"Essentially, I wanted to stop consuming so much. I wanted to let what I have be enough."
Kristen, 37, a good friend, tells me this as we drive to Orlando, Florida. We are headed to meet two members of the Simple Living Institute, an organization devoted to helping people attain happiness through a lifestyle called voluntary simplicity, or simple living, whose most devout followers whittle down their possessions to only what they need to get by. The movement has been gaining momentum recently, advanced not only by the faltering economy but by a persistent ennui many Americans are feeling. Hounded by the nagging suspicion that no matter how many cars, coffee presses, or perfect-fit T-shirts they own, their personal fulfillment remains elusive. Many of us are coming to recognize that time spent watching Real Housewives of Atlanta is not time that buffers the soul. We are experiencing the dawning, sometimes painful realization that stuff, even really cute stuff, in the end is kind of a drag.
"A few years back," Kristen continues, "I was married and doing the country club thing, and I met some friends who were living very simply. I saw how much happier they were than me. They were authentic. I realized then that the endless shopping was not making me happy."
Not even a tiny bit?
"Maybe for a few minutes. But then what? I saw there was more to being alive than collecting possessions."
Kristen gives me a wan smile. She knows I am a collector, that I am drawn to stuff like dogs to ripe garbage. Old things, mostly. Crappy, kitschy, vintage bric-a-brac. Linens. Mason jars. Handknit doilies. Kristen is aware that I have never, not once, passed a yard sale without stopping.
She was once like me, but for the past 14 months she has been teaching herself how to be free of the burden of too much. "How many Florida-themed salt-and-pepper-shaker sets can you own?" she asks wryly. (I stop my mental count at seven.)
We met last year at our children's school. I noticed her immediately. She was wearing jeans and a cotton tank top, her hair loosely pulled back with a gauzy scarf. She looked pretty, bohemian. More, she looked peaceful. We quickly discovered we had more in common than third-grade children: We are both liberal do-gooders. We both enjoy a stiff cocktail. And we are both single moms, a boot-camp bond if ever there was one.
Kristen lives with her 8-year-old twins, Aidan and Ellie, in a stucco cottage in the woods. The house is miniature and remote, at the end of a long unpaved drive. It is 800 square feet, with low wood ceilings and stone floors. The family of three shares one bedroom and two beds. The single bath is the size of a telephone booth. The first time I visited, I was both impressed and appalled. "Maybe you shouldn't have put the house in the dryer?" I teased.
Her new lifestyle has a precedent. "I lived in the woods when I was 21, 22," she says. "I had my own garden. I was really into my nice, quiet, cheap life."
Then she got engaged to a businessman and told herself grown-ups didn't live in the woods, without a television or a set of china. So after she got married, she found herself in a huge home, full of things, which she took great care in placing here and there, while ignoring the signs that all was not well beneath the surface.
The babies were a distraction for a time. Then they weren't. Depression followed. And insomnia. Then medications, therapy. None of it worked. Kristen found herself unable to get out of bed. She lost 20 pounds. Her husband, earnest and traditional, was confused by her unhappiness. After all, they were supposed to be living the American dream.
"I knew it was time to get out when my life started to make me physically sick," she says now.
Kristen realized that to become the person she longed to be, she had to leave her marriage. So, after much soul-searching, she abandoned her old life in its entirety—her spouse, her furniture, excess clothes, collectible salt and pepper shakers—and returned, with her children, to the woods of her youth.
"The day I moved, I brought only my car, a few clothes, and food," she says. "I got to the cottage around 4 in the afternoon and went out looking for firewood. As I made a big pile by my door, I kept thinking, I'm getting my do-over!"
Kristen started keeping a journal.
"I want to explore, to climb trees, to kayak different rivers," she wrote. "I want to continue building strong, healthy friendships. I want to make a difference. I want to sleep on my own. I want to grow spiritually and emotionally. To have more patience and stillness. To be quiet inside. I want to be at ease with myself, to create, to give, to love, and to laugh my ass off."
"So, how's it going?" I ask as we zip down I-95.
She smiles. "So far, really, really good. My electric bill went from $150 to $35."
"You can't warm that place with body heat alone?" I joke.
"You're just bitter because your bill is $500 a month," she shoots back good-naturedly.
"I can do more," she says excitedly. By which she means, have less. Such is the heart of the simple living philosophy: Become conscious of what you genuinely need, and the rest, punt like a rotten apple.
"I do have friends who just don't get what I'm doing," she says with a shrug. "Many of my friends from my old life think I'm a little nuts. But my true friendships are getting much deeper. The other people who do this, we make time for each other. We care about community. We volunteer. We create time to do the things we believe in, in lieu of just mindlessly accumulating."
Instead of shopping, Kristen now gardens. Instead of buying new clothes, she trades with friends. Instead of racing to get her kids new bicycles from a big-box store, they prowl the thrift shops until the right one turns up.
"I also stopped dyeing my gray hair, which has mortified some of my girlfriends," she says, laughing. "I don't care. I don't want to spend time altering myself anymore. I want to be happy as I am, with who I am and what I have."
"Me too," I think. I'd like to feel cage-free, unburdened. Minus the gray hair—I draw the line at voluntary aging.
The notion of voluntary simplicity has been around for centuries; see: Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, the Shakers, the Amish. In 1936 a Quaker named Richard Gregg published an essay titled "The Value of Voluntary Simplicity," thus coining the term. Over time the concept evolved into a movement, though it remained a fringe lifestyle. But 2008 was something of a perfect storm for the voluntary simplicity movement. The mortgage crisis, the banking meltdown, the spike in gas prices, and the unfettered baking of our atmosphere has led an unprecedented number of folks to put down the credit cards and start thinking about plan B. According to Wanda Urbanska, 52, the amiable host of PBS's Simple Living with Wanda Urbanska and the de facto Martha Stewart of the voluntary simplicity movement, the lifestyle is gaining mainstream appeal. At least 10 percent of the population, by some estimates, have embraced the tenets of living simply.
"This isn't a fringe thing anymore," Urbanska says from her home in Mount Airy, North Carolina, considered a simple-living hot spot. "There is a shift going on. When I first started talking about this in 1992, I was seen as a wacko zealot. Now simple living is fashionable."
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."
Other voluntary simplicity advocates are seeing similar results. "This past year, more than 100,000 people have expressed interest in the tenets of simple living," says Carol Holst, cofounder of Simple Living America, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that offers advice for people looking to "find the satisfaction of enough."
"We take the stand that you can be fulfilled without things," says Holst. "Once you reach that conclusion for yourself, life really changes. What used to seem empty and futile becomes joyful and exciting."
She reiterates that this is voluntary simplicity. "Listen, if there was something I really wanted, I'd do it," says Holst. "No guilt. Ed Begley Jr. jokes about how this movement isn't about living under a rock in Topanga. It's about feeling satisfied, not deprived. About filling up, not emptying out. Our approach is to empower the individual. There isn't any finger-wagging. This isn't a high bar. It can vary greatly, depending on your needs. Maybe you stop watching television. Maybe you join a gardening club."
Or maybe, like Kristen, you flush your whole past down the composting toilet.
The Simple Living Institute's Econ Farm is a five-acre parcel in the central Florida woods, about 40 minutes from Walt Disney World. A marshy woodland thick with mangroves, moss, and wild ferns, it's named after the Econolockhatchee River, which flows through the land. This is where Tia and Terry Meer help spread the simple living gospel. The couple has just finished building a 1,024-square-foot log cabin, where they intend to become as close to self-sufficient as possible. Harvesting rainwater and solar power. Eating food they farm on the property and bass they catch in the river. The Meers already grow a lot of what they consume. "The first thing we did was put in 50 blueberry bushes," says Terry, a lithe, apple-cheeked blond who smiles as he talks. "Then orange, lemon, and lime trees."
Terry, 34, and Tia, 29, met in college in Florida and formed an instant bond. After graduation they moved to Hawaii, where Tia, who was raised on a family farm in Pennsylvania, became a gardening consultant while Terry designed solar-energy systems. They ate papaya picked from trees, biked to Waikiki Beach, and "had a very simple island life," Terry says.
In a way, the Meers have re-created a version of that life in central Florida. They built the cabin from a kit. Costing only $50,000, it is a no-frills square structure held aloft by stilts and built of sustainable materials, with shelves and counters found on Craigslist or at the local "freecycle" site. They don't use air-conditioning, yet the space remains cool and breezy.
"Our next-door neighbor pays $400 a month for electricity," says Tia. "Our bill is about $30." Their grocery bill is equally lean, about $100 a month (which may explain why they look as fit as greyhounds).
The Meers do not own a television. They have reduced their possessions to what can fit comfortably in a few duffel bags. They ask for nothing at Christmas. "I grew up on a houseboat," says Terry. "On a boat you really see how little you need very quickly. Everything has a purpose. There isn't space for anything else."
Yet in the quest for less, compromises have to be made. The couple wanted to run their appliances on solar power. But since the county required them to install electricity in order to get a certificate of occupancy, they spent their budget to meet the mandate and plan to convert to solar later. "We weren't allowed to be off the grid," Tia says. "We couldn't use our own water exclusively. We had to clear more trees than we wanted. It was disheartening. It conflicted with the whole concept of the house."
Tia and 11 other community members started the nonprofit Simple Living Institute in 2002. Its mission: "to provide cooperative education empowering individuals and organizations to be responsible stewards of their well-being and the environment." They hold workshops and educate people about organic gardening, worm composting, and alternative energy. The group has about 1,000 people on its e-mail list, and a recent Simple Living Kids' Festival saw 32 families racing around the Econ Farm, gleefully looking for raccoon tracks and snake skins.
"Economically, people are starting to understand the benefits," says Terry of the voluntary simplicity movement. "I had lost hope for a while there, to be honest. But now I see people coming around. They understand that if you don't have clean air or water or soil, money isn't worth a whole lot."
Over lunch at Tia's sister's vegan restaurant near downtown Orlando, I notice Tia's flawless skin and enviably radiant hair. I want to ask if showering with rainwater or eating homegrown grapefruit keeps her looking so fresh, but I don't want to appear superficial. So instead I ask her what voluntary simplicity means to her.
"I want to live in a way that preserves the Earth for future generations," she says, picking up a spinach leaf from her salad.
"We are making these choices consciously," Terry adds. "But I think in the future, people will have to make some of these choices whether they want to or not. I feel very good being able to go out into my garden and pick dinner or catch a fish. I don't have to spend money or time driving to a grocery store. Once you simplify and localize, you save so much. And in these troubled times, people see the logic of that approach."
Today Terry owns his own company, Alternative Concepts and Technology. He installs solar panels and makes $40,000 a year. Tia works in habitat restoration and makes $24,000. Their bills, including student loan payments, health insurance, and food, run about $1,500 a month.
"I've never liked money," says Terry. "I'm happier when I'm not spending it. I've never been motivated to make it. That's why we built our house ourselves. No mortgage. Our retirement is what we are doing: the location, the cabin, the fruit trees. They'll grow as we grow."
To Tia and Terry, the cabin represents the ultimate sovereignty, a true test of self-reliance, and a chance to spread the word. Kristen finds the whole visit inspirational, especially the talk of "humanure"—human waste recycled as compost. (That this portion of the conversation happened over lunch distressed no one but me.)
"It comes down to a personal philosophy," Terry tells Kristen as he crunches on an organic blue corn chip. "You don't need to have as much as you can get. People work 50 hours a week to afford all this stuff. But you end up with only an hour to spend with your kids or your wife. That's not living; it's living to work. I'd rather harvest sweet potatoes than work all day at a job I hate."
I ask the Meers if either one of them was ever tempted to buy an item they didn't need. They look at me with something akin to pity.
"I worked at a convenience store once," Terry offers helpfully. "That hurt."
"We drive a pickup truck," Tia says, head lowered. "Cars are our biggest vice."
"In the future, we're going to build a garage with solar panels on top so we can plug in an electric car," Terry adds quickly. "I mean, that's the long-term goal."
It's dinnertime when we leave the Meers' cabin. Kristen and I decide to find a hotel. We have not made a reservation, preferring the enlivening randomness of spontaneity. After all, this is Orlando, a tourist Mecca. Finding a modest hotel should be as easy as crossing the street. Ninety minutes of interstate driving later, we grasp our misjudgment.
"I do want more meaning in my life," I think. I do crave the freedom of less. But right now, I am exhausted. I stink of marsh and hummus. And I have to pee. I am a single mom, riding with another single mom, on possibly the only free night we will have for months. "Call information," I tell Kristen. "And ask for the address of the nearest Ritz-Carlton."
Kristen shoots me a look.
"You'll get a bath!" I add. "With bubbles. And wine."
She dials. With gusto, I might add. It occurs to me that sometimes the simplest thing to do is to treat yourself.
The next day, back in her tiny cottage in northern Florida, Kristen has decided to unload even more furniture. The space feels crowded, she says. And how many places do you need to park your butt, anyway?
"Depends on the butt," I say.
Kristen squints and hands me a chair. She says she has been having a struggle with her daughter, Ellie. She has told Ellie all about the importance of soil, of reducing waste, of the impact on the environment, about consumerism. "But you know, those are pretty big concepts for an 8-year-old. Especially one who only really wants new school clothes."
Even so, Kristen is confident she made the right choice for her family. "At first there was a lot of 'I'm bored.' They didn't have their own rooms, or a million toys, or computers. But since then, we've found games to play, we go for walks, we talk more, we lie in bed and draw, we are literally closer together."
Kristen is also healthier. No more sleeping pills. No more antidepressants. Her journal wish list is coming true.
And then there are the nights when she cooks dinner and, through her open windows, hears the sound of her children running in the woods, the piercing, manic joy of kids throwing stones and kicking leaves and squealing at ghosts behind every windblown tree. "When I hear them playing outside, I think, "This is exactly what I wanted. This is the experience I was looking for."
She runs her fingers through her short, graying hair. Her face is calm, relaxed.
"Some people say one person can't make a difference, but I like that expression about how throwing one sea horse back in the ocean makes a big difference to that sea horse. I wanted to sleep at night knowing I'd done my part."
She smiles, wistful for a moment. "I do miss sleeping in my own room."
"That would certainly make some things simpler," I say with a wink.
We laugh. And then the two of us walk outside to the garden, talking about whether or not we'd have sex with Bill Maher, and winter flowers, and what sort of old ladies we'll be, all the while consuming nothing but the easy joy of each other's company.
An updated version of the classic Your Money or Your Life: 9 Steps for Transforming Your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Success (Penguin), by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez with Monique Tilford, tells you how to "reorder material priorities and live well for less." It debuted in December, just in time for the Great Recession.
In Simple Living: One Couple's Search for a Better Life (John F. Blair), Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering detail their shift from hard-charging city dwellers to laid-back owners of an apple orchard.
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life that is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich (Quill), by Duane Elgin, one of the movement's pioneers, thoughtfully argues for the benefits of a less consumptive lifestyle.
Secrets of Simplicity
In the workbook-style Secrets of Simplicity: Learn to Live Better with Less (Chronicle), organization expert Mary Carlomagno helps you eliminate excess stuff and stress.
Get Satisfied: How Twewnty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough (Easton Studio), edited by Carol Holst, presents inspiring case studies of simple living converts. The message: if they can do it, so can you.