Urbanska's ratings have gone up each of the show's four seasons, and PBS just upped her viewership range to 75 percent of the country. "People keep telling me this is just what we need at this time," she says. "They want to get back to basics, assume financial independence and environmental stewardship. For the first time, the culture is saying bigger isn't better. When you are in debt, it's hard to live with any pleasure. People are starting to feel there is so much more to life. Everything you bring into your house becomes a responsibility. You have to care for it, clean it, and ultimately, dispose of it." She sighs. "I don't want to say it's empty to shop, but to me, a great conversation is worth way more than anything I could pull off a shelf."
One of the movement's pioneers is Vicki Robin. In 1980 she and her business partner, the late Joe Dominguez, began running frugality seminars around the country, traveling in a motor home and staying with friends. They donated all their profits to other causes. They later wrote Your Money or Your Life, a seminal book that espoused the benefits of spending less. The Pacific Northwest is one of the movement's original strongholds, and in the 1980s Robin, now 63, moved to Seattle. Today she lives in a small apartment above a garage on Washington's Whidbey Island and drives a two-seater Honda Insight hybrid. "For me, frugality equals freedom," she explains. "I don't have any debt, I know how to live within my means. I am not scared by the economic bogeyman."
"Money doesn't buy you happiness" may be a cliché, but science supports the idea. In 2005 Tim Kasser, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and the author of The High Price of Materialism, with his colleague Kirk Warren Brown of Virginia Commonwealth University, published a study that compared 200 voluntary simplifiers with 200 typical Americans. Though the simplifiers earned an average of $26,000 per year, about $15,000 less than the typical group, they were found to be "significantly happier."
"You hear that in order to be happy you need lots of money or stuff," says Kasser. "That just didn't turn out to be true."
In fact, Kasser says those results suggested that the very things society teaches us to crave—wealth, status, prestige—can actually lead to persistent feelings of depression and dissatisfaction.
"People who pursue intrinsic values—self-acceptance, making the world a better place, helping polar bears—are much happier than people who chase popularity, money, and image," says Kasser. "If you orient your life around personal growth and family and community, you'll feel better."
Consider that even though the average family income has more than doubled since the 1950s, our level of happiness has essentially remained stagnant. "Take a deeper look at what you are really after with all this stuff," suggests Kasser. "Love? Acceptance? Feeling competent? Find more direct ways to achieve those goals. Live your values. In our sample of typical Americans, 27 percent said they'd made a voluntary income reduction already. To me, the good news is that fixing this is something that is accessible to everybody. We can shift our goals."