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 The slogan "time is money" has been replaced by a novel American concept: time is precious.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

people Emma Watson addresses celebrity nude photo leak
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Boris Johnson may be manoeuvring to succeed David Cameron
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Life and Style
fashionPart of 'best-selling' Demeter scent range
Tom Cleverley
footballLoan move comes 17 hours after close of transfer window
Alexis Sanchez, Radamel Falcao, Diego Costa and Mario Balotelli
footballRadamel Falcao and Diego Costa head record £835m influx
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Warehouse Developer - (Oracle, PL/SQL, ETL, OLAP, B

£65000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: One of the global leaders in fina...

Deputy Education Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Deputy Education Manager (permanent ...

Science Teacher Urgently required for October start

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

ICT Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering