Voluntary Simplicity, Step 1: Living Within Our Means

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A lot of people think of frugality when they think of voluntary simplicity. Although frugality can be an important step, it doesn’t mean living poor or in poverty. It also doesn’t mean living with extreme deprivation. Frugality can be developed with both money and time. The goal is to have more of both and to be able to spend them where you want.

It’s easy to go thru life thinking “if only I made more money then I could …” What would you do? Can you find a way to do that now? The reality is, when most of us receive an increase in wages we also increase our spending. You have to figure out how to live within your means right now. The next challenge is to see if you can live below your means slightly. This means you’ll have much more time to spend as you choose as well as extra money to sock away.

It’s a common thought that when you start a process such as this the first thing you feel it’s necessary to do is purge. I’m not in agreement. I think in time you may do this as a natural part of the simplification process, but the last thing anyone wants to do is be told they have to part with things. Instead, start working on changing your thought process. For example:

  • Limit unnecessary purchases. Think about a purchase before you make it. Do you need it? Do you want it? If you need it, is there anything you already own that could be used instead? If you want it, do you love it? Will you still treasure it 5 years later? Are you shopping out of boredom or out of habit?
  • Find less expensive ways to get the same things, i.e. buying in bulk, making from scratch, etc.
  • Be deliberate about how you spend your time. Don’t participate in a full day of events of things that are meaningless to you or you’re doing because you feel you have to. Start doing things you want to do, that bring you joy and make you happy.
  • Spend time (and money) learning skills that will help you to become more self-reliant. Next time something breaks or a pipe is leaking, you could fix it yourself.
  • How do you grocery shop and how do you eat? Are you eating certain foods because you think you should? Could you eat things you enjoy in moderation? Could you grow many of the vegetables and fruit you shop for? Spend where it makes sense and save where it makes sense for you.
  • Find a balance between work and personal time. This is important for emotional and physical well-being.

One of the best places to start is to track your spending. Track everything. It doesn’t have to be an elaborate system, but if you spend $5.00 on a magazine and $3.00 on a coffee this needs to be written down along with your bills, groceries, etc. This will help you understand what discretionary money you have.

I’m a big fan of the envelope system at least initially. Each payday you put money into envelopes labeled for “groceries,” “gas,” etc. Keep money in your checking account only for those items you are writing a check for or have automatically deducted. The remaining money either goes in an envelope titled “savings” or in a separate savings account. If you’ve never tracked your spending before you will probably be shocked how much you spend on little things here or there.

I found that our spending happened on Friday nights. We got in the habit of going out to dinner and running “errands” on Friday nights. The amount of money we could spend in one evening was amazing. Dinner ($50), bookstore ($35), Home Improvement stores ($30 – $130), Target ($45), etc. So although we weren’t spending much throughout the week we were spending most of our extra income in one evening. Debit cards make it very easy to mindlessly spend and not even realize the amount.

I switched to the envelope method to get it under control and show him how much we were spending because he didn’t realize it either. Then, I opened an account as a dedicated “debit” account and I continue to keep a very low balance in it for discretionary spending and gas for the vehicles. I deposit the same amount every week into the account.

It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Pay cash. Don’t use credit cards, they aren’t worth it. Pay cash for everything you can, and if you take out a car loan or a mortgage, make sure you are budgeted to make extra payments. Just because you can get a loan for a certain amount doesn’t mean it’s the right decision to make. I’m sure there are plenty of people who have lost their homes during the hard economic times who wish they had spent below their means.

I’m not sure where I read this, but I liked it and wrote it down: You want to have more time, stop trading it for dollars. You want to have more space, stop trading it for clutter. You want to have more dollars, stop trading them for things that don’t matter. As I’ve written in previous articles, you have to determine for yourself what your frugality looks like. Determine your own priorities and set your own goals.

When you do decide to start purging or de-cluttering, take it one room at a time. Decide with each item if you need it, want it, or are hanging onto it for other reasons. Don’t hang onto things that you may “someday” need. If you’re having trouble parting with those items including clothing, box them up (seal the box) and put them in the garage. Label each box with the date 6 months from the day you box them. If, on the six month date you haven’t gone into any of the boxes to look for items, take the boxes to a local charity. Don’t open them back up, just take them. You don’t need them.

Voluntary simplicity is about deliberately choosing the way you want to live, not just living day to day. It’s being excited about every day and savoring each moment.