An email arrived last week from a reader in Canberra. For those of you who don't live here, Canberra is situated half-way between Sydney and Melbourne. It's our national capital and it contains our parliament buildings, the mint, war memorial, the national gallery and library. The city is home to thousands of public servants and people who own and work in the businesses that support them. Our reader, Sarah, writes:
"We have been on a quest for a simpler life since we left Vancouver with one small child. My boss demanded full time work, I had no childcare space (despite a 1.5 year wait list), a long commute, etc. We have greatly improved our lives in coming to Canberra but I want a whole lot more. Life is so serious here in Canberra. It does not make sense to me that our generation has to squeeze ourselves into cities or suburbs with super high mortgages, commuting, childcare, rushing around, etc. just so our children can go to good schools and continue this pattern themselves. I would love to read about your ideas for people with young families looking to escape that treadmill."
It never occurred to me when I was younger that the majority of us sell our life hours for money. It was only when I was older, and much more concerned trying to balance work with life that this strange reality dawned on me. The way we live in Western society is so deeply entrenched most of us never question it. But it is what it is, the majority of us have not been born into great wealth. We have to earn our keep by selling what we've got - our intellectual and physical capabilities and the life hours that go with them.
I am a worker bee, have been all my life, so you won't be surprised to know that I think work is a good thing. I firmly believe that we all should work for what we get in life. But I don't think we should work an entire lifetime. We aren't here just to keep our country's businesses going, we are here to find love, happiness and contentment and to build strong families. Doing that will keep our species and our nations going. So if you were to ask me how to set up a strong simple life that would function well right through until old age, I would say to work hard to buy a home and when the mortgage is paid off, to move to a blend of paid work and home work in a town you want to live. Though I imagine there would be some who would want to give up work altogether when they're established and debt-free, and there will also be many folk who live in the same place all their lives. When you are debt-free and working towards it, your focus would be to reduce the cost of living as much as you can, to make your home a place of production where you make as much as possible, and to keep the traditional skills of homemaking and small farming alive while you live your simple life in, but separate from, the mainstream.
Remember, that you don't have to wait until you pay off your debts to start living a much simpler life. You can start right now if you want to. You need to think about what you want in your life, what your own values are and decide to step back from buying everything you want. Then, by living frugally and paying off debt as you go, you have time to develop the skills you will require when you dive fully into this life. Some of you will pay off your mortgages faster than others but that really is the key to this. To be free of debt and to live frugally, producing some of what you need, while working enough to pay for your lower cost of living.
We all know that life doesn't always go by any rules. If you've never been able to buy a home and are a lifelong renter, you're still well and truly included in this, although your path might be a bit more unstable if you are in a situation when you have to leave a loved home because the landlord has other plans. Buying a home puts more power into your hands but not all of us can do it, or we do it, then lose it. But if you can live frugally then it might be possible for you to go to part-time work too but you'd have to have a good emergency fund to cushion you from the unexpected. We all need that.
From the time you decide to live a more simple life you need to be more prudent and thrifty, you'll learn what you need to know in your particular situation, you'll plan and budget. You have to look after what you own and make the most of what you have. If you have land, use it to grow food. You'll be getting the full value of your land if you can live on it and grow food on it as well. Don't be tempted by fashion or updating what you own to keep up with the neighbours. Make your own cleaners, dispose of all the disposables, make do, cook from scratch, stockpile, and pay every cent you save on your mortgage. And while all this is going on, find the best in every day and be content with what you've got.
Simple life has many offerings but you have to look for them, nothing is handed to you on a silver platter. Yes, your life will be full of activity but there is nothing wrong with that. The work you do for pay and at home will give you the life you want, and it will build character. Most of the work you do at home is worked at your own pace, it's gentle work and it gives you what you need. And as the months turn into years, I hope you'll find the contentment and happiness that can be found living this way.
So to answer part of Sarah's question specifically: I think it does make sense to work to set yourself up in life, buying a home and what you think you need to live well. After setting up with a partner you should be focused on earning enough to buy a home. I think it's best to do that fast with both of you working, and certainly before children are born. But that only has to be done in cities and suburbs if that is the only place you can find work. You may be one of those lucky people who can work from home and not be tied to a specific location. When the kids are born, if you can continuing paying off your debt as fast as possible, while enjoying life as well, you'll have a good chance of being able to transition to part-time work in about eight to ten years, depending on your mortgage. Those early years of hard work and sacrifice pay off when you own your home. Then, if you want it, you could sell your town or suburban house and buy somewhere less expensive, maybe in a semi-rural location where the houses are cheaper, but your still have access to city life when you want it. By selling a city house you'll have enough to buy a rural home and a nest egg to keep you going while you establish yourself.
Many people know from an early age they want more than what city life offers, others get sick of the rat race in mid-life, sell up and go and live in the country. I'm reminded of Duncan and Megan at the Odgers and McClelland Exchange Stores who gave up city life with two young boys and set up in the country town of Nundle. Now they operate a homewares store and if you read Megan's blog, you'll see they're living a busy but very rich life. You can read about Duncan and Megan's story in Slow magazine here: http://www.exchangestores.com.au/nundle/resources/slow_magazine_0214.pdf
Sarah, you must live true to your values and if they don't include paying off a high mortgage, private schools or commuting then you have to work out a plan to move away from that scenario. You don't have to live in any particular place, but you need to have the means to live the way you want to live. Start planning your escape. Work out a plan to pay down your mortgage, put the children in good public schools when you need to and work towards a life that will enrich you. I think it all starts with buying a home. When you have that asset, you'll be able to structure the life you want but don't forget to live simply from today.