Friday, 30 July 2010


by Kate
Living the Frugal Life

A while ago we had the chance to spend a little time with my husband's oldest friend. In his mid-forties now, this friend is a charming, energetic, and creative entrepreneur who has built several businesses to astonishing financial success at a fairly young age. He came from a very large family of modest means and though he always had food to eat and decent clothes, he always felt poor by comparison to my husband's average middle class family. Today he's worth millions, but he's always got five new ideas he's excited about, one of which will likely play out and make him another pile of money. I like this man who is so smart and seems so "real."  He's also on the brink of a contentious and messy divorce, his second.

Now I don't mean to criticize this person in particular; as I said, I like him.  But I don't know any other people that I'd consider truly rich by even American standards.  And I want to use the wealthy as a lens to look at the wider culture of my own country.  I think this man exemplifies something that most of us are saddled with - a drive for more money, to possess more things, to enjoy more experiences that involve airplane flights, and distant hotels.  Simply put, we all want "more" - however we happen to define that.  The difference between most of us and my husband's friend is that by any rational standard, he's made enough money several times over to do all of those things.  He can literally afford to do whatever he wants.  He says he'd love to have time to teach his two children how to garden.  But what he does is continue to make more money.  That highlights for me the absence of any concept of enough in our culture.  We may not even be able to articulate what it is we long for.  But longing, acquisitiveness, desire, covetousness are so deeply inculcated in our culture that the very concept of "enough" is foreign, strange to us.  Even when we amass huge amounts of money, we seem to have no sense of satiety, contentedness, of simply having enough to be happy.  Contentment is rare, and if you are content with little, this is somehow suspect, as though it were a fault rather than a remarkable achievement.

I think about this quite a lot.  I don't mean to say that I live an ascetic life of austerity and meager pleasures.  Of course there are things I would still like to have - a hoop house or greenhouse, and a better dresser than the one I bought for my first dorm room.  And goodness knows we've committed to spending quite a bit of money to put in a passive solar heating system.  I can't say that we'd have no use for another $5,000 in our annual budget.

But I do believe that I understand better now - in a visceral sense - what some of humanity's greatest teachers have pointed at:

"Fill your bowl to the brim and it will spill.
Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.
Chase after money and security and your heart will never unclench.
Care about people's approval and you will be their prisoner.
Do your work, then step back.
The only path to serenity." - The Tao te Ching, translated by Stephen Mitchell

"Health is the greatest gift, contentment the greatest wealth, faithfulness the best relationship." - Buddha

"The best things in life are nearest. Breath in your nostrils, light in your eyes, flowers at your feet, duties at your hand, the path of right just before you. Then do not grasp at the stars, but do life's plain, common work as it comes, certain that daily duties and daily bread are the sweetest things in life." - Robert Louis Stevenson

"A man is rich in proportion to the number of things he can afford to leave alone." - Henry David Thoreau

"He has the most who is most content with the least." - Diogenes

Each of these quotes by great thinkers had crossed my path by the time I was in my mid-twenties.  I understood them all on a superficial level.  But I did not really believe them.  I actively did not want to embrace beliefs that I thought would lead to living happily with less. I could not grasp these ideas as truths that made sense in my own life. In short, I had no sense of enough.

I do now, and I give a lot of credit to the sustainability movement for helping me reach that understanding.  But I've also seen from my own direct experience that the richest people I know are not the happiest.  The happiest people I know are not people who were born well off or who spent their youth working to amass a lot of money.  The people who have seemed both happy and "rich" to me have been utterly indifferent to status or markers of wealth - their own or anyone else's. They seemed somehow to stand outside of the material drive of our culture.  It was the literal work of their hands, their moral courage, their appreciation for what they had, their unfailing ability to find the good in other people and take them on their own terms that made an impression upon me.  Each of those people embodied a zeal for life that made them cherish each day they were given.

I haven't reached that earthly state of bliss. I don't live in the way that those I most admire did.  There are still material things I want.   I know that I say these things from a position of incredible privilege by global and historical standards - that what I reckon as a very modest life is unimaginable luxury to millions of people.  But I have enough in my sights.  I believe it's a place I can get to, and genuinely admire those who have reached that state.