Updated on 09.30.14

Thoughts On Voluntary Simplicity

Trent Hamm

Joan of Arc by Jules Bastien-LepageBefore 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.

The Benefits

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

The Drawbacks

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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.

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  1. Canadian says:

    I don’t think voluntary simplicity necessarily means you have to try to produce a lot of your own food. I would call that philosophy “self-sufficiency”. I think voluntary simplicity is about downsizing your life, living well below the standard at which you could afford to live.

    I usually prefer the term “simple living”. For me it’s about living a good life, not burdened by consumerism, in tune with my values, not taking up more than my share of resources. I was influenced by the book “Living More-with-Less” and by the Quaker Testimony of Simplicity.

  2. Seth Miller says:

    Something you didn’t comment on was health insurance, I know that would be a big factor for me to leave a job.

  3. Jesse says:

    I’ve always kind of planned on doing this for my retirement. I favor a best of both worlds approach: Live reasonably frugally now until my net worth hits ~1.5 million then sell the house and buy a few acres in the country. People live longer if they stay active, and this sort of life style forces you to be fairly active in a not-too-stressful way. As long as you dont bite off more than you can chew in terms of crops to harvest and animals to feed, etc. Combine this with the high net worth which allows you to have plenty of fun, be it toys or vacations and you have a nice retirement.

  4. paula says:

    I like this post very much, and I appreciate the links. Thank you!

    It is much easier to live simply voluntarily if one is financially comfortable. As Seth points out, we are caught in a system that makes us hard to let go of jobs and such, even if we had money in the bank and could shrug off a 6-month layoff.

    But one can still choose to live more simply and have a job. It takes disconnecting from the mindset of “having things.” Living “frugally” still sounds like a sacrifice, in that it focuses on the money (pinching the pennies) rather than focusing on the richness of a life unencumbered by desires for toys and vacations and lots of clothes.

    For me, living simply is not living frugally. It’s about living in diffent relation to the entire world, not focusing on what is in my bankbook. I belong to a religion that practices simple living as a means for sharing the world’s resources (I’m a Quaker). I also belong to organizations that value sharing the world and saving it for all people and beings.

    Living simply sometimes costs more, especially when one first begins practicing it–certainly buying fresh and organic produce and really good-quality food at a regular grocery store costs more than buying cheap food at WalMart. But over time the costs start to balance out. I pay more in groceries, but I seldom eat out and buy fewer clothes and toys (books are my weakness, so I stay out of bookstores as my discipline).

    If you want support for living simply (rather than just frugally), look for groups like Simple Living in your area to find like-minded individuals. You don’t have to wear Birkenstocks or wear a tie-dyed T-shirt; you will find people exactly like yourself! My husband is a lawyer (makes it easy for me to talk about this, since I don’t feel financially pinched!). He wears suits to work and has never worn a pair of Birkenstocks. But he’s the one who has really gotten into growing food and making compost, and he reminds me to buy local produce in recyclable containers as an act of proper sharing of our world’s resources.

    If you want to let go of the spending mindset, it helps to rid your life of TV commercials, advertising in general, rewards cards, etc. Eliminate shopping trips as a source of fun in themselves. Think about what you are about to spend money on and ask if you really need it. Then ask yourself if you will still remember the item next week if you don’t buy it now. There’s so much stuff I don’t buy just by consciously thinking about it for a few moments.

  5. Beth says:

    I’m not sure you fully hit the point of voluntary simplicity – go back to your initial (bolded) definition: “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 does not preclude working, and does not require the labor of producing your own food. Those are both things that COULD result from choosing a life of Voluntary Simplicity, but lots of people work full time and don’t have a garden and still have lives that are relatively simple. Please don’t accidentally scare people from what can be a wonderful lifestyle!

  6. Wil says:

    I agree that the real key to voluntarily simplicity is whether or not you want to live in a way that is in tune with your personal values. If you do, then the personal rewards will far outweigh the financial ones.

    And the social costs may end up being negligible — as you begin to lead a more balanced, examined life, you may find that your social networks begin to change. You’ll make new friends, and you won’t worry much about the ones who can’t deal with your “lifestyle choices.”

  7. Living below your means has countless benefits.

  8. Eric says:

    Voluntary simplicity for me started as involuntary :-)

    I was laid off and went back to finish a BA degree. I quickly found that many of my lifestyle choices were centered around shopping and spending money. My wife helped me over the hump and we have been simplifying ever since. This past year my wife left her job to raise our daughter and we didn’t need to change a single behavior to stay “in the black”. We are even talking about remodeling in the near future. I could not imagine how some of friends live with twice the income and they have no savings to speak of.

    On top of all of the other benefits we have a breeze cleaning since there is so much less clutter.

  9. lorax says:

    Yup. Health insurance is one of the primary reasons I don’t see early retirement on my horizon. Heck, I worry about it when switching jobs!

  10. Hazzard says:

    Your experiences and voluntary simplicity sound exactly like the Amish lifestyle, or the Menonites.

    My goal is to continue working in this materialistic society, save, save, save and then convert to a much simpler existence. I would like to have enough passive income so that my only responsibility each month is to walk to the mailbox to pick up checks. The only thing that freaks me out about this approach is access to good healthcare.

  11. cynthia says:

    We’ve downsized our lives several years ago and haven’t looked back, not regretted it. We went from a 9 room house to a 4 1/2 room house. We only have what we need. It takes a bit of getting used to, but nonetheless, well worth it. As for medical coverage, we are self-employed now and can buy it discounted through a program. Instead of paying $800 a month for both of us, we only pay $454 (drugs included).
    There is really nothing to stop anyone from Voluntary Simplicity. You would be amazed at how little one really needs in order to live a full, rich, wonderful life!

  12. paula says:

    On the face of it, voluntary simplicity, as lived by you or me, might sound like the Amish or the Mennonites, but there is an important distinction to be made. The Amish are born into a closed religious society. They do not choose to engage in the world outside their community more than they have to. They do not want to be photographed because they consider a photograph a graven image. Becoming rich is not a goal of anyone within the community–or, if it were to become a goal, the person would likely have to leave the fold, because it would be a great source of stress on the rest of the community.

    In other words, the Amish are not individuals as you and I are. If we choose voluntary simplicity, we must find our own support group of like-minded people, but we would still live in the larger society, and as individuals. We cannot become like the Amish as individuals, and Amish individuals could not make it in larger society.

    Very few of us would bear the controls on our lives that are natural to the paternalistic Amish. Most of us want to live our lives without being told what to do. The Amish do not have that choice and do not want it–at least, not within their closed community. They are very top-down in organization. But they do have clashes with the larger community (meaning their non-Amish neighbors and local governments), because they just want to be left alone and don’t want to have “us” complaining that their outhouses are polluting the groundwater, or that we can’t see their buggies on dark and rainy nights. In that regard, the group acts like an individual.

    Finding the balance in the larger world is always a struggle, whether you are an individual wanting to simplify and free yourself of the controls of materialism, or are an Amish family who believes local neighbors interfere with your simple life.

    We live in a culture that places high value on individualism, personal independence, and material goods as a demonstration of monetary success. Our cultural values alone make the “voluntary” aspect of simple living very difficult for us. The Amish, who value independence from a material world, live simply in our estimation but do not consciously choose it.

    For a look at simple living from a Mennonite perspective, I recommend “Living More with Less,” by Doris Janzen Longacre. 1979, Herald Press, Scottdale, Pa. Her earlier cookbook, “More with Less Cookbook,” is found at many natural foods stores. It’s very practical and timeless, but rather demanding reading for the non-religious. The Amish are a strict Mennonite sect that broke away from the larger sect in the 18th Century.

  13. john caldas says:

    Some people express concern about healthcare coverage as it relates to voluntary simplicity. While this is clearly a valid issue,what they may not consider is just how much better you feel and how much more opportunity you have to develop yourself physically if you are working fewer hours.
    When I was still stuck in the grind of 9-5 working at an office, I always felt tired and vulnerable to all kinds of colds and sickness. Since I began living a less structured existence, my health has improved greatly and has become one of the better benefits of living simply. In fact, even though I’m in my early 40’s, I regularly run 7 miles, weight train on my off days, and have time for extended backpacking throughout the year.

    Think about the toll those long days at the office take on you physically and mentally, then multiply that by years and decades. By working less and having time to exercise and vacation more, you can vastly improve your overall health and substantially reduce, if not eliminate, your need for medical intervention.

  14. AS says:

    Good point about health insurance. For two years I worked part-time, had limited health insurance and never felt healthier. I’m working full-time from home now, but definitely plan to return to lifestyle I was once enjoyed one day.

  15. Misty says:

    this is a very intersiting thing to know…voluntary simplicity is great!………………………………………………………………………………….NOT!!!

  16. Debra Masters says:

    Your comments in this article don’t work for many of us who wish to live simply and do not own their own home, or who are paying huge mortgage payments. Or who have a child with a debilitating illness. I rent, and if we just quit our jobs to live simply we’d be out in the streets. I also have a child with a life-threatening heart condition who my insurance barely covers now. I’m all for simplicity, but not if it means living in a box under a bridge and/or sacrificing my son.

  17. reader says:

    What you say here does not go along with the post here:

    Am I misinterpreting something?

  18. Trent Hamm Trent says:

    My father chose to spend his time doing vegetable gardening and fishing instead of trying to work a second job. To a degree, that was an aesthetic choice – we were poor, but we could have had significantly more money if my father had worked another job to earn more cash.

  19. Stu-- says:

    One point that you missed is that downsizing also makes you more environmentally responsible. You save water, energy, and stop feeding the third-world-raping consumer machine.

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