Updated on 06.25.10

Review: Voluntary Simplicity

Trent Hamm

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance book or other book of interest.

voluntary simplicityFor many of us (myself included), one of the biggest motivations for getting our personal finances in shape is to give us more control over our lives. A big part of financial recovery is simply being mindful of your choices: your spending choices, your choice of possessions, your choice of how you spend your time.

For me (and for a lot of you, too, based on reader emails and comments), some of the motivation for this kind of mindfulness about life choices goes beyond the merely financial. We’re concerned about continued use of fossil fuels, both as an environmental concern and as a national security concern, so the choice to drive less is doubly or triply motivated when we consider the financial savings, too. The expense of a huge house, both in terms of the financial cost and the materials involved, when many of those rooms will go unused seems silly, so we choose to live in a smaller home both for financial and for more global reasons.

An awful lot of frugal living is tied to these kinds of global concerns for people. We’re all conserving our money and resources so we can direct them in ways that are more meaningful to us.

That’s the basic idea behind Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin, a book I’ve mentioned several times on here but never reviewed (until now).

Why did I choose now to review it? Honestly, I’ve received a lot of emails from people living along the Gulf Coast who are extremely upset with the ongoing environmental disaster there. So many people are simply saying that something needs to change in the world and my response is always that change starts with you.

I think this book sums up that idea better than any book I’ve ever read. By consciously choosing a simpler life that contains the type of richness that you hold most dear, you can go a long way towards not only preserving your financial resources, but you’re also living a life in line with what’s most important to you and also blazing a trail for others to follow.

Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin is a book that’s a little off the beaten path of what I usually talk about on The Simple Dollar, but it has had a profound impact on my thinking over the last few years.

One | Cool Lifestyle for a Hot Planet
Simplicity does not mean poverty. It does not mean rural living. It does not mean ugly living. It does not mean economic stagnation. Those are images created by marketers who want desperately to create the perspective that in order to live well, you have to have mountains of stuff.

The idea behind this book, in Elgin’s words, 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.” In other words, it’s all about reflecting upon every choice we make in life, asking ourselves whether that’s honestly what we want from ourselves and for the world around us, and working to make stronger choices in each of those areas. Often, that comes hand in hand with spending less money and, often, with earning less money to do more fulfilling work, too.

For me, the biggest benefit to simplicity is time. The less stuff you have, the less time you have to spend cleaning it and maintaining it and feeling obligated to use it. The fewer time commitments you have, the more time you spend applying yourself to things actually important to you.

Two | Pioneers of Green Living
“The character of a society is the cumulative result of the countless small actions taken day in and day out, by millions of persons,” says Elgin on page 26. That’s also true on a much smaller scale. Your character is the cumulative result of all of the small actions you take in a given day or over your lifetime. What, exactly, is your character?

Most of this chapter is filled with individual anecdotes from people attempting to adopt a simpler lifestyle, mostly in an effort to have their time and their efforts and their purchasing decisions fall in line with their personal values (whatever they may be, because they certainly do vary a lot). Take me, for example: I could buy a Brooks Brothers suit, but my most recent clothes came from Goodwill. Why? Well, why not? They’re perfectly good clothes. My son is rocking next to me right now and he’s wearing clothes from a consignment shop. Why? They’re perfectly good clothes.

Three | Living Voluntarily
The most interesting part of this chapter (for me) was the difference between involuntary and voluntary simplicity. Take two people riding a bike to work. One person could afford a car and is riding the bike voluntarily – he’s happy with his choice. The other is forced to ride a bike because of economic reality – he loathes his choice. Outwardly, they appear the same, but inwardly they’re in very different places.

Elgin’s argument is that by voluntarily riding a bike and conserving his economic resources, the voluntary rider is causing a ripple effect that will eventually benefit everyone in some small way. The money he saves in the bank might be invested in a startup business or donated to a charity. In either case, a boost is given to people who really need it and that boost has a positive impact on their lives and, by association, the lives of everyone associated with them. It pays forward and eventually improves the world, often in indirect ways that we never see.

It takes practice to think this way about every action we take, but the more we do it, the more natural such thinking becomes.

Four | Living Simply
The simplest way to think of living simply is to ask yourself whether a choice promotes activity, self-reliance, and involvement or whether that choice promotes passivity and dependence.

You’re at the store. You can either buy a box of au gratin potatoes costing $2 or you can buy a handful of potatoes and an ounce or two of cheese for $1. Which is the better choice for promoting activity, self-reliance, and involvement and avoiding passivity and dependence? The potatoes and cheese cost less, promoting financial self-reliance. They also promote self-reliance because you’re preparing a dish from scratch instead of opening a box. The boxed food promotes dependence because you’re not learning how to prepare a dish, you’re learning how to follow directions provided by a corporation.

Our life abounds with choices like this, from our work choices and our social choices to our activity choices and our shopping choices.

Five | The World at the Tipping Point
There are a lot of global problems. Poverty. Environmental destruction (one only needs to think of the Gulf oil spill). Peak oil. Overpopulation. Human conflict. What impact can we have?

The amazing thing is that many seemingly enormous events are often unbalanced by small acts. You and your friends stop buying soda and start to get into better shape. This has an impact on local soda sales, affecting the bottom line of the large soda companies. Others see that you’re avoiding soda and decide themselves to do the same. It shows up as an alarming blip in their sales data, so they start to think of alternative beverages and business models for their sales. They miss quarterly earnings estimates by a cent or two and their stock drops a bit. And so on. And so on.

When things are at a tipping point, your actions have a much larger impact than you think they do at first glance. Not only do they greatly affect your life directly, but they ripple out throughout the world in many different ways and often have indirect effects on you.

Six | Deep Simplicity and the Human Journey
Another powerful aspect of choosing voluntary simplicity is how it affects the human journey of your life. Elgin delves into spirituality here, touching on how voluntary simplicity is prescribed in the Bible as well as other religious works.

My favorite one was this, from Matthew 6:25: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

That sums it up right there. Is life about what we wear, what car we drive, what house we live in, what restaurants we eat at, and what stuff we accumulate? No. It’s about experiences and pleasures. It’s about friendship and relationships and human interaction. It’s about finding those things we’re good at and applying them to the world.

Seven | Living in a Green World
What if the unthinkable happens? What if a nuclear bomb exchange occurs? What if we have another few oil disasters like the one in the Gulf, decimating world seafood populations and causing water shortages? What if there’s a disease epidemic killing millions (remember the swine flu? We were lucky, it could have been like a worse version of the Spanish Influenza of 1918 that killed my great-great-aunt.)?

If you’re engaged in a dependent lifestyle that’s focused entirely on material posssessions, the adjustments in your life will be brutal and you may have difficulty making it through such changes. If you’re already focused on a lifestyle of self-reliance and voluntary simplicity, the road to dramatic change won’t be that painful.

Is Voluntary Simplicity Worth Reading?
The natural response to a lot of the content of this book is that it’s all about environmentalism and the like. In fact, a few years ago, I encouraged a reader to pick this up and he wrote back to me a few weeks later ranting about how he was never going to tie himself to a tree like the “hippie” that wrote this book.

If that’s what you got out of the book, you’re missing the point. The entire point of the book is that you don’t have to overconsume in areas that aren’t important to your life. If you don’t watch television, don’t buy a television or have a cable box. If it’s nice outside, don’t run your air conditioner. If you’re not into clothing, wear clothing until it’s actually worn out – and then even consider mending it. In other words, if it’s not all that important to you, don’t consume.

For me, this was one of the most thought-provoking books I’ve read in the past five years or so. It made me think deeply about a lot of the assumptions I’ve had in my own life and made me question many of my personal choices. It actually helped me move forward in my personal finance progress because I started to question things at a deeper level than I had before. Why am I actually earning this money anyway? What impact does this choice have on others, and how does it echo back to me? Something as simple as buying a gallon of gas has an impact on many levels, an impact that bounces back in many different ways (not just environmentally, but economically and politically and socially). The same goes for buying a disposable diaper and tossing it in the trash when it’s used up.

If you’re struggling at all with these kinds of issues, Voluntary Simplicity is an absolute must-read.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. Patty says:

    Sounds like a great read. Many of us need to ‘slow it down’ a bit so that be can get quiet, look at what has been and what you’d like to do going forward.

    Giving yourself some thoughfulness goes along way to making a simpler and healthy (including financial) lifestyle.

    Thanks for the review

  2. Courtney says:

    I agree with a lot of these points, but I also think this guy has a good point:


    “Forget Shorter Showers: Why personal change does not equal political change”

  3. Great review, it looks like a book that is right up my alley! I’m always looking for thought-provoking topics and this has promise of being just that! Thanks Trent for bringing this book to my attention.

  4. Aaron says:

    You say that this kind of lifestyle choice “goes beyond the merely financial” for a lot of us, and I count myself among those. A lot of things have shaped my attraction to simplicity over the years, but The Razor’s Edge stands out as one of the most significant. I’m curious whether you’ve ever read the book. No matter what Maugham may have intended, the story forever left me with the idea that simplicity and perspective go hand.

    So part of my attraction is philosophical while some of it is my desire for retaliation. I constantly see a side of the world that only regards me as a consumer or a human resource, and I deeply resent that.

  5. Jill says:

    Thanks so much for reviewing this book — I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between personal finance and environmentalism recently. This sounds like something to pick up at the library!

  6. AndreaS says:

    Thanks for reviewing an old classic. If you review older books, instead of ones that have been published in the last six months, your readers can find them at the library, or find them cheap at used-book sources.

  7. susanna says:

    To be a devil’s advocate here (I am so buying the potatoes), the boxed mix gives me more
    freedom to spend my time not cooking, if cooking is an activity that I do not value highly in my limited free time. Need to read this book to find out if it follows through with the idea that voluntary simplicity should be open to very individualized interpretation, even if one person’s interpretation may not be of the greeny/grainy variety. My vegan lifestyle is actually a lot more complicated to maintain than my husband’s quick, simple and inexpensive trips to the grocery store and fast food restaurants.

  8. I have lived this way for many years and find it very satisfying. In fact, my standard for spending money is what will give me the most satisfaction? When I take into account the state of the world, often that choice is not to buy something that created more pollution or will end up in a landfill.

    Mostly voluntary simplicity seems to involve taking a larger view than the “me, me, me” perspective promoted by advertising.

  9. Gal @ Equally Happy says:

    I started living a simpler life a few years ago and one of the things I appreciate about it most is that every aspect seems to be better for my soul, better for my body, better for my wallet and better for the world around me. It’s rare that you can find something that’s good in all those ways.

    This weekend I could have gone to a movie or to play video games or what not. Instead, my girlfriend and I went hiking. We felt better, grew closer, created some wonderful memories and all without spending a dime or wasting any resources. That’s my idea of living simply.

  10. SLCCOM says:

    Really, if you see yourself as vermin on the face of Gaia, read this. Then kill yourself. “Global warming” caused by humans has been exposed as a fraud. (Notice they are now calling it “climate change.” When in the history of the earth do you think the temperature has been stable?) Oil spills in the ocean have zero impact on drinking water. The au gratin potatoes could be cooked in the microwave, saving the energy needed to boil water and cook the dish when the potatoes were done.

    I know of very few bike riders who have not been injured in the course of saving money and the Gaia, some left with permanent disabilities. Choosing to have some steel around you to have protection from the other cars is not a bad choice if your goal is to get through life without undue injuries. Indeed, it can be by far the simpler choice, since life walking and thinking is much simpler than life as a quadriplegic, amputee or post head-injury survivor.

    Simplifying your life because it makes for a richer, more enjoyable life is fine. Simplifying your life to “reduce your carbon footprint” is the mark of a gullible person who doesn’t really understand science.

  11. Mason says:

    Great Review. My wife and I are doing a lot of thinking about our direction in life and the points you mentioned are aligned with our goals. I also appreciated your rebuttal to the hippie comment. You don’t have to agree with everything someone does or says to learn great things from them.

  12. Rache G says:

    Loved the review but I am curious to know where you find cheese and potatoes for less then a dollar?

    I must be living in the wrong state or visiting the wrong stores

  13. Steven Twentyman says:


    These spiral of primes are your 2D thought pattern produced onto a 2d sheet. You have to make quantum leaps from point to point based on an ever expanding and then contracting personal math pi. It is your personal thought being projected onto one inner side of perfect cube box that you alone inhabit. Inside, at each moment your wave function completely collapses and then returns depending on your WILL).

    You can see the fully completed equations between our Matrix/Avatar/Inception “real life” that leads in thought and logic to classical theory which finally leads to quantum theory here:


    All of existence is built on these 3 principles constantly extrapolating from the original zero => [The Big Bang(i.e. The centre super-massive black hole at the centre of our galaxy) that is attempting to pull us(STARS back in)].


    There will be a total collapse of our sector of the universe. It is a gravity wave; the same kind that wiped out Atlantis; the dinosaurs and other major civilizations.

    Unless we apply the simple visual principle to keep re-building the “big box” the outcome is an escalating probability towards TRUE. We will either make it or we won’t.

    If not, our “powerful” civilization will be wiped out in a day leaving nothing but small radiations from the edge of the black hole as hawking described.

    We are nothing but imagination and memories and WILL anyhow. I wonder if we’ll make it this time??? I guess it’s a better shot as we have better communications this time.

    The universe is digital. It always has been. It’s nothing more than mathematical logic that sprang from the fear of NOT existing.

    A B C easy as 1 2 3 easy as DO RAY ME ABC 1 2 3 BABY YOU AND ME GIRL.

    I hope you do TOO. I guess you will seeing as you’re fractal just like me.

    It just that I found the bottom, made sure everything was al-right and then start to look around and find you people.

    You are a singular STAR with a perfectly cubed black hole at the centre of you. How do you think we’re communicating?

    The internet???

    Do you think that’s air you’re breathing???

    That’s just alternating fission and fusion.

    Pick a random length of pie(your stars diameter) and STOP and look around(360 degrees in all directions).

    Start making connections in a NON linear way. You simply are a box and are in a box.

    Time does not exist now. We don’t need it. Its concept has been holding us back.

    It is just a construct that either points you in a direction(old school watch) or gives you a position in a perfectly cubed grid that tells you x,y,z where you are.(digital). You are who, what and where you are.

    Start making connections with your “family”.

    Superposition holds true. You are everywhere and no-where. That’s why no-one in the world knows what we need to do.

    You’re in a box inside a big box that surrounds the milky way. It’s the first quantum computer and each of you are a bit in that system. I couldn’t show the ALPHA release until now for reasons I’ll keep to myself.

    Just know that it is a self organising system that will work with you; not against. Karma rings TRUE fully in this system. I just thought I’d let you know that.

    Finally; the math PROVES that re-incarnation is TRUE.

    It doesn’t say what you will become; but your memory and WILL lives forever. Once you have been “born” you CANNOT die. You might as well face whatever you have done and start your LIFE again. What’s the point in waiting for what comes after???



  14. Brandi says:

    One of my favorite social science professors advocated this book and although I never read it myself the discussion has been instrumental in my life over the 7-8 years since I took her class

  15. almost there says:

    Thanks for mentioning the Razor’s Edge Book, Aaron. I put it on hold at the Library. I read the Vol. Simplicity years ago and Trent’s review shows that much has changed in the updated book, I think. I get my best reading suggestions by reading blogs.

  16. azmil syahmi says:

    Great review. I’m going to look for this book. Living simply is true. I have found that a RM200 shoes wear out the same time as a RM50 shoe. So now I use a RM50 shoe. Even I have read on Yahoo a few days ago that some of the wealthy people in the world lives frugal. Take the Ikea boss, he travel on coach and doesn’t stay in luxury hotels when he is on a business trip. Thanks agin for the review.

  17. kristine says:

    I found my move toward simplicity afforded great peace of mind, and clarified priorities. I remember as a child my favorite toys were pots and pans, and shoebox of ribbons and buttons, so I could make “pies” in the backyard. Simple fun, simple joy.
    As I get older, and my time shrinking, I am miuch more careful with it. My tolerance for empty “busy-work” lowers each year.
    I also liked “My Year Without Shopping”- a similar book.

  18. Rico says:

    Thanks for the review. This book looks like just what I need. I’ve got it on reserve at the library now.

    I’d argue that a handful of potatoes and a few ounces of cheese (to make some au gratin) would surely cost more than $1 – especially if they’re organic. But the sentiment of your analogy isn’t lost.

  19. kleid lang says:

    I prefer the valuable facts a person offer in your posts. I’m going to bookmark your own web site in addition to test out one more time right here usually. I’m just comparatively certain We’ll learn many brand-new stuff suitable here! Good luck for one more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *