17 April 2014

Setting yourself up for simple life

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 in. 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. 

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.



  1. Hi Rhonda,

    It seems as if more and more people are discontent with modern living. I know at times I have been. I am 37 and debt and mortgage free. Being so does bring a greater sense of freedom to our lives. I live in the US and my husband and I built and sold several of our homes with the eventual goal of making a profit to buy a home without a mortgage and eventually being free from all debts. And thankfully the Lord blessed that dream. But even being debt free there is still insurances and taxes to pay. Food to buy and electric used. So we still live just outside the city and run our business. We have a someday dream of moving away from the rat race but we do not know when that will be. I think that the young family should definitely set strong goals and work as hard as they can to achieve those goals. There are so many ways to save and make changes even in the city. I have read some very inspiring stories of such. Keep working and trying I know your dream will come true!

    Amy Jo

  2. I am one of those lucky ones who found a good well paid job in a rural area. My husband and I worked hard and paid off our mortgage very quickly by putting all our money we could into that. We are now mortgage free and I am at home educating the children whilst my husband works at a job he loves. I would not change anything about my life right now, it would be good to have a bit more land, but we have been saving and now have money to buy some just need to find the right piece!

    This is a wonderful post, thank you

  3. In the USA it is very common for families looking for your lifestyle ideal to home school their children. I home schooled our five for 23 years. It is a much slower pace since we were home all day and we did not have expenses for outside schooling such as clothing and sports teams. I do not know if it is feasible or even legal there but I would not trade those years at home with my children for anything.

  4. Great post, Rhonda as always.
    I would urge Sarah and any-one else feeling isolated and unsure of how to live a better life to come over to our forum(link at the top of the page) to connect with the many members who have already made big changes and are enjoying a much simpler, happier life. They have plenty of advice, inspiration and encouragment for all ages.
    Happy Easter to all your readers and your own dear family too

    1. Great suggestion Sue. It's a great group of people over there, I'm there when I have the time too.
      Happy Easter to you and your family, and the bunny.

  5. When my son was born, I quit my corporate, high-stress job, moved to the country and lived on a teacher's salary. By the time my son was ready for school, we realized that our local schools were really bad. The poverty in our area was high and the teacher's overworked. I tried homeschooling for two years, but honestly did not feel it was a good fit for me or my son. By the time my daughter was born, we made the decision to move to a better school district. Now we live near Olympia, Washington, and not only is it an incredible community but we also have great schools. Also, we are close to cultural events, music lessons, ballet, and so on. We've created a family culture that values education, music and the arts, and living in this area supports those values. Some may not consider this the simple live, but we all have to create a life that is rich and fulfilling for us. It is up to each of us to define. Now, we are close to a small city, but have six acres, vegetable gardens and soon, chickens. The downside is that home prices are higher here than where we lived before due to the great schools, but we consider this important and an investment in our children. We wish we had done better research and moved here in the first place. Now I work part-time and my husband teaches full-time. Where you choose to live is incredibly important. I do feel we escaped the "treadmill" that your reader loathes. I could return to a full-time job and double our income, but that is a choice we are not willing to make for our family. We agree that time is precious, and we must spend it wisely.

    1. It sounds like simple life to me, Natasha. You kept looking until you found the right place for your family and now you're reaping the benefits of that. Good luck in the future. xx

    2. Thanks Rhonda. Your writing is a great force for good in the world, and I appreciate your work very much.

  6. I think one of the hardest aspects of living outside of how you really wish to be living, is to fall into the trap of keeping up with the Joneses. We used to live in Canberra too and found so many of our friends had the high-paying public service position but also the high debt and the spend all the time lifestyle - and while you might not agree, because you hang out with them, it is more natural to spend more.
    So, my suggestion is to really surround yourself with those that you want to be like - those that aren't on the treadmill for the sake of being on the treadmill but also want to live life like you do. That may not be obvious from the outset in Canberra, but it is certainly there.

  7. What a great post. I think we are so preoccupied in accumulating what we think will look like wealth in other people's eyes that we forget to live our own rich and fulfilling lives. Just because our peers live life one way does not mean that it is the best or correct way.

    For those with young families (and that is me) I say figure out what you want your life to look like and then make it happen. It doesn't have to look like your friends or co-workers. If it is what you want and will make you and your family happy then it is the right thing for you. It may take time and patience but you will get there, just stay the course.

    Thanks for the post Rhonda, it has given me a lot of food for thought!

  8. A lovely gentle reminder to step back onto the simple path. Thank you Rhonda.

  9. Great post as usual, Rhonda. Lots of wisdom there. My copy of your new book finally arrived this morning. Apparently there had been delays with getting the reprints. I did try to go on the forum to let you know but I haven't been able to get on for a couple of hours for some reason.

    1. Chel, there is a problem with the forum network. The whole thing is down. They're working on it but don't know when it will be fixed.

  10. You are so correct in saying, “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.” We rented for 19 years in a situation that we felt gave many more benefits than building our own home. We valued the 5 minute walk to work and ride to school, cheaper rent and utilities, spacious community and opportunities for extra-curricular activities in the arts for the children. We planned for our own home as we saw changes coming. The early years with the children were used to expose and involve them in activities that would help them to embrace the values and desire for a simpler, healthier and more responsible lifestyle and of being a life-long learner. It was not always easy, but they slowly saw the benefits and found friends who embraced similar values. At 9 years of age, my younger daughter was already embracing the lifestyle, looking for ways and identifying ways to lead a more enriched simple life. My daughters now send me links to very interesting things and we discuss them. Oft times we decide who will try it out and share the experiences and results. My 6 year old granddaughter is getting involved, now, too.

    I am still learning and loving it. This week I bottled off my first gallon of tropical fruit (papaya, pineapple, banana) scrap vinegar with a feeling of accomplishment and confidence. All previous mini-batches were used for cooking before harvest time. Thanks for the introduction to making vinegar at home and encouragement that led to this success! I am looking forward to making other flavors in the future, after the rains start and I get my herbs growing.

    Today I received a link that may be very helpful for people trying to reduce their food budget. https://www.livebelowtheline.com/us?lang=en has an e-cookbook with recipes and cost/serving for the 3 different meals.

    The other piece of advice that was so helpful to me was, “If you can live in your house before you finish it, you will be better prepared to invest less and enjoy it more, because you know how you will be using your space and will finish it to maximize your benefits.” We did this and it has been a blessing, although at times we wondered…

    Your experiences and encouragement are very motivating – please keep sharing, it is inspirational!! And belated happy birthday!

    1. That's a great link you posted and a beautiful challenge too. I find it very eye-opening that for our family this might be a 'fun' or 'useful' thing to try, but there are so many people out there who don't have the choice...

  11. Thank you Rhonda for reminding people that they have to find a life that suits them, not the life that consumerism and the Joneses tell us we should be living. We were in the rat race. Both my husband and I are well educated and felt we should have careers which justified our education. We took several career moves which took us into urban areas, working in busy office environments. My health was the first to break down. I had to give up work, had lots of hospital tests before finally being diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue/ME. I couldn't stand living anywhere noisy or polluted so we had to move somewhere quieter. I was housebound for 5 years and although I have made a reasonable recovery, still have to pace and manage my energy or I relapse. My husband has had depression, stress etc for several years and has really struggled. He had a breakdown, was off work for a long time and realised he couldn't carry on doing the job he was doing and living where we were. He was recently diagnosed with Aspergers and Depression. We have been very fortunate to find him a decent job in a very rural area and we follow a quiet and simple life. I know some people think we are 'different' but it works for us and I would urge anyone else to follow what they desire, and believe in their dreams and goals. You have to do what works for you and your family. Good luck x

    1. Oh Susan....{{{hugs}}} After educating yourselves to work for the 'good life', you have both paid a terrible price with your health. I find that very sad. But it's nice to know you are now leading a healthier and more peaceful lifestyle.

  12. Sarah we moved out of Sydney to the Illawarra which allowed us to buy a home at a lower price which in turn allowed us to pay it off sooner. What I didn't realise when we made that decision was that a smaller city also offered us a way of life that was quite removed from the hubbub of the big city. One of us had to commute and that person was me but we drove our cars into the ground, we didn't update them more than once in ten years. I don't know your particular circumstances but maybe moving to Queanbeyan or somewhere else may be an option for you? I also advise deciding how many hours you will work outside the home and sticking to it, a good worker can say "no".

  13. I think it is important to remember though, that children grow up very fast. When a morgage is payed down the children won't be small any more and their lives will have been firmly set in the rat race. A simpler and slower life with time for eachother as a family is what we strive towards. It means material sacrifice but is well worth it. Pam

  14. There are so many beautiful little towns and communities outside of big cities. You'll often find schools that are smaller which is a good thing. You'll find good teachers and families who have also made the move towards a simpler life. In Berridale (two hours from Canberra) the median price for houses is $200 000. Permanent work can be tricky but if one can find it then usually you can afford the cheaper housing available and you'll be on your way to a simpler life. We moved from the city to the Snowy Mountains and although it isn't exactly cheap to live here (electricity for heating, petrol etc) I can't imagine how much it would cost to live back in the city and be obligated to go out often and spend money at cafe/restaurants and family events with lots of costly unpractical gift giving. All the tv ads and junk mail make you think you need new things all the time. Certain friends and family members can do this too if their chosen lifestyle is different from yours. I am glad we are semi isolated from it all and can live simply - cook from scratch and make do without the pressure of having to live a certain way. We are in debt but I'm hoping we will get on top of it next year and be free to save for our first home. I feel we will be able to achieve our simple living goals if we are in a modest home (with a big shed for everything!)

  15. I agree that paying off debts sooner is a fabulous idea BUT I am also conscious that, for families with young children, it is important to set a good example. If they see US on that treadmill of rush rush rush work work work commute commute commute then they will grow up learning that that is 'normal' and not question it. I think Sarah is hoping to simplify her life before it is too late and set a much better example to her kids, of how life can be different.

  16. Thanks Rhonda for another inspiring post. My heart does beat a little faster when I read about paying a mortgage off though. Where I live (in the UK) house prices are now so expensive that paying off a mortgage on one is nigh on impossible for most young people. For context a 2 bedroom cottage where I grew up cost £80,000 10 years ago and now costs £380,000. Friends my age and I (in our early 30s) have worked hard since graduating, lived frugally, paid off student loans and saved as much as we can but the dream of a reasonably priced house we can own just gets further and further away. I don't say this as 'poor us' as we have our health and are lucky in many ways but it does worry me as I am aware of the benefit of paying off a mortgage as quickly as possible in creating a simple life. Not to mention the security and being able to decorate and have a pet! I wonder if other readers would benefit from your wisdom on this... I know I would. Do you think owning a house is vitally important in living a simple life? Do you think it is so integral it could be worth considering emigration and all the associated upheaval to achieve this goal? Or is it ok just to accept that no matter how hard we save we will always be renting and to just live the best simple life we can this way? I value your blog and books so much and they have taught me so much! I know it is an individuals decision but I would really appreciate your wisdom on this as I am sure there are lots of other simple-lifers in the same boat.Thanks for your time and thanks once again for your wonderful blog and books x

    1. Hello Lady Sunset. It's difficult here buying a home in the capital cities but still fairly affordable in the country and regional cities. I'll have to think about this first and then I'll try to write a coherent post when I can. Thanks for your comment. It's always lovely receiving thought-provoking comments from new-to me-readers.

    2. Thank you Rhonda, I very much look forward to reading it and hope that it is useful for lots of other readers too. Have a wonderful Easter x

  17. Hello all!
    Thank you for all the thoughtful and intelligent responses! We have come to a tentative decision as a result of this post. Here are my thoughts.
    I grew up in a big house by the ocean with a huge veggie patch and room to run around. I enjoyed that and wanted my kids to have the same. To fund that lifestyle my parents commuted hours per day in different directions, put us in childcare from morning until night, and ultimately divorced. I would have traded it all to spend more time with them.
    So, after much contemplation we are considering putting an offer in on our rental unit here right in the middle of Canberra. We have a small yard big enough for a trampoline and a veggie patch, my husband bikes to a job he loves, my kids can walk to a good school, and I can afford to stay home as long as I like. We are on a wait list for a community garden, so that may help with feeling part of a more like minded group and learning some gardening skills in a new climate. We know some people may advise owning land as a better investment but that would involve a much bigger mortgage or a change in schools, longer commute, and possible requiring two cars. This does not seem simpler to me.
    All for now. Thank you again everyone.

    1. I think you should do what is right for you and your family. It doesn't matter what others thinks. Good luck!

  18. Thank you to all who have contributed to this thread, it has been really interesting reading some of your thoughts.
    About 4 years ago, I was driving into work and it struck me.
    I had the feeling that I was a feed lot cow for the major corporations.
    I felt that I was in debt for my education
    I felt that I was in debt for a lifestyle that didn't feel right (working to pay for a house and our kids education)
    I felt that what I was doing and how we were living was all just wrong.
    What I did about it.
    Stopped working away from home and for other people.
    Got out of debt - (we don't own a house or credit cards)
    Started growing our own organic vegies
    Started educating our own kids
    Cut out all proceeds towards major corporations including unethical business.
    What we have found
    That we would be spending close to $2k a week on education and organic food, that we provide for ourselves, at a cost of $2k per year
    Our lives are much more connected with each other as a family and with our local community.
    I am a far better home maker and teacher than I ever thought possible.

    It has been a journey of guts and determination and each morning I wake up
    I am blessed : )

    with love to all who are struggling with living simply decisions, I hope that we have helped with a different perspective x x


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