Updated on 09.13.07

How I Practice Voluntary Simplicity

Trent Hamm

Recently, I read the Get Rich Slowly review of the book Voluntary Simplicity. J.D. didn’t like the book very much at all, while I recalled it being pretty interesting, so I went back and re-read it. Voluntary Simplicity is pretty light on the specific details (and a bit over the top with New Age type philosophy), but underneath it is a basic life philosophy that I find pretty valuable.

In a nutshell, Voluntary Simplicity refers to making all your lifestyle choices in line with your core values. That can be applied in a lot of different ways depending on the individual, obviously, because it depends heavily on both your core values and your environment. Given this perspective, I would say that over the last year I have adopted a lifestyle of voluntary simplicity – here’s how.

I buy substantially fewer things. Even though my income level is higher than it has ever been, I buy far fewer things than I did just a few years ago. I simply don’t like cluttering up my house with stuff I’ll barely use and have to worry about maintaining. In a nutshell, my threshold for making a purchase has gone up.

Here’s an example. My wife and I went through a period where we devoured television series on DVD – I have to say that it’s the best way to watch a quality dramatic series. This meant that at the time we spent quite a bit buying series on DVD and renting them on Netflix. Yesterday, I strongly considered buying the first season of Heroes for $36.99 … but I didn’t make the purchase. Why? Buying it would cost me almost $40, and then enjoying it would eat up many hours of sitting in front of the television. The total cost of enjoying that first season of Heroes is more than I would like – $40, the space on the shelf taken up by the DVDs, and the time investment of watching all of it isn’t worth the enjoyment I would get from it. So I passed.

When I do buy something, I choose it based on quality and research the purchase carefully. For example, I finally acquired a KitchenAid Professional 6 stand mixer – I had carefully researched mixers, knew exactly the one I wanted based on quality and not price, then waited until I found one that matched what I wanted to spend. It’s a quality item that fills a role in my life – and it will fill that role dependably and with great quality.

What about basic needs? When I first bought kitchen and other household items when I moved into my own apartment, I bought very low end stuff – think rejects from the Goodwill Store. Over time, I am replacing these items with very high quality replacements. One example: throughout most of the time I lived in the apartment, I used a toaster that was made circa 1970 that featured a broken leg. When I finally realized it needed to be upgraded (one slot burned the toast, the other left it raw), I actually researched toasters and finally selected one that handles toast, bagels, and English muffins and has a number of adjustments to get everything just right, plus it has aesthetic appeal in my kitchen.

Another example: I started off with an extremely basic set of kitchen knives that were terrible to use. I was given a rather high quality set as a gift to replace them, and these will do for a long while. If I ever decide to upgrade those (not likely for quite a while), I will buy some extremely high end kitchen knives, ones that will always do the job I ask of them.

When I make a decorative change, I don’t add without subtracting. My decorative tastes move more towards “spartan,” while my wife likes many things on the wall. So we compromised – when we moved in, we decorated the rooms with some basic principles (there’s a little more than I’d like on the walls, but not overly so), but we have a general standard that if we get a new decoration, the old one goes. I hope to gradually acquire some pieces of original art for the walls in various places, which is in line with the “quality upgrading” philosophy mentioned above.

If something now goes into “storage” without an explicit purpose of ever pulling it out again, I take it to Goodwill instead. When we moved out of the apartment, I was aghast at the piles of junk in storage. Never again. After going through it (and getting rid of most of it), I realized that I didn’t want the storage areas of our house to become filled with unmanageable hordes of junk. Thus, if something goes into storage without a specific reason (like stuff for the next child or stuff for specific holidays), then it’s going out.

I actually schedule big blocks of time for “reading” and “spending time with my family.” I have a lot of responsibilities, so in order to make sure I have plenty of time for the basic, simple things in life, I schedule huge, empty pieces of time where I just relax with my family and do personally enriching things. I usually schedule an entire weekend day for this, along with a two or three hour block each weekday. If a job requirement begins interfering with this regularly, I’ll move on.

I put special effort into recycling and producing my own food. I have a barrel composter in the back yard where much of our organic non-meat waste goes. We have already made two boxed gardens in our back yard, even though we can’t begin a garden until the spring (those lovely Iowa winters…). This means less trash to deal with, less need for fertilizer, and the enjoyment of being able to walk out in the yard, pick a tomato, walk in the house, slice it, and put a slice on my sandwich during the dog days of summer.

To me, this is what Voluntary Simplicity was talking about, once you dug through the New Age talk: living your life and making choices so that your core values can always shine through and take center stage.

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  1. Voluntary Simplicity got my attention a few years back. The thing that got me thinking about it seriously (though I’m by far not truly living simply) was that the culture was driven by the stuff and I was not. I am not about separating myself from the culture, but I am about not being swayed by the culture and that is half of the value of VS to me.

  2. Brian says:

    The NY Times today (9/13/07) has an interesting article about a fellow who seems to lead a life of voluntary simplicity. Very interesting:


  3. Simple living is a great joy. Right now we could identify with Trent’s aghast feeling when he saw the piles of junk in his storage. This week has been our clutter reduction week. We are working tirelessly to get rid of stuff. When we clear clutter and relieve the space it had been occupying its such a great feeling and eye candy too (to see the empty spaces)! Now we have to make trips to GoodWill and Salvation Army stores. Also we use swaptree to find some of our stuff a home.

  4. demetri says:

    i think most of your views are pretty dead on and I tend to agree almost across the board. That is why a few weeks ago when i went into the library i checked out Voluntary Simplicty… and holy moly… how do you even remotely dig through the new age philsophy to get to some good stuff. i must admit its one of the few times where i found myself wondering “what is trent thinking?!?”

    Probably not all that helpful of a comment- but thought I would put it out there.

    keep up the good work!

  5. trb says:

    I also love the upgrading ideas – I recently swapped nine crappy knives for three really good ones. More space and better service. Got rid of several posters for one large piece of original art – more space, better aesthetic. It’s a joy to save up for nice things and upgrade your life this way.

  6. Sean says:

    Get Rich Slowly recommends this similar, free online book over Voluntary Simplicity: http://www.december.com/simple/live/index.html

    I’m just getting into it, but it’s pretty damn good so far.

  7. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    The book is pretty heavy on the New Age stuff – I just tend to kind of skim through it and dig out the pieces that make me think. I found several in that book buried under the New Age material.

  8. Kim says:

    Regarding Heroes, I rent or borrow tv sreies from my local library or interlibrary loan. It takes me longer to go through as I’m not able to watch a whole season in 2 or3 weeks, but if I have to pay to borrow (depending on the library) it only costs 4 or 5 dollars and i don’t have to keep the dvd’s

  9. My aunt has a rule that I have tried to live by. For every one item you bring home, one must go out.

    Thanks for your One Hour Projects. It has been fun to challenge myself with each posting.

  10. lindy says:

    There should be a group for people who have arrived at this ‘place’ in their lives. I seem to be having this same conversation with a few friends. Some items should be the best that one can afford. Knives are like this (and saucepans, to my mind. My own preference is Swiss made Spring – Crystal brand), and other things don’t require anything special at all. For me brand is about the quality that is evident in the item, not how popular it is or recognizable a name.

    I think I came to this point after witnessing my sister, time and again, buy ‘bargains’ that were poorly made, hideous in design, and not capable of performing functionally. Then watching her live with these miserable purchases for the length of the time they survived. For items that I will have for a lifetime, I like to acquire things that I will like more and more the longer I have them. Not a bad thing to consider when selecting a partner too ;-)

  11. Debbie M says:

    I really like your concept of raising the threshold for what you will buy. This describes perfectly my main budgeting strategy. Once you have everything you really need, it gets very easy to raise the bar, but you do have to get out of the habit of jumping for joy at the discovery of cheap junk on sale, once this cheap junk no longer helps you!

    Here are some examples of my current thresholds:

    Furniture – must be able to last a lifetime because of durability, good usability, and timeless design. (I do still have, use, and enjoy my cardboard and pressed board furniture, but I won’t buy more of it, even when it needs to be replaced.)

    Clothing – must fit, must go with stuff I have, must be flattering, must be washable, must be a good price, and pants and skirts must have pockets.

    Kitchen stuff – must be durable, easy to clean, easy to store, and something I would really use. (I borrowed a friend’s breadmaker for a couple of weeks to see if I really would use it, and the answer is no. Too hard to clean.)

  12. pam says:

    Trent, thanks for the recap.

    I am arriving at that place in my life. I have WAY too much stuff. Junk. Crap. My credit card debt is a testament to the fact that I shop too much.

    I’m also having a hard time letting go of said crap and an even harder time resisting the urge to buy more.

    Maybe I’ll try your one-hour suggestion of making a visual reminder of the decreasing debt load.

    Even though I don’t agree with every article, overall, I really enjoy your site.

  13. Rob in Madrid says:

    “I strongly considered buying the first season of Heroes for $36.99 … but I didn’t make the purchase. Why? Buying it would cost me almost $40, and then enjoying it would eat up many hours of sitting in front of the television.”

    I actually find TV to be pretty good value for the money, particularly when with combined with a hard disk recorder. I’ve got a lot of shows I like and follow. Not so much myself but the last thing the wife wants to do after a long day at work is spend more time on the computer. For her TV allows her time to wind down. The only adjustment is when we come home (Canada) is getting used to commercials every two mins. Other than that I find TV provides good value for the money.

  14. rhbee says:

    Speaking of new age, I recognize quite a few activities described on this site and by its posters that remind me of my life as a hippy days. Simple pleasures, gardens, no tv, walking places, and oh yeah, stopping a War. What is puzzling to me is why this current crop of back to the land reduce the clutter take care of each others hasn’t joined hands across America to stop the war that is reducing our future personal finance possiblities to less than zero. I see plenty of talk on Bill Maher and on web sites like http://www.alternet.com and http://www.truthdig but where is the action from the streets, from the real people who say they care about the future of their children? Did anyone notice the article in the news brief about the british study claiming that a million Iraquis civilians have died? Or is everybody too busy checking their retirement accounts to care?

  15. Diane says:

    You could always get the Heroes Series DVD and then sell it on ebay. I see one right now, used, going for 31.00, then 7.00 for shipping, and it still has about 40 minutes to go.

  16. Bill says:

    Or buy a DVR and record the series for later (often the entire series repeats over the summer)

    Early model, used Tivos, even those with lifetime service, are surprisingly inexpensive on ebay.

    >Regarding Heroes, I rent or borrow tv sreies from my local library or interlibrary

  17. Sam says:

    On the Hero’s DVDs – I’d wait till they show up in a pawn shop or used DVD shop. We get all our movies used (all of them – all 6or7 a year). While yes, we have to watch them as soon as we get home to check for scratches it’s been worth it. The Pawn shop recently made a shelf of pre 1995 movies for $3 so, we’ve gotten some good classics.

    I read Voluntary Simplicity back in 1997 or 1998 (when I was 19) and I don’t recall new age stuff but it’s probably changed since then and I think I skipped a few chapters. Like anything ya take what you can from it and discard what you don’t need.
    I have a close friend that I used to live across the street from. She is 79 & her house is full of boxes. There’s pathways around them but at 6+ feet it’s kinda freaky. She has joint & health problems & can’t unpack the boxes and someone has convinced her that instead of donating what she doesn’t need she should sell it. Ug! Seeing what the “stuff” has done to her I’ve been tossing out things left & right. The more I toss the freer I feel – like I’m not longer being weighed down.

    When I do buy things I try to get the best quality used item I can (there are exceptions of course).

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