A friend and I were talking the other day about jobs and money (actually, we were whining about our jobs and money) and he brought up the concept of Voluntary Poverty. I’ve never heard of voluntary poverty outside of certain orders like monks and nuns, so I asked him to explain.
Turns out that there is a movement of people who seek to escape the need for money by assuming a life of poverty. The dictionary defines poverty as, “lacking sufficient money to live at a standard considered comfortable or normal in a society.” When we think of poverty, we think of people who cannot afford the basic necessities of life such as adequate food or shelter. In most cases, we associate this condition with unfortunate circumstances such as job loss, disability, illness or a lifetime of money management problems.
The people to whom my friend was referring defy the dictionary definition of poverty in one crucial way: They do not lack the money to live at a standard considered normal in society. Most have quite healthy stores of money and have the full ability to get and retain good, high paying jobs. They simply choose not to live according to the normal societal standard. My friend made it clear that voluntary poverty participants do not rely on government assistance. They choose instead to get by on their wits and ability to do for themselves. They recognize that this is a choice for them and do not take resources away from those who truly need them. Their lifestyle has some things in common with what we commonly term frugality (buying less, using less, reusing everything possible, etc.) but goes beyond frugality into true deprivation and sacrifice.
These people frequently choose not to have homes, opting instead to “squat” in vacant buildings and homes. By squatting they avoid taxes, insurance, rent/mortgage payments and utilities. I asked my friend if they don’t get into trouble for this, as squatting is against the law in most places. He said that if they get caught they will get in trouble but in most places the “punishment” is simply to be asked to leave. Rarely are criminal charges brought unless they inflict damage on the property. Some squatters actually fix up the properties they squat in (as more of a hobby than a public service), leaving them in better condition than they found them.
Those that don’t squat may find other like minded individuals and rent a house or an apartment but put so many people in it that the rent and utility bills per person are negligible. Again, this is a questionable practice if there is an occupancy limit on the dwelling but, as with squatting, the punishment is rarely more than asking the “extra” people to leave.
Some solve the housing problem by constructing a very tiny, simply appointed home on land that they or someone they know owns. In doing so, they don’t escape the burdens of taxes, utilities and insurance, but they do keep these and their other needs well below the “norm.”
Most do not keep cars, relying instead on walking, public transit, or perhaps a bicycle for transportation. In doing so, they avoid taxes, insurance and car payments. They tend to eat very low on the food chain, mostly beans, rice, soups and the like. Voluntary poverty participants are likely to be devotees of the “Freegan” lifestyle and hunt through waste baskets for perfectly good food that has been discarded from restaurants and stores. And, of course, they don’t shop very often, if at all. When they do it tends to be in thrift or surplus stores. What they own tends to be only what they can easily carry since they spend a lot of time on the move. They aren’t burdened with useless items and the associated maintenance and payments.
So why would one do this? Why intentionally live like a homeless person, always on the move and without what society considers adequate food and shelter? For some it’s a political or moral statement. It’s a way to buck the system. They prefer not to be controlled by the government and the trappings of modern life. They opt out of “the system,” choosing to live off the grid and away from the interference of the government agencies and bureaucracies that complicate everyday life. Some want to be free of taxes because they don’t like what the government does with the money. Some no longer believe that the government serves their best interests so they prefer to go it alone, demanding nothing from the system but contributing nothing, either.
For others it’s an environmental statement. They don’t like the waste being produced by the consumer society so they opt out, choosing instead to live on the discards of others. They feel that their lifestyle creates less waste and pollution than a “typical” lifestyle and better supports their commitment to the environment.
For others it’s way to be free of work that they don’t enjoy so that they can have more time to do the things they want to do. Some were previously trapped in cube farm jobs they hated so they could make the big mortgage payment, pay for the swanky car, and buy the latest gizmos. They reached a point in their life where they decided to get out, opting out of the cube farm job and turning to a life where money was not as necessary. They may still work, but it’s likely to be on an as needed basis, or when the opportunity to do something interesting turns up. They may experiment with different types of work without fear of losing a job that they need. Rather than steady work, they may volunteer for causes that are important to them. Voluntary poverty gives them time to do things that are important to them, without worrying about where the money to make the next payment is coming from.
Some see it as a chance for a little adventure and freedom. For these people, voluntary poverty is not a permanent choice. They may assume the lifestyle for a time in order to see what it’s like, to wander aimlessly, or to determine where they want to go next in life.
When my friend was finished explaining voluntary poverty, my first reaction was, “What a stupid thing to do.” But the more I thought about it, I decided that this was the wrong attitude. I decided that, while the lifestyle doesn’t appeal to me (I like my comforts a little too much), there are lessons to be taken from such a life and I shouldn’t judge others so harshly. I encourage you to do the same. Before you rush to judge the lifestyle, take a moment and think about the lessons we can all take from voluntary poverty.
1. While voluntary poverty takes it to an extreme, there is nothing wrong with learning to live with less and waste less. Maybe we can’t all get our belongings down to what we can carry, but do we need so much stuff? We can all ask ourselves what we really need to live and what makes us happy and make purchasing decisions from there, rather than just mindlessly buying stuff. Doing so will probably improve our finances and cut down on the amount of stuff we throw away. A reduction in waste and clutter is good for us and the planet.
2. Learning to do more for yourself and finding new ways to do things is a good thing. Sometimes our society turns us into cripples by making us think there’s no way to get what we need without going through “the system.” If you want power, you have to go through a utility, right? Not necessarily. You can go for solar or wind alternatives. If you want food, you have to go to a store, right? Maybe not if you can grow some of your own or join a co-op. Or, if you’re not averse to such things, you can try the Freegan approach and go dumpster diving. If you need clothes you have to go to the mall, we think. Well, if you can sew you can make your own or you can buy or trade used clothes through a variety of sources. There are plenty of alternative ways to get what we need (and a good bit of what we want) and learning a few of them makes you a more self-reliant person. In many cases, these alternative methods cost less than “the system” does, thus reducing your cost of living.
3. Working less never hurt anyone. In this country we are slaves to our jobs and careers. But yet we also complain incessantly that we have no time to do the things that are important to us. If we didn’t need as much money to live, we could work less and use that time for more important pursuits such as family time, hobbies that enrich our lives, volunteer activities and travel. The key to this dream is learning to require less money. As long as you have a lot of debt and expenses, you will have to work harder and harder to make the money to pay for them. But when you require less money, you can work less.
4. It shows us that it is possible to reduce our dependence on money and still survive, in some cases quite comfortably. We all sometimes say things like, “Oh, I can’t live without TV,” or, “I’d die if I couldn’t have my favorite meal out once a month.” But go without these things for a period of time and you are likely to find that better things have taken their place. Instead of TV you read more or play with your kids. Instead of eating out you discover the joy of cooking and get healthier. The truth is, it is possible to reduce expenses and consumption and still survive. As long as you are willing to think beyond the mainstream and try new things, it is possible to live, and even thrive, on much less than you are accustomed to.
5. There are mental health benefits to reducing consumption and dependence on the system. How many times have you been stressed out or angered by your job or boss, yet you cannot walk away because you need the money? How many times have you been driven crazy by the slowness of the DMV or come close to strangling the government bureaucrat who says, “I can’t help you, try down the hall.”? How many times have you worried and fretted late into the night because you owe a large amount of money and have no way to pay it? If you didn’t have a car, you could eliminate the DMV. If you didn’t have a lot of credit card debt or a mortgage you can’t afford, maybe you would sleep better and be able to tell your boss to kiss off. Reducing consumption and your dependence on the government or bureaucracy leads to less stress and an improved mindset.
6. There is something to be said for being a little bit freer. Here in America we live in the “Land of the Free.” But are we really as free as we think we are? We are controlled by our debts and our lifestyles. We owe money on our homes and we are not free to shirk that obligation without consequences. We are slaves to our jobs that give us the money to pay for our homes, cars, and goodies. Some of us are controlled by our homeowner’s association that says our home must be painted a certain color. We are controlled by utilities that set the rates for our power and water usage. We are controlled by governmental policies and procedures every day. While most of us can never escape all of this completely (and it could be argued that some control is good and necessary), there is nothing wrong with trying to reduce your dependence on these systems and increase your freedom.
Voluntary poverty isn’t a lifestyle that will appeal to most of us. Most of us prefer more comfort, security, predictability in our lives. For some of us such a lifestyle can never be a consideration because we have kids, dependent parents, or other issues that make it impossible for us to just chuck it all and live outside the system. I’m certainly not advocating that we all rush to embrace voluntary poverty, but there are lessons to be taken from those who have chosen to voluntarily reduce their needs to a level considered “sub-standard.” Think about those lessons and what else voluntary poverty might have to teach you about reducing waste, consumption, debt, and dependence, while increasing freedom, choices, and self-reliance.
Image courtesy of moominsean