Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How Much is Too Much? Is the Simple Life a Better Life?

     Recently I've had conversations with several friends about the simple life:  living with less money, less work, less technology, less hassle. It seems to be a very desirable thing right now. 
    One of the friends runs his own business. He's had a rough couple years, starting with the unexpected death of a couple friends, then the lease on the building where he ran his business was unexpectedly terminated, then he had a very hard time find a new one. Finally, a year and a half later, he seems poised to get back on his feet. Time has passed since the loss of his friends and the business is up and running. But he lost his mojo, his heart just isn't in it, and he is having some difficulty making the decisions and commitments necessary to run a successful shop.
     The second guy is doing all right. He owns a nice house, has a good job, and a wonderful girlfriend. But he has always liked to take it easy, relax, vacation, sit by the pool, do some gardening. He is tired of the office politics, the games, tired of the rat race. He has spoken often of buying an inexpensive condo in Florida (apparently, there are some great deals after the collapse of the housing bubble). He went there last week and made a few offers, but nothing stuck. He is ready to retire at thirty-four years old, take his savings, and live cheap. Maybe work at a fitness center, earning just enough to get by, but living in beautiful Florida, a small simple one bedroom place, near the beach. He argues that even though he would make less money, have fewer luxuries, a smaller home, he would be happier, and that is more important. 
     These conversations have led to conversations with my beautiful wife about our lives. We make a decent living, far more than I ever thought we would, and still are sometimes check to check. We don't have a lot of luxuries; we live in a small house with no basement. I drive a fourteen year old car. We don't take extravagant vacations. We don't have lots of jewelry. But could we do with less? Could we be happier? 
     Many of our friends and coworkers, who make the same or less money than we do, have big $300,000 houses with all the furnishings and toys that one would expect and two new, often leased, cars. New computers. Finished basements. Two vacations per year. We don't know how they do it. And they sure don't seem happier than we are.
     Just a day or so ago I was reading in a book about how so many Americans are living beyond their means, thanks in part to successful marketing, inflated housing values that allowed people to borrow against equity that disappeared, and cheap money that was lent to almost anyone by banks that seemed to forget about the risk management part of their function in society. 
     This book was not the first place I read or heard about this trend. My first clue was when I bought my house ten years ago and the mortgage company approved me for about double what I figured I could afford. I have credit card limits of over $30,000, with constant offers for more.  I saw the homes so many friends and colleagues were buying (and now the amount of overtime they have to work). Of course, it was all built on a house of cards that collapsed in 2008. 

Writers of the blog Living a Simple Life
     These conversations, experiences, and other current events force me to ask myself, my wife and family, and of course anyone else who would like to discuss it: Can we, and should we, live with less? Should we raise our children more simply? What would or should we eliminate in our lives to accomplish this? What might we gain from it? 
     It is easy for me to say I could do with less. I could probably do without a home phone, possibly without television, walk more and drive less, eat at home more often, borrow books more often than buy them. Am I prepared to have my son go with less? Really have him live without TV, fewer toys, fewer and cheaper clothes, less of a house? Much of this might be uncomfortable for him as he gets older and attends school with people who seem to have everything. But will the lessons be worth it? Am I prepared to have my wife do with less? She works hard as the primary care taker of our son, and still works two long, hard days each week. Doesn't she deserve to have more?

     Although I complain about not having the money I want, we are doing well. We save a lot towards retirement. We have a high mortgage payment for a small house, but only for nine years. Our being cash poor is difficult now, but is kind of by design and serves a purpose. But for so many Americans, people that I know and love, that is not the case. Sooner rather than later we, individually and as a society, have to make some hard decisions about our quality of life, about what is important and what isn't. We have to shift gears, from spenders to savers, and that might hurt our economy in the short run. But will it make us all happier? It probably will. And it will probably allow the economy to become stronger and more stable; replace the house of cards with an economy built with bricks and concrete.
     Unfortunately, even after learning the hard lessons of our near economic collapse and the recession that followed the last two years, it seems those largely responsible for causing it are ready to get right back to the game. They complained that too few regulations contributed to risky behavior with little oversight, even though they lobbied for fewer regulations. Then they publicly begged for more, and now that Congress is considering it, are back to lobbying against it. It seems nothing has been learned.
     I understand the argument that the grass is always greener on the other side. When I had nothing, I wanted more. When I have more, I want a simpler life. But there has to be a median, a comfortable place where we can provide for our families reasonably without the stress of more, more, more. It is a responsible course, one Americans need to take and one that should be encouraged by each other, government, and businesses to sustain our way of life.


Jen Forbus said...

Lovely post, George.

I won't presume to know what is best for everyone, but I've been living with less for about five years now in an attempt to make my way to being debt-free. It's my goal.

I haven't had TV for 2 years. I have a DVD player and that's been plenty for me.

I don't have a land line phone at my house. I share a family plan with my sister and mom. It works out great.

I've found that is a lot that makes me happy without a lot of expense or "things." My house has A LOT that needs repairing or replacing, but it still keeps me warm and protected. I do what I can at the rate I can.

Less works for me. And while on occassion there are things I'd love to do that aren't possible, I don't feel deprived or cheated. It's all good.

r0k3t said...

What I'm saying is this - You only live once right? - so time is more valuable than anything... I know people who work all the time and have all kinds of crap, gadgets, TV's etc... but what is the point, when you are old you are only the sum of your experiences and not you wallet. I am one of those people who value time over wealth (cause to me time is wealth). Don't get me wrong though, part of that "sum" of experiences is working and contributing something, I look at those TV shows about rich people who do nothing all day and can't understand how they don't just feel completely useless (maybe that is why that engage in so much frivolous high-school-esqe stupidity). All in balance though... blah blah you get the point but still, I think we have lost sight of that as a society, we just want more!!! and in the end what will we really have?

Unknown said...

George, you have a loving family, caring friends, food in your belly and a roof over your head. IMHO, that's all you need.

George said...

Thanks everyone for your great comments. I always find it interesting that the non-political posts seem to get so much more attention.

Rob, I was not, necessarily, talking about myself. I wasn't exactly excluding myself, either, only thinking about what it is that makes us, me, you, Ohians, Americans, people, happy, and suspect it is not what most of us think it is.

Thanks again, everyone.