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
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The Independent Online
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 The slogan "time is money" has been replaced by a novel American concept: time is precious.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."