Some federal agencies refer to U.S. households as “consumer units,” an insult that should incite acts of consumer disobedience rather than bargain-day stampedes. Yet, sadly, the term is all too appropriate. Most American homes are codependent with a lifestyle-support-system of roads, wires, pipes, lines of credit, satellites, and a collective identity determined by the supply side. Yet just about any household budget offers continuing opportunities for creating a healthier, less expensive lifestyle that’s also easier on the environment. Because changing circumstances will demand it, we have to re-think the values that shape our decisions and rearrange our priorities to match those values. In other words, reach a new agreement about what constitutes a life well lived. We can imagine a symbolic “flag” flying over millions of homes, signifying that people are assertively changing the patterns of their lives, not just the pieces.
Rather than consumer units, our homes can be units of creativity and productivity that provide a higher percentage of what we need. For example, we can produce rather than consume entertainment, with house concerts or poker games in our own living rooms and backyards. We can be as bold as the current First Family, replacing a chunk of lawn with miniature fruit trees and rows of vegetables. The food we eat can supply both vitality and monetary savings from avoided drugs and expensive medical treatments. (Forty percent of the most prevalent diseases are related to diet, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, allergies, and depression). Some of our transportation needs can be fueled by carbohydrates from the garden rather than by hydrocarbons from Middle East oil wells. By making a few well-researched choices about energy and water efficiency, we can cut our utility bills by a third. With this new, more sensible way of thinking, we can easily imagine avoiding a million dollars of expenses per household over the course of a lifetime, and enjoying many more hours of leisure.
How a Sustainable Lifestyle Generates More Than a Million Dollars of Value
* Thousands of dollars a year avoided for purchases, maintenance costs, and loan interest payments for new cars, gadgets, and clothes you no longer covet because you’ve found other values to be passionate about;
* Thousands avoided in interest payments because you have very little debt;
* Energy, water, and resource bills cut in half because your car is more efficient; you live in a more compact, resource-efficient house; and the things you need are close by;
* Expensive, resort-style vacations you don’t need because you’ve learned it’s cheaper to create your own, culturally rich vacations; and also because you’re more content being home than you were before you changed your life;
* Reduced food costs by cutting restaurant dining in half, since the food is usually pre-cooked and served in huge portions that make us feel bloated; and by preparing food at home that is higher in nutritional value (and flavor) so less food is needed.
* Reduced lawn care, day care, wrinkle care because you convert your lawn to a vegetable garden; you and your spouse alternate staying home with the kids, and a less stressful lifestyle results in fewer wrinkles (and less concern about them).
* Entertainment costs you don’t spend for spectator sports and home movie theaters because active entertainment (playing sports, talking with neighbors, practicing a craft, playing an instrument) is really far more engaging and stimulating.
* Diet programs, equipment, books, tapes, classes, psychiatrists, hypnotists and over the counter drugs not necessary because you’re not overweight;
* No dental problems from chronic soda, candy and cigarette consumption. Foods like yogurt and frequent exercise have been proven to prevent gum disease that can cost five or ten thousand dollars to treat;
* Lower mortgage payments and less consumer spending after selling a house larger than you need. All remaining debt erased with the profit from selling the house).
Though a million dollars in savings might seem far-fetched to some readers, blogger and self-made millionaire Jen Smith can easily substantiate that estimate with transportation savings alone. She writes a blog called Millionaire Mommy Next Door and speaks on national TV about financial independence. In a recent post she asked her readers, “Would You Ditch a Car for $1,000,000?” She begins by telling her own story. “22 years ago, my husband and I sold one of our cars to pay for our wedding and honeymoon. We intended to replace the sold vehicle eventually — after we built up our credit score so we could get a car loan — but as time went by, we discovered that sharing one car between the two of us was no big deal. We learned to carpool, drop one another off, take turns, group errands, walk, bike, take the bus, work from an in-home office, go places together. Surprisingly, 22 years later, we still share just one car.”
Then Jen does the math: the average American spends $9,369, excluding loan payments, to drive 15,000 miles, according to the American Automobile Association. (This sum includes fuel, routine maintenance, tires, insurance, license and registration, loan finance charges and depreciation costs). Jen asserts that by choosing alternatives to the standard 2.28 vehicles per household, her family has already saved a small fortune. And if the family continues to share one car instead of owning two for the next 29 years, invests their compounded annual savings at 8 percent return per year, they’ll save an additional one million dollars. The point is not to “give up” the good life to save money, but rather to redefine the meaning of the good life, in terms of overall value rather than just symbolic stuff.
Photos by David Wann