals, we are not powerless. Opportunities for meaningful and important action are everywhere: in the food we eat, the work we do, the transportation we use, the manner in which we relate to others, the clothing we wear, the learning we acquire, the compassionate causes we support, the level of action we invest in our moment-to-moment passage through life, and so on.

If you are worried about something in a global fashion and yet you make choices in your day-to-day life that just makes the problem worse, it can be very difficult to feel good about what you’re doing.

One of the most powerful parts of voluntary simplicity is that it gives you the breathing room in life to actually take daily actions in favor of those things you really care about. You’re not squeezed into poor choices because of economic concerns or because you need to take “shortcuts” because your life is complicated.

It frees you to live your day-to-day life in alignment with your global concerns. For example, if you’re worried about peak oil, you can make day-to-day choices to reduce your reliance on oil. If you’re worried about climate change, you can make day-to-day choices to reduce your carbon footprint.

Can you change the world with those actions? No. But you do have the chance to make a person’s worth of difference. You do have the chance to influence the people around you.

We are each responsible for the conduct of our lives – and we are each unique. Therefore, we are each uniquely responsible for our actions and choices.

It is really easy to simply lay blame for the big problems of the world on others. Other people caused it. Other people will fix it. It’s too big for me.

The problem is that if you allow yourself to think this way, you justify making daily choices that actually go against solving the problem that worries you.

For example, if you’re worried about jobs going overseas but then you choose to buy goods made in nations where labor is cheap, you’re personally making choices that make the problem worse.

Sure, you might be pushed into that choice by economic need or by time pressures, but those pressures often exist because your life is overly complex. A big part of the point of voluntary simplicity is to remove those pressures so that you can make those personal choices. No more excuses!

Six | Deep Simplicity and the Human Journey

Simplicity has deep roots in all the world’s wisdom traditions.

The Simple Dollar isn’t really a place to discuss various religions, faiths, and intellectual traditions. Our goal is to help people reach their financial goals regardless of the spiritual and intellectual ideas they may hold.

This section, however, makes it clear that the idea of simplicity pops up in most of the major religious and intellectual traditions in our world.

I consider it a beautiful thing that so many faiths and traditions hold so many key principles in common. We are all more similar than we realize in terms of our ideals. It is only when we focus on the differences that we fall apart. We would all be better off if we focused on the many things we have in common rather than fighting over the relatively few things we see differently.

Consumerism makes sense in a dead universe. If matter is all there is, then where can I look for happiness? In material things. How do I know my life matters? By how many material things I have accumulated.

I don’t believe that most people really view their life in this way. They don’t find happiness primarily in material things. They don’t decide that their life matters by the pile of things they’ve accumulated.

Most of the people I know find happiness and judge the quality of their life based on the things I mentioned above: good health, personal growth, strong social relationships, service to others, and connection with nature.

When I think about what really makes me happy in life, money and possessions rarely come to the forefront. I think of my wife and my children. I think of the things I’ve actually achieved in life through my own effort. I think of my closest friends. I think of the moments when I’ve actually felt connected to the world and of the moments when I’ve had a flash of understanding.

Those aren’t moments driven by money, though they can be pushed away by worries over money. Those moments can be cultivated, though, and choosing simplicity really helps.

People use the consumption levels and patterns portrayed in TV advertising to establish their sense of identity and measure their personal well-being.

I think that “TV advertising” is a pretty narrow description here – I’d also include things like the TV programs themselves, magazine articles, print advertising, and most of the content on the internet – but I agree with his point. We often look to those sources (whether we directly notice it or not) to help us define what we should buy and what levels of luxury we expect and/or “deserve” in our lives.

My solution in this regard is to look at every hot new thing that’s talked about on television or online or every cool item that a friend or a neighbor has and reflect on a single idea, that the new item might make that person happy, but other things make me happy. I can certainly be glad that someone else is happy because of their new possession… but that doesn’t have to imply anything about my own happiness.

I already know the things that make me happy, as I mentioned above. Why would I choose to add more stuff and more complexity to my life that would take me away from those sources of happiness?

Final Thoughts

Voluntary Simplicity is a very philosophically-oriented book. It rarely talks about specific steps to take in order to achieve the methods described in the book. The author assumes that you can figure these out on your own by doing additional reading.

I respect that approach. It allows the book to focus on the “why” of voluntary simplicity instead of the “how” because if you really understand the “why,” filling in the “how” blanks is both (fairly) straightforward and (very) fulfilling.

In the beginning, my voluntary switch to a simpler lifestyle was done out of pure financial need. I knew that if I stepped back from many of the ways I spent money, I would be able to take on my debt problem and eventually start building toward a better life with a nice home for my family and perhaps more career options.

Eventually, I came to realize that the choice represented more than that. It represented a desire I had inside of me to spend my time and energy on things that were more meaningful to me, not necessarily those things that were prevalent on the television shows I watched or the online articles I read. It’s a process of constant re-evaluation: is this part of my life really doing anything for me? Is it building me into a better person? Is it bringing me joy on a deep level? Is it improving the world in any fashion?

I make mistakes on that journey every day. I waste time and money and energy on things that aren’t as fulfilling as they could be. My goal is to try to learn from those mis-steps.

One thing I can’t help but notice, though, is that I’m almost exclusively more happy and more fulfilled by options that involve spending less money. Generally, those choices involve less maintenance time and effort, too, and generally have a better impact on the people around me. Those things tie together even if I don’t necessarily see the connections.

Voluntary Simplicity is a philosophical guide to that shift.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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