Choosing voluntary poverty

“Themistocles, when asked whether he would marry his daughter to a good poor man, or to a rich man of less respectable character, replied, ‘I, indeed, prefer the man who lacks money to the money that lacks a man.’” – Cicero

TrailI’ve long been an advocate of actively and consciously making choices to live in a particular way.  For me, choosing to do something makes me feel a lot more positively about it, and I’m more likely to see it as a challenge than a trial.  Choosing to ride my bike as much as possible feels a lot different than if I had no other option, and always shopping secondhand feels better than it would if it were my only choice.  In short, I feel like I enjoy my simple, frugal, and environmentally conscious activities a lot more and get a lot more out of them when I opt into them rather than having to do them out of necessity.

One area where I haven’t been so good about seeing things as a choice, though, is around earning money.  I make enough to live on, especially given our current level of expenses.  But there are still times when I find myself feeling stuck, worrying that it’s not enough, fretting about my job situation, applying for jobs I’m not sure that I want, and generally giving money more power over me than I should.

Despite my views on choice, it never really occurred to me to try to apply them to my money situation to see if that might make a difference.  To be fair, I realise that feeling like I’m making a choice in this area is likely to be more of a challenge.  Shopping at the market or riding my bike really are choices – I could do things differently if I wanted to.  Money and work, however, are a bit more constrained – I get paid a set amount and new jobs are hard to come by in this market.  While I can work with what I’ve got and be grateful for that, I still don’t feel like I have much in the way of options.  But, if I already see other things as a making a choice in favour of my values, why can’t I attempt to shift the frame a bit and do the same here?

Although I may not have the choices that I do in other parts of my life, I can still try look at what I have in a different way.  Recently, I’ve been reading up on the idea of voluntary poverty, which holds that by embracing a life with little money we can not only start to get free of many of the issues associated with the dominant economic system, but live better, more satisfying lives.  Applying this idea to my own situation, it struck me that instead of experiencing my current job as a low-paying and somewhat precarious position, I can see it as an option where I’ve traded in a higher salary for work that allows me to do research that I care about, keep a flexible schedule, and have enough time for other pursuits and interests. If I can see it as making choice – and, more importantly, making a beneficial choice – I hope to feel less like these circumstances are beyond my control and more like I’m making an active choice about how I want to live.

Since voluntary poverty isn’t just about work, I’m already some of the way there.  I spend fairly little, reuse what I have, buy virtually nothing new, and try to grow or make what I can.  These shifts have felt pretty easy and I’ve never thought twice about them.  On the other hand, trying to change how I think about working and income feels like a big deal.  Maybe it’s because how much I earn still feels like less of a choice than other activities.  Maybe it’s because it can be hard to see a way out of the money-based economy.  Maybe it’s the fear of the unknown and the thought that I won’t be able to take care of myself and the people I care about.  In any case, I suspect that the fact that this is something that frightens me and feels far outside of my comfort zone means it’s something that I need to spend some more time on going forward.

Independence days

I’ve been writing a lot this week, and while it feels good to be writing critically about consumerism, it’s also felt good to stop working for some more practical and tangible things around here.

Plant something: planted kale starts in my existing containers; transplanted some volunteer tomato seedlings; planted more lettuce seeds; sprouted a few different kinds of beans

Harvest something: mint for tea; chives, oregano, and basil for dinners; lettuce for salads

Preserve something: no preserving this week, but I’m trying to plan out a few things that I’d like to preserve, and getting the kitchen in shape for when that happens

Waste not: trash picked a wooden chair and a bucket to add to my container garden; fed veggie scraps to the worms; reorganizing the kitchen to help prevent food waste; pulled out some close to expiring food to use

Want not: cutting back on spending this month so I can add to my savings account and contribute a bit more to some projects I have in mind; stocked up on Dr. Bronner’s soap when it was on sale at the local health food store; accepted a few freebie books from a friend

Eat the food: making meals out of as many farmers’ market ingredients as I can – kholrabi, carrot, and broccoli salad, potato and radish top soup, roasted veggies with pasta, Chinese broccoli on rice, chevre and tomato sandwiches

Build community food systems: shopping at the market and chatting with farmers about food issues; looking into joining the local transition/post-peak oil group

Skill up: more knitting and baking; learning how to work with sourdough and make ginger beer; reading up on herbal medicine

Beyond the independence days things, I’m still biking and walking a lot and trying to make sure I get – and stay – in good shape.  I’ve been thinking a lot more than usual about food and healthy eating, and I’m looking forward to shaping up the kitchen so that it’s easier to work in and I’m using food in the best ways that I can.  Along the same lines, I’m also still working on the apartment, and trying to make sense of what should stay and what should go, what we need, and how we can best use the space since there are just so many things that we do here.  I’m convinced there’s room enough for all the things I want to do, I just have to figure out the best ways to make things work.

No spend July

After a few crazy weeks of job hunting activities, online course work, and cross-border travel, I let myself take a few trips to the local thrift stores this past week.  They didn’t disappoint and I found myself with a lovely wool blanket, cast iron pot, French press, cookbook, and a few pieces of pottery.  Although I was pleased with my purchases – all of them met my usual criteria of useful, inexpensive, and good quality – this last trip in particular got to thinking about what I was doing, especially in terms of how effortlessly I slipped into the “I deserve a reward” mentality and how quickly that reward became centered on consumerism.

The things that I bought are lovely, and will be used for a very long time.  But…that still doesn’t mean that I needed them, or that I haven’t given in to consumerism more than I think that I’d like to.  I know that I have a number of shopping weaknesses, especially when it comes to buying secondhand.  It’s challenging for me to say no to wool blankets, cast iron cookware, cookbooks, wool sweaters, knitting supplies, handmade pottery, good fiction, and reference books.  If I wind up at a thrift store and any of those things are available, I can usually do a pretty impressive job of justifying the purchase.

But, as I’ve said many times before, the truth is that the cost of even secondhand shopping still adds up over time, and buying secondhand doesn’t make me less of a consumer, or change my relationship with shopping and stuff.  Hating malls and retail shopping doesn’t really get me very far if I can still habitually spend money at thrift stores while possibly accumulating even more than I otherwise would have due to the drastically reduced prices.  I wouldn’t mind scaling back the budget a bit in order to put some extra cash away for projects and add a bit more to the “buy some land” fund.

In addition to the money and space costs, there’s also the cost in time.  I’ve been spending more time than I’d like shopping, and have also been spending yet more time clearing out the apartment which is stocked with my thrift store treasures.  This is hardly a productive cycle since I’m foiling my own efforts to clear things out of here.  With two months left in the summer, I’d rather have this time to focus on visiting with family and friends, cooking and eating good food, running, biking, yoga, reading, writing, playing music, and just generally enjoying life while being a bit more productive.

The goal, then, is to have a no spend July – no spending on anything other than essentials like food, hygiene items, and cleaning supplies.  I happen to know that there’s a wedding gift purchase in my future, so I won’t be counting that either.  I may also need a gift for a sick friend, so I haven’t discounted that yet either.  Other than that, though, I won’t be doing any non-essential shopping in July, and I’m looking forward to having a bit more money, a bit more room, and best of all, a bit more time.