Lighten Up: Living on less

Once upon a time, Richard and I had two actual incomes (well, okay, we had his consulting income and my freelance writing income, which is more like one and a third actual incomes). We weren’t wealthy by any means, just comfortable enough to not have to worry, a very fortunate place to be.

Nor were we spendthrift–at least not measured against Americans’ general rates of consumption: we didn’t accumulate debt building our moderate-size home, we always paid our credit card bills in full at the end of each month, and we owned our vehicles, of which there weren’t many. We didn’t buy a lot of stuff–we still have no television, for instance, although between the two of us, we do own three laptop computers.

Where did our money go? Savings, mostly to a very personal investment: purchasing the half-block of formerly decaying industrial property where we now live and building our passive-solar house on the pay-as-you-go-plan, plus restoring the adjacent block of degraded urban creek and the native dryland meadow yard… (That’s our front yard in the photo above.) We also contributed generously to organizations we thought were making the world a better place.

“Once upon a time” is no longer. Richard followed his heart from economics to sculpture, and then came the cancer years, beginning with the “beautiful carcinoma” discovered in his bladder in April, 2008, and the even scarier journey with brain tumors beginning in Fall, 2009. I kept busy with freelance writing until after his first brain surgery, when caregiving began to take up more of my time and creative energy. After the second brain surgery this past August, and my mother’s diagnosis with Alzheimer’s disease a month or so later followed by her entry into hospice care at home, earning an income fell to last place in my to-do list. 

So as our household income has contracted rather dramatically–and no, I’m not whining here, that’s just life–we’ve been drawing on our savings. And learning to live on less. A lot less.

Unlike a lot of folks, we’re lucky. We own our house, along with the raised-bed kitchen garden that  provides our veggies and fruits in season. (That’s the kitchen garden above.) We’ve got savings. And we’re finding it’s not as hard as we thought it would be to learn how to be frugal. Frugality is different for everyone, because we all value different things. Still, here are some basic tips for learning to live with less:

1. Don’t let your stuff define or own you. Stuff is expensive in all sorts of ways. The less stuff you have, the less you spend on it and the less money you need to earn. For instance, we don’t have a television, so we’re not pestered by commercials that remind us of what consumer goods we lack. When I want to be entertained, I read a book. Or take a walk, or work in the garden, or cook something, often with food we’ve grown ourselves–all cheap to free pursuits.

2. Keep your housing costs affordable. Downsize or right-size to save money and time: the smaller your housing payment, the more financial freedom you have. We knew our income was not dependable, so we invested our money in purchasing this property and building our house, rather than getting a mortgage. It took us six years to get to the point we could move in and the interior still isn’t finished, but oddly, that’s not what visitors notice: they ogle the gorgeous views, the built-in sculptural touches, the art on the walls…

3. Be energy-efficient. Our house was designed to be cheap to keep: It’s heated largely by the sun in winter and cooled by down-valley breezes in summer, which means essentially no heating or cooling bills. As a bonus, the expanses of glass that admit winter sunshine for heat also connect us visually to the out-of-doors, a source of emotional and spiritual nourishment.

4. Do your inner work: Find and follow your bliss. When things got tough with Richard’s brain cancer, I realized that I could either care for him or make more money writing. Hmm. That wasn’t a hard choice. If you’re happy with who you are and what you’re doing in life, how much money you have is much less important. Beyond the essentials, how much money do you really need? Not as much as you think, I bet.

5. Be generous. Share what you do have, whether that’s time, talent, love, or even money. You’ll feel immensely richer for it. We certainly do.