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
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
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
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
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,
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
Money Between Friends
, pp. 9-10; Issue
How Much Is Enough?
, p.3; and
We Gave Away
by Christopher Mogil and Anne Slepian.
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