The Voluntary Simplicity Movement

by Kim Edwards


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In the past few years, there seems to have been a resurgence of a way of thinking that has been termed "Voluntary Simplicity." Possibly this resurgence is a consequence of the overspending of the 1980s. While the idea of cutting back spending is by no means new, undoubtedly it's been around for numerous decades, the terminology of Voluntary Simplicity (VS) probably became popular during the 1970s.

This resurgence of this movement comes at a time when consumer debt is at its highest. Consider these debt statistics.

  • Consumer debt is nearly $1 trillion.

  • Personal bankruptcies have averaged over 1 million per year.

  • Student loans total nearly $1 trillion. And nearly 20% are 90 or more days late in their payments.

  • Home foreclosures have roiled the mortgage world for the last 5 years.

Many individuals have found contention with the Voluntary portion of the title. It has been suggested that for some, the title is indicative of the idea that the simplicity in their lives is truly a choice, and not a necessity. The VS movement, however, is viewed by most as the trend toward less clutter in our lives, whether by choice, necessity, or habit.

Recently, I asked the members of several groups the following questions concerning VS:

  • Do different people look at it differently?

  • Are there any predominant schools of thought?

  • How does it play out in day to day living?

  • What's the biggest change that it has engendered in your lives?

  • What's the best thing that the changes have triggered?

As is the case with the individuals participating in these newsgroups, the answers to the above questions varied greatly. Below are some of the responses that were given:

"For us it has been amazing the way people react to some of the things that we do. Some are amazed that we've set some goals and been able to accomplish them (paying off debts, boosting savings - especially retirement funds) and others shake their heads in disbelief that we pack our lunches everyday, walk to work and do things like spend an evening at the library reading instead of watching TV. Personally for me the biggest change has been when I get down on myself I'm able to look back at the things we've accomplished and feel better about myself. What really amazes me is that we've been able to make these changes in just over one year."

"We embraced simplicity out of economic necessity. We left LA jobs that paid well for northern California and uncertain job situations. The biggest change is time. I have more. I spend less time keeping track of, insuring, recording, protecting, cleaning, and maintaining THINGS. I spend less time shopping (never one of my favorite pastimes). I keep in mind the quote I read in this list often: keep nothing that isn't useful or beautiful. Unfortunately, most of my friends are still very much into THINGS. They want to use their precious spare time to shop, go to the mall, buy, buy, buy. They don't understand (or refuse to) that we are not in the mode for $300 dinners in nearby Napa (oh I do miss those) or last minute weekends at the spa of choice. . . . Shopping becomes a form of virtual reality; if you buy the things you need for your imagines lifestyle/activity, then you will have that lifestyle activity. Day to day life: in discovering bulk foods, I learned how to cook. Meals become a family share time rather than TV dinners in front of the TV (by the way, we eliminated cable TV and discovered we had more time for the kids.) Our goal is to be debt free (other than our mortgage). My friends believe that is not possible, and say they envy us. They marvel at how I do it, as they shop for fast food, buy last minute at retail, never plan their meals, or anything ahead, and buy every latest fad. I used to do that. I miss the spontaneity of that life, but not the debt load I carried to support it, nor the frantic pace."

"Interestingly, I am finding that women are the primary impetus in making changes, especially mothers. . . either because they believe in their heart and sole that they must be the ones to raise their children, so they start cutting back spending so they can afford to stay home; or in my case, because we realize once we have a child that it is time to put up or shut up, because children hear what you do and not what you say. I have been thinking and talking about simplicity ideas for over a decade, but having a child is finally getting me to realign my lifestyle so it matches my ideals more. This change is not occurring easily for me, but I know that if I don't change my behavior, I can talk until I'm blue in the face about people/animals/the environment being more important than things but it isn't going to persuade kids who hear and see the opposite message every time they look at the media and advertising, and see the kids and people who are living like that advertising is gospel."

"Obviously, some people never get beyond the tightwad gazette approach to living, and that's okay because every person who is scaling back financially is benefiting the environment whether they care about the environment or not. It's the diehard consumers who are never going to create a sustainable economy/world. Frugal people are living a more and more sustainable life, whether this matters to them or not."

"I am debt free. I left my stressed filled job, cut back and want to do more reducing. It is hard for me with a 10 year old that enjoys the material things in life and they seem to motivate him. Do I have the right to take that away from him? My wife works 30 hours a week and we live off of that income. What is hard is that I've changed and I want to express it but I feel that I am half way in between. I realize the importance of money and want it but at the same time deplore how I have to get it."

As can be seen from the above sampling of the responses that I received, the reasons for VS are as numerous as the ways to approach it. For some, this movement is financially motivated, and yet for others, it is motivated by the desire to get out of the rat race of the corporate world. Whatever the reason behind the VS movement, there is a cohesion and a support structure among its practitioners.

The resources for information on VS are many. There are books (Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominquez and Vicki Robin for example) and numerous study circles.

updated March, 2013


Kim Edwards is a 22 year old Ph.D. student in finance at LSU. Her husband, Jay, is 23 years old and is a Ph.D. student in geography at LSU. She is currently working two part-time jobs and he is working full-time as a GIS consultant. They hope to be finished with our degrees within the next year and a half. They have had to incorporate some of the VS into their lifestyle by necessity. Their goal is to be able to get out of the rat race early and spend our time living instead of making a living.

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