More Than Money
Issue #27

Lifestyles of the Rich and Simple

Table of Contents

“Simple Living in a Not-So-Simple Relationship”

Simplified living for me is political. I read an article by Peter Singer on famine, affluence, and morality and it changed my life. Singer argued that it was unjustifiable to purchase luxuries in a world in which a billion people live in poverty, especially because those few dollars, if given instead to a famine relief organization, could literally save lives. I also read Peter Unger's Living High, Letting Die. He calculated how much a person would have to give to save a life; he came up with a figure of $200 to get a child from birth to age five, past the danger years.

After that, every consumer purchase became an ethical decision for me. I knew that whenever I bought a CD, a shirt, a soda, anything, I was making an ethical choice. My goal was to make this ethic real, to have it affect my life. It was a gradual process that took several years, but now when I think about making purchases, I challenge myself: How is this going to affect my life? If there really were a starving child standing next to a soda machine, I wouldn't buy the soda. But for me, there is a starving child standing next to the soda machine, because I can involve myself in a starving child's life through international aid.

I live on investment income from a trust fund my grandfather left me. Even after paying for tuition at Cornell University and Tufts Medical School, I still have $300,000 left over, which gives me about $24,000 a year to live on.

A few years ago, I began donating money, gradually decreasing my expenses so I could donate more. Eventually, I was donating the entire difference between my income and expenses, but until I wrote a check every month, it wasn't real to me. Once I started writing a monthly check, I knew that whenever I didn't buy a soda, there was going to be one dollar more to give away at the end of the month. Eventually, I was living off $2,000 a month; I gradually decreased that to $1,000 a month, and for the past year, I've been living on about $766 a month.

By living on $9,000 a year, I can give away more than half my income. Because I feel a responsibility and I am opening my heart to the suffering of the world, I challenge myself to give away more and more money, and to make conscious spending choices every day.

The toughest part of this is doing it in relationship. I met my partner four years ago; we got married two years ago. Even then, she did not exactly share my level of enthusiasm for this joyful dedication to service. Now that I've begun living on considerably less than I was when I met her, we have some real challenges.

We have had to decide what to do about joint expenses-not just entertainment, but basic costs of living, like groceries and where we're going to live. You can imagine how difficult it would be to live with someone who is always feeling as if it's a choice between you and starving kids somewhere!

We found a wonderful couples counselor and were able to work out a system for us. We created a pool of money to handle our joint expenses. As long as my share of the joint expenses won't go above $9,000 a year, I feel fine, because it allows me to donate what I want to charities and social justice organizations. My wife can do her own thing with what she makes beyond her contribution to the joint expenses. Instead of me saying, "I won't buy this," she can buy a pair of shoes on her own. I'm happy; I can give my chunk away. She feels included because she has choice. This approach is working very well. Our next big questions are where to live and what to do about having or adopting children.

My life may seem restrictive, but I feel liberated by it. I don't see it as passive self-denial. On the contrary, I see it as a vibrant striving for the highest ideal and living true to my values. I'm not yet happy with the amount I live on-I still strive toward Gray's World Equity Budget.

Even at the amount of money I live on, my life is wealthy by any world standard. It's painful for me to think about world hunger while we have a society that thrives on consumer values. Charles Gray, in his book Toward a Nonviolent Economics, reminds us that we may not need things as much as we think. He suggests giving away our favorite highcost item, like a car or house, as an exercise in non-attachment. People say to him, "Well, maybe you can do it, but I certainly can't. I could never give up my car . . ." Charles says, "Would you give it up if your children were dying? Well, your children are dying."

To me, living simply means living true to my deepest values. My life is so filled with joy that I think, "When my life is happy, what need is that bag of "My life may seem restrictive, but I feel liberated by it." chips fulfilling that couldn't be fulfilled in other ways, better ways, healthier ways?" Simplified living is narrowing some parts of my life, but it's doing so to enlarge others that are more important to me.

-Based on an interview with Pamela Gerloff

1 To read the article by Peter Singer that changed Michael's life, please visit our website at .

2 Gray, not wanting to own, control, or consume more than his "fair share" of the world's wealth, calculated what he calls the World Equity Budget-each person's equal share of the world's resources. For more than 20 years, Gray has lived on this budget of less than $150 a month.

3 Gray's book, Toward a Nonviolent Economics is available from him at 260 N. Grand, Eugene, OR 97402 (telephone: 541-342-4086) at a cost of $8.50, plus $1.50 for postage.

4 For More Than Money interviews with Charles Gray, see More Than Money Journal Issue #1, Money Between Friends , pp. 9-10; Issue #4, How Much Is Enough? , p.3; and We Gave Away a Fortune by Christopher Mogil and Anne Slepian.

© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved