Poor by choice in pursuit of happiness

A new creed is sweeping America. John Carlin talks to those people for whom less is now more

THE American Way of Life is like other peoples' ways of life, only more so. The pursuit of happiness through the accumulation of goods is more frenzied; the desperation to succeed is more consuming; the peer pressure is more intense. But all this might be changing. A growing number of Americans are beginning to question the received orthodoxies. Subversive forces are at work, plotting to redefine the priorities that shape the modern world.

There is a quiet revolution under way, involving millions of people the length and breadth of the United States, and it goes by the name "Voluntary Simplicity". The revolution's goals are to emphasise quality living over quantity buying, to abandon the material points systems by which people are conditioned to measure their self-worth and to do this by working less, earning less, spending less and saving more. The slogan "time is money" has been replaced by a novel American concept: time is precious.

Voluntary Simplicity has been identified by the Trends Research Institute (TRI), a widely quoted body based in New York state, as a major social phenomenon of the Nineties, one poised to set the tone for life in the next millenium.

"Between 3 and 4 per cent of the baby boom generation, which is 76 million people, are consciously engaged in the movement," said Gerald Celente, the director of TRI. "The phenomenon is emerging - not by accident - at a time of widespread company downsizing, of underemployment, of people waiting for the axe to fall because job security is so fragile. Those who opt for this change of life are like heart attack victims who survive and then, under doctor's orders, set about a change in their lives."

Christopher and Catherine Green, a middle-class couple in their thirties who live in Richmond, Virginia, did not need a heart attack to set them on the revolutionary road. They received their sharp jolt in December 1992 when Mrs Green, after a particularly stressful day at work, suffered a miscarriage.

Two weeks later her husband heard a man called Joe Dominguez talking on the radio about a book he had written called Your Money or Your Life, a Voluntary Simplicity guidebook which has sold more than half a million copies. Mr Green and his wife read the book and were instantly converted. She had been working for eight years with disabled and emotionally disturbed children. He was a building contractor, specialising in home restoration, who became self-employed in 1991 after being laid off by a local company. Between them they were making about $50,000 a year (pounds 33,000), $18,000 above the American household median.

"We decided," Mr Green said, "that it was important to spend time together and not spend 95 per cent of our lives working, waiting until we're 65 and have a pension and then spending time together, like my parents and my grandparents did." They experimented first by saving all the money Mrs Green earned over a six-month period. It worked and she quit her job, in large part because she wanted the tranquility to allow her to bear a child and rear it at home.

Guided by the teachings of Your Money or Your Life they paid off all their credit cards, keeping one for emergencies; they paused before making any purchase to examine whether it was necessary, or merely a socially induced frivolity; they stopped going on expensive weekend outings once a month; and they cut their grocery bills from $400 to $200 a month, mainly by buying raw produce and cooking it themselves.

"We stopped shopping as a form of entertainment," Mr Green said. "It used to be, 'OK, nothing to do, let's go to the mall.' Now when we have to go to the mall we hate it."

In the process they cut down their monthly expenses from $2,400 to $1,600, they moved from renting to buying a house (which costs them more), they had their first baby and they paid off both their cars.

Mr and Mrs Green are thrifty, their living room is not furnished in the style favoured by the advertisers, but they are not weirdly unconventional. Aside from their cars, they own a state-of-the-art telephone answering machine and a television. They follow the news with interest and, unlike 50 per cent of America's adult population, they both vote.

"I think it's really important not to cut yourself off from the world," Mr Green said. "I don't want what we're doing to be seen as something ordinary people couldn't do. Very rich folks have gone down this route, opting to live off their interest. We did it on a regular salary, more representative of the ordinary income of regular people."

The next step they mean to take is to shed the tyranny of the mortgage by selling their house and moving to rented accommodation before, they hope, finding a community of like-minded people in the countryside with whom to settle. "We can live in a beautiful place with space and clean air and mountains and sunsets," Mr Green said.

The simpler life, Mrs Green said, has also helped their marriage. "Everyone says the main thing couples fight about is money. And it was true for us. But since we started this we don't have any more arguments about money. We don't have debts. That tension is gone because we have a unified approach to spending that starts from the idea that whatever income level you are at, you must get your priorities on the right level. You must know what is enough, and then you can be liberated."

Vicki Robin, who co-authored Your Money or Your Life with Joe Dominguez and gives all the book proceeds to charity, tracks the progress of people like the Greens from the New Road Map Foundation in Seattle. "The core insight of our programme," said Ms Robin, who makes do on $7,000 a year, "is that you sell your time for money and the exchange is not as good as you think it is." Another guru of the Voluntary Simplicity ethic - also from Seattle where much of the American talent for social innovation appears to be concentrated - is Cecile Andrews, who conducts workshops on the principle that "all revolutions start this way, with small groups that expand and grow. We're taught to believe that because it's the American way of doing things it's good. We're aff- irmed in thinking we're so wonderful, that we have the best system in the world. But if we pause and consider we see that it is not."

So many Americans are indeed pausing to consider that, in the view of Mr Celente, a huge social transformation is afoot. "We've reached a point where the economy has become god. We have been conditioned to accept that economic gain is the greatest measure of success that an individual can attain in a lifetime. All that is changing. This time, I believe, will be looked upon by future historians as the dark age when machinery was put before people, when global economic imperatives were put above individual human needs. This time will pass."

Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Arts and Entertainment
Inside the gallery at Frederick Bremer School in Walthamstow
tvSimon Usborne goes behind-the-scenes to watch the latest series
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
newsThe industry's trade body issued the moratorium on Friday
News
Winchester College Football (universally known as Winkies) is designed to make athletic skill all but irrelevant
Life...arcane public school games explained
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
Silvia says of her famous creation: 'I never stopped wearing it. Because I like to wear things when they are off the radar'
fashionThe fashion house celebrated fifteen years of the punchy pouch with a weighty tome
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

C# Algo-Developer (BDD/TDD, ASP.NET, JavaScript, RX)

£45000 - £69999 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Algo-Develo...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, Apache Mahout, Python,R,AI)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone