Practicing Simplicity

It is all very well to theorize about the simple life – to debate definitions and evaluate justifications – but theory is empty if it is not grounded upon practice. Accordingly, the following sections seek to enrich the discussion by providing an overview of how the idea of voluntary simplicity is actually lived by participants in the movement.[1]

See also, Entropia: Life Beyond Industrial Civilisation, by Samuel Alexander, for one vision of a ‘simple living’ utopia. 

A Non-Universalist Disclaimer

Any discussion of the practice of simplicity ought to begin by acknowledging that there is not one way to live simply. There is no Doctrine or Code of Simplicity to follow, as such; there is no Method or Equation of Simplicity into which we can plug the facts of our lives and be told how to live. That is precisely what the idea cannot do. Voluntary simplicity, it could be said, is more about questions than answers, in the sense that practising simplicity calls for creative interpretation and personalized application. It is not for ‘experts,’ therefore, or for anyone, to prescribe universal rules on how to live simply. We each live unique lives and we each find ourselves in different situations, with different capabilities, and different responsibilities. Accordingly, the practice of simplicity by one person, in one situation, may very well involve different things to a different person, in a different situation. Furthermore, simple living is not so much a destination as it is an ongoing creative process. But, as I have implied, I do not think that this practical indeterminacy is an objection to the idea.

With that non-universalist disclaimer noted, a few general remarks will now be made on what a simple life might look like in practice and how one might begin to live it.


Although practicing simplicity is much more than just being frugal with money and consuming less – it is also a state of mind – in a market economy spending wisely plays a central role.[2] In Your Money or Your Life, Dominguez and Robin provide elaborate financial exercises for readers to undertake which seek to provoke reflection on the real value of money and the real cost of things.[3] Such exercises may sound mundane and a bit pointless – everybody assumes they are careful, rational spenders – but if it is carried out with precision the results may well surprise, and perhaps even shock. One might find that seemingly little purchases add up to an inordinate amount over a whole year, which may raise new and important questions about whether the money might have been better spent elsewhere, not at all, or exchanged for more time by working less. Then consider how much would be spent in each category over ten years. The aim of this exercise is not to create tightwads, as such, but smart consumers who are conscious of the time/life/ecological cost of their purchases. After all, as Thoreau would insist, ‘The cost of a thing is the amount of… life which is required to be exchanged for it.’[4] When exploring voluntary simplicity in this light, one might well find that some reductions and changes to spending habits, rather than inducing any sense of deprivation, will instead be life-affirming.

When it comes to spending money in accordance with the ethos of voluntary simplicity, it is also important to bear in mind Vicki Robin’s profound democratic insight: That how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world.[5] Purchasing something sends a message, consciously or unconsciously, to the marketplace, affirming the product, its ecological impact, its process of manufacture, etc. Simple living, therefore, involves shopping as conscientiously as possible, directing one’s monetary ‘votes’ into socially and ecologically responsible avenues and boycotting irresponsible avenues.[6] A tension can arise here, of course, because shopping conscientiously or ‘ethically’ tends to be (but is not always) more expensive.[7] If it is true, however, that market expenditure is a vote on what exists in the world then it would seem that the global consumer-class has the potential to become a non-violent revolutionary class and change the world, simply by changing its spending habits.[8] Simplicity is the new spectre haunting capitalism. Never before have so many people had the option of casting off the chains of consumer culture, stepping out of the rat race, and living (and spending) in opposition to the existing order of things. Money is power, and with this power comes responsibility.[9]

Consumers of the world, unite!


Housing (whether purchasing, building, or renting) is typically life’s greatest single expense, so simple livers must think especially carefully about where they live and why, and how much of their lives they are prepared to spend seeking a ‘nicer’ place to live. Exactly what kind of shelter does one need to live well and to be free? Obviously, we must answer this question for ourselves – at least, within the constraints of our own socio-economic context – but again the words of Thoreau might give us a moment’s pause: ‘Most people appear never to have considered what a house is, and are actually though needlessly poor all their lives because they think that they must have such a one as their neighbours have.’[10] The ‘McMansions’ which are so prevalent in the suburbs of North America and increasingly elsewhere are extremely resource-intensive and very expensive.[11] In opposition to that trend, participants in the Simplicity Movement are exploring alternative ways to accommodate themselves and their families, by embracing smaller, much more modest and energy-efficient homes. In particular, some are exploring co-housing arrangements, ‘green design,’ and other forms of low-impact development, including eco-villages and ‘transition initiatives.’[12] More radical participants are building their own straw-bail houses, making shacks out of abandoned or second-hand materials, or converting shipping containers into homes.[13]


The historic purpose of clothing, as Thoreau pointed out, was to keep us warm and, in time, for reasons of modesty. Today its dominant purpose seems to be fashion and the conspicuous display of wealth and status. People can, of course, spend thousands and thousands of dollars on clothing, if they wish. But simple livers tend to ‘dress down,’ wearing functional, often second-hand clothing.[14] Such clothing can be generally obtained at a minimal expense. Dressing down, it should be noted, does not necessarily imply giving up ‘style’ or puritanically denying self-expression through what one wears. But it does seem to imply rejecting high fashion (and all its stands for) in favour of some ‘alternative’ aesthetic.[15] In this way, dressing down can be understood to be an outward statement of simplicity; an effort, however small, to express aesthetically one’s opposition to consumer culture. Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent each and every year in the fashion industry.[16] Just imagine if even half of that money was redirected toward green energy or humanitarian initiatives. We would lose so little and gain so much. Again, how we spend our money is how we vote on what exists in the world.


Eating locally, eating organically, eating out in moderation, eating less or no meat, eating simply, lightly, and creatively, and, as far as possible, growing one’s own fruit and vegetables – these are some of the key characteristics to food production and consumption in the lives of many simple livers.[17] Given some thought and a little discipline, a nutritious, environmentally sensitive diet can be obtained at a surprisingly low cost.[18]


Rethinking attitudes to work is central to the way many participants in the Simplicity Movement approach simple living.[19] Charles Siegel poses the critical question: ‘Should we take advantage of our increasing productivity to consume more or to have more free time?’[20] If people keep raising their material standard of living every time they come into more money – through a pay rise, for example, or through some new technology which increases productivity per hour – working hours will never decrease and may even rise. Indeed, many Westerners, especially North Americans, Britons, and Australians, are working longer hours today than they were in the 1970s, despite being considerably more productive.[21] Generally speaking, they have directed all their wealth and productivity gains into consuming more and have not taken any of those gains in terms of increased free time. But why, one might ask, should people always be working for more consumer products and services and not sometimes be content with less? Why should people not accept a lower material standard of living (e.g. old clothes, smaller house, no car, no luxury travel, etc.) and work half as much? Who can say what wonders such a cultural style might not bring! Thoreau’s opinion on working hours seems to exemplify the perspective widely held among participants in the Simplicity Movement:

Those slight labors which afford me a livelihood, and by which it is allowed that I am to some extent serviceable to my contemporaries, are as yet commonly a pleasure to me, and I am not often reminded that they are a necessity. So far I am successful. But I foresee that if my wants should be much increased, the labor required to supply them would become a drudgery. … I wish to suggest that a man may be very industrious, and yet not spend his time well.[22]

The basic idea here is that if people can embrace simple living and stop the upward creep of material desire, they can take some or all of their pay rises or productivity gains, not in terms of more consumption, but in terms of more free time. And this raises the questions: Are we forced by the ‘curse of labour’ to work so much? Or are we freer than we think we are? The Simplicity Movement is an example of a social movement where people are enjoying the benefits of exchanging money and consumption for more free time.

For more information, see the Simpler Way Project here, which is a website dedicated solely to providing a practical action plan for living more on less.


[1] This discussion of the practice of simplicity is based, in part, upon my personal explorations of the simple life in recent years, which I have described in more detail in Samuel Alexander, ‘Deconstructing the Shed: Where I Live and What I Live For,’ Concord Saunterer (2011, forthcoming).

[2] This depends on consumers being ‘informed,’ which depends, in part, upon good labelling of commodities. See James Salzman, ‘Sustainable Consumption and the Law’ (1997) 27 Environmental Law 1243.

[3] Joseph Dominguez and Vicki Robin, Your Money or Your Life: Transforming your Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence (New ed, 1999).

[4] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walden’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 286.

[5] The idea of ‘voting with your money,’ however, would be more accurately attributed to John Ruskin.

[6] This is not meant to suggest that ‘market mechanisms,’ in themselves, will be an adequate path to ecological protection or social justice. Nor is this an argument for what might be called ‘green consumerism’ (i.e. consumerism by another name). The point is that in a market society, expenditure is one way, among others, for individuals to ‘vote on what exists in the world.’ See generally, Daniel Finn, The Moral Ecology of Markets: Assessing Claims about Markets and Justice (2006).

[7] See David Bosshart, Cheap? The Real Cost of Living in a Low Price, Low Wage World (2006).

[8] Michele Micheletti, Political Virtue and Shopping: Individuals, Consumerism, and Collective Action (2010) (providing a theoretically sophisticated, empirically rich examination of the increasingly important phenomenon of politically and ethically motivated market expenditure).

[9] See Clive Barnett et al, ‘The Political Ethics of Consumerism’ (2005) 15(2) Consumer Policy Review 45.

[10] Thoreau, above n 4, 290.

[11] See, e.g., Alex Wilson and Jessica Boehland, ‘Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment’ (2005) 9(1/2) Journal of Industrial Ecology 277 (reporting that average living area per person in new houses in the U.S. increased by a factor of three since 1950s).

[12] Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience (2008).

[13] Ibid.

[14] See Clive Hamilton and Richard Denniss, Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough (2005) 166.

[15] See, e.g., Kate Soper, ‘Alternative Hedonism, Cultural Theory and the Role of Aesthetic Revisioning’ (2008) 22(5) Cultural Studies 567.

[16] See OECD, ‘A New World Map in Textiles and Clothing’ (2002) available at <> at 15 October 2010 (reporting that in 2002 the global textile and clothing industries amounted to $350 billion).

[17] Motivations for ‘eating simply and locally’ are diverse, and the reasoning, at times, complex. Two important considerations are reducing ‘food miles’ and increasing ‘food security.’ See generally, Alison Blay-Palmer, Food Fears: From Industrial to Sustainable Food Systems (2008).

[18] See Elise McDonough, Sustainable Food: How to Buy Right and Spend Less (2009). See also, Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization with over 100,000 supporters in 150 countries who are linking the pleasure of good food with a commitment to their community and the environment.

[19] See Hamilton and Denniss, above n 14, Chap. 10.

[20] See Charles Siegel, The Politics of Simple Living (2008).

[21] See generally, John De Graaf (ed), Take Back Your Time: Fighting Overwork and Time Poverty in America (2003); Hamilton and Dennis, above n 14, Chap. 6.

[22] Henry David Thoreau, ‘Life without Principle,’ in Carl Bode (ed), The Portable Thoreau (1982) 636.