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Voluntary Simplicity is actually a new name for an idea that's been around a long time. I think that it's a nice change in thinking from the rampant consumerism and "more is better" philosophy that we so often see around us. A lot of people think it means giving up all the fun things in life and living a life of enforced poverty. In truth, you can pick and choose the aspects that appeal to you and make sense for your life. One thing we do is scale back our consumption and spending enough to allow me to stay home, and for Trip to work reduced hours, so that we can be home with our kids. It's a choice we made: we spend time on things we believe are really important, but it means we don't have as much money to spend on other things. Trip and I really enjoy using new technology and gadgets - we obviously haven't given them up all together, but we have to limit them somewhat. We struggle with this because for years we have lived beyond our means. We have a long way to go, but we are learning. We are also trying to teach the kids and for them the number one thing to guard against is TV! It brings in a view of skewed reality, a "multiple choice" mindset instead of a rich and varied world. It brainwashes them with ads for junk toys and junk food. And it encourages sitting and staring rather than doing. Below are some books and links that describe Voluntary Simplicity more fully, as well as some helpful links I've found for simplifying my life.

Links for Simple Living and Introspection

Sustainable Gift Giving

I found a wonderful resource at this website: http://eartheasy.com/give-menu.htm and many of my suggestions below are from them. They go into further explanation than I will here

For me, the most important thing to consider when making a purchase are the environmental and social costs that accompany it. For example, I may not ever see the conditions of the worker who toils in a factory with toxic chemicals for pennies a day to make cheap plastic junk which is packed in wasteful packaging that when I'm through with it, will sit in a pile of trash out of my sight. But I can't pretend that my buying decisions don't support these conditions every time I make a purchase. Ideally, we all would buy useful, durable, non-polluting things from people earning a living wage in the kind of working conditions we would want for ourselves. When we buy super cheap (and cheaply made) disposable goods, we are supporting a way of life that harms the earth and exploits the land and many of it's people.

Enjoy non-material pleasures. - music, sports, hobbies, crafts and games contribute to personal development with little cost to you or the environment.

Buy Family Memberships to: zoos, museums, theatres
Trips to a play, a concert, ice skating
Take a Family Vacation
Give lessons: karate, painting, sewing, glass paperweight class, yoga, floral arranging, cooking
Give gifts that don’t have packaging: movie tickets, manicure or massage, car detailing,

The New Jersey Museum of Transportation, Inc. at Allaire State Park - a family membership gives free train rides and support to this local museum.
Pine Creek Railroad Operating Division
PO Box 622 · Allaire · NJ 07727 · USA
(732) 938-5524
Email: info@njmt.org

Home Made:

Altered Books – Crochet ornaments Bath salts
scrapbooking stuff Christmas Decoration Foot rub
Pinecone ornaments Children’s portraits in a frame Tin can pencil holder
Candles Sachet Fireplace pinecones
Cinnamon Ornaments Family History or Memoirs Soaps

Gift Wrap – easel paper with stamped art or children’s paintings make great wrapping paper – red ribbon and good to go!
Add Pinecones, branches, leaves, shells – enjoy a walk with the kids and give part of that experience with the gift.

Services over Goods
Gifts of service require little or no use of natural resources, and are very personal and memorable. The gift of You - your time, energy or expertise are as 'giftworthy' as anything you can put in a box. Massage, music lessons, childcare, car wash, dogwalk, lawncare, tutoring, cooking, gardening..... What do you do for a living? Can you give it to your family?
Subscriptions: Progressive news and magazines, Mothering magazine (my favorite parenting magazine), Literary magazines.

Battery-free Giving
You've heard it before, but it bears repeating. Batteries are a villain in the effort to reduce toxic solid waste, and in the long run they take far more from the environment than the energy they give. True, they are indispensable in many situations, but gift-giving is "non-essential" and a good place to consider alternatives to battery-powered toys and gizmos. I found and gave a wonderful gift one year. A Solar or windup radio – from Restoration Hardware

Young Children

Books Felt fun Capes Scarves
Tunics Mobile Playdough educational toys
Wooden toys musical instruments kites  
heartsong.com Greenleafy Yoga Chart    

Antiques and Collectibles: Value and appeal don't always have to mean 'new and shiny'. Antiques and collectibles have the added appeal of history and sentimental value. Personal gifts tell a story. And because they're "re-used", there's no impact on the environment. Support local environment

Found Objects We all have our little treasures, our discoveries from nature. An unusual shell, crystal, wood burl, arrowhead, bone, shark tooth..... Over time we get used to seeing them and our interest wanes. Pass them on as a gift and they'll be "rediscovered" with enthusiasm, and impart their reminder of nature's wonder once again. Great for young children to give.

Edibles Homemade is heartfelt. Your time and energy, and culinary creativity, are just as valued as that store-bought gift which they may not really even need. Your time spent in the kitchen is probably no more than the time spent gift-hunting online or at the mall. The result is most personal, and easy on the environment.

Pretzels Cookie mix in a jar
Soup mix in a jar Mustard
Cat or dog treats  

Flower Power Gifts you can grow. Unique varieties can be raised in your small home plot, and make interesting, appealing gifts which anyone can use. Homegrown or store-bought, cut flowers or potted plants - the result is the same: eye catching, earth easy and rich with sentiment.

When buying flowers, choose from 'in season' locally grown varieties. The maintenance of greenhouses and long-distance transportation to provide summer flowers in winter can involve significant expenditures of energy, coming from fossil fuels.

"Old" Gold Jewelry The cost of gold jewelry goes far beyond the price tag - when you consider the cost to the environment. Cyanide is a toxic chemical; one teaspoon of 2% cyanide can cause death in humans. Today this dangerous chemical is used in gold extraction operations worldwide. Left over cyanide waste is stored in ponds with thin liners that can leak or break. It is not unusual to have spills of cyanide solution and heavy metal-laced water that can contaminate ground water, kill fish and waterfowl, and contaminate drinking water.
Approximately 78% of newly mined gold each year goes toward jewelry fabrication - rings, bracelets, earrings etc. In the US, demand for gold continues to rise at record levels, with many unsuspecting consumers wishing to fit the image of wealth and status as portrayed by the media.
With over 35,000 tons of gold reserves in the world's central banks, there's enough gold to cover demand for primary metal at the current levels of use for more than 14 years. If our consumption of gold jewelry was significantly reduced, the gold stored in reserves could last us for close to a century. We simply don't need to mine any new gold, let alone with the use of cyanide leach technology.
"Old" gold looks just as good as new. Look for used gold jewelry at antique shops, swap meets and jewelry stores. Many jewelers can also recast new designs with gold supplied from antique or out of style pieces you may have at home.

"Used" Gifts It's time to look at "used" in a new light. Giving a used gift was once out of the question - it made the gift-giver feel cheap. And no one wants to risk offending the recipient. But used gifts are the kindest of all to the environment, as no energy or resources are expended.
There are some areas where used items can be appropriate as gifts, however, and the list grows with the steady accumulation of goods in our consumer society. Used computers, for example, can be refurbished and upgraded. Or consider vintage clothing, books and CD's, bikes, sports equipment, tools, cameras, children's toys and clothes.
If you're still a bit uneasy with the concept, write a note on the gift card. "We know how you love nature......this gift comes to you at no expense to the environment."

Souvenir Buying This reminder when buying souvenirs: Ask before buying gifts made from any animal species which may be endangered, including animal hides, tortoise shell, ivory, or coral. Some of these products are illegal, but still find their way to the marketplace.
If you're travelling and buying these as souvenirs, they may also be seized at Customs upon your return.
Gifts of Social Service Now in its second decade, the Seva Foundation uses your donation to perform the service you select. Their "Gifts of Service" program includes the gift of sight by restoring sight to blind people, clean healthy water, and education.
Heifer International helps impoverished families feed themselves, earn income and care for their environment. You "give" by donating a llama, goat, flock of chicks or rabbits. Thanks to your gift, one more family is on the road to self-reliance.
Make donations. Find out what matters to your friends and family and make a donation to an organization that would be meaningful to them. Many nonprofit organizations rely heavily on holiday gifts of money, stock, and personal property, even insurance to continue their work. Consider donations to a local organic farm or citizen-based environmental protection group, for example.
Share, swap, trade. Start a tool share with neighbors for tools which may not be used too often - lawn mower, power saw, compressor, ladder, paint sprayer etc. Fewer things to buy, and store, for everyone. Swap or trade for goods and services if possible, to save on the manufacture of new goods and packaging, and of course the taxes.
Reduce visual clutter.Try putting things you can live without in boxes and put the boxes in the attic or basement for six months. Then re-open the boxes and keep what you missed.....give the rest away as gifts, or hold a garage sale. Then try this formula - for every new thing that comes in, one old thing goes out. We clean out the toys that are not loved any longer to make room for new toys that might arrive before Christmas and Birthdays.
Recycle wrapping. Look for recycled cards, wrapping paper, and boxes and re-use last year's wrapping items. If you can't find recycled products, buy and recycle paper and cards without metallic or plastic coatings. If we each replaced just one holiday card with an e-mail, we could save 50,000 cubic yards of paper (as long as it isn't printed by the recipient). Donate used cards. We cut little pieces of cute pictures from our Christmas Cards to make gifts tags
Christmas Card Recycling - St. Jude's Born Again Card Recycling Program includes Christmas, Thanksgiving, Mothe's Day, Easter and other special occasion cards as well as postcards. Send your used card fronts that can be attractively trimmed to fit 5"x7" card backs, and do not have writing on the back of the card to:
St. Judes Ranch for Children
100 St. Jude's Street
Boulder City, NV 89005-1618
Energy-efficient lighting. Replace larger, old-fashioned lights with energy-efficient mini-lights. Put them on a timer or turn on only when someone is around to enjoy them. The less electricity we use, the fewer pollutants we release to the environment, such as mercury emitted by coal-burning electric plants. Mercury is responsible for many warnings about eating contaminated fish across the Great Lakes. LED lights use a fraction of the energy.

 Helpful General Reference Links

Book list

  1. Cady, Edwin H - John Woolman NY 1965
  2. Celeste, Gary -Trends 2000
  3. Halstead, Ted - Redefining Progress
  4. Korten, David - People Centered Development Forum
  5. Mazur, Laurie - Marketing Madness
  6. Molnar, Alex - Giving Kids the Business
  7. Moulton, Phillip P. ed. - The Journal & Major Essays of John Woolman NY 1971 p, 49
  8. Reich, Charles - Greening of America 1970 "The plan, the program, the grand strategy is this, dance, seek out nature, laugh, be happy., be beautiful, help others whenever You can:... love and cherish each other, love And cherish yourselves"
  9. Ruskin, John & Morris,William, - The Craftsmen: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine for the Simplification of Life
  10. Whitney, Janet , - John Woolman: American Quaker Boston 1942 (Back to Top)


LIVING DELIBERATELY Pioneers or Pariahs?
Young Adults Who Practice Voluntary Simplicity
by John O. Andersen
Copyright © 1998 John O. Andersen.
All Rights Reserved.

The Simple Living Network On-Line Newsletter, April-June, 1999

John Andersen is a self-employed carpet cleaner in Portland, Oregon. In his leisure time he assists his wife with the homeschooling of their two young children and tutors high school students in math and German. A former Air Force captain, Andersen holds an MBA from Fairleigh Dickinson University, and an MA in German literature from Purdue University. He aspires to become a renaissance man!

A frequent criticism of the voluntary simplicity movement is that many of its vocal members are aging baby boomers who took it up only after having high-paying careers, and accumulating at least partial pensions. Critics argue that such people's decision to downshift is eased by the fact that they had enough assets to make it feasible. The implication is that the choice of voluntary simplicity by younger, less financially secure adults, presents considerably greater challenges.

By voluntary simplicity, I refer to the decision to reduce clutter (possessions, time commitments, etc.) and consume less in order to achieve greater focus. It's not about denying oneself the pleasures of life, but rather replacing mediocre pleasures with better ones. It's about trying to live more deliberately.

More than a few of the books, newsletters, and articles in the past decade on the subject of simple living were written by former professionals in their late 40s and 50s. The unspoken message from these people's lives is that the nose-to-the-grindstone-years are generally a prerequisite before moving on to simplicity. Little if anything is said about whether young people could successfully short-circuit the "mandatory" slog and jump right into a simpler lifestyle. Rather, the assumption is that most people will have to work in conventional careers for a period of time until they achieve financial independence.

Yet, there is a younger group of adults without years of career success and accumulated pensions, who question whether or not they truly have to "serve their time" before plucking the fruit. They suspect that clever thinking and re-arranging of priorities, can unlock the key to a life of wholeness and completeness from the start. It takes a lot of courage, particularly with a growing family, and in the case where there is a high degree of professional competence, to turn away from the more accessible option of career success and consumerism, toward the uncertainty of voluntary simplicity.

Pioneers or pariahs? It depends on who you ask. Young adults who choose voluntary simplicity will have to deal with many challenges. Discussed below are three common ones and suggestions for handling them.

Financial Implications Of Semi-Retiring Before Having Built A Nest Egg?

For most people, early and intentional career abandonment is a whole new kettle of fish. Not only does it often simply a dramatic drop in income, but also the disappearance of benefits such as insurance coverage, paid vacations and pensions.

Yet the potential payoff in inner wealth is what motivates people to take the leap and join the sparse ranks of the young semi-retirees. I suppose in one sense, you could call them "hippies," but that would be too easy. Many of these people are "dropping out" of the career scene precisely in order to more fully embrace (not run from) their responsibilities to their families and communities. It's about parenting with a wealth of time rather than a wealth of toys. It's about demonstrating loyalty throughcaring service rather than robotic consumption. Lower income dictates buying less, but it doesn't necessarily mean giving up the things you enjoy. It means seeking joy through creativity rather than credit cards. Sometimes in the process of re-examining their lives, people discover new interests which they enjoy much more than their possessions. They subsequently decide to clear out the clutter of those less important things in order to make more room in their lives for new and deeper enjoyments.

On a personal note, we've found that our relatively modest income (as a result of being a one-income family and intentionally limiting the number of hours I will work for money) has forced us to make some tough choices. For instance, as a family we value taking annual vacations together. We live on the West Coast. My wife's family lives in England. We want our children to have regular contact with their British relatives and we also have a passion for travel.

Hence, we decided that affording at least biannual family vacations to Britain and Europe is a much higher priority than saving for a down payment on a home, or paying all of the taxes, insurance, and upkeep associated with home ownership. So instead of buying a home, we rent a small place an d put our savings into the vacation fund. We feel good about this choice, and are not uncomfortable with carrying the stigma of indefinite renters. Perhaps in the future our priorities will change and we'll put more emphasis on owning a home. Who knows?

Dealing with health care expenses is another area which has required us to rethink priorities. Without the fringe benefit of complete "coverage" for the family, we've taken a more pro-active approach to our health. This has led to significant improvements in our diet, i.e. less fats, more fiber, fruits, and vegetables, and a heightened sensitivity to the need for proper rest and daily exercise. To protect us from financial devastation due to unforeseen catastrophic illness, we have a major medical policy with a $5,000 deductible. Currently, we are putting $50 a month into a special account that will cover all medical expenses under that deductible.

Though the reality of my daily life currently requires many hours devoted to making money (we are self-employed), I like to think of myself as "semi-retired." At this point I suppose I'm semi-retired in the sense of choosing not to climb a career ladder and only working enough to meet our needs and no more. In a few years when I finish paying off the debt to the former owner of our business, my semi-retirement may mean working for more than just four days a week.

So semi-retirement can be a mind-set long before it's a complete reality. It means turning away from notions such as wanting to "get ahead" -- in a financial sense, or striving to "make a name for oneself." It has to do with living in my 30s like traditional retirees in their 60s or 70s for whom the games of accumulation, display, and status-seeking are long since over. People who aren't trying to "get ahead," enjoy a tremendous amount of freedom to speak their mind without fear of losing anything. They minimize their financial needs in order to spend as much time and energy as possible in more meaningful activities such as connecting with other humans, intellectual growth, and giving service to causes for which they have a passion.

I see semi-retirement as a viable lifelong alternative. Even in old age, as long as I'm physically and mentally able, I can't imagine not wanting to do some work (however small) for pay. Naturally, with age and accumulated savings, I will likely choose less paid work in order to spend more time in other forms of work or leisure. There need not be a sharp division between work for pay and leisure. They can blend together as one whole with the mix changing from time to time to adapt to new circumstances.

Coping With The Loss Of Social Legitimacy

Adults in our culture know all too well that their career largely equals their identity. Those without full-time careers often feel distinctly subhuman. Particularly unexplainable are those who consciously "throw away" their careers for a chance to reclaim balance. Whereas they had once been valued professionals, they suddenly lose their legitimacy, and to some extent become like social lepers. They are no longer listened to, sought after, or called upon. Their peers, on the other hand, continue to rise in stature and influence, often becoming self-appointed judges of their "misguided" former friends who fell from grace because of their enthusiasm for voluntary simplicity

There are a number of ways to deal with these issues. One is to find other "social lepers" who can, through the example of their own lives, re-assure you of your decision to bail out of the career mania.

Another is to share your gifts and talents (which still exist regardless of whether the mainstream culture recognizes this) with individuals in need. I found this worked well for me in past experiences as a part-time tutor. Officially, I'm not a "real teacher" because I don't possess a teaching credential. However, I've successfully taught algebra to enough teenagers to know that I am a good teacher, and those teenagers know it as well. I don't need the sanction of the school district or the state to tell me this. This is just one example of the many ways in which people (who may not get official recognition) can nevertheless share their gifts with others.

Don't worry if you never re-gain your former social legitimacy. Some truly outstanding individuals never do. Yet to the people who matter most in their life, they are deeply valued and appreciated. Ironically, this sort of appreciation eludes many of those who did achieve "social legitimacy," at the expense of authentic and close relationships with family and friends.

Giving children "The Best" On A Tight Budget

Although practicing voluntary simplicity can make it difficult to afford the things which society says our children need to be happy, it can induce us to open our eyes to a new vista of possibilities.

We've never felt like our modest income has "robbed" our children of a rich and varied childhood. On the contrary, we believe this situation has prodded us to uncover much more than we otherwise would have if we could have simply purchased for them the standard "McChildhood."

Our local community is rich with places for learning and entertainment. For instance, we can purchase annual family passes to the zoo, science museum, and state history museum for under $170. We easily visit at least two of those places every month -- there are always changing exhibits, lots of hands-on things to do, and our children love going back. At that rate of use, we calculate that a great afternoon out as a family to one of these places costs us under $7.00.

We're also fortunate to have nearby nature walks, public libraries, a roller rink, a community arts center, and other free or nearly free activities from which to choose. Clearly, we don't have to have a lot of money to give our children the best. A major fear played up by purveyors of insurance and investments is how to finance college for our children. Certainly, those who buy into the notion that college is now mandatory for everyone if they want to be "successful" adults, would shudder at the prospect of semi-retirement before putting their children through.

We, however, take a different approach. For our children, we model learning as a pursuit of passion and love rather than just a means to "get ahead." Along with practical, career-oriented subjects, we make a place for "impractical" subjects such as art, literature and foreign languages that feed their spirit and imagination. If our children choose college, we'll support their decision. If they choose a different path, we'll support that as well. Simply put, we feel strongly that educating mainly for economic success and global competitiveness is narrow-minded and soul-destroying. We prefer educating not only in how to make a living, but also in how to make a life.


Hopefully I've been able to at least partially debunk the myth that voluntary simplicity only works for the well-heeled. I like to believe that it's a viable path available, to a great extent, to anyone at any stage in life.

It all comes down to the desire to live authentically; to align your daily life with your deepest values. Once people fully realize they have the power to do such a thing, there is no stopping them.


  • "Less Trading, buying, selling, but more praying, more watching over hearts, more close walking, less plenty and less inequity. Eleaza Mather 18th Century.
  • "To live content with small means, to seek elegance rather than luxury, and refinement rather than fashion, to be worthy not respectable, and wealthy, not rich, to study hard, think quietly, talk gently, act frankly. This is my symphony." William Henry Channing
  • "I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow of life…" Henry David Thoreau
  • "The plan, the program, the grand strategy is this, dance, seek out nature, laugh, be happy., be beautiful, help others whenever You can:... love and cherish each other, love And cherish yourselves" Charles Reich (Back to Top)


Part of living more lightly on the earth means making diet choices that protect the earth and do not exploit its resources. I have links to some sites related to food and more healthful and ecological diets on my health page.

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Date Last Modified: September 2006