Today I am exactly where I am supposed to be. This phrase, adapted from my dear friend Zach’s advice, has become a sort of mantra that has gotten me through some difficult times in my life. Zach is also the friend who introduced me to voluntary simplicity and the book Your Money or Your Life. I read the book several years ago and began to try to understand it in terms of where I was at that particular time in my life.
I had always admired some friends of mine who lived in a house with no running water or electricity. They had a solar panel or two to provide just enough power for a laptop computer. They were off the grid and living minimally. It was my idea of financial independence. Of course, when I expressed a desire to live in a similar style, my friend replied, “Stephanie, there is a big difference between roughing it and hardship.”
That was fourteen years ago. Since that time, I have walked the fine line between roughing it and hardship. My various choices in my money and my life have made for a very interesting life that has fortunately been filled with rich friendships and extraordinary blessings. I have also survived hardships and losses that might have left some people devastated. In fact, I was devastated and depressed when my Northeast Minneapolis room-mate died unexpectedly. The next two years were filled with unusual choices and much therapy and self exploration, both good and bad. I survived it all through the love of my friends and family. Some might say that I became a stronger person, a better person. I’ve said it myself. Though, I see now that the strength was always mine. I’ve always been the best person I could be. The struggles have shaped me, and surviving them has improved my self esteem.
I read Your Money or Your Life on the tail end of those two difficult years. Zach, a college friend, had recently come back into my life in a very wonderful way. We were both on paths of self exploration and growth. He was a tremendous support to me. Hopefully I supported him in good ways as well. We were in very different places financially. He was working a very good paying job and owned his condo. I was working more than one lower wage job and just breaking into the field of environmental education. Over the next several years, we both turned our chosen lives upside down. He left his high paying job and moved back to Minnesota to study psychology. I continued to work two jobs that I loved, but eventually sold my car, paid off my credit card and moved to an intentional community in Central Minnesota where I was a full time volunteer.
All these changes from a simple book? Well, yes and no. The book gets you to really think about your life and work toward financial independence. You go through several important steps like calculating your real hourly wage and your net worth. What do I mean by real hourly wage? Well, most of us trade our life energy for money. We then use this money to buy things. We may think that we are making good wages at our jobs. We work forty hours a week, but we spend ten hours a week commuting to and from work. We spend four hours a week putting on make-up and getting ready for our jobs. This means that the job really takes 54 hours of our life energy every week. Then add up the money you spend on things that you only purchase because of your job. This could be money spent on gas and auto maintenance, convenience foods, clothing, make-up, and even mindless entertainment or vacation (which you now need to get away from the stress of your job). Add up these expenses and subtract them from your wage. Then divide the adjusted weekly wages by your new number of hours worked. Not quite as impressive, is it?
I chose to move to Camphill Village MN because I wanted my daily work to be the work of living. I wanted to cook and clean and grow my own food. In return, the village gave me housing, medical care, clothing and transportation. It is a very beautiful model if you are the kind of person who can avoid taking on more than her own fair share of responsibility. I am not that kind of person. Certainly, it is something I work on. I would sit on my hands during meetings at Camphill in order to avoid taking on more responsibility. Leaving Camphill to be a stay-at-home mom, I continued to trade my life energy for room and board. I believe in putting value on the work of home-makers. I won’t put numbers on it today, but I will come back to it in the future as I discuss the cost of childcare, house cleaners and convenience foods as well as the benefits to a wage-earning partner to have that stability at home.
Of course, there is a fine line between roughing it and hardship. Voluntary simplicity is great when you can choose where to spend your money. Situational poverty, however, means that you may be choosing between several things that are really needed. (Situational poverty is very different from generational poverty. My family has money and property even though I currently do not have much. Generational poverty is more challenging, because entire families lack resources.) I have been living in situational poverty for five years. I will not go into too many details about it. It has been a combination of my choosing and forces that were outside of my choosing. I am ready to be done with it. Still, though I am perfectly capable and well-educated, I am not ready to move across the country to take a high paying job and join what they call the rat race.
I once saw Judy Wicks speak in Saint Paul about the successes of her business, The White Dog Cafe. I found her to be very inspirational and jotted down several quotes in my notebook. I always come back to, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you know.”
Start where you are. I am starting out in Janesville, WI. It is not the best part of the country to find a job right now. (It is also freezing cold and covered in snow at the moment!) On the other hand, I have family and friends here. My daughter is especially close to her Nana Carla. She spends one day a week with her Nana instead of in daycare. She also spends two days and one evening every week with her daddy. These relationships are important to my daughter. These are also three days that I get to work without paying for child care. Going back to the book, my hourly wage just improved.
Use what you have. I will be blogging about ways that I use my resources to get back on my feet this year. My family has land, which I will use to grow some berries and herbs this year. One of the benefits of my job at Basics is free food. Sometimes I get produce with a few blemishes and slightly expired dairy products. I plan to make the most of these resources.
Do what you know. I am a cook. I’ve been cooking for most of my life. How lucky that I now get paid to cook all day!
How does my hourly wage look in light of all of these things? It is not as bad as it might seem at first. I don’t have big expenses for work clothes or make-up. I have to have a good pair of shoes. I have to wash my own aprons. Transportation is not too bad and will improve when I find an apartment in Janesville. I can add free food into my wages almost every day. I only pay for day care twice a week. I get to do something that I know and love. Sure, cooking and being on my feet all day take their toll. I will need to have vacations from this job. I will need the occasional mindless entertainment and glass of wine. I will need convenience foods because I don’t always want to cook at home after a day of cooking. Hopefully, it works out to be more positive than negative. As I move forward, I hope to continually examine my money and my life. I hope to find a balance so that I am both enjoying my life and making a living. I welcome comments and advice as I move forward.
Thanks for reading and sharing this exciting journey with me.