“A person is rich in proportion to the things he can leave alone”
Henry David Thoreau
“Live simply so that others may simply live’
Elizabeth Ann Seaton
We are born and die in simplicity. It’s the bit in between that gets so complicated.
I grew up on a small farm in East Anglia as part of a large family with very limited resources. Simplicity wasn’t a choice but a necessity. In my mid twenties I moved to London to work. For many years I lived quite modestly in shared accommodation. When I bought a 2 bedroom flat in Streatham in 1999 I only needed 2 trips in a Ford Escort to transfer my worldly goods. They were mostly books, clothes, a 15 year-old TV and a hi-fi. Old habits die hard.
7 years ago when my wife and I moved into our present address we needed 2 sizeable lorries and considerable assistance from our friends. Somewhere along the line my life had become submerged under a mountain of stuff and complexity.
I am still a great believer in simplicity. It gave me a very happy childhood. I believe its good for the planet and good for the soul. It is central to Christ’s teaching on money and possessions. It frees us up to be generous and open hearted. The happiest people I know are those who are able to take great pleasure from the ordinary and everyday.
But how does this work in practise, especially if we have a ‘comfortable’ income? How can we move from complexity to simplicity; from ‘stuffocation’ to living ‘freely and lightly’?
A few years ago I came across a story about an Oxford research fellow whose approach to simple living brought me up short.
Giving generously by living simply
Toby Ord had pledged to give away £1m. Toby was in his early 30’s and working at Oxford University earning around £33k per annum. He realised that giving money away to those who really needed it was much more enjoyable than spending it on himself. So he had set an upper limit on what he would spend on himself of £20k (later dropped to £18k) and pledged to give the rest away to charity.
Looking ahead he had estimated that he would need about £500k to live reasonably comfortably for the rest of his life which meant that he could give away about £1m of what was left.
When others started asking how they could be involved Toby set up a website called ‘Giving what we can”. It encourages us all to give a minimum of 10% of our post-tax income to charity. At the present moment over 1300 people have given about £12m to charity with pledges for a further £620m going forward.
Toby’s example got me thinking. I wonder if there is a ‘simplicity rating’ that we can apply to how we spend our money. If we earn above what might be nowadays termed a living wage we will have a certain amount of choice as to our simplicity index and how we handle money and possessions.
Lets assume an ascending scale from 1 to 10. At the higher extreme we have ‘practically monastic’ where all earthly possessions have been given away for religious or other reasons. Minimalist’s who try and reduce their possessions to as few as possible might come in at 9.
At the bottom end are those prone to shop compulsively who then find themselves in debt. There’s nothing then left to share with others. At number 2 we’d have those who balance income with expenditure but with little or nothing to give away.
Historically I would give myself a simplicity rating of about 4 or 5. I’ve always believed in giving away at least 10% of my gross income to church or charity. The rest I have spent on myself or my family with no real brake on whether such spending was necessary.
Choosing simplicity and generosity
I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the more I spent on myself (be it living costs, holidays, pension or even savings) the less I had to give away because I’d seen generosity in terms of the obligation to give 10%.
However, if we adopt Toby’s approach, we take responsibility for deliberately choosing a certain lifestyle, level of simplicity and degree of generosity. Rather than drifting into ill-considered purchases we set our expenditure in line with our selected level of simplicity and the balance can then be given away.
Toby decided that for a reasonably comfortable life he would need:
- Eating-out once a fortnight & going out for coffee once a week
- 2 weeks holiday a year in France and Italy
- Mac computer and i-phone were the main ‘luxury’ items
- £4k per annum for living expenses.
- Putting some money away for a pension and towards buying a house
- £5k per annum went towards rent.
Toby felt that if he could share life with his partner, have great books to read, beautiful music to listen to and friends to talk to he didn’t really need to spend much money on ‘stuff’, expensive holidays and such like. On my ‘simplicity rating’ I’d put Toby down for a 6 or 7.
I’m not suggesting that we adopt Toby’s simplicity rating as our own. Those of us with families will have to consider different priorities and responsibilities. Rent or mortgage and living expenses in London and elsewhere are much higher.
But if we are thinking seriously about living more ‘freely and lightly’ then we should think creatively about what makes life really meaningful and set our expenditure, and hence generosity, accordingly.
At the end of my life I would like to look back and feel that I’ve lived life generously rather than merely comfortably.
We’ll be exploring more of the issues of pursuing simplicity in future blogs. Watch this space!