My life being independently poor began as white, middle class kid in Westchester County, NY. At a young age I read every book about American Indians I could and I was appalled by the raw deal they got. If this was white people’s legacy, I didn’t want any part of it. Later as a young teen at Quaker summer camps, I was heavily influenced by 1960s counter-culture counselors. Quaker camp, with its authentic community and values, and my Indian reading added up to cementing my young determination to not follow a mainstream script centered on material success.
For a family like mine, post WW2 US was an economic high point, there were plenty of resources everywhere. Material well-being was easy. I saw no reason to pursue more when there was already enough. My parents were city planners and New Deal, FDR liberals. I was raised according to Dr. Benjamin Spock’s 1946 book, Baby and Childcare. And yes, I remain unencumbered by blind respect for authority. My mother encouraged me to be creative and develop inner resources. This fit perfectly my artistic temperament and capacities; I’m someone naturally inclined to behave like the grasshopper in Aesop’s fable of the Ant and the Grasshopper.
As a young man, to keep my life low budget, I made a conscious early decision not to have kids. I knew I had other mountains to climb. I didn’t own a car until I was 28.
I went to a state university and finished right before Reagan gutted the gravy train. Academia was fun but too cut throat, not a pure exercise in the joy of learning. I got an anthropology / liberal arts degree, and a history degree and these have been very fulfilling, the ticket to understanding life, culture and society even though they never paid me a nickel. I believe being educated and having continuing interests that deepen through study is a key low-budget practice, that plus interesting people to work with.
Many of my generation did well financially, however I consciously avoided any job or career that would involve wearing a suit. I held onto my youthful values, even as it seemed to others, and sometimes myself, that I might be going nowhere.
Eventually I developed construction skills that could pay the rent. These skills are portable and allow for geographic mobility. Work became a means to an end and not an end in itself. I can save up money and then not work for months. Work bought leisure time, time for developing a pantheon of personal interests. How much leisure time? When I introduced my partner to my Dad 15 years ago, he told her, “you know, Fred is on vacation from vacation.”
I’ve always cultivated low rent living and have never owned a house. With handyman skills, I offer extra benefits to my landlords. In exchange for work I enjoyed free living for years in Tucson at a Quaker woman’s house. In 1996 I rented an apartment in Hermosillo, Sonora for $60 a month and went to the University of Sonora for two semesters, taking a full load of classes in Spanish. In Mexico I volunteered with the American Friends Service Committee in the Sierra Madre and a whole world and cultural fabric opened up. I saw real poverty, and real grace. I might appear poor here, but it’s not true. I can be independently poor because I am already in the global 1%, as a white, middle-class-raised American male.
Salmon swim against the stream but they are entirely in the flow of nature. Similarly, for me to value less when society values more, I’ve had to follow an against-the-grain course and not get lost comparing myself to others. For me, success is all interior, based on satisfying my natural capacities, not on accumulating outward symbols of status. I don’t care about chasing money. I grew up with Grateful Dead lyrics as a core narrative. The Dead helped frame the interior of human experience as more valuable than the exterior; I love the counter culture values of exploration, transformation, freedom, meaning, all the things that materialism is not.
I grew up with the counter culture, women’s movement, civil rights movement, anti-war movement, and environmental movement, and these all flavored me. I am someone with more receptors for values than for stuff.
To keep my life low budget, I don’t drink, smoke or do drugs; been there, done that, got the T-shirt. I don’t go out much to be entertained. Going out is pitifully expensive. In Sonoma I’ve come to participate in local civic issues on a volunteer basis as a fulfilling activity. I found a vocation, not a career! This draws on my education, intellectual bent and academic interests. I love to cogitate and write, and local issues give me all the chance I’d ever want. And voluntarism is all free, no costs except time.
I’ve had many years with no health insurance and am willing to live with that uncertainty. I have to trust that things will turn out OK.
To keep consumption low overall, thrift stores are it. My desire to get and consume can be satisfied for five, ten or fifteen bucks, with a lot of stuff. The Davis, ASPCA thrift store has all kind of current academic books, great reading for a bargain price. Then my partner and I just give it all back to the thrift stores and get more later; our living space stays small and spacious; we’re a cheap date.
Earlier in my independently poor career I was a champion dumpster diver and street furniture picker. I’ll share one good insight: if they sell it, they also throw it away; to get things for free just go look out back.
No shaving, and home haircuts have saved thousands over the years. It helps to have no preoccupation with the mirror, looks, and style. Overall, an avoidance of conspicuous consumption and keeping up with the Joneses has really kept the spending down.
I buy food from Grocery Outlet and Costco, with a tremendous savings over local prices. I don’t cultivate expensive tastes, like coffee, cheese, chocolate, or grass fed beef, and in fact, my partner is such a good cook that she can easily make meals that taste better than the fanciest restaurants. The only reason to go out is to save her that work, not to find better food. She also is expert at canning, dehydrating, and preserving food. With my scavenger gusto, I can find and glean local figs, walnuts, apples, plums, blackberries, and when push comes to shove, we can put up a lot of food. In the Fall, I can get a year’s worth of walnut protein just on the side of the road.
We have no TV at all, no endless invasion of advertising hype. It’s quiet here, with space to do things like write this essay. I get free internet Wi Fi from my neighbor in exchange for not complaining when her dog barks.
As a musician, my instrument has endless depth that continues to be revealed. Like work, this is not something I need to externalize to the world for fame or money. Music, books, photography, all are facets of internal fulfillment. Having a radio show at KSVY for 10 years has provided a great opportunity for musical growth, again, no expenses.
Luckily for me, most of my paid work is local in Valley. This keeps gas costs down, and fits the type of local lifestyle needed to reduce GHG emissions and reach an environmental-economic societal carrying capacity.
Recreational travel is mostly regional and in CA, plenty to do and see here in the Golden State. The main travel expense is finding time and money for another long distance hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. A long distance hike costs around a $1000 a month, for two people. On the trail, low impact camping principles are codified by the Leave No Trace ethic. This is how I am overall: low impact, not a lot of plants to water, no house to maintain, no legacy of needing to consume more stuff or groom my domestic kingdom. Being independently poor is a lifestyle choice, more than few habits here and there.
My two-person household can easily live for less than $25,000 a year. This is about the lowest income you can have and still be housed. According to Area Median Income (AMI) standards, we are at an extreme poverty level but we don’t consider ourselves poor or suffering. We’re happy with less, happy with our internal landscape. Our life is rich and full. Authentic contentment: not for sale. We earned it the hard way, by simplifying a lot.
As long as we can stay within a certain economic bandwidth, it works. We have to be in denial about how close to circling the drain we really are. If we had to pay the county average rent, or had a calamitous injury or illness, the game would be up.
Intentional poverty for me developmentally, went from an early principled stand, to following a natural predilection to take an artistic path, and more and more it became a lifestyle choice of simplification from the dominant growth and consumption meme.
In spite of uncertainty, being independently poor is a legitimate lifestyle choice Americans can make to reduce our disproportionate consumption of world resources. This choice may serve as an example that we don’t need endless growth and consumption of stuff to succeed or be happy. We can reach a social-environmental-economic carrying capacity and still have rich, full lives.
Is it any wonder I advocate against conspicuous consumption and have trouble with a hospitality-based economy that is all about buying it rather than then being it? My own life is the exact opposite. This is not abstraction or a theory; this is simply my life.