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as published in Countryside Magazine 

Thinking Small:

How we Downsized from an Annual 
Income of $42,000 to $6,500

And lived to tell about it!

As a middle class American, it’s been difficult for me to understand how we are supposed to make a living when there are so many things working against us. How can we go on day after day with the rising cost of food, fuel, utilities, car insurance, taxes and health care, while dealing with the insecurity of unemployment? In the past, whenever I considered these things, I felt a hopeless sense of impending doom in the pit of my stomach. There is so much talk about how to solve these issues, but nothing ever seems to stop the downward spiral of struggle and stress that millions of folks are experiencing.

Like many working people, my life went along fine during the 80’s. I had a good paying job ($42,000 a year) and though I didn’t enjoy the kind of work I was doing as an industrial draftsman, receiving a steady paycheck every week kept me going without much complaint. But then came the Gulf War in the 90’s and after that point I faced nine lay-offs over the span of 10 years. By the time September 11 happened, I hadn’t been able to maintain steady employment in the petrochemical industry for over a decade. I would work about 3 or 4 months, then back again to the unemployment line.

It was at this point that I realized something was wrong.  The life strategy I had grown up to believe in was no longer working and there didn’t seem to be any answers. Obviously, no one was going to get me out of this, so I decided I needed to take matters into my own hands and figure out a way to redefine my basic approach to living.

Lucky for me, I have an adventurous wife.  She was on the same page with me and was willing to make some drastic changes in our lifestyle. As a committed team, we decided to figure out another way to survive despite these uncertain, hard economic times. Since we didn’t have a lot of money and because it was getting harder to find steady employment, we decided to rethink our basic values in order to create a life for ourselves where we could be independent and free of needing a career or a full-time job.

 And for us, that meant first and foremost, moving to the country. If we were going to be poor, we thought, at least it would be better to be poor in the country. That way we could grow our own food and reduce our expenses. Eventually we discovered there were others who felt the same way we did. Today there is a small, but growing movement in this country towards a lifestyle we call “Voluntary Creative Simplicity”.

We decided to start over, to shake loose from all the things holding us down. We got rid of all the stuff we didn’t need and worked on paying off debt. Then canceling our credit cards and using cash, we followed an efficient financial plan that taught how to track every penny. By doing this we were eventually able to save a little bit of money. (See the book entitled, Your Money or Your Life, by Joe Dominguez & Vicki Robin).

Also, we wanted to be strong and healthy to do the work required for this basic lifestyle so we changed our eating habits.  We broke away from the standard American fast food, pre-packaged supermarket diet in favor of organically grown whole grains, raw fruits and vegetables, fermented dairy, nuts, seeds and sprouts and eliminated all junk foods and prescription drugs.  We started exercising regularly by walking, practicing yoga, and gardening. Since we no longer wanted to pay health insurance premiums, we decided to start a special savings account  ($1000) just for emergency first-aid treatment. And of course we got rid of the cell phone, cable television and Internet bills and greatly minimized our use of air conditioning. The beginning of the path to the simple life was a process of elimination in every aspect of our lives.

Eventually we found 2 ½ acres of land, 35 miles out of the city. Inspired by our new vision, one summer we said goodbye to the city, permanently moved out to our new place and set up a dome tent to live in.  We happily lived in our tent that summer while clearing the land and constructing a rustic 10’ by 12’ room with a sleeping loft.  We did this on a “pay-as-you-go” plan, hauling all the materials in the back of our old pick-up truck. Never having built anything before, we worked hard and gained the skill of building our own shelter.

As the tiny out-building took shape, next came the installation of an underground cistern for collecting rainwater, and finally, the construction of our 3-room (500 square foot) cabin. Since we had to borrow $9,000 to purchase the property, I continued to take whatever jobs I could find (from drafting, clerk work, courier, dishwasher, bakery assistant, etc.) while Donna stayed busy working on our organic garden, planting fruit trees and composting.  She enjoys learning about native plants and healing herbs that she can grow.

 Over the next few years, while working towards our goals of self-reliance and independence, we became stronger, healthier and more confident in our ability to rely on our own skills. It was quite an empowering experience. We learned how to build things, grow our own food, take responsibility for our own health, and best of all, we learned how to laugh and have fun again. The simple joys and true pleasures of fresh, home-grown food, watching everything grow and prosper in harmony, working with our own hands and spending quality time together replaced all of the costly false values that had occupied our time before.

Gradually we paid off the land, finished the cabin and succeeded in minimizing our basic utility costs. We began to notice that our expenses were decreasing as the quality of our life was increasing.  As long as we stayed home and didn’t travel to a steady job we really didn’t need very much money. The lifestyle of voluntary creative simplicity was resulting in compounding efficiency and improvement in every area of our lives. Soon, we saw the proof of the inefficiency of working a full time job. After figuring in the work-related expenses of one job, I realized that my take home pay was only $3.00 an hour! At that point I was convinced that it was far more cost effective to stay home, grow our own food, split our own firewood and bake our own bread than it was to travel to a job day after day. Yet we still needed some form of income.

Though we had reduced the amount we needed to around $540.00 a month (way below the poverty level in America), we still had to find a way to generate that income without relying on full-time employment. Once we had succeeded in drastically reducing the amount of money we needed, I knew it would be easy to earn this income by working odd jobs such as building rustic furniture, playing guitar for tips, simple carpentry, part-time drafting, office work, plumbing, etc. However, there was one thing I really loved to do…bake handmade whole-grain sourdough bread in an outdoor wood-fired clay oven!

I had always shared my bread with friends and family, but it never really occurred to me to do it as a way to earn extra money. We soon discovered that there was no authentic, handmade sourdough bread being produced in our area, and little by little, people began asking if they could trade or buy from us. Within a year we had enough bread customers to generate the supplemental income needed to meet our modest expenses. And now there is even more demand and a waiting list of neighbors and friends who want our bread regularly. They know our bread is special because the organic wheat is freshly hand milled, the loaves are lovingly made entirely by hand and baked in our outdoor clay oven. (See our article, A Homemade Clay Oven and Naturally Fermented Sourdough Bread, in the issue of ~~~~~ Countryside.)

We want to let others know there is a wide open market for this kind of specialty bread, even in very small towns like ours, because so many people, for various reasons, are unable or unwilling to make it for themselves.  In fact, there is such a demand for this unique artisan bread that many people are perfectly willing to pay us $4.50 a loaf! Anyone who wants to earn a little extra cash, say $50 - $100 a week or more, should consider learning this valuable skill, then educating and sharing in their local community. We continuously hand out educational material about the health benefits of sourdough bread, offer informative presentations in our local community and give out free bread samples.

Our system of distribution is arranged like a “bread co-op”.  There are regular customers who buy a batch of 6 loaves at a time, which we deliver fresh to them once a month.  An added bonus of learning this skill is the inexpensive, incredibly delicious, wholesome bread that we make for ourselves, which helps reduce our food bill. This is just an example of how a valuable skill such as this can be financially supportive when you are living and thinking small.

 While the key to the lifestyle of voluntary simplicity, is “thinking small”, many people still believe the opposite is true – “bigger is better”.  For example, people often tell us we should invest in a commercial bakery and produce more sourdough bread. But in order to expand and make a career out of baking and selling bread, we would have to go into debt to purchase commercial mixers, freezers and large ovens, work longer hours and face the mountain of bureaucratic permits, codes, fees and restrictions. As a result, the simple, authentic handmade artisan bread that our customers love would have to be sacrificed in favor of expanding volume and making more money.  Everybody loses but the bankers and the bureaucrats. We would fall right back in the same old trap, getting into debt and sacrificing our freedom and quality of life for a job. This is an example of compounding inefficiency.

The downfall of many people who would like to break the bonds of stress and financial enslavement to the system is their tendency to think too big. But we must realize that this has been programmed into us by the industrial society and loan institutions, all attempting to excite and feed our insatiable desires. Friends, it takes a lot of mindful awareness to break free of all these traps. It also requires an ability to improvise and adapt towards an alternative model. The lifestyle of Voluntary Simplicity is one option and the resulting benefits are transformational.

The point I’m making is this: many of us can no longer think in terms of having a lifetime career anymore. For whatever reason, things are changing in this country. Outsourcing and cheaper labor costs in other countries will continue to eliminate jobs in the United States. And though the opportunity still exists to work, we must understand that it may be only temporary. While continuing to work at a job or career one should be wise and set up a plan to survive without steady employment for certain periods of time if necessary.

This could mean storing some supplies, purchasing a piece of property where a small shelter, tent or tee pee can be erected if necessary, or getting out of the city and into the country where one can provide food for themselves. My old Grandpa used to say, “all the troubles in this country began when people stopped growing their own food.” And he was right. The younglings of this modern age don’t even know what real food is, much less how to grow or prepare it! This has to change. (That’s another reason we promote sourdough bread baking. It is time to start a “slow-food” movement).

Thinking small is one of the most intelligent and powerful things one can do. Consciously reducing one’s life down to the simple basics is the secret to happiness. And it is so easy. What is the solution? This is our advice, especially to young people:

“Don’t get in debt, don’t think in terms of a career (work at a job for one reason only, to get paid so you can buy a place to land and grow some food), live in a small shelter, unload unnecessary stuff, reduce monthly expenses, extract yourself from the enslavement of modern technological materialism, stay healthy by exercising, eat a simple, wholesome diet, develop some practical skills, practice your art or trade and serve your local community. Teach your children to value true pleasures. Real wealth is perishable: food, health, trees, flowers, herbs, healthy soil, clean water, fresh air, friends and art. Learn to value and appreciate these above all else.”

Of course we realize that everyone has to creatively work out their own unique plan according to their particular circumstances, especially if there are children to raise. (We have six grown children.)  But with “small thinking”, so many opportunities open up and the more one can release, the more freedom there is to experience with each passing year.

If someone would have suggested to us ten years ago that there was a way for the two of us to live on much less, build our own little hut, buy our freedom, give up steady employment, work fewer hours, become happy, healthy, debt free, self-reliant, and live fearlessly without health insurance, I would have told them they were crazy. This has been an incredible, radical journey for us, but now we know from first hand experience that with vision, patience, self-discipline and courage, it is possible to create such a reality.

Creative voluntary simplicity expands faster than inflation. For those who can do it, instead of thinking too big and chasing after more money to find happiness and security, the answer can truly be summed up in the words of the Greek philosopher, Diogenes: “True freedom is in the minimum of needs.”


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