Living the Simplest Life: My No Spend Life

If you are battening down the hatches because income is tight the solution is to Not Spend Any Money. This may seem obvious but spending can be such an ingrained habit that you don't notice that you are doing it. Money just dribbles away on one small thing after another and then there isn't any. This is an unfortunate truth that may not be a problem on a generous income but becomes big trouble very fast when your income is reduced. If this is you, let me tell you a secret. Discretionary spending is discretionary. Which means you don't have to do it.

I mostly don't spend money because I know I will have to spend money. That sounds paradoxical, but hear me out. This year I have spent $500 replacing all the baffle plates and fire bricks in my broken wood heater. I had a gas leak in my gas bottle fittings last week and am waiting on the plumber's bill for that. While the plumber was here he told me that my gas bottle has been installed illegally and very unsafely and needs to be moved away from drain and under-house access, approximate cost $700, which seems a lot, but at least then the house won't blow up if there is another gas leak.. This is why I don't spend money, because financial emergencies happen all the time. If you have a much reduced income your emergency fund will not be a nice sequestered amount of money on the side that you don't touch, it will be pretty much all the money. You don't touch any of the money, unless you absolutely have to, such as for eating and paying bills.

Now this may sound terrifying and dire but it isn't that bad. I learnt much of what I know about Not Spending from my parents who spent almost all of their adult lives being missionaries and living under the poverty line. They managed to meet all the emergencies of life by Not Spending and I have followed in their footsteps. Ok, so this is the important bit. Not Spending sounds like a grey and miserable life sentence, but I will tell you this. I live a glorious life of much sweetness and many incalculable joys. Our society tries to sell us the line that Having Lots of Money is the best of all possible ways to live in this world, but it just isn't true. Having enough money to eat and pay the rent certainly is necessary, but genteel poverty is a wonderful way to stretch the creative imagination.
One of the best resources I know for living a better life with less is The Art of Frugal Hedonism by Annie Raser-Rowland and Adam Grubb.

This is not a book of practical tips so much as a joyous romp through the philosophy of living on almost nothing and loving it. A very great part of the issue of living on a reduced income is our attitude towards our new circumstances. If we determine to treat it as a game and an adventure rather than as a bleak punishment from the gods we will be much happier and more resilient. Your income is going to be the same if you are cheerful or miserable, so you may as well be cheerful. This is my version of Stoicism 101. Or maybe you are choosing to live on much less so that you can travel or buy that farm in the country or to write a book or work less. Whatever the circumstances, think about the joy you can derive from the simplest life, and how brilliant it will be to stick it to the Man.

Now, how to break that habit of spending? This is easy but it took me years to work out. In order not to spend you have to stop going to the shops. Really. Just don't go. Shopping is not a leisure activity, at least it won't be from now on. I happen to think I am very good at not spending money and I also have ethical objections to buying new stuff and yet, and yet, put me in a shop full of beautiful home wares, a well-curated antique shop, a book shop, an op-shop and I can assure you I will find something I 'need'. And yet if I don't go shopping at all I don't have any of those needs. I go to the park instead where I can enjoy the oak trees without feeling that I have to take one of them home with me. And beware of virtual shopping. Browsing online is no better than walking through the actual shop. Delete all the online shopping tabs and don't go there anymore. Don't watch TV, unsubscribe from all the advertising emails, and don't accept junk mail in the letterbox. Keep your life ad free. I use a (free) ad-blocker that comes already installed with my (free) open-source Linux software on my laptop and I just don't see ads anywhere, and after a while of living like this you lose the 'need' to spend money or to acquire pretty and useless widgets. It takes a little while and it sneaks up on you but eventually you realise that the world of things has quit its hold on you, and then, my friend, you are free.

Ok, so you have stopped buying stuff you don't need, but what about the things you do need, or the things you still like and want even after your long break from shopping and advertising? One of the pieces of advice from The Art of Frugal Hedonism that has really stuck with me is this: you don't have to faff around with budgets or even think about money at all. It is much more creative and radical to treat every single need or want as a challenge to achieve it without spending anything at all. If you need a thing, or have a want, plan how you can achieve it using the resources already at your disposal. Do you have something you can repurpose? Can you swap or barter or hunt for it on free internet sites? Can you do it differently or do without it? Can you borrow it? If all that fails, then you start looking for it secondhand. Using money is absolutely the fallback option in this approach, rather than the first option for the mind to jump to.

And, as the authors point out, this is how we get to live our simplest lives as an adventure. There is so much more story and interest when our furniture gets scrounged off the side of the road or built out of old pallets picked up from the tip. Nothing adds spice to a walk with a friend as much as picking edible weeds as you go for your lunch. It's great to be eccentric. It gives your friends something to talk about.

And speaking of being eccentric, be brazen about being poor. Our society shames the poor, as though poverty is a moral failing. Which is odd considering we live in a Christian culture. Jesus did not say, "Blessed be the rich" although you might be forgiven for thinking that he did from our behaviour. It is time to remove the stigma from living without much money. When friends invite you out for drinks or dinner, cheerfully explain that you have not a single penny to spend on going out, but why don't they come over for potluck? Then when you are tucking into soup and bread in your own kitchen, share about how you have been retrenched and choose to see it as an adventure, or confide how you are not spending any money because you have always wanted to become a sheep herder in Patagonia and are saving all your dollars to that end. If you have friends who can't deal with that kind of honesty then maybe new friends are in order..

So far these posts have been rather theoretical. Never fear, soon they will be getting practical, but we need a philosophical framework to work from. Well, probably we don't, but I love philosophical frameworks so here we are. What I am trying to steer away from is the idea that money is the most important thing. Sometimes we can get so caught up in the story of money being a good in itself that it is all we can think of, especially if we don't have much. Where I am trying to steer this conversation is toward a place where money is just one of the tools to we use to get us where we want to be. A place of enough, of abundance of good things like time and love and friends and meaning and community and a happy earth and kindness. I will tell you this now, although you already know it. Money can be useful, but in itself it is not enough. In living the simplest life we are learning how to step aside from money in whatever small or large ways we can, and to step into another relationship with the earth and each other.

In pursuing my no spend life the most useful resource I have is a willingness to work within limits. If my first limit is not spending money that draws a line around the things I already have and whatever is available for free in my environment. We often see limits as negative, but that is not necessarily the case. Working within limits stretches your creativity muscle and makes it work very hard. Once I would have gone out to buy plants to fill up blank spots in the garden, but now I have learned which plants to divide, how to grow new plants from cuttings and which ones grow easily from seed and I have a lot of new skills and a garden filling up with plants from friends and the roadside verges that gives me a whole lot more satisfaction than an expensive garden from the nursery. Practising the very limited sewing and mending skills I possess has rescued many socks and clothes from the ragbag and given me extra confidence to do more sewing. Making a decision not to spend money has forced me to learn new skills and every time I learn something I realise there is so much more to learn. Life is too short! Why on earth didn't I start this sooner? Making stuff instead of buying it is the most fun I have ever had, and I say this as someone who isn't that great at making stuff.

Making do with what I have is also very satisfying. It makes me treasure what I have, and learn how to look after my things to extend their usefulness. It engenders gratitude and contentment. Once I stepped off the consumer treadmill I realised what I have is enough. It's all I need. And then when sometimes new things come into my life, mostly when people I know offload things they don't want in my direction, it is so much fun. A new to me thing is an event and a joy and adds to the creative possibilities.

Having said all this I do want to make it clear that I do still buy some things. Wine. Sewing machine needles. A jam funnel and jar lifter tongs. A book on Tasmanian fungi identification. An antique Dutch tea caddy for Paul. These are this year's discretionary purchases so far. When buying stuff is a last resort it is something you think about for a long time. It is considered. Well, except for the wine. I find my no spend life a very good, very calm way to live, and importantly, it allows me to live on so little that I can spend a lot more of my life just being, and doing what I love.


simplelife said…
I have that book permanently on my bedside table and read it completely at least once each year. It's like my Bible when ever things feel tough or I feel deprived I just open it and read a page, it's like a reset.
I must say I have fallen off the bandwagon lately and some discretionary things have slipped through. I'm blaming my daughter moving out and the restrictions lifting, both of which have left me feeling blue and a little sorry for myself.
But no more, get back to my frugal ways.
Looking forward to your practical posts, but gosh I love a good philosophical.
Cheers Kate
Jo said…
Kate, hey, you know I am not suggesting that everyone need live like this! If you need to, sure, and if you want to, absolutely, but discretionary spending isn't bad in itself. There are certainly a number of books I would like to acquire one day..
Glad you appreciate the philosophical, and I am sure you are not the only person feeling blue about life going back to 'normal'. There are a lot of things I would like to re-evaluate and I believe many people are going to be sitting with a sense of gloom about business as usual.
All so true! I think one of the most important things, and why people don't want to pursue this wonderful lifestyle, is that they feel they are missing out. Society has taught us that spending is the only way to enjoy ourselves or reward ourselves so for many a lifestyle like this is a punishment. I like to embrace the challenge! I listen to David Holmgren's talks on joining the moneyless economy which is so logical.
Treaders said…
I get the bit about deleting tabs for online shopping - but I just went ahead and ordered the kindle version of the book anyway. It looks right up my alley! And although I took my own breakfast and lunch to work 99% of the time (a wonderful money saver) I was guilty of going down to the cafeteria pretty much every day to buy a coffee - more as an excuse to get away from the computer I think. So on the days when I thought "enough of this, you don't need to do that" I was so proud of myself when I really did have a "no spend" week. And I love those socks by the way!
Anonymous said…
Couldn't agree more! My not purchasing has allowed me to retire and not have to pursue jobs I don't enjoy, for corporations I do not believe in. I am frugal so I can BE! Like you I avoid the shops though, because I can always find something I "need." I work on developing my creativity, and finding new ways to use things.
Will add this book to my list! Thanks fo another wonderful post!
Eliza Henry said…
Ive been on this journey for a while now ,the great thing is you gain momentum, look at items and life a bit different, value & appreciate more. I still struggle to explain this to friends, most people are so "stuff" and consumer focused. Delight in the details and the mundane is my mantra currently.
Anonymous said…
So much wisdom here Jo, the sad thing is it took most of my 20s to really 'get it'! But how lucky that I did, it has meant a more free and joyous life for many years now.

"Money just dribbles away on one small thing after another" - absolutely! I used to have a budget category titled 'miscellaneous' and it could really add up if I wasn't mindful. This year I have been writing down every cent I spend in a Kakebo journal and I have to say, I am hooked. I have always documented my spending in one way or another through necessity, but the difference with the journal is that your spending is divided into columns for essential, optional, entertainment and leisure, and unexpected/emergency. So at the end of each week/month you have a clear picture of what you needed to spend, what you could choose not to spend if you need to save more, and the inevitable unexpected costs. So good for planning.

I love the visible mending on your socks! I've only just discovered visible mending, by necessity as I had some gorgeous woollen socks that needed mending for a second time and no matching wool left. I'm very happy with how they turned out.

Deborah said…
Thankyou for sharing the logic behind choosing how you live and the practical steps to achieve that outcome. Living comfortably requires less consuming and more self reliance. Part of this is developing the skills to make things, cook and even grow food and glorious flowers. Sharing that bounty can increase the range of fruit, vegetables, herbs and flowers available to you.
Learning how to sew, mend and restore things is so important. Self isolation since March gave us time to refine how we live and decide what we want from now on. I suspect many people will be reflecting on what they want for themselves and their families as we move back to commuting, working in offices, childcare and time constraints.
Jo said…
Tiny Toadstool, yes, I think you've hit the nail on the head. Not spending is seen as a punishment, and that is why one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to turn that story around and make it an opportunity instead..

Anna, ha ha, well, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs:)

Patricia, huzzah, a success story for thrifty living:)

Eliza, it's true that it does take time and practice to learn how to live with less, as with any new skill or habit. I really like your mantra, Delight in the details and the mundane. That is my everyday experience. The mundane isn't boring, as it turns out, it is the wonder of every new day.

Madeleine, my parents have kept a budget and tracked their spending every day of their 51 years of married life and that has certainly helped them keep their finances in order. I have tried to do this sporadically , but oh goodness, I am not a details person. But the way I keep my finances in order is to not spend anything, so that also works:) Oh, I do have a grocery budget though, as that is the category of spending that can get out of hand for me if I am not careful.

Deborah, developing those skills is one of the surprise benefits for me of living on less. I am not really a hands on person. I am more of a read the book person. And yet, despite it not coming naturally, I have learnt a number of new skills over the last few years which I practise still at a fairly basic level, but they get the job done and i feel very proud of myself:)

Evi said…
Loving the philosophical framework and looking forward to the practical too!
Jo said…
Evi, on it!
Anonymous said…
Staying out of the shops is excellent advice. And unsubscribe from all the emails tempting one. I will borrow the book, now the library is open again.

You will be happy for me to know I am continuing to take cuttings. And I transferred two azaleas that were being over run by other plants and not at all happy about it. They look to be quite happy.

I am now on the hunt for some impatient, but I think they have gone out of favour. Reading tells me that a mildew has affected older types so I might need to buy a couple of new hybrid plants and then take cuttings.

Jo said…
Lucinda, ah, you have the gardening bug now, and isn't it so delicious to get new plants from cuttings? I haven't seen impatiens for years - it grew wild in the highlands of New Guinea where I grew up, I remember it in everyone's gardens. If you do see it anywhere, it strikes so easily from a cutting, just put a few bits into water until they root. Good luck with plant hunting!
Anonymous said…
Not only stay out of stores but don't look at ads. Once you see something you think you need it- though you didn't think that before you saw it. Use it up wear it out make it do or do without.
Anonymous said…
Lucinda, you should be able to find impatiens again now - well, maybe by spring. A couple of years ago, the common varieties were indeed struck by some fatal fungal problem, and stock was unavailable for a season, although the New Guinea hybrids were not affected. I had saved seed, and was feeling a bit smug, but although they germinated and started out well, within a few weeks every plant was a mouldy mess. However, plants were available again last summer, and were perfectly fine. They are old favourites of mine, and do really well in shady parts of my garden.
Excellent post, Jo. All true!

Linda in NZ
Jo said…
Anon, you are so right. Seeing stuff is just an invitation to whip a card out, and those advertisers know what they are doing.. over the years I have got to a place where I don't see ads anymore - no TV, ad blocker on the laptop, no junk mail or newspapers or magazines. The only place I see ads is on my phone on facebook (which I rarely check) or the weather app (which I check all the time because gardening). I have got to the point where ads seem positively obscene.

Linda, gosh, fatal impatiens fungus. Who'd of thought??

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