Living Simply, Happily

Published May 7, 2012 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal

I remember rolling onto campus one September during my student days with all of my worldly possessions stuffed into a two-door Honda Civic hatchback – and there was even room left for a passenger.  (Most of the space was actually taken up by the mandatory high-powered stereo.)

Contrast that with three decades later, when our household now numbering four has accumulated enough stuff to fill two tractor trailers. 

I guess we’re a typical family.  More stuff, more bills and a bigger load on the planet.  Perhaps there’s a better way.

Living beyond the planet’s means
According to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet report, Earth’s seven billion inhabitants annually consume about 1.3 times what our planet produces each year.  At first glance, that might sound impossible, but it’s not – it’s easy to cut more wood from a woodlot than grows annually, or to catch more fish from the sea than replenish naturally.  But over time those practices result in a clearcut and a depleted ocean.

The driver of this global overshoot is consumption: more people than ever, consuming more resources than ever, accumulating more stuff than ever.  And even as we consume more, many of us are more stressed and less happy than ever.

A better way
Enter Jim Merkel.  Formerly a globetrotting engineer, Jim had an epiphany in 1989 when the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of oil into the pristine waters off Alaska.  As he watched it happen on television, he realized that his personal dependence on fossil fuels made him partly responsible for the disaster.  So he resolved to change.

Jim started by taking stock of everything in his life, with an eye to reducing and simplifying, and using no more than his fair share of the planet.  It took 13 yard sales to liquidate all the stuff he’d accumulated – stuff that, upon closer examination, added greatly to his ecological footprint but little to the net quality to his life. 

Eventually, he quit his job and made his way to New England where he now lives on less than $10,000 per year – adopting a lifestyle that is financially, physically, mentally and ecologically more sustainable.  In 2003 he wrote “Radical Simplicity: Small footprints on a finite planet”, a guide to living lightly – and happily – on the earth.

Four keys
So how does one live lightly and happily on less than $10,000 per year?  According to Jim, it’s all about lifestyle, and here are four key priorities:

1. Transportation: Carpooling with three other people reduces fuel costs and emissions by 75%.  That’s significant.  Choosing a more efficient vehicle, using public transit, riding a bike or walking add to the savings.

2. Housing: Since housing costs are a function of a home’s size and the energy consumed per square foot, smaller, efficient homes just make good sense.

3. Utilities: Fewer appliances used less often mean lower power bills.  Jim’s monthly power consumption amounts to about $10.

4. Food: Grow a garden, build a root cellar or coldroom, learn about wild edibles and lean toward a vegetarian or vegan diet.

Jim also avoids buying unneeded stuff.  He buys used when possible (including clothing); shares tools and other rarely needed things with neighbours; and maintains what he has so it lasts longer.  He drives a perfectly serviceable 20 year old Honda Civic.

Interestingly, research done by the Global Living Project, an organization Jim founded in 1995, has shown that people who apply these principles to their lives not only save a lot, but seem to feel happier too.

Jim Merkel’s remarkable transformation to radical simplicity proves it’s possible for someone to live on much less in a first world country with a cool climate.  Perhaps it’s a model for those of us who crave a less complicated, less impactful existence.  But it didn’t happen overnight.  It took many small steps, taken over time – steps that any of us can take if we choose.

Which gives me hope – because we haven’t even had our first yard sale yet.

Postscript from Carl: I received the following email from someone who clearly ascribes to a simple, low impact life.  Loads of great tips and savings - please read on! (And you've got to love that closing line.)


How I can Live Well on $10,000 per Year

We are manipulated by the media to think that we need a lot more than we actually do to live a comfortable and happy life. Our culture is very much consumer-driven. I simply do not buy into it. I am a 66-year-old woman living in a one-storey house with a finished basement, which I own, on a 17-acre property in rural New Brunswick. My property taxes for 2012 were $490, of which I paid $190 after the low income property tax allowance. My annual house insurance costs me $490.

Other annual expenses are:

Vehicle – I drive a 2000 Ford Focus for which I paid cash in November 2008. I will pay $535 for car insurance this year. I fill the gas tank once a month in a nearby town rather than in the local village because that’s where I can purchase gas with no ethanol and at a cheaper price. A full tank will usually last me about a month. I am retired!
Firewood – I heat my house with a stove in the basement. I usually burn about four cords of wood, which last year cost $800. I have electric heat as a backup, which I use only when I am away in the winter for two or more days (rarely). 

Heating Oil – I purchased heating oil for $540 last November, which will last a year. It is used only to heat water.

Now to the nitty-gritty. I have no daily or weekly expenses. My monthly expenses are:

Telephone and Computer – I have a no-frills plan for telephone, so I pay about $35 per month. I have a landline phone and a portable phone. My internet charges are about $50 per month. I can telephone long distance in North America for free with my gmail account.

Food – I drive to a nearby town once a month to buy food because it’s less expensive and there is more variety than in the local village. Also the store has a half-price cart where I purchase most of the fruit and some of the vegetables I consume. I never buy baked goods, beef and pork roasts or steaks or chops, and processed meats. I buy very little processed and packaged food. Raw food is always less expensive and much more nutritious. In the larger store I can buy foods in bulk like nuts and seeds which I cannot purchase in the village.
 I buy powdered milk so that I can make my own milk and yogurt, which I consume daily. When cheese is on sale, I buy more than one package and freeze it.
 I plant a vegetable garden every year and begin everything from seed. This allows me to put away many vegetables for the winter. I have a rhubarb patch, raspberry bushes and an apple tree, so I make stewed rhubarb and apple sauce to freeze and also freeze a lot of raspberries for the rest of the year. I buy strawberries, blueberries and peaches in season, when they are the cheapest, and freeze some for the winter months. I sometimes trade with neighbours.
 My brother picks fiddleheads for me. I prepare and freeze enough so that I can have them frequently as well as have lots for family suppers and special occasions.

Electricity Usage – I pay about $65 per month for electricity and a little more in the summer because of a dehumidifier in the basement. I never leave lights on when no one is in the room. The microwave oven is unplugged when it is not in use. I turn off the TV when it’s not being watched and I also turn off the power bar overnight. I receive five TV stations with rabbit ears and find that is all I need. I also turn off the computer and its power bar overnight.
Water Usage – I do not feel a need to have a shower every day or to launder bedding every week. North American culture is obsessed with cleanliness.
I wash the laundry in tepid water and use about 1/3 of the recommended amount of detergent.  It is dried on the clothesline for three seasons and on a rack in the basement beside the stove in the winter. This means less electricity, less wear and tear on my clothes and much-needed moisture in the house in the winter – a winning situation all around. I usually “fluff up” the bedding and towels and some other items in the dryer for about five minutes per load before putting them on the rack.
I have no dishwasher and wash dishes when the sink gets full – not every day – and use about 1/3 of the recommended amount of dish detergent.
 I have a rain barrel to catch water from the roof of the house to use for the vegetable garden and my many flower gardens.

Health, Hygiene and Grooming – I take no medications. I spend about $100 per year on haircuts and another $100 on all cosmetics, hygiene and grooming products. I’m a champion yard saler, where I get good quality, brand name lotions and soaps (nothing made in China) for mere pennies. I shop at a drug store which gives points for credit.

Clothing and Footwear – Yard sales! Last year I spent a total of $60.72 on clothing and footwear. The only new item was a pair of sneakers from Sears – an $80 value for $23.89. I love looking for bargains!

Household Maintenance – I use homemade products for almost all cleaning jobs. The best window cleaner is made with ammonia, rubbing alcohol, dish detergent and water. I never buy waxed paper, plastic wrap, plastic bags or aluminum foil. A roll of paper towels will last four months. I seldom use paper table napkins; cloth can be laundered and reused. I use rags for cleaning and plastic or glass containers for storing. The waxed paper bags in store-bought cereals can be used for many items and sometimes washed and reused. (My parents bought milk in plastic bags. They have been gone many years but I’m still using those bags which my mother saved!)

Reading, Education, Recycling – I subscribe to three magazines which provide endless enrichment: news, gardening and health. I share the local newspaper with my sister next door and dig in to the paper recycle bin in the village occasionally for The Telegraph-Journal. I rarely buy books; the library is free.
 I also dig into the other recycle bins for bottles and cans and other items which can be reused and/or recycled. Egg cartons are great for starting fires. I do not buy anything in plastic bags, so I retrieve bags from the recycle bin for lining wastebaskets and putting out garbage. I have one bag of garbage to be picked up about every six to eight weeks.

Birds and Cat  – I spent about $100 on birdfeed last winter and enjoy watching about eight or ten species at my feeder. I also feed the hummingbirds – not much expense there for a good deal of enjoyment. The cat cost me $181.39 last year – he’s worth it!

Gardening and Grounds – Last summer I spent about $300 on flower and vegetable seeds, potting soil, fertilizer, gas for the lawnmower and tiller, etc. In the winter I have a generous neighbour who charges nothing for plowing the snow out of the yard, but I really enjoy shovelling for the exercise and fresh air, so he only does it when it’s too over-whelming for me.

Entertainment and Hobbies – I eat out occasionally with friends or family at the only good restaurant in our village. I do not eat fast food. I take my great-niece to a kids’ movie once or twice a year and rarely attend an adult movie. Most of my entertainment is free (or nearly free): baking cookies, doing crafts, riding bike, flying kites, sliding in the winter, making snowwomen, etc. with my great-niece and her friends. Walking my sister’s dog and going for walks in the woods with my niece’s dog cost nothing. I attend local concerts and suppers which are fund-raisers.
 Photography and gardening are two hobbies which cost little. Most of my photos stay on the computer.
I have no electronic devices. I do not feel a need to be connected to the world 24/7. I am fully connected to the world of nature.

Gifts – Our family is not big on gift-giving, so $200 will cover Christmas. I buy Christmas cards in January and make most other greeting cards on the computer (or get free ones as gifts from the charities to which I contribute). I always find enough money for birthday and other gifts.

Have you ever asked yourself, “Where has all my money gone?!” I can never say that because I have kept a record of every penny spent since I left home at the age of 18. It’s a good habit which takes little time and provides a good way to keep your spending in check. You know exactly where you are wasting money. I live below my means so that I will have extra money for emergencies. Car repair last month cost $900 and I already had the money in the bank.

If you have an attitude of gratitude, you will never need for anything! I do not feel deprived in any way. And my lifestyle is not a burden in any way – it’s just second nature. My house is situated on a hill overlooking some of New Brunswick’s beautiful rolling hills. I have several large windows which help heat the house in the winter. The sun rises in the kitchen and sets in the living room. My life is full of blessings.