It is part of my value system to employ a philosophy of simplicity in as many areas of my life as I can. In some areas (like the amount of debt I have), I shot myself in the foot early on because I haven’t always valued this particular philosophy, so now I’m just trying not to drown. But I’m doing pretty well in other areas, like the amount of “stuff” I own, the amount of money I spend recreationally, and the time I spend doing anything besides what I consider to be the purest of life’s pursuits, at least for me: reading or writing (and now, watching baseball).
Ever since I decided that I wanted simplicity to rule my life (which was circa late 2009 or, probably more accurately, early 2010), it has been fairly easy to make cuts and be choosy about what I spend my money on. For instance, I unplug everything in the house that doesn’t need to be plugged in at all times. That means right now, at this very moment, my major appliances (fridge, oven, washing machine, dryer, and dishwasher) are the only things that stay plugged in all the time. Everything else only gets plugged in when I need to use it. This includes my TV (that I never use and, therefore, never plug in), microwave, toaster (that I recently gave away because of non-use), hair dryer, straightener, computer, phone charger, and even internet. Yes, I said internet. I go so far as to turn off and unplug the power strip that hooks me up to the internet when I’m not using it. Obviously, that means when I leave the house and when I go to bed.
I also do my best to keep the cost of my utilities down by waiting as long as possible during the ‘between’ seasons to turn on heat or AC, from March to sometime in June or July, and from September to November or so. Even when I do turn them on, I put them at the lowest & highest possible settings that I can stand and still be mildly comfortable. And, of course, I schedule it to extremes for during the day when I’m at work, which I hope doesn’t adversely affect the dog too much. So far he is always alive and wagging his tail when I come home, so I assume that means he’s all right.
And don’t forget water. It’s a utility too. I do all the basic things that normal people do, such as not running the tap excessively when it’s not being used (while doing dishes, brushing teeth, etc.), not running the dishwasher for just a couple of plates, and not using the washing machine for only one garment. But I also shower every other day, give or take some frequency on either end. Sometimes I do it sooner than that; sometimes I wait longer. (It usually depends on my running and dating schedule. Dates usually get showers; running obviously does not – until after.)
People don’t believe me that persisting in such frugal use-of-electricity practices actually lowers my bills in the long run, but it does. I’ve seen the evidence firsthand. I’ve compared my bills side by side after adopting certain practices, and the differences are not only noticeable; they’re significant. Living alone goes a long way toward this being a meaningful practice. Not all of my roommates/housemates have shared or respected my philosophy of simplicity, although the one I had the longest (who, surprisingly, was a guy) was the best at it. Not sure if that was a coincidence.
The strength of my conviction and commitment to my values has been challenged recently, though. I have lately discovered that my financial frugality has thus far been an easy philosophy to uphold because I didn’t really have a choice. It was either live as cheaply as possible, or get foreclosed on/get car repossessed/accrue more credit card debt/overdraft the bank account, etc. My finances were stretched paper thin, what with a car payment, school loans, a dog, regular housing bills, a mortgage, and general other necessary expenses like insurance and groceries. Oh yeah, and trying to cover all that with a paltry, laughably small paycheck.
Well, the paycheck is still paltry, but it’s better than it was, and I have “enough” to get by (even after tithing!), even if I don’t necessarily have extra. Before, not only did I not have extra; I rarely even had enough. I overdrafted a lot, and I never tithed. Or went out to eat. Or bought people gifts. Or did anything besides pay bills. It sucked.
Now things are a little different. I don’t have a lot of money, but I sometimes pay all my bills and realize I have a good chance of making it to the next paycheck without overdrafting. I might even be able to go grab dinner with friends or get something fun at the grocery store – like Oreos. And, when that happens, I find it difficult not to maintain my discipline status quo. Which forces me to confront my stated conviction and philosophy and challenge myself about whether I actually believe it. And think about why I believe it.
A few years ago I read some study where they polled a large sample size of U.S. Americans and asked them what their philosophy of spending was, and the majority answer came down to this: If I can afford something, I have zero reason not to purchase it. Surprisingly, and discouragingly, the second-most popular response was this: If I can’t afford something but really want it, I buy it anyway, on credit.
Having “enough” money has caused me to have to make this decision more often. Do I buy Chipotle tonight just because I can? Do I get dessert at the grocery store just because I can? Do I get a pack of gum just because I can? These are very small things, but it’s true with the big things too. I could never previously consider getting a new garage door or new plumbing or a new roof (probably the three biggest things that could be fixed/replaced on my house right now) because the money just wasn’t there. At all. But now I can address the question: Should I start saving for one or all three of these projects, just because I can? Or should I save for something more practical, like traveling? Or retirement, for that matter. Of course, there are also medium-size considerations that I used to avoid because I couldn’t afford it but now am allowed to consider. These are simple life-maintenance things that add up after awhile – things like regular haircuts, oil changes, small house projects, even routine doctor visits.
Sometimes I think it was easier when I didn’t have to make these decisions. The answer was always no, so I never wrestled with the questions. But then I remember the fear and constant discomfort I lived in with never having enough money. If something happened to my dog, if something happened to me, if something happened to my house, my car, my computer, my phone… The list of fears and questions about how I would pay for routine maintenance situations that, for me, constituted emergency situations was endless. It is not fun to live in fear. It is not fun to live in emergency mode.
So, despite the influx of questions that having “enough” money brings with it, I’m not sorry to be out of constant emergency mode. Not that I’m very far away from it. I’m grateful to have my job because if I lose my job, I will likely be homeless within a month. And, luckily, not only am I grateful for my job; I’m good at it, and I like it. So I’m in a fortunate position right now.
But a slight paycheck increase raises the question too: What constitutes enough? I still don’t have enough to get a new garage door, new plumbing, or new roof. I don’t have enough to eliminate my credit card debt in one blow or my student loan payments in one blow, or my car payments. I don’t have enough to keep my dog on the regular medications that he technically needs. I don’t have enough to buy season tickets to the Royals or to take really any kind of vacation. Obviously, considering I’ve gone however many years without these expenses, they are not needs. So that’s fine.
But, once I get to a place in life where I have the ability to spend a little more money on pleasurable pursuits, or upgrades to my house, where will I need to draw the line? That’s what I’m wrestling with right now. How do I balance having enough money with continuing to live simply? It’s an ongoing struggle that I haven’t figured out yet. Especially because of the why portion of the question. Why do I believe that I should live so simply?
Well, the easy answer is in the title of the post. But what does that mean? If I’m living simply “so others can simply live,” what does that look like exactly? How do my choices affect other people? I guess I see it mainly as a consumption problem. If I consume excessively, I’m using resources that someone who can’t afford them now, because of my decision, cannot even access. This doesn’t seem like a problem on a small scale, but step back and look at the big picture – and the shrinkage of so many of our natural resources – and it becomes rather a huge problem. No, I’m not slipping cash under my neighbors’ front doors. No, I don’t regularly support a charity (other than the church, with my tithe). No, I don’t hand out cash to the homeless people I drive past on street corners. Largely I don’t do these things because, financially, I still can’t.
And that’s why I choose to live simply instead. Yes, consuming fewer resources is probably a good idea for the sake of the earth, but am I as one person really doing anything about the state of the earth? Not really, no. Living simply for me is more about solidarity. I am privileged. I know this. I’m privileged because I’m white, because I was raised middle class, and because I’m educated. These things do not make me better than anyone else; please don’t think I’m saying that. But they do afford me more opportunities. I own my house, I own a car, and I have a full-time job. Rather than exploit these advantages by consuming and accumulating as much as I am able just because I’m able, I want to do what I can to live as simply as I can so I can understand those around me who have fewer advantages and opportunities. In order to love people, one has to be able to understand and relate to people. I can’t relate to the poor urban populace if I seclude myself from them in luxurious suburbia.
Until a couple of months ago, my refusal to get a smartphone had more to do with inability to afford the phone bill than anything else. Sometimes I pedantically (and often sarcastically) said it was because I’m not materialistic, which probably hurt some people’s feelings or offended them. But the truth was, I just couldn’t afford it. Now I probably can afford it, and I’ve been trying to decide whether to get one. On one hand, it’s getting to be more of an inconvenience than not, simply because everyone just assumes that I have one, and they try to interact with me in ways that are impossible. This was never a glaring issue until my parents got smartphones and my brother had a baby. But now I miss a lot of shared pictures and videos and group chats because of my phone.
But I don’t want a smartphone because I go out in public and can’t even make eye contact with strangers anymore because they’re all tweeting or Facebooking or texting constantly. I know complaining about this makes me sound like an old person, but it really has gotten ridiculous. And I just don’t want to be that person. Who can’t sit through a movie without tweeting. Who can’t hang out with friends without checking social media. Who checks Facebook at every stoplight. Who posts online about how much fun I’m having with my friends although I’m not even interacting with said friends. I like the fact that, once I leave my house or my desk at work, I’m internet free until I get back home. I like that I have to learn the corners and secrets and ins and outs of my city streets because I can’t just pull up Google Maps on my phone. I truly believe that not having a smartphone makes me smarter. Or at least keeps me from getting dumber.
I did recently promise, both on Twitter and Facebook, to get a smartphone as soon as the Kansas City Royals make a roster move that takes Jeff Francoeur off the team. Knowing Royals management, that could take anywhere from another couple of weeks to the whole rest of the season, and it’s probably the latter. But I must admit, I do want to be able to view pictures and videos of my niece. And when I’m out to dinner by myself, it might be nice to be able to pull up an article to read once in awhile. And I love Twitter. It would sometimes be nice – if I’m out and about alone – to be able to continue to interact with my followers when they at-reply me, instead of finding out when I get home and replying four hours late.
I’m still trying to discern how valid some of my desires are. I’m mostly trying to wait on the smartphone thing until one of my major expenses is eliminated. In November my car will be paid in full. So maybe Thanksgiving would be a good time to make the switch.
Until then, go ahead and keep mocking me for being cheap or out of date, but at least now you know my decisions are intentional.