Choosing Voluntary Poverty


I have read several articles recently from a variety of sources about green living, reducing footprints, and sustainability. Most recently and perhaps most sadly, I read that 2014 was the hottest year on record. None of the articles, however, have mentioned one of the greatest ways, in my opinion, of creating positive change in the world. Voluntary Poverty is a far more fundamental and effective way to decrease consumption and impact while increasing connection and improving life all around. Our family of four lives on about $7,000 a year (less this year) and our lives are more enjoyable, fuller, richer, healthier, more inspiring to others, and more interesting to ourselves. (Note: for comparison, the poverty level as set by the government for a family of four is around $22,000). This is nothing new of course; sages and mystics have been sharing the joys and even the necessity of voluntary poverty and simplicity for eons. This article is simply my two cents as a modern day American.

Katy in the $30 greenhouse.jpg

Voluntary Poverty Has to Be a Choice

Being poor, for most folks, is truly awful. But that is very different from choosing voluntary poverty. Voluntary Poverty needs to be a lifestyle choice rooted in care for the earth and each other with a great awareness of our serious global challenges and our roles in causing them. And, voluntary poverty is for those of us in a position to choose it. For example, my wife and I are white, well-educated, healthy, American citizens who were raised in loving families. In every way in this time and place we have the world at our fingertips - we were born on third base. And, because we know what our American corporate and consumerist lifestyles do to people on the other side of the tracks - be they in our country or, more commonly these days, abroad - we feel a responsibility to choose another path that is as life-affirming and as sustainable as we can make it while still remaining connected and participating in our native culture.

When I bring up voluntary poverty in groups and talks there is often an uncomfortable stirring among the participants. This is to be expected as we have all been raised in a culture of scarcity, where we are expected to be go-getters and not go-givers, where the “American Dream” and our entire cultural myth rests of the pursuit of wealth, comfort, and satisfaction through stuff. Listen to the news and it is plain as day: being a good American means being a good, active consumer. Many others have told how we’ve gotten here much better than I can. What I can offer is what we do as one family in response to the destructive systems all around us.

Creating Contexts

One of the most helpful tools at our disposal is creating contexts or environments that support how we want to live in the world. This is a huge step in that every time you can alter your environment, your foundations, a context, in your life, you no longer have to rely on willpower to push your way towards a life of greater authenticity. Here’s an example I’ve used before: We live without electricity. It doesn’t come into our home. Our meter has been removed. We have created an environment that starts at zero electricity. Why we do this is, on the one hand, to withdraw support from Big Energy (think coal mining, acid rain, oil tankers, wealth inequality, and so on) as well as limit the amount of cheap electric consumer goods (made in China, out of plastic…) that we’d inevitably welcome if our outlets supplied the juice. On the other hand, we are moving towards more and deeper connection with ourselves and with nature and spirit (the seasons, our natural biorhythms, light and dark, long rests in winter, time outside, plants and animals…). Living this way is so lovely I generally choke-up about it when I share this with others. Oh, and we also don’t have an electricity bill. So, without the switch and the plug right there calling me to use them, I don’t. Just by preventing electricity from entering our home we have brought our lives so much more in alignment with our values. For us this means a huge increase in our quality of life and a much lower impact on our precious earth.

The same is true, more so even because it is so foundational, for choosing Voluntary Poverty as a context. We purposefully do not make much money. We could - we’re both college educated and beyond with a variety of skills and long and successful job histories – but we don’t. With our limited bills, money for our gardens and animal care, home upkeep and improvement, educational opportunities, clothes and stuff for our children, transportation (gas if we borrow a car, the occasional bus and train fares…), bike tires, gifts, books…we make and use a little below $7,000 a year. By having less money to live on (and no savings), a host of feedback loops kick into motion. Here’s a list:

8/25/2015 7:25:53 AM

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2/23/2015 11:45:15 AM

What a wonderful article. I just had a couple questions. First thing that came to mind for me is where do you live? Did you buy a piece of property and pay it off before you chose this lifestyle? Most folks rent or mortgage is going to be way over the $7000 you live on a year. Were you blessed with someone letting you homestead on their land of did you inherit a piece of property? My property taxes alone are $3000 a year just to put this in perspective :) I believe we must all strive to bring back the home economy where all ages of the family live on the same piece of land and help each other out with all that needs to be done. It worked for thousands of years and is still done in many places today!

2/23/2015 8:52:30 AM

We were older before we started down this path, so still have a house and land payment, and a host of medical bills for one child who was born with medical issues. I don't know if we'll ever see the day you describe, although we enjoy bits and pieces of it now, including having tremendous amounts of time for our family. Here's a critical question for us. We live where temperatures are near or over 100 for long periods, with humidity and mosquitos to match. We chose to stay in this area because of the "family" we have built here. We cannot figure out how to afford to go off grid for this area, and be able to keep people and food cool enough. We know pioneers did it, but we can't afford to re-build to take advantage of cross breezes (which honestly don't exist in August, and sometimes in July and September as well.) We barely get by, as many of our resources have been going into animal care as we rebuild our soil, hoping to build permaculture forests for our animals. In the meantime, we've lost many animals to parasites, and weather related conditions. We've built pallet barns, but lost several babies due to an unexpected freeze last year. This year, we stacked hay bales around the outside of some of the barns, but did use a heat lamp in one for our tiny newborns. Between our house and land payments, our animals, and other day to day expenses, it's hard to get ahead enough to re-configure our well, or to build strong enough solar to air condition our home (if we turn off the a/c in the summer, the mold levels soar--we tried that one year). Our house is not large, and was actually designed to be energy star efficient, in terms of it's insulation factor, it's natural lighting, and it's design for taking advantage of cross breezes. Still, we do use electricity. We've learned to cut that need, but not eliminate it. Some of our children are completely on board with what we're doing. At least one is not. Where we live, what we are doing is not even understood, much less respected or desired, by most. There are days we wonder whether the efforts are worth it, if it means creating a child who has become very money focused as a reaction against what we're doing (and the criticism this child has endured because of our choices). Every now and then, we see a glimmer of hope, as this child makes positive comments and decisions that reflect a deeper understanding of our decisions. As a side note, we also have huge CPS issues here, and we've been told we cannot foster children here without making significant lifestyle changes, so I'm sure going off grid would end that option. We have a huge need here to help foster children, so again, we are really torn between 2 worlds. There are times when we are accused of, and actually feel very selfish for the amount of time spent doing what we're doing, when there is such a huge need to help foster kids, help the homeless, etc... where we live. We'll see where we end up on the spectrum. In the meantime, we thank you for your article. If you have any ideas how to go further off grid where we live, on very limited resources (which you understand), please let us know. Thanks so much!

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