Living well on less

4 May 2009
The global economic crisis is effecting my family personally. My son Shane and his soon-to-be wife, Sarndra, both left their jobs six weeks ago to travel to New Zealand for a holiday. They're back now and although they've looked everyday, there are no jobs to be found. Online job ads have fallen 50 percent, bankruptcy in America has been predicted to increase 50 percent this year and there are record job losses in most Western countries. My guess is that many people are finding it very tough going at the moment. Just this week I've had four emails asking about living on one income and one from a lady whose marriage fell apart because of the pressure of working to pay a high mortgage. So let's focus on living on less again. With the changing economic climate, there may be new ideas evolving and people willing to share how they're living a good life with less money.

I have written about this subject before and my feelings now are similar to back then but I want to write today about changing attitudes, which I think can be very difficult to change. Difficult but not impossible.

If you are trying to live on less and have decided to live a more simple and frugal life, then do it wholeheartedly. Stop trying to impress with what you own, stop being impressed by what others own. I have to admit, this is easy for me to do. I grew up in an age before products and possessions began to own us. Back then, unless you were born into a wealthy family, you worked hard for what you had and you made much of it yourself. There was usually one bread winner in the family and the other person, usually the wife, stayed at home to raise children, but also to make most of what the family needed. There were no department stores with row upon row of cheap Chinese imports. If you needed a new dress, you either got a hand-me-down from someone in the family or you would go to the haberdashery store and buy cloth to make the dress yourself. There were no skin care products to buy then, and few cosmetics apart from lipstick and foundation, and the only perfume you would smell in the course of the day was when someone had used perfumed talcum powder. Appliances weren't upgraded as a matter of course. You bought the best quality you could afford and repaired it when it broke down.

Back then, if you needed soap - you made it. If you needed bread, you made it. If you needed jam or a meal or curtains or clothes, you made them. When you furnished your first home, you were either given old family furniture or you would make do with shelves made with bricks and planks of wood. Not that you had much to put on the shelves - maybe a small black and white TV in a grey plastic case and some books. Everyone's father had a metal shoe last so he could repair the family's shoes. This would be done by shaping a piece of leather for the sole of the shoe and tacking and gluing it on to reattach the top of the shoe leather to the sole. A worn down heal was built up again with several layers of leather cut to size. Back then, people took pride in their homemaking and repairing skills. Women and men in the neighbourhood swapped tips on how to make do, reuse and repair almost everything. It was a matter of pride to be able to keep the family going on very little money and to still keep them healthy and happy.

Back then, one family member, usually the husband, worked for enough money to live frugally, and the wife worked at home to make most of the family's needs. Now, usually both partners work to make enough money to pay someone else to make what is needed and wanted, and the skills of homemaking, home maintenance, gardening, knitting, dressmaking, and the fine arts of embroidery, lace making and crochet are almost lost.

So you can see that I, and people my age, have grown up with a different set of expectations. We have seen families and communities working together in a more holistic way. We have seen the outside worker bring in enough money to pay for life's necessities that cannot be home produced. We have seen the homemaker in a much more active and significant role than s/he currently enjoys. We know it works. So when I readjusted my own lifestyle to live more simply and to better reflect those old ways, it was easy for me because it was already part of me.

One of the things that is needed now is to overcome this sense of entitlement that many people feel. They see others with fine houses and possessions to fill them, they think that is "normal" and they should have it too. If truth be told those fine houses have probably burdened their owners with a mortgage that they will work their entire life to pay. The house and possessions own those people. The main focus of their lives will be to pay for their possessions. Children who see that take it as being "normal" and do the same thing when they grow up. If you live your life for and through your possessions you will not be living to your potential. You will be constrained by your focus being on paying for your life.

There is another way. You can cut back your desires and live a simpler life.

Change your attitude about what success is. Learn to appreciate a simpler and more gentle way of living. Encourage your family to work together as a team. Working through hardship will make you a stronger unit. Support your partner in their role, particularly if they're learning new skills. Tell them how much you appreciate their hard work and work equally hard beside them to produce as many of your own needs as you can. There is a lot to be said for independence. Learning to do for yourself will give you better quality goods, will allow you to make things to your own liking and will be fresher, more delicious and last longer than anything you can buy ready made.

I don't often directly challenge you towards change but this is important because times are getting tougher. My challenge to you is to make the decision today to start working on your attitude. I know it won't happen overnight, this is a slow and gradual process. Look at those people you want to copy and ask yourself if they are really happy, do they really have the kind of life you want, or are they too weighed down by debt and envy. Try to appreciate what you already have. Value your family, your health and your ability to work hard. Pull back from the outside world a bit and listen to the sound of your own breathing. Take a day off from your normal activities and reacquaint yourself with your family, your home and your thoughts. I wonder if there was a time when all you wanted was to be happy.

There has never been a better time to step back, slow down and simplify. You can step off the merry-go-round and find yourself a less stressful life where your successes are not judged by what you own and what you can buy. True success has a much more complex character than that and you can start to discover what success means to you by realising that possessions don't have much to do with it.

I hope that if you have some helpful advice you will comment. We are all living our lives in different ways and your words might just be the ones that make a difference to someone reading here.