Voluntary simplicity versus poverty

Sunset at Kaufman Lake Park

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.

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Guest's picture

This is an excellent post. I've been poor and I've been middle-class and frugal, and I agree with you, the two are worlds apart. When you're living frugally, you generally reap some benefits, like savings, and all the emotional security and options that savings provide. Poverty has no benefits, no buffer zone. I still remember the stress I felt over my child's growth spurt, because I had no money for new shoes or clothing for him (not even second-hand). It was scary living in poverty.

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks. I should have had that on my list: Living in poverty is scary.

Guest's picture

Fantastic post! I don't think I realized the difference between voluntary simplicity and poverty until recently. I've definitely lived in poverty, and I've lived a middle class lifestyle without being frugal. Now I'm aiming toward voluntary simplicity. I'm just sick of all the stuff. I'd rather focus on what's important.

Myscha Theriault's picture

I don't know how many times I've had the discussion with other frugal friends about how much easier it feels to "tow the frugal line" when you are doing it and seeing results versus when you have to do it because you have absolutely no choice and you won't see any increase in the quality of your life at the end of the month.

Voluntary simplicity and frugality is all about the choice factor, and you are so right . . . having a choice about it makes all the difference in the world. We spent a fair amount of time in Cambodia during our recent around the world backpacking trip. Seeing the orphans and severely poverty stricken families there really reminded me of this.

Thanks so much for posting on this topic!

Linsey Knerl's picture

I have been in both states, and I agree that while they may look the same from a distance, there is definitely a difference.  The emotional and mental stressors of living in poverty can age a person far more than making the calculated decisions to "do without."

I appreciate you sharing wisdom with myself and the readers!  Maybe people wouldn't be so quick to judge those that choose not to indulge, if they knew the hidden benefits.  Great article! 

Philip Brewer's picture

Thanks, everyone, for the kind words.


Guest's picture

As a Floridian, I can't imagine how she survived August without an Air Conditioner.

Nonetheless, I do admire her determination to Save Save Save! I think nowadays, with all the pressure from the media and the image of a young professional, it is harder for young people to save.

Philip Brewer's picture

It's not so hard, once you accept the fact that you'll be hot and sweaty all the time. (My roommate and I turned off our air conditioning that year as well. We spent all day at an air conditioned office, so it wasn't a huge burden.)

One thing that helped in her case was that the building was old and had been designed without air conditioning in mind. It was just one story, built of concrete blocks, and had louvered windows that let the air flow through while still providing some security.

She (and the other people who lived in that building) all had ceiling fans in every room as well.

Guest's picture

the information and tips in living simple is amazing. i am still single but one time i have no money left ...it is sooo scary. strange that i cannot even support myself...

Guest's picture

Your point about living in poverty as being expensive is well taken.

I'm not sure if this qualifies in living simply and frugally, but I only buy things that I think will last me a long time. I hate to throw stuff away, and I learned a long time ago that buying inexpensively made things turns out costlier in the long run.

I don't mind paying a little more but I expect to wear my jeans for years. I just buffed and oiled some winter boots that I bought in 1998. I research cars with good maintenance reputations because I believe they should well outlast their loan payments on little more than scheduled maintenance.

When you're living hand to mouth, you can't really invest in quality and I think it's almost a penalty.

Philip Brewer's picture

I like to buy to last as well. My best purchase in that category was the winter coat I bought surplus when the work on the Alaska oil pipeline was winding down. I got it in 1978 and I still wear it when it gets cold enough. Most winters I only wear it only a couple of days, because it's really only useful when it gets down to single digits, but I wore it daily for a couple of weeks when it was so cold this past winter.

Some things don't seem to be made that way any more. Can anybody recommend a toaster oven that won't wear out in a few years?

Guest's picture

If you want more durable things, go to the used or thrift store. They're "broken in". These days, "broken in" means it hasn't self-destructed in the first month.

Guest's picture

I like this post. I too, have been in poverty and am now in the "voluntary simplicity", and they are in no way related! I don't eat out much or buy top shelf brands all the time, but that is a luxury compared to eating what ever the food bank can give you. I think being poor at least once in your life is one of the most valuable lessons. (maybe that sounds silly.. but) You really appreciate the simple pleasures in life so much more, when you know what its like to go with out simple pleasures and even necessities.

Guest's picture

I identify so strongly with this post, of course I couldn't have written it better.

I feel I can't get a leg up either. I had a job for a month damn- but I felt middle class and put away at least 40% net that month, to go to old debts. Enuf whining...

What helps is saving a little, even if it's 3 dollars or so. It's the act of saving that helps me, even if it's so little (I know, dont' jump on my back). But getting into the groove of saving just a little is a great habit because when the amounts increase - and they will, but whothefucknowswhen. So, take the change, the coupon rebate, the dollar found in the street and put it in a savings account.

Guest's picture


I found the Delonghi products are very well made. We have a Delonghi space heater recommended by a contractor, and I see they have toaster ovens. So I recommend that as a great brand. Hope that helps

Guest's picture
Jan, San Francisco

This was such a worthwhile post! And important for many to read. I love my voluntary simplicity but realize the difference from living in poverty. My choices have been to stay in an inexpensive rent-controlled studio apartment rather than buying a house, drive a 26-year-old car, forego cable TV and borrow movies from the library, wait in line for free movie screenings, etc. I also love my life! The freedom my simple living allows me is wonderful!

And I also have a Delonghi toaster/oven that's still working beautifully after 10 years.

Guest's picture

Up until a few years ago I didn't really understand depression.
Then I got clinically depressed. In a sense it was a choice. I remember "letting go" of the "normal state" and going into that room in my mind we call "depression." It was at the time when all of us were coming to the realization that the Iraq war would go on for a long time, with lots of death and destruction and without any exit any time soon, and that eventually the forces of tyranny and oppression ( the "coalition" ) would prevail and the Iraqi people would surrender. That's pretty much what has come to pass since that time.
When I got depressed I did the sensible thing ... I went to my doctor and got a prescription. Over the next few months I tried a few different drugs and eventually found one that works for me. Now whenvever I feel depressed I take a pill and it takes care of it for me. I have "chemical normalcy."

Part of my depression was caused by poverty and the pressure to 'make money.' NOw that the economy has deteriorated further I can see a lot of depression in my friends and neighbors. It's an epidemic. I recall how George Bush said "Go shopping!" a few days after 9-11 happened. It was the "cure" for the depression we were bound to experience from such a shocking tragedy. When I reflect on it now, and the realization that 9-11 was an "inside job" created by forces within our own government to justify "endless war" and strengthen the "tyranny of money" those words take on an evil, sinister meaning. "Go shopping" means "medicate yourself with money." It means that when you get depressed you should spend some money and forget about it. Feel better. Feed "in charge of your life" even though you know that things are way out of control. Forget about the chaos and craziness of life and focus on how you can feel better by spending money. You can be "king for a day" when you spend money. Enjoy the delusion. The credit card bill won't be due for 45 days.

Money is the drug addiction of choice for most Americans. It's how we "medicate the pain" of systemic depression and a feeling of powerlessness against the tryanny of our time. That tyranny is money, of course, and the idea that we can't "fight the system" so we might as well "enjoy the spell" money creates for us.

Tell the truth. Do you see depressed people around you? What's causing their depression? Is it money? Is it a lack of money? Is it the syndrome of social dis-connection caused by a lack of money? People don't invite poor people to events. They distance themselves from them out of fear. That's simply more oppression.

It's all US. We are the problem. We are the solution.

We need a new economic system. We need a new poltiical system.

We need to live in the truth and love each other instead of loving money.



Guest's picture

Your post moved me. It's one of the (if not THE) major reasons I moved from America to Barcelona.

All societies have their troubles, but the degree of psychological oppression we face is unbearable. It's true that many Americans have the basic necessities, such as food and clean water, but we're conditioned to think that we're nothing if we don't have the car, the house and the iPhone, too. We're caught in an endless cycle of work that doesn't fulfill, money that doesn't stay in our accounts and material things that don't bring happiness. And then when someone speaks against this futile, brutal system, they're called ungrateful at best and communists at worst.

Today, I live with simplicity. I make enough money to support myself and can afford the things that I enjoy every now and then (a nice meal out, a movie at the theater, a new skirt, taking a train to see a new city). More importantly, my universe isn't centered around money and the material things I have. I find so much more value in the relationships I build with others, the culture and art that I see, and the process of learning to live the life that brings me the most fulfillment.

We as Americans (not all, but many) do not have to live the ludicrously stressful and pointless life we currently accept as the norm. The world is out there and if you choose to, you can find the place that makes the most sense to you.

Guest's picture

Thank you for clarifying this distinction. I had forgotten the danger part, and the higher cost part. For me, the action step is to simplify in order to put more resources into the changes I want to see, such as tree planting in Burundi. We feel better and live better when we don't have it all. But enough is good.