Voluntary simplicity versus poverty
The first person I met who practiced voluntary simplicity didn't call it that, and I didn't understand what she was doing until many years later. It left a lasting impression, though, because it was a source of stress between her and her friends.
I was just out of college, working at my first job. I hung around with a group of young software engineers and graduate students, some new families, others single guys like me. Software engineers didn't make as much money then as they do now--the salaries were good, but there were no signing bonuses or stock options--and graduate students were just as poor then as they are now.
One of the graduate students in our little group was different. She was rich.
At any rate, her family was rich. They had given her the money to open a cash management account--a checkbook and a credit card backed by a brokerage account--back when those were a new invention. Nowadays you can get an asset management account with a minimum deposit of $5000 or less, but back then the minimum balance was $20,000 (which was, by the way, more than my annual salary at the time).
She didn't spend that money, though. She got by on her graduate student stipend. She did it by doing all the frugal things that get lumped together under names like voluntary simplicity, frugality, tightwad, simple living, financial independence, etc. She lived in a cheap apartment (no air conditioning in south Florida); she had a roommate; she ate vegetarian meals cooked at home; she drove an old Honda; she didn't buy stuff she didn't need.
She was rather proud of the way she lived, and this was the source of stress that I mentioned between her and some of the others in our group. (I understand her feelings perfectly--I too am a bit prone to feeling smug about the way I live my life.) Other people resented the fact that she seemed to feel that she was living like she was poor. It was a vivid lesson to me in the difference between living in poverty and just living at the same standard of living.
Choosing to live a simple life is wonderfully empowering and affirming. Having less stuff saves not only money, but also time and worry. It's easy on the planet. It's healthy. It maximizes your freedom of choice.
Living in poverty, though, is just bad:
It's limiting. A poor person doens't have flexibility to quit a job with an insane manager or to drop everything to support a friend in a crisis. There's also no clear path out--an endless treadmill where you never get ahead.
It's dangerous, or even out-and-out harmful. Shoes that don't hurt your feet are an unaffordable luxury. Medical care and car repairs get put off because the alternative is going hungry.
Oddly, it's even expensive. Choosing to live simply gives you the flexibility to take advantage of good deals, where a poor person can't afford to buy more than just what they need right now, even if the big package would be cheaper or there'll be a sale next week.
These differences exist, even if the people spend exactly the same amount of money.
It was good that I came to understand the difference between voluntary simplicity and poverty as early as I did. I've never forgotten.