There’s a difference between living and living well.
Too often we equate living well with “having it all.” The big house, the fancy car(s), the designer clothes, the extravagant vacations. Our Facebook feeds look amazing, but what’s the real truth?
Maybe we’re drowning in debt. Or we’re working ourselves to death. We might feel inadequate, anxious, and stressed. We may be ignoring our closest relationships and weakening those bonds. If we have children, they may be learning to become ever more competitive and covetous. And in spite of it all, we may still be jealous of those who have what we don’t, and still looking for the next purchase to fill us up and make us feel whole, satisfied, and at peace.
Why do so many of us choose to live this way, in debt and a hostage to purchases from the past, with a future that looks like trying to dig out of a hole that just gets deeper?
I know that some will say that prices keep going up and it’s impossible to make a decent living today. And they’re not totally wrong – the cost to buy a house or a college education has never been higher. (At least mortgage interest rates aren’t at 16%, like they were in 1981.)
But if you widen your gaze a bit, something interesting happens.
Globally, almost half the world’s population (3.4 billion people) lives on less than $5.50 per day (just over $2,000 per year). According to the non-profit group Giving What We Can, an annual income of $29,000 places you in the richest 5% of the world’s population. An income of $45,000 per year places you in the top 2%. Adjusting for actual purchasing power makes little difference in the percentages.
When we expand our worldview, we discover that we belong to the “haves.” We are the ones with adequate income, decent shelter, ample food, clean water, stable government, public education, libraries, parks, and many other benefits.
We are wealthy, and this realization might just change our lives.
But we still have to contend with the society in which we live, and that society labels us consumers. Not citizens, not creators, but consumers. And not because we all need a certain amount of stuff to keep body and soul together, but because excess spending (aka “consumer confidence”) is the way we measure the health of our country.
I’m going to quote someone more eloquent than I on that point:
“Too much and for too long, we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our Gross National Product… counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for people who break them….
“Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play…. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile….
“If this is true here at home, so it is true elsewhere in the world.”
Robert F. Kennedy, March 1968
If 60% of Americans feel anxious about their financial situation, then spending even more money isn’t going to fix that. The promise that advertisers offer is hollow, and doesn’t lead to a better life.
But maybe you already know that, which is why you’re interested in minimalism. Maybe you’re like me, and have gotten so you can ignore advertising pretty well. But it can be challenging to live within your means without being seen by some as cheap. I find it hard to ignore digs from some people who wonder why my husband and I won’t spend the same way they do. Some of them have bigger incomes than we do, but I think (based on conversation) that most of them carry a large amount of debt to fund their lifestyle choices.
When we decide to live below our means, someone else may choose to take it badly. Maybe we make them feel guilty, I don’t know. However, one result of our decision is that we have plenty of savings should a need (ours or someone else’s) arise.
In 2020 when our son, a massage therapist, couldn’t see any clients and was working as a take-out food delivery person to try and make ends meet, my husband and I were thrilled to be able to contribute by paying his car payment, insurance, and home utilities for several months. In 2012, when we had an underwater home mortgage, a big car payment, and huge credit card debt, we could barely pay our own way, let alone help anyone else.
We heard this morning that a fire destroyed the home of one of my husband’s students. The school office staff is organizing some help for this family, who escaped with the clothes on their backs, and I feel so blessed that we can afford to give generously.
I like Joshua Becker’s take on the situation: “It is better to live cheap under budget than to live luxuriously in debt.”
But I think that living with the knowledge that you have enough to meet your needs and still be generous, manage an emergency, or occasionally indulge in something that really matters to you, is the true luxurious choice. The security, serenity, and satisfaction gained by living below your means cannot be bought. In today’s world, they are the true luxuries.
About the Author: Karen Trefzger is a writer, singer, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother who has been choosing a simpler life for over 20 years. She is the author of Minimalism A to Z, and blogs at MaximumGratitudeMinimalStuff.