Those of us who reside in North America or western Europe live in a time, and in a place, where nobody seems satisfied. No matter how many consumer goods clutter a person's household, that discontented soul almost certainly covets more of them.
No wonder we're called consumers. That's precisely what most of us seem to do best. And no wonder so many of us are overburdened by debt, often to levels that make it nearly impossible to ever get caught up, or even to stay afloat.
There is another way to live, but it's not a popular one. Instead of devoting one's life to acquiring more stuff, it's actually possible–and may even be enjoyable–to keep things simple. To own next to nothing. And better yet, to owe nothing because of endless, excessive purchases on credit.
Exactly what does a person need to have a satisfactory life? In a world of “things,” with constant inducements to buy more of them, is it possible to be content with less? Even a lot less?
Having reached senior-citizen status, I should have accumulated the usual mass of stuff. That didn't happen. Why? Because living with less make life easier and possiby more pleasing. Heretical? Of course; but for some of us, 100 percent true.
Let’s try a little countdown of ways to do without:
First off, I have no investments, no stocks, no bonds, no mutual funds, no 401k account, no corporate business ventures. A small amount in IRAs, set aside years ago, and that’s it for retirement income–apart from Social Security. Total assets are whatever happens to be in the bank at a given moment.
I own no property, and never have. That’s right, I’ve never owned a home, or land, or a time share, or a condo. Instead, I’ve lived in nothing but furnished rooms (when young) and apartments (later in life). Currently, my wife and I live in a 3-room apartment in an over-55 complex, just outside Chicago. Until a few years ago, I’d always lived right in the city, in apartments in working-class neighborhoods–and for several extended periods, in basic rooms in residential hotels.
Once, more than 20 years ago, I met a man from Japan who was stationed temporarily in New York City. He asked what I paid in rent. When I answered, he nearly collapsed. His apartment cost at least five or six times what I was paying each month at the time. Right now, an acquaintance in Manhattan is paying $4,000 a month. We pay less than $800. And we have all the space we need–which is doubtless shocking news to folks who are accustomed to occupying gargantuan houses, even after the children are gone for good.
To clarify, however, our three rooms aren’t really quite sufficient. Neither was a 6-room apartment we had before. For two decades, I’ve rented storage units to hold all the work-related materials–mostly printed matter–that go with my job as a journalist, author, and historian. Every single month, I’ve agonized over the gigantic sum paid out over the years; but like so many of us who keep stuff that has little or no tangible value, I’ve been unable to discard nearly enough of that mass of paper and miscellany. So, even those of us who live simply, for the most part, often have an excess or two entering into some aspect of our daily lives.
TV? No home theater in our household, I’m afraid. Our 23-inch table-model TV was inherited from a relative, having been purchased some 20 years ago at Sears for $199. When it quits, we’ll buy a flat-screen of some sort. Until then, we don’t feel the least bit deprived by viewing an old-fashioned CRT set, even when watching movies though our DVD/VHS player.
Purchased new, that DVD player has been around for quite a few years now and has an operational flaw or two. When it quits, we'll shop promptly for a replacement; but not before. Not until a few years ago did we have cable or satellite TV, and we do now only because basic cable is included with our apartment rent. We do belong to Netflix, but rarely purchase DVDs or CDs. Those come mainly from the public library, as do nearly all of the books we read.
Home stereo? Let’s see, we have a radio/CD player–the kind with a handle so it can be moved around. No external speakers, no high-output amplifier. But it works, which is all that counts. A couple of iPods see occasional use, but those were received as gifts.
Computers have been part of my life since 1985, due almost entirely to my work. Since that time, I’ve owned two desktops, three laptops, and a netbook. One laptop and the netbook remain in regular use, the latter largely for travel. I do have a high-speed connection, but upgraded from dial-up only a couple of years ago. Have I moved into the iPad generation? No, a netbook is as far as I care to go, at least for now. On the other hand, I do have an often troublesome–yet handy–handheld Palm device with wi-fi access, which has accompanied me on trips for quite a few years now.
Cell phones? Never had one, but that's a personal choice, not a question of payment. If not for a few calls a month to/from relatives overseas, I’d be happy to survive with no phone of any kind. All my work contacts deal with me by e-mail, so I rarely need–or want–to call anyone. Besides, who are all these zillions of people with cell phones stuck to their ears talking to all the time? Better watch out, because if it were in my power, I'd uninvent the cell phone–and probably landline phones as well. Androids, iPhones, and all the latest-tech personal "assistants?" Couldn't care less about any of them.
Cars are more complicated. Until recently, I'd never owned a new one, or even a late-model. From teenage years through 2010, when we leased a brand-new vehicle, I drove a long string of low-priced used cars, bought for cash. Even so, for the past two decades, I've always had a new vehicle or two on hand, because my work involves test-driving and reviewing automobiles. So, we've had the benefit of driving the latest cars without having to purchase any of them.
Perhaps most heretical of all, my wife and I both detest shopping–the all-American pastime and source of pleasure. Only when a purchase becomes absolutely, unquestionably essential can either of us be dragged into a store.Many more items that we do without could be listed, but here's the crucial point. Unlike nearly every American, and unlike most people in the world, I covet nothing. There's nothing I want. Literally, nothing. Zero.
Doing without also lets a person prioritize his or her life. (See our separate essay on that topic.) One big example: Countless Americans with reasonably good incomes claim they cannot afford to eat in restaurants. Well, we go to restaurants regularly. Not fine dining establishments, which we find compelling only occasionally. But restaurants nonetheless, because we enjoy them. That's possible because so many things that have a price are absent from our lives, so we can indulge ourselves in those that matter to us.
Naturally, too, persons with children or dependents cannot simply decide for them, and give up what so many Americans, in particular, consider essentials of a satisfactory life. No sensible person would urge a father or mother to compel their children to lead a life without consumer goods. On the other hand, would it hurt to set an example to the younger generation by thinking twice before buying another consumer item, and another and another? Children, after all, are seldom unaware when their parents are facing financial worries, likely due to excessive credit purchases. Demonstrating that buying stuff isn't the only way to go through life could provide a valuable lesson in itself.
Doing without so many things that most of us believe to be essential also means that I don’t have to pay for them, either up-front or via time payments. Except for a very brief period when I fell into bad company in my 20s–namely, a woman who loved to buy things on credit and expected me to do likewise–I’ve never bought anything on time, never borrowed money, never dealt with a bank or finance company for a loan, never sought a mortgage. Except for ordinary monthly expenses–rent, electricity, a car lease payment–I owe nothing to anyone.
Sure, I use my two credit cards regularly. But except for rare circumstances, I’m one of those who pays off the entire balance every month. Now and then, that’s been impossible, due to medical bills, emergencies, or a sudden, thankfully temporary cessation of income. But for the most part, my existence is strictly based on cash.
Our credit scores are high, incidentally, because we never miss a payment, and never pay anything late. As a result, our credit scores and the limits on our cards are relatively high. Does that mean we can walk in anywhere and plunk down a credit card for a high-dollar item? It does not. We were barely able to lease that car mentioned above. Why? Because I'd paid cash for all those third- and fourth-hand automobiles of the past. Never before had I leased a car, or bought one on time. Lack of certain types of credit history makes credit-grantors suspicious.
Not that life is perfect; far from it. But nothing that could be bought with money could improve it. Anything that might improve life has little or nothing to do with dollars. That's why we stopped buying lottery tickets many years ago. Not just because the odds against winning are astronomical, but because we didn't want to be millionaires. Or, to win any sizable sum. Sure, a windfall could ease a lot of worry about the future. But as things stand, in terms of consumer goods, I'm totally content already.
So, what does this all mean? Who cares what I, personally, own or do not own? Want, or do not want? This summation is merely meant to demonstrate that it’s possible to live with less, if a person seriously evaluates real wants and needs, and then dismisses those items that aren’t necessary and don’t provide much in the way of true satisfaction.
Naturally, we’re all different. For instance, if you’re a person who really craves home ownership, apartment life would be a major letdown. Because I totally lack any ownership instinct, it means nothing at all.
Admittedly, too, living with less has been a lot easier for me because I can honestly say that I want nothing. When you crave nothing, it's easy to stay out of debt. In fact, it would be difficult to acquire any debt, apart from something like a medical emergency. Disasters can happen to any of us at any moment, and immediately destroy our financial state, whether it's meager or abundant.
How many people do you know, regardless of the quantity of their possessions, who can say, truly, "I'm perfectly satisfied with what I have. I want nothing more." And mean it, 100 percent.